Why Marketers Are Redefining Growth, Revisiting Emotional Messages to Connect

In Recent Roundtable, Execs Admit to Social-Media Struggles, Outline Brand Strategies

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Are marketers moving back to a focus on emotional benefits in marketing, rather than just the rational benefits? And how are they defining "growth" post-recession? Those were questions recently posed to marketing chiefs gathered for a roundtable prior to the Association of National Advertisers' Brand Innovation Conference in New York.

Jodi Allen, VP-North America Baby Care at Procter & Gamble; Dan Germain, head-creative, Innocent Drinks; Sandra Howard, director-advertising, Southwest Airlines Co.; Steve Cannon, VP-marketing, Mercedes-Benz USA; Roger Adams, chair, ANA Brand Management Committee; and Bob Liodice, president-CEO, ANA, met to discuss the results of the ANA's recent survey looking at how marketers are seeking to connect with consumers now, in a post-recession environment.

The ANA's Roger Adams and Bob Liodice; P&G's Jodi Allen; Mercedes-Benz's Steve Cannon; and Innocent Drinks' Dan Germain.
The ANA's Roger Adams and Bob Liodice; P&G's Jodi Allen; Mercedes-Benz's Steve Cannon; and Innocent Drinks' Dan Germain.

"During the recession, there was a lot of hunkering down, cutting back, and trying to use the most efficient means possible," Mr. Adams said. "Coming out of the recession, what we identified as a trend is people are really trying to build a sense of community, and maybe even leveraging what they learned in digital media that they might have done because they were forced to cut out of mass media and spend more on digital."

Ad Age Executive Editor Abbey Klaassen and CMO Strategy Editor Jennifer Rooney were on hand to moderate the discussion, which also explored social-media privacy concerns and the new definition of growth for marketers.

Jennifer Rooney: [In the survey,] 52% of respondents said emotional benefits were necessary, whereas 48% said rational/functional benefits [were important to portray in advertising]. But, when asked what their actual current balance is, in fact, rational/functional definitely outweigh emotional benefits, by 62% to 38%. To what do you attribute that discrepancy?

Steve Cannon: Coming out of a tough recession, people's need to justify a purchase [increased]. It didn't mean they stopped consuming luxury products. They were just much more selective. And it was vacation, car. They had more difficult choices. So [marketers had to give consumers] the ammunition to help make that decision and pull the trigger.

That absolutely resonates for us. In fact, for the better part of last year, in a couple of major car launches, we filled it with lots of good, rational red meat. But this year, there's a little bit of a shift. People want to be optimistic. People want to be happy. There's definitely recession fatigue, so there's a need to up the emotional quotient, coming off the recession, to get folks excited again. At the end of the day, with cars, it's something that we want to fall in love with.

JR: All of you represent brands that have strong emotional connections to consumers. Do you agree that we're at a turning point here, as far as going back to focusing more on emotional benefits?

Jodi Allen: We do our best work when we can deliver against both. So one of the best pieces of work is copy that we've now been running for five years straight over the holidays, what we call "Peace on Earth." It shows babies from all over the world sleeping peacefully, in a very artistic way, played to "Silent Night," which was quite controversial, just because there are implications to that song.

But it's been one of our best pieces of copy. It absolutely delivers against the benefit of overnight sleep, which is the torture test for parents on a diaper. But, done in such an artistic, emotional way. I mean, you'd have to be inhumane if you didn't think that that spot was emotional.

And so, I feel like the struggle that we have is how to do both simultaneously. And I find that when you can do both, it's exponential, in terms of the results that you get.

Abbey Klaassen: Is it a balance for you?

JA: Yes, it has to be a balance. If you go way too far to the emotional side, people don't have that rational justification for why, even in a category like diapers, they're purchasing what they're purchasing. So you have to have the rational reason. But if you can get to that emotional piece on top, you can have your brand separated from your competitors. And that's really what we struggle with.

AK: At P&G and in your division, did you feel like it swung back toward the rational during the recession, or was it different for you?

JA: We probably put more focus back on functional benefits as well. But we really tried to keep that balance. I mean, winning parents' hearts is absolutely [essential].

What we want to be all about is caring for all babies' happy, healthy development, which is a much higher bar to hold ourselves to. It's played out in the activities that we've chosen to do. The work that we've done with UNICEF, where we run a promotion where, if you buy a pack of Pampers, we donate a vaccine to save a life, to eliminate neonatal tetanus -- we wouldn't do that if our purpose wasn't about caring for all babies' happy, healthy development. It's really taken our brand to a whole other level.

JR: Working more to build that emotional connection with consumers -- is that something you're experiencing as well, at Southwest?

