Category Archives: Consumer behavior

Marketing, insight and negative advertising!

In the past few days an unfortunate local marketing campaign has gone viral. In it, Secom,  the distributor of an OTC health supplement markets their product under slogans such as “Hate your boy! Hate his autism”. “Hate your father! Hate his Alzheimer!” I believe I saw a later iteration that said “Don’t hate you father! Hate his Alzheimer”.

Either way, the campaign has sparked the expected controversy as families, medical professionals and the marketing community have criticized it on various levels.

Far be it from me to jump on the bandwagon. There has been a lot said about the campaign’s lack of ethics, its profound ambiguity, its needless shock value. There has been a lot of outrage. I would want to take a more academic tone.

1. On Insight

With the risk of sounding cynical, this campaign reminds me of a clip from “What Women Want”. Possessed overnight with an ability to hear women’s thoughts, Mel Gibson strides confidently into an advertising brainstorming session, and pitches an idea about Advil based on a thought he’d overheard from a female coworker, who was using the pill when she needed to fake a headache to fend off sexual advances. The idea flopped and the coworker who originated the thought vehemently denied she’s ever done such a thing.

The point of the anecdote is that capturing what somebody thinks at a given moment is not an automatic insight into how they will behave. Why?

First of all, because consumers can hold many contradictory thoughts simultaneously. Second, because when a thought is socially unacceptable, or morally wrong, consumers will often feel guilty or ashamed, and will not act upon that thought, or recognize that they held it . In fact, they will swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and combat it, and dislike the product or marketing that stirred their shame.

I am sure that a massive media expenditure, such as the Secom campaign described above, had some basis in research. I am sure that much as we are loath to admit it, we have at some point hated the relative who was making our lives more difficult with his illness. I know that my grandfather has Alzheimer, and when he was in my mother’s care, I sometimes hated him for what he was putting her through. We are none of us angels. But these thoughts are fleeting, and their memory painful for any decent human being. And herein lies the difference between information (knowing what people think) and insight (understanding how they will act, given their thoughts). The campaign missed the mark on insight, however accurate or not the base information was.

2. On negative messages

Social marketing and health related marketing has thrived on the negative message. Don’t do this, because you will end up dead, cancerous, impotent, fat and so on. It works, because it plays on information, and our fears. It works, because embedded in the negative message is a positive one: stopping the harmful behavior will let you lead a good life. Sometimes that message is even explicit.

In the Secom campaign however, there is no positive message. There is no corollary to “Hate Alzheimer”, no right outcome, no step to take to fix things. Presumably, this is a teaser campaign, and the gist of the message will come later. Unfortunately, it does not work that way.

The trouble with negative messages is that now, more than ever, what sells the product is the perceived benefit. Negative messages may shock, they may differentiate, but they seldom convey a benefit. In the case of negative messages in health and social campaigns the benefit is an implicit and widely held value (health, social acceptance), and negative messages are only used in parallel with awareness raising initiatives based on science and information, or when the awareness exists but additional motivation for behavior change is needed. What is the benefit of “Hate Alzheimer”? Will it cure my grandfather? Ease his embarrassment when he remembers what he’s done? What is the action that I am supposed to take, and what end? Hate? It is easy to hate. The disconnect is how that hate will help you sell a product.

And the simple answer is: it won’t.


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Everyone’s an Expert :-(

A while back someone told me: I could do what you do in a heartbeat, but you couldn’t do what I do in a million years. She was an engineer. I, a marketer.

Granted, I can no more design energy systems than fly unaided (although, unlike flying, engineering can actually be learned), but I was still miffed at the implicit assumption that marketing’s a sort of fluff that anyone can do if they put their mind to it. In Romania, everyone’s an expert on football and politics, or so the saying goes. It now seems that marketing expertise is just as widespread.

But in reality, marketing’s neither easy nor accessible.

Marketing competence starts with nature: an affinity for people, a facility for language, an ability to synthesize, a propensity for innovation.

Then comes nurture : directing creativity to a purpose, transforming interaction into insight, generalizing, particularizing, synthesizing, balancing rigor in thinking with surprising leaps of imagination and many other habits of the mind that must develop early on.

