How to Achieve Brand Relevance

Have you ever caught yourself teaching or advocating what you believe is an important point only to realize you aren’t exactly sure yourself what it means? I’m not talking about speaking on points on which you are not knowledgeable, but a subject that you understand yet may not truly grasp how an idea or theory really works. It happened to me recently when I was reading an article by Tom Denari, CEO of Young & Laramore, an Indianapolis advertising agency. The title of the article was provocative- “Nobody Really Cares about Your Brand”– of course I had to read on. As I did, it dawned on me that an important point I try to convey to my students could be sharpened with perspective gained from reading Denari’s article.

Your Brand Should be Relevant-What Does that Mean?
One of the most important tenets of marketing strategy I emphasize to students is the need to achieve brand differentiation. A brand succeeds in intensely competitive markets by standing out, not merely by being different but by creating value for customers that makes the brand different in a relevant way. A strong case can be made for pursuing brand relevance. Without a distinctive position to differentiate a brand, it is destined to be mired in mediocrity as a “me too” brand. But, what does it really mean to achieve brand relevance? Who defines what is relevant? As the article of Tom Denari’s article suggests, customers are not nearly as interested in brands as the brand owners are. They are not too wrapped up in comparing features and benefits among competing brands; they simply want products and services that add value by making their lives easier, more productive, enjoyable, or whatever the desired benefit might be. This reality about customers has huge implications for defining your brand’s relevance.

How to Achieve Brand Relevance
Fortunately, Tom Denari does not leave us in despair after pointing out that people really do not care about brands. He offers a straightforward solution to achieving brand relevance: be culturally relevant. Denari cites Nike, Apple, and Starbucks as three brands that went beyond developing great products and attained cultural relevance. Nike (aligning with world class athletes), Apple (transforming the user experience of consuming music and mobile computing) and Starbucks (created consumption experiences around coffee) became culturally relevant by focusing on how they could not only serve customers’ needs but have meaning in their daily lives, too. Although these brands are exemplary for creating relevance, the scope of impact need not be groundbreaking. Denari cites the Old Spice advertising and social media campaign from a few years ago as creating cultural relevance for a brand typically thought of as “my grandfather’s after shave.”

Fortunately, you do not need to have the resources of Nike, Apple, or Starbucks to create a relevant brand. What is needed is a way in which you connect with customers that matters to them. The local car dealership that is a sponsor of high school sports teams can be culturally relevant in the community. The independent drug store differentiates itself from its deep-pocketed chain competitors by giving personalized service and creating a shopping environment that reminds customers of the “good old days.” And of course, brands can build relevance by aligning with social issues or causes that matter to their customers. John Maxwell says “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Businesses of all sizes can use social responsibility as an organization-wide mindset for showing how much they care.

The goal is to create relevance, but never lose sight of who defines relevance. Your brand matters only if it matters to your customers.

Marketing: Opportunity vs. Insensitivity

The nation watched as Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the Northeast and impacted our cultural, economic, and media capitol, New York City. The effects of Sandy on businesses and individuals are still being tallied, but early evaluation of the marketing response was generally positive. Examples of businesses demonstrating sensitivity to the plight of their customers have been acknowledged such as banks waiving fees and companies including Allstate, American Express, Delta, and Jet Blue have been commended for the ways in which they have reached out to customers and the affected areas.

At the same time, there have been brands that not only failed to seize the opportunity to demonstrate genuine concern for customers and others, but they decided Hurricane Sandy provided a tie-in for an impromptu promotion. American Apparel was skewered on social media for its ill-timed email marketing promotion touting a “Sandy Sale”that offered free shipping as an incentive to shop “in case you’re bored at home.”

While American Apparel surely meant no offense (at least one would hope a business would not go out of its way to use marketing resources to offend people), the unintended consequence of a Sandy Sale was creating perceptions that the company was insensitive to the implications of the storm and generally oblivious to the world around them. American Apparel’s CEO defended the tactic, touting that it generated tens of thousands of dollars in sales. And, he said criticism of the promotion was limited to about 25 bloggers who were responsible for stirring the masses.

I cringed at American Apparel’s promotion because it made me think of a blog post I wrote in 2010 (see “Make Any Occasion a Selling Opportunity”). In that piece, it was implied that selling opportunities are created within the boundaries of good taste and common sense. But, as I often remind my students, marketers do not always stay within those boundaries. I look forward to seeing what American Apparel will do to help with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Hopefully, it will be a better strategic fit with socially responsible business practices than its Sandy Sale.

