From Terrorism to Tornadoes, the Way Consumers Cope Forges a Better Marketing Climate

Anxious About Everything Else, They've Taken Control Over Much of Messaging -- and That's a Good Thing

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We've been pretty worried for a while now.

The headlines jump from foreclosures to the debt ceiling to earthquakes to hurricane floods. We live in a time of anxiety that started with 9/11 and has persisted through two wars, recession, polarizing politics and a string of natural disasters -- tsunamis, Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and others in between. We've endured economic crisis, unemployment, bankruptcy, the Gulf oil spill. You know the list -- you've been coping with it, too. It has resulted in a national mood that creates, in essence, a culture of worry.

Throughout history, of course, marketing has reflected the national mood: patriotism in the '40s, turmoil in the '60s, exuberance in the 80s. When the mood shifts, the ad campaigns and marketing artifacts become iconic reminders of the era.

We've had many moods during the past 100 years, but for the last decade we've been, well, worried. We have become steeped in anxiety. And the news media nurtures fear like a low-grade fever: fear of terrorism, fear of recession, anxiety over natural disasters.

This time, though, our mood doesn't just set the tone for marketing -- the national mood is a catalyst that 's changing marketing strategy, for the better. Amid uncertainty, mistrust and cynicism, people have found ways to take control, hunker down and relieve the tension. Those coping mechanisms have influenced six important marketing trends.

Social media grows. People trust friends' opinions more than corporate marketing messages, and new platforms have emerged: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Foursquare. Ninety percent of consumers trust recommendations from people they know; 70% trust recommendations of consumer opinions posted online. Social media drives promotions, makes viral marketing the holy grail and gives unfettered consumer feedback.

Individuals take control -- including content. User-generated content has blossomed, and brands increasingly take their cue from consumers. Frito-Lay perfected it with its Super Bowl ads, airing its first consumer-made ad for Doritos in 2006 (production budget: $12) and fielding four ads this year that cracked the Top 10 in USA Today's Ad Meter.

Social conscience strengthens as a cultural and marketing force. Consumers want to make the world better, and they think brands should make the world better too. Corporate social responsibility has become de rigueur, and cause-based campaigns drive long-term strategy for brands and their non-profit partners. P&G epitomizes social involvement, from donations of Dawn to rescue wildlife from oil spills, to the "Tide Loads of Hope" mobile laundromat serving disaster-stricken communities, to Pampers' "1 Pack = 1 Vaccine" program with UNICEF providing vaccinations to children in third-world countries.

Shoppers get frugal. They plan ahead, shop online, switch to private label. Seventy-one percent of shoppers make a list (digital or paper), and 81% conduct research online before hitting the store, according to Booz & Co. Shopper marketing has exploded, with CPGs spending $38 billion in 2010, and more than half plan to boost spending 15% by 2013. Brands walk the full path to purchase, and shoppers use digital tools to keep tabs all along the way.

Personal information is a new form of currency. The more data marketers get, the more consumers want in exchange: relevant ads, tailored offers, timely content. Brands have the tools for one-to-one mass marketing, but it takes data to fuel it -- which gives consumers more control.

We hunger for fun. Pop-up marketing flourishes to engage consumers in unexpected ways. Charmin builds a bathroom in Times Square; Pop Tart World serves Pop-Tart sushi. Remember Burger King's Subservient Chicken, Coke's GPS Can, Target 's Vertical Fashion Show in 2006 with its runway down the face of Rockefeller Center -- and then its 2010 Kaleidoscope Fashion Show in the windows of NYC's Standard Hotel?

So what can the CMO do about all of this? Here are five tips on making the best of the national mood:

  1. Listen. Use every touch point with your consumers to truly understand their needs and wants.
  2. Be authentic. Provide practical responses to consumers' concerns and desires. Stay true to your brand, in the context of consumers' lives.
  3. Empower. Facilitate consumer control; personalize the brand experience. Provide consumers with choices, online and off; make it easy to have a conversation; understand their neighborhood, and give them ways to participate on a local level.
  4. Surprise and delight. Create fun ways to engage; do the unexpected; keep it relevant to your brand message and mission.
  5. Keep perspective. Cultural moods, like our own moods, are temporary.

The current cultural mood has given consumers more of a voice in the marketing conversation. It's a little like the '60s: In a time of protest, people found their political voice. Now, in a culture of worry, people are taking control where they can, honing their voice in the context of commerce. It's good for brands to have consumers so engaged.

Bonnie Carlson is president-CEO of the Promotion Marketing Association, which celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year. Reach her at [email protected]
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