Thursday, October 30, 2008

Corn Syrup's Sticky Situation: Can You Change Consumer Perception?

Have You Heard? Corn Syrup is Good for You!

Alright, so that's probably not the complete truth. We all know high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) isn't the next "health food." But recent commercials released by the Corn Refiners Association attempt to convince consumers that corn syrup in "reasonable amounts" is completely safe. This campaign ( according to CRA president (Audrae Erickson), "is designed to correct the record...not a campaign to drive consumption (of corn syrup)" (per AP article posted on MSNBC).

See the commercials:
Corn syrup has faced public criticism, primarily due to studies linking obesity problems to sweetened beverages. Per the Mayo Clinic, "...research has yielded conflicting results about the effects of high-fructose corn syrup. For example, various early studies showed an association between increased consumption of sweetened beverages (many of which contained high-fructose corn syrup) and obesity. But recent research — some of which is supported by the beverage industry — suggests that high-fructose corn syrup isn't intrinsically less healthy than other sweeteners, nor is it the root cause of obesity."

Recently I've written entries about how deceiving consumers can negatively impact a brand. And although I think the corn syrup campaign message is misleading and also don't think it will be completely effective in "re-educating" consumers, I don't plan to turn this into another "what you shouldn't do" entry. What I am going to talk about is how the issue driving this campaign is a realistic marketing problem. For example:
  • What do you do if your product/brand has a bad reputation in the public eye – because the consumer is misinformed?
  • What does it take to change consumer behavior/perceptions about your brand/product(s)?
  • Will an ad campaign like this set consumers straight and be able to re-educate them/make them change their beliefs?
  • Is changing perceptions possible when the message isn't consistent? (i.e. various external sources are promoting different “facts” about your product)

Changing the way consumers view a company, product, brand, etc. is one of the largest challenges a marketer will face. It is difficult to break perception since it has been developed over time from a variety of influences – psychographics, knowledge, feelings, family, culture, etc. The good (or bad) new is that perceptions are dynamic, changing as the consumer becomes more or less familiar with things. And thus, as marketers, we try different things to change the consumer's mind. Most of the time we look to the 4-P's: Product, Placement, Pricing, and Promotion. For example:

  • Product: Is there a component of the product that is turning off consumers? Should we change the product all-together?
  • Placement: Is there any way to re-position the product so it will appeal to a different customer or fit into a different product category?
  • Pricing: Sometimes reducing the price will cause a consumer to purchase the product (although many times this may cause a temporary rather than permanent change in behavior unless competition is high and the products in the category don't have many differentiating factors other than price).
  • Promotion: You can change the affect a product has on consumers through pairing the product with a desired stimulus or put out appealing advertisements. You can put out advertising or materials that make the product or its attributes a compliment the target consumer's beliefs. You can attempt to re-educate a consumer.
  • A Combination of the Above: In an extreme case, some people would say the solution is to "brand, brand, brand." In other words, change multiple "P's"...update your image, release new information, redesign the product's packing, etc.

Now back to the "Sweet Surprise" campaign. The situation facing the Corn Refiners Association is unusual. The issue consumers have is with the product itself. The CRA can't add something to the product to make it more appealing - it is what it is. They also can't sponsor a study proving HFCS is completely safe because first, consumers won't listen to the results (CRA study = self-serving agenda) and second, consumers know corn syrup is not all-natural, it's chemically processed. Further, the CRA isn't able to change the consumer's ideals - you won't be successful in making processed/artificial the new ideal for food when the trend is going towards healthy, organic, natural, etc. Nor will you be able to make a consumer put "being healthy" lower on their list of priorities. Finally, corn syrup faces a non-compensatory consumer strategy. Lars Perner from the Marshall School of Business at USC quotes: “A compensatory decision involves the consumer “trading off” good and bad attributes of a product…Occasionally, a decision will involve a non-compensatory strategy. For example, a parent may reject all soft drinks that contain artificial sweeteners. Here, other good features such as taste and low calories cannot overcome this one “non-negotiable” attribute.”

