Soothe Sayers

Your customers are more concerned about the next terrorist attack than how white their whites can be. Here’s how to reach them.

Originally published in CMO magazine, December 2004.

By Constantine von Hoffman

Who’s that strange-looking guy with the backpack over there? Can I afford to fill up the car this week? How are my stocks doing? Are that company’s numbers real? Did you hear Dave lost his job? Is anybody hiring? How many carbs are in that beer, anyway?

In this age of anxiety—where the average overinformed U.S. consumer is likely to feel, as satirist Tom Lehrer put it, “like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis”—people aren’t just feeling anxious; they’re soaking in it. “The post-9/11 era is a combination of things,” says Lawrence Flanagan, executive vice president and CMO for MasterCard. “It’s a whole laundry list of bad stuff.”

These proverbial “interesting times” we’re living in leave us wondering how to respond to the latest government warnings. In such an unsettled world, how can marketers soothe their customers’ psyches? “When a customer is anxious, you can prove your worth to them,” says Sean Fanning, senior vice president of global marketing and communications for the Electronics Marketing group at Avnet, the giant B2B distributor of semiconductors and electronics components. In other words, convince customers that your company will be there when they need it.

“As a marketer I look at all the emotions—anxiety, uncertainty, apprehension, stress, worry,” says Fanning. “If you’re attuned to them, you can approach them accordingly from a positioning perspective. I mean, what is marketing but understanding needs, and being able to touch and affect the emotions of your audience?”

The basic mission of marketing, of course, never really changes: It’s telling customers that you have what they want. But now, whatever you sell, you’d be wise to give customers something that goods or services rarely provide: a sense of stability in an unstable world. In today’s environment, no matter what your company produces or provides, you want to sell reassurance.

“Companies have to go to a place where their customers are feeling confident that companies are looking out for their best interests,” says Scott Davis, a managing partner at Prophet, a consultancy specializing in brand and business strategy.

Marketers also must make sure that the message of reassuring the customer spreads throughout the organization itself. That reassurance can take a variety of forms, from creative to customer service. Whatever tack you take, you can never start positioning yourself too soon; the next shock to the system may be right around the corner.

One Part Inspiration
In 1998, as the dotcom bubble was inflating and Wall Street was rewarding the hottest, newest, trendiest and most cutting-edge companies, MasterCard debuted its “Priceless” campaign, which emphasized, of all things, intangible values.

The financial services company didn’t come to that position by happenstance. For decades, MasterCard has tracked consumer beliefs about what signifies success and accomplishment. From the ’70s through the mid-’90s, people generally put that in terms of “things”: that old “whoever dies with the most toys wins” ethos. Then, during the dotcom bubble, MasterCard noted a growing emphasis on quality-of-life factors, a trend that spiked after 9/11.

MasterCard CMO Lawrence Flanagan
MasterCard CMO Lawrence Flanagan

“Rather than drive a fancy car or stay in fancy places, [materialism] was being replaced by things such as having a good family life or having the time to do the things they really want to do,” says Flanagan. “There is just so much going on with people these days that they really are focusing more on the things they can control around their own personal relationships and their own time.

“Consumers want to be inspired,” he adds. “Show me something that I can aspire to and you’ve got my attention.”

Inspiration is also a key part of American Airlines’ rebranding initiative—its first in a decade. The “Tickets to Life” campaign, unveiled this fall, specifically avoids talking about price or features and instead focuses on how the airline understands the consumer’s “real” needs. “Destinations are places that are important to people’s lives,” says Rob Britton, American’s managing director for brand development and advertising. “Our message is that we can get them there safely and reliably.”

The campaign comes at a critical time for American. Facing financial trauma, a cluttered environment and upstart competitors, the airline wants to develop a message that portrays its experience as a positive characteristic, not an albatross. The objective is to show the public that American is still relevant in a changing industry, says Britton. “We wanted to put a stake in the ground about who we are. We decided not to let the low-cost carriers define us as a dinosaur.”

At the very least, in its efforts to rebuild trust, the company couldn’t appear desperate. So the campaign took a lighter approach in its print, TV and online ads. “Humor breaks through,” says Britton. “Even our employees told us they liked a humorous approach, because they’ve been through a lot in the last several years.”

You Can’t Fake Sincerity
While American Airlines and MasterCard have been able to play on their longevity and experience, not everyone can take that particular path. Upstart competitors can’t sell their long-standing connections to customers, for instance. And if your strategy for reassuring customers is a radical departure from past approaches—or if the change is seen as opportunistic—it will do more harm than good. “It can’t be the promotion of the quarter or the promotion of the year,” says Prophet’s Davis. “It has to be part of their DNA and part of their brand and business values.”

That’s why your reassuring message needs to extend beyond advertising and into all the areas in which customers interact with your company. Long before 9/11, the airlines were subtly reminding consumers that air travel is safe, catering to the jittery crowd of consumers who hate to fly. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to have a commercial that says, Fly us! We’ll never crash again,” says Assistant Professor of Marketing Michal Strahilevitz.

Strahilevitz, who teaches at the University of Arizona, says one airline’s response to anxious passengers was to upgrade the quality of its seats and upholstery. “When people saw that…was taken care of—that the bathrooms were clean, the toilet paper was filled and the rugs looked nice—they assumed that the engine was also maintained and the wings weren’t going to fall off,” says Strahilevitz.

