Category Archives: Customers

Customer Insights Mean Everything

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 2.18.36 PMI had a great time hanging with Leslie Westbrook for a couple weeks earlier this month.

Leslie is an Ole Miss graduate who went on to a phenomenal career in market research and consumer perceptions.

She started with Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, and then worked for New Product Insights in Kansas City before starting her own company in Maryland.

She’s helped position and launch so many products over the years: Pampers. Pringles. Duncan Donuts coffee. Dairy Queen Blizzard. Quaker Granola Bars. And the brands on her resume are incredible: Hallmark. Purina. Coke. Kraft. Johnson & Johnson. Sara Lee. General Foods. Nestle. Max Factor. Ragu. Del Monte. Arm & Hammer. Kimberly Clark. The list is endless.

In the early 1980s when I was in college and just reading about the Tylenol poisonings, she was working with McNeil Consumer Healthcare (the brand’s owner at the time) to develop new tamper resistant packaging and to position the new caplets which replaced the capsules.

We both love research and knowing what customers think, and hit it off well. She talked to a variety of classes, helped my classes with a focus group project, met students, shared ideas and more.

One of the many things that jumped out though is a theme that’s near and dear to me: That in marketing, it’s the little things – the tiniest of details – that can make or break a customer relationship and set the tone for a brand.

pringles1970Leslie talked about Pringles. When she was testing the product, it was assumed customers would pour the chips into a bowl or on a napkin before eating. No one anticipated they’d stick their hand into the container to get the chips. So P&G redesigned the packaging to remove the sharp edges around the opening of the tube so people wouldn’t cut themselves when they reached inside.

Pampers was an interesting challenge. At the time, many women were appalled at the idea of wrapping their babies in plastic – most said good mothers would never do such a thing.   Understanding this nuance, Pampers wasn’t positioned as a convenience. Instead, it was marketed as being good for the baby because it wicked moisture away from the skin, meaning less chance of diaper rash. This messaging did the trick and sales took off.

In the early days of granola bars, there was only kind: dry and crunchy. They crumbled easily and were a mess to eat. Understanding this, Quaker realized the appeal of a bar that held together when eaten. Thus, the success of a soft “chewy” product that became a hit.

Call me crazy, but I love this stuff, and it was fun to spend time with someone else who loves it too!  I look forward to Leslie’s next visit.

Click here, here and here to see some of my previous posts on how little things are the big things in marketing.


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Filed under Branding, Customers, Market Research, Sweat the Small Stuff

Black Friday Starts Thursday

Black-FridayIt will be interesting to see how Black Friday shapes up this year.  That’s because for many retailers, Friday starts on Thursday.  More stores are opening on Thanksgiving Day, and according to, 38 percent of us will start our holiday shopping then.   Some analysts have even coined a moniker for what’s happening:  Gray Thursday.

One of the reason for the push this year is that Thanksgiving falls at the very end of the month.  In fact, November 28 is the latest date the holiday can ever fall – it’s always the 4th Thursday in November.  It would be mathematically impossible for it to occur any later.

So by that measure, assuming the shopping season really does kick off with Thanksgiving weekend, there are indeed fewer shopping than usual before Christmas this year.  Of course retailers are concerned.

But 135 million Americans are poised to shop this weekend (before Cyber Monday next week), and that figure likely won’t change just because stores open a day earlier than usual.  In other words, the rush will simply be spread over four days instead of the usual three.  So the push to open on Thanksgiving may not net more total sales.

Except for this:  Stores not open on Thursday may lose customers to those that are.  Will people who might normally shop at Dillard’s – which is closed this Thanksgiving – shop at Macy’s instead, which is?  That’s the big question.

And in an interesting twist, some stores that aren’t open on Thursday are promoting that as a point of difference.  Nordstrom’s and Costco, for example, tout that employees deserve that time off to spend with their families.  The implied message:  They care about the true meaning of the holiday more than those other greedy retailers.

Then there is the confusion of when the deals really start.  Walmart – which is open all the time in most locations anyway – kicks off the Black Friday discounts at 6 p.m. Thursday.  Then more deals start at 8 p.m., then others start on Friday itself.  (And the Walmart website has already been promoting “Black Friday Week” with deals that are “ready now.”)  It feels a little complicated; the messages may become lost in the clutter of trying to figure out when to buy.

Of course, with on-line shopping, the whole concept of “store hours” seems almost antiquated anyway.

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Filed under Customers, Retailing

Word of Mouth Marketing: WOW

womTwo years ago, the undergraduate Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program at Ole Miss had 80 students.  Last year, it was 190.  Now it tops 450.  Wow.