Marketing Daily – “Most Marketers Lauded for Reactions to Sandy”

Marketing’s Role in Fighting Obesity

The marketing profession is ridiculed often for contributing to a society that craves instant gratification. Also, Americans on the whole have reached a level of affluence to the point that we tend to be more concerned with satisfying wants than meeting basic needs. Nowhere is this dangerous intersection of wants and self-satisfaction more evident than around our waistlines. We love to eat! Food marketers and restaurants have flourished by integrating their offerings into our busy lives. However, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Heart Forum provide a somber picture of how our food cravings will impact us in the future.

According to figures published in USA Today this week, the obesity rate (defined by CDC as an adult having a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher) will reach 50% in the US by 2030. More troubling is that 13 states are projected to have 60% or more of their population meeting the criterion for obesity. The fallout from a population in which more people are obese is evidenced in many ways including:

  • Higher healthcare costs
  • Lost productivity in the workplace
  • Shorter life expectancy
  • Decreased quality of life

The above “benefits” of a lifestyle in which dietary choices lead to the above outcomes are hardly sought out, yet as a country we appear to be on track to do exactly this to ourselves.

Personal responsibility is the greatest force for change to reverse the obesity trend. We have to make choices that are in the best interests of our health long term. And, regulations such as New York City requiring calories on restaurant menus and its more aggressive ban on large sugary drinks are efforts to help people make wise choices when unwilling to make the decision themselves. Now, it is time for the marketing industry to step up its involvement in the cause. We have the tools and technologies to spread information and influence minds and hearts.

The positioning of an anti-obesity campaign does not need to be (nor should be) negative in tone – cut back on this, you can’t have that, etc. Instead, creating a position of a healthy lifestyle and the resulting benefits should be the foundation upon which we fight the battle against obesity. As Zig Ziglar says, you don’t pay the price for success, you enjoy the benefits. You pay the price for failure. Marketers need to bring their talents to the table (pun intended) to work toward a shift in which we stem the rise of obesity in this country. Otherwise, we will pay a price for inaction.

Baking Customer Experience into Corporate Social Responsibility


A great deal of emphasis is given to creating great customer experiences today. Marketers recognize that total consumption experiences influence satisfaction judgments. Also, a focus on delivering an exceptional experience can differentiate a brand from competition. But, there can be another reason for building a remarkable customer experience: Compassion for the less fortunate. That is what Panera Bread has done with a concept called Panera Cares Community Café.
Panera Bread can attribute much of its success to the experience created daily in its more than 1,500 locations. And, like many respected organizations, Panera Bread takes on social responsibility obligations as a way to give back to the communities the company serves. The Panera Cares Community Café is an innovative approach to aligning company values with social responsibilities. The company operates four of these “pay-as-you-can” restaurants. Menus feature suggested prices, and donation boxes are set up to collect money to allow customers to provide funds to help buy a meal for someone who cannot afford to pay. People can pay suggested price, less if they cannot afford the full amount, or volunteer for one hour to eat for free. Panera Bread just opened the fourth café, in Chicago. It should be noted that the other three locations in the St. Louis, Detroit, and Portland areas each has been profitable.
As unique as the Panera Cares Community Café concept is, what really struck me as remarkable was the CEO’s perspective on why these locations are important. Ron Shaich, who is the company’s founder as well as CEO, wanted to give less fortunate people a good dining experience. He contrasts eating at Panera Bread to receiving a meal at a soup kitchen. He calls that experience as “institutional” and giving off negative energy. Shaich believes the less fortunate should be able to enjoy the same experience that anyone else dining at Panera Bread has.
Creating great customer experiences is a priority for marketers. Panera Bread has taken experiential marketing to another level, incorporating experiences into its strategic philanthropy. Donations of money and human resources are admirable, but creating experiences that touch others who are not in your target market demonstrates more than social responsibility. Showing compassion for your fellow man meets what is perhaps the ultimate social responsibility.

If You Do It, Measure It

Occasionally I run across one of my favorite quotes about advertising from John Wannamaker, a marketing pioneer. He said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” That reasoning extends beyond advertising; it can encompass all marketing spending as well as expenditures throughout a business. It is unnecessary to take “half” literally – it may be more or less than 50% that is being wasted. The point is that waste is likely occurring, but it is possible that it could be reduced if more emphasis was placed on measurement.

