4 cannabis marketing insights from America’s largest cannabis tradeshow

When you take Las Vegas, make cannabis legal and add more than 18,000 industry pros, it’s hard not to have a damn good time. But, this year’s MJBizCon showcased progress and cannabis marketing insights, not only partying.

At the show, more than 670 companies showcased products and offerings, a 111-percent increase from last year, according to Marijuana Business Daily, which hosts the event. Nearly every sector was represented, ranging from cultivation equipment companies to security.

With that many vendors and that much foot traffic, it wasn’t hard to ID some significant macro trends playing out in the cannabis industry. I talked with tons of people – and observed plenty of vendors – to sift for trends that will impact how brands ultimately shape their identity and messaging.

1. The industry is Canada obsessed

Medical marijuana is legal in Canada, but the market is about to blow up, with recreational use becoming legal in July 2018. And that’s what everyone was talking about at MJBizCon.

Why? Because once Canada cannabis is fully legal, production is going to skyrocket. Currently, there are 74 licensed producers for medical purposes, but the number of licenses is expected to exceed 300 over the next year.

With that kind of potential, everyone from greenhouse builders to bud trimmers is drooling over Canada and trying to jockey for position. Even current operations are going to need to expand once the masses can use cannabis freely—that includes major players such as Tweed Farms, Canada’s largest cannabis producer.

Talking with owners of companies producing things like modular indoor grow facilities, as well as investors, it became apparent to me that Canada is so important because it’s not nearly as saturated as the U.S.

It’s worth noting that Canada is aware of its popularity. Seventy-five percent of the non-U.S. attendees were from Canada, as they try to leverage their new-found freedoms.

From a cannabis marketing and communications standpoint, the same opportunities exist in the U.S. and Canada. Companies will need branding, public relations, social media strategy and more.

The key to success for companies in the cannabis industry – and those leading their marketing and communications efforts – will be to understand the nuances of the Canadian industry compared to the U.S. For instance, in Canada, the government controls all dispensaries. That alone is a huge difference that will dictate how cannabis brands talk to their audiences (more on this in another post).

2. Corporate America wants its weed

For anyone working in the category, it’s no secret that large corporations such as Scotts Miracle-Gro are buying up companies serving the cannabis industry. Even tech companies, including Microsoft, are getting in on the action.

As expected, this is stirring up anxiety and angst among many in the industry, and excitement among others (though, few will admit it openly because they’re reluctant to support “big business”). But regardless of how the corporate invasion is received among industry vets and purists, this is clear: Big biz is here to stay and the impact is going to be huge.

That’s because with big business comes big budgets. They have the ability—and capital—to innovate and invest at a rapid pace. They have operations efficiencies built from years of practice. And they’re experts in things like market research and consumer behaviors.

A lot of small and mid-sized vendors at the show, especially those serving growers, are concerned. But while things may sound ominous, they’re not that bad— at all. Just like in the beer industry, we’re going to have the Anheuser-Busch of cannabis one day. But, we’re also going to have the Surlys, Founders and New Glarus’ of the world, serving up craft buds that are high quality, locally produced and sought out by consumers.

A number of nuanced points make this much more complex than a few paragraphs can describe. Ultimately, though, success won’t be about size or who has the richest board of directors. Instead, it will come down to each company finding a way to define their brands and refine their strategies to put a laser focus on their customers’ needs, which in this category are complex and fluid.

3. Everyone has a competitor – or four

Other than the obsession with Canada (seriously, it got weird), one of the most significant things I noticed was the number of brands competing with essentially the same product.

At last year’s show, I saw the same thing, but this year’s MJBizCon had a lot of clones. I talked to a number of companies making trimmers, custom soils, lights and every other ancillary product imaginable.

In such a young industry, this isn’t surprising—and it’s not a bad thing. The good brands are starting to rise to the top and the number of competitors is pushing innovation. The reason I bring it up isn’t that the market is saturated (there is plenty of room for multiple companies with similar offerings), but instead because the need for brand identity is evident for so many of the players, including industry leaders.