Then comes education. Good marketers are generally recipients of a broader education than good engineers. They must know more than their own profession. Besides learning the tenets of customer behavior, statistical analysis, media buying, design, copywriting, public speaking etc., they need to master project management, budgeting, managerial accounting, HR, training of adults, etiquette, consumer technology and so much more.

They then need to learn whatever industry they’re in, understand its values, lingo, basic processes and limitations.

And then they must constantly learn. Keep in touch with marketing trends and tools, the industry and connected fields, and the world at large, for where metals will behave predictably under given circumstances, people won’t. And people are what marketing’s all about.

Sure, everyone can be a marketer in a heartbeat.

I’d like to see them try. With their own money, of course. Since it’s soooo easy.

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2012 trendspotting

So, 2012 has started. The work year has commenced as well, after yesterday’s legal holiday, but it feels sluggish, as if it had too abundant a meal. Hope also abounds, with every second person expressing a conviction that 2012 will, finally, be a good year.

I share the hope, though not the conviction, as I firmly believe in something that is coming to be called “the new normal”, a stabilizing of patterns that are inherently unstable. Adrian Stanciu, one heck of a challenging thinker, and one of my former MBA professors,  said it best in this article, titled “Past and Future Crises”, where he explain that while the recession may be over or not, successive crises, no longer followed by plateaus of smooth functioning and stability, are certainly looming. In this new normal, uncertainty is the only certainty.

That depressing thought aside, it’s 2012, therefore the time for Best of 2011 lists and To Watch in 2012 compilations. Below, one that I found intriguing, and fairly comprehensive (although it seemed that it sometimes broke up a single trend into several  components just to reach the magic number 100).

For my part, I believe that we should watch out for the following 3 things (in Romania at least)
Think Caro Emerald, Dita von Teese, LL Bean boots and other classics and reinterpretations that are returning to the forefront of fashion and music. I think the key decade here will be late thirties-early forties, as the world aligns with a post-recessionary mindset similar to the one following the Great Depression. I’m expecting a revival of the lost art of letter writing, to go along with an even stronger interest in home made and crafts, which will definitely go mainstream this year.
While name brands will never go out of style ( my recent shopping trip to Carrefour being a case in point), the aftermath of the recession and its accompanying financial instability have made frugality not only acceptable, but commendable. Store brands will be the beneficiaries of this new frugality, especially as larger sizes and comparable packaging (in terms of quality and ease of use), scale savings without fundamentally reducing convenience. I especially predict a surge in the consumption of store brand food staples, which were largely avoided in previous years.
As the world is reinventing itself (or, according to some, crumbling)  more and more people feel “displaced” from their own lives and habits. I therefore predict a resurgence of religious observance, relatively cheap hobbies that blend bodily awareness with emotional well-being, and spiritual practices ranging from traditional to neo-pagan, Asian to Native American, with a revival of cultural practice. Expect therefore more emphasis of “local” holidays versus “imported” ones (Think Dragobete vs. Saint Valentine’s). People who engaged in less mainstream activities are now more willing to talk about them and share the wisdom / insight, as a variety of inward focused activities that have a social dimension are becoming acceptable and accepted more widely.
Time will prove me right. Or wrong.
Either way, Happy New Year!
(P.S. Yes, one of my resolutions is to resume blogging 🙂 )

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Are the 4 Ps of marketing still relevant on the web? – Part 2: Price

A few weeks back, I was arguing for the continued use of the 4P matrix as a valid tool for conceptualizing marketing, including in the online environment. My position was that as a system, they continue to be relevant, as long as we can understand how the definition of each component must be expanded to reflect the new realities.

In the case of products, I stated that the changed environment means a change in the process of facilitating the meeting between wants and needs and those who can service them.

Now comes PRICE. My thinking here is that price as a concept is just as relevant in the connected world as it was previously. As marketers, given the modern structures of communication, we just need to reassess our thinking of price on 3 scales.

