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Storytelling can change history, alter the path for brand growth

The Incredible Power of Story to Change Course, History and Outcome

January 22nd, 2021 Posted by Brand Activism, brand advocacy, brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, branded content, change, consumer behavior, Consumer insight, Emotional relevance, engagement, Higher Purpose, Insight, Public Relations, storytelling, Validation 0 comments on “The Incredible Power of Story to Change Course, History and Outcome”

When Real, Powerful Human Stories Must be Told

It’s in the story telling and the strategic nuances of where and how they’re told that great things happen. Over time I have come to see and appreciate these tools that work to greatest effect and benefit in altering the future trajectory of client businesses.

There’s one story that stands out above others. The strategic principles bound up in this example have proven effective time and time again. It recurs often enough to have earned first place in the strategic arsenal as a reliable go-to for business progress. It’s the stories well-told by real people about how their lives have been impacted by our clients’ products.

An unforgettable day, a powerful moment, a sea-change that saved lives

A while back I owned an agency called Wheatley Blair. We were retained by home safety products company First Alert to launch the world’s first residential carbon monoxide alarm, a warning device for a household hazard that is unseen, dangerous and invisible to any human. It was the leading cause of accidental poisoning fatalities in America, claiming more than 1,500 lives every year and countless thousands more who were sickened or injured.

In our efforts to build a platform for launch we felt it was important to create a constituency of ambassadors including families who had lived through poisoning events or lost loved ones. Alongside them we built an advocate team of poison physicians who understood the threat, air quality experts who could explain how the gas is released and builds up in a home, and the fire service community of emergency first responders. We initiated a collaboration with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency charged with evaluating and monitoring new safety solutions.

Our campaign to alert American families gained traction as major news media broadcast our story of the “Silent Killer.” Word spread rapidly about this household hazard produced by combustion appliances like furnaces, ovens, hot water heaters and fireplaces. People lined up outside at hardware and homecenter stores to buy the alarms.

What we didn’t expect at the beginning was a foe to quickly emerge

The American Gas Association stormed out of the wings taking aim at our client because they felt the issue disparaged their product. Frankly while I understood their concern, it made no sense to me because the threat isn’t the fuel, it’s malfunctioning combustion appliances, exhaust systems and chimneys. But never mind, the industry came out swinging suggesting we were creating unnecessary alarm.

A David vs Goliath story if there ever was one

The natural gas industry is gigantic. They had more money to throw at this issue than our client had in total sales company wide. We were David to a well-financed Goliath. Naturally when this challenge emerged, we made a beeline for the Gas Association head offices looking to enlist them as collaborators in the effort to save lives and protect families. We thought, “Who wouldn’t sign on for that kind of life safety effort?”

  • Walking into the lion’s den, we made an appearance in their executive conference room attempting to persuade them that this was a golden opportunity for the industry to join in a lifesaving education activity.  This would endear them to families while associating their “brand” and product with a public safety initiative.

Unfortunately, they saw the issue as a threat and instead kicked off an effort to try and derail the carbon monoxide education campaign. When you’re working on the side of the angels it is unlikely that even a well-financed effort to discredit and downplay will work.

It came to its pinnacle at an industrywide conference held in Washington DC. It was their effort to rally the regional gas company members around a call to resist the carbon monoxide alarm education efforts and counter with their own claim that this was much ado about nothing.

  • But the handlers inadvertently made a strategic error. To create a perception of due diligence, they invited the Consumer Product Safety Commission to join and be part of the speaker line up. By law if the CPSC is involved in a meeting, it becomes a public event which anyone is free to attend.

Initially we offered to provide speakers and expert content but were denied. We decided to meet the challenge head-on by attending the meeting uninvited. Our strategy: to bring 10 families who had experienced a carbon monoxide disaster of their own to come and tell their stories at the conference. During question-and-answer sessions in the meeting agenda, they would come to the microphone and share their story while challenging the industry to help save lives.

  • One by one families in the audience stood up and told their stories, some of them heart rending of how loved ones were lost. Poison physicians explained how the gas impacts the human body causing people to suffocate from the inside out. Air quality experts detailed how an appliance can malfunction to emit this highly toxic material.

In the hallway outside the ballroom, I observed. My heart was racing as the testimonials unfolded in hostile territory. You could hear a pin drop as the families shared their unscripted, real, personal experiences. Meantime, the chief conference organizer was furious at our team for this move to confront the industry, and threatened to throw us out of the building. I calmly explained that CPSC rules and law require that these families be given entry to what was now a public meeting. If they did throw us out, we would invite national TV news crews to the parking lot to interview the families about being denied access.

He quickly backed down.

The meeting went on.

Then, the sea change occurred.

I witnessed the tide turn before my eyes as gas company CEOs came to the lectern to say they were personally touched by and impressed with what they heard. By the end of the meeting the industry moved to begin educating people about the threat rather than resisting it. Many eventually became sellers of carbon monoxide alarms themselves.

Why did this work so powerfully?

