Finding the right marketing strategy to stay in vogue


by gigCMO MD Mark F. Magnacca

When it comes to publicity we can all learn something from Madonna.

The queen of chameleon-style reinvention has maintained a successfully potent public image for more than four decades. Having turned 60 in August, she remains as iconic as ever – sometimes popular, sometimes controversial, always interesting and always money making (her Rebel Heart world tour in 2016 reportedly grossed more than $100 million).

Social media influencers may be the flavour of the month, but few have anything on Madge when it comes to pulling power, weathering even the most negative of publicity storms to always come out on top.

Of course, Madonna is not the only cultural icon to have lived through seismic changes in popular culture. When it comes to the products we buy and the way we live our lives, even the last five years have seen phenomenal, brand defining changes.

Changing popular demand

Perhaps one of the most notable areas is in the wellness industry which has seen huge growth in recent years. Technavio market research analysts forecast the global health and wellness market to grow at a CAGR of almost 6% during the period 2018-2022, according to their latest report.

The shift comes from a cumulative awareness effect: we are living longer, we are more aware of the impact of our actions and habits on our health, and there is phenomenal rise in the number of cases of mental illnesses including depression and anxiety, often linked to societal and lifestyle pressures.

The shift has also seen the demonising of certain products and ingredients. We all remember the days when fats were given a bad rap and the rise of low fat margarine took hold, but in recent years it is sugar that has come under fire with damning headlines including ‘What’s worse for your brain: sugar or cocaine’ and ‘9 reasons sugar is more dangerous than cocaine’.

The ingredient that has reigned supreme amongst western culture since the 1800s has lost its sweetness, and with it some of the most popular brands of the last 50 years have faced something of a marketing crisis.

Take, for example, Coca Cola, America’s sweetheart since 1886. The sweet, carbonated drink, renowned for health professional demonstrations that showcase the amount of sugar per bottle, is the antithesis of much of the popular marketing messages of 2018. And yet, this year the company reported second-quarter earnings and revenue that beat analysts’ expectations , with a “net income of $2.32 billion, or 54 cents a share, up from earnings of $1.37 billion, or 32 cents a share during the same quarter a year ago.”

Action not reaction

While its profits may still be down on its heyday, Coke has been praised in recent years for finally finding a seemingly successful way to navigate the change in popular demand. Of course it wasn’t always that way. In 1995 Coca Cola decided to take the radical step of changing the secret formula that had been used to create its flagship drink since the late 19th century. The new tasting product was aptly called ‘New Coke’, but it absolutely bombed, so much so that the company had to rapidly reintroduce the original product in an attempt to stem the further loss of market share.

More recently however, having crisis managed accusations that they tried to fund research that deflected the responsibility for the rise of obesity and type 2 diabetes away from soft drinks, they have been proactive participants in the proposition for a tax on sugar in the UK, they have expanded their product line into reduced sugar and sugar free options, and they have introduced smaller bottles of their signature product, rather than alter the recipe.

Adapting without losing your brand identity

Jon Woods, General Manager of Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland, said in 2016: “We are a consumer-led business. We listen to and respond to our consumers, and for several years they have been telling us they want a greater choice of lower and no sugar drinks. Coca-Cola European Partners have responded to this by reformulating many of our drinks to reduce their sugar content, introducing smaller packs and increasing the marketing investment in our no sugar options.”

The decision to retain the traditional recipe proves to be an interesting move, directly related to preparations for the sugar tax due to come in in the UK next year, and one that is in total opposition to the makers of that other famed soft drink, Irn-Bru. A spokesman for Coca-Cola European Partners said “We have no plans to change the recipe of Coca-Cola Classic so it will be impacted by the government’s soft drinks tax… People love the taste … and have told us not to change.”

Meanwhile, the manufacturers of Scotland’s national soft drink have faced huge backlash at their decision to reduce the sugar content of the traditional recipe. There is even a “Hands off our Irn Bru” petition, started by Ryan Allen, a 27-year-old joiner from Ayr, [which] has pulled in close to 27,000 signatures in a week.”

Of course, Coke is not the only mega brand that has had to adapt to a changing world of consumer trends and new media. With Rowntree, Kit-Kat and many other famous confectionery brands under their umbrella, Nestlé has had to face a necessary redefinition to fit in with a modern consumer who explicitly wants to avoid sugar, salt and preservatives in favour of clean, organic and natural ingredients.

Where they have been successful in their approach is by listening to consumers and making changes gradually. The brand notes on their website that they were one of the first companies in the UK and Ireland to introduce Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) on the front of packaging in 2006, and they claim to have invested in research so that “using only natural ingredients, researchers have found a way to structure sugar differently. So even when much less is used in chocolate, your tongue perceives an almost identical sweetness to before.” Stefan Catsicas, Nestlé Chief Technology Officer, said: “This truly groundbreaking research is inspired by nature and has the potential to reduce total sugar by up to 40% in our confectionery.”

On the other hand, labelling itself as a “Nutrition, Health and Wellness company” seems to have been more of a premature directive than a realistic assessment of its current status given the products under its wide brimmed hat, but perhaps a signifier that they are mindful of taking action.
If you could see yourself as we see you

It is interesting to note the journey that these global brands have taken before reaching a seemingly successful solution to market changes, and one has to question whether, if these organisations could see themselves from an outside perspective, then they may have judged the public mood and their subsequent actions differently. That said, the tendency to react in panic seems to be waning in favour of a consideration of what the changes in public demand mean in relation to the core brand ethos that garnered global reputations in the first place.

Back to Madonna, what can brands facing a shift in popular demand take from the woman who turned 60 this August but remains a profitable icon across ages and nationalities?

The first appears to make strategic changes rather than reactionary ones, and to remain true to the core essence of the business. Madonna might have gone from being a material girl one minute to Eva Perón the next, but the core essence of what it is to be Madonna – shocking, expectation defying, strong – remained the same. Equally, the brands who react in panic to the change in wellness knowledge and understanding tend to find themselves in unchartered waters without even knowing why they’re there.

The second, is to really make sure you understand your market and what they are asking for – unlike Irn-Bru or the early days of Coke’s navigations into the world of sugar free. Madonna is reportedly rude to and about her fans, but this is a woman whose fan base grew up living and expecting her defiant attitude, and boy does she deliver on that.

Finally, consider an outside opinion before you act. While no one knows your brand like those on the inside, sometimes it takes an outsider to provide fresh perspective on the good as well as the bad.

While Madonna may be a law unto her own, she has certainly taken outside inspiration when it has come to her reincarnations, and in a more direct example, take Pepsi’s advertising faux pas featuring Kendall Jenner last year. The ad showed the Keeping Up with the Kardashians star bringing an angry protest to a peaceful resolution by handing a cop a Pepsi.

The principle was to show that love and understanding solves all problems. In 2017’s heated political climate however, against the backdrop of some controversial decisions on behalf of the Trump administration, it was seen as a slap in the face to all those marching for highly charged causes.

It is probable, that with the right experts acting at the right hand side of the team involved, the advert would never have reached fruition. Equally, Coca Cola may have realised that there was still a lot of love for their core product earlier on, and Irn-Bru might have considered an alternative approach to the sugar tax. All would have cost far less time and stress than the journeys opted for through the real and immediate value, as well as long term value that an intermediary between inward facing brand opinion and fresh external perspective can bring.