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Pivot Your Brand to Thrive in a Down Economy

“We are here for you.”

“We are all in this together.”

Claims of unity and common purpose are ubiquitous across all marketing channels now (accompanied by soft piano music and photos of people smiling behind their face masks). It’s hard to differentiate brands and campaigns; everyone’s singing from the same song sheet.

But what comes next?

As soon as we’re over “we’re all in this together” it’s going to be “all about me” again.

In the book Beloved and Dominant Brands, we discuss the five roles of good advertising — and two of those concepts in particular point the way toward a post-pandemic communication strategy for better-for-you brands.

5 Pillars of Great Advertising

In the consumer brand space, good advertising is …

A badge or password. Advertising can, through repetition, pair a brand with a graphic mark that fans can wear or a tagline that they can repeat to show they’re in the tribe. Think of “Dilly Dilly” and the Nike swoosh — catchphrases and totems that people use to identify themselves and connect with others in the tribe.

A visual ‘snack.’ In digital channels, advertising has to be super quick to catch the eye and easy to consume. The days when advertisers could be clever and ask their audiences to read, let alone think … those are long gone.

A prompt to action. Advertising doesn’t have to tell the full story; it needs to inspire those who know just enough about the brand to be curious, and those who think they may be ready to join the converted.

The next two roles for advertising in the BFY space are key to our discussion of “how does our strategy shift after this crisis?”

An extended hand. BFY brands tend to be, by nature, a bit exclusionary — targeting vegans or health-conscious moms or outdoor aficionados. But to grow, they need to leverage smart advertising to welcome those consumers who may be circling just outside the group awaiting an invitation to join.

And that’s the state of all brand advertising right now: an extended hand. “We’re all in this together.”

The catch is that when all brands are saying the same thing, it’s impossible to stand out. And so — when the public health crisis eases and instead we’re deep in an economic recession — savvy BFY brands will turn (or return) to this type of advertising:

A velvet rope. Once you identify who’s in your tribe, you have permission to keep the nonbelievers out. Advertising can function like a bouncer outside a fashionable club who casts a discerning eye and waves the right kind of guest into the party. This may feel counterintuitive at first — why would a brand want to turn people away? But it’s the best way to generate real growth because it invites like-minded humans to come to you.

The brands that will have deep, resonant, recession-busting traction will be the ones that effectively move from the currently ubiquitous “extended hand” strategy to the “velvet rope” strategy.

Advertising to a Select Audience

Why does the velvet rope strategy work? Because humans are tribal. If we cannot break off into real factions and splinter cells, we invent them (think: pescatarian, keto-kings, foodies).

Brands that play to the masses will be reduced to One-of-Many, not Beloved and Dominant status. Your job as a brand marketer is to give consumers a story worth sharing in the future.

You’re wondering, “Isn’t it kind of mean to tell people they’re not invited to the party? How do we communicate exclusiveness in a way that isn’t too alienating?” Let’s look at some tactics:

First, your current messaging should be helpful, optimistic, supportive, and true to your brand’s authentic voice. Show your audience small acts of love.

Beware of simply bolting that “we’re here for you” messaging onto a brand story—like the car dealers in our region that are promising contactless transactions to keep people safe but are still selling you the dang car.

BFY brands that are getting this “extended hand” strategy right include Patagonia and Chobani. They were among the first to market with new messaging about helping consumers and employees get through this crisis. As they continue to do their good works (saving the planet, supporting food banks) it feels genuine because it’s part of their brand expression.

To survive the coming recession, though, both Patagonia and Chobani will lean heavily on their “velvet rope” strategies — whispering in believers’ ears. Patagonia speaks the language of outdoor activity and environmental activism; Chobani of health and vibrancy. Nonbelievers need not apply.

The key to “velvet rope” advertising is tone: It’s about identity and belonging and “us” rather than superiority and snobbery and “them.” Your messaging has to be unique to your brand — like a bat signal, only some people can see it or are drawn to it. REI gets this tone right: Anyone can shop there, after all, but membership in the co-op lets you in on the secret handshake. REI’s marketing language speaks to a passion for the outdoors and human connection to nature; that language is like a dog whistle to lifelong believers.

Some brands are naturally super exclusive, not in the sense of cost but in lifestyle or interest. If that’s your brand — say, you’re a vegan brand that’s most definitely not for the Standard-American-Diet-eating consumer — then your velvet rope messaging might lean on humor to balance out a tone of earnestness and clan-ism.

