Finding the right words

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Businesses must not long delay deciding what tone to take once they resume the ongoing conversation with customers that takes place through marketing and advertising programs. Barring some new jolt, the immediate shock from the terrorist attacks will ease. In its stead, Americans will search for cues that will set their feelings about their futures. Advertising can importantly contribute to forming that national mood.

Successful marketers are sensitive to swings in popular culture and moods. For the foreseeable future, these are not frivolous times. There is no recapturing the optimism and exuberance of the 1990s. But marketers must communicate with customers in all seasons, even this one. And they must support brands.

Sensitivity is the first step. The creative community has been thrust into uncharted waters, and its members and client executives together must decide how to go forward. Respect what the public is thinking. Pollyanna optimism is out of place. But confidence in the future, however it may be expressed creatively, is the building block for helping customers feel comfortable in taking care of today's needs.

If big and aggressive campaigns that glorify self-indulgence seem out of place, marketing messages that position products and services as offering real value and benefits, and that give a reason to buy now, have never seemed more appropriate. The subtext of such messages should be that "shopping" and taking care of wants and needs for oneself or loved ones is not only all right but necessary-and still fun.

Senior managements, no less than consumers, are saddened over this tragedy and distracted by the sinking near-term economic outlook. But what companies say in their marketing conversation, and how they say it, is important.

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