Real people telling honest stories with passion and pathos impacts the heart as much as the head. It is immediately trustworthy in a communications environment often filled with dubious claims and assertions that may or may not hold up under scrutiny.

Negative claims had no power in the face of real personal story. It was overwhelming and in the moment the chasm was bridged, the path permanently altered, and the world changed.

You can do this, too.

I enjoy what I do. Marketing and communication is my life calling. The business has rewarded me with an outlet for my creative bent, a curiously accurate business sense and ability to see the big picture of how client organizations can move to take the next leap in their development and growth.

So it’s really an avocation as much as a vocation. That said, I learned a ton from the First Alert assignment – about the power of stories to alter the course of history and events. What’s more I’ve seen this outcome repeat over and over. When people share their personal stories of change, renewal, improvement and growth, big things can happen and business leaps abound.

  • The devil is in the details of how this is executed. Want people to join your brand as advocates and evangelists? Give them a voice, move those stories out and let their experiences verify what you want people to know and believe about your products and brand.

The outcomes can be life changing. In First Alert’s case, it created a successful new category that propelled the company to a higher level of significance and value with consumers and trade customers, plus $250 million in added business within 15 months of launch. The Walmart buyer called carbon monoxide alarms the Cabbage Patch doll of the hardware department. We called it a significant achievement in the goal to save lives. A win and win.

  • These moments in life and marketing signify the places where we make a difference. Don’t you want to be a part of this kind of game-changing influence?

Let us know if you would be interested in unearthing marketplace impact and influence relevant to your brand and category. Together we can find a path to sustainable growth and business development.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Healthy eating to boost immune system

Pandemic driving shift in food brand value proposition

January 20th, 2021 Posted by brand advocacy, brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, CMO, engagement, Healthier habits, Healthy lifestyle, Healthy Living, Higher Purpose, Pandemic, storytelling 0 comments on “Pandemic driving shift in food brand value proposition”

Clarion call to optimize brand positioning and messaging now

Is your brand correctly positioned and messaging aligned to answer the pandemic induced sea change impacting food preferences and purchase decisions? If not, the fortunes of less responsive food businesses will inevitably be challenged in the year ahead.

The numbers tell the story

Root cause driving this condition is our escalating, culture-influencing battle with the pandemic. In the U.S. alone there are currently 24,800,000 cases of COVID 19 infection alongside a staggering 411,000 fatalities. This latter figure exceeds the casualties America endured in all of World War II. According to CNN, another 38,000 American lives were claimed by the pandemic in the first two weeks of 2021 alone. To provide optics on the scale of this, Johns Hopkins University reported 224,000 new domestic cases of COVID 19 in one day – Wednesday, January 13th.

  • With the arrival of approved vaccines will the tide turn soon? Not likely given the enormity of the vaccination challenge: In a Washington Post story on the vaccine rollout, Dr. Peter Hotez, professor of microbiology and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine said, “The nation must vaccinate an estimated three-fourths of Americans to interrupt coronavirus transmission and stop the spread. Reaching this target by September 1 will require us to fully immunize about 240 million Americans over the next eight months, or 1 million people every day from now until then.”

A tall order.

Never before have people been confronted so closely, continuously and repeatedly with an unseen and potentially lethal hazard that impacts how we live and behave.

Evolving health and wellness calculus

As cited in the Emerging Trends Report earlier this year, health and wellness concerns were already a priority for most consumers. Now, due to a daily confrontation with a global pandemic, the case for investing in one’s health and wellbeing has acquired significant relevance, gravitas and urgency.

  • This cultural development is reshuffling the deck of what matters as consumers look to take back control over their lives by managing what they buy and ingest with a specific goal in mind: to boost their immune system.

The calculus employed by consumers to determine their brand preferences and purchase decisions is evolving. Their goal to assess how food and beverages stack up in achieving specific health and wellness needs alongside the legacy “does it taste good” attribute.

Three anchors of message priority brands should implement

Consumers are wanting to understand how a product choice serves their health and wellness objectives, beliefs and values. At a granular level they are examining ingredients, sourcing standards and creation techniques looking for evidence of nutritional density and functional health benefits (microbiome).

Messaging and brand storytelling should rally around these important themes:

  1. Perception of quality – now defined as a health and wellness assessment
  2. Relevance – focus on lifestyle utility, values and beliefs (carbon footprint)
  3. Experience – contribution to social Interaction and personal enjoyment

Immunity and safety are the primary concerns. Knowing this is the litmus test now applied to brands that fall into the “matters to me” column, are you confident your brand is correctly positioned with the right messaging strategy to address this compelling need?

Optimal storytelling guidance

Empathy could not be more important here. Reaching out with a human voice is how your brand places itself “in league” with the consumer’s needs and concerns. Your story should place consumers in the role of hero with your brand operating as guide, coach and expert in their wellness journey.

Emergent’s recommended approach to messaging in this environment coalesces around operating in service of the five Ps of brand-to-consumer relationship development.