Why the fast growth?  Several reasons: Enrollment across the entire university is up, so that helps.  We continue to receive very positive feedback on the IMC curriculum from students, parents and alumni – it’s a good mix of journalism, communication, business and liberal arts courses.  Jobs are in demand for people with these skills.  And students in the program give it a big thumbs up.  In a survey last May, 86 percent said they were satisfied, 77 percent said they’d pick the major again if they had a do-over, and 81 percent said they’d definitely recommend IMC to other students.

That last one – positive word of mouth – is what I believe is really behind the numbers. (It’s also the one that keeps me up at night, because what grows fast by positive word of mouth can also be destroyed just as quickly if the buzz turns negative.)

Word of mouth is an important component of IMC.  Sure, everyone knows that good things said about a brand can be influential, but beyond that it’s important to understand how word of mouth works, how it’s quantified and measured, and more.

Fate intervened a couple weeks ago when I had the chance to visit with Stuart Sheldon, president of Escalate Marketing.  It’s an Atlanta based agency that offers experiential and word of mouth marketing to clients such as Barilla, Birds Eye, Coca-Cola, and others.  (I met Sheldon through a colleague who used to work in brand management at Coke.)

He champions the idea that a critical component of IMC – beyond things like direct marketing, public relations, advertising, sales promotion and all the other strategies – is leveraging the power of passionate customers in an organized way.  In other words, orchestrating the good words of customers, just like advertising and other messages are orchestrated (and integrated).

This goes way beyond just “likes.” In fact, it doesn’t have anything to do with social media.  According to Sheldon, word of mouth happens through:

  • Face to face interactions (72%)
  • Phone conversations (17%)
  • Text messaging (4%)
  • E-mail (3%)
  • Blogs and chat (1%)
  • And other means (3%)

What’s more, research also shows that about 1 in 5 consumer purchases in the U.S. are solely the result of word of mouth.

Think about that.  One in 5 is a powerful statistic, and yet it makes perfect sense.  What purchases have you made, what brands have you tried, because of the recommendations (or even just chatter) from people you know?

This is a fascinating concept, and while word of mouth marketing isn’t anything new, its recognition as a marketing discipline is somewhat recent.   Check out the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, formed just about a decade ago.

I look forward to learning more.  It’s a very important part of the IMC equation.

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Filed under Branding, Customers, Integrated Marketing Communications

Good Brands: More Than Just Products

New_Coke_canIn nearly every conversation about product flops and bad brand decisions, the “New Coke/Classic Coke” saga comes up – even though that infamous incident happened almost 3 decades ago.  If you’re too young to remember or live under a rock, read more about it here.

While some people still think the whole thing was an orchestrated effort to draw attention to a new product launch, most pundits now agree it was simply a case of not fully understanding what drives customer behaviors.  Ole Miss alum Harold Burson, co-founder of the world’s biggest PR firm – and who PR week once called “the century’s most influential PR figure” – said as much last time he visited campus.

He would know.  He worked on the Coke account then.

So what went wrong with Coke?  Conventional wisdom holds that while in blind taste tests cola drinkers did prefer the “New Coke” formula, the company failed to account for the power of the brand.

When consumers make a purchase, they buy more than just the tangible product.  They buy an image.  A promise.  An experience.  And those things mean a lot.  In Coke’s case, back in 1985, it trumped taste. 

In class recently we talked about brand perceptions, and it led to our own blind taste test. Could students tell the difference between an expensive brand bottled water and ordinary H20? I poured small samples of Fiji water (about $3-4 per liter) and similar servings of water from Kroger grocery store (which is sold for a fraction of the Fiji cost).  Students got to try a sample of each.

And the result of this totally unscientific experiment?  As predicted, no one really knew which brand was which.  Those who got it right mostly guessed.

It’s a small but powerful point about brands:  It’s not just about the product.  Those students who drank Fiji before will continue to drink it because they know it’s not just water, but an image; it’s not just about quenching thirst but about the consumption of an exotic beverage from a faraway land.

Just as people who buy Starbucks feel they get more than coffee – and those who buy Apple are interested in more than just utility – good brands deliver on many intangible things.

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Filed under Branding, Customers

Surprise! Customers still want choices.

ChoiceEarlier this week I attended a friendly debate sponsored by the Ole Miss student chapter of the American Marketing Association.

Two of our esteemed professors, Dr. Samir Husni (aka “Mr. Magazine”) and Darren Sanefski (our design guru) faced off on the topic of print versus electronic media.  The event was titled Is Print Dead?

