Follow the leaders

Marketing to the masses is dead. Andrew Gordon looks at how brands are targeting influencers to spread loyalty.

Marketing to the masses is dead. Andrew Gordon looks at how brands are targeting influencers to spread loyalty.

Enough already. That's the resounding message consumers are sending about being bombarded by marketing messages, and marketers are hearing it loud and clear. The average consumer is hit with thousands of marketing messages every day, and with the advent of new forms of online and mobile marketing, companies are finding ways of tracking down consumers even if they don't want to be found. But consumers are fighting back. And everyone from the federal government to Microsoft has declared war on spam. So marketers are faced with having to find new ways to reach finicky and savvy consumers who are sick and tired of being bombarded and pestered with messages. "It's harder to get through to people," points out Fleishman-Hillard VP Cynthia McCafferty. "Their lives are getting busier. New technology lets us filter out TV commercials and screen our e-mail better. So we're having to find ways of reaching people on a direct level." Grassroots approach That's why companies and PR firms are looking to concepts such as 'the influential,' where one out of every 10 people is influential in telling people how to vote or which peanut butter to buy. Marketers are trying to reach out directly to consumers without it being painfully obvious that companies are still targeting them with marketing messages. So companies are taking a more grassroots approach, says McCafferty, looking for influencers in communities whose opinion is unbiased, valued, and trusted. That influencer can be anyone from a trainer at the local gym talking about the latest athletic shoes, to the owner of a day-care center telling parents about a new brand of organic baby food. Marketers do this by presenting their product to the influencer to get their feedback, and ideally they will then spread the word if their experience with the product is positive. "I think this really signals the erosion of the effectiveness of advertising," asserts Julie Winskie, director of Porter Novelli's global consumer marketing practice. "There are ethnographic tools and market research that can help us locate those influencers, whether we need them to talk about hamburgers or shoes. It's about tapping that voice next door, who's not a celebrity or authority. It's about that community desire, about wanting to feel connected or belonging. People want authentic verification - a real, credible endorsement. This is redefining the notion of experts. This is what PR in its earliest forms was about: influencing the influencer. There are those who still see PR as spin or media relations. But this is what truly good, classic PR is about." The Scion, a new car brand from Toyota aimed at Generation Y, has embraced this notion of community. With young adults in the crosshairs of many marketing messages, they have become "expert editors" when it comes to cutting through the clutter and filtering out messages that don't pertain to them, says Dawn Ahmed, Scion's national marketing communications manager. "Creating buzz and word of mouth is critical for us," says Ahmed. "We're taking the experience to them. We're bringing the cars to music stores and restaurants so they can take a test drive. We're doing small events around art, film, and music. We want to create a sense of community and intimacy. The reaction has really been positive, because they don't feel like we're pushing marketing messages on them. And hopefully they'll tell others about their experience. "Young people are very savvy," she adds. "If you don't market to them properly the first time, that's something you can't recover." Two very different generations are pushing marketing in this direction, explains Susan Butenhoff, president and CEO of Access Communications, which is working with the Scion. Generation Y does not consume "traditional media," she says, while baby boomers are using the internet more and more to find the specific information they need. Both groups are becoming more adept at focusing only on what they need, and blocking out everything else. "Marketing could never be accused of narrow casting," says Butenhoff. "With this new breed of skepticism, just because something is being written about it doesn't mean people are going to buy into it. Consumers are looking to their peers, not third parties. We're getting e-mails from Scion groupies telling us how much they love the Scion. They are essentially becoming unpaid spokespeople, because they are talking about and selling the experience." Access is also working with Horizon Organic on its first organic infant formula. But since mothers want to hear about infant formula from other mothers, Access has identified parenting websites that will hopefully try out the new formula and spread the word. Another company focusing on health issues is General Mills, which will partner Yoplait yogurt with Self magazine to help bring attention to 25 people who have made a unique difference fighting breast cancer, says Kim Olson, director of brand PR at General Mills. "If you want to get someone's attention, you better talk about something that means something to them, that is close to their heart and mind," explains Olson. "One way to break through the clutter is to speak to the heart. Consumers are much more sophisticated than they used to be." That's why such marketing better be genuine, or a company could face a backlash that could damage the brand. There's a fine line between grassroots marketing and Astroturf marketing, says Winskie. The former uses genuine members of the community offering their unbiased opinions. The latter uses people pretending to be objective consumers, but are actually paid by the company to rave about a product. It could be anything from someone posing as a patron of a bar buying a new kind of beverage for others, to people posing as tourists in a popular vacation area using the latest digital camera, or merely someone hanging out in heavily trafficked areas with a new hi-tech consumer device that is bound to draw attention. That's why companies often preach to the choir, a tactic Douglas Spong, managing partner at Carmichael Lynch Spong, believes is a great way to harness the excitement of a brand's most loyal and ardent enthusiasts. "You need to preach to the choir, the most involved members of your base," says Spong. "They are the ones who are the most involved with the brand. They live the lifestyle. And they're the ones who are going to talk about it the most. Harley-Davidson is one company that understands that. It's about the freedom of the open road, and how their bikes let you live that lifestyle. So we look for ways to enhance that lifestyle. Everything Harley-Davidson does with its brand for its loyal customers is distinct and relevant. They organize special events for them. They find ways to reward them. And that's one way to develop this fraternity of strangers - like-minded people who don't necessarily know each other, but share values and affinity. Hopefully, by preaching to the choir, they help spread the word." Response to information overload Marketing is at a crossroads, and the advent of such viral marketing is proof of that, says Ketchum partner and MD Paul Rand. He points to Amazon cutting its advertising budget earlier this year and putting those marketing dollars toward enhancing the customer experience and viral campaigns as just one example. "These word-of-mouth campaigns and the idea of 'the influencer' are incredibly timely, and it boils down to a simple reason: information overload," says Rand. "Information overload is driving fragmentation of consumers, and that's affecting how we reach them. The typical American gets thousands of messages every day. Think of all the e-mails, faxes, and memos. There are 200 cable-TV networks. More than 5,500 consumer magazine titles. More than 10,500 radio stations. And the web has more than 30 million sites. With all this information, businesses are working harder to pursue people who are trying to watch and listen less. Is it any wonder anything gets through?" ----- The brand ladder There are five rungs of consumers, says Douglas Spong, managing partner at Carmichael Lynch Spong. The higher marketers aim on the ladder the better, as those consumers are likely to influence the opinions of those below them. Brand enthusiast Lives the brand's lifestyle. Pulls other consumers up the ladder by talking about his or her experiences Brand loyalist Loyal, but not hardcore. Example: a Harley-Davidson owner who would buy another one, but isn't in a club Brand buyer Has either experienced the brand for the first time, or it has been a while since he or she experienced it Brand rejecter Someone who does not hold a grudge against the brand, but just figures that it isn't for them Brand terrorist Has had a bad experience with the brand, and will go out of his or her way to tell everybody about it

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in