Whirlpool Tugs At Heartstrings

Strategic shift marked by Reba McEntire tour

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% While competitors such as Maytag have historically relied on an emotional approach to its advertising, even managing to create a bona fide ad icon in the form of its Maytag Repairman, appliance maker Whirlpool Corp. has opted for a more "rational", product-specific approach to selling refrigerators and washers and dryers.

Jeff Davidoff, director of marketing for the Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool, hopes to change all that this summer. Davidoff with his multidisciplinary team, led by Publicis New York group account director Jon Renner, looks to fill a "hole in his brand's personality" as presenting sponsor of the Reba McEntire Habitat for Humanity Tour. The summer country-music tour runs from June to September with stops in 30 cities.

Advertising support for the tour broke May 31st with a 60-second TV commercial featuring McEntire educating consumers about the Whirlpool/Habitat relationship. Whirlpool donates a refrigerator and range to every Habitat for Humanity home built in North America as part of its $25 million, five-year commitment to the organization, devoted to fighting poverty housing. Her song, "I'm a Survivor," is featured in the spots. The integrated-marketing program includes a 30-second spot, print, radio, advertorial, direct mail, public relations and merchandising.


As a measure of the relative strategic importance of this initiative within the overall Whirlpool marketing program, Davidoff said $10 million has been earmarked for the tour and all ancillary marketing. Whirlpool's annual marketing-communications budget is $40 million.

"Reba certainly meets all the character criteria, and the fact that she is both a long-term music star as well as being very popular on TV right now [with her WB sitcom "Reba"] really all came together magically," said Davidoff. "For the most part, in marketing you're trying to make something better than it is. In this case, we're revealing something to be as great as it really is."

Whirlpool's relationship with Habitat for Humanity began five years ago, mostly as an altruistic endeavor and not strategically driven. "It's really only in the last year that we realized that the [Habitat] brand could really be a powerful part of our brand personality and our emotional edge," said Davidoff.

"What we uncovered was that each of these brands stands for the notion of accomplishment and productivity," said Renner.


Renner said Publicis, New York, pulled together a passel of complementary companies to come up with the tour idea, including Publicis' promotions shop Dialog in San Francisco; PR 21, Whirlpool's Chicago-based PR shop; Relay Marketing, Publicis' events and sponsorship marketing arm; and Publicis media-buying shop Optimedia. "This was a media-neutral idea. This was not Publicis setting out to create a great television campaign and have everybody else ride our coattails… We built it from the ground up," said Renner.

The idea for a tour to benefit Habitat For Humanity was hatched in a meeting involving all the agency partners in the offices of PR 21. "From there, we gravitated into country music, because there is a definite sense of genuineness and Americana that country music represents," said Renner.

At that point, Davidoff brought in another one of his agency partners, Omnicom Group's Aaron Walton Entertainment, which suggested McEntire, with whom the shop has had a relationship. As it turned out, McEntire also had a previous relationship with Habitat for Humanity. "This is a case study in putting the brand first and putting your particular agency category or media second," said Davidoff.


Whirlpool has set up a slew of different qualitative and quantitative metrics to assess return on investment. Beyond naturally tracking sales and market share, Davidoff and his team will also be carefully tracking attitudinal measurements including a quarterly "brand health tracker" that only measures consumers that "we define as 'in the market.' That's a consumer who intends to buy within three months or has purchased within three months."

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Whirlpool will also conduct more detailed research in markets where the tour stops. "We think there should be a greater intensity of response for those in markets where the concert has gone on and even deeper for those who attended the show. That should give us good diagnostics as we head into future years in terms of how much incremental benefit you really get the closer people have to that one-on-one experience," said Davidoff.

Regardless of the ultimate success of the Reba tour, Davidoff already feels like a winner. The day he and Renner spoke to Madison + Vine, he was buoyed by McEntire's appearance on "The Today Show" that same morning, where his 60-second spot ran twice promoting the Habitat project. "To me the big breakthrough in this project is the realization of what my brand can be. Jon and I talk a lot about the distance between being a great appliance brand and [simply] a great brand…This program is the first, not the last of these entertainment, media-neutral programs."

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