The dizzy days of sport shopping are over. Good riddance! The reckless excess has left the country reeling and hung over, waking up from the keg party of easy-credit anything and no-money-down everything to the reality of a trashed house stuffed with stuff nobody could really afford—or ever needed. But endless stories of foreclosures and bailouts aside, it was also bad for branding.
Let’s get real: How much skill does it take to shoot fish in a barrel? For the past several years that’s exactly what marketers have been doing. A lot of people got by on minimal effort. You didn’t need to think very hard, or very smart, or very long. Everything was go, go, go.
But a boom time doesn’t change the fundamentals.
A brand is a promise. And while every brand promises something a little different, at its essence is a pact with consumers.
What we are witnessing now in the world of branding and marketing is a correction, running parallel to the economic one.
It is a correction of the misperception that brands can get by on empty promises, and bling so brightly as to blind people to reality.
What matters now is value and values. But honestly, it has always mattered. It was just easier to bling. But hard times are not about what is easier. They are about what is real, and finding out what is real takes asking some hard questions about your brand. So ask yourself, what does my brand promise, and is that promise authentic? Is it based in substance, and does it connect with what consumers need? Because right now, it is all about needs.
Compare Wal-Mart and Target .
Target lives in a land of wants, while Wal-Mart’s branding has always, aggressively focused on value and values. When the recession hit, what branding best resonated with consumers? Wal-Mart. Consumers are cutting back, but they are still spending. The difference is that their spending now affirms their recognition of reality, not their escape from it. Smart brands will start recognizing reality too.
More than ever, brands have to proactively demonstrate that the values that resonate with consumers are shared by the brand. And not only shared—confirmed and empowered. But be careful. Any branding efforts that come across as reactive or pandering are going to look like gimmicks—and gimmicks are even worse than empty promises. An empty promise just makes you look out of step; a gimmick makes you look sneaky. If your brand’s efforts at relevance come across as a ploy, you have lost.
Let’s end with a shining example of how to do it right. Here’s to Hyundai. Way back in January 2009—approximately 100 years ago—the Korean car company recognized the profound and escalating fear of job instability, and its potential to erode sales dramatically. So they made a radical, almost shocking, promise: If you lost your job within a year of buying a Hyundai, they would buy the car back.
It was right there on the Hyundai Web site: “If you find that you cannot make your payment because of a covered life changing event, we'll allow you to return your vehicle and walk away from your loan obligation—and in most cases we will cover most, if not all of the difference."
In this masterstroke of marketing, Hyundai exercised beautifully the three most important things a brand should exhibit in hard times.
The first is authenticity.
This is not an offer that would have worked for Mercedes.
It was a program that proved Hyundai understands who it is and where it lives as a brand, and underscored the reliable affordability that serves as its promise. The second is sensitivity. By acknowledging the emotional and financial impact of the economy, Hyundai forged a very unique and powerful connection to their consumers. The third is boldness. Instead of trying to stay low and ride it out, Hyundai offered more, not less. The result? The down economy actually provided Hyundai with opportunity, as the company gained brand equity and market share.
Authenticity, sensitivity and boldness. Are they the cornerstones of your branding? If not, think how you can put them in place—sooner, not later. If you are waiting for the storm to blow over so you can get back to business as usual, you are in for even rougher times than you think.
So let your brand’s ice sculptures melt. If it’s blinging, make it blinged. It’s time for marketers to make and keep real promises. And you know what? That’s a good thing. For everyone.
Lisa Rosenberg is a Partner and Managing Director of Porter Novelli, a global PR agency. She is responsible for the operational and business leadership of Porter Novelli's New York office and its Consumer Marketing Group. Lisa also heads up PN Entertainment and provides strategic counsel and senior oversight to clients including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Reckitt Benckiser and Johnson & Johnson.