So many brands have succeeded to this point because demand has been so high. That’s going to continue but ultimately, those with strong brands that support the industry are going to win. The problem right now is that so few companies have strong brands.

For example, let’s talk logos, booth setup, collateral – you know, those things you can see at a show. I saw a lot of the same. Ancillary companies, especially, have been slow to brand appropriately for the industry. Others, default to stereo types.

Hence …

4. We still have an identity crisis

There were many more brands at MJBizCon this year that had the look and feel of kick-ass companies anyone with a sense of style and brand strategy would say are getting things right. But out of nearly 700 vendors, we still have a long way to go.

A couple things are causing this identity crisis:

  • The industry is young and many companies haven’t needed strong branding/communications, because demand has been so high.
  • B2B historically doesn’t seek out top-tier marketing as early and frequently as B2C (the show is primarily B2B vendors).
  • Many of the companies are young, therefore lacking capital to spend on marketing when more pressing priorities such as sales and operations get investment first.

Not every company should look and feel the same, or have the same ethos and mission. But like any category, each brand in the cannabis industry needs to have a consistent look, feel and identity, so their customers can – and want to – connect with them. This is over simplified but cannabis companies need to look as cool and dialed-in as the products they’re providing. Ultimately, this is a lifestyle category and that vibe carries over to B2B companies in cannabis.

You need to have a logo I want to wear. And have a brand identity that matches your consumer. Don’t suck on social. Is that asking too much? No. But, as anyone who walked the show will attest, there are a lot of bad logos in the cannabis industry.

This is just the beginning …

Here’s the thing, some of these issues likely could be seen in any young industry. These are the growing pains every industry goes through, from tech to weed. We’re going to see more competition. Big companies will continue to buy up the little guys and those willing to sell.

And while even the best CBD oil can’t alleviate the inevitable agony that comes with these challenges, every brand in the industry has the potential right now to win. That starts with great product. But it’s sustained through great marketing and communications.

6 healthcare marketing takeaways from judging the CLIO healthcare awards

If you’ve never had the opportunity to sit on the jury for marketing awards, try to make it happen. It’s really one of the only times you’ll be laser focused on a large body of somebody else’s work with a critical and (hopefully) impartial eye. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to see the best of the best, which raises the bar for your own work. Frankly, it’s both humbling and inspiring.

I recently had the chance to be a part of the CLIO Health awards jury in the digital/mobile, direct, experiential/events, public relations and social media categories. I have a few takeaways from the great work I’ve spent the past several weeks critiquing and appreciating.

  1. It’s really really hard to categorize work these days, and that’s a good thing.

    Is it a social campaign that drives media coverage? Is it an event or experience that drives social media engagement? Is it a PR event in the digital realm, amplified in social with some paid search behind it? Yes, yes, and yes. If your marketing campaign is so easily classified that it doesn’t bleed into at least two, and ideally more categories, then you’re not doing it right. The best work today, the awarded work today, can’t exist in some functional or media silo.

  2. Tech is great, but it’s not a must-have for a great campaign.

    We discussed and praised campaigns that were so low-tech it would make your digital team cry. Sure, there were plenty of great campaigns doing highly innovative things with bleeding edge technology but the key is: Tech has to be in service to the idea. If the idea doesn’t demand a high-tech execution, then it’s gratuitous and you risk losing the idea in the technology.

  3. That said … holy smokes it’s amazing what smart marketers are doing these days with AI, bots and algorithms that even 18 months ago would have seemed futuristic.

    If the tech is helping you connect better with the target or helps tell a better story, then have at it.

  4. There is beauty in simplicity.

    A good idea in its purest sense is, more often than not, going to be best executed as simply and purely as possible. The more superfluous bells and whistles that get tacked on along the way, the harder it is to communicate the core idea to the intended target. This is true for public relations, social media, digital media, events, experiences and even traditional media.