Purpose – your brand’s higher purpose that transcends the product itself, your deeper meaning

Pride – your ability to generate passion and inspiration around serving the greater good

Partnership – your guidance and coaching to help them succeed and fulfill their goals

Protection – help them feel secure and safe in your standards, behaviors in their best interest

Personalization – tailored to their specific needs based on keen insights about who they are

Health and wellness in support of immunity investment creates an extraordinary opportunity for food and beverage brands to closely align themselves in a relevant way with a powerful motivation consumers care about.

This development began in earnest eight years ago when a large swath of the food buying public associated the quality of what they eat with the quality of their lives, pushing food purchases towards fresh, local and higher quality food choices. This changed the definition of convenience and ushered in the era of farm-to-table and interest in supply chain transparency of packaged food ingredients while consumers worked to elevate and adjust their food choices.

Coincidentally it was this move past taste, price and convenience to health and wellness as drivers of brand growth that informed the foundation of Emergent’s business model among marketing communications agencies. We are purposeful experts in healthy living.

Don’t let this moment pass!

Relevance and trust are critical components now on the path to sustainable business growth. Earning and retaining these key attributes will only happen when your brand is aligned with their interests. The question you must answer: how can we work to improve people’s lives and make a difference during a time of uncertainty and challenge to their wellbeing? 

If a source of fresh ideas on how best to meet this cultural shift head on would be helpful to you, use this link to let us know your open to a get-acquainted conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Brand storytelling must be emotionally relevant

Why so many brands miss the storytelling sweet spot

January 13th, 2021 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, branded content, CMO, Consumer insight, Content Marketing, Differentiation, Emotional relevance, engagement, Growth, Human behavior, Insight, Marketing Strategy, storytelling 0 comments on “Why so many brands miss the storytelling sweet spot”

Turning forgettable messaging into UNforgettable engagement…

The vast majority of brand communication fails to engage its intended audience. It’s like continuously pumping messaging fuel into a mental gas tank with a hole in the bottom. Why? Because it is inadvertently constructed to be quickly forgettable.

  • Numerous behavioral research studies confirm within an hour people forget more than half of the information they’ve read, seen or heard. That percentage rapidly accelerates as more time goes by. Pfft, gone.

The message creator hasn’t fully grasped the critical elements of compelling, memorable storytelling that respect with what we know about how people operate. Instead, they lean on fact-based, logical feature/benefit oriented pieces of communication that won’t intersect with the emotional drivers that secure engagement and trust.

Consider this: stories are 22 times more memorable than facts. But what constitutes great storytelling? The best of the best storytellers recognize they are interacting with humans and work to understand specifically what drives cognition and outcome. For one you have to move beyond the product “plot” to plant a beating heart in the brand story with consumer as hero.

You’re speaking to a human

The magic occurs when great communication engages the neurotransmitters that drive people towards and not away from what is being conveyed. The two most important physical elements of messaging brain chemistry are Dopamine and Oxytocin.

Dopamine is a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that is produced when a person is expecting some kind of meaningful reward or pleasurable experience. Dopamine helps us strive, focus ourselves and find things interesting. It has a direct impact on learning, motivation, mood and attention. The key here is creating anticipation of a sought-after reward.

Oxytocin is a hormone that operates as a neurotransmitter. It is created when people hear and experience how much you appreciate and care about them. Unsolicited acts of kindness can be instrumental in building this response. Oxytocin is the precursor to enhancing empathy and trust. You already know how fundamentally important trust is to any kind of real brand-to-consumer relationship.

  • Do you still believe that fact-based arguments are the way to go? The information will begin to disappear from your customer’s head within an hour.

The most powerful example of this I’ve ever experienced was during our work for home safety products brand First Alert, and the introduction of the world’s first residential carbon monoxide alarm. It is a living illustration of the link between emotion, empathy and impact on behavior.

The carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning story is laced with facts about sources of this unseen gas in the home, how leaks occur, what happens in the human body when it is ingested, and what the impacts look like. Yet our message testing revealed that none of that held a candle to the power of a personal story about a Maine family who lost their eldest daughter in a CO poisoning incident.

The heart-wrenching narrative about what happened to this family made the case for protection from an invisible threat in a far more personally-compelling way than any fact or figure ever could. Relate-able emotion is a powerful and influential communications tool.

The path to better communication outcomes

What is your consumer looking for? People resonate to a desire for love, connection, acceptance, safety and happiness. The goal here is weaving together a story that encounters this insight in various ways.

Your cheese business is not selling cheese. You are using compelling visuals and copy to convey mouth-watering desire. You’re actually selling incredible taste experiences delivered in a shared social environment people crave. Your narrative wraps in beliefs and values that embed your brand with deeper meaning. This transcends the forgettable ‘buy my cheese’ message because you know people want to be a part of something greater than themselves.

  • Tone here is important. The more human you are in storytelling, the better. Vulnerability and honesty come in to play when you’re reaching for resonance and relevance. Give your audience experiences they can relate to, empathize with and recognize in their own lives.

Want to hear the voice of honest and human?

“Smart phones exist already and they’re stupid. But mine is smarter than your computer at home.” Steve Jobs, launch of the iPhone. Does Jobs employ facts, technology examples or recitation of features? No. He nails the proposition by creating a relate-able context of what was an astonishing revelation in its era. Beautiful.

