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Logo_general_mills Jon Fine, who writes about the media for BusinessWeek, has discovered one of the Marketing Masters' secrets:  "intensive research that aims at wreathing a kind of grandiosity of purpose around everyday products to a degree that may seem somewhat silly to outsiders."  

Forgive me for assuming that Fine is one of the outsiders, but he has enough common sense to recognize a strategy that works.  He quotes the chief marketing officer of General Mills who poses the key question: "What is the bigger job this brand does in a consumer's life?"  But then he reduces it to the brand's "story line." 

"Marketing," he tells us, "is a business in which the best story that's most aggressively  deployed wins."   But that's only part of the secret.  The real trick is designing products that serve a higher purpose and then making sure that everything that follows is aligned with it.  That's something General Mills has mastered across its product line, from its iconic cereal brands to its yogurt and baked goods.  Maybe that's why its revenue is up 8 percent and its operating profit rose 4 percent.

Demon to Darling

Happy Today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) marvels at Wal-Mart’s recent transformation “from Demon to Darling.”  It credits the company’s transformation to communications czar Leslie Dach, a former Democratic operative and executive at Edelman PR.  Dach deserves a lot of credit, but the roots of the company’s makeover is more than skin deep and it’s not the product of wordsmithing or sharp elbowed “truth squads.” 

Wal-Mart tried that early in Dach’s tenure when it began punching back at critics out of a political campaign-like “war room” and built its own front groups.  Nothing seemed to work.  In fact, some of the stealth campaigns backfired when the media tumbled to them. 

Ironically, it took a hurricane to help the company realize that actions spoke louder than words. When Wal-Mart was quicker than the government and many charitable organizations to get relief supplies to Hurricane Katrina’s victims along the Gulf Coast, CEO Lee Scott realized that it had the power to positively influence communities. 

He decided to rebuild the company’s reputation by taking credible action on two burning issues – sustainability and health care.  The retailer offered lower cost health insurance to its own employees, started selling generic drugs for $4, and opened in-store health clinics, which offer low-priced services from vaccinations to cholesterol screening.  It set aggressive targets for energy conservation and reduced waste, became the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton, sold more organic milk and produce than any other retailer, sold more green-friendly products like energy-saving fluorescent bulbs, and made selling local produce a priority. 

Jim Prevor, a long-time Wal-Mart observer, who publishes a newsletter called The Perishable Pundit, found the secret behind the company’s greening.  "Helping the environment is an area where Wal-Mart felt culturally comfortable,” he said. “It could maintain its core values of eliminating waste and driving costs down while reducing packaging and creating energy-efficient stores."  Plus, he might have added, it was good for the bottom line. 

Wal-Mart’s actions were not a cynical attempt to distract its critics.  They were the product of a new understanding of a company’s place in society.  The company isn’t perfect, but it deserves credit for its efforts.

The Hardwired Life


Lisa Belkin explores our fascination with the sexual wanderings of public officials in this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine

My interest was piqued, not for the obvious voyeuristic reasons, but because she ties it all to evolution, with appropriate skepticism.   I’m studying the evolutionary basis of human behavior for a possible new book. Knowing what’s hard-wired might help people manage large organizations, get along with their bosses, figure out their customers, etc.

Belkin points out that scientific studies say women are more threatened by a man falling emotionally for another woman than if they simply bought sex from a prostitute.  Some scientists suggest that’s part of evolution. A man straying emotionally increases the likelihood that he will take his support and protection elsewhere.  

By the logic of evolution, Silda Spitzer should not have been as pissed off as Jenny Sanford.  All NY’s governor wanted was to pay for mindless sex with his socks on.  South Carolina’s governor wanted to dance under an Argentine moon with his new “soul mate.”

My tentative conclusion is that our hardwiring is constantly being reknit.  Evolution didn’t stop when we got off all fours.  For example, my wife asked her book club members what they would find more threatening – if their husband had sex with a prostitute or with a close friend.  

That particular question had something to do with the book they were discussing, but what’s really interesting to me were the responses.  They were nearly unanimous in saying sex with a prostitute would be more threatening.  That's not what the evolutionary scientists would have predicted.  It seems that concerns about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases trumped whatever primitive survival instincts were still knocking around in their unconscious. And hubby played a lesser role in their own concept of what it takes to survive.  

By the way, I posed the same question to my book club.  The men were almost unanimous in claiming they would be more threatened if their wife had sex with a close friend than with some nameless gigolo.  My guess is that modern contraceptives and DNA testing have diminished the evolutionary threat of investing in the care of a child who might be someone else’s.  The nature of the marriage relationship itself has evolved beyond a focus on popping out babies -- paradoxically, even more for men than women.