Kevin Ryan's: Culture Matters

You Are Not Your Consumer--and that's ok!
In an article last week, Slate highlighted the “The 13 Kinds of Pandemic Ads” that have aired during the last few months. From the much maligned “We’re Here for You”-type ad to the maudlin “God Bless Our Heroes” and eyebrow-raising “We’ve Always Been Clean,” the article themes dozens of ads and finds most come up short.

Several news sites have reported that national fast food and QSR chains have been secretly selling food via delivery apps under assumed names. For example, the Today Show reported that Applebee’s was selling chicken wings on GrubHub under the name ‘Neighborhood Wings.’ Many customers falsely believed they were helping a local shop when the food was actually coming from the national chain. Similarly, the chicken chain Boston Market was found to be operating via delivery as ‘Rotisserie Roast.’ Finally, a man in Pennsylvania posted on Reddit about his experience ordering pizza from a place called Pasqually’s Pizza. The pizza tasted like one he’d eaten at the children’s entertainment spot Chuck E. Cheese, and a text to his delivery driver confirmed it (Chuck E. Cheese admitted the ruse but said that Pasqually is the name of the chef that plays in their animatronic band).

So What? During WWII, the Russians were outgunned when it came to large artillery. The Third Reich’s tank division was superior not only in firepower, but also in number. To counter this, the Russians developed a low-tech solution: anti-tank dogs. The army trained dogs fitted with special backpacks to either jump on a tank and leave an explosive device or (sadly) run under a tank, where detonation would then be triggered. 

Or at least that was the plan. In battle, things went terribly wrong. The dogs were released, ran toward the German tanks, paused, sniffed the air, then ran back toward the Russians. Some jumped in Soviet foxholes and others attacked and destroyed Russian tanks—it was a disaster!

What went wrong? The Russians had trained the dogs using their own tanks. To the Russians, tanks were tanks. However, the dogs saw it—or I should say smelled it—another way. Russian tanks ran on diesel and German tanks ran on gasoline. To the dogs, the German tanks not only didn’t resemble the targets they trained on, they didn’t smell like them! Unwittingly, the Russians had trained the dogs to attack their own army.

The Russians ran into something that you see frequently in business, they assumed that everyone (dogs included) sees the world as they do, and it literally blew up in their face. If you are a small, entrepreneurial company, you’re often selling to a niche, like-minded base (i.e. the halls of your company are staffed with a good representation of your consumers). Empathy with your consumer comes naturally. However, problems start when brands begin to grow and their consumer base diversifies. Your brand may have started out selling to hardcore vegan environmentalists, but now that you source most of your volume from gas stations and Safeway, your uber-eco teams and C-Suite can’t connect to the ordinary consumer. The problem isn’t that this happens but that so many companies are clueless to the transition. The best companies are those that recognize that they aren’t populated with a microcosm of their own consumers anymore, that their thoughts and feelings don't automatically match up with their base and that work will be required to see another point of view. Its this awareness that makes companies stronger.

The pandemic has laid bare the fact that so many companies lack this awareness. Their communication and marketing efforts—put together quickly without the aid of countless focus groups to help pivot and polish their messages-- show that their intuition about their consumers is wildly off.  Much has been made of how similar all of the COVID-19 ads have been, so much so that someone has made a mashup video highlighting their formulaic construction. To me this points less to a common playbook by ad agencies and more to the loss of consumer empathy in corporate hallways.  

However, all is not lost. The easiest thing to do is to staff your business with more people that represent your consumer, however this isn’t always feasible. Instead, teams can: 1. Learn how to be aware of their own point of view and recognize when it isn’t congruent with their consumers’; 2. Surround themselves with quick ways to access their consumers’ thinking on a topic; and 3. Internalize the thinking of their consumer into their decision-making.

I’m not saying its easy though. Our natural default is to be internally focused, so I’ve found it often takes serious intervention to maintain an external vantage point. In fact, I’ve run several ‘marriage counseling’ sessions between brand teams and their consumers to help keep the lines of communication open and avoid an impending ‘divorce.’ However, in the end, it is a team effort, with colleagues working together to keep each other honest.

For example, I once sat in on the cutting of a new natural/organic snack bar with members of a company’s C-suite. The CEO took a bite of the latest bar, made a face and said he thought “the taste could be improved.” The R&D Director, to her credit, said “With all due respect, you’re not the consumer.” 