Story structure

Here’s the question that must be answered in brand storytelling: how does your product change a person’s life? You are working to unearth the true “why” behind a consumer’s reason and desire to purchase.

Stories should address three fundamental elements:

  1. Set up – the problem your product solves. Think long and hard on a higher level about what this is.
  2. Conflict – create some tension around how you go about solving the problem. Is there a villain you can identify?
  3. Payoff – the happy outcome of what success is and what it feels like to prevail.
Remy and food passion
Passion, heart and soul create the basis for message engagement

The Pixar movie “Ratatouille” isn’t about a rat as chef

Yes, the central character Remy the rat can read cookbooks and has ongoing conversations with a famous French chef who is a figment of his imagination. The magic of this story is his love affair with food and flavor combinations. It is his passion for incredible taste experiences that drives him and the arc of the story.

He makes you want to cook, to pick up a knife and chop, to invent and create because of the romance he liberally dollops into his sauté pan. Pixar studios is famous for embedding heart and soul in its movies. What inevitably happens? You get invested, you care, you become engaged and feel empathetic for the characters involved.

  • This understanding of great storytelling is no less important and meaningful in business communications. Your brand deserves this kind of thinking and expression under what could become the unforgettable stories you tell.

If this approach resonates with you, Emergent employs a proprietary brand story telling process to tease out these great narratives and bring them to life. Use this link to find out more.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Brand activism is on the rise

Trend Alert: Rapid Rise of Brand Activism

November 30th, 2020 Posted by Brand Activism, brand advocacy, brand marketing, brand messaging, Brand preference, brand strategy, CMO, Consumer insight, Differentiation, Emerging brands, engagement, food retail strategy, Healthy lifestyle, Higher Purpose, Marketing Strategy, Navigation, storytelling 0 comments on “Trend Alert: Rapid Rise of Brand Activism”

Is your brand’s higher purpose dialed in?

“Food is now so much more than food: It’s this representation of the self. We’ve managed to use it as a signifier for so many virtues, whether that’s obvious ones like health or indulgence, but also ancestry and connection to kin and family, or the fact that you’re just a unique person out in the world.” – Benjamin Lorr, The Secret Life of Groceries, Grocery Business interview.

To successfully build and grow a base of enthusiastic brand fans these days consumer relevance is everything. In the absence of a high-quality consumer connection and a valued relationship, food, beverage and lifestyle brands can be cast out of the economic Garden of Eden, forced to wander in the wilderness of commodities interchangeably bought on price.

Now a new challenge is emerging to creating relevance that must be weighed carefully if brands are to retain the attention and support of a growing an influential new base of users. Here’s what’s coming fast and hard:

The Socialization of Brands

Six years ago we tracked a cultural shift indicating consumers were leaning heavily into deeper, meaning, values and mission in assessing the merits of their preferred brands on the path to purchase. This condition is rapidly evolving and is accelerated farther and faster as a result of Pandemic induced upheaval in mindset and evolving personal priorities.

COVID-19 presents an out-of-control social and economic environment. It is enhanced by the absence of effective readily available solutions and clear public policy guidance from previously respected sources of social organization, government and educational institutions. Into this societal vacuum comes a new form of behavior we call brand activism.

  • “COVID-19 has forced communities to grapple with how individual behavior impacts collective health and social wellness, and it has elevated the mandate that companies demonstrate how their products, practices and systems positively impact the community and support the greater good.” – Hartman Group, Value in the Time of COVID 19” whitepaper

Brands are now expected to be social actors.

“My Wallet is My Vote”

Imagine the checkout aisle at your supermarket or drug store transforming into a form of voting booth. The wallet and purchase performs the role of ballot-enhanced virtue signaling as consumers cast a vote on their brand candidate’s values through the purchases they make.

  • Purchases are largely symbolic gestures now, intended to telegraph what people want others to know about their priorities and identity. That said, the nature of this beast is evolving further with emergence of pressing issues that are forming on the horizon of our food system, how it operates and what it represents beyond abundance, indulgence and health.

The cultural shift taking place is a pervasive belief among people, Gen Z especially, that they are unique and empowered to help create change. Rather than relying on the performance of others or institutions, people look at their own relationships, networks and voices as opportunities to activate their advocacy on a larger canvas.

Alignment reaches a new level

Awhile back people discovered alignment between the quality of what they ingest and the quality of their lives. The impact of this revelation was seismic. Enter the fresh food revolution, the move to perimeter shopping at grocery, the emergence of preference for locally-sourced foods, and the decline of heavily processed packaged products.

Healthy food was no longer defined as addition by subtraction (or food science at work) to remove fat, sugar, salt and calories in order to achieve a better-for-you claim. In its place came higher quality real fresh food solutions that impacted the course of emerging food brands from large cap CPG line extensions to entrepreneurial, new food brands with an ethos and higher quality, small batch formulation.

Now another revolution is in the works as alignment evolves yet again.