Measuring performance is a weakness for many marketing organizations. They may be exceptional at planning and executing strategies and tactics, but assessing results may lack the same emphasis. Or, the wrong things may be measured if activity is confused with results.

This issue surfaced for me this morning as I listened to the radio. The Chief Operating Officer of the Nashville Predators, Sean Henry, was on a sports talk show discussing the importance of a professional sports franchise being visible and active in the community. Henry stressed that the visibility is not limited to players and coaches, but rather employees throughout the organization should be engaged with the community. To that end, the organization recently launched an initiative called Project 6K. The program’s goal is to reach a cumulative number of 6,000 hours spent by team employees working in the community, or about 40 hours per employee. One comment Henry made that stood out was that employees are already active in the community; those efforts will now be quantified through Project 6K.

I applaud the Nashville Predators for an organization-wide approach to corporate social responsibility. Moreover, it is important that employees’ contributions are being measured to measure productivity in community relations. Also, it will help present a more compelling story to the Nashville community about the level of involvement the Predators organization has in the area.

It would be interesting to assess the impact of activity like the hours invested in Project 6K on marketing results. Did the program contribute to more brand awareness? Did it enhance the image local residents hold for the Nashville Predators? How many leads for ticket customers came from the organization’s involvement in the community? While it is unrealistic to expect every investment to deliver a return in the form of sales or new customers, it is realistic for initiatives like Project 6K to have marketing benefits. So, if you do it, measure it.

Use Your Head- Engage in Philanthropy Strategically

Businesses of all sizes are hit up daily with requests to support causes, nonprofits, and charities. Many of these requests are from legitimate organizations with laudable aims. However, it is simply impossible for a business to say “yes” to every request. Besides, engaging in corporate philanthropy based on solicitations is a reactive way to practice corporate social responsibility. Instead, a proactive strategy of aligning your brand with causes, issues, or organizations that are relevant to your customers will enhance the likelihood of a favorable return on investment… yes that ROI.

Philanthropic decisions should be made with consideration of how the impact on your brand and business. What is the expected outcome of philanthropic involvement- image enhancement? Brand preference? Customer loyalty? But, before that question can be answered, a more pertinent question to ask is “What matters to our customers?” Aligning support with an issue that is a priority with customers is a key to transforming philanthropy from donations to brand investments.

An example of strategically driven philanthropy is an initiative announced recently by Dick’s Sporting Goods. The retail chain has identified an issue that is very important to many of its customers: concussions. Dick’s program, called Protecting Athletes through Concussion Education (PACE), will provide neurological testing for more than 1 million high school athletes. If tested athletes suffer a concussion, they will receive additional testing to assess the impact of their injury on brain function. The initiative is supported by a website, and NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis will appear in a commercial promoting a cause marketing promotion that links athletic shoe purchase to donations to PACE.

Does Dick’s Sporting Goods want to sell more shoes, apparel, and equipment because of its association with a cause that matters to its customers? Of course it does, but it would have been easier for Dick’s to write a check to an organization than create the PACE program. And, it certainly would have cost less to not go to the lengths of paying for a million neurological tests. But convenience and cost are not the issues- connection with a target audience is the overarching objective.

For your brand to matter to customers, it is essential to first understand what matters to them. That understanding goes beyond what they want from a product to what is relevant in their lives. Strategic philanthropy is a strategy for connecting your brand to their values.

The New York Times – “Sporting Goods Chain Supports Concussion Testing in Schools”

Advertisers, Welcome to the World of Purposeful Marketing

I read with great interest a recap of last week’s Association of National Advertisers conference. A theme at this year’s ANA meeting was purpose-driven marketing. Marketing executives from several companies echoed the importance of conducting business in a way that has a positive impact on communities and society while at the same time meeting business objectives. Representative of marketers’ sentiments is a quote by Jim Tripodi, Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer at Coca-Cola, who said “We have to move from impressions to expressions.”

Welcome to 2010, ANA members! I am at a loss to understand why this group of global companies is seemingly just now coming around to the importance of social responsibility in their marketing strategy. The stance taken by speakers at the ANA conference is commendable; my question is why have they been so slow to come around to that position?

