Tough But Sensitive

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The Memo In 1995, one of the Big Three automakers ran an ad featuring the car of the future. Its key materials: plastic and aluminum. If the members of The Steel Alliance didn't wake up, they could be edged out of key markets like automobile manufacturing and housing construction. How could the industry position steel as the material of choice for the next millennium?

The Discovery Throughout the 1980s, steel makers had invested roughly $50 billion to make steel lighter, cheaper, and higher quality. Their customers, including major appliance makers, recognized these innovations. But the end-users-consumers who were driving the cars and loading the washing machines-didn't have a clue. If consumers didn't understand steel's benefits, they might not demand the material in products they bought. And a drop in consumer demand would lead to a drop in orders from the industry's top clients. The Alliance had to get its message out.

But there were hurdles they hadn't anticipated. In interviews conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide, consumers said that steel making was a dirty business that clogged the air, and that steel makers didn't recycle. The industry, they felt, showed little regard for the world their children would inherit.

That negative perception wasn't the whole story, however. Interviewees also said that steel's strength made them feel secure and safe. And when presented with new information about the industry's environmental strides, their negative opinions often mellowed.

A phone survey by Wirthlin Worldwide confirmed the importance of teaching the public about the "new" steel industry. Participants were asked to rate various statements for credibility. Among those that scored particularly strong: "In 1994, 70 million tons of steel were recycled-that's more than aluminum, paper, plastic, and glass combined." The Alliance clearly needed to emphasize the recycling benefits of steel in any campaign it produced. With this focus, the industry could dispel outdated images and tap into consumers' concerns for future generations.

The Tactics GSD&M and The Steel Alliance developed several television commercials with safety and environmental themes. Images that reflected the strength and reliability of steel were central elements of the spots. One ad showed a diver in an underwater steel cage surrounded by menacing sharks. Wirthlin Worldwide handled pretesting, to see which stories worked best with consumers. Overall, viewers took from the spots that steel could protect them, which fed into their need for personal security. They also recognized the recyclability of the material.

The national campaign launched in 1997, and the Alliance closely monitored response. One concern emerged: Women 25 to 54 still had a low opinion of steel, even after the launch. Further research showed that this attitude stemmed from a lack of awareness about steel, not negative feelings. Women in U.S. households, the Alliance knew, often decided or heavily influenced purchases of the kinds of big-ticket items frequently made of steel. Plus, two key areas associated with the material-safety and recycling-were major issues with women. In response, television spots were added during daytime and morning news hours to hit a greater number of female viewers.

The Payoff Within the campaign's first year, public awareness of steel and its products jumped from 13 percent to 26 percent. People were thinking positive thoughts, too. By August 1998, positive mentions of the steel industry had risen to 78 percent, up from 24 percent in May 1997. The percentage of negative mentions fell to 1 percent from 37 percent.

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