Staying Grounded: It's A Balancing Act

It's one year into the Great Recession, and brands are trying to be "closer to the consumer" -- not by offering minute feature enhancements, esoteric benefits, or badge value, but seemingly by reverting to basic needs and simpler messages. By claiming to be Real. True. Grounded. Authentic.

I began to wonder if being seen this way is really a good thing. Is being grounded and down-to-earth an essential component of a strong brand? Or are those more grounded brands really just dated and undifferentiated -- will the return to basics end up hurting their business? To answer these questions, we tapped into Landor's consumer brand equity tool, BrandAsset® Valuator (BAV). In the United States, we measure 3,000 brands annually on 70 key measures of equity and imagery. One of those attributes is "down-to-earth."

First, let's take a look at those brands rated as the most down-to-earth:

Top 20 Down-To-Earth Brands
1 Walmart 11 Ace Hardware
2 Kmart 12 Kellogg's Corn Flakes
3 Betty Crocker 13 John Deere
4 Cheerios 14 Sears
5 Home Depot 15 Bisquick
6 Morton Salt 16 Target
7 Payless ShoeSource 17 General Mills
8 Kraft 18 Smucker's
9 Lowe's 19 Gold Medal
10 Duncan Hines 20 Sam's Club



Wow, what a mess. At first glance it seems to be a mishmash of retailers, cereals, and other CPGs with a disturbing number of "old" brands -- brands that don't feel up to date or in touch with current consumer needs or social trends. At the same time, several of the brands are clear leaders and ones we know as vital and relevant. So, we looked a bit closer and broadened our knowledge about brands.

Most importantly, just being down to earth isn't enough. A subset of several of the 20 most down-to-earth brands is also believed to be forward-looking: up-to-date, innovative, and progressive. These brands are the strongest of the 20. That is, they score higher in BAV than over 90% of the brands we measure, and have an average BrandAsset score of 96%. These down-to-earth brands are also very strong overall:

Down-to-earth brands that are also strong brands

1. Walmart
2. Target
3. Kraft
4. Home Depot
5. Lowe's
6. John Deere
7. Sam's Club

Interesting list. With the exception of Kraft and John Deere, we lost the CPG brands and cereals and were left with a vibrant list of national retailers who meet the needs of the American consumer every day. What characteristics do they share in BAV? In addition to being innovative and progressive, they aren't especially arrogant, are believed to care a lot about their customers, and are daring and visionary.

Intuitively, we don't associate down-to-earth with visionary and innovative, but apparently the American public does. These companies still find ways to reinvent their businesses on a regular basis and ensure us that reinvention helps us, not just the company's bottom line. Taken together, these are all brands that are close to the customer.

The other 13 most down-to-earth brands making the "forward thinking" cut have an average BrandAsset score of 81%. Not bad and still stronger than eight in ten brands tracked in BAV in the United States, but significantly lower than our forward-thinking group.

What seems to be pulling these brands down is that they are seen as less differentiated and lower on all the forward-thinking attributes: less innovative, less progressive, less daring, less visionary. That's not to say they aren't seen as the best brands in their categories. Several are: Morton Salt, Betty Crocker, and Cheerios are especially highly rated as "best brand." Many are even seen as worth paying more for: Smucker's, Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, and Bisquick.

But they all feel a bit stuck. As much as these brands command our esteem and affection, the public isn't giving them credit for creating new ideas or taking risks, so they are not as strong as those brands that do continue to move forward.

So what does this mini-exploration tell us? On the whole, being down-to-earth is a good thing. Down-to-earth brands tend to be stronger than average. Yet that is not enough. Companies should not let their nervousness about the economy and the changing consumer keep them from being daring, from finding new and even risky ways to stay close to the customer. Done right, you will be rewarded with a stronger, more enduring brand -- and ultimately, financial rewards. Just look at that list!

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