Commentary by Jonah Bloom

Try Not to Alienate Your Advocates Like Pabst, Levi's

Miller and Timberland Learned to Tread More Carefully... and Profit

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Until recently, my drinking crony Dan -- a just-hip-enough Brooklynite who knew trucker caps were trendy before anyone else (but had the decency never to wear one) -- was a Pabst Blue Ribbon drinker. When I last saw him he had switched. Why the new brew, Dan? "I knew Pabst was over when I saw it in the [New York] Times," he half-joked.
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.

This is tough on the Times. And it's unfair to Pabst, which has sustained a sales resurgence based on working-man brand values, scarcity and price. But it shows how easily an influencer can be turned off a brand by the knowledge that the masses are being turned on to it. Patrick Meyer, founder of marketing consultancy Fusion 5, is passionate on this. "Brands get hot and respond by turning up the volume with huge media buys," he says. "But blasting the public just switches the core consumer off."

Alienating trendsetters
Tommy Hilfiger and Levi's could be accused of alienating trendsetters. We'll never know if Tommy could have sustained growth by staying true to its urban roots, or if Red Tabs would've been a hit for Levi's if they'd been subtly seeded in boutiques, rather than noisily rolled out to the high street. But certainly both alienated some of their brand evangelists with misguided mass marketing.

"You need to ask why you've got traction among a certain audience," says Rhett Speros, director of buzz at hot shop Buzztone. "Some marketers jump on the bandwagon and in doing so ruin their credibility. You have to let influencers find things for themselves."

Miller learned that lesson last year when it noted a surge in sales of High Life to 20-somethings. The brewer found that the beer's heritage, price and those wonderful Wieden spots that seemed targeted at the middle-age traditionalist were sparking a groundswell among a hip, young crowd. It was tempted to capitalize with ads more obviously aimed

Both Timberland and Miller Brewing took pains not to alienate influencers who perceived the product as hip.
at this audience but decided to first try to understand the uptick.

Quiet effort
High Life newcomers said they liked that it was a brew aimed more at their fathers or grandfathers, and some said they would go off it if it was pushed at them. Miller listened, embarking on a quiet effort to reach more hipsters -- with in-bar promotions and a collection of wearables that included true-to-the-brand items such as a beer delivery-guy jacket. High Life sales continue to climb.

A similar tale unfolded recently at footwear company Timberland. In its case, the unexpected new consumers were a hip-hop crowd that boosted sales in urban stores. As with Miller, Timberland's first thought was to aim ads at this largely black -- and previously untargeted -- audience. But the new consumers warned them off. Meyer, whose Fusion 5 team did some of the research into the hip new Tims fans, says: "They said they made the brand, they feel part of the brand, they didn't want it being made over in their image and sold back to them."

Timberland tweaked its line (adding a powder-blue boot, for example) and did some grassroots "community-service" marketing but shunned big campaigns or big-name rapper endorsements. Again, the figures show urban sales staying strong.

This is not a case for no marketing. It's a case for smart marketing. Both Miller and Timberland realized shouting too loud is a quick way to kill your cool -- particularly with the Dans of this world.

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