Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One Big Anti Wal-Mart Ad

Walmart sells stuff at very low prices. That's the very simple idea that the corporation has worked extremely hard to cultivate and its success in delivering on their low-price promise is the very reason that a small store in Arkansas can grow into the world's largest retailer. Of course, achieving perfection at passing savings along to consumers requires sacrifice from many different stakeholders. However, it's popular opinion that Walmart's non-management employees working in the store every day sacrifice the most for savings. Store employees are paid too little so few can pocket every last penny of the remaining fortune. Employees don't receive proper benefits and the working conditions are not what they should be. In general, there is zero glamor in working at a Walmart. Like it or not, these powerful sentiments are symbolic of the Walmart brand and provide real reasons people choose not to buy from Sam.

For Walmart, battling this negative perception is more difficult when reality is obvious to consumers. The world's largest retailer is in the nation's highest court, arguing to prevent six former employees from organizing millions more in their gender discrimination suit. Although the Supreme Court is not ruling on the merits of the sexual discrimination lawsuit itself, any controversy in this area greatly affects Walmart's image. In my opinion, any highly publicized court case brought on by former employees is one big anti-Walmart advertisement. This case, just like any effective advertising, reinforces an idea that people already believe to be true: Walmart mistreats employees.

Walmart's perception problems could get worse before they get better. If the court upholds the class certification of the women, Walmart is going to have to endure a rerun of its very public attack ad when the sexual discrimination merits of the case are heard. Regardless of the outcome of that potential case, the very idea of millions of women banding together to fight their one time employer is more devastating than any potential dollar amount that they risk losing in court.

The power to influence is the motive behind all advertising. This power only grows in magnitude when the realities our human experience are reinforced. For Walmart, the reality of facing millions of lawsuits or even just one as big as the chain itself are equal indications of a problem; a very grim human experience for its employees.

This post appeared on Talent Zoo Media's Beyond Madison Avenue in its original form, minus the alternate ending.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sierra Mist Ad Failed By Strategy

This month PepsiCo's Sierra Mist Natural debuted a new spot to promote the fact that it now uses real sugar to make the drink, not the more commonly used high fructose corn syrup. The change to the drink's formula provides a critical point of difference from the category leader Sprite, and will certainly appeal to the fast growing anti-high fructose syrup crowd. The bold new spot is executed very well. It's clear and simple and uses a direct comparison to Sprite, which it disregards as "fake" because of its unnatural, lab-created sweeteners and preservatives.

The ad is Sierra Mist Natural's second attempt at introducing the real sugar difference to soda consumers. In their first attempt last year, the key differentiating message was buried under pointless creative, like talking rocks and the senseless line "the soda nature would drink if nature drank soda." The new campaign fixes this and is much more clear.

However, there is still a problem with the campaign that mucks up its great message: the converted name Sierra Mist Natural. Initially, I was confused. I thought Sierra Mist Natural was a line extension and that "regular" Sierra Mist was still using the artificial ingredients. I thought to myself, "That will kill the core brand." It wasn't until doing research and reading its Wikipedia page that I realized that was the core brand now. PepsiCo has completely scrapped the original Sierra Mist — all except for the name, of course. They had to keep that. The problem with using this naming strategy is that Sierra Mist Natural is introducing a new product but with a name that maintains all the negative perceptions of the past product.

I'm sure the argument in the boardroom was that the Sierra Mist name has equity in it. Yet, through the years, the brand equity in the name has only amounted to one percent of the soft drink category. Such a strategy is even more stunning because PepsiCo clearly understands the power of a name. This very move to create a "real sugar" soft drink is a response to consumer backlash to a terrible name: high fructose corn syrup. Scientifically, it's exactly the same as sugar in every way. It just sounds terrible so consumers won't consume it. They knew that the "high fructose" name was holding their product back.

Furthermore, if you do a little digging after watching the ad, the naming strategy gets even cloudier. Sierra Mist Natural, obviously billed as a healthier alternative because of its ingredients, shares a name with Diet Sierra Mist, which contains the highly controversial ingredient aspartame. So what exactly is core to the Sierra Mist brand?

My guess is confusion. While the execution of the new ad is excellent, its effectiveness will be minimized because its strategy is off. It takes more than slapping the word natural on the end of name for consumers to believe it. It must be who you are and even who you have always been. That's why they needed a fresh start with a new brand name in order to gain significant share from Sprite and 7UP.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


All non generic brands ask their customers to pay a premium. But for what?

If your brand asks its customers to pay a premium because it's a premium name then you're brand is getting it wrong. The reason customers pay a premium is the position of the brand (or what the name stands for).

Do your customers know what that is? Be sure to give them reasons to pay more for the brand.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New Fast Food Buzzwords Fool No One

An article published in AdAge yesterday dissected the current trend of fast food chains using vague buzzwords like wholesome, fresh, or all-natural in ads to convince consumers that their products are healthy without risking the drawback of creating the perception of a lack of taste. Even better for advertisers? These claims don't seem to be drawing the eye of regulators like more specific health-related claims. According to Darren Tristano, executive Vice President at the restaurant consultancy Technomic, the vague buzzwords may be a problem for consumers but will ultimately "evoke a positive feeling toward the food and toward the restaurant" because "the perception is driving the reality."

However, I'd argue that this strategy is flawed. First, the perception and positioning of the brand and its advertisements will always affect the perceptions of the product. If there's a conflict between the core values of the brand and the advertising, the associations with healthy food that advertisers hope to make with their new buzzwords simply won't work. Consumers won't suddenly view a fast-food chain as an authority on healthy living when they have spent their entire previous existence serving up mountains of greasy burgers and a constant stream of colas. Without some authority in such a realm, like health, their voice will not be one that consumers will trust.

Additionally, fast food marketers and advertisers have resorted to using vague terminology because they're hoping to deceive consumers by implying something that isn't necessarily true. For instance, the "bowl full of wholesome" position that McDonald's is taking with its breakfast oatmeal doesn't match reality when, as Mark Bittman of the New York Times points out, "it contains more sugar than a Snickers bar." Such a strategy leads to the classically flawed advertising mistake of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Furthermore, any success that fast food marketers might be enjoying using their vague buzzword strategy could come to a screeching halt when restaurants are required to list calorie counts on their menus.

The problem is that Mr. Tristano and the buzzword happy marketers and advertisers are getting their strategies backwards. Instead of the theory that perception will drive reality, I believe that sustainable success is enjoyed when reality drives perception. It's the job of a marketer and a brand's advertisements to shape perception by best communicating such realities.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo Media's Beyond Madison Avenue blog.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Proudly Made In The US of... Huh?

The ABC World News with Diane Sawyer recently ran an interesting series to ask its viewers if they knew what items in their homes were made in America. Their public experiment with a family in Texas prompted me to have a discussion with my mom about goods born in American, during which I proudly declared that my New Balance sneakers were created in the good Ole' US of A.

I knew this was true because I remember once having a conversation with a coworker about New Balance shoes being made in America (near their hometown). And I even remember New Balance touting this in a recent patriotic ad campaign .

So, I was more than a little shocked when looked at the inside of my shoes and saw "Made In China" on the tag.

It turns out that only one out of every four New Balance shoes is made by American workers. Furthermore, for the 25 percent that are American, New Balance qualifies American made as 70 percent of the value of the shoe has origins in the States; whereas the Federal Trade Commission guidelines say "the product should contain no- or negligible- foreign content."

I'd like to thank the World News for opening my eyes a bit. There I was, feeling deceived, just like the family in the story that had nothing left in their home except one American made vase.