Brand Conversations

Too many Chief Marketing Officers are trapped in “brand conversations” behind their desks, in conference rooms, or around the boardroom table, and it’s hurting their organization’s connection to the customer, the understanding of what’s happening with their brands, and the ideas necessary to drive growth.

I’ve spent nearly two decades as a Chief Marketer and found myself in similar situations time and again. There is an incredible amount of internal work that is required for any senior role.  All of it necessary to keep the machine humming; there are strategy documents to review, creative concepts to approve, P&L’s to manage, new technology to explore, organizational structure and teams to develop, and, of course, internal & external relationships to nurture, among a thousand other things.

I do not dismiss or downplay the importance of the above. But I do worry that too often that work for crowds out what I think is one of the Chief Marketer’s most important roles—Having personal brand conversations with the customer. I mean personal, you and the customer face to face. I cannot underscore enough the importance of this because these conversations allow you to understand the customer in a way that cannot be attained through traditional research and analytic methods.

A Chief Marketer must be able to do more than articulate the demographics of a customer, the purchase life-cycle, media habits, or even cultural touchstones. While these are important, they will do little to help you truly understand why people love, hate or are indifferent to your brand, product, or service. And understanding “The Why” behind the connection is the critical factor to creating differentiation, brand affinity, and growth.

Barriers to entry have dropped in almost every industry, and the range of choice has grown exponentially over the last two decades.  There are now over 49 brands of peanut butter, and that is before you include all the “private label” brands available at every grocery store. And the complexity only multiplies if you include all the variation of peanut butter within those brands.

So which brand or product should a customer choose and why, and why should they stay loyal when there is so much choice in every category. How do you create a brand connection and a point of difference in all of this clutter?

Simple…Understand “Why.” Why is the customer buying your brand of peanut butter and what are their deep underlying motivations? Are they complex or simple? Based on utility, image, nostalgia or something else? Are they practical or irrational? If you want to be able to move the dial and attract new customers, you have to get this right.

Look at a brand like Nike…why do they continue to win? I strongly believe it is because they have a strong brand position & purpose that connects directly with the most broadly shared “why” in their category. That shared “why” for their customers is the desire to perform at your best in whatever sport or athletic activity you are participating in. These are people who strive (or at least believe they strive) to be the best.

And boy do they understand that collective “why” and how to position against it. Projecting the image of being at the top of your game is in everything they do, from their product innovation to their advertising to their athletic sponsorships. Take soccer for instance, while Adidas may have won sponsorship of FIFA and the World Cup, the #1 soccer player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, is sponsored by Nike. And this is true in nearly every sport. Nike has a way of finding the very best athlete and using them to remind us that the best athletes choose Nike.

So, the real question is how do you find the most powerful and collective “why” for your industry and brand. Well, you certainly don’t do it by reading sales or media reports from behind your desk or discussing it with your C-suite peers at the water cooler, or even waiting for it to show up in a customer insights report.

The work of finding the “why” is real anthropological work and it should be done up close and in person by the CMO, other members of the leadership team, and candidly by anyone who has an impact on what the customer experiences within your business. The great anthropologists of our time don’t delegate the work of studying their subjects to someone else; they are actively involved in the field work.

I’m not saying that you can’t or shouldn’t hire someone to do deep ethnographies on your customers, but I am saying you should not rely solely on the work of someone else to help inform a decision about your brand position, product, or marketing.

You must get into the field and do some field work. And the truth, having authentic “brand conversations” with your customers is much easier than you might think. I have found that customer love to talk to executives about their products and services and they will open up more to you than to your focus group moderator. In fact, for 20 years I have come out from “behind the glass” at almost every single focus group, and often our most powerful insights have come from that last 10-15 minutes of conversations directly with the customer.

I and my teams have also spent hours in the store each month talking to and shopping with our customers, taking note of their behaviors, discussing their family and work, talking about the reasons they chose to walk in our store or why they decided to pick up that toaster or pair of jeans. The things we would hear at times would amaze us and prompt entirely new pieces of customer insight work and purchase analysis.

That work would help us compose a richer understanding of what was going on in our customer’s mind when she made a purchase or even a return. When she responded to or ignored a marketing communication, or when she passed a merchandising table on the sales floor. Or, when she skipped past pages on our mobile app.

To help you understand how real and powerful this has been over my career let me share a recent experience while I was serving as Chief Marketing Officer at Lane Bryant.

