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Marketing Messages Get a Reality Check

Traditional values, not glitz, will engage consumers in '09.

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Alexander McQueen McQ clothes for under $50, a DJ spinning dance tunes and a dimly lit, clubby atmosphere awaited at Target’s McQ pop-up shop last weekend.

Courtesy Photo

The decision in the court of consumer opinion is loud and clear — get real.

Forget about focusing marketing messages on bling, fantasies or the idea that something is simply new and fabulous, agency executives and trend forecasters said. What’s going to resonate with consumers in 2009 is an embrace of traditional values, a story about a product’s heritage or an empathetic signal that a marketer knows of the trials — and hopes — of the public in a downtrodden economy.

This story first appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Cartier gets it, and so does Target, Stella McCartney, Wal-Mart and Starbucks, among others marketing, experts said.

“Consumers don’t know who to trust,” said John Gerzema, chief insights officer at Young & Rubicam, citing bank failures, decimated housing values and plummeting personal wealth.

“Marketers will flee to honesty as a safe haven,” he projected, one of many who said simpler, straightforward marketing plays will hit home with skeptical shoppers. “A lot of what’s riding on the new Obama administration — cleaning up hypocrisy and toxic assets and emphasizing integrity — will cross over into the marketing sphere.”

With Americans cutting back, saving more and reassessing what’s important in their lives, they may be unpersuaded by campaigns suggesting they purchase fashions, jewelry and watches simply because they’re newly offered and they’ll look attractive in them.

In a period of uncertainty and prudence, “one message people want to hear is: ‘We know what you’re going through,” said Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer at Porter Novelli. “There is disgust with bling, things that glitter — except with images and messages of romance and enduring values. The notion of what it takes to be part of a community is going to be a lot more modest; not lavish, like a catered dinner party.”

Campaigns marketing executives consider in tune with these pragmatic times include:

• Print ads from Cartier spotlighting its heritage by stating “One hundred years of U.S. passion and free spirit. 1909 to 2009.”

• Target’s signature red, oversize postcard mailer asking, “Looking for a new place to buy electronics and housewares? Target is here for you.” So were photos of hot brands at “unbelievable prices,” like a Sony flat-screen TV and an Apple iPhone, and an offer of $10 off on such things through Jan. 31.

• Starbucks’ “It’s bigger than coffee” call for community service and query “You in?” via TV commercials, as impetus for people to get involved, post their commitment to service on the brand’s Web site (and win a free cup of coffee in January).

“Cartier’s current print advertising campaign offers a touch of glamour paired with substance, which is extremely important at the moment,” said Olivier Stip, Cartier’s senior vice president of marketing. “The campaign focuses on our iconic collections — Love, Trinity, Panther — timeless designs that represent the House of Cartier.”

One recent ad, headlined “Buckle Up,” featured a belt whose buckle is inspired by “one of Cartier’s most famous collections,” the Santos series of watches. The ad’s message and image conjure a sense of value in the brand’s tradition.

“Stories have to start being told about the brand: what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it,” said Raul Martinez, chief creative officer at AR, who cited Stella McCartney, Patagonia and Starbucks as being among the relatively few brands already doing so. “We’re trying to build this with Banana Republic’s spring campaign, so that the customer can feel a part of the brand and communicate back.”

Music forms that bridge in Banana’s “City Stories” campaign that broke this week online at bananarepublic.com/citystories and in a print ad last Friday in WWD, featuring bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. The spring campaign features nine musicians in all, including Liz Phair and David Sanchez. Stories about the musicians are told at the Web site, along with music downloads and special offers, starting with the 20 percent off given with a purchase of $100, from Feb. 17-25, and a “City Sounds” iTunes collection with any purchase made at a store, Feb. 17-27.

In the “Thoughts” portion of “Stella’s World” on McCartney’s Web site, the designer tells visitors her namesake fashion house “recycles more than two tons of paper a year” and has developed “100 percent biodegradable” bags, made of corn, that will decompose in a year, if they’re thrown away. (She encourages their reuse.)

At the Starbucks Shared Planet section of starbucks.com, the coffee chain’s analog-styled flip counter has recorded 3,708 customers who claim to have taken Starbucks’ mug pledge, bringing their own to the shops and getting a 10 cent discount per cup. The site also reports its employees and customers volunteered 320,000 hours of community service in 2007 and that Starbucks has donated $10 an hour, to as much as $1,000, for each nonprofit project aided by the volunteers.

As people focus more on their day-to-day lives and over-the-top consumption fades, brands fostering “more open communication” with their customers via the two-way medium of the Internet can become “more important” in everyday lives, said Martinez, whose advertising clients include Brooks Brothers, Eli Tahari, and Jones New York.

“The number-one thing is value and values: What is it worth and what’s good about it?” Porter Novelli’s Salzman said of the consumer mind-set. “Everybody from MAC to Wal-Mart to Pepsi to McDonald’s [are likely] beneficiaries of that. All seem to care about the community, give back, are not ostentatious. Our propensity to keep trading up our homes, cars, computers is probably going to be wiped out.”

First Lady Michelle Obama’s willingness to wear and talk about her affordable clothes from J. Crew or Target, for example, may incline more shoppers to feel “stylish” in whatever they’re comfortable wearing, said Gerzema of Young & Rubicam. “It’s fashionable pragmatism. The Michelle Obama effect. She’s completely unapologetic” about what she is wearing.

In difficult times, fashion could be relevant as a pleasurable experience that can be had inexpensively. For fashion brands to pull it off, though, marketing consultant Marc Gobé said, “They are going to have to be fairer and smarter in working with consumers to bring them the best deal — a good balance between price, product and environment.”

Ad slogans that could gain greater cultural currency this year include J.C. Penney’s message “Every day matters,” Wal-Mart’s proposition to “Save more. Live better,” and Target’s encouragement to “Expect more. Pay less.”

Marketing experts see the “more” in Target’s message as suggesting a high style quotient at low prices. In the Feb. 8 edition of The New York Times, a four-color ad on the back page of The City section invited people to check out the discount chain’s two-day Alexander McQueen pop-up store by taking this message a step further: “Shop the Target McQ market. High fashion. Street-smart prices.”

The 18-month-old Wal-Mart slogan (“Save more. Live better.”) references the brand’s heritage, channeling the speech founder Sam Walton made at the company’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters upon receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George H.W. Bush in March 1992.

“If we work together, we’ll lower the cost of living for everyone…we’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save money and have a better life,” Walton said at the award ceremony, held one month before he died.

As a restatement of Walton’s remark, Wal-Mart’s current slogan can gain traction. “It has become more relevant as the economy has become more difficult for some of our customers,” said Stephen Quinn, Wal-Mart executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “It’s important for marketers to stick to who they really are; a time with great transparency and skepticism.

“In our [current] TV commercials, we show how people can save hundreds of dollars a year by eating cereal and brewing coffee at home, instead of eating out,” Quinn said.

Given the public’s mood, “minimal hype” in marketing is called for, said Tom Geismar, a principal partner in graphic design firm Chermayeff & Geismar, which created a new A|X logo and emblems that are being applied to most A|X Armani Exchange products, starting with the spring and summer collections. For Beehouse, a new South Korean fashion brand, Chermayeff & Geismar created a logo consisting of a stylized, lowercase “b” with the bowl of the “b” in the hexagonal shape of a honeycomb. The idea was to suggest simple, casual, affordable designs.

“We try to be straightforward and direct,” Geismar said, “to clarify what it is [on offer], to give people the choice — and not the latest trend.”

 

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