Sandra Howard: Absolutely. We have had quite a bit of focus within the past year re-embracing our overall brand values, and less so about the transactional part of our business, which is a huge change for us. Our emotional touch points as a brand are more about our customer service and our people and the experience that our brand provides, which had been something that we had not talked about in quite some time. And just the sheer connection and value of people, and the essence of our company being around those people, has been very, very key for us this year.

Today, it seems like in the face of innovation is loss of people, loss of connection with people, less human interaction. And that's something that our brand seeks to promote. We have chosen to re-embrace some key pillars of the brand that have a deeper emotional meaning. "Bags Fly Free," as a message, obviously resonates well because of the economic impact. But the message is so charged emotionally, which is why it works for us so strongly.

Roger Adams: One of the reasons we really wanted you on this panel today is because you have an inherently rational benefit. And yet, you choose to have both the rational and emotional conveyed. And it depositions your competition.

SH: We have embraced our maverick spirit once again. And there is a fine line, because Southwest Airlines is very humble, by its nature, as well.

A lot of the work that we've been doing out there is very competitive. And so, how far do you push that so that we can still honor what's true to Southwest? We're a very humble organization and love to surprise and delight. How far can we take the messaging? Could certainly take it pretty far competitively, very much more aggressive, I would say. But where we've landed is a good sweet spot that helps us stay true to our values and still get the point across.

Dan Germain: I come at marketing from a slightly different angle. Innocent is a business that we started as friends 11 years ago in the U.K. And it's bigger than it was, which is good, which is the trend that we were after. Now, we're majority-owned by Coca-Cola, as of April this year. So we're starting to think about expansion in a large way.

We started a business with no money. Emotion was all we had. We just had to convince people somehow that this thing in a bottle was necessary in their lives. And we didn't have any place in which to ram home functional messages, you know, every morning on TV as people go into work. We just had to create a culture and a spirit around the business.

But definitely in the last two years, we've had to step back and [look at] that. Trying to separate the rational from the emotional was really difficult for us, because we'd been in it since the beginning. [We had to] do some research and work out what the consumer really wanted.

JR: Your challenge now is not losing that emotional connection that you were founded on. How are you going to meet that challenge?

DG: The honest answer is that we don't know exactly yet. Because we've probably planned about three to five years out, but that might not be far enough. We've got some plans up until 2030 that might get us to being the world's favorite little food and drink company. Because that's what we want to be.

However great your rational benefit is, you have to remember that people are hearing 70 of those rational messages every second of their lives, and they're just going, "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."

AK: What I found interesting, when I looked at this chart, which talks about the importance of various elements in building that kind of brand equity, was how high the website ranked. Is this signaling a bit of a shift, in terms of how people view that channel?

JA: I find the fact that we call digital and things like that "alternative media" is so outdated. Honestly, it offers much more ability to interact. I feel like the whole communications industry, and brands included, have had to make a culture change -- some have made it better than others -- to be [about], How do I invite you into a conversation, instead of, How do I tell you my benefit? And I feel like the web environment allows much more of that interactive [relationship].

AK: Along those lines, though, social media's still pretty low.

DG: That's really interesting, that people separate the website from social media, because it's the same thing.

AK: And it sounds like people differentiated word of mouth and social media. Why would that be, especially when you're talking about building emotional connections?

SC: We're just trying to figure it out. I mean, come on. Social media is this thing that we talk about, and we're all charting new territory, and we're all trying to put up Facebook pages, and we're looking for ways to either tweet or do it, and none of us has quite figured it out. So it's about getting in the game. A good experience or a bad experience can get pushed out through YouTube so fast. And if you don't have your listening posts out there, listening to the conversations, you're already behind.

AK: A small group of people can create a huge kind of brushfire of controversy around something online, whereas maybe you're not hearing that offline. There's a big difference there.

JA: There is an amplification effect. We have a Facebook page that has a quarter of a million people, very active. But we have a group that is, relatively speaking, small -- it was about 5,000 three weeks ago, it's now 9,000 in three weeks -- unfortunately, amplifying some negatives. Which, for the most part are circulating myths, to be fair.

There is some real truth in terms of parents experiencing diaper rash. But then there's this myth around the diaper being the cause. We've learned a ton, I would say we're still learning a ton, and I would argue, nobody has it figured out.

The good news is, it does give us an ability to listen and to understand what's on parents' minds.

JR: As a marketer, how do you choose to react?

JA: All of this has forced us, in true P&G spirit, to go back and double-check, triple-check. First and foremost for us is that our product is safe. The very first thing a baby wears is a diaper. We feel like our parents have to trust us. Secondly, dealing with the reality of the issue. What we found with all this is that there's a significant amount of misinformation out there.

