Advertisers examine post-Sept. 11 priorities

Sep 23, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Welcome to the New Normalcy, the post-Sept. 11 world in which advertisers try to connect with consumers who are busy “re-centering” and making “connections” with their local communities and families and are suspicious of corporations and their advertising claims.
As they retrench and await possible war and likely recession, consumers have shifted to trusting “rational evidence,” not advertising hype that points proudly at a product or to a company’s own trustworthiness. They are “looking for the message behind the message,” said Janet Pines, executive VP and director of competitive strategies and proprietary techniques, Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, “not at what you say, but how you say it.”
Protecting the family is the No. 1 value that consumers espouse in these times, and marketers can resonate with consumers by addressing their family-protection concerns too, said Edward Keller, CEO of RoperASW, a company that specializes in “market intelligence.”
Corporate scandals have made consumers angry, Mr. Keller said. They view CEOs as people who have cheated them, who are the “enemy within.”
Ms. Pines and Mr. Keller were two of the speakers on a recent panel surveying the post-Sept. 11 advertising and marketing landscape. The panel, held last week at The New York Times building in midtown Manhattan, was sponsored by Advertising Women of New York. The panel’s moderator was Stuart Elliott, a Times writer and columnist, who opined that “one of the real turning points” after Sept. 11 came when General Motors offered zero-percent financing for its cars.
“Psychologically that had a real effect,” he said. Until then, the “trend was a lot of companies were going to shut down, factories would lay off thousands and thousands. … Instead, GM decided to run the plants, whether or not they were going to make any money selling the cars.”
Someday, he predicted, the public will be privy to whatever high-level discussions between Washington and Detroit preceded the GM announcement.
In the wake of Sept. 11, consumers briefly dropped their cynicism, but they noticed, too, when corporations and bureaucracies responded to the crisis by seeming to embrace capitalism rather than democracy, Ms. Pines said. “They kind of showed their true colors,” she said. Her suggestion to corporate clients: Act like a human being, not like a corporation.
In a recent FCB survey on the subject of trust, advertisers were “on the bottom,” Ms. Pines said. “We still need to get the message out. We still need to be driving retail,” she said, but today consumers are looking for “transparent” truth about a product or a service’s performance, for “real information” and “multiple perspectives,” rather than just relying on a single authority.
“We tried to dimensionalize trust against a lot of categories,” Ms. Pines said of the survey. What came up most often was not “honesty” and “integrity,” although they did rate, but “dependability,” “reliability” and “proven track record.” So there is this test of time … and the other test is the test of shared values.”
Companies that scored well on these trustworthiness tests included Coca-Cola, SC Johnson (whose current advertising campaign centers on the idea that Johnson is a “family company”) and Home Depot. Though Home Depot is a younger brand than either Coke or Johnson, “Do-it-yourself is very much in vogue,” Ms. Pines said.
“The notion of being integrated in all your communications is the key,” Mr. Keller said. “There’s this focus on trust right now. … Companies created their Internet strategy that was totally divorced from their TV strategy and they run promotions. … Those things aren’t going to fly anymore.