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What makes a financial services firm relevant?

Jerry Johnson · May 31st, 2013

Money is a commodity. You won’t find much difference between the dollar bill you have in your pocket today and the one that may show up next week. Indeed, even the physicality of money is disappearing. Now it is just a number on your banking app.

But while money is a commodity, it is also a lightning rod. There are few things that spark more emotions and personal sensitivities than money. While this has always been true (remember, like politics, it isn’t something to be talked about in polite company…), it is particularly true in today’s environment where people lurch from one economic crisis and financial meltdown to another.

We learned a lot about the topic when recently for a related project; we reviewed hundreds of financial services firms’ advertising campaigns over a five-year period. The idea was simple. Companies spend billions pouring money into 30-second ads. We thought it reasonable, therefore, to assume that these ads are somehow reflective of what these companies assume is most relevant for their potential customers.

We found that the campaigns tended to fall into one of five positioning “buckets:”

  • You can have confidence in us;
  • Our size makes us important;
  • We are the intelligent choice;
  • We cherish relationships; and
  • We have values beyond the accumulation of wealth.

And further, what we found was this: while historically financial institutions have focused on confidence, recently more and more financial institutions focus on the “softer” elements of relationships and values. In general, we’re seeing institutions move from the colder elements of “big,” “smart,” and “bold,” to the softer elements of “connections” and “ethics.”

For years, the most common theme in financial services was that of “confidence” and its sister emotion, “fear.” Why? Because so few of us are confident and so many of us are fearful about money and our financial futures. We saw this 20 years ago in doing work with The Prudential. People want a “rock of Gibraltar.” We see the counter – confidence vs. fear – in a series of ads from John Hancock (done by Hill Holiday) with two people texting and coming back to that lingering question … “will we ever get through this thing called retirement?” There are many, many other examples of this (e.g. Ameriprise’s “You Need a Plan” with the late Dennis Hopper), but it all is an interplay of confidence vs. fear. The idea is to gain relevance by providing confidence in an uncertain world.

Then there is relevance through scale. That is, reminding folks that you are big and therefore important. Some 20 years ago, Riggs National Bank launched a famous commercial that touted the Washington DC institution as the “most important bank in the most important city in the world.” Size, scale, heft is another primary theme that runs through financial services messaging. Back when too big to fail was still too big to fail, this was the natural evolution of a “fear” message. Don’t be afraid, we’re big. Moreover, with “big,” you can do anything. “Big” is empowering. “Big” is macho. Taken to its extreme, you can see it played out in one of my favorite commercials, Anthony Hopkins’ spot for Barclay’s appropriately titled: Big.

The “when E.F. Hutton talks … people listen” campaign was the epitome of positioning a financial company as the smart, intelligent choice. Relevance comes by being the company with unique insight into what is a chaotic and scary world – that of finance. State Street follows this approach. State Street’s advertising features a dog who, in turn, signifies the intelligence and tenacity of the brand and “the need to be precise … designed to please … precise in a world that isn’t.” Of course that makes State Street the intelligent choice.

But the trend is clearly moving away from fear, size and intelligence to those things that take a more human and humane form.

We see a lot more focus on relationships. This runs counter to the popular notion that finance is cold and impersonal; that money comes first, people second. Financial companies often try and position themselves against this stereotype by showing that they put people before profits and actively seek to know their clients on a personal level (e.g. “every client is different”). It is relevance through relationships.

No financial services brand has done more in this area than State Farm. It is their motto … “like a good neighbor.” We know it is based in part on their corporate franchise structure where offices are staffed by local professionals. [Note, in the aftermath of the recent recession, State Farm has drifted into the “values” campaigns. Their recent “back to basics” campaign is a great example.] This “everyone is different” approach is also at the heart of HSBC’s advertising that takes the concept of “big” and applies it to the neighborhood. By showing the same image can mean opposite things, HSBC underscores its knowledge and understanding of the local market.

Many regional banks, seeking to exploit their “smallness” as an asset, often use this relationship theme in their brand marketing.

But what we see even more of as institutions and brands adjust to the new world of austerity and uncertainty is a focus on values. That is, convincing the public that despite the fact that you are a financial services firm, you actually have them (values, that is). The famous MasterCard series is a great example. The line “for everything else” tells you that MasterCard recognizes that what they do is small potatoes compared to what is really important. Recently, financial institutions have pitched this in a much more blatant manner. The Ally Bank series that accepts the central belief that banks have no values … and then uses that to tell people what Ally is NOT. On the positive side are the current ads by Liberty Mutual showing that “caring is contagious.” The “responsibility, what’s your policy?” is a clear value statement that they want people to recognize when they think of Liberty Mutual.