  5. Big budgets are nice, but you can do breakthrough work without them.

    But, it means the idea has to be spot on and executed with remarkable efficiency. We saw healthcare marketing campaigns with what I assume had very big production budgets and campaigns that were executed on budgets many in the industry would dismiss as too small. And some of those “small-budget ideas” were every bit as powerful, and in some cases more so, than the big ones.

  6. Healthcare marketing doesn’t have to be boring.

    Yes, I know it’s highly regulated and there are so many category conventions we all hold so dear. But I’m telling you, I saw work from pharma, health services, disease awareness, hell, even animal health that was anything but boring. So the next time you want to push your healthcare executive team away from the category norms, check out some award winning work and share it with them.

After sitting on the CLIO Health jury, I’m headed back to work with a renewed appreciation for what’s possible.

Check out the 2017 winners at CLIO Health.

6 ways décor, appliance and building products can accelerate business growth

Every year, visitors to the Kitchen & Bath and International Builders Show shop 1,500 exhibits across 570,000 square feet of space. Competitors sneak peeks at other’s new releases and marketing materials. Designers go from booth to booth seeking inspiration. Observations incubate in the minds of over 80,000 attendees, then germinate to become the next industry trends and breakthroughs.

Observations also germinate on what could be more effective strategies to accelerate business growth to drive year-over-year increases in sales for those “in the business.” Here are six, from over twenty years studying companies with longevity as well as newer ones doing well despite tough odds:

ONE: The Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality are not just trends, they’re accelerators.

From compelling virtual home tours to the security of visually monitoring one’s home (or what’s in the fridge) when miles away, technology is being applied to address homeowner needs. But for the marketer, technology’s value includes speeding up shopping, speeding up decision-making, speeding up sales.

Take selecting a paint color. It’s famously paralyzing for people. While there have long been apps to help, none are as emotionally rewarding and functionally helpful as the Color Snap® Visualizer from Sherwin-Williams. Want to match the color of a flower or fabric you love? Take its picture and the app will automatically produce the perfect “paint chip” as well as complementary colors. Take a photo of your living room and the app will automatically translate your selected color to the walls so you can test the look and make a decision.

Integrating technology with one’s marketing to architects, builders, designers and consumers can result in a trifecta of mutual benefits: more access to better info, more convenient shopping, more confident decision-making. These are things that create brand preference, drive switching behavior, grow sales and share.

Have you explored all the ways IoT, AI and VR could accelerate decision-making in your brand’s favor?  

TWO: Prevention and wellness aren’t just for health care entities.

Toto has long claimed unparalleled cleanliness as its leading benefit. Several years ago Formica launched antimicrobial laminates at IBS (engaging actors posing as germs to run the aisles). In 2016, Sherwin-Williams launched microbicidal interior latex paint for commercial use. (Of course, moms then coveted it for nurseries, bathrooms and kitchens, too.) The latest addition to “healthy” wall coverings are shower and bath panels that inhibit mold and mildew.

Yet, while today’s consumer is well-sensitized to the havoc microorganisms can wreak on family life and their biggest asset—their home—innovations focused on prevention and wellness still seem largely untapped in many product categories. How about flooring for the homes of pet owners? How about disinfecting stations in various rooms for the two biggest carriers of germs into our homes—shoes and mobile phones?

In what way could your brand innovate in service to better health?

THREE: The future belongs to those who enable “generationless” living.

The Baby Boomer demographic is attuned to living longer, in better health and in their own home, so they’re looking for more and more aging-in-place products. Consequently, walk-in tub and shower offerings are expanding rapidly. Some originally created for the rigors of hospitals and nursing homes argue they are functionally superior to residential-only brands. But their aesthetics are not as appealing as their functionality. That’s unfortunate. Just because a consumer is aging or less mobile doesn’t mean they lose a desire for tasteful décor and maintaining their home’s resale value.