So we're getting very proactive on, how do we share the right kind of information, so that parents know what the right thing is that they can do? And then, after that, it's, how do we manage the message in a way that there isn't misinformation that's getting amplified? And I think that's the part where we're still learning, to be honest.

JR: Are you using social media to get the message out?

JA: Absolutely, we're going full steam ahead. I mean, social media is part of life. I have four teenagers. I look at my kids and where they're headed. They're the consumers of the future. They're not too far away from that. To think that we could put our head in the sand and think that, Oh, well, we'll just pull back? That's the wrong way to go.

DG: And you have to know that you cannot control it. You have to be really comfortable with that. Maybe that's the problem when it's called social media, and it's treated as a separate thing, and it's given a separate strategy.

SH: It's so unpredictable in certain cases. We've got some examples where we're trying to extend whatever messages we're promoting via social media, and then, next thing you know, one of our employees finds a child's backpack and hunts down that family that left the backpack on the airplane. It's just an everyday customer experience, and it is the most talked-about. It's got the highest volume of activity and chatter, so much more than the actual efforts we're putting toward some of our marketing initiatives we push out there. It validates that real experiences matter.

SC: We're trying to learn how to evolve from responding and reacting to what's going on in the social media world. Step two is inserting ourselves into those social networks, because we've done a lot of stuff with Gen Yers and how they respond and make decisions. It's almost like they've got their collective social network. So, how do we tap into that social network? Because, over time, just traditional advertising is less and less effective. They want a more organic, sort of grassroots type of experience.

AK: Speaking of these social networks, Facebook is going through its own brushfire, in terms of privacy and the way people have reacted to it. Do you guys think about that? Does that matter?

DG: It moves and it changes, and the only thing you can do as a sensible businessperson or marketer is just find out where people are having conversations and go and hang out there. And literally hang out there, spend a day or two with your laptop not in your office, scooting around them, listening to what people are talking about, and how they're talking, and what they're hosting.

JR: So, it takes some risk on the part of everybody to really just jump in, despite the problems that they're having. So the question is, how do you make that determination?

DG: What you have to do is go and do. It's the spirit of doing social media. It can't be this fear of strategizing and thinking. And you'll screw it up, and you'll post the wrong stuff, and you'll get it right. And you'll find your voice.

SC: You're going to have to just invest. So, here we are. Probably, we all have taken some budget hits over the past period of time, where we've had to work a little bit harder. But, the risk is, you still have to allocate a chunk of money and resources to pour into social media, knowing that you might not get any return on that. I can't prove to any constituent that this $100,000 I just spent on this initiative had anything -- page views, or number of downloads or whatever. We have no metrics for it. So you just have to convince your constituents, your finance guys, that we've got to play in this space.

Bob Liodice: Social media has this natural implication that you're moving to a higher risk platform. It may have greater rewards, and it may be the cost of doing business today, but we don't necessarily understand the parameters, all the time, of what would be a safe post, or a safe push-out on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever. That's where a lot of corporate managements are having some real struggles.

AK: Or even, what's the proper tone to use in social media.

SC: We're losing control. We used to be able to neatly control the message. Can't do that anymore. So we're going to have to start to get smart and very flexible in an area where we've got so much less control.

JA: But if you're true to your purpose, and transparency is seen as a good thing, then I think the social-media arena has a lot to offer you.

RA: A lot of big corporations are hierarchical still. And social media is a flat architecture. How does it reach you as the head of the organization?

SH: Our social-media responsibility is a shared responsibility between our marketing or our advertising group and our public relations team. We each have our core areas of accountability for how to respond based on what is happening. We are still struggling with who owns it, how do we come together. We haven't quite solved the structural piece of it.

RA: The one other thing in the survey was how important growth is this year. Are you getting kicked around about, hey, what about your top line this year?

SC: After two years of backing up, growth is very important. So the market has corrected, clearly, and now we're back into expansion. The nice part about it is, we can feel that we're in growth mode again. It's a measured optimism.

JR: Is growth being defined differently, this time around?

SC: In our space, being small is to be vulnerable. Because when you think about how the car business is transforming, it's billions and billions and billions of dollars in research and development that, if you spread that over a small number of units, it becomes very difficult. So everybody needs a certain level of critical mass to spread out those R&D costs.

AK: Suddenly, scale matters again?

SC: It does.

SH: For Southwest, growth this year is maybe less about adding new cities, but how to optimize kind of our current operation. And within that current operation, how to introduce new products to customers to get those customers to spend a little bit more with us, is really what we're focusing on.

DG: For us, at the moment, the most important thing is growing geographically. Obviously, making more money's good. Actually, selling more to more people in Europe proves that our product will work elsewhere. And then we can think about rolling it out in other places.

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