A Real Swing Shift: Changing Values Require a Change in Marketing Strategies

The following article was published in the February 16, 2009 issue of BussinessWest.

The stock market has crashed, retirement savings have shrunk, and the cost of goods continues to rise. While these are very tangible changes, perhaps the biggest change impacting our business is the current shift in consumer values. Since good marketing requires us to fully appreciate the values of our audience (customers and prospects), we need to understand the effect of those values on consumer response to the products/services we offer.

The most noticeable shift in values can be seen among the big group of baby boomers (ages 49-66). Boomers control the majority of money spent in our current economy, with women influencing over 85% of those buying decisions. Many boomers have been industriously working, paying their bills and saving for their retirement. They have had opportunities to work hard and see the results. In our consumer based society they have acquired more than their parents and provided more for their children than they ever had as kids. Many boomers have been wondering, is this it? Was that the point. With the stock market crash this question has been exacerbated by an immediate decline in their wealth.

Gen X'ers (ages 28-48) value their personal time and desire activities they can share with their family, friends and children. They have seen several recessions but today's financial and social changes are the most dramatic. Now at child-rearing age they are looking for security in a time of great uncertainty. Their needs and values are focused on a tangible return on their time, effort and dollars.

The Millennials (ages 9-27) are still socially emerging and have been diligently reared by their boomer parents, who have done their best to provide them with everything. While they have grown up in a brand conscious world they may be adverse to brand and advertising hype. Millennials are exploring possibilities at a time when the traditional opportunities are shrinking - although new possibilities will emerge.

The current recession has made all of these consumers very serious in their quest for monetary value. But they are also looking for value from the resources that they expend. If they are going to “spend” their time, their attention, their emotional and physical energy, they want to be sure they will receive a return (tangible, spiritual or experiental) on their investment. Consumers are looking for greater meaning from their relationships – their work and business relationships, the non-profits they support, their neighborhoods and their communities. Note that in today's internet-based world, some of those important relationships and communities may be online.

When it comes to marketing products and services, every business needs to be listening and looking for how this shift in values is changing the needs and wants of their customers. Now is the time to review your marketing plans and advertising initiatives. Here are several steps you can take to maximize your marketing efforts.

1. Take a fresh look at your current customers.
You should know who you do business with and how those customers think. You need to evaluate how changes in their lives are going to change their need for your product or service. Will they be needing more, less, or none of your products and services? Don't make assumptions, take the time to talk with your customers and ask them questions about how things are going for them. What are their current worries and desires? They will appreciate your listening and a proactive approach allows you to develop solutions and products that will meet their needs. It is always easier to sell to a current customer, so be sure to explore all possibilities to serve them.

2. Liberally explore potential new customers.
Now that change is moving through our society, what other target groups might your product serve? The stockmarket crash has changed the investment and retirement plans of many people. Rising unemployment is changing the livelihoods of many families. Low interest rates are expanding the home buying possibilities as banks are getting tougher on who they will finance. At the same time, there is an increasing interest in environmentalism, locally grown food, and sustainability. These changes, and so many more, are moving people into different income brackets and lifestyles. Should you be talking to new audiences?

3. Critically evaluate your products and services.
Take a hard look at what your company produces. Is it relevant in today's marketplace? Is it about the needs of your customer, or is it about what you are able to produce. Just because the dollar is tight, you cannot offer less to your customer, you need to be thinking about offering more. Are your products or services the very best they can be? How do they compare to your competition including all the competitors your customers and prospects can easily find on the internet?

4. Strategically retool if necessary.
Now that you have done some self-analysis, decide on what changes you can make. Remember the concept of “find a need and fill it” which could hold some great ideas for improving, updating, or revamping your product or service. Be sure to include everything needed for a great customer experience around that product. While a customer may “need” a new computer system, they “want” expert advice, good pricing, experienced technicians and great follow through to go with it. In today's difficult market poor products will die off quickly and weak services will be replaced by better vendors. Do everything you can to be the best in your field.

5. Demonstrate that you care.
These recessionary times call for more substance and less fluff as people are looking for meaning from their relationship with you. Consumers are demonstrating their desire to have a positive impact on the world. Take a look at how you can align your business with a good cause (one that truly has meaning for you).
  • Over 83% of consumers are willing to change consumption habits to make tomorrow's world a better place*
  • Only 25% of people find contentment from the shopping experience*
  • 63% of consumers think brands spend too much on marketing/advertising and should put more into a good cause*
  • Consumers want to be engaged more than ever before and social purpose works across many demographics: boomers, millennials, children and especially women.

*Source: Edelman GP global study 2008

6. Have a real value proposition!
One of the hardest aspects of developing a marketing message is effectively presenting your value to your customers and prospects. Your messaging needs to be more than the attributes of what you do or make. It needs to speak to how your customers' needs are met, how it resolves a worry they have, how it makes them healthier, or how it makes them feel better, smarter, happier. Here is where you really need to understand how your customer thinks. Only through that understanding can you reach into their hearts and minds to know what keeps them up at night or gets them going in the morning. Points to consider:
  • Your value proposition will grow from the needs you are meeting.
  • It will define why someone should buy from you instead of a competitor. “Lowest price,” “best selection” and “great service” are not value propositions. They can be provided by your competitor and are not unique to your business.
  • Often, the simpler the value proposition the clearer your intentions will be, both internally and externally.
  • Your value proposition is about what you “do” and who you “are” - it is not about what you “say” or what you “want”. Google is the number one search engine because it is the most chosen search engine over other options, not because Google says so.
7. Create powerful messaging that grabs attention.
Again, this message is not “what you do” but “what is in it for the customer”. Today's consumers are very smart shoppers, too smart for clever advertising and shallow promises. They have the internet at their fingertips to shop and compare pricing, quality, attributes, and selection. Consumers are sceptical, but at the same time, they find great value in companies that ring true and deliver on their promises. Whenever possible, create true stories around your product to illustrate how your product/service has met the needs of real people - state the problem, demonstrate your solution and show the results. Be personal in your messageing and show that you care about the customer.

8. Explore old and new media channels.
The channels for marketing communication have grown as technology has expanded. Different age demographics use the channels differently and you should be aware of how your customers want to be reached. Boomers like to visit stores and look at products but will use the internet for price comparisons and product details. They actually prefer to order online and have products delivered to them. Gen X tends to use the internet to check out what is available and then go shopping, prefering to bring their items home with them. That is just one example of differences in shopping behavior. It is very important to offer many channels for your customers and prospects. People of all ages expect a wealth of information and shopping opportunities online. As your customer base evolves stay aware of their channel preferences and offer them the options they desire.

9. Say please and thank you.
Given all that is happening in the world, we know that people are stressed, worried, and stretched a little thin. Customer courtesy and great service will go a long way in creating loyalty to your company.

If you are running your business for the long haul, now is the time to take a hard look at your business and the changes you may need to explore and implement. While there is stress created by change, there will also be many interesting and exciting possibilities coming from shifts in lifestyle, needs and values. Use all of your experience and wisdom to take advantage of new opportunities.

Tina Stevens is the Principal and Creative Director of Stevens 470 Marketing and Creative. She is also the Director of the Multichannel Marketing Institute. She can be reached at 413.568.2660 or tina@stevens470.com.

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