How To Use A Stale Baguette to Become A Purveyor of Usefulness

Dig, if you will, this picture of a large CPG with its portfolio of successful brands. Each brand is pushed for better performance and higher efficiencies, focusing attention on the business unit’s own shelf space efficiencies. Media and communications decisions are driven by the potential impact on sales for that brand. Retailers make barely perceptible shelving allocation adjustments to improve performance. Quarter by quarter, release to release, the cycle continues.

Brands that are part of large CPG groups do not, by and large, behave in the same way as non-CPG brands even if they’re comparable in size. Brands in large CPG structures use engrained systems and methods that may have persisted for decades. Established CPG brands lose their more creative strategies and scrappy, survivalist tactics; I have met some very forward-thinking CPG brand executives who express frustration that the sheer weight of the CPG mantle allows them precious few ways to be forward-doing.

Some of my recent conversations with CPGs – as well as with some not-quite-CPG market leaders – start off centered on a specific digital need, but then quickly expand to be broader brand-based discussions. The breakneck pace of change in the digital domain has made conversations about platform give way to more existential ruminations: “How can our brands rise to the challenges of the digitally self-leveling playing field?” “Can an organization as large as ours credibly wield the same digital tools that the start-ups have mastered?” “What is the role of the umbrella organization in making the brands in our portfolio into modern brands?”

It is the uniformity of these challenges that stands out. It seems that, regardless of the marketplace, each of the larger, well-established players wants to make sure their brands are able to compete with newer upstarts. When they seek answers through the RFP process for a digital program, the assumption is that the recommendations will be platform-based. The reality is considerably different than imagined, rather less costly than first assumed, and immediately available to almost every Goliath we know.

Time to visit the data room.

The “D” Word
In the course of doing business over the past decades, all large companies and CPG groups have collected mountains of data. This data includes consumer interactions, retail shelf performance reports, information discovered or gathered in the process of deciding which new products to make, new formulations or technologies experimented with to develop these products, packaging design concepts; the list can be as exhaustive as the company is old.

This data is what makes your company – no matter how big – the unique player that it is. This data is an asset and a strategically deployable weapon in the battle to win customers, consumers and market share. Best of all, since this data has already been paid for and amortized over the life of the products it supports, often from many years ago, it’s practically free.

This mountain of data allows Goliath to beat David at his own game. Specifically, the large CPG can organize and release the data through a carefully orchestrated digital media campaign with the express goal of being useful. It could be that some interesting fact about carbohydrate absorption was uncovered in the process of creating a new snack chip; make that a blog post. When working through how to keep the grip of a battery-powered drill from becoming too warm, engineers coincidentally discovered a new wire shielding method that is lower cost but more reliable than the old method; create a white paper on it. Don’t worry if the knowledge is not of general interest, the Internet rewards niche interests as handsomely as runaway best sellers by making everything the same number of clicks away. All the knowledge a company has that can be released will be useful to someone, somewhere.

Being A Purveyor of Usefulness
In releasing this information along a planned program, the company starts to position itself as a purveyor of usefulness. As consumers start to encounter the brands attached to information they find useful, their perceptions of the brands are reshaped away from “relentless advertiser” toward something more like “benevolent and generous subject matter expert.” Overstatement? Maybe a little, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this is strategically unassailable territory reserved for those with a sufficient depth of data to continually nourish the world through an Internet-drip.

The proximity that customers appreciate from the smaller start-up brand’s ability to manage personal contact is countered with the availability of the larger brand’s store of knowledge, offered independent of trying to move units. An Internet search for information in pursuit of finishing science homework yields a site offering a wide range of data and intelligence on various subjects both scientific and situational. Homework source identified, facts gleaned, assignment completed: The monolithic faceless CPG just helped your child with her homework. The scrappy and resourceful David, darling of the viral marketplace, has met his match.

What’s most ironic in all this is the weapon most readily available for use in the attack is the most benign of all online properties: the main corporate web site.

Start With Stale Baguette
The time-honored role of the main CPG web site is to serve as a brochure that helps position the entire family of brands, giving stakeholders a place to start their investigations about the larger entity. The content is broad and antiseptic, only brushing up against – but not quite being – “informative.” The execution is generally dull. In strategy meetings simply uttering “the main web site” takes on the hollow ‘plunk’ of stale baguette. But that dried-out loaf is actually a weapon in disguise.

The weapon is forged when the company redefines the role of the corporate web site from being a brochure to be the “center of corporate intelligence.” Getting there is surprisingly easy:

  1. Restructure the corporate web presence around key intellectual property subject areas that demonstrate the corporation’s core expertise and serve the corporation’s goals.
  2. Rotate the subject area focus on a quarterly or monthly basis.
  3. To the extent possible make the data points in the articles dynamic; regularly updated content rises to the top of the relevance charts.
  4. Redesign the site so that it presents equally well on a mobile device as on a networked computer. This is not “does it look good on my iPhone”. It means careful, thoughtful weighting of information to allow for a flexible visual presentation based on the size and type of device used to access the site.

The execution model for the site is more like an airline magazine than a corporate brochure. The web site becomes a regularly refreshed travelogue of intelligence and observations that span many subjects, with interest to the general public that can be passing, or a central part of important research.

The ultimate result of pursuing this model is the creation of a virtuous circle of communications. Search engines and other online sources will reference the information in ways that would have never been available to the old corporate web site, creating a far greater amount of influence to the company’s online presence. The corporate PR consultant will have something real to publicize, and your ad campaigns – in specific instances – may be able to reference this content to substantiate its claims or bolster credibility.

We’ve Only Just Begun
Will such an endeavor move more units to – and through – retail, into the consumers’ lives? No; product advertising and promotions do that. What this program does accomplish is to start each brand in the portfolio along the path to becoming a modern brand. Because by now we can see that the key to becoming a modern brand is to be viewed as a contributor to your consumers’ lives, not just a tireless advertiser. The knowledge-sharing that a more established company can handle more readily than a start-up is but one way to become that contributor.

In the parlance and practice of interactive marketing today “joining the conversation” is code for monitoring Twitter and maintaining a Facebook page. These are fine to do but the real mark of a friend to a consumer is a brand that gives without expecting anything in return, not just listening into personal exchanges and answering every once in a while. Goliaths have plenty to give, and they can afford to take a long-term view to give freely, knowing that in the end they will gain what matters most: Increased market share.

For those who tend toward a more competitive, cutthroat approach to business, think of it this way: Being a modern brand means killing David, but with kindness.