Market Research Tracks Evolving Consumer Response

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NEW YORK ( -- As marketers grapple with slow consumer spending in the fourth quarter and beyond, they are turning to agencies to evaluate the lasting consequences of war and the Sept. 11 aftermath.

The shops responded by hiring pollsters, initiating proprietary

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What are they thinking? Agencies are marshalling pollsters to gauge the national mood.
in-house research and analyzing news reports to determine how to best communicate with consumers.

Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, this fall polled over 2,000 adults using WebTV-based technology, while Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, queried 1,000 adults ages 18 to 49 by telephone in late September and again in late October. Interpublic's McCann-Erickson WorldGroup, New York, activated its proprietary service, McCann Pulse, to monitor consumers and their attitudes about current events in 40 countries worldwide.

'Consumer psyche'
At other Big Apple entities, Bcom3's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and Interpublic's Deutsch, executives took a different approach. They gathered reports from newspapers, TV and the Internet, and summarized. The upshot of the combined findings: "There are no do's and don'ts," said Jeffrey Wolf, executive vice president-director of account planning at Deutsch. "The consumer psyche is a moving target."

However, though few hard-and-fast dictums emerge,

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Consumers particularly dislike automotive ads that attempt to turn patriotism into a selling tool.
when analyzed as a whole the research reveals various truths about Americans today and yields a number of relevant principles to follow when communicating with consumers now.

Without question, Americans have changed because of Sept. 11. The physical attacks on U.S. soil this fall wrought a newfound vulnerability: Adults and children realize wars no longer happen only in foreign territory. The possibility of additional strikes, whether using traditional weapons such as bombs or newer means like bioterrorism, has precluded a rapid return to normalcy. Moreover, according to McCann Pulse findings Nov. 19, "the media coverage stemming from the terrorist activity -- specifically exposure to the lack of personal freedoms in many parts of the world -- has given many Americans a new perspective on their way of life."

Indeed, most Americans are proud of the ideals on which the country was founded, shows research conducted Oct. 29 through Nov. 3 by Burnett. Even so, marketers must be careful when relying on patriotism to connect with prospective customers.

Of those polled, just over half (51%)

believe companies use patriotism for their own profits, with men expressing that view more strongly than women. Half of those polled say using patriotism to encourage spending is wrong. Polls by Campbell Mithun found while the percentage of people complaining about "inappropriate" or "insensitive" ads is low, auto ads "touting generous financing and patriotic imagery" received the greatest criticism (6%).

'A cheap shot'
Said one respondent: a "Jeep ad wrapped itself in World War II verbiage to connect with 9/11 events by reference. I call that a cheap shot and I don't like it." In fact Chrysler Group's Jeep sponsored HBO's World War II-themed Band of Brothers, which began airing before Sept. 11.

But not every effort to reach consumers will be rebuffed. The basis of a relationship between consumers and a brand, said Stephani Cook, executive vice president-director of leadership strategy at D'Arcy, is that consumers have trust and confidence in brands they prefer.

"Those emotional benefits will be more important than ever," she said. For instance, after Sept. 11, home and family are increasingly important as a sanctuary from the outside world. Marketers that offer delivery or easily cooked meals may more readily connect with consumers than restaurateurs.

Agencies are counseling clients that research shouldn't change a well-thought-out strategy, but findings could influence the tone of a message. Lowe's Cos., for instance, emphasized products for the home in its current campaign from McCann-Erickson, New York.

'Home sweet home'
"We've advised Lowe there's a return to home sweet home," said Suresh Nair, McCann's director of strategic planning.

A final important finding from the various research is that despite numerous similarities, U.S. consumers are also different. Polls of African-Americans and whites conducted for New York-based Chisholm-Mingo Group, a New York African-American agency, found that while pride in America has increased among both groups, the number of proud whites (75%) is larger than that of African-Americans (66.6%).

But even with the best intentions, advertising may simply not generate the consumer spending levels of this time last year or pre-Sept. 11.

"I think we have to be humble here," Deutsch's Mr. Wolf said. "How much can an ad do?"

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