Posts by Ann Mack - New York

Gap sends mixed messages for the holidays


“2-4-6-8 ’Tis the time to liberate!” a cheery ad for the Gap reads. “We can do it modest. We can go all out. This holiday, it’s up to us to whisper, scream or shout!” The copy, surrounded by photos of plaid-attired models in this month’s Vanity Fair, is a subtle nod to the awkward place we find ourselves in this holiday season—one foot in and one foot out of the recession.

To hit the point home, copy on another page reads: “What if I go lo-tech and wrap up plaid for you? We could skip those hi-tech gifts. Plaid’s got buttons, too.” This appears to be an acknowledgement of the fact that people are not only trading down, they’re trading off: choosing one category—often a cheaper one (e.g., clothes)—over another (the latest and greatest gadget, for instance).

While Gap ads are generally fun and festive, especially at this time of the year, you wish the messaging wasn’t so wishy-washy. Should I go modest? Or should I go all out?

As we enter what looks to be a jobless recovery, watch for more brands to attempt this tricky balancing act, trying to appeal to consumers who are still very much in a recessionary mind-set as well as those with a pent-up urge to splurge.

Making shopping fun again

“It’s the upside of an economic-stimulus package,” writes Mark Holgate in Vogue’s September issue of tonight’s Fashion’s Night Out, a “global party” co-sponsored by Vogue to kick off New York Fashion Week. Spanning 13 fashion capitals from New York to Brazil, France to India, Italy to Japan, the event is intended as a catalyst to reinvigorate retail, fashion and consumer confidence.

With all the buzz here in New York, there’s no doubt FNO will attract droves of fashionistas, recessionistas and everyone in between, if only to see or take part in the spectacle: Oscar da la Renta singing, Mary-Kate and Ashley customizing clothes, Anna Wintour being Anna Wintour, etc. It is a global party, after all.

But will it achieve the higher goal?

Let’s face it: For the past year, shopping has been anything but a party. Any sort of indulgent spending has been guilt-ridden (and not in a guilty pleasure sort of way) or done on the down-low (brown-bag luxury, anyone?). Purchases have been very practical, driven by need or discounts, or justified as investments.

If anything, FNO may remind people that shopping can be much more than pure utility. It’s social. It’s fun. The brands you buy express your style and personality. And purchases can be true investments—not just justified as such—that may last generations.

Seems like a good reminder for fashion and retail brands as well, which have been appealing more to our rational side at the cost of the emotional and instinctual. A literal and figurative splash of color couldn’t hurt in what’s been a very subdued shopping year.

Volkswagen UK makes reliable sexy

Volkswagen UK is the latest marketer to take the glass-half-full approach to the recession, turning a commercial for its Passat into a campy musical number. In the number (er, TV spot), a newly unemployed, down-on-his-luck gent sings about “Positive Thinking” as he confronts news of plummeting stocks, empty storefronts, everything-must-go sales and the like.

The end line arrives after the protagonist hops in his Passat and drives away: “One thing you can be sure of.”

In a world of uncertainty, people want some certainty. VW taps into that truth subtly and smartly. On the Web site, the Passat is described as “a car you can depend on,” its details “reassuring reliable.” These aren’t normally the sexiest descriptors, but then, these aren’t normal times.

What role do brands play in recovery?

The U.S. unemployment rate dropped in July—the first time since April 2008—from 9.5 percent to 9.4 percent, according to numbers out today. This is the latest in a string of promising signs, from a stock market rally to improved company earnings to real estate markets rising modestly. Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist with the Economic Outlook Group, told The Washington Post last week that “The economy is transitioning from recession to recovery.” And Newsweek’s cover proclaimed “The Recession Is Over,” though it added the cheeky footnote, “Good luck with the recovery.”

This begs the question for marketers: What role should brands play in what’s likely to be a “pokey, painful” recovery, in the words of Newsweek’s Daniel Gross?

American Express seems to be taking an inspirational role in the latest campaign for its OPEN small business platform. An anthem spot features several small-business owners and tells us that entrepreneurs like these “are the most powerful force in the economy. They drive change. And they’ll relentlessly push their businesses to innovate and connect.” The spot is nice enough, but what’s truly powerful is the brand’s new OPEN Forum, an online resource and social networking site for small businesses that features a virtual Rolodex of credentialed businesses, marketing tool kits and an idea hub, among other things.

While commercials may be able to inspire change, practical tools can help actually drive that change. And that’s real value. Brands that can provide people with such tools can form allegiances that go deeper than their product or service. While this is a good rule of thumb always (think Nike+), it’s even more relevant as the U.S. economy limps toward recovery.

USA Today: The recession generation?

Earlier this year, we conducted a survey on the recession and its impact on the Millennial Generation. As you may remember, we found that while there is a pervasive sense of resentfulness among Millennials, who feel they’ve been dealt an unfair blow because of the recession, they are finding advantage in adversity. A good portion of twentysomethings, for instance, see this as a market for first-time home buyers and entrepreneurs.

A story in yesterday’s USA Today, which highlights some of the results from our AnxietyIndex survey, illustrates how teens and twentysomethings across the U.S. are responding to the recession, whether leading a simpler life, looking for end-of-season sales instead of shopping constantly, or starting their own businesses.


