Out of the box empathy in marketing

At some point last fall, some smart and brave person at Hyundai made the brilliant decision to look ahead into the future a few months and realize that consumers would place a new car nearly last on their list of life’s necessities come January. By being the first automaker to promise a money-back guarantee should the buyer lose their job, Hyundai accomplished several brilliant marketing moves.

1. They established empathy with their customers.

2. They beat their competition who thought “employee pricing” — letting consumers buy at the same price as insiders — represented empathy. The competition has followed suit and looks like followers.

3. They tapped into the zeitgeist without resorting to the unimaginative marketing message most brands follow these days which is lower total cost of ownership — the aftersale expense which few consumers want to depress themselves with in the elation of acquiring something new. Do you want to talk about depreciation, mean-time-between-failure, and service costs? Meet my accountant.

Marketers have diminished options in a down economy if they cling to their old campaign playbooks. Those playbooks are what I call megaphone tactics. Yell a lot in the right places with the right people by your side and good things will happen.  This is good for selling cigarettes, booze, and hairspray circa the Mad Men Era of the 1960s.

First to go overboard — sports sponsorships. Read Bill Simmons’ great obituary on the NBA “The No Benjamins Association” on ESPN and look at the NASCAR cars rolling around the ovals with white hoods where the sponsor’s logo used to go.

“Here’s a little game to play during your next NBA outing: Look around for how many suites are dark. (You’ll notice them specifically in the corners or behind the baskets.) A dark suite means either that nobody bought it or that somebody did buy it for the season, then made the decision, “Screw it, let’s save the $1,200 [or whatever the number is] on food and drink and not give tonight’s suite tickets to anyone.”

Sports marketing has been whacked. Corporate home rentals for the Masters in Augusta is off 20% this year and woe to the recipient of government bailout money who buys a hospitality box in a baseball stadium this spring.

Second to go overboard: feel-good branding. Those “eagles-on-proud-wings-standing-on-a-rock-spire-in-Utah” ads are done.  If it doesn’t have a solid call to action (please buy our crap now, please), then it’s not running. Just for grins, next time you’re on the mid-town tunnel approach to Manhattan or on any prime billboard region, count up how many are paid and how many are public service announcements.

Third to die: print ads. Sorry, read the remaining headlines while you can, this is the season when dead-tree publishing gets slammed. Business rags are seeing ad counts down 33% year on year. I won’t echo-chamber the terrible news of newspaper bankruptcies in Seattle, Denver, etc. …. The print puppy died and daddy isn’t bringing home a new one.

So, I could wring my hands and be all dour, but no. Instead I want to point out that for those marketers who still have money to put in market, they seem to cling to last year’s playbook, just tuning the message around the advertising equivalent of a slasher flick to say everything must go, go, go at prices too insane to believe. I see it in the airline spam: Lufthansa offering off the wall fares to Paris —  $200 roundtrips to Europe.

What is happening at places like Hyundai is a realization that the rules have changed. Consumers are sitting on their wallets and will continue to. The question marketing needs to consider is not how to align to a corporate strategy built around volumes and market share — cascading strategy based on sales yields little more than direct marketing and demand generation tactics which do nothing to distinguish the company from its competition.

Standing apart from the competition is the heart of the whole branding thing. Differentiating on price is a fool’s game and leads to the whole slasher flick thing. Tossing the brand overboard in a down market strikes me as the equivalent of eating next season’s seed corn.

My modest proposal? If your marketing budget has tanked, and is down 50 percent from last year, the last thing you want to do is spread yourself thin trying to cover last year’s tactics.  This is the time to take a flyer, to do something innovative, to take a risk and consider the high risk tactic that was dreamed about in good times. This is not the time to fall back on classic Four-P marketing. Of those four p’s — Product, Price, Place, Promotion — I recommend.

Product: not the time to roll out a premium luxe model. Nor is it time to start reducing features around the product.  Example — this is not the time to reduce warranty terms, replace stainless steel screws with plastic screws, or cut any corners. The customers are more vigilant than ever. I saw an amazing presentation by the marketing reporter at Businessweek at Google last week and he showed how peanut butter makers are screwing us out of an ounce not by making the jar smaller. Oh no. They use a concave dent on the bottom of the jar (called a “punt” for you oenophiles) to reduce the volume. This is dickheaded and will come back to bite people.

Price: See my screed on taking the marketing message down to the gutter. Anyone can cut a price.  Smart brands like Hyundai go a step further and say “we feel your pain and fear and will do something about it.”

Place: I would not recommend buying the naming rights to a baseball stadium. I would slam the brakes on all traditional media and go 101% online.  Call me digital, but there it is. The traditional media has lost its mass audience effect big time. Media has exploded and fragmented into a million niches. The only way to accurately chase the audience is with a ninja digital team.  I am serious about this. This  Deprecession is the catalyst that is killing the generational gulf between digital immigrants and digital natives. You stand up and wave a traditional campaign, media plan and I guarantee your days are numbered.

