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March 2008
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June 2009

Buckle Up

Buckle 2 Jim Stewart writes the Wall Street Journal's "Common Sense" investing column.  It's not the first place you'd look for marketing tips, but the folks at Gap should read today's column, assuming they have a subscription. Stewart discusses the stock of a retailer headquartered in Kearney, Nebraska, of all places.  Called "Buckle," it serves the notoriously fickle teenage market through 390 stores in 40 states. 

Since competitors like Abercrombie, American Eagle and The Gap are sucking wind, Stewart was initially skeptical that Buckle would be a good investment.  So he drafted his college-age niece and her sorority sisters to check out its stores.  

Buckle logo Their verdict: "The salespeople] are always really attentive and friendly and they always end up bringing you so many other cute jeans and shirts to try on ... and then you end up buying more than you planned on." "I shop there to buy Silver jeans. They are the only brand that fits me, and last many years. I also like the type of clothing they have, which is different from other places like AE [American Eagle Outfitters], Hollister, A&F [Abercrombie & Fitch]. ... I feel the clothes they sell are definitely worth the price."

From feedback like that, Stewart deduced Buckle's marketing strategy: fit, selection, and service make "medium to better-priced merchandise" a good value.  That may be why, in a market roiled by quirky fashion trends and reeling from the Great Recession, Buckle has racked up 21 consecutive months of double-digit sales gains.  It's stock is up and it's planning to expand into the Northeast.  Gap, are you listening?

Recession Marketing


Today's New York Times has an interesting article about all the food brands that are using a "value" message to attract consumers during the Great Recession.  It offers the May 18 issue of People magazine as Exhibit A.  In that issue, Oscar Meyer wieners claim to be “deli fresh, but without the deli counter price.” Lean Cuisine claims to be "good for you and good for your wallet." Chips Ahoy cookies team with Capri Sun juice drinks to assure consumers they needn't "snackrifice."  Elsewhere, Frito-Lay is adding 20 percent more chips to selected bags of Chitoos, Fritos and Tostitos, without raising the price.  Del Monte shows how canned fruits and vegetables can "stretch" food budgets.  And French's is offering larger jars of mustard at lower prices. Stretching dollars is a timeless message, but I wonder if it doesn't put brands on the wrong battlefield.  "Value" messages have a way of devolving into "price" claims. 

Frog Design's Tim Leberecht suggests marketers should create a deeper meaning for their brands.  His argument in a nutshell: "As brands face an unprecedented level of competition, transparency, and consumer empowerment on the social web, 'meaning' is becoming the new powerful currency that connects brands with their brandholders in the 'share economy.' "Lots of buzzwords there, but I think what he means is that marketing leaders need to reconnect their brands with their original purpose, i.e. how they help improve people's lives.  He expands on the idea in a provocative slideshow, which is available at  SlideShare.  His blog, iPlot, expands on the topic.

Flattened Expectations


Many marketers have been flattened by the Great Recession.  The leaders are already considering what the post-Recession world will be like.  

Both The Economist and the New York Times suggest that consumers are giving up their spendthrift ways in what augurs a permanent change.  It will take years for consumers to rebuild their nest eggs.  Banks will be stingier with credit for big purchases. Sociologists also detect changes in values and behavior.  “Many people no longer seem consumed by the desire to consumer,” says The Economist.  “Instead, they are planning to live within their means, and there has been a backlash against bling.” 

The Times suggests that people are squirreling away more of their paychecks because they’re “fearful of job losses and anxious over housing and stock declines.” In addition, The Economist says a soon-to-be-released Boston Consulting Group survey indicates the economic crisis has intensified consumers’ distrust of Big Business. 

 Bummer. What’s a marketer to do?

Here are five ideas, drawn from Secrets of the Marketing Masters

  1. Develop products that fulfill people’s needs and appeal to their higher values. 
  2. Anticipate how forces outside people’s perspective will shape their needs and values. 
  3. Create consistent meaning along the full product experience. 
  4. Build enduring relationships, not a stream of transactions.  
  5. Demonstrate that you share your customers’ cares, aspirations and values. 


Pepsi_can  Pepsi kicked off 2009 by introducing a new logo for its flagship soft drink to what can only charitably be called mixed reviews.   The new design was supposed to suggest a smile, but most people saw it as a rip-off of the logo Obama used in his presidential campaign. 

Then the company redesigned the packaging for its Tropicana orange juice, putting it into a carton that looked so generic consumers couldn't find it in the dairy case.  Tropicana-packaging That was such a disaster, the new design had to be pulled

Shades of New Coke. Tropicana-packaging

The folks at Coca-Cola, on the other hand, are introducing a series of specially-designed cans to celebrate summer. Maybe they learned something back in 1985 because the new designs manage to be arresting and contemporary, yet classic and "real Coke," at the same time. Watch them fly off your grocer's shelves. Coke can for summer

Coke can for summerThe difference? 
Understanding your brand values and knowing how to communicate them viscerally.

