New World Order: Learn to Let Go

ORLANDO, FLA. New technology offers a chaotic challenge to the marketing world, but the industry is adapting. That was the spin at this year’s Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference here, from Oct. 5-8.

By most indications, the 1,000 marketers in attendance (half of which were senior brand managers from member companies) are navigating the nontraditional landscape with renewed vigor. The upbeat, ebullient mood of the event was in sharp contrast to last year’s, held in Phoenix, where marketers were under siege battling critics on everything from obesity to their dependence on television advertising.

This year, it seemed that the industry has indeed embraced the idea of reinvention, which served as an accurate theme for the conference held at the marble-and-gilt-heavy Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes.

Brandweek‘s Marketer of the Year event kicked off the conference on Thursday night. Toyota’s Jim Farley, group vp, marketing, was named Grand Marketer of the Year. Adweek and Brandweek are both owned by VNU.

Procter & Gamble chairman and CEO A.G. Lafley, who keynoted Friday’s general session, contended that although media has changed, basic human needs haven’t. “What’s different is how people are using media and technology choices to meet their needs.” Lafley said.

Lafley credited P&G’s post-2000 turnaround to marketing methods that he called “pleasant surprises.”

For example, putting mirrored ads in women’s bathrooms asking, “Is your lipstick still on?” and running targeted five-second TV spots with the same theme helped P&G increase sales of its Cover Girl Outlast lipstick by 25 percent.

Hit consumers when they don’t expect it and offer a positive solution, he advised: “It’s not about being at all the touch points, it’s about being at the right touch point when [the consumer] is open to it.”

If there is any company struggling with reinvention right now, it is Wal-Mart. Stephen Quinn, svp, marketing, told the story of how the retailer’s namesake brand became threatened by the din of its critics and its dependence on one type of consumer: regular discount shoppers.

The company is adding new offerings that will attract more selective, upscale shoppers. “Just because you’re affluent doesn’t mean you don’t want to save,” reasoned Quinn. “We can sell a bottle of wine for $200 and, by the way, the savings on that bottle of wine are $65,” he said.

Wal-Mart also has embarked on a root-and-branch transformation toward ecologically sustainable operations.

Global concerns came to the forefront numerous times. Lafley emphasized that in this age of the Gates Foundation and the Bono-driven Red effort to fight AIDS in Africa, it doesn’t hurt to trumpet your company’s charitable efforts. Hence, there was some mention of P&G’s laudable campaign to use its PUR technology to purify water in poor areas of Africa.

Sadly, said Lafley, some 5,000 babies die every day from drinking fouled water on the continent.

Still, there were numerous times during the event that it seemed marketers should not be brimming with confidence amidst this new world order.

Missteps weren’t hard to come by during presentations in which ANA president, CEO Bob Liodice cited scandal-marred Hewlett-Packard as an example of corporate accountability. The Partnership for a Drug Free America was credited with creating a 30 percent drop in drug use, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report blasted the $1.4 billion effort as ineffective. The capper was perhaps Linda Kaplan Thaler showing a spoof video that skewered Wal-Mart with footage of goose-stepping soldiers taking over the U.S., just minutes before Quinn took the stage to talk about reinvention.

Most stories of reinvention, heard from many speakers, seemed to require abolishing or diminishing the use of the 30-second television spot. However, marketers seem to have trouble doing so as nearly every presentation began, ended or heavily spotlighted big-spending brands’ 30-second TV ads.

Kaplan Thaler, head of her eponymous New York ad agency, offered a more lighthearted variation on the theme of tech-driven change with a whimsical theory. She said that the 30-second TV spot might resume its rightful place in the media hierarchy in 2016 after people stop using the Internet and decide they want big media companies to once again tell them what to watch.

Many marketers still gave TV a vote of confidence, including Lafley who proclaimed, “Television is still the most powerful and the broadest-reaching medium.”

Charles Schwab, no stranger to TV advertising with its “Talk to Chuck” campaign, served as an example of how marketing can be successful if a business finds a way to effectively communicate with its customers.

The financial giant began leveraging the down-home aspects of its founder again—values the company had walked away from in the late 1990s, noted Becky Saeger, CMO at Charles Schwab.

This was essential for helping the company dig itself out from a disastrous turn of the century, when its customers “were leaving us in droves” and Schwab responded by charging the remaining customers higher fees to compensate, she said.

To turn things around, it “meant changing, fixing everything at once,” including the dozens of different brand logos, icons and typefaces that the company had collected.

P&G’s Lafley offered a solution of which any company could take advantage: Marketers need to stop trying to control what their brands stand for, and listen to their customers. “We are operating in what is very much a ‘let go’ world,” he said.

While there is some media, like TV, where you still have a lot of control, Lafley asserted, he pointed to the success of the company’s Web site for teen girls,, as an example of P&G just letting go. “It wouldn’t be as popular if we just tried to tell consumers what they should do.”

So how can marketers just let go of everything after years of tried-and-true practices? “People have to try it,” Lafley said. And in this day and age, consumers are no longer giving brand managers any choice.

—with Constantine von Hoffman