Over the last 10 years, marketers and their ilk have been busier inventing slogans for themselves than developing innovative ways to sell their clients' products. The overused phrases such as "think out of the box," "push the envelope," "go viral," and create "buzz" have all become part of the marketer's vernacular. Some have followed the teachings of Blink and/or Freakonomics. Many have found themselves falling beyond "the tipping point" while waiting for a "Black Swan."
At the core of all this verbiage is the clarion call to connect, engage, transform, and delight consumers with brands and products -- all dedicated to defining the "consumer benefit," the value of which should not be understated. A clear calling out of the product benefit enables creative to focus the message and media to identify the most effective means to communicate it.Yet over the years, the consumer benefit of products seems to blur together or become more ephemeral. The word "delight" seemed especially popular, showing up in quite a few briefs and positioning statements. The consumer benefit became increasingly measured in consumers' emotional response and only secondarily their behavior.
Couple this with a decade-long explosion of new media types -- nothing more than new toys -- and it became much easier to think about true consumer engagement as a smile rather than a sale. The consumer benefit designed to delight a target may be nothing more than the style of a commercial or a game on a website.
Meanwhile, traditional tools for driving sales were slowly and often gracelessly imported to the web. Limited time sales offers, rebates, and coupons have all moved cross-channel and been relegated to the pile of sales tools that no doubt benefit consumers but would never be found in the consumer benefit state of any creative or brand brief.
They were tactics, low-hanging fruit, barely better than sandwich board advertising.
The gap between consumer benefit statements and marketing ideas that actually delivered a consumer benefit was more than a click. It was a yawning gap even as consumers drifted away from brands and spent more time with each other online and off (not surprising given that brands are not people, even if you can "friend" one on MySpace).
Then, as everyone Twittered and texted, Lehman failed, and the rest is a history we are still living. Well, guess what? That's what it took to shake marketers right out of that old box into a whole new way of marketing.
The auto industry has been one of the hardest hit categories. But while the CEOs of the Detroit Three were in Washington begging for money, the guys in the marketing department of Hyundai were dreaming up a whole new way for a brand to deliver consumer benefit.
Imagine an automaker that acknowledges consumers' current state of fear with something more than another sale or brand-a-thon. But then who could imagine one of the Detroit Three going so far as to create a marketing program that solves a consumer's potential problem before it happens?
That is exactly what Hyundai does with its new Assurance Program. Launched in a series of commercials the weekend of Jan. 3, the spots feature actor Jeff Bridges' calm, caring, and intelligent voice promising that Hyundai will allow you to return any car you purchase in the next year if there is "involuntary loss of employment."
More clearly: If you buy or lease a Hyundai and you lose your job, you can bring it back.
Too good to be true? Check out the small print. It looks pretty good. Assurance is available to consumers regardless of age, health, or employment history. And it covers up to $7,500 in negative equity, which should be sufficient for the first year of a lease.
Hyundai's Assurance Program is a demonstrable consumer benefit. Some might argue it's a tactic, but as a program, it out-flanks the competition, while positively growing brand perception even with non-buyers. No doubt it also delights many consumers, but that probably wasn't the word used in the brief, if there even was one. Assurance is Hyundai's way of placing a bet, instead of a debt on the American consumer.
This is a new type of marketing, going beyond a lower price to an engagement with the consumers' plight. This is true consumer benefit marketing at a level almost unimaginable before October 2008.
Now, thanks to an economic crisis, there is a whole new definition of consumer benefit, one that requires a marketer to step way out of any box we've seen before.
Two grocery chains are following Hyundai's lead, but in very different ways.
Stop & Shop defines its consumer benefit as the ability to offer free generic antibiotics with the presentation of a prescription. The program runs from Jan. 2 - March 21 and applies to one prescription. The tag line: "You didn't pay for the germs, why pay for the antibiotics?"
Not only is it an amazing benefit to consumers with families struggling through the cold and flu season on limited budgets, it is an almost guaranteed share-shifter. Stop & Shop developed a marketing program that thinks beyond the consumer benefit as an offering of discount prices -- and consumer delight is palpable.
The Stop & Shop team must know the likelihood of repeat purchases after the first prescription and has calculated accordingly to determine what three months of free drugs would deliver ideal consumer benefit. Stop & Shop scored a great public relations story with a probable return on investment -- a great prescription for continued fiscal health in 2009.
Similarly, in the grocery category, Weis Markets, a 155 store grocery chain covering five states, lowered and then froze its prices on Jan. 2. The Weis Price Freeze will be in effect until April 1.
Now, there is a calculated bet here, but the perceived benefit to the consumer is clear and very savvy. Every time a shopper walks into a Weis market, the prices will be the same, and they can manage their budgets accordingly. Like the Stop & Shop program, Weis' marketing team has built a program designed to steal market share and then retain those customers through the tough 1st quarter.
Cynics will point out that calculators were used to estimate gain and loss on products. So what? That should be part of any marketing program, and it doesn't undermine the consumer benefit Weis offers.
The fact that grocery chains are competing with Wal-Mart in these tough times is worth noting. As brands and retail operations, their survival requires establishing a point of difference that will create long-term customer loyalty. These consumer benefit programs point to a new way to build loyalty in ways that might have never been considered in less uncertain times.
All three companies are willing to put something on the line for American consumers. As a group, they are looking for long-term gain, but -- and this should be very clear -- that gain can only come about if the economic situation improves.
The underlying message of these marketing programs is that we will all get through this, but in the meantime, we will help you out. "Hope" as a consumer benefit can be a powerful marketing tool, and in many ways, these marketers have transcended delight and moved to another level, taking their brands with them.
But are these just isolated instances? If so, the marketing world lost its imagination and analytic power long before it read "The Tipping Point."
Here are a few worth thinking about:
- Lowes gives away one smoke detector and batteries, making sure we keep what we built safe;
- ExxonMobil stations refill windshield wiper fluid for free, making sure we are able to see the road and our future;
- Lenscrafters holds the cost of new lenses at $19.95, as if putting off getting a new prescription isn't acceptable.
All crazy, maybe, but they all speak to the same goal: A brand that delivers a tangible consumer benefit puts faith in our future.
Kathy Sharpe is CEO of Sharpe Partners, an award-winning digital marketing agency in New York City.