Sales Slipping?
Make sure your market still responds to your messages.

Article Summary:

Has your market shifted its reasons for buying? If so, there may be no time to waste in updating your brand messages to make sure they’re relevant to your audience. Doing so doesn’t mean going through the painful process of re-branding. Using your existing brand attributes for guidance, be sure to include sales department input on who’s-buying-what-and-why to help you decide which messages to test. Then use a message matrix test to discover which brand messages are most significant to your customers now.

Times change—and so do marketing messages

As “Building Strong Brands” author, David Aaker, says, even if your brand identity and execution has worked well for you until now, “markets are not static, and brands do not exist in a time capsule.” As markets shift their perceptions and perceived needs, he says “an identity/execution that has been successful can become ineffective.”

Companies that have updated their messages in response to market shifts are legion. Examples include Kentucky Fried Chicken when it changed its name to KFC because “fried” was no longer popular. And General Electric eliminated the word “Electricity” from its name (now GE ) because electricity wasn’t new any more.

According to Aaker, the value propositions you communicate, such as functional and emotional benefits, are essential to the Brand-Customer relationship. That’s why shifting brand messages to parallel your customers’ perceptions and needs intuitively makes sense.

But how do you find an agile way to figure out what your market’s perceptions and needs are — and what messages they’re responding to? Let’s look at how another company deals with this challenge:

Green Wand Technologies (not the company’s real name) is not unlike your company. They’ve worked hard to define and build their brand, which includes such attributes as innovation, security, reliability, and leading-edge. The ones they’re currently highlighting are innovation, and leading-edge — a message strategy that has helped build their company for years.

But now sales have been slipping and marcom isn’t sure what to do. Textbooks talk about increasing marketing spending in slow times, but the budget has been slashed.

Worse than that, Jack Russ, Green Wand’s VP of marketing, has an inkling that given the changed economic climate their marketing messages may not be on target anymore. If he’s right, no matter how hard they hit their tried and true messages, it may not help increase sales.

But if Green Wand does need to shift its messaging, how should Jack go about finding out which messages will resonate with their prospects today? They could commission market research. But that’s a time and budget problem. He needs an answer fast, and doesn’t have the budget for a major research project. They could wing it on intuition, but the risks are too high. Shifting their key messages is a critical move — one they’ve got to get right the first time.

State of the Union

Green Wand is not alone. These days, top executives at the biggest names in technology are troubled by slips in sales.

The answer, as always, is to stay calm…then look at who is buying your products and services, and why. For example, some technology buyers today are no longer attracted to innovation; they’re more concerned about whether the company they’re buying from is going to be around next year. Other buyers are more concerned than ever about security or reliability. What if this describes your customers, but your brand messages are aboutinnovation? You may not be telling the part of your story that’s most important to your audience.

Responding to shifting market perceptions can involve relatively simple or extremely complex operations. Sun Microsystems recently chose the most complex route. After a 40% revenue decline in the first six months of its fiscal year, it recently entirely rebranded its software as part of a marketing campaign to reverse its runner-up position in infrastructure software.[1]

On the other side of the complexity spectrum, Oracle responded recently by shifting their brand messages from attributes of innovation, to reliability and security. One recent ad simply said: “Unbreakable. Can’t break it. Can’t break in.”

While complete rebranding may be the answer for Sun, the solution for you may be more in line with what Oracle has done: simply communicating brand attributes that you haven’t highlighted in previous marketing campaigns.

Another Way that Market Matters

How to keep messages relevant was a key point in a recent Forrester Research report, “Making Marketing Measurable.” It advises marketers to measure their customers’ reactions to marketing messages. Doing so, Forrester says, will help create a more effective marketing mix.

Measuring buyers’ feedback is so important to Ford Motor Company, they’re adding psychologists to their marketing staff to better understand the market’s reaction to their messages.[2]

Jack’s Secret Source

But Green Wand’s marketing budget doesn’t give Jack those kinds of options. Fortunately, Jack knows a time- and money-saving secret.

A long time ago, he learned a simple, secret source for helpful marketing message input — the sales department. It’s their job, after all, to know what messages get people’s ears to perk up…and why they’re losing sales. A few nice lunches with a handful of trusted sales reps at The House of Casa Maison gives Jack thousands of dollars worth of information. He receives fresh insights into what messages get prospects engaged in the sales process, why people are buying from Green Wand — and why they’re buying from the competition.

(This “secret source” was the same at Sun, where the sales force was key in initiating Sun’s marketing shift.[3] )

Operation Stealth

Jack’s sales sources have told him that most of their audience is no longer buying products based on innovation or leading-edge technology. Instead, they are too often buying from competitors with brand messages that reassure them of the companies’ longevity, and the products’ reliability.

Even though company strength (longevity) and reliability are part of Green Wand’s brand identity, those messages aren’t being touted in current campaigns (innovation and leading-edge have been the message cards they’ve been playing so far).

Looking to their existing brand attributes for guidance, Jack meets with key marketing staff who have been doing their own homework on the subject as well. There is some disagreement about which direction their messaging should go.

But that’s OK. Jack already knows the perfect secret weapon for stealthily testing a range of marketing messages without the competition noticing: direct mail. He can test new brand attribute messages against the old tried-and-true messages — and see which ones get the highest response.

This time, Green Wand conducts a 12-cell message matrix power test—a scientifically measurable process using direct mail that can be mailed and measured in a few weeks. The mailing tests messages of company strength, reliability and innovation by themselves, and combinations of innovation/leading edge/strength, innovation/leading edge/reliability and strength/reliability. The response is analyzed and the results announced: the highest response is to messages of product reliability and company strength.

Now Jack can continue to build their existing brand identity — and increase sales — by rolling out a messaging shift that he knows will work.

Your Solution to Slumping Sales?

Maybe it’s time for you to revisit your marketing messages and make sure they’re still relevant to your audience. By pulling information from your sales department—as well as your marketing folks—you can quickly test every “this is what will work for sure” idea. Using a scientifically measurable process, in a few weeks, you can deliver objective “proof” of which brand messages your customers are responding to now.


©Copyright Kathryn Gillett

[1] Antoine Gonsalves,, Iplanet, Forte Dropped For Sun One Branding, April 15, 2002

[2] Forrester Research Report, “Making Marketing Measurable,” Shar VanBoskirk with Charlene Li, Meredeith Gerson, December 2001

[3] Antoine Gonsalves,, Iplanet, Forte Dropped For Sun One Branding, April 15, 2002