Based on the television ads, the strategy the Corn Refiners Association has decided to pursue is to attempt to re-educate consumers. However, with all of the negatives mentioned above, what do you think they should do? Maybe it's time for the CRA to come up with a new product to market that actually benefits consumers (Innovation people! Give the people something they do want...consumer tastes have changed!) and give up on the stale, sweetener of yesteryear that is leaving a bad taste in consumers' mouths.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Making Mud Pies: Mudslinging's Impact on Brands and Consumers

Photo: Brand Week

It’s crunch time in the U.S. presidential race and (to no surprise) we find ourselves being exposed to a plethora of political mudslinging. Since big bucks are involved (in 2006, most of the $164M spent on political advertising went towards attacks on the competition (USA Today)), I have often wondered whether or not these ads actually achieve the intended results. Notre Dame Marketing Professor Joel E. Urbany conducted research after the 2004 election and showed political mudslinging could work - to an extent. One article quotes his research: “Negative advertising, in spite of the fact that we don’t like it...can shift opinion...14% percent of those surveyed changed their minds about their favored candidate after watching negative ads.” Additionally, John Geer a political science professor at Vanderbilt University wrote a 2006 book (In Defense of Negativity) about how attack ads actually help the democratic process and can make campaigns more focused and productive. However, in a USA Today article, Ray Seidelman, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College said: "Negative ads only work in two situations — when you are incredibly desperate or when you're incredibly close to the end.” And ND's Urbany has said he is now reconsidering his 2004 study based on the fact that this year the number of negative political ads outnumber the positive ones (he wonders if they will actually have a reverse effect).

Although typically we think of mudslinging when it comes to politics, brands have also used attack ads over the years to try to bring more business their way (or prevent people from purchasing competitors' products). Some of the culprits? Mega brands Miller vs. Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi Co. vs. Coca-Cola, Progresso vs. Campbell’s, Apple vs. Microsoft, and Arby’s vs. McDonald’s and Burger King. Some examples? How about Progresso claiming Campbell's was a child’s brand - a battle that has recently evolved into Campbell's ads attacking Progresso's ingredients (photo above). Then there are "classic" blind taste test ads between Pepsi and Coke. In 2006, many of you may recall Arby’s claiming they used 100% chicken in their sandwiches unlike McDonald’s and Burger King (who only used 70%). And what about the never-ending "I'm a Mac" vs. "I'm a PC" saga? Or who can forget the continual battle of the brewers? Even right now, when some of us may have thought the "low-carb" fad was over, there's an ad for MGD Light 64 that shows someone asking for a Michelob Ultra "64" and the server pouring out half of the bottle of beer. Yes, attack ads have become a staple in modern day advertising. But what do experts say about this practice? What is the impression you’re creating on the consumer? And are you doing your brand image - one that you've spent a lot of time building up - a disservice by resorting to negative advertising? Although there could be a legal/libel risk in bashing your competitor, could you also make your brand less appealing to consumers?

Just last month, David Dunne, a professor of Marketing and Advertising at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management wrote an article about attack ads. He states: “Attack ads work in politics because political campaigns are different from advertising soap or shampoo. Voter psychology, timing and competition make it inevitable that one or both sides will use negative ads during a campaign.” The key idea here is that in political campaigns, people are more likely to distrust politicians and thus believe bad things about them, and that compressed timing works to an advantage. “In business, advertising campaigns are designed to build brand equity over time.” The WSJ reports: "Attack ads, when they get too intense, can confuse consumers. Several years ago, an ad war between SABMiller's Miller Brewing (now MillerCoors) and Anheuser-Busch got so heated that it was hard to keep track of which ad was for which brewer..." And just today, Brand Week posted an article noting expert opinions on the increase in business-related attack ads. They reported this tactic could actually hurt the brands involved and put entire product categories at risk: "If I'm a consumer, all of a sudden, I might say, 'Canned soup might be convenient, but I know it's not as wholesome as soup I might buy at a Whole Foods or gourmet shop,'" said Paul Kurnit, a marketing professor at Pace University, New York." CEO of the Wisner Marketing Group, Jim Wisner stated: "Private labels tend to get a boost when big brands engage in a category battle."
But even with these risks, attack ads are on the rise. A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal reported: "The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which acts as the ad police, is fielding many more complaints from marketers who believe they are the victim of misleading comparison ads...September also saw complaints jump about 50 percent from last year..." They also wrote that Russ Klein (president of global marketing strategy at Burger King), said "over the next 12 months, the company's customers are going to get a "richer dose" of competitive ads than they have in the past 12." I'm not sure this is the direction companies should be taking.