This is a hot topic, of course, both in our school and within the media industry.

The consensus is that no, print isn’t dead, but it needs to evolve to survive.  (Husni is widely quoted as saying that print publications aren’t dying, although some are committing suicide.)   Click here to watch the full debate.

But it got me thinking about something I’ve been dealing with throughout my marketing communications career:  the concept of “customer choice.”  Customers (in this case readers and subscribers) want the best of both print and on-line – just like they want choice about other things.

I remember about 15 years ago, when I worked in the financial services industry, having discussions about whether the internet would kill retail branch banking.  “Customers won’t go to banks anymore, they’ll do everything on-line” was one sentiment.  But guess what?  It turns out that while customers like many aspects of on-line banking, they also like the option of a brick-and-mortar bank as well.  Drive through any suburban area and see all the bank branches still thriving.  Customers want both options – they want choice.

Amazon is the world’s largest on-line retailer, but guess what?  People still shop at Target and Walmart and Best Buy too.  To be sure, the internet has killed some traditional retailers and all have had to adapt, but the category isn’t dead and never will be.  It’s because in the end, customers want choices in how they shop.

Netflix is booming, but people still go to movie theaters.  They hunt for houses on, but they also work with real estate agents too.  A lot of greeting cards are sent electronically, but the card aisles haven’t shrunk at grocery stores and pharmacies.  And if everyone books their trip on Orbitz, Expedia and Priceline, then how come I just found listings for 16 travel agents here in Oxford, Mississippi (a town of 20,000 residents and a whole lot of students)?

It’s been my experience that it’s even hard to segment a population by those who do things on-line and those who want stuff the traditional way – because it’s the same people.  Those who shop at Amazon also shop at Target.  People who pay their bills on-line still line up at the bank on Saturday mornings.

And people who read on Kindle still have books lying on their coffee table and get magazines in the mail.  To think that print is dead just because electronic media has arrived is just as bone-headed as those who prophesied the the death of radio when TV caught on.  (I can almost hear the voices from the past; the naysayers wondering why anyone would want just plain old audio, when both audio and visual became available.)

It’s a multi-choice world.  That’s what consumers want.  And those organizations that get it — media and otherwise — are the ones best suited to survive.

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Filed under Customers, Strategy

Weber’s Law

Several weeks ago I was in Home Depot with my daughter.  We saw a sign promoting a $28 item on sale for only $27.  Wow, a savings of a whole dollar — we better hurry up and buy before the price goes back up, we joked.   She snapped a picture and put it on Facebook, where friends chimed in with “LOL” and such.

But it illustrates a concept we talk about in my Consumer Behavior class:  Weber’s Law.  In short, the law states that the stronger an initial marketing stimulus (in this case, price), the stronger a change in that stimulus must be in order to be noticed.  It’s how the price of something can go up or down in small proportions (relative to the original price) with little impact. But at some point — beyond that “just noticeable difference” — it does matter.  That’s why Home Depot’s attempt to promote a $28 item for $27 is a terribly ineffective way to increase sales.  They could likely raise the price to $29 and sell just as many.

But Weber’s Law doesn’t deal with just price.  For example, sometimes a candy bar gets smaller or the carton of ice cream contains fewer ounces but the price stays the same.  The hope is the change in stimuli (in this case, quantity) is small enough to go unnoticed.

It’s all very academic, and common sense too, but important for marketers to understand.  Veering past the “just noticeable difference” with a product, price, promotion or any other stimuli must be done carefully.

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Filed under Customers, Integrated Marketing Communications, Strategy

Marketing to Women

Bic now makes “Pens for Her.”  Lady pens.  I don’t know much about the product, but marketing is all about discovering and meeting needs, so I assume they’ve done their research.  People are already making snarky comments (check out the 5 star reviews on Amazon) but that’s to be expected I guess.

But it reminds me of another product especially for women that debuted (and died out) years ago.  It was the Dodge “Le Femme” automobile.  That’s right, a car built and marketed just for women in the mid 1950s.  Check out the pictures below.  The car was available only in a pinkish color, had a floral interior, and came with a matching raincoat, umbrella, purse, lipstick case and a few other very feminine accessories.  Men ran the car companies at the time, so this is about what you’d expect when they designed a car just for women.

The Le Femme didn’t catch on and was discontinued after only a year or two.  If you see one today it’d be worth a fortune, so hang on to those Bic Pens, who knows what will happen.

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Filed under Customers, Segmentation