Promotion: This is where the opportunity to put on the thinking caps is. No, no viral. No UGC on YouTube. I’m talking killing the notion of the campaign — as Charlene Li said yesterday on a panel, “campaigns are designed to end” — and move to an organic, ongoing, pervasive conversational model with the crowd. This is not social media marketing hand wringing — 99% of the self-annointed gurus couldn’t run a valid social plan if they were paid to do it. This is 180 degree flip from one-way blah-blah message marketing, expensive research and focus groups, and dumb people saying “I know half my advertising works, just not ….”

Promotions need to die and be replaced with full marketing empathy. This is the time to design a product with the customers, the time to listen to their feedback, give them something in a novel way, and break the model being chased by the competition. This is the time to break out with no questions asked service, with golden-rule customer service, with beyond the pale actions that will define the organization and make it beloved, not loathed. This isn’t about freebies, giveaways and concessions. It’s about constant listening and response. ComCast, JetBlue, these are the listeners and doers.

Anyway, enough dour ranting. Bottom line — this recession is the opportunity to kill off the tried and true and invent something new. Even if you decide to only risk a small portion of your seed corn this year, do it, and do it with every expectation of failing, but do it knowing that the customers will notice and maybe even like you for it.

I recommend a re-reading of Doc Searls’ seminal definition of conversational marketing, it’s worth the time.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

7 thoughts on “Out of the box empathy in marketing”

  1. Mostly I see companies responding by running ads playing on “bailouts”. Note – first couple were funny, next thirty just tired.

  2. And how many former first-tier players in the personal computer business that are now down in the trenches with the number fours, fives, sixes and sevens, have the marketing leadership (which includes critical thinking skills above all), to reach down and adapt rather than die.
    I have an idea that before the economic tanking abates we’ll see numerous bouts of technology CEO celebrity death match demotions/promotions. Up in Silicon Valley the number of companies that wish they had better VC brain talent on their boards grows by the day.
    I think econmic darwinism in the technology sector is a fine thing.
    Great post David!

  3. David – good post. I think you should break it into tweets.

    Agree with most of your points, though I’m not sure about pulling the plug on all traditional media. I’m just guessing, but the first time you saw the Hyundai promotion – TV, perhaps, during a Pats game? It would not have had the same impact without the broadcast play. The key is getting what’s left of your spend to work better collectively across media, not individually.

  4. Okay, everyone is giving me grief on the 101% digital marketing mix — fine, I’ll stop being parochial. But seriously — I heard about the Hyundai deal via WOM, not TV.

  5. Hello David,

    I stumpled upon your website while trying to resolve a problem i have with my Lenovo X40 and a poor customer-service at the repair center. I ended-up reading your whole post. Thank you for this post! Really interesting to read that as for various other aspects of a business, as the chinese write with the two signs “wei ji” (wei = danger, ji = opportunity, both mean crisi) a crisis like the one we are living is the opportunity to try, risk and why not, even succeed in innovating. No one will be suprised by a failure!

    But specificly, the importance of the web to reach is crucial today, probably more than tomorrow: people are heading more and more to internet for information and entertainment, and while money is scarce this is even getting bigger.

    Do you conclude by saying that customer service is a must? Do you think that with internet and services like getsatisfaction.com the popular belief of one happy customer will tell one person, one angry one will tell 10 can be changed? Just like with http://www.eastwoodzhao.com/ibmlenovos-innovative-customer-service-new-t61-thinkpad-laptop/

    And finally I thought i was holding since we were talking “social ads” don’t you think that it might become suspiscious? At least with TV ads etc.. there is not hypocrisy: one company does advertise its product/service etc.. with what you are saying this new mix might create a kind of hypocrisy regarding what is customer service, what is advertising, no?

    Thanks for any inshight.

    Havea great week-end!


  6. David,

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read on marketing and brand management. Thanks!

    Hyundai’s approach is inspired. And it is now uniquely theirs. If enough people know about it, every copier will reinforce their originality and customer insight. The few people who actually claim the promised benefit in the event of their job loss will name their children Sonata and Tiburon.

    You are right, this is way above price promotion. On the surface, this is a money back guarantee designed to drive immediate purchase, but so anchored in real needs of customers that it elevates it to a brand positioning play. It does BOTH. I’ve made similar points (ensure your promotions build your brand), but your analysis is outstanding.

  7. David –

    This post was fantastic. As someone who works in interactive marketing/advertising/whateverthecurrentbuzzwordis, I’m learning a LOT from your site.

    I’ve passed your blog on to my coworkers, in hopes that they’ll also adopt a new internet ideology.

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