In other words, the airline didn’t go around screaming, Hey, you’re safe with us—a tactic that usually invites questions of why you have to scream at all. Instead, you want to project quiet confidence, says Alan Brown, CMO of Nuveen Investments. Remind the public of your reliability without beating them over the head with it. For Nuveen, an investment management company that has been around for more than a century, this has meant not directly responding to the scandals roiling the mutual fund industry.

Says Brown: “I’ve seen a lot of folks go out and do an ad that says, Look at us, how clean we are. I always say, Thou doth protest too much.”

Also, despite a shaky stock market, the company hasn’t done any performance-based advertising, proclaiming how well its mutual funds have done. Instead, Nuveen’s creative material has focused on what Brown sees as the company’s guiding principles of investment management.

“Performance is fleeting,” Brown says. “It’s the confidence you have in how you measure the money and how you think…. Right now one person in the market is running these ads that say, Wow! up 53 percent last year. That’s great, but it’s off the lows of the worst bear market ever. We stayed away from that.” The Nuveen brand, in other words, isn’t about fast changes and dramatic turnarounds, and the company’s marketing reflected that.

The thing about performance is, it can always be beaten—whether by fact or by perception. There will always be a faster computer chip. What can’t be beaten is the trust a consumer has in a particular brand, the knowledge that even if you aren’t making the shiniest widget at this moment, your company does make a darn good widget and has always been there to make them and service them.

For MasterCard, emphasizing the emotional connection between consumer and brand made sense because the company doesn’t sell a specific good or service. It isn’t even trying to get people to apply for a credit card—the banks that issue the cards take care of that. No one, as Flanagan puts it, “wakes up in the morning and says, Where am I going to use my MasterCard today? They say, I’m going grocery shopping, or, I’m going to buy a TV set or trip. We just need to be high up on the set of the next question, which is, How do I pay for it?”

To do that, MasterCard’s marketing sought to generate good feeling toward its brand. Marketing something as ephemeral as brand-friendliness naturally lends itself to touchy-feely creative, which is the same sort of creative that allows American Airlines or Nuveen (companies that actually have to get people to buy something) to position their brand as better than the competition with the right emotional context: How does the product or service let you have more time to focus on the things that are really important?

Another effective approach is education. Citibank, for example, took a light approach to educating consumers about identity theft in its voice-over ads—with the supporting message that Citibank is a trusted solution provider.

“We didn’t need to present to consumers the fact that this was a very scary issue because consumers are already concerned about it,” says Brad Jakeman, Citigroup’s vice president of global advertising. Market research had already told the marketing team that this was an important issue to consumers; that was the reason they had developed a product for people hit by identity theft. “My belief is that you can’t scare consumers into buying something from you. We wanted to not make a scary subject even scarier, so humor was a way that we were able to present the issue in an engaging way that people actually took notice of.”

A Reliable Partner
With B2C companies, reassurance often takes the form of telling customers that using a particular product or service will help them spend more or better time with friends and family. With B2B, the message for troubled times usually revolves around identifying core competencies.

Such was the course followed by Avnet. Operating in an industry hit particularly hard by the post-dotcom crash, Avnet was already preparing a major campaign to remind customers of how much the company had done and could do for them, when 9/11 knocked it for another loop.

“Last year, we came out of the deepest and longest downturn in our company’s storied history. The anxiety associated with that drove a major focus around operational efficiencies,” says Fanning. “Our customers went through this downturn and needed the security of a major partner they could rely on.”

Post-9/11, Avnet launched a campaign called “Support Across the Board,” which pumped up all the different types of support services the company provides. “Although it includes an articulation of product value, it really transcends the product into a deeper understanding of the customer service needs,” says Fanning.

At a time when many other companies were cutting their marketing budgets, Avnet increased the amount it spent on everything from advertising to PR to trade shows. It also bolstered its internal communications effort, which it saw as critical to the success of the campaign, says Fanning. As a result, Avnet was able to hammer home its message about the company’s size and longevity, especially reassuring in the wake of the “dotgones.” “We emphasized that we’re the 500-pound gorilla, so there’s a case for stability there,” says Fanning.

Another way to reassure customers is right out of the Marketing 101 handbook: Make it easier for them to do business with you, says Prophet’s Davis. He points out how Procter & Gamble increased ease of use by reducing the number of products on the shelves.

“At one point, it had 30 different varieties of Head & Shoulders products, which just made life confusing,” says Davis. And not just confusing for consumers. The multiplicity of products even confused the people selling the products. By reducing the number of related items, P&G made it easier for both company and consumer to focus on the core brands. “There’s a simplification done at the company level that, ultimately, the consumer will feel at the shelf,” he says.

Regardless of the anxiety level of its customers, companies should always look at longer-term methods of making their brand more appealing. Davis suggests integrating a socially conscious barometer across the organization. American Airlines, for example, co-brands with several charities—including the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, UNICEF and the National Park Foundation—on its “Tickets to Life” website. “We are a big enterprise, but fundamentally we are about human connections, and highlighting our good works is part of that,” says Britton.

Similarly, oil giant BP has won kudos for the work it has done on renewable resources, while automakers Toyota and Honda have had success with their hybrid cars. “At the end of the day,” says Davis, “customers want to do business with a company they feel good about.”

The more work a company can do to reinforce that message before a crisis occurs, the better its chance of success. If a consumer already views your company as stable and reassuring, it’s more likely that you’ll be the one she turns to instinctively if a catastrophe does occur.

“Consumers want to feel that the company is going to deliver on the trust and back it up,” says Davis. “We want comfort, and we want the ability to trust again. That’s what consumers are really looking for.”

Republished with permission of CXO Media, Inc.

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