Kohler understands this. Their new walk-in tubs and showers are both functional and attractive to people of all ages. That’s smart because medical breakthroughs mean more people are destined to live longer, live outside of institutions, recuperate at home or in the same home with family members of different generations. So bathrooms need to work for equally well for grandparents and toddlers, parents and handicapped children, spouses of those with a torn rotator cuff, a broken leg or a new knee.

This means that the future belongs to those who incorporate beauty into a generationless functionality of their products.

In what way could you apply greater aesthetics and universal design to products, décor and home plans?

FOUR: Functional products now do double—even triple—duty.

Today, technology and a creative mind allow any company to say, “As long as we’re going to be doing this anyway, why don’t we also ________?” (Fill in the blank.)

Consider that Formica launched laminates which, like chalkboards, serve as writing surfaces to message the family. (“Please let the dog out when you get home.” “Reminder: Pack lunch for tomorrow!”)  Broan-NuTone launched lights for the deck and yard that also repel mosquitos within a 10 square foot radius. These are perfect examples of “breakthrough thinking:” Filling multiple needs with one solution.

Can you find an advantage by concepting products and services that do multiple things at once?

Don’t limit your thinking to features and functionality. Consider mixing and matching what research has now proven to be 10 powerful areas to combine for breakthroughs. Combining three or more in a single offering is now well-proven to accelerate growth, and create barriers to entry by competitors.

FIVE: Distinguish your brand not just from competitors, but from its former self.

A growing economy is the best time to capture sales and share. Yet architects, builders, designers and homeowners specify over and over again only what they know. They avoid brands for which they have some anxiety or prejudice. So it is important to identify what perceptions are holding you back, then innovate sufficiently to be able to argue “We’re not what you thought we were.”

The most successful cases for reconsideration include innovations so surprising they make people question what they thought they knew about a brand. Ideally, this means innovations so relevant to the needs of today’s marketplace that in your offerings, architects, builders and designers see a chance to accelerate the growth of their own companies. Have you spent time considering what new product or service you could offer which, if you really could deliver on it, would help them capture share and margin?

If you can imagine and deliver on it, it would help you to charge more and increase your margin, too. But whatever your idea and case for reconsideration, it better be big. Research shows people won’t switch brands for what is seen as the promise of even a 10 or 20 percent improvement. So, to kick start some big thinking, ask yourself:

  • What can we create that will disrupt the status quo to our advantage?
  • If we can start over from scratch, what kind of business (and business model) will be right for the marketplace three years from now?
  • What unmet needs—if we can deliver on one or more of them—will allow us to have a whole new value proposition

SIX: There’s a more effective way to accelerate growth than stressing a product’s features, functionality, promotions and price.

In visit after visit to the KBIS and Builder Shows, A&D Showrooms, Home Depot, Loews, or home appliance retailers, I experience brands leaving money and margin on the table. Why? because of weak or non-existent value propositions.

It happens by emphasizing how a brand will help the architect, designer, builder or home buyer be more of who they are or who they aspire to be.

Though largely outside of one’s consciousness, the pursuit of one’s self-concept is the greatest driver in brand preference.  Yet most companies are oblivious to this reality. That’s because they assume people make decisions based on rational thinking. But decades of research now prove the brain doesn’t “think” as long believed. Rather, research shows humans first take in, implicitly and largely subconsciously, all kinds of info on a brand before they are even in the category to buy. They retain what seems attractive or relevant to their self-concept or aspirations, forming brand preferences and prejudices long before they’re realized by the conscious mind.

What’s more, extensive research shows that when trying to persuade people to prefer a brand, rational arguments (like features, functionality and price) are not very persuasive at all. Of course, when asked why they made a brand decision, people cite rational arguments because the real reasons are below their consciousness, in a part of the brain without language; that part of the brain driven by emotion.

