Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sticky Situation Suggests Selling Safety Up Front

The recent peanut butter fiasco – in which salmonella was found at the point of production and hundreds of products were recalled – brings up some sticky issues in retail marketing and consumer behavior (yes, the pun was intended. Sorry). Even with contemporary concerns about peanut allergies, sales of peanut butter remain consistent and high in America. Like macaroni and cheese, pasta, tuna, and other pantry staples, peanut butter seemed recession-proof. But concerns about food safety are another matter altogether. Given that Americans consume an enormous amount of peanut butter and that this is one of the largest food recalls in recent history, the food industry has a bit of a problem on its hands. The New York Times reports that companies are taking some defensive measures.

“The drop-off is so striking that brands like Jif are taking the unusual step of buying ads to tell shoppers that their products are not affected, and giving them a coupon to make sure they do not learn to live without a staple that almost every child loves — and more than a few of their parents, too.
While food companies are working to stop the drop, it might be worth considering this as a good object lesson in marketing: consider what’s going to be most important to consumers in the near and not-so-distant future, when their dollars are stretched and confidence in corporate entities wavers with each step in the process. First, health is what we could call a “super value” in American society – it supercedes many others and intersects with our sense of rights and entitlements as citizens and consumers. Health concerns are partly why many people shift to organic and green products, maintaining those practices even when budgets are tight. When we’re dealing with food and safety concerns, people exhibit a combination of desires: individual control and energy spent on well-being combined with a sense that government and other institutions should protect them from the most egregious risks. According to policy and industry experts, we're going to see more of the latter in the future, especially with new concerns about "bioterror."

While there’s a whole host of complicated reasons why the salmonella outbreak happened – and we will, in all likelihood, see renewed vigilance from federal agencies who supervise the food industry as well as new mechanisms to trace the sources of problems more quickly - it behooves marketers to consider pro-active marketing that touts their compliance and engagement in national food safety standards. In some cases, it makes sense for industry to construct and enact its own protocol -- but in the case of food, it will be more and more important for companies to also align themselves with national directives.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Bringing People Back In: Advertising, Technology, and the Personal Story

Everyone loves a good personal story, especially if it has elements that ring true and speak to common interests, human pathos, and the usual triumph over adversity. Advertisers know this, but they often consider their own imaginations as the prime source for good stories. That’s like a novelist who locks herself in a room, endlessly mining her own biography well past the first few novels. Enough already, we think.

Rather than chase their own tails in search of a storyline fit for an ad campaign, advertisers are beginning to put two and two together: the first part is knowing how to find human drama in real life experience and the second is giving consumers and citizens a sense of control over how they present themselves, how they interact with products and technology. The best of these are integrated marketing campaigns that include posting to websites, print and media ads, and social media.

Here are some examples of what I mean: the old version is the “personal testimony” –you know these ads ("how I lost 145 pounds eating turkey subs…") But more significant are the ones where the ad – or the site where the ad is generating attention – is not as intensely focused on the product alone.

The now-classic version of this is Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which began in 2004 as a straight media format, but showed ordinary women celebrating the diversity of body types. Women posted stories and sent in photos; Dove’s site included space for commentary and has morphed into an activist campaign to help women of different ages develop self esteem and respond to unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies in the media.

A less successful version was Microsoft’s Life Without Walls campaign (“I’m a PC… and I’ve been turned into a stereotype” featuring a John Hodgeman-like spokesperson who then gives over to vignettes of many different people using their pc…) which had potential but felt scripted too closely to its competition and also gave in to rumors that many of the spots on the commercial were created on Macs… The site itself has great stories, but it functions too defensively in favor of the product and less positively in favor of the terrific stories.

For an upcoming example: athletic gear maker Adidas is giving women a chance to star in a new campaign with WNBA basketball player Candace Parker. According to recent news,

The company is hosting an enter-to-win promotion, starting today, in which women can share stories about training struggles and successes. Three entrants whose stories are chosen will star in the ads. Throughout February, consumers are invited to become the new face of the "Me, Myself" campaign by uploading their photos and stories to www.adidas.com/women. They can invite friends and family to vote for them via an online widget that can be attached to one's Facebook or other social networking sites.
Another interesting version is Nationwide insurance, which has a version of that’s focused on Black History Month. The centerpiece of the campaign is a site, www.nationwide.com/mylegacy, where people can post their significant moments of personal achievement within their African-American heritage. The site allows people to share stories, family history, and photos. The company's presence on the site is subtle, which also adds to the imprint of sincerity.

photo credit: "Dad and Four of Five Sons, August 2008" by Jame C.E., Tignall Georgia on the Nationwide "My Legacy" site.