Source: JWT survey in February of 243 people age 18-29 (among 1,065 Americans surveyed)

The recession is clearly shifting the conversation from Millennials’ narcissism and sense of entitlement to their ingenuity; from their conspicuous consumption to their conscious and creative consumerism, where cheap is chic, bargain-hunting begets bragging rights and doing more with less carries greater badge value than the latest It bag or logo-laden attire.

Brands can get behind Millennials by subtly acknowledging their tough situation and helping them navigate the recession with easy-to-understand guidance. They can also tap into the aspirations and optimism of these young adults, whose eyes are open to all opportunities that may present themselves during this rough patch. A good way to build confidence is through hope—giving young consumers a chance to be proactive and plan practically for their future.

To download our study on the recession and its impact on the Millennial Generation, click here.

T-Mobile encourages mobile makeovers

In a new campaign, T-Mobile informs Americans that “eight out of 10 people are unknowingly overpaying for their wireless service” and encourages us to get a “mobile makeover.” In an interesting twist, the wireless service provider is sending people to a third-party Web site to do that: evaluates a person’s calling needs against every national wireless plan.

Since T-Mobile might not come up as the best plan every time, the company is clearly rather confident that its wireless service will perform well in BillShrink’s assessment. Indeed, when I (a T-Mobile subscriber) entered my information, T-Mobile emerged as the best deal, but I also saw that I could shrink my current bill significantly.

In directing people to a solution such as BillShrink (which also evaluates credit cards and gas prices for consumers), T-Mobile is not only exuding confidence in its pricing structures, but also engendering goodwill among once-loyal consumers who now stand ready to switch to whatever provider is offering the latest deal.

Food Lion targets weary bargain hunters

foodlionlogo“I have different supermarkets for my shopping; one for detergents, soaps and shampoos, and another one for food products such as oil, rice and sugar, since both product categories are cheaper in their specific supermarket,” according to one homemaker we interviewed as part of our qualitative AnxietyIndex research (download “AnxietyIndex: Straight from the Consumer” in the Trends and Research section).

Now Food Lion is trying to reduce this tendency. In its latest campaign, the regional U.S. grocery chain tries to demonstrate that “You don’t have to hunt for great prices”—“Food Lion is the place for great prices on all the groceries you need, all under one roof.”

The effort will likely attract people who’ve changed their habits in response to the recession—and are now fatigued by the planning and running around that multiple-store shopping involves. It’s less likely to appeal to savvy bargain hunters, like the one above, who are well-versed on where to get the best deals on what—unless, of course, Food Lion’s “great prices” actually equal the lowest prices across the board.

Value messaging in overdrive at grocers

joes-shlabotnik_all-dressedListening to the radio this weekend, I heard a commercial saying that Frito-Lay was adding 20 percent more product at no extra cost to bags of Fritos, Tostitos and its other snacks for a limited time. Interesting, I thought, but what happens when the promotion is over and Frito-Lay goes back to offering less to shoppers who are being conditioned to get more?

This is one of many efforts highlighted by Stuart Elliott in a Sunday New York Times article that showcased how food marketers from Kraft to French’s are asserting their value amid mounting competition from private labels.

To a greater or lesser extent, brands should always be asserting their price-worthiness. In a climate like this, however, when value messaging is necessarily more overt, brands have to find a value voice that’s consistent with who and what they’ve always been. How brands speak to consumers during hard times must align with their distinct position in the marketplace. Maintaining that distinction will make it easier for them to hold on to recession-weary consumers even after short-term promotions like Frito-Lay’s come to an end.

Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Storagista takes Manhattan Mini Storage

storagistaFirst there was the “recessionista.” Now there’s—are you ready for this?—the “Storagista.” As defined in Manhattan Mini Storage’s latest ad campaign, it’s a “city gal who downsizes to a studio and stores to save money.”

Sure space is always an issue in a city where rents are high and square footage nil. But the scenarios depicted in this effort—taking in roommates (“Storagenius”), converting a closet into a cubicle (“Storanomical”) or a dining room into a baby’s room (“Storkage”)—hit a little too close to home (literally) for many Manhattanites. Especially in light of news that New York City unemployment jumped to 8.1 percent in February from 6.9 percent in January, with the number of jobless double that of a year ago.

While humor can serve as a welcome reprieve during times like this, brands that make light of our current circumstances should take care to err on the side of exaggerating reality rather than reflecting it.

The collective consciousness

scary-pigOn today, I write about one of our 10 trends for 2009: “the collective consciousness.” With a new global mind-set and enabled by today’s digital technologies, people are thinking less about “me” and more about what “we” can do—collectively—to address the challenges of modern society.

I can hear it now: In a recession, doesn’t self-preservation trump the “We’re all in this together” ethos? My response: They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

Take a Finnish government campaign, which I’ve highlighted here before, which calls on citizens to put aside their self-interest and keep the economy afloat by spending. Posters feature a demonic-looking piggybank that reads, “Don’t feed the recession.” Sure, it’s a hard sell during a time when the pig is getting plump on all our knee-jerk binge saving, but it may help Finland avoid the “paradox of thrift” by appealing to the power of the collective.

Businesses that can successfully tap into the collective consciousness will have the ability to connect and form allegiances with consumers that go much deeper than the superficial and transactional. And in today’s climate, that is music to any brand’s ears.