Establish Permanence In Changing Times

During the Great Depression, an entire entertainment genre was created by a forward-thinking advertising team. While no obvious one-stop solution exists for the current recession, marketers do have an opportunity to successfully tap into the zeitgeist.

Gone are the days of flash, glitz and punching monkeys. Consumers today value sustainability, social responsibility and fiscal prudence. If marketers can align with consumers, they can come out of the recession with a more loyal audience than they went in with.

Establishing a sense of permanence is particularly important during economic downturns. It's not a time a brand can afford to pull back on its marketing efforts, or they will lose the potential to endear valuable customers. Procter & Gamble wrote the script during the Great Depression. P&G had a strong marketing philosophy: don't cut advertising budgets during recessions.

While many were cutting back on advertising during the Depression, P&G reinvented the wheel with its first soap story -- "Oxydol's Own Ma Perkins" radio show" -- which launched in 1933. It proved so successful that P&G doubled its marketing budget and launched 21 serial radio dramas by 1939, thus creating an entertainment institution: the Soap Opera.

Not only did P&G remain relevant during these times, but it remained a constant in consumers' lives by connecting in a unique way. It successfully engaged its core audience, allowing P&G to come out of the Depression stronger than it had started.

What message can build brand equity during this economic downturn? Economic, social, and particularly environmental responsibility. There is a call-to-action for brands to lead the charge in finding solutions for climate change. Consumers need to know their brands are working towards a common goal.

It's not an easy time for a brand; consumers are more educated and more demanding than ever. They stand behind brands that make them feel conscious and informed. A recent Havas Media study by IPSOS found that 79% of consumers said they would rather buy from companies doing their best to reduce their impact on the environment.

And 89% are likely to buy more "green" goods in the next 12 months, with a third willing to pay a premium for those goods. While it's not an easy time, the returns are high. A bond driving a customer to pay a premium for a similar good during an economic crisis is a bond worth establishing.

Resorting to sustainable claims isn't enough for a brand on its own. The Millennium Generation is particularly vigilant about weak or unfounded responsibility and sustainability claims. A Hartman study found that "consumers are thinking much more broadly than marketers about what words like 'organic', 'green' and 'sustainable' mean. They use more positive words to describe these products, like hope, connection, simple living, authenticity, and control."

The first step in establishing this "connection" and "hope" is to create an authentic story. And if you don't have a sustainable message to tell today, start establishing trust through other channels while working towards sustainability. Take MARS for example. As one of the world's largest cocoa purchasers, it is making great strides to support sustainable rainforests. But even before they had the opportunity to speak to this story, MARS had established consumer trust with transparency and a commitment to their five sustainable principals: Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom.

With ad budgets tighter, how can marketers efficiently and effectively tell their sustainable story? First, don't waste dollars on deaf ears. Identify engaged and influential audiences and tell your story in credible environments. Reaching fewer passionate consumers will go further than blanketing your message across a larger, less engaged audience.

If these change agents believe in your message, they'll do the heavy lifting for you and stretch your marketing dollars. In addition, identify contextually relevant advertising opportunities and media outlets with a similar ideology to your message. You'll find the setting in which the story is told can be as important as the story itself: The medium is the message.

Modern Day Soaps
We are starting to see some great soap opera stories unfold today, from large CPG companies to small start-ups. Jeremy Moon, founder of Icebreaker, offers outdoor clothing created from sustainable materials. Moon faced a significant challenge: He needed to charge consumers a premium price for a premium fabric.

By creatively giving transparency to the source of the material -- you can see pictures of the sheep that grew your merino wool sweater and email the farmer -- Moon's message resonates with change agents. These influencers quickly turned Icebreaker from an unknown shop to the largest outdoor clothing brand in Australasia.

It's not just niche brands that are able to capitalize on sustainability and change. Even behemoths like Wal-Mart are finding sustainable stories of their own and bringing them to life through advertising. Wal-Mart recently announced an initiative to cut its supply chain's packaging by 5%.

This opens up Wal-Mart's doors to a new and influential type of consumer. What they care about is that Wal-Mart is saving millions of pounds of garbage from landfills and taking the equivalent of 213,000 trucks off the road every year. The fact that Wal-Mart stands to directly save $3.4 billion doesn't hurt its bottom line either.

In this economy consumers are feeling vulnerable. Now, more than ever, people want to feel a part of a responsible and sustainable culture, and they are spending their dollars accordingly. Go tell your story. People are listening.

Editor's note: If you'd like to contribute to this newsletter, see our editorial guidelines first and then contact Nina Lentini.

5 comments about "Establish Permanence In Changing Times ".
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  1. Diane Harris from Reality Research, June 17, 2009 at 12:56 p.m.

    I so wish people would learn to spell Procter with an E not another O!!

  2. Jeremy Gustafson from Haggin Marketing, June 17, 2009 at 1:49 p.m.

    Isn't it interesting that we are still convincing companies that green is good -- you would think with demonstrable positive bottom line impact as well as long-term customer equity that companies would move faster and more permanently to the Green Side. Complacency still rules in American business. Those that overcome it win every time.

  3. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, June 17, 2009 at 6:55 p.m.

    Diane, Great catch. I don't usually miss those things. I fixed it. Thanks.

  4. Christopher Laurance from Distraction Marketing, June 17, 2009 at 7:02 p.m.

    I have no clue what you are actually saying!

    Permanence? is that like suggesting that a company be reputable? or perhaps honest?

    Responsibility? Is that like saying- being grown up?

    How about- if you aren't or can't honestly be a contributor to improving the quality of life for all species on Planet Earth- say so- Sorry folks, we are an oil company, we are in the business of destroying the planet, however, we know understand that this isn't a good policy, so we are going to change, and this is how.

    Or- Ford comes out and says- yes, we started a revolution with our manufacturing process that unfortunately also blighted the world by the proliferation of automobiles, but we've decided that we want to be part of the solution going forward, no longer the biggest part of the problem, so we will cease making all automobiles in the year 2015. In the interim, we will be the leader in producing redesigned communities and transportation systems that will ultimately improve our global environment.

    Those are "real" types of statements. Consumers have terrible cynicism about "green washing" or any of the rest of the nonsense that is going on today in the "green" world.

  5. Colton Dirksen from ecomii, July 21, 2009 at 7:10 p.m.

    Thanks for the note on the spelling of 'Proctor' - my apologies.

    To your questions Christopher,
    Permanence is defined as the act of enduring without fundamental change.
    Responsibility is the quality of being reliable: moral, reliable and accountable

    As mentioned above, both of these traits are particularly relevant to consumers in this economic climate. With lifestyles in flux, people are gravitating toward reliable brands that will not only be around tomorrow, but that are helping carve out a better tomorrow.

    I share your hope that companies could make, and follow-up on, loftier goals, but it's simply not realistic for a company like Ford to cease making automobiles by 2015. These kind of comments only make it more difficult for companies to make attainable sustainability goals (that may appear less exciting) in fear of being attacked. There are meaningful steps companies can take that don't require an about face. Sunchips is another example of this:

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