NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In Alabama, the night before the Crimson Tide took on the Texas Longhorns for the National Championship, it would normally have been tough to find chips and salsa, maybe beer. But, instead, Chris Hendrix, 27, found empty shelves where the bread should have been. Bottled water was also in limited supply, as panicky residents stocked up for a forecasted inch of snow.
Unusually icy temperatures are gripping most of the U.S. -- according to Accuweather, this could be the coldest winter the country's seen since 1985 -- and that's proving a boon for opportunistic marketers who target their media around the thermometer and have the wherewithal and ability to make their marketing more flexible and nimble.
Bad weather is, of course, relative: An inch of powder in Alabama may trigger mass panic and closures, while for Minnesotans it's just another winter day. For marketers who understand these differences and capitalize on them, there's money to be made.
"That's where the marketing gold that needs to be mined is," said Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer at Planalytics, who said 40% of his clients are using weather intelligence to inform their marketing, up from 25% to 30% 18 months ago. "Marketing into a situation that's favorable for your product [causes] the numbers to go off the chart."
Take, for example, Campbell Soup. In addition to the company's considerable national media advertising, the brand monitors weather patterns in 30 second-tier markets like St. Louis, Des Moines and Tampa, ramping up local radio support when an area gets particularly cold, wet or snowy.
The brand team conducts weekly meetings with media buyers to review a 30-city "misery index" that Campbell has built using an algorithm that incorporates temperature fluctuations within a given day, the year-ago difference, the week-ago difference and extra credit for snow or "nasty" rain. When an area becomes miserable, it gets a positive ranking on the index (negative ratings ironically connote a relatively happy area).
John Faulkner, director-brand communications at Campbell Soup Co., said that when an area becomes about 5% miserable, Campbell will cue up chicken-soup radio ads from BBDO, New York, that typically last three to five days. Its current campaign, which underscores the 32 feet of noodles in every can, ties in neatly with freezing conditions. Mr. Faulkner would not comment on how sales have fared since the company put the "misery" index in place, but it's clearly worked: Not only has Campbell kept the program going, it's added a flu-tracking system as well.
Campbell's misery index
"A booming economy hides a lot of mistakes," Mr. Bernhardt said. "People were living in the past and thinking in old ways. Now you have to do things better, smarter."
Boots made for selling
Zappos, for example, is doing its best to grab the attention of shoppers who may be looking for cold-weather apparel and footwear. Aaron Magness, head of business development and brand marketing, said that the company has adjusted its web presence to capitalize on the wintry conditions. "We planned on having more of a fashion story on our homepage and e-mail blast, but we're adjusting it to keep winter products top of mind," he said. Zappos' homepage now features models wearing coats and the headline "Cold Weather Outfits Are Hot!"
As marketers take advantage of the cold front sweeping the nation, they turn to media that can be swiftly adjusted such as spot radio, e-mail marketing and search advertising. Dan Schock, a retail industry director at Google, said that, for companies looking to buy against newly popular search terms such as "hot chocolate," "weather forecast" or "long underwear," his team can launch new search campaigns in just a few hours.
In the days before Christmas, for example, Google worked with several advertisers to geo-target the Northeast and adjust creative to capitalize on the impending blizzard by encouraging consumers to shop from home.
Weather-triggered campaigns are a specialty of the Weather Channel, of course. The cable network is working with advertisers including General Motors, The Home Depot and Nationwide Insurance to do just that, and it has benefited from bigger ratings as chilled consumers stay inside and keep an eye on the forecasts. According to a spokesman, viewership was up 24% in the first five days of the year, compared with the same period a year ago. And on Jan. 7, Weather.com experienced what was likely its biggest page-view day ever, with 82.5 million views. Ironically, it was tough to get those statistics from Weather Channel last week, as its executives were stuck at home due to icy, snowy conditions in its headquarters city of Atlanta.
While some advertisers moved to crank up their buys due to cold, the marketer of Snuggie went in the opposite direction. The mercury plunge caused a run on retail that resulted in an "extreme shortage" for the blanket-with-arms, precipitating Anne Flynn, VP-marketing at Allstar Marketing Group, to halt the brand's marketing. That notwithstanding, the cold weather is generating plenty of free publicity, be it from local newscasts or appearances of college-themed Snuggies at Bowl Games. "It's a nice problem to have," she said, "but when people want their Snuggies, they want them now." The company is ramping up production.
Snuggie's not the only brand benefiting. In Palm Beach County, Fla., space heaters were selling out last week, and snow blowers were out of stock in Kansas City, according to local news reports. Planalytics reported that demand for electric blankets jumped 13% in December, ice-melting products were up 12% and thermals rose by 9%.
Classic Ugg boots that retail between $140 and $180 have been moving briskly. "We are hearing good reports from our retailers all over the country, as consumers are shopping with Christmas cash and gift cards," said Ed Goins, VP-sales at Ugg Australia. "It's safe to say that the cold weather is certainly not hurting our business and is most likely enhancing it."
Indeed, cold temperatures appear be helping consumers forget about the recession, at least temporarily. According to Google, searches for "snow boots" began outperforming searches for "cheap boots" in the past few weeks, the first time that's happened in almost a year.
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Contributing: Jack Neff