We all know the big thing currently on consumers' minds is the economy. Since people are feeling down in the dumps about money, I highly doubt a bunch of negative ads are going to encourage them to up their spending. To me, most of these negative ads say "I'm a tattletale" -or- "I'm a big bully." Who ever likes someone like that? I think what consumers want to hear right now instead is "I'm a bargain" or "I'm someone you can trust." For example, a better execution of the Campbell's campaign would be to not even mention the competition. Why? Campbell's claims "consumers are reading food labels 60 percent more than they did a year ago (WSJ)." Through ads solely focusing on Campbell's and their ingredients, they should be able to convince health-conscious individuals to buy their product without leaving a muddy taste in consumers' mouths and possibly degrading their wholesome brand image.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What's YOUR Priority?: The USPS and its conflicting messages

A few days ago I wrote an entry on customer deception - about how some brands were relying on short-sizing to keep product prices constant and help preserve their bottom line. Continuing on this theme, I came across a blog discussing how the US Postal Service is yet another brand deceiving consumers to help out their financial state. Bruce Watson from Walletpop talks about what he calls a scam by the Postal Service. He writes: “In an effort to combat its budget deficit of over $1 billion, the United States Postal Service is, allegedly, trying to upsell its premium services while hiding its less expensive options. According to an anonymous source, the USPS has instructed its employees to stop offering inexpensive shipping; whenever customers come in with anything larger than a letter, employees are supposed to ask if they want Express Mail guaranteed overnight delivery or Priority Mail. If the customer asks about cheaper options, the employee is then allowed to discuss First Class, Parcel Post, or Media Mail. The key element here is that the customer has to mention the cheaper options, as the counterperson can't.”

What I find interesting about Bruce's entry is the fact that just this week, the USPS announced their 5 year strategic plan called “
Vision 2013.” Vision 2013 "
rests on three major strategies: 1) Focus on what matters most to customers. 2) Leverage our strengths to create customer value and profits to invest in continued improvement. 3) Embrace change in the way we respond to emerging customer needs and a rapidly evolving business environment.” Regarding focusing on what matters to customers, the USPS plans to build on trusted relationships, communicate effectively, start with customer needs, and provide excellent customer experiences. In their words, “being "good enough" is not sufficient to increase customer loyalty and gain new business.”

Although it has a long and enduring brand heritage, it's no secret the United States Postal Service does not have the most sterling reputation. In January of 2006, Brand Channel wrote an article criticizing the brand ("USPS - Return to Sender") stating "presently, a country's postal service is a necessary evil." They noted that "...the brand image of the postal service is largely shaped by its customers' visits to the local post office, and occasional undelivered or late mail." And based on their documented experience (a visit to a Post Office in NYC near Columbia), the brand image was definitely not a positive one.
Since the USPS obviously needs to take some drastic measures to help improve their brand, Vision 2013, seems like it should be a way to help turn around this "brand gone bad." However, I wonder when exactly this 5-year-plan is slated to be kicked into high gear - now or later? If the rumors circulating the internet are true, being deceptive about your product offerings isn’t really a good start. Communicating effectively? Building on trusted relationships? People are going to think this is a joke. Well, then again, maybe it is...and if so, the joke's on us.