Decades of longitudinal marketing data and case-based evidence now confirm that being famous for the emotional benefit a brand brings to people’s lives is what actually drives YOY increases in sales share, margin and brand strength. It is why the most successful homebuilding, appliance and décor brands identify an emotional benefit and leverage it in their ads and publicity, trade show or retail experience, merchandising and salesperson scripting.

Of course, a great price or promotion can trigger people to act IF they already having a preference for a brand. But trying to create brand preference via a list of features and functionality will not be productive. The brain is not engineered to file and recall great amounts of data. It is overwhelmed by lots of specs; quickly confused when trying to compare one brand’s details to those of competing brands. The brain’s software is not designed for making a decision based on multiple variables.

What the brain is designed to handle is an assessment of the emotional relevance of an offering.

Take Kohler. Their relevance is “gracious living.” It feeds an aspiration that’s universal in appeal.  Timeless, too. And it’s a benefit not restricted to any one category of business, allowing Kohler a brand platform on which they can innovate to deliver on the promise of gracious living across resorts and fine chocolates as well as low price and luxury plumbing fixtures. This means that no matter the category in which Kohler competes, the features or functionality are not the reasons to buy per se, but rather, reasons to believe Kohler’s promise to elevate the quality of one’s life more than alternatives. And armed with such a compelling and credible value proposition, Kohler can thus charge a bit more than competitors, making not only the sale but a good margin.

Another company positioning itself to the self-concept of its target is Kolbe & Kolbe. Regardless of product line, features, functionality or price, Kolbe & Kolbe frames their brand as being “for the visionaries.” Of course, this feeds the self-concept of most every architect, custom builder and high-end homeowner. And by advertising heavily to become famous for it, Kolbe & Kolbe is gaining increased consideration.

In the same way, every company would find their marketing effectiveness improved if they first, identify a meaningful role they can play in helping the target be more of who they are or aspire to be, then work to become famous for it through advertising, PR, focused marketing materials, sales literature, trade show booths, merchandising, and the words and deeds of dealers, distributors and people on the showroom floor.

Appealing to people’s self-concept drives YOY increases in sales, share, margin and brand strength because it plays to how everyone’s mind processes info and makes decisions.  It’s why great lawyers use it to win jury trials: They strategize what will create empathy and psychological appeal, organize all the facts under this premise as reasons to believe it, then stress it over and over again to speed up judgment, cementing decision-making in their favor.

So, any décor or home product brand who wants to accelerate their growth will want to ask:

  • What does the ego of my target really desire? (What’s driving them below their level of consciousness?)
  • How can we play to this by framing what we do with an emotional benefit so timeless it compels broad numbers of people to prefer what we’re selling today–but will still apply to offerings we’ve not yet imagined?
  • How can all my communications convey this value proposition emotionally, using select features and functions as reasons to believe the self-affirmation we promise to deliver?

Then, if you want to add even more firepower to the above, ask yourself:  

  • In what way can technology enhance the ability of our target to experience first-hand our benefit (Insight one)?
  • How can we capitalize on trends that can give our benefit maximum relevance (Insights two, three and four)?
  • What’s holding us back (Insight five)?

These six insights are a great start to accelerate business growth, a year-over-year growth in sales, share, margin and brand strength.  However, there’s even more marketers of décor, appliance and homebuilding products can do. Check them out.

Food marketing in an accountable world: 5 ways to feed consumers’ minds, hearts and bellies.

Those of us who do food marketing may find it hard to remember that there was a time when people ate food without asking about saturated fats, gluten-free options, farm-to-table fare, and whatever hot trend (or culinary villain du jour) is next.

What are marketers to do given the changing, never-the-same-as-the-day-before consumer who seeks more information, more innovation and more answers from food companies?

Here are five food marketing strategies to engage consumers within this changing landscape.

Consumer Insight: The Key to Unlocking More Awesome in Your Marketing

There’s a difference between a good campaign — one with pretty creative and smart media spending — and a great campaign.