1. The price versus purchasing power continuum

The question of whether customers will purchase a good or not is often decided by whether they can afford it or not. We are used to thinking of the  available “out of pocket”, the impact of credit schemes, but the change brought about by the recession and economic crisis is in the time frame in which customers think about affordability. If consumer credit used to mean that something that we could not purchase now can become affordable by staggering payments (and paying a premium for that “affordability in installments”) customers now tend to think a lot more short-term about affordability. “Do I have the money now?” is increasingly used as a gauge of individual purchasing power.

When we think of purchasing power, we often refer to that of our niche target, which could be higher than the average. In the new, frugal, economy, I argue that the average purchasing power should become the reference, as our customers can very easily backslide or simply embrace the lifestyle of earning less as a precaution.

Finally, we need to think about the informational context that defines affordability. Customers can easily monitor the movement of prices across varied categories of goods and may time their purchase to take advantage of the fluctuations (see couponers and the evolution of Groupon and its clones).  This is where our online world differs from the previous generation’s: in its ability to gauge better, quicker, easier when a product moves in or out of the range of our purchasing power.

2. The cost / value ratio

We all know this one, and we’re also told that it is a significant concern to generation Y, who expect more value for less cost. The shift here is, again, in the ability to assess that value. First and foremost is the increased communication, whereby more and more information about the value of a product to various people is available. Traditionally evaluated goods (such as movies, books or restaurants) are now just a few among millions of reviews of everything. More importantly, it’s not only the features and functionality, the usability and durability that are being assessed, but also the more intangible aspects of value such as the experience, or the status that possession provides (for example the “Likes” or other reflections of how others interact with your purchase). Therefore, your price must now be set by referencing a larger, wider concept and understanding of value.

3. Price comparison

We’ve always comparison-shopped, looking for the cheapest version of something we needed or desired. But today, that ability is infinitely scaled up. It is now inbuilt into many stores, especially online. It is now possible with the least amount of effort. If comparison shopping for DIY or furniture or groceries often entailed several trips is widely different directions, it does not anymore. Nor is the separation between our own prices (sale, outlet, etc., regional) possible, and even if trudging all the way to the other end of the country for a cheaper pair of shoes, or asking a friend to buy and ship them is not economically advantageous, the customer is still able to know and question your pricing decisions in regard to him.

This perhaps is the biggest change that the WWW has brought to price, but it does not eliminate the relevance of this second P among the 4. Sure, if you think of price only as your price point, that elusive combination of cost-covering, profit making, affordability, yet desirability at which customers and company are both satisfied, then yes, you are using the “matrix” wrong. But if you understand the new content behind the figure that you must advance, you will find that PRICE is still a whole lot of relevant.

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Don’t wear this, wear that?

Did you know that Abercrombie&Fitch has offered money to a celebrity to STOP wearing A&F clothes?

In an official release, no less, the clothing brand asked Mike ” The Situation” Sorrentino, possibly the most obnoxious of the Jersey Shore cast, to switch to another brand, and offered a pay off if he did. Apparently, the branding department felt that he was not representative of the brand, and may in fact damage its reputation.

The story came to my attention in yesterday’s LA Times and it felt like the can of proverbial worms.

First, consider the reality behind the request, that of celebrity endorsements.

The idea that a 100 year old brand, with significant equity, can feel damaged if a reality TV show star of inappropriate behavior wears their clothing is a frightening reminder of the power that celebrity wields on the collective mind.

I assume that by making this offer public, the brand not only wanted The Situation to stop wearing the T-shirts, but also to squash any thought that Sorrentino may be a paid spokesman for the Abercrombie and Fitch clothing, because the underlying assumption in all celebrity endorsements is that they eat, wear or say something positive about a place or product only for monetary gain.

I am all for picking and choosing your brand ambassadors, but I think that when you tell someone NOT to wear your product, you’re moving into seedy territory that is more damaging than helpful to the brand. Because customers feel offended that the company presumes to decide who is and isn’t good enough to use or wear their products.

Sure, exclusion works as a marketing tactic, if you’re a luxury good, if by making something not accessible, you transform it into something iconic and aspirational. But you work that exclusion smartly, using price, location, in-store experience to subtly communicate to potential customers that they are not desired. You reference other customers and make them operate the exclusion. Clubs and associations have been doing this for ever. And you always leave the gate open for people to access your brand or product if certain conditions are met.