The next few years will be full of a lot of change. The most successful companies will be those that are enlightened enough to know when their consumers’ POV differs from their own.
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More Than Nostalgia 
Fruit Roll-Ups, a General Mills brand, has re-launched Peel ‘N Build, a version of their classic roll-up. Each roll has cutouts reminiscent of pizza toppings (e.g. mushrooms, peppers, and pepperoni) that kids can remove, stack and rearrange. Peel ‘N Build hasn’t been seen on shelves since 1995.

Starbucks has launched a Unicorn Cake Pop for Summer. The Pop is made of vanilla cake with confetti sprinkles, dipped in a white chocolaty icing, and decorated with pink, blue and brown.

Kellogg’s has announced the launch of Mashups, a cereal combination of the classic fruit flavored ‘O’s’ of Froot Loops and the sweetened crisp of Frosted Flakes.  Kellogg’s says that the new cereal will be available in stores in June. There is no word yet on future Mashups, although it appears that that is a definite possibility.

So What? Prior to visiting Japan a decade ago, I’m sure I’d seen such characters as Hello Kitty, Pokémon, Rilakkuma, or Pusheen, but I didn’t give them much thought. I likely saw them as kid’s cartoon characters—equivalent to Mickey Mouse, Snoopy or Garfield. Then I went to Japan and realized I was absolutely wrong.

These characters are what the Japanese call kawaii and, while typically translated into English as ‘cute,’ this phenomena is about much more than adorability. In Japan, kawaii is part of adult culture, and many serious companies and government agencies have kawaii mascots (aka yuru-chara). That means that it isn’t unusual to see police officials and heads of corporations standing onstage with their official giant furry mascots. 

Kawaii started in the 1970’s, but many scholars trace its roots to much earlier. Technically, kawaii means to be ‘red-faced’ with shame. When a person or character is kawaii it really means that it is helpless, in need of compassion, care and protection. Post-World War II adulthood in Japan was rigid and strict, rebuilding a country from devastation meant setting aside childhood quickly and assuming mature roles. Kawaii was invented as a form of soft rebellion against accepting this harsh reality or, as one Japanese anthropologist once told me, an ‘escape hatch from adulthood.’ Japanese teen girls in the 1970’s refused to completely abandon the innocence and comfort of childhood and refused to take on the completely serious adult roles without a lasting reminder of less stressful days.

I tell you all of this because of a frustration I’ve experienced lately. I’ve had a number of clients come to me after hearing that ‘nostalgia will be the next big trend’—and I cringe at the vagueness of that statement. If I told you to go and create a ‘nostalgic product,’ what would you make? A retro package? A reimagined snack? Would you bring back your product’s original mascot? Just saying ‘nostalgia is on trend’ is vacuous and unhelpful, unless we qualify why people want nostalgia and what it needs to accomplish. That’s where the concept of kawaii comes in.

I see a lot of similarities between the rebellion of Japanese teens of the 1970’s and the adolescence of Western Millennials. Both generations were entering a world of strife (i.e. Sept 11th) and both pushed back on the expected norms of growing up (see ‘adulting’). However, what’s especially interesting is how both groups’ rebellion had ripple effects across their respective societies. Today in the West, aspects of our own version of kawaii are bleeding into mass culture (e.g. Baby Yoda, Baby Groot, etc.) and, I believe, the pandemic is pushing it even more mainstream. As more adults need their own ‘escape hatch,’ we’ve seeing a uniquely Western approach to kawaii: adult activities done in childlike ways. So the last several months have seen the making of pancake/waffle/donut cereal, the construction of squirrel picnic tables, Animal Crossing and adult inflatable pool cocktail parties.

Your consumer needs to be an adult because we are living in serious times, but they’re looking to you and your brand to help provide a momentary escape hatch. While earlier generations may have looked to alcohol or other adult outlets, I see more consumers escaping via childlike means. How might your brand combine adult needs with the innocence of childhood?  
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Using the Whole Path to Purchase
Children’s juice and water brand good2grow spoke with Food Navigator-USA last week about how COVID-19 is decreasing ‘kid nag’ at grocery stores and negatively affecting sales of their products. With consumers rushing through stores and often leaving kids at home, the company says they have switched their marketing target from children to parents. Using digital marketing and a new experiential app for children, the brand has seen a 300% increase in online sales and a jump in instore purchases.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal documented the new protocols that are emerging at clothing retail stores in the US as they open for shoppers. Beyond the plexiglass dividers and the occupancy limitations you’ve likely heard about, stores like American Eagle Outfitters are replacing the clothes on their front displays with a welcome table filled with bottles of hand sanitizer, disposable masks and sticky blue mats that clean shoe soles. However, most surprising are the actions stores are taking to limit browsing or touching—two things previously stores were designed to encourage. Clothes are folded differently “to allow shoppers to examine them in detail without touching them.” Analysts and store owners say that “the overhaul could ultimately make the shopping experience less enjoyable” and they are “preparing for fewer impulse buys.”