Social responsibility can b e a strategy to differentiate a brand from competition, but a higher purpose is served by engaging in socially responsible practices. A business may exist in order to generate profits, but at the same time a business has a charge to conduct business in a way that not only minimizes impact in terms of resources used and ideally, positively impact the communities in which it operates and serves customers.

Purposeful Marketing is not a fad, it is here to stay. Kudos to ANA member companies that are leading a call to focus on how to better engage customers and create an organization culture that places an emphasis on giving back.

Advertising Age – “Purpose-Driven Marketing All the Rage at ANA”

Using Social Media to Facilitate Social Change

Social media are powerful for engaging individuals in conversations and building community. Social marketing is a platform for companies to use their voices and resources to improve quality of life in communities where they do business or any corner of the world. Now, these two ideas intersect in a campaign launched by Nike. The iconic athletic brand has a social marketing campaign called “Back Your Block”. The program awards grants to community organizations that seek to use sports as a vehicle for making a difference. Social media are integrated into the campaign as organizations that apply for a grant can then use tools such as Facebook and Twitter to encourage people to go to the campaign’s web site and vote for them.

Demonstrating concern for local communities is not only good business sense, it is fulfillment of philanthropic responsibilities business concerns are expected to meet by society today. While supporting community organizations can have a desired business effect of “doing well while doing good,” the impact of such a campaign is enhanced when individuals are drawn into it as Nike is doing by allowing people to vote on grant applications. Nike’s campaign is not just about the company supporting a cause. It is also about individuals (Nike customers and non-customers alike) who are being drawn closer to the brand as they support their favorite local organizations. Nike’s program is a winner, not only for the potential positive change it may bring, but for giving power to the people to help make change possible.

Marketing Daily – “Nike Launches New Grant Program via Social Media”

Consumers Still Interested in Green

As economic conditions worsened over the past year, one trend that appeared likely to slow was consumers’ interest in green products. The pullback was expected because green products often carry a higher price tag than less-green options. The expectation was that consumers would revert back to purchasing lower priced alternatives, even if they were not as environmentally friendly as other products on the market.

According to the BBMG Conscious Consumer Report, a weak economy has not eliminated green sentiment among consumers. One interesting finding was 67% of persons surveyed said it was important to purchase products with social or environmental benefits, even in these difficult economic times. Furthermore, 51% indicated they would pay more for such products. Consumers surveyed also expressed an inclination to tell others about companies’ social responsibility practices, both bad and good. A majority of consumers (71%) indicated they were more likely to tell others about a company’s practices of which they disapproved. Also, 48% of respondents said they would encourage others to not purchase products from a company because of that company’s social responsibility practices.

Findings from the BBMG Conscious Consumer Report should serve as a call to marketers to examine the current state of their green practices. Any notion that consumers would chuck environmental concern because of a recession is dispelled based on this study’s findings. The bottom line is that a large percentage of consumers care about the impact businesses have on the environment as well the impact of their own consumption. Are there ways to exhibit social responsibility that are not currently being undertaken? Are there social responsibility practices that should be communicated to customers and the public? A fine line exists between impacting a target market with green marketing strategies and self-congratulatory communications. But, the stakes are too high, both for the environment and for customer relationships, to not be proactive in the area of social responsibility.

Link: Center for Media Research – “Consumers Want Proof It’s Green”

Altruism Marketing: The New Green?

The recession and its effects on consumers in the form of job losses is creating a new approach to marketing. Michael Silverstein of Boston Consulting Group calls it “altruism marketing.” Companies are reaching out to consumers by offering guarantees, fee waivers, or in some cases free services. Examples include GM, Ford, and Hyundai all have some form of payment relief for car buyers who lose their jobs and cannot make payments. Jet Blue is waiving $100 flight cancellation fees for those who lose their jobs. Walgreens pledged to provide free basic services for the rest of 2009 at its Take Care Clinics for any Take Care customers who lose their jobs and are uninsured.

Altruism marketing is an example of what marketing is at its core: responding to the needs of the market. Tough times have hurt many consumers; any company insensitive to their plight looks… well, like AIG. Marketers that meet customers where they are now will have the opportunity to remain connected with them when economic times get better. Someone helped when in need tends to remember who helped… and who did not.

Link: USA Today – “GM, Ford Are Latest Offering Help to Those Hit by Job Loss”