The relationship of food to climate change threat

The alignment emerging now is awareness of a relationship between our current food system and the over-production of greenhouse gases that sit at the foundation of the climate change crisis. The increased pace of super storms, wildfires, droughts followed by floods, topsoil erosion, and the threats to shorelines advanced by higher water levels, serves as evidence the earth has its problems.

Now comes the realization that meat and industrial agricultural practices are the largest contributor to greenhouse gas creation on earth. The revelation: food production enabled by increased consumption by an ever-growing global population could endanger the planet. The food system specifically meat production and large-scale industrial agriculture, is producing greenhouse gas at a level exceeding the contribution of all forms of global transportation combined. Current GHG levels outstrip any prevailing public policy or naturally occurring solution that would lower it sufficiently to address rising earth temperatures and their impact.

  • As this knowledge becomes more widespread it will usher in a new era of calculation on favorable brand attributes, specifically carbon footprint. Advantage will go to brands that provide evidence of their sourcing and production processes that work to mitigate contributions to greenhouse gas creation.

Many plant-based brands have already stepped into this arena by invoking climate change in their stories. Some brands have already begun including carbon footprint claims on their product packaging or menus (Panera, Chipotle and Flora plant butter).

Fast on the move is another generation of new product concepts that employ the latest techniques in fermentation and microbe use designed to step away from the agricultural production chain entirely and thus advancing a new cadre of claims and benefits associated with climate change.

Brand activism and brand voice

We have long lauded those incredibly advanced brand ethos players like Yeti who have injected new-found lifestyle associations and deeper meaning into their brand personas. These companies take consumer lifestyle very seriously and operate as mirrors of people who, in Yeti’s case, are devoted to outdoor adventure – or at least aspire to do so.

Now a new battlefield emerges for brands that take the socialization of food and food production to a new level. These informed brands work to answer both the coming tide of planet-level food scarcity and the impact of our global agricultural system on greenhouse gas creation.

Thus we envision a new phalanx of emerging brands that weigh in on such important topics, working to associate themselves with the activist mindset of consumers wishing to vote their preferences via the food purchases they make.

Supporting regenerative agriculture practices will be one area we expect to rise in importance in the year ahead. The potential exists now to help support a new view of farming practices that can help turn farmland into the world’s largest carbon sink. These kinds of stories and the behavioral moves by brands to embrace this new thinking will mark a new era and opportunity in brand communication.

  • As consumers increasingly view purchases as a flag of their beliefs, it is vital that brand communication strategy advances to lead this conversation and facilitate the dialogue in social channels.

It’s coming faster due to the cultural shift now underway that aligns food production with climate change, making activism a part of the purchase decision. Failure to recognize this coming shift could put brand relevance at risk and hand competitive advantage to those who are already moving to answer this form of brand activism.

  • If further guidance on this evolving path is of interest to optimize your brand’s higher purpose-related messaging and story creation, we can help you determine the right path and create the right story.

Use this link to start a fresh conversation around questions you have about this emerging change-in-motion.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Marketing planning for 2021

Top five marketing resources to power your 2021 growth plans

November 18th, 2020 Posted by brand marketing, Brand preference, brand strategy, CMO, Digital marketing, engagement, Growth, Integrated Communications, Marketing Strategy, Social media, social media marketing, storytelling 0 comments on “Top five marketing resources to power your 2021 growth plans”

What you will require for success in the new year

Unprecedented complexity in marketing channels, platforms and media priorities can subtract from the confidence and clarity you need about where to make the best strategic investments. The potential for engagement misfires (wrong message, wrong channel) is at an all-time high and it seems as though every other day a new media platform rises to claim its narrow territory in an ever more fractured communications landscape.

  • You need a clear path and navigation chart to inform your decisions on where to invest precious marketing assets next year – when every dollar needs to perform like 10 and there’s not a lot of room to recover from mistakes.

We aim to provide specific guidance here.

Fortunately, the marketing game plan priorities are making themselves known. Today we have the benefit of hindsight to examine what tools performed to greatest effect in this uncommon year, and we also have a grip on where to place the marketing plan bets headed into 2021.

Here’s the most dramatic piece of evolutionary perspective unfolding for next year: what’s old is renewed again. I am personally ecstatic to see this change arrive. Read on.

I came up at Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), the first 11 years of my career bathed in the ample light of how David Ogilvy and his immensely talented colleagues saw the marketing universe. While David was a renowned and talented ad copywriter, he was first a business builder, problem solver with a remarkable grasp on the levers of how to grow a client company. He was indeed a holistic thinker.

David was forever espousing a point of view that we aren’t on the planet just to make advertising or PR. We’re here first to:

  • understand the challenges of business categories,
  • help incubate innovative product solutions,
  • understand the delicate emotional characteristics of brands,
  • navigate the cultural issues that impact company behavior,
  • and, inform and educate that most mysterious creature known as the consumer (“who is not a moron but rather your husband or wife,” says Ogilvy).