Mo' Magination

GE LogoGE (does anyone call it "General Electric" anymore?) has put its imagination to work on another hot button issue.  Having demonstrated how its interests intersect nicely with the environment's ("Green is green"), it is now targeting the cost, quality and availability of healthcare in a campaign -- dubbed "healthymagination" -- being announced via ads and webcast today. 

In researching Secrets of the Marketing Masters, I was struck that CMOs at three of the largest companies -- GE, Microsoft and IBM -- had backgrounds in public relations. None of the three people involved thought it was a coincidence.  Large, global companies have discovered that they need to sell their values, as well as their value, to win the trust of customers and all the other stakeholders who influence their operations.  It's more than political correctness or knee-jerk do-gooding.  It's developing the peripheral vision to see where the public's needs and values intersect with those of the company.  And the business savvy to capitalize on it.

That's what GE did with "ecomagination" and what it proposes to do with "healhtymagination."  If it backs up its new effort with the same aggressive goals, hard metrics, and concrete budgets, it could further define GE as a company that is redefining the meaning of the corporation.  

Nice or necessary?

What stuff do you really need?  That's the question the Pew Research Center asked a bunch of Americans and here's how they answered this year compared to 2006. As you might expect in the middle of the Great Recession, many people think they can do without the dishwasher or the microwave if push comes to shove. But two findings are a little surprising.

Pew-chart First, I'm amazed that people seem to value their landline telephone more than their cell phone (though Pew only asked about landline phones this year).  Watch for those numbers to reverse over time, as AT&T and Verizon have already realized. 

Second, note that cable and satellite TV are considered less necessary, i.e., more of a luxury, than high-speed Internet service.  Watch that gap grow over time. Young people, in particular, are getting used to watching their favorite TV shows online. But marketers shouldn't cope by throwing TV-like ads online.  People aren't as forgiving about interruptions online as they are on broadcast media.  Online is all about communities. Marketers need to earn the permission to join online communities by offering something of value.

Higher Purpose

Sethgodin Seth Godin has one of the sharpest minds in marketing.  His blog is an endless source of insight and practical advice.  I often wonder how he can churn out such a steady stream of pointed observations, while simultaneously writing a best-seller nearly every year. Not to mention regularly speaking to enthusiastic audiences.  

But then not every posting can be a home run.  Recently, he opined on "business models," a subject that became topical when Internet pioneers realized they didn't have one, as in how to turn eyeballs into money (or in business lingo, "monetize their traffic).  Step one, Godin advises, is figure out "what compelling reason exists for people to give you money? (or votes or donations)."  The other steps he lists are equally focused on a transaction, whether fending off competitors or acquiring prospects. All of which is well and good, as far as it goes.

But my own research with marketing leaders suggests they think more broadly than maximizing transactions.  They focus on building relationships, and that requires a different kind of thinking.  JimStengel P&G's Jim Stengel, for example, encourages marketers to find their "higher purpose" -- that is, how they can improve people's lives.  Sounds high-falutin', but he says it was the secret behind P&G's success in everything from Pampers diapers to Pringle's potato chips. And it will be the topic of a book he's writing, titled Packaged Good, based on world-wide research he's conducting.  Based on the preview he gave me in the research for own book, Secrets of the Marketing Masters, I can't wait to read it.  Stengel says he wants to start a movement. Count me in.



One way Estee Lauder has decided to deal with the recession is by posting prices at the cosmetic counter, according to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required). Potential customers looking for "affordable luxuries" are apparently too intimidated to ask how much they would have to shell out for that tube of lipstick.  MK-AV927_LAUDER_DV_20090504190259-1

Meanwhile, Forrester Research reports that advertisers are moving money by the cartload from "traditional" channels into interactive media.  Analyst Shar VanBoskirk says the switch "is due to marketers seeking lower cost, more accountable channels which are also widely used by their customers."  But before marketers pour money into interactive media, they would be wise to take a cue from Estee Lauder.  Even a busy cosmetic counter isn't really interactive until you take the time to figure out what's going on in a customer's mind when she's standing in front of it. 

More than coffee

Starbucks One of the big surprises to emerge from my interviews with marketing leaders was a strong belief that today's consumers look beyond product features to the company behind a brand.  Starbucks seems to be capitalizing on that belief as it tries to counter McDonald's cheaper brew.  The company's new campaign touts the chain's values as much as its value over the tag line "It's not just coffee. It's Starbucks."  The company's chief marketing officer explains the new strategy in this YouTube video addressed to its baristas and store managers.  


9780814409435 Well, not exactly.  The American Management Association has just published my third book -- Secrets of the Marketing Masters -- and hopefully its availability won't be a secret too much longer.  I'll be posting about it from time to time, expanding on some of the secrets I learned from the top marketers at companies like P&G, Unilever, Diageo, American Express, General Electric, and others on both the consumer and business-to-business sides. Meanwhile, my publisher has posted an excerpt here.