Telling a customer, even one as crude and frankly annoying as Mike ” The Situation” that they are not your brand, and should switch to another makes other customers question whether they are your brand. Can you be in business without Mike? Sure. But can you be in business without all the guidos and guidettes? Or without all fist-pumping, club going American youth? And they might avoid your brand is they feel that what you rejected in that customer is something that represents them too.

It might all be a publicity stunt. If it is, and it looks like that was it’s purpose, it has a dangerous double edge. Not all customers are savvy in the art of PR.

And to be honest, it didn’t really matter that Mike and Snooki and the lot wore A&F clothes. They have horrendous taste anyway.


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The Why of Generation Y

I technically am on the outskirts of Generation Y, having been born in the latter half of 1976, while Gen Y officially includes those born between 1977-2000. Now, that’s quite a span, because it encompasses 34 year-old adults as well as 11 year old preteens, and it is hard to perceive them as one single generation.

There are commonalities, as you can read in several researches and articles on the topic, of which I recommend the ones in Portal HR, a well researched set of interpretations and local adaptations of international content. Because this is a blog about marketing and management, the most interesting for me was “Cum ar schimba Generatia Y abordarea in management” outlining three characteristics of Gen Y-ers:

1. Their tendency to question established ways of doing things

2. Their democratic, merit-based outlook that makes it difficult to adapt to rigid hierarchies

3. Their inclination for radical solutions, and their profound dislike of communication barriers

For marketing, these commonalities can somewhat offset the large age gap between the earliest and latest Gen Y-ers. Of particular interest are the implications of the characteristics mentioned above.

Gen Y will often question even successful models or experiences, because they are not only open to something new, but actively seeking it. What could this mean for brand loyalty, for example? Does this make Gen Y more likely to switch to another brand? Does it make it easier to generate trial for a new product? In my opinion, yes, but this propensity must be carefully balanced with other considerations, because as both studies and experience demonstrate, Generation Y is extremely concerned with value, the ratio between cost and benefits, and can easily assess it with the help of their online environment. So something new and attractive will not be tried for its own sake, but only if it delivers value beyond what the trial costs.

A rejection of rigid hierarchies reflects that Gen Y does not like to be told what to do. This impacts the way in which endorsements of a product work. For many years, marketing has relied on arbiters of cool, who were deliberately shaping opinion and consumption. This millennial generation is likely to reject the idea that anyone can dictate what is cool and what is not. They might even want to step outside the boundaries of accepted trends deliberately. There is a certain rebelliousness imbued in their more democratic outlook, and it certainly must make marketers shift significantly away from mass-marketing to niche marketing.

The dislike for communication barriers has a corollary. Or several. There is a thirst for information. The dictum “Information is power” holds truer than ever with Generation Y, but unlike the previous generations, the power is not in the accumulation and withholding of information, it is in its generation, sharing and circulation. This is the essence of the much touted viral marketing. Gen Y will share information that they think is somehow valuable, and they will do so much more than their elders, and more efficiently, due to the slew of online tools. The implications for Word of Mouth are staggering, and barely begin to be comprehended. Notoriety, awareness generation, and the adoption cycle are all changing.

Is this a new phenomenon?

No. Generation Y has been around for a while, but what is new is the ever increasing prominence and effect that their choices are having upon our lives. And marketing.

(This is another post responding to the challenges of the contest organized by Flacarapranzuldincaserola and PortalHR).

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Are the 4 Ps of marketing still relevant on the web? – Part 1: Product

We’re in the Age of Questioning. We’ve become enamored of revolution. The web that changes how PR and marketing work. The web that changes how the previous web worked. The web that changes how we as people work. And so on…

Mind you, I don’t disbelieve those changes.

I see how Facebook is enlarging that Dunbar number of manageable acquaintances.
I witnessed the incredible surge in worth of mouth arising from the new, social media and its impact on sales.
I experienced personally how the online environment is changing our notions of awareness, notoriety, reputation, interaction and so many more.