Said another way, a more myopic view would have us believing it’s all about the ad or PR creative product. Thus your proverbial marketing hammer comes back repeatedly to the same tactical nail. If that were true, our value as counselors, guides and business experts would deteriorate overnight and the agency business would be diluted to churning out cinematic representations of feature and benefit stories. Or the lesser digital display ad?!

Instead, we are tasked with being strategic guides who make our client’s business and category a deep and comprehensive ongoing study involving the mechanics of:

  • product creation and
  • market influences and
  • economic conditions and
  • cultural shifts and
  • competitive challenges and
  • the endless study of consumer and organizational behavior.

In short we are devoted to strategic investigations and assessments ahead of any conversation about a creative idea, in part for the very reason that all of that analysis nourishes enlightenment and leads to more relevant and powerful marketing ideas. The kind that make communications all the more effective at turning the screw of share and volume growth.

  • What’s the definition of a big idea? One that you can immediately and intuitively see how it will impact and change company behavior and the dynamics of the marketplace in which it competes. That’s a compelling adventure to join and why I appreciated what I learned while at O&M. Big ideas tend to bubble up in the midst of strategic business conversations.

However, with the growth of digital everything, over time the marketing guidance task largely contracted into a tactical role of managing the digital platform du jour and erstwhile electronic flag waving. In recent years the consultive forms of agency and client relationship have diluted in favor of operating a digital marketing automation dashboard. Execution driven assignments more so than operating within an authentic marketing partnership.

Well, all of that is about to change in 2021.

We’re entering an era where the importance of strategy and branding has re-emerged as the decisive lynchpin in priority and design of nearly every go-to-market plan. Why? The toolbox game has fallen in on itself under the sheer weight of so many options competing for eyeballs at a time when consumers are tiring of the relentless barrage. People are tuning out entirely the self-serving, self-reverential bullhorn of marketing message social channels. They reflexively reject that interruption right out of the gate.

The Pandemic has also lowered the tolerance boom on brand self-promotion – while rewarding efforts by enlightened brands that closely align themselves with higher purpose values and drive deeper meaning into their brand story and behavior.

What worked and what’s coming next year

A recent national survey of agencies conducted by SharpSpring revealed universally the most effective outreach tool deployed in 2020 was paid social. Not a surprise given the importance people place on social conversation, the levels of engagement there (which also correlates with the consumer’s prevailing interest in dialogue) and hearing the experiences of others to inform their purchase decisions.

Looking ahead at next year, this same study drilled down to what is likely to be in demand by clients in the year ahead, which also bears remarkable similarity to what clients are prepared to outsource to their agencies.

The re-emergence of strategy and branding as a top priority activates to assure marketing investment decisions will, indeed, deliver on their engagement objectives. This helps to measurably influence purchase decisions at a time when the consumer’s view of what matters is rapidly evolving.

Taste, price and convenience used to drive food and beverage purchases. Now those triggers are overtaken by a host of new more issue-like considerations such as health and wellness, transparency, purpose and values, supply chain integrity, sustainability and food safety.

  • Add to this an emerging concern about climate change and the impact of our current food production system on greenhouse gas (GHG) levels – meat production is by far the largest single contributor followed by agriculture. The food system creates more GHG than all of the global transportation systems (cars, trains, airplanes, etc.) combined.

We are seeing a rise in consumer demand for change addressing their concern to know what the carbon footprint is of the foods we consume. More on this topic to come from us.

Meantime, the verdict is in on resources to receive the most attention and likely investment in 2021 while brands continue to grapple with the impact of the pandemic on preferences, shopping and purchase behavior.

The top five marketing needs for 2021

  • Marketing strategy: this begins with insight into consumer behavior and cultural shifts taking place that impact what people care about, and what they expect of the brands that matter to them. Active participation on issues like climate change will be one of them.
  • Branding: the role of higher purpose and deeper meaning are now critical to your business and brand voice. This is not a “nice to have” but a core strategic platform to secure relevance and engagement at a time when people expect brands to participate in making our world a better place.
  • Social media management: social media is a top priority and has remained so for some time now. How brands engage here, support community growth and encourage user generated content, will play a critical role in trust creation. Trust is a top objective and this channel is part of the solution. It’s remarkable that at one time the idea of actually talking directly to a brand’s consumer was virtually unheard of. When it finally arrived many brands looked upon it skeptically as a scary and potentially treacherous and uncontrollable development. My, how times have changed.
  • PR and reputation management: trust is the currency of any brand relationship. It is a requirement. Now harder to earn and maintain, the scrutiny and filters being applied by consumers seeks to determine whether a brand’s activism is messaging masquerading as champion of a cause – or is it real where the brand behavior matches the rhetoric. A recent IBM study on purpose reports that when consumers think a brand has a strong and authentic purpose, they are 4.1 times more likely to trust the company.
  • Digital advertising and re-targeting: a strong and verifiable correlation exists between awareness and velocity performance at retail. The more present and top of mind your brand is, the more likely this recognition will convert to a sale, assuming other considerations on purpose, values and trust are properly aligned. People live online. That bit of behavior enhanced by shelter in place and work or school from home conditions is why digital channels are having a heyday.