A great campaign changes the game.

Or it changes the conversation.

Most importantly, a great campaign actually changes consumer behavior.

The difference between good and great nearly always comes down to insight. Not just any insight, but an actionable consumer insight.

What is a Consumer Insight?

A consumer insight is a nugget of knowledge about a consumer that when leveraged can help brands beneficially change the behavior of their customers.

The definition of consumer insight hints at its power: We’re talking about an understanding of your customers and potential customers that can help your product or your messaging have real-world impact.

Here’s why this is important to me: At LSB, we believe that advertising can’t succeed unless it finds a way to make a brand matter. I know it’s a simple thing to say, but it’s not really a simple thing to do. And discovering a real consumer insight is the first step.

Truly Powerful Insights are More than Facts

“Insight is usually pegged to the word ‘consumer’ but there are myriad kinds of insight in our industry – business, media, product, brand, strategic and competitive,” Merry Baskin wrote in a WARC Best Practice paper on delivering consumer insight.

In fact, there are even more types of brand insights, including social, cultural and categorical.

The point is that while there are many kinds of insights, the insights that are relevant here are the insights that motivate people, influence their beliefs and change their behavior.

Those are an important—even essential—component of brand development.

As Baskin went on to say in the consumer insight paper, “If the response is ‘so what?’, or ‘and..? Your point is?’ then you haven’t got an insight. If the response is ‘Aha!’ (‘that makes sense, I can see now why that is so, I know exactly what to do with it’) then you’ve struck gold.”

Examples of Powerful Insight

Sometimes finding consumer insights is easy. Take McDonald’s and their move to all-day breakfast. Consumers were literally begging for this for years—in its release announcing the change, the chain claimed more than 120,000 people tweeted McDonald’s asking for all-day breakfast in the previous year alone.

Survey after survey showed that consumers prefer McDonalds’ breakfast above all other fast-food breakfasts. In the end, the burger behemoth finally made it a priority to work out the breakfast puzzle.

OK! Uncle! All-day breakfast it is!

Jumpstarting the agency/client relationship: Q&A with Lisa Anderson

New and prospective clients often wonder what an agency’s onboarding routine is all about and how it differs from others. At LSB we make initial introductions and then as a team we enter what we call the Jumpstart process. It’s the beginning of a great agency/client relationship.

To give you some insight into the way we do things, I sat down with Lisa Anderson, our VP and Director of Account Planning.

The Heartland Consumer: Alien Being or Just a Regular Person?

Ever since November 8 it seems that market researchers and ad agencies everywhere are falling all over themselves to try to understand the “heartland consumer.”

That elusive heartland consumer that doesn’t buy into coastal versions of cultural norms and who has pollsters and market researchers alike confounded. And all of the sudden it seems, it’s never been so popular to not be part of the New York and Los Angeles culture.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal dug into responses from leaders at some of the nation’s top ad agencies discussing things like their “immersive approach” to understanding the “mindset of their demo” and how their diversity programs might now include recruiting farm girls from Indiana (yes, I’m serious). Based in New York and Los Angeles, the article’s sources included some of the most well-respected creative and strategic leaders in our industry.

The article discussed the “rural, economically frustrated, elite-distrusting, anti-globalization voters” that everybody is clamoring to understand. For the record, that description does not apply to all of us in the heartland. Hell, statistically speaking it doesn’t apply to most of us. But apparently that is how this large swath of the country is viewed by the folks on the coasts who try to target us with ads for everything from cars to toilet paper.

All of this strikes this Madison-based (that’s in Wisconsin) agency partner as more than a bit laughable. We, the group of people described as “the heartland consumer,” are not some mythological society that has been hiding in the shadows for eons. We’ve been here all along, going about our daily business and yes, for the most part not buying into some elite coastal version of culture. Just like you, we put our pants on one leg at a time. It just so happens that it’s more likely that those pants were purchased at Kohl’s than at Brooks Brothers.