IZEA Worldwide, Inc., a tech company that helps manage the influencer-to-brand relationship on social media, recently announced that Rice Krispies had the largest share of voice (SOV) among all 46 tracked RTE cereals (based on volume of organic and sponsored posts on social media). Post’s Pebbles had the second highest SOV, followed by General Mills’ Cheerios, General Mills’ Lucky Charms and Kellogg’s Froot Loops. Krispies was not only highest overall, but highest in terms of organic posts. IZEA hypothesizes that this may have something to do with the brand’s relationship with model/cooking celebrity Chrissy Teigen (and the numerous times she incorporates Rice Krispies into stories about her husband and child).

So What? The automobile industry of the early 19th century was like the computer industry of the 1980’s—there were a lot of startup companies trying to get in, but there weren’t that many consumers to buy the products. Therefore, when two French brothers, Édouard and André Michelin, started their tire company in 1889, they were starved for business.

After struggling for a few years supplying tires to the ~3,000 automobiles in turn of the century France, the brothers realized that their company was doomed to failure. Unless more people bought cars and wore out their tires, they couldn’t survive. What, the brothers asked themselves, makes people buy and use a car? Having somewhere interesting to go! And, because it was France, the brothers rationalized that that somewhere equaled to restaurants. So, they started writing guides directing people to the best restaurants in all of France…then Belgium…then Algeria and Tunisia, until finally the Michelin Guide became THE handbook for restaurants everywhere. Soon restaurants became famous for earning Michelin stars and people drove to eat at them, all on their Michelin tires.

The Michelin brothers realized that no one was buying boring tires, they were buying adventure and fun. If they’d set up the best displays or ran the most impactful ads talking about the technology of their craft, it wouldn’t have enticed more people to purchase. However, by romancing the story (along with their own brand) they got people to come to them!

A lot of marketing and advertising falls down because companies convince themselves that they are only selling the physical product. It makes sense, revenue is only generated when money changes hands for the purchase of physical goods. However, this leads to companies thinking “we are a cereal company” or “we’re a sparkling beverage company.” While that’s true to a point, and a product must be truly great to be profitable, it’s limited thinking. If Coca-Cola only sold fizzy brown water, they’d have no chance of survival; knockoffs would undercut them in a minute. Companies sell products, but brands sell stories. And these stories start well before consumers ever walk down the aisle at the supermarket. In fact, the product is near the terminal end of a much larger conversation between the company and the consumer.

Recently, I’ve had a lot of conversations with clients who are worried about the loss of in-store dwell time and impulse sales. While their concerns are valid, I remind them that this (like so many things with COVID-19) is just an acceleration of trends that started years ago.  Dwell time was already on the decline as smaller grocery formats proliferated. Impulse buys have been a struggle for years as consumers shop more online, front-end registers have gotten leaner and consumers have learned to mentally block out ever bolder and brasher displays.  My point being, if your business was counting on either more dwell time or in-store impulsivity as your growth strategy, you were in trouble before the pandemic.    

What modern companies can learn from the Michelin brothers is that smart companies learn how to tell a story that ends with consumers seeking you out, not trying to fight for last minute attention in the store. In the next few months, you’ll see the most innovative companies and agencies re-rack their comms architectures, rethink their messaging and rework their planograms to let the front end of the path to purchase bring consumers to them.     
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The Lighter Side
Very little this week can compete with this video of a NASA engineer that built an American Ninja Warrior-like obstacle course for a group of pesky squirrels that had invaded his backyard bird feeder. This video has it all: action, humor, mistaken identity and a happy ending. Plus, you learn something about squirrels, so watching this ~20-minute video is almost like watching a TED Talk (how is that for rationalization?).  
While we are on the topic of kawaii, here is a John Oliver video from last year where he discusses the crazy story of a rogue Japanese otter mascot that impersonated the official mascot of a small fishing village and wrecked havoc online (WARNING: profanity).
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From Innovation to Ideation
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