Values and finance. Many would label the two incongruous, especially since values deficits have contributed to debacles like the subprime mortgage crisis and raised pervasive doubts about the entire financial industry.

Many consumers are now desperate to see evidence of solid values from their institutions, financial and otherwise. That’s likely why values are increasingly relevant for financial services today. Just as acting on values is the right thing to do, demonstrating you’re committed to values is a promising path to relevance. If you’re in that business, try it.

Is ‘The Academy’ Losing Relevancy?

Jerry Johnson · March 31st, 2013

Late last fall, reporter Amanda Ripley wrote an article for TIME magazine with the ominous title “College is Dead. Long Live College!” It was the latest in a long litany of articles by reporters and pundits who have been doing a lot of rethinking lately about the institution long known as “the academy.”

college_classIs the “academy” losing its relevancy? There’s evidence this may be the case with groups important to its future, notably parents, students, alumni and opinion leaders.

We’ve worked on numerous research projects with groups of people both inside and outside colleges and universities across the country. Everything suggests higher education faces significant challenges in three areas: financial, technological and institutional relevance.

Is the academy financially relevant? This question is being asked by both students and parents facing skyrocketing tuitions as well by alumni who, in light of the ever-increasing pressure for giving, are rethinking the utility of both annual giving and capital campaigns. Tuitions at many schools are out of the reach of the average family. That, in turn, has led to an unprecedented (and unsustainable) level of personal tuition loan debt. A recently released survey by The Princeton Review suggest that while in years past people’s primary worry was getting into the “right school,” today the primary worry is how to pay for whatever school you get in to.

On the other side of graduation, the academy is facing headwinds from alumni. The competition for gifts to “good causes” among affluent alumni is increasing. Moreover, the younger Gen X and Gen Y alumni show distinctly different attitudes and giving patterns to giving compared to their boomer counterparts. Add to this the declining government funding, and there are many nervous development officers wondering where the next funding dollar is going to come from.

Is the academy technologically relevant? Technology is fundamentally changing the academy the same way it changed the business of news media over a decade ago. As popular New York Times columnist wrote in a piece titled “The Campus Tsunami,” “what happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen in higher education: a scrambling around the Web.”

Why go to a university when one can get a considerable amount of instruction on the Internet for free? Indeed, the global demand for access to knowledge and the emerging opportunities for innovative technology to deliver it presage dramatic changes in “the academy’s” value proposition. Innovations like Kahn University and the explosion of MOOCs are just the beginnings of what will likely be very fundamental structural changes.

Is the academy institutionally relevant? Perhaps the biggest challenge is an uptick of people questioning the very being of the academy. Rightly or wrongly, almost every important audience we talk to – particularly employers and opinion leaders – are seeing a “profound disconnect” between what young people are learning and the world they’re going into. As one public policy executive told us, “The public institutions are in a crisis of declining public support … they’ve been slow to come to the reality that this decline is permanent.”

We don’t think it has to be. Amidst all this, we do see many colleges and universities successfully navigating a critical time of change. They have at least three things in common.

First, they are taking risks and taking action. The challenges of financing and technology will not change over the short- and medium-term. Institutions are experimenting, innovating and taking needed risks to restructure funding and curriculum.

Second, many of the best institutions are focusing as much in the “how” as the “what.” With the commoditization of information, the premium for the education experience increasingly will go beyond the lecture hall and into the streets.

Finally, we see colleges and universities rethinking, restructuring and rebuilding their ties to key communities – everything from students and parents to alumni to the towns and business sectors that they serve.

Those within “the academy” that best navigate the “digital disruption” taking place in education will be those who are most likely to be relevant to the students and alumni of tomorrow.

Today’s forecast: changing climate views

Steve McGrath · February 27th, 2013

We had a blizzard up here the other day, the second biggest in our history. Yet a few days before that, the thermometer was pushing 60 degrees. This certainly feels like global weirding.

IcebergAlthough I’m generally concerned about climate change, I worry more about the fate of this planet on days when the temperatures don’t match the season. When it’s balmy in February, that’s troubling.

On the other hand, when the snowbanks tower over my head, warming doesn’t seem to be an issue. Doubts chip away at my climate change convictions, notwithstanding the statements of NASA, NOAA, the United Nations, 34 science academies and countless other credible agencies.