At Lane Bryant, we had a common challenge that many legacy brands face—Lane Bryant had been around since 1904 after all. Our customer base had aged, many younger potential customers didn’t perceive us as relevant, price promotion had become our primary marketing lever, our social connection with customers was soft, and the competition was rampant and growing in our Plus-size apparel category.

We needed to figure out how to reconnect with women and change the conversation about our brand. But how and where should we start?

Well, that is where “brand conversations” come into play. I had all the research a new CMO could want, years of tracking studies, historical purchases analyses, customer segmentation models, and more. The conclusions in all of these reports were solid and well supported. Some pointed to price—we were too expensive for a younger demographic. Some pointed to style—not enough women seemed to like our assortment. Others pointed to relevance—they felt the brand was fine, it was just for “their mom.”

But in all of this work, something was missing. Almost all of the reasons for love or indifference outlined in the research were rational: price, style, convenience, perceived age appropriateness of the brand. But love or hate of a brand isn’t purely rationale; it’s emotional. Sure, love is supported by tangible, rational qualities, but there is always something deeper more poignant below the surface. We wanted to know what that was. And we needed to know it “first hand.”

So we traveled our stores, lots of our stores, talking to women about the love of the brand. And the more women we met and the more conversations we had, the more these clear themes of “why” began to emerge. And a conversation that I had with Yonea in Dallas summed it all up.

Yonea was 35 and a ski shop manager. Yes, I know a ski shop in Dallas, but I guess even Texans need a place to buy skis for their winter adventures. Anyway, she made this statement when I asked her “why” she loved Lane Bryant. She simply said:

“Because when I cross the threshold of Lane Bryant, the “plus-size” drops and I’m just a woman.”  She continued, “In this store, I am seen for whom I am and the fashion I love and not the size of my body.”

Yonea’s statement beautifully captured the sentiment of so many of the personal conversations we were having with women all over the country. Her “why,” their “why” was crystal clear: In our store, they were being seen and celebrated just like any other women in the world. And this feeling endeared them to us. So we started asking other prospective customers if they felt this way in the brand or store of their choice…some said yes, most said no. You see most department stores and even other “plus-size” specialty stores treated plus-size women as second-class citizens. In department stores, plus-size is often not even located near the other women’s apparel.

What was interesting though, is that when asked what they wanted to feel, these prospective customers all had the same answer. They wanted, as Shania Twain put it, to “Feel like a woman.” Not a plus-size woman.

Now I know this sounds so simple in retrospect, especially with all the progress we have made with body diversity in the last three years. But in 2014, this idea of seeing and celebrating “plus-size” women didn’t exist anywhere in culture. The world was still telling them to lose weight, not to love themselves. There wasn’t a single fashion magazine covering plus-size women with any real intent, and there certainly wasn’t a single fashion retailer or fashion brand featuring diverse bodies in advertising.

This powerful insight, found through up close and personal anthropological work, is what set us on a path to develop campaigns and partnerships that would change the national dialogue on body image and rejuvenate our century-old brand.

It gave way to the #ImNoAngel campaign with 15B+ earned social & media impressions; the #PlusIsCampaign with 6B+ earned social & media impressions, and #ThisBody campaign in partnership with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and Ashley Graham which would generate over 9B social & media impressions. There is so much more to the story, but for the sake of space. We will end with this.

Get out of the office and have some Brand Conversations with your customers and potential customers face to face, and you might just find the unlock that you’ve been searching for.

Brian Beitler has led the marketing teams for several leading brands including Kohl’s, Bath & Body Works, Hot Wheels, David’s Bridal, and Lane Bryant, among others.  His success has been built on helping these brands build purposeful connections with their customers, capitalize on the digital and social revolution, and improve the effectiveness of their marketing investments.  He believes in pushing brands to think differently about how they engage and earn loyalty from their customers, and is driven by the belief that the key to success is listening to your customers personally and first hand, and then combining those personal insights with big data to innovate your brand strategy, products, experience, and marketing.

He is currently Chairman of the Board for the Global Retail Marketing Association and served as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Lane Bryant & Catherines, the nation’s leading plus-size apparel retailers, until late 2017.  He is a widely regarded industry speaker and has keynoted at some of the industry’s most noted events including the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, NRF’s Symposium, and the 4A’s Transformation event.

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