Case Study: How Whirlpool Heated Up Sales by Warming Up 'Cold Metal'

Appliance Maker's Tearjerking Ads Focusing On Care Behind Chores Lift Sales, Share

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Appliance marketing long has been mainly about product features and reviews -- "cold metal" as Whirlpool Senior Brand Manager Jon Hall puts it. So when his brand launched its "Every Day, Care" campaign in October it was a big risk. The push focused on the deeper meaning of how the chores appliances are used for affect lives, and featured emotional scenes of family life with Johnny Cash singing "You Are My Sunshine" in the background.

It turns out that warming up cold metal can work wonders.

Whirlpool's sales rose 6.6% in the first six months after the campaign started vs. the year-ago period, four points ahead of the appliance industry, Mr. Hall said. The brand's positive social-media sentiment has risen more than six fold. Purchase intent scores are up 10% from pre-campaign levels, which has translated into a comparable lift in market share, he said. And the campaign from DigitasLBi, Chicago, with help from Ketchum on PR and Upworthy and Crowdtap in social media and creative development, has generated more than 120 million video views.

The original 60-second "Every Act of Care Counts" spot scored an effectiveness rating of 8.7 from, well above the industry average of 5.2 (based on volume of social-media activity a TV ad generates divided by spending). That comes despite a substantial increase in spending by Whirlpool. iSpot estimates the company's spending at $30 million since October, up from $20 million during the same period a year earlier. That doesn't include considerable digital, print and social-media outlays that are part of the new campaign.

Subsequent spots (one featuring a single dad who leaves notes in his son's lunch and another a mom's interactions with her daughter and a Cabrio washer-dryer), also got above-industry-average 6.3 and 6.9 iSpot effectiveness ratings.

"The response has been beyond anything we imagined," Mr. Hall said.

The strategy grew from Whirlpool's marketing team finding early last year that the home-appliance industry merited a "deep connection with consumers, but no brand in the industry was really talking to the consumer in a way that highlighted the value the products' play in consumers' lives," he said. "As market leader, we felt it was up to us to take the industry in a different direction."

Even General Electric, the one player in the category that has tried emotional branding going back to "We bring good things to life" generations ago, is getting out of the business, having agreed to sell its appliance unit to Sweden's Electrolux.

From talking to consumers, Whirlpool found appliances were associated with chores with unpleasant connotations, Mr. Hall said. "However, when we asked them why they did the chore and kept digging, we came to the conclusion that they did chores because of their relationship with the people around them."

That led Whirlpool to try to reframe the category "from cold metal to real, modern family care," he said.

Doing so sometimes means reaching people toward the fat end of the so-called "purchase funnel," when they're not even thinking about buying an appliance, but still might be developing brand preferences. Whirlpool is still studying how open people are to thinking about appliances when they're not in the market, Mr. Hall said. But the increase in purchase intent and brand sentiment bodes well for gains far beyond the short-term lift the brand already has gotten.

In another departure, Whirlpool is looking to keep the conversation going post-purchase -- a critical time when the reviews that drive many purchase decisions in the category come. So the brand is looking to keep people involved in its social media accounts post-purchase by providing "tips and inspiration," Mr. Hall said.

User-generated content has been a key part of the campaign, including the brand's 60-second Grammy ad in February. Crowdtap was part of a broader effort including PR and social media to find 400 contestants to appear in the ad. The winner, introduced by country artist Hunter Hayes, was 19-year-old Alex Bell, who sang the campaign's theme song, "You Are My Sunshine," to honor her late grandmother, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2010.

Earlier, Upworthy helped Whirlpool find a "sandwich generation" family -- a daughter of a Haitian immigrant living in New York as a single mother with a lesbian partner, caring for everyone in the household and feeling "she never was doing enough," Mr. Hall said. "Upworthy helped us show the appreciation from the grandmom and the child," he said, in a video that's gotten more than 2 million views.

Reframing the category as being about caring for people has had a stronger impact than Mr. Hall anticipated internally with the engineering and sales groups, and externally with retailers, all of whom appreciate the thought that what they do has a deeper meaning, he said.

It's also reframed product development along more human lines, Mr. Hall said, leading engineers to note how often people used the questions "what" and "how" in talking about washers and dryers, and how little they understood how the conventional knobs and settings answered those questions. That led to development of the Cabrio line released last year with instructions based on asking "what" and "how." Those same words figure prominently in conversations between a mom and her family in advertising for the product line.

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