But sometimes, I believe we’re being too radical in rejecting what is condescendingly referred to as conventional wisdom. I’ve been stirred into saying something about this by the following post by David Meerman Scott, whose “The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use Social Media, Blogs, News Releases, Online Video, and Viral Marketing to Reach Buyers Directly”  is actually an interesting read filled with useful techniques and a deep understanding of how new media works.

He argues that

I think focusing on the traditional Ps lead directly to failure because the concepts force marketers into a marketing paradigm that just isn’t effective in a social world.

I agree that being hung up on certain ideas impedes our ability to make effective use of new, unusual opportunities, but I disagree with the lack of relevance of the 4Ps.

First, the 4Ps were always more of a mnemonic tool to understand how to structure  and approach marketing, than actual prescriptions for conduct, and as such, they serve the same function in the online environment as in the 1960s markets.

Second, the beauty of concepts is that their content or definition is very user and context specific. Right, justice, morality, love and many other concepts have given rise to sophisticated philosophical constructs that are widely different, although the concept debated is the same.

I propose that that the 4Ps are similar: useful concepts that structure our experience and direct our actions. The mistake is not in the idea of having a concept, or the concepts themselves, but in how they are defined.

So, yes, I agree that we must question our interpretation of the 4 Ps in light of the changes in the marketing environment, but we should not dismiss them out of hand.

Take “PRODUCT”, for example. Meerman Scott argues that “A focus on Product means you create web content about the wrong things.” In fact, in his book he goes on to explain:

Marketers don’t understand buyers, the problems buyers face, or how their product helps solve these problems. That’s where the gobbledygook happens. First the marketing person bugs the product managers and others in the organization to provide a set of the product’s features. Then the marketing person reverse-engineers the language that they think the buyer wants to hear based not on buyer input but on what the product does. A favorite trick these ineffective marketers use is to take the language that the product manager provides, go into Microsoft Word’s find-and-replace mode, substitute the word solution for product, and then slather the whole thing with superlative-laden, jargon-sprinkled hype. By just decreeing, through an electronic word substitution, that ‘‘our product’’ is ‘‘your solution,’’ these companies effectively deprive themselves of the opportunity to convince people that this is the case.

He’s not wrong. Just incomplete.

In essence, marketing is there to facilitate a transaction. Both parties obtain something.

Party A exchanges a good or service of their making or to which they have somehow added something with party B, in return for something that’s of value to Party A (whether that is another good or service, money, or intangibles such as goodwill or reputation). The condition for that exchange is for Party B to desire what Party A has to offer, to have access to the good or service and to be able to offer what party A desires in return. Admittedly, this is a product centric view, where marketing’s role to create that desire, ensure accessibility, and intermediate the equivalence between party A’s value and Party B’s.

Let’s take it from the point of view of party B. Party B needs, desires, or is lacking (without realizing it) something. In one scenario,  Party A independently offers that something, so marketing’s role is to make the two meet.  In another scenario, Party A has the capacity to cater to party B’s needs, desires or subconscious, but does not now what these are. They desire some value from party B, but do not know what to offer in exchange, and that’s where marketing comes in, helping party B understand what they want or need, and guiding party A towards meeting that need.

Regardless of the scenario, the key , online or offline, is to find whatever X meets the parties’ mutual goal (and make sure that they can exchange it or partake in it and establish a fair, satisfactory value for that exchange.) That X is the “PRODUCT” in marketing, and it does not go away on the online environment just because the paradigm has shifted from product-centric to consumer centric.

True, if you do not redefine the content of “PRODUCT” you end up concentrating on the make-up and features of the X rather than on the customer’s objectives and the benefits they seek, especially in writing or describing that X. It does take away from understanding that there is no intrinsic value in what you produce, its only value comes from doing something or offering something somebody wants or needs. Perhaps it is easier for me because I’ve worked with intangibles, like movies. You can’t speak about the features of a movie, it has none, other than technical prowess. Actors names, directors, technology, are code-words for the experience the user has, which is at the center of marketing. But ultimately, it is still a product and saying “PRODUCT” is not relevant in the online environment is throwing the baby (the value for the customer) out with the bathwater  (bad communication).

Similarly, the other 3 PS need redefining, which I will write about in the next few days.

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