NEW YORK, March 26, 2009 — According to the attendees and presenters at the recent Search Engine Strategies conference here, we have moved from a credit crisis to a crisis of consumer confidence. Due to calamitous economic conditions, people are reevaluating everything in their lives -- from career paths to laundry detergents. The trust they once liberally gave to corporations and brands has diminished, and, because of this, marketers must change the way they interact with today's consumer, according to John Gerzema, author of The Brand Bubble.
Gerzema also happens to be chief insights officer with Young & Rubicam Brands, the unit of communications giant WPP specializing in, among other things, brand identity and design. In his morning keynote at the conference's final day, Gerzema, an self-described eternal optimist, presented attendees with ways to strengthen brand value in a recession. Primarily, he said, "marketing must move from passion to compassion."
Gerzema told attendees that "consumers are making a complete reappraisal of who to trust and rely on." Leading factors in the development of this distrust, he said, include lack of leadership and responsibility from corporate America, and egregiously selfish behavior. "There's an aperture opening in consumer values and behaviors toward brands," he said. "It's a time of great peril for brands -- and a time of great opportunity as well."
Gerzema shared four rules for businesses looking to overcome the consumer crisis by protecting their brands in the context of a recession:
1. Focus on "indestructible spirit": Renewed interest in shoe repair, casseroles, coupons, and library cards reveals a nation seeking durability and things that will last. Consumers want to stretch value. "Make sure your brand pays dividends," Gerzema advised. He pointed out the following companies that are successfully marketing the concept of durable living:
- Oil of Olay: With its "Love the skin you're in" campaign, the skin-care company tells consumers that you don't have to spend $700 on a facial treatment to fight the effects of aging.
- Sears: Its old-fashioned layaway program has reinvigorated the department-store brand with consumers keen to "shop now, pay later."
- Ziploc: The supplier of food-storage products provides on its Web site a timeline for how long food will last in its bags and containers.
- McDonald's: The fast-food joint's "unsnobby coffee" campaign sticks it to the $4 latte.
- Continental Airlines: The carrier has used its in-flight meals as a brand focus and competitive differentiator.
2. Demonstrate empathy and respect: Convey to consumers that you know times are tough and you want to help -- empathy can go a long way. Examples include:
- Denny's: The "free Grand Slam" promotion advertised on Super Bowl Sunday was in itself a grand slam, Gerzema said.
- Alpo: A recent campaign said, in short, forget about doggie sweaters and doggie treadmills -- let's let dogs be dogs.
- Hyundai: The car company's "Assurance Program" touts, "We've got your back for a full year." The upshot: A new car can be returned if the buyer loses her job within a year.
3. Manifest a strategy of "déclassé consumption": It's now unfashionable to flaunt wealth. Consumers want pragmatic reasons for buying into brands. Rap-music empresario Sean "P. Diddy" Combs has spoken out about wearing less bling. High-end retailers such as Fendi are arming shoppers with logo-free shopping bags. Practical is the new black -- and brands campaigning with that mentality include:
- Frito-Lay: The snack-food company's research indicated that consumers have more money at the beginning of the month than at the end. The company has packaged and marketed its food products differently for that reason.
- Kraft: The food-and-beverage company created iFood Assistant, a software application for the Apple iPhone that creates recipes with Kraft menu items for busy moms-on-the-go.
- Gillette: The company now markets its Fusion Power razor pack by touting its cost to consumers -- a grand total of $1 per week.
4. Return to the fold: As consumers spend fewer dollars on leisure activities, there's a renewed focus on neighborhood, family, and social networks. Smart marketers are therefore discovering the value of social media tools and technologies, and the opportunity for brand involvement in community sites and networks. Gerzema used Wal-Mart as a prime example -- though, admittedly, a success story that followed some early missteps: The supermarket giant's Web site now features user-generated blogs, such as "Moms Know How." The mom community fosters the Wal-Mart brand, but also acts as a set of impartial advisors. After all, Gerzema noted, consumers don't trust corporations -- they trust people.
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