Poisons that pollute marketing

When fashions change and marketing buzzwords like ‘green’, ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘4×4’ become viewed as poisonous by the very people they are seeking to attract, brands need to be creative to remain competitive.

He agrees, though, that getting the language right for the personality of the product is vital. He says that if brands realise that a certain term is acting as “poison” in its sector, they should look for alternatives. “But when you do, you have to get it right and the ‘remedy’ to the poison [term] has to show this, or it will fall flat on its face, and its positioning will falter because the blogs will attack it,” he cautions.

Many of the messages that companies try to put across using these “poisoned” terms are hard to digest, so staying away from worthy tones and not appearing to preach is vital

Jon Carney, Marvellous

While many of the more obvious moves away from “poison” language are being seen in consumer goods, it’s also present in service businesses. Recruitment business Manpower has launched a global campaign that has changed its terminology from talking about “filling vacancies” to “motivating and inspiring individuals and companies”. It is also talking less about simply putting people in roles and more about “opportunities”. In a recession, the company has decided to focus on presenting looking for a job in a positive light.

Car manufacturers are using similar tactics. The Government has placed a lot of emphasis on a move to electric and hybrid vehicles in the future, offering savings for choosing these vehicles. The move has made the term “4×4” appear poisonous, with brands like Mitsubishi and Nissan choosing alternative terms such as crossover and off-road (see case study, below).

Businesses with large online and internet-based operations are also using the same tactic to try and make the virtual environment more welcoming to consumers. They are beginning to appreciate that terms such as “Web 2.0” are poisonous to their relationships with consumers, as this only makes them sound more complex or distant than they want to be. Instead, companies like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have seized on terms such as “social media” to promote their wares in a more human way (see case study, below).

According to Business in the Community chairman David Varney, marketers have a duty to show their brand is having a positive impact on society and must think carefully about how they demonstrate this to customers. It isn’t good enough to simply use stock phrases and marketing clichés to get across a message.

In times of recession, creativity is at the core of commercial success. The remedies that Marketing Week has set out here are just the beginning of a gradual push towards defining new ways for brands to remain competitive and suit the needs of ever-changing consumer markets.

Brand poisons – and their remedy

Green, eco friendly

No industry is immune to the Government’s calls for a greener Britain with consumers being called on to be more environmentally friendly and socially responsible and businesses asked to assist with this task.

But despite a national Green Britain Day this month and a push by celebrities for campaigns such as “tck, tck, tck”, which aims to force governments to sign a global climate deal, marketers are reluctant to use the term “green” or “eco-friendly” to promote themselves to consumers.

Cathryn Sleight, marketing director of Coca-Cola GB, explains: “There’s no lessening of public concern about green issues but consumers are rightly more sceptical about being lectured or companies that slap a green label on their products and carry on as usual.”

Instead of using unexplained labels about the environment, which are seen as bland and obvious, Sleight says Coca-Cola focuses on efforts to show its credentials by taking action on projects conserving water globally and running noticeable efforts in the UK on recycling and reducing carbon footprints.

“[Consumers] respond positively to companies they see as making a genuine effort to act in a sustainable manner. And the more global the company, the bigger the lead they expect to be set,” Sleight acknowledges.

She adds that no big green stickers are necessary on cans of Coca-Cola.“We are using our marketing expertise and power of our brands to help make our consumers think differently about green issues such as recycling and to encourage changes of behaviour,” she explains.

This approach is similar to how home care products company Method, which is sold in both the US and UK, chooses to market its offerings. Despite using eco-friendly ingredients to make its cleaning products, it does not emphasise this in its marketing.

Louise Roper, Method’s UK marketing director, says: “We see green as an emotional attachment that should be considered in product selection through looking at the labels, not by making the consumer listen to what you have to say when they aren’t interested. Our approach is to emphasise that cleaning with our products means using non-toxic products, eliminating potential hazards.”

While rival Unilever places emphasis on its “Cleaner Planet Plan”, Method focuses on branding itself as “people against dirty” and uses events such as “toxic turn-in days” to promote its eco-friendly credentials instead.

“We can’t compete with large corporation rivals that have huge ad spend at their disposal, but the fact that we are natural means we are able to break into the market through fantastic word-of-mouth. People rely on that human touch and story-telling component connected to a brand. In turn, that helps us to be seen as a natural brand for their home care needs,” Roper adds.

Harry Morrison, general manager of the Carbon Trust Standard Company, says that even companies trying to provide consumers with the best information and use terms that correctly reflect their business can fall foul of cynical consumerism.

“The consumer needs to want to listen and establish for themselves if what they are hearing is credible. Many messages get lost in marketing, throwing into doubt their credibility and robustness. We are working to make sure that it becomes simplified and can be defined as credible immediately,” he says.

It appears that “green” may show companies have the best intentions when used in marketing, but to lose its reputation as brand “poison”, it needs to be backed up by messages about product or service benefits that establish the company as really unique. Otherwise, even the best messages risk being lost.

Brand poisons – and their remedy

Chocolate brand Green & Black’s has been using the Fairtrade mark on its Maya Gold product since 1994 but has never used this fact as part of its above-the-line marketing efforts. Its parent company, Cadbury, has just started producing Fairtrade Dairy Milk, but neither shouts about this in ads.