But here’s the thing…you don’t need a New York or Los Angeles agency to try to figure out the heartland consumer.

Especially since they seem to be having trouble doing so. There are dozens and dozens of award-winning agencies in the middle of the country that are doing amazing work, getting new clients, driving results and keeping clients happy. (And I’m not even talking about the big guys in Chicago and Minneapolis.)

And that consumer everybody seems to want to get to know? Guess what. We live with them, we work with them, we know them. They are our part of our daily existence. They teach our children. They work beside us. We shop together at the Hy-Vee (that’s a grocery store). We buy our minivans from them. We tailgate with them at Packers and Brewers games and share holiday meals. We celebrate successes and mourn losses with them. We are them.

Come see us. We would be delighted to share a bit about what it’s like to be heartland consumers at a heartland agency. And stay for the weekend – we’ll take you out for Friday fish-fry – another one of our quaint heartland traditions.

Hello from Wisconsin Dells: Are marketers out of touch?

 out of touch

Kicking back at a waterpark…

As I write this I’m looking at a large man in some gaudy board shorts climb into a gantry that will drop him vertically a couple of stories through a tube. He emerges with said board shorts halfway down his butt while his family cheers. Earlier, I saw them sitting at a table nearby and I needed to know where they got the beer they’re drinking, so we started a conversation. The family is from Chicago, this is their big vacation – a few hot days at Wisconsin Dells with the fam. The man is a plumber, his wife works as a cashier at Walmart. The kids are covered in a red sugary substance. He’s debating whether to give the waterslide a whirl. I have to admit it looks a little scary, people come out if it looking like they’ve been flushed down a toilet, which I believe is the conceptual inspiration for the ride.

The plumber and his family are having fun.

Here’s the thing though. I don’t think there are a lot of other advertising people here. They’re all in Machu Picchu or cooling off in the Alps. Are we woefully out of touch?

This is a problem.

We’re paid to think differently and what goes with that is a different way of looking at the world. Here we sit with our hipster jeans and Chuck Taylors (no socks) working in our fancy towers or our cool loft spaces (with exposed brick of course), surrounded by Ping-Pong tables, beer fridges and Herman Miller chairs. And we’re busy – some would say overworked – so we rarely leave the comfort of our open work environments, rarely interact with anyone outside our social strata or even our workmates. Hell, we pat ourselves on the back if we get creative and account management to party together.

To put it in perspective, 42% of the people in America are country music fans, the most common job is a retail salesperson or cashier. The median household income is around $52,000.

We’re a little insulated, and because of this we often produce insulated campaigns.

Work that’s aimed at… us. Or at best, we produce work that glances off. Work that’s out of touch itself. It’s like a copy of a copy where the “target” is shown doing “target” stuff, talking like “the target,” dressing like the “target,” but it often doesn’t really ring true.

For instance, we know of Walmart, but we turn our nose up at it.  We know of Aldi, but it’s only okay because it owns Trader Joe’s and they’re cool. Oh, it’s German? Even better. Ad people like German stuff. They make BMWs. But have you ever actually shopped at one of these places? Besides the time you were in Sanibel and needed some flip-flops?

Oh, sure, we get demographic data, psycographic data and cultural anthropology. Always helpful, but nothing, absolutely nothing, takes the place of doing your own discovery. Nothing takes the place of hanging out with the truck drivers, sales supervisors, construction workers, plumbers and school teachers.

This is why account planners often look at the work that you’re so proud of and wrinkle their noses. They’ve been out with the target, have been in their homes and met their kids and the work feels just 15 degrees off.

My suggestion to advertising people in general and creative people specifically: Get out in the world.

Shop at a Walmart. Hang out at the park across town. You know, the one where you really don’t belong. The place where people aren’t wearing pajama pants ironically. Go to Wisconsin Dells, Gatlinburg and Myrtle Beach. Strike up conversations with people about their kids, their lives, their houses. Buy something at Aldi and actually get in a discussion with the cashier. Ask when his or her shift ends and you’ll most likely get an entire life story.