I’m not the only one who’s fickle on climate.

A University of British Columbia study found a strong connection between weather and climate attitudes over the past two decades “with skepticism about global warming increasing during cold snaps and concern about climate change growing during hot spells.”

The University of New Hampshire came up with similar findings, especially among independent voters in the state. “Interviewed on unseasonably warm days, independents tend to agree with the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change,” said researchers Lawrence Hamilton and Mary Stampone. “On unseasonably cool days, they tend not to.”

Why do our attitudes change like this? Because despite what we know, we just can’t deny what we see and feel. Yes, sensory experiences do play a big role in what’s relevant to us, maybe more than we think. You can see it in our new Conversational Relevance study. Although hotel guests value location and recreational facilities for the kids, these highly rational concerns are only part of the mix. Guests also chatter online about water pressure in the shower and the view from the room, and about abstractions like a hotel’s culture and cachet.

The bottom line? When it comes to decision-making, whether it’s a hotel room or the destiny of the human race, logic is overrated. Think about it. Rationally, if you can.

To be relevant, become family … or at least a friend!

Jerry Johnson · February 14th, 2013

Over twenty years ago, an upstart phone company (MCI) launched its “Friends and Family” campaign. The program, which could contain up to 20 MCI names, gave customers a discounted rate for calling those “friends and family.” It was an immediate success.

We know because it was modeled by just about every other competitor, including AT&T, who implored us to “reach out … reach out and touch someone.” The someone that they invariably referred to was a grandmother, aunt, sibling or spouse. That is, reach out and touch a friend or a family member.

TodPersonal_Relevanceay it is hard to find any company that doesn’t have some “friends and family” promotion campaign. They take various forms, both online and offline, but the desire is always to be able to tap into someone’s “inner circle” and have them market your product or service to their “friends and family.”

Why were these campaigns so successful?

In part, because contrary to popular wisdom, we are not a “me” culture. We are a “family and friends” culture. Yes, the libraries and best selling lists may be lined with self-help books and advice on how to find personal meaning. But in a recent study, What Americans Value, we examined that element – finding personal meaning – and tested it against a battery of other things people found personally important in their lives. Those included money, meaning, love, health and recognition.

What towered over every element was friends and family. Not only that. What personally mattered most to people was “caring” for friends and family. That is, it wasn’t just the abstract notion of attachment to a clan or a group or a bloodline. It was the idea that we find personal meaning in nurturing and caring for those who matter most to us.

Our study suggests that while we may be a “me” culture on the outside – obsessed with our status, our looks and our oh-so-fragile egos – the more powerful driver of relevance is found in nurturing, specifically nurturing friends and family.

So the interesting question to ask is “who is family?” It could be mom and dad and the family you grew up with. It could be your “office” or “work” family. It could be that “family” that you see everytime you go to yoga class or play golf.

Indeed, the phrase “they’ve become part of the family” may be the most coveted phrase for anyone. It is a phrase that drives personal relevance. Because in becoming part of the ‘family,” one has the possibility of becoming more important than self – you become the object of affection and support for an entire group.

There are plenty of lessons here for marketers.

First, avoid the extremes of the completely introspective and self-indulgent. While they clearly strike a chord, it is a chord that is easily trumped. Our study shows the power not only of family but also of caring and compassion.

Second, avoid the other extreme of the global fantasy. While we may “like to teach the world to sing in simple harmony” – we’re much more focused on making sure the ones closest to us, our “family” or “clan,” is protected and cared for.

Finally, figure out how to make your brand, product or service part of an existing “family.” That family need not be the traditional nuclear family. It could be a social family, a work family, a sports family. This is why we have “official sponsors.” “Official sponsors” have the opportunity, over time, to not only sponsor the family but become intrinsically identified with it. Perhaps ever more powerful, show how your brand, product or service enables someone to better care for their friends and family. How does it improve their lives, protect them from harm, expand their joy.

And there is where things begin to stick. Because that is where you get at the heart of being personally relevant.

Behaviors are the new demographics

Jerry Johnson · February 7th, 2012

For more than a generation, every strategic plan from politics to marketing to business development was centered around demographics. Demographics provided the framework around which you understood and analyzed voters, audiences and customers. At some point, planning was reduced to clusters of people based on age, gender, ethnicity, zip codes and other observable characteristics.

That is changing.