Brand activism on the rise      

An important strategic focus in 2021 will be where your brand sits on the fence of increased calls for activism on societal issues. Generation Z, the most woke generation of all, is decidedly focused on this and will be voicing their sentiments in the purchases they make. Their wallet is their vote and symbolic flag to those around them about what they consider to be important.

  • A recent study from Zeno Group found that for brands of comparable quality and pricing, 91% of consumers will switch if one of those brands supports an important cause. That might as well be 100%.

Here’s another way to look at it:

The more activist a brand is, the more earned media attention it’s likely to secure. This leads to greater visibility and brand awareness in trusted media channels – which in turn will help drive recognition leading to higher sales outcomes. All of this is happening in a media model that is derived at lower cost (compared to traditional media) thus helping wring more benefit out of tight budget resources.

The key is how real the brand’s activism is vs. an attempt to “message” around it without the anchoring back-up of verifiable brand behavior. Fake activism is discoverable and can (will) backfire.

If a conversation on 2021 planning priorities would be helpful to your decision making, we would welcome the conversation. Use this link and let’s start a conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

New concept in pet brand building: kitchens

Will Pet Brands Stop Resisting Differentiation?

October 28th, 2020 Posted by Brand preference, brand strategy, change, Differentiation, engagement, Pet care, Pet food, Pet food marketing, shopper behavior, storytelling, Transparency 0 comments on “Will Pet Brands Stop Resisting Differentiation?”

How to punch above your weight and win

When shopping the aisles of a pet food store you’ve likely noticed an amazing array of new brand players on one hand, and on the other difficulty distinguishing anything truly unique between the options. Blurry at best as the protein percentage wars rage everywhere around you.

Pet care is a robust and growing business that works to float all brand boats. For now at least.

  • More pet-owning households than ever
  • More adoptions from rescue centers
  • More puppies and kittens at home
  • More mouths to feed

Even in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession the growth record is notably positive.

That said what happens when you reach a competitive tipping point as the number of brands multiplies (supply) while vying for a piece of the current volume and dollar pie (demand)? Right there, strategic best practices highly recommend nurturing true brand differentiation in the eyes of the consumer. When differences are marginal though, then what?

Read on…

This challenge gets to the heart of pet care brand conditions, a business personified by its Low Differentiation and High Durability traits among category participants. This is a healthy business ripe for disruption – when the right moves are made.

Understanding pet brand category behaviors

How is it that so many pet brands are holding firm right now?

The size of the pie is expanding. Brands that are similar to each other while exhibiting staying power are all playing by familiar rules – at least until an innovator comes along and changes the playbook.

A landscape of comparable brands with parallel nutritional claims and ingredient stories, arguing for advantage in the margins, is a living example of:

  • A study in brand incrementalism
  • Marginally better quality to the winners in each segment
  • Pricing that stays in the segment frame, forcing choice on other more subjective cues
  • A curious tit-for-tat marketplace where brands monitor and react quickly to copy competitor moves (ancient grains anyone?)
  • Where staying in the competition is more important than distinguishing the brand as a unique star player

Premium kibble is kibble for the most part, although every brand understandably claims to be nutritionally superior to their equivalent price-point neighbor. That said, the language used to convey better or best bears remarkable sameness brand to brand.

Looking for marketplace advantage

When you work hard to create and earn high buyer value, the end result makes competition increasingly irrelevant. Where the pet business is generally a ground game of less differentiated brands, the sweet spot of disrupting category conventions is secured by moving from lower to higher differentiation.

Achieving greater uniqueness can happen when focused sharply on a marketplace buyer segment – a specific type of customer, where the brand strives to be hyper relevant and meaningful to a lifestyle cohort. Take for instance the consumer pursuing a health and wellness lifestyle, where the importance placed on the quality of what you eat is directly related to their perceived quality of life.

Inevitably, this consumer will transfer that same viewpoint to their pet food choices. While one could say wellness is the province of raw food brands, even there, the word raw has been democratized throughout the category in slightly de-tuned versions such as freeze-dried toppers, chunks and kibble inclusions.

Channel as a disruptive idea

Just Food For Dogs (JFFD) based in Irvine, CA has found a way to re-think the path to market.

Their model involves free-standing retail kitchens that make fresh pet food on premise, a concept optimized for higher income zip codes where the cost per pound is less important to the perceived nutritional upgrade in a freshly-prepared diet. The opportunities for customization to specific pet needs is remarkable and embedded in this concept.

Company President Carey Tischler explained this is the beginning of a national expansion: “our kitchens are an incredibly effective means of showing, not just telling, pet parents how we are different – and how fresh, whole-food can change their pets’ lives. With nine open-to-the-public kitchens serving pet parents today, and several more kitchens under consideration for 2021, our national expansion is already well underway,” he said.

Human food ingredients re-purposed for pet food recipes

Their Chicago kitchen entry now under construction sits cheek-to-jowl with the city’s largest, most progressive and well-known pet rescue The PAWS Foundation – a virtual mini-industry in moving abandoned or stray pets to new homes. Ahem, that’s new food-seeking pet owners. Across the street is Petco, a retailer that is stocking a shelf-stable packaged version of Just Foods For Dogs pet food.