When that person is in your head when you’re doing the next campaign for macaroni and cheese (the kind with powdered cheese) it will be better, more connected, more true, funnier, more insightful and ultimately, more effective.

Back-to-School Ads: Do Brands Really Know Their Target Market?

Who’s in Your Target Market (and How Do They Feel About Whitesnake)?

So here at work, this happened:


Coworker: Guys! Have you seen this new ad from Walmart? It’s amazing, everyone needs to see it.

Me: You mean the one where the kids sing that 80s song from Whitesnake?

Coworker: Yes! It really gets me. My son is just like that—he wants to do everything on his own.

Me: Meh.


Aside from the fact I am child-free, the commercial didn’t resonate because whenever I hear that song all I can see is Tawny Kitaen writhing around on the hood of a Jaguar.

Yes, I know the lyric talks about going out on one’s own—but it’s about loss of love, not growing up. I hate it when we twist songs like that for a commercial.

But I digress.

The Ad Creep Starts Early

Let’s back up and look at the facts: The National Retail Federation says parents are expected to spend $75.8 billion on K-12 and college shopping. That’s just behind winter holiday shopping in revenues and that’s big, big business.

Back-to-school ads started creeping in July—and they generally look to mommies. They go one of two ways; they celebrate finally getting those little demons out of your hair, or they pluck the heartstrings with how you’ll miss their cute destruction.

Mommies wait by the bus, teary-eyed. There’s a collective sigh of relief that they no longer have to deal with their energetic, demanding progeny for several hours a day. Some dance, some look wistfully out the window.

Does the Target Market Always Have to Be Millennial Moms?

Far too often, there’s a knee-jerk assumption by many brands that women are the deciders in all households (it’s been that way for decades, hasn’t it?). And all women must have kids, and a bunch of them are Millennials now.

Having made these assumptions, companies go on to assume that to get the most eyes on a brand, you have to cater to Millennial moms—whether they care or not.

Whose Opinion Really Matters?

Back to the Walmart ad: It didn’t work for me, but I don’t matter in this case, because I have no real reason to buy 48 perfectly sharpened No. 2 Ticonderoga pencils or a backpack with Frozen characters on it.

However, that spot definitely worked for Coworker. And that’s where I have to admire Walmart’s strategy. You see, Coworker is male and over 35—a GenX daddy who was musically aware for the original video.

This normally reasonable guy was perfectly cool with some kid playing a bad hair band song on a recorder. It spoke to him. It mattered to him.

Walmart knew that a link (strange as it may be) between his childhood and his kids would draw his attention and make him feel something.

He is not mommy, he is not Millennial, but he has the desire and cash to buy his kids all the stuff they need for school. Targeting 101. Are there fewer GenX daddies out there? Yes. But we all know quantity does not always trump quality, especially when you examine spending power.

Don’t Forget Dad

Mintel reports that dads are a potential goldmine as a target market when it comes to their kids. Millennial dads like to shop with their kids, GenX dads like to give their kids a say in what they buy. They’re more inclined to say “yes” to those big eyes and heartfelt pleas.*

Coworker may not be the only target in this ad, but it’s enough of a departure to catch his eye and get him to talk about it—and influence others to notice (and buy). And let’s face it, there’s enough of the normal heartstring plucking in the ad to attract the eyes of the “usual” mommy market. (Plus, if she’s a Millennial, she may not have that off-putting Kitaen-writhing connection I do.)

Back-to-school may seem like same-old/same-old when it comes to advertising. But when there’s more than $75B on the line, smart brands who play in that pool are wise to reexamine just who their target market is and not take the easy way out. They’ll narrow their sights and hit hard with laser precision, and they’ll win.


*Mintel, Kids as Influencers, US- March 2016