Strike That Emotional Chord With Consumers With 'Gentle Collisions'

Panera Bread, UnitedHealth Examples of How to Do It Right

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Sandra Stahl
Sandra Stahl
About five years ago, Michael Markowitz, former chief brand officer at Panera Bread, approached us to help create meaningful intersections for the brand at key moments in its customers' everyday lives. These "gentle collisions," as he called them, some as simple as "Welcome Wagons" of Panera products to new residents in key communities, would be the centerpiece of the brand's communications strategy together with local advertising and promotion for new and seasonal menu items. Unlike their competitors, there would be no national TV or print advertising. It proved to be a gamble that paid off.

Today, while the flickering signs of economic recovery are heartening and marketing budgets are starting to loosen up, it's more important than ever for CMOs to look for alternate ways to connect with customers rather than return to pre-crisis form with mass brand awareness tactics with the "hard" ROIs they rely on. Recent surveys reveal cranky consumers who don't trust advertising, and they don't hesitate to show it by regularly posting snarky tweets about campaigns they dislike. Consumers say they don't want to feel "marketed" to. Reading between the headlines, what consumers are saying is they don't want brands to be only in their faces; if a brand wants their trust, their loyalty, and ultimately their dollar, it needs to also get into their lives.

Gentle collisions do just that. They extend a brand's reach through personal interactions that strike an emotional chord, meet an everyday need, or deliver something useful in a way that connects in a deeply personal way. Gentle collisions ideally take place in some kind of live forum; they can also be executed in other ways, but should not be confused with "engagements" typically associated with social-media marketing efforts such as Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or online advertising. Gentle collisions complement advertising and other marketing tactics and contribute to brand sales without leaving the customer feeling like they've just been sold.

Like Panera's Welcome Wagons, some of the most effective gentle collisions seem almost retro with a decidedly current twist. In health care, for example, free screenings or health-assessment events still have the power -- if planned and executed more as teachable moments than primarily on a cost-per-lead basis -- to bring a campaign message directly home to a consumer as well as humanize the sponsoring product and/or organization. This is a goal that a projected $26 billion in advertising -- according to Schonfeld & Associates 2011 projections for pharma -- hasn't been able to accomplish.

UnitedHealth Group currently has a program to improve diabetes awareness and management and, in so doing, reduce costs related to the condition and its complications and garner positive visibility for UnitedHealth Group. The effort includes a partnership with the YMCA and retail pharmacies, beginning with Walgreens, and involves offering screenings and information sessions led by health professionals as well as support from neighborhood pharmacists. Awareness and participation is driven by local and national communications. The whole operation could be straight out of the 1980s with the exception of an advanced health plan swipe-card technology introduced by UnitedHealth Group that enables Walgreens and the YMCA to be paid -- critically, for the first time -- automatically through a paperless system. UnitedHealth Group says the program is successful against all metrics and has brought meaningful diabetes management into people's homes and into their lives.

Pairing gentle collisions with print, online and network advertising can be a powerful one-two in-your-face/in-your-life punch. Take the new Quaker Oats "Does your breakfast make you amazing?" campaign. I love the tagline and the concept as much for their upbeat appeal as for the potential for everyday-life brand intersections. To complement the planned print, TV and Facebook efforts, what if Quaker sponsored breakfasts at those life milestones when their customers really need to be amazing, say, in grade schools before statewide tests, or in high schools before the PSAT, or for teams before the big game? Now extend this idea to struggling schools at test time. The publicity and lingering good feeling would more than likely carry over to supermarket purchasing decisions.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said in the company's 2008 annual report that we are going through more than an economic cycle and that "capitalism will be reset in several important ways." These past two years have proven him correct, leaving a changed marketing playing field and consumers who want to feel the love from the brands they support. Gentle collisions bring a brand and its creative platform to life in a way that goes well beyond awareness. They create positive brand experiences, even memories with customers. These aren't "feel-good/nice-to-have" efforts. Consider again Panera Bread. Earlier this year, the company opened a single bakery-café in St. Louis with no prices on the menus. Customers were invited to pay whatever they like or nothing at all. There was no advertising support for the grand opening, but people across the country learned about it through print stories, TV coverage and in online news reports, blogs and tweets. I'm willing to bet no customer who ate there will ever forget the experience and that those who just heard about it wished they were there.

Sandra Stahl has been in PR and marketing communications for 25 years working on both the global agency and corporate sides, including at Ruder Finn and CDx Laboratories. Since 2003, she has been a partner in jacobstahl, a marketing communications consultancy.
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