It’s not that the old demographics were or are a bad tool. It was just that they forced marketers to frame their findings in terms of observable characteristics.

Why do opinion studies focus on the differences between men and women, old and young, rich and poor? It isn’t because there is necessarily any difference between these groups beyond their gender, age and income. No, traditional demographics started there because we can easily find these groups once other differences in knowledge, attitudes and behavior were recognized.

That began to change as marketers moved to things like psychographics, which were prominent in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But even with this refined knowledge, at the end of the day even sophisticated marketers ended up applying that knowledge through variants of traditional means such as location (e.g. geo-demographic targeting).

In the old model we started with a presumption: that some observable or findable difference between groups can be tied to differences in belief and behavior. New research suggests that premise is faulty.

David Poltrack, CBS’ chief research officer, has been making a persuasive case that we need to replace the traditional demographic research model. A growing amount of data that matches audience measurement with purchase information shows that using demographics to target commercials is “essentially invalid,” Plotrack said, “resulting in a misallocation of television advertising investments.

Based on his review of the data, Poltrack made an astounding claim, “There is no link – none – between the age of the specific demographic delivery of the campaign and the sales generated by that campaign,” he concludes.

Indeed, gender actually may be the first and most prominent casualty of demographics’ fall from grace. There’s a growing body of evidence that gender, long a linchpin of planning for any product or service, is increasingly irrelevant. Sex – the noun, not the verb – no longer matters in the marketing context.

Johanna Blakley, managing director and director of research at USC’s Norman Lear Center, in a recent TedTalk, makes a link between the decline of gender-based segmenting and the rise of social media. Her argument is that permissions-based social media allows people to “break free” from old forms of segmentation.

The rise of social media and the hyper-networked consumer is fundamentally changing how consumer research is done. It used to be that we had to spend a lot of time asking people questions to find out who they were and what was relevant to them. Today people are doing the work we used to pay pollsters, ethnographers and anthropologists to do, by themselves, on the Internet.

As more and more people spend more and more time online, we get more opportunities to watch behavior. We can locate and reach out to them based on what they do, something much more valuable to marketers than who they are.

Looking for people who watch a lot of sports? Who spend most of their time talking about their vacations? Foodies? Fashion freaks? It’s all there on their blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and comment streams. Indeed, many think what tablet you own, what phone you use, and how you use your social network will tell marketers much more about you than your income, education, or gender.

All this makes the psychographic and behavioral factors – things that we’ve known for a long time were more important than age or gender – more “findable.”

Researchers at CBS, Neilsen and elsewhere are working on new, more efficient and effective ways of identifying people based on interest, activity and attitude.

It is a welcome move. Because in the new world of unbound, permission-based communications, the old demographics are becoming less and less relevant. Today we’re finding that it is less important to know how old you are, and more important to know the things you “like” on Facebook, the content you share through your social media networks, and the things you search for on your search engine.

The social media world is indeed a stage where marketers can watch consumers make their exits, their entrances and play their many parts.

And that is becoming the demographics of the future.

Predicting a Year of Sincerity in 2012

Andy Coville · January 4th, 2012

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2012 brings you joy, health and prosperity. This is a pivotal time in so many ways: America is choosing a president. We’re trying to do the best for our pocketbooks and the planet. And technology is reshaping our world.

As always, we’re thinking short and long term about what’s coming next in business, technology, media and social change to ensure our clients’ communications strategies resonate.

Here are just a few thoughts from Brodeur Partners associates as we kick off January:

‘SEO’ abuse is dying. Long live content

SEO, at least in its most cynical form, will lose relevance.

Search engines will give more weight to sticky content that is shared by real people, and less weight to spammy, content-farmed pages overstuffed with keywords.  That means great content will increasingly trump SEO.

And since sharing will drive search results, be on the lookout for search engines to prefer emotional content (the kind people like to share) over the boring yet factual content people have traditionally associated with search engines.

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Reviving tired brands and categories: Ford, hand dryers and Steven Tyler

Andy Coville · July 7th, 2011

Relevance, as we’ve been saying, is paramount in this noisy era when so many communications gambits fail to win our attention. That’s why we can learn so much from the rare person, company or product that comes roaring into relevance. Or becomes relevant again.

I’ve got three examples on my mind today.

Ford. A few years ago, Ford was just another U.S. automaker being schooled by the Japanese and headed for bankruptcy. My, how things change. In 2009, Ford bravely turns away a government bailout. The company introduces new, greener and more affordable models. Customers are delighted.