Finally, your messaging needs to be inclusive, not exclusive. Create the opportunity for the customer to opt into your club. It’s not your decision about whether they get in or not; it’s theirs. Furthermore, becoming part of your tribe shouldn’t disqualify them from others. Don’t tell them not to buy potato chips or candy bars. Your messaging should be more about “we know a better way, so come with us,” not “don’t go over there.”

When your brand is built on a strong strategic foundation — your promise and the way that you keep it with your people — it’s an easy pivot from “everyone” to “just us.” And that pivot will be essential as you seek to survive any recession.

Do you feel your brand could use some positioning or messaging fine-tuning? Let’s talk.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Better-for-You Brands: Quit Playing Small

Occasionally in our work, we encounter a curious phenomenon: We’ve completed deep-dive brand strategy work with a client in the better-for-you space, and laid the foundation for them to achieve growth. Everyone’s committed to the new strategic direction.

And yet when it comes time to execute — a packaging refresh or marketing strategy or advertising buy — the client team hesitates.

Often, it’s not because of budget concerns — but because of fear. Marketers and executives are afraid to actually make the big moves they need to on design, innovation or activation, often to their brand’s detriment.

Why Marketers Fear Success

Setting strategy is largely theoretical; execution is where it gets real, where the risk lies. Some people are more comfortable playing small instead of going big, because it’s familiar and safe.

Our philosophy on the perils of playing small comes from this quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

The founder/leaders of entrepreneurial BFY brands are perceived to be so bold and brave. So why the hesitation to bring the brand fully to life through execution?

Commonly, we see that the companies that hesitate on execution are those whose culture avoids change or risk. We hear comments like this: “Prove it first, and then we’ll fund it.” “That’s not the way we do things.” “That’s not how we spend our marketing dollars.” “We’ve never had to do this before.”

Conversely, bold brands operate on a test-and-learn mentality and are open to incremental risk. They look to meaningful event horizons in the future and ask, “What will it actually take to make this big thing happen?”

To take the big steps that spark meaningful growth, you have to make smart educated guesses about what years three and five look like. What’s the likely future you’ll move into based on trends and scenario planning? Only when you take that long view can you get comfortable with risk and rationalize the resources it’ll take now to achieve that future.

Clients often ask us what it will take to execute the strategy we’ve developed together. After a few years of experience, we’ve determined that companies should anticipate spending 1 to 5x for the first year of the strategy cost in order to leverage the opportunity. It’s not a small figure, but neither are the stakes.

Your Responsibility is to Make it Big

Re-read this part of the quote above: “Your playing small does not serve the world.”

Customers want — and sometimes need — your product. So quit downplaying how awesome your brand is. Your company wants your brand to succeed in a big way, not just make enough to cover hard costs.

You have an obligation to follow through. What’s the point of coming up with amazing ideas and then not sharing them? Remember:

If you go small, some other brand will go big and you’ll be left in the dust — this has proven true 100% of the time.

In fact, all the encouragement you need is right there in your brand strategy: your brand’s WHY, its mission or passion or reason for being. Brands that know their WHY and institute it culturally aren’t afraid to play big. They have a different mentality around everything than brands that are just trying to hit growth targets. When you have a powerful WHY, you can’t let the mission die. You can’t play small.

Our client Loma Linda is the best example we know of a brand that wasn’t afraid to go big.

Loma Linda is the world’s oldest vegetarian brand, you’ve probably never heard of, founded in 1890 by J.H. Kellogg and owned until 1990 by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. When they came to us, Loma Linda was a small brand embraced by a specialized cohort of loyalists. But they were seeking to expand their audience beyond church membership and tap into the growing plant-based food trend.

We helped the marketing and leadership team listen to their loyalists and identified a key brand value — sustainability — that would appeal to a wider consumer base. With that strategic foundation, we then helped them build a new message that conveyed the brand’s heritage: “Vegan before being vegan was a thing.” We reformulated products and reimagined packaging to suit the modern consumer (for example, shifting from cans to pouches). We kept a core group of beloved long-time products and introduced new global flavors.

Loma Linda’s team was so committed to the brand’s mission that they knew the products had to be available everywhere, to everyone.

Their big play paid off: Loma Linda’s customer base grew from about 2 million church members to 50 million global customers, a larger distribution network including big-box retailers, and a growth trajectory that was 10 times what they anticipated.

Whether your brand team is ready to go big, or you need a bit of encouragement, we’re here to help. Let’s talk.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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