What Brand Marketers Can Learn From Midterm Elections

Loyalty Is Built by Delivering on a Clear Promise

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
As last week's midterm elections showed, today's marketing environment is not conducive to good old-fashioned brand building.

The same kind of raucous political discourse that has driven Democrats and Republicans further and further apart has the capacity to erode brand loyalty across a wide spectrum of products. The angry voters who cast their ballots on Tuesday are the same angry consumers who bought your products on Wednesday, and their allegiance to one candidate or one product is under intense strain.

The economic meltdown has put marketing and sales farther behind the eight ball. Up until the Great Recession we were spending money on advertised brands with great abandon. But the bad times have forced us to trade down, and much to our surprise, most of us like the change. In a McKinsey study, almost half of consumers who bought cheaper products thought they performed better than expected. What's worse, more than a third of the switchers said they no longer preferred higher-priced items and an additional four out of the 10 said that while they liked the premium brand better, it wasn't worth the money. So, according to McKinsey, a growing number of consumers are now in play, and they aren't likely to go back to their profligate ways anytime soon.

No doubt about it, advertising and marketing is being viewed through a much harsher prism. And the excesses of a few categories diminishes the effectiveness and credibility of all marketing. The political landscape, which has never been strewn with more vitriol, is a major factor in advertising's deterioration. Have you ever seen more ugliness emanating from the midterm elections, especially with the Democrats in such weakened condition and the Tea Partyers so apoplectic about President Obama's alleged subterfuges?

And another question: Are people who feel the government is acting unfairly when it makes back-room deals to sway the passage of legislation the most likely to react when they perceive that consumer product companies are also trying to sell them a bill of goods? Will the deterioration of political loyalty affect brand loyalty?

As The New York Times observed, "In an accelerated culture, our loyalties toward just about everything -- laundry detergent, celebrities, even churches and spouses -- transfer more readily than our grandparents could have imagined. Now we dispose of phone carriers and cash-back credit cards from one month to the next. Forget the staying power of Johnny Carson; when Jay Leno starts to feel a little stale, he is shifted to prime time, then shifted back to the late night." The credibility and trust in our institutions -- government as well as business -- continues to erode, and trust is a key component in advertising acceptance.

But now that the election is over and voters got their way, won't the outcome quell their anger? Don't count on it. As the Wall Street Journal's Fred Barnes said, "The consensus among economists is that unemployment will remain at 9% through 2011. A GOP with a 63 seat House majority and 47 Senate seats will not be immune to the surliest public mood any of us has seen."

But angry voters don't have to translate into angry consumers, marketers emphasized at the Association of National Advertisers conference if the marketing process itself changes in fundamental ways.

As Ralph Santana at Samsung put it, conventional marketing frameworks don't work anymore. Consumers buy your products not just because they're better than the competition, but because your brand has "a deeper social and cultural" connection to consumers. It's a matter of "cultural relevance and shared values" that gets people to part with their money in today's highly uncertain environment.

What's more, Mr. Santana added, the old consumer demographics aren't relevant anymore. It's not age or where you live. "It's what is truly binding that brings people together."

Or as Marilyn Mersereau of Cisco Systems described it: Consumers might feel connected "but they don't feel engaged." That's why emotional needs of consumers are often the most differentiating attribute, said Mark Baynes of Kellogg.

Above all, remain true to the core essence of your brand, advised Joe Tripodi of Coca-Cola. In this environment, brands need to be more collaborative "to head off people who don't like them."

Let Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble have the last word: Marketing is not just about selling products. "Marketing is serving. And above all," he said; "Fess up when you mess up."

As we said in our story on the conference, the 100-year-old group might want to consider a new name for the next century: The Association of Purposeful Advertisers.

What concerns me is whether this new rhetoric will turn out to be more than words. After all, Mr. Pritchard's redefinition of marketing as serving might not really be a big difference. Didn't good marketers always serve their consumers by giving them products and services that made their lives easier and more fulfilling?

And will Samsung's search for "a deeper social and cultural connection" really substitute for building better products? I think not.

What worries me is that marketers might stir the ire of consumers, just as politicians have with voters, by serving up the same old promises in new touchy-feely language. Voters are angry because they wanted change and got the same old thing. I'd hate for marketers to make the same mistake.

As one marketer who attended the ANA conference told me: "You can't just have a purpose. Your end purpose must be selling something."

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