Natalie Brown, senior brand manager at Green & Black’s, explains: “We feel it’s more important to focus on the chocolate, not the ethical side. It’s an emotive aspect that we are Fairtrade and organic, but we want our above-the-line ads to be a single-minded message.

“Consumers want to hear us talk about chocolate, not preaching about Fairtrade and ethics. They prefer seeing it on the pack, not being told about it. Once they try the product, they are more interested in discovering the story behind it.”

Brand poisons – and their remedy

4×4, SUV

The ailing state of the global car market has been further compounded by a push to cut down on high emissions vehicles and a focus on introducing electric vehicles. The industry has had to alter its marketing to focus more on emission figures and less on vehicle power. One of the ranges to experience the effect of these changes hardest is the 4×4. The sector has been hit hard by higher taxes and increased charges for driving such models and marketers have had to rethink marketing strategies.

Lance Bradley, managing director of Mitsubishi Motors UK, says: “It’s not so great to say 4×4 any more due to the negativity around it, so we have to take an approach of education through communication. It’s about reminding drivers that not all these vehicles are gas-guzzlers.”

Bradley says the sports utility vehicle has suffered from adverse publicity, but adds: “It’s all about having a much more targeted approach to marketing these vehicles and not dwelling on the criticisms. We’ll look at talking about its out-of-road advantages and how it meets Government emissions regulations.”

Mazda and Nissan have taken a different approach to Mitsubishi and labelled their SUVs – the CX-7 and Qashqai, respectively – as “crossover” vehicles.

Jean-Pierre Diernaz, marketing communications general manager for Nissan, says: “The term 4×4 is surrounded by controversy, so manufacturers face the challenge of identifying where the car sits in the market and position it there. We use ‘crossover’, but don’t emphasise that. Instead, we try to keep the model at the top of the consumer’s mind through story telling, emphasising its relevance, conviction and entertainment factors.”

The company has recently signed up to build a plant for the production of advanced lithium-ion batteries and has pledged to “lead the world in the mass marketing of zero emission vehicles”.

Diernaz adds: “The new zero emissions will throw up a new challenge for us to be seen as an innovative brand, as well as a brand that educates users and corrects urban myths. At the same time, we can’t risk being seen as boring, so there will have to be a certain level of engagement injected in so that consumers are convinced by its merits and want to buy these vehicles.”

Mitsubishi has taken a similar approach and is taking part in the Government’s electric car pilots with its i MiEV model, but Bradley says that the language will not be about gas emissions, but efficiencies. “Customers aren’t stupid. You can’t make claims and not back them up, so it’s more likely that car marques will avoid statements that lack credibility and instead focus on efficiencies, like BMW has with efficient dynamics.”

Volkswagen has also gone down this route for its models. Its latest campaign promotes its fuel-efficiency technology, rather than talking about its individual products and addressing any misgivings expressed about them.

Hartmut Seeger, VW’s international advertising director, says: “The car market faces enough difficulties without having to worry about alienating customers by promoting vehicles which are considered outdated and inefficient. Therefore we have to change the way we advertise and prioritise terms such as ‘crossover’ or simply reflect on the cutting-edge fuel-efficiency technology we offer.

“Eventually this will move to ‘zero emissions’, but until then we must empathise with the needs of the modern consumer and continue trying to refuel the ailing car industry globally.”

Brand poisons – and their remedy

Web 2.0, cloud computing

Digital marketers have had to change the complex language used by technology experts to make it more appealing to the ordinary user. Some consumers see terms like Web 2.0 and “cloud computing” as marketing poison, making the sector seem complex and inaccessible.

Many companies are now turning to broader terms such as “social media” to describe their offerings, in the hope of giving technology a human face. Hewlett-Packard chief marketing officer Michael Mendenhall explains: “We have to make this simple for users to understand. If you say social media, people instantly think of Twitter or Facebook, but mention Web 2.0 and people turn off.”

Ashley Highfield, managing director and vice-president of Microsoft Consumer and Online UK, shares this view. “If you are encouraging consumers to use your services online, you have to speak to them in their language and make them want to engage with your services and socialise with other people from similar communities.”

Mendenhall adds that the online community is growing by millions of people every day, who are making their own content and expressing themselves. HP cannot afford to miss out on being part of this conversation by positioning itself as too distant from all these people-focused areas.

Making it a core component of the marketing mix is essential, says Mendenhall. “This explosion of data reflects a paradigm shift in the way people communicate, collaborate and engage. Ideas, opinions and, in fact, attention are no longer the proprietary assets of a few powerful, centralised organisations.”

While using social media as a term provides him with wider marketing opportunities, Mendenhall admits he has to be careful to find something unique in the social sphere to make his company’s products stand out. He admits: “For marketers, this presents enormous challenges. How do we integrate social media into our brands? How do we join the conversation in a natural and authentic way? Does the 30-second TV spot or multimillion dollar Super Bowl ad still make sense as the centrepiece of a campaign?”

Highfield says that his brand’s recent “I’m a PC” campaign aims to tap into this idea of getting people to try out services and does not use any complex terms to bamboozle consumers. He claims: “Having an approach that makes technology simple means that we can really promote the internet as an advertising playground, with an infinitely greater ability to target audiences by areas of interest and demographics.”

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