In Q1 2011, the company announces a $2.55 billion profit, its best quarter since 1998. Ford’s 2010 sales beat 2009’s by 19 percent, a larger margin than any full-line automaker. Its stock price soars to $14.12 today, up from $1.26 on Nov. 19, 2008. J.D. Power quality ratings rise. (Even the much-maligned Ford Pinto is suddenly drenched in nostalgia.)

As we’ve said, relevance is a function of experiences that go beyond the rational. Did rejecting the bailout engage peoples’ values to reheat the brand?

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Buick taps purposeful life trend to re-brand and increase relevance

Andy Beaupre · June 21st, 2011

Toyota mined the vein of green and sustainability with its Prius TV ad campaign, but I can’t remember a car company leveraging, well, mortality to recast itself.

A new Buick TV commercial called “What Matters” does just that. It isn’t focused on automotive speed, comfort or price. It doesn’t spend time spouting superlatives. Or cite independent sources to validate car quality.

Instead, it frames around the inevitability of dying and living the best possible life. Heady stuff in an industry still largely dominated by flash, sex appeal and performance.

It begins:

“How will the value of your days be measured?”

“What will matter is not what you have, but what you gave. What will matter is not your success, but your significance. What will matter is how long you will be remembered by whom and for what.”

“A life of meaning and purpose and happiness… that’s the greatest luxury of all.”

During the voice-over, we see images that are largely people-action-centered:

  • A man and woman run for their car in the rain; he shields her with a newspaper and opens the car door for her.
  • A dad and son shoot hoops in the driveway at night.
  • A father and daughter play in the beach sand. Then he gently brushes sand from her little legs as they spill out from the rear seat.
  • A man pauses to savor a beautiful landscape, then captures the moment with his camera.
  • One driver happily yields for another.

While Buicks are visible throughout, they’re in the background quietly supporting the spirit of “what matters.”

Then Buick transitions more directly to its own brand and makes the consumer connection.

“What if there was a car company that felt the same way? That car company is Buick, a brand that’s growing faster than any other major car company in America. By making vehicles of substance and quality, with a look and feel that says, ‘come as you are.’”

“This isn’t luxury the way you’ve always known it; it’s luxury the way it should be. Your kind of luxury.”

Turns out this clever emotional alignment was based on a longer poem written in 2003 by Michael Josephson. Buick gives credit at the end of the spot, but the tiny type is easily missed.

By aligning its brand with the highest level of human desire (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the ultimate level of self-actualization?) – instead of wooing base desires – Buick is leveraging a high-level branding platform that spans multiple demographics in one swoop.

Caring. Kindness. Helping. Is it magical positioning? Authentic brand reinvention? Or clever salespersonship? I’m not sure, but I do know Buick hopes to sell more cars by embracing the best in all of us and hoping we, in turn, align with their brand because it represents what we cherish (or hope for) most in ourselves.

I don’t think this kind of appeal will hurt Buick, and it may spur even higher revenues. After all, Buick was the fastest-growing major automotive brand in the United States in 2010 with 40 percent of its sales coming from other manufacturers’ customer bases.

At the very least, we’re seeing a formerly stodgy brand intelligently re-aligning itself toward a new level of success…and Relevance.

The relevance of the senses

Jerry Johnson · June 9th, 2011

I was walking through Penn Station in New York City and something struck me.

It was the smell.

It was the “train station smell,” a peculiar mix that is part diesel fuel, a dose of pumice, quarry and an occasional whiff of sulfur. Add to that a liberal dose of dirt and grime and the quotidian smells of large groups of people, reheated fast food, and refuse.

But this was not peculiar to New York’s Penn Station. It was universal.

It was the same smell at Union Station in Washington DC or Gare du Nord in Paris or South Station in Boston. At Shinjuku Station in Japan or Centraal Station in Amsterdam.

I was struck by how sensory experience communicates across cultures and across categories.

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What behavior is relevant to climate change?

Ed Marshall · May 12th, 2011

“So the world ends Wednesday?” That was a colleague’s snarky rejoinder to my explanation of the oil export crisis and the implications for our energy future.

Perhaps my explanation was off. Or perhaps we’re all suffering from a Hollywood-induced relevance deficit. Human response systems are really good at spotting and dealing with near-term problems. If it’s not a clear and present danger, it’s not relevant and therefore not motivating. Hollywood understands this and formulates its films to capitalize on it – particularly the action and disaster ones.
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