Is JFFD a retail pet food kitchen company with an aligned packaged business to serve consumers where no retail kitchen exists? Or a packaged pet foods company with a unique retail kitchen extension that serves as marketplace theater and demonstration of their fresh food ethos?

Shelf stable versions of fresh recipes

“We view our business as a direct-to-consumer ecosystem,” Tischler reports, “and manage it as such – with each channel supported by our Certified Nutrition Consultants. The kitchens are a critical part of the business model, but they work in concert with our pantries (store-in-store concept) and online offering. We have a lot of evidence these channels are synergistic and effectively support each other, driving brand awareness and offering convenience to pet parents.”

Freshly made pet foods from the kitchen

In response to pandemic impacts, Tischler says the company is leaning into curb-side pickup at their kitchen locations or home delivery through third-party providers.

What’s interesting about this approach is its relevance to a like-minded consumer who sees higher food quality as verified by the fresh ingredients and preparation techniques used to preserve nutritional density. The very same food preferences they apply to themselves can now be delivered to their pet in a Chipotle-like store setting. At the very least, it’s a disruptive idea.

  • Of note, we think Just Food For Dogs has a significant opportunity to weigh in on transparency, ingredient sourcing and food standards to further enhance their nutritional credibility story, although we haven’t seen that manifest as yet. Transparency is a unique point of competitive advantage in an industry where it’s largely a missed opportunity.

Just Food For Dogs is a marvelous study in innovation around a category governed mostly by conventional extruded solutions.

In mainstream retail FreshPet presents an interesting twist on packaged products and certainly deserves the growth they’ve experienced. However, we believe even more can be done to separate and elevate brands above the forest of sameness. Differentiation operates to attract a cohort of engaged, enthusiastic fans who have a deeper, emotional connection to the brand that is stronger, frankly, than a reason to buy focused on protein percentages.

Zig when everyone else zags

In the last seven months the pandemic has served as the most important personal priority- shifting mechanism of the last 30 years, advancing the importance of health and wellness to sheer survival. Taking care of your immune system is now a clarion example of how consumers reassert some control over their lives in an uncontrollable societal and environmental setting.

We’ve characterized this as Health is the New Wealth. Yet this development has not translated fully to pet food.

Pet lifestyle is a real thing. We believe there are ample numbers of households that operate daily around the pet-to-parent dynamic. A consumer insight-savvy brand could embrace a lifestyle platform that rises over the ubiquitous discussion of human-grade proteins and fresh vegetables ingredient trope. It would be a ‘zig’ to emerge above the endless chatter about real meat, chicken or fish and tag the emotional equation of what higher quality pet food is intended to do: The quality of the food provided is the ultimate expression of love for furry family members.

Addressing and leveraging consumer lifestyle affords a much deeper conversation on topics more relevant and resonant to the pet food buyer than food science and dietary claims. It’s also inherently an emotional construct, key to engagement and message impact.

Pandemic and purpose-based brand building

COVID-19 has operated to refocus people on their beliefs, purpose and societal values that contribute tangibly to the greater good. These considerations are influencing brand preference and purchase. Up to this point organic ingredients haven’t been widely employed outside of a handful of pet brands. The word sustainability continues in some respects as a form of check-the-box afterthought invoked like a Whole30 label certification.

Organic is really about farming methods more friendly to the environment and less damaging to our climate. Sustainability, likewise, can be viewed optically as regenerative agriculture practices that if widely adopted could help turn farmland into the world’s largest carbon sink.

These ideas can be repackaged as a move to address carbon footprint, playing a decisive role in managing the existential threat of climate change on our future wellbeing. Could this become an embedded mission for a pet food brand? We think so. Pet food is a very big user of feedlot meat and agricultural ingredients that in a larger sense of their production are among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas on the planet.

  • Carbon footprint is starting to show up now on select human food labels. We believe this is the start of a major trend. It will be interesting to see how it translates in pet food marketing.

Whether it’s channel and business model differentiation, a switch to lifestyle marketing and communication, or embracing a mission around climate change, each of these ideas represents a potential new tool in the standard go-to-market toolbox.  Concepts that were popularized in recent years by premiumization of the pet food business and the dawn of popular grain-free formulation claims.

The latter became a herd-like move. We observed most premium brands quickly shifting to emphasize the ancestral diet blueprint.

  • Yet this becomes the very reason to consider a strategic move towards greater differentiation not less. If supporting high buyer value – moving past common ingredient stories – makes your competition less relevant wouldn’t you seriously consider it?

We know this is hard. It feels risky. It sounds like bucking category norms. Will the consumer react well to it? Of note, consumer interest is a testable proposition. In what is mostly a sea of sameness, clear observable brand distinction can be a highly prized and leverageable asset.

If exploring new thinking and fresh ideas sounds like a good conversation to have, we welcome the opportunity to think with you. Use this link to open what could be a very interesting and rewarding conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

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