Why Marketing to the Middle Matters

POSTED BY Christina Arbini on Jul 14, 2015

Recently, Creative Director Alastair Whiteley of our Londond office shared his thoughts with FoodBev Media on the importance of marketing to the middle. Following is the piece in its entirety. 

There are four pillars to great marketing but one of them is first among equals: never forget who your audience is.

If you’re reading this article, it’s because you think I have something to say that’s of interest to you, your business, your customers. If I fail to convince you of that, I may have the world’s best ideas but it doesn’t matter, because nobody will hear them.

This is exactly the story of the downfall of our biggest supermarkets. Why is Tesco in the news for all the wrong reasons, its share of the market plummeting after the glory years where £1 in every £7 was spent in their stores? Because they’ve forgotten who they’re talking to. Morrisons has the same problem; Sainsbury’s is hanging on to its market share by a thread. Meanwhile, the discounters at one end and the premium supermarkets at the other are picking up all those disappointed shoppers. Lidl and Aldi on one side, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer on the other, know who they are – and whose customers they want to attract.

Shut up and listen!

There is a lesson here for everyone involved in branding, marketing and design, whether or not they’re involved with supermarkets or indeed FMCG products. It may be easiest to visualise a brand as a person. Tesco’s former customers currently see a person with their fingers in their ears, singing “la-la-la, not listening”. That is not who any brand wants to be.

Of course, not every brand wants to be Tesco (although quite a few do). But no matter where you want to situate your brand, there’s a lesson to be learned from what’s happening with the supermarkets. Because like it or not, we all need to care about what happens in the middle of the market. These days, some people call them the Squeezed Middle – and sure, these are shoppers who are careful with their pennies; if they splash out, it’s an informed choice. But mostly, what they’re squeezed by is options. The middle is where the money is, and most of the world’s brands are targeting them. Even those that aren’t are still defined in relation to them – to be on the fringes, you position yourself away from the middle. So, knowing how to market to these people is vital, even for those brands who don’t actually want to do it.

Chucking out your preconceptions

If you want an example as positive as Tesco’s is negative, look at Ikea. The cut-price furniture store understood what the middle of the market wanted: they wanted a great sofa. They could walk into Habitat and gag at the prices, or they could go to a dusty high-street shop filled with rickety hand-me-downs, so when Ikea turned up saying “here is your great sofa, in the colour you like at the price you want to pay” the world responded – and is still responding.

That’s not just about supplying great products, although of course that’s part of it. Ikea has great branding. From the 1996 Chuck Out Your Chintz ad to the distinctive Ikea blue and the child-friendly cafés, Ikea’s brand persona is a person who hears what the middle of the UK market wants and how much they would like to spend on it – and that is what they provide.

Setting trends not copying trends

For the mid-market consumer to fall in love with a brand and offer it that sought-after gift of loyalty, he or she needs to feel that their needs and desires are not just filled – they are anticipated.

A brand that successfully foresees the desire to look after oneself and one’s family but also to help others, to care for the environment, to live well but not hedonistically or extravagantly and to feel surrounded by people on the same wavelength, will flourish.

Who are your people?

It comes down to one word: community. As we all sit in our little boxes, staring at our little screens, we hanker for the feeling of being part of something. We want our kids to feel a sense of belonging; our purchases to do no harm; our friends to be easily accessible (but not permanently on the doorstep); our shopping experience to be easeful and our homes to be filled with the products that reflect who we are and which groups we belong to. There is so much more that brands could be doing to help consumers achieve the sense of community they long for. But to do that, they have to know who they’re talking to: they have to get out there, meet their audience, hear their dreams and their complaints, and respond.

The point at which a major company moves from being a supporter of community to a behemoth that’s out of touch and even possibly destructive to community, is the point at which, as a brand, they lose the love. To pick on Tesco again, this was the place that everyone went to buy their most intimate supplies. It was a part of every community, until it became so obsessed with being a part of every community that it accidentally became those communities’ enemy, a juggernaut mowing down small businesses in its quest to take over the world.

Showing you care

Tesco could reverse this trend and become relevant again – they probably will. To do this, they must be seen to care. So, next time there’s a major football event, don’t just discount beer – that’s what everybody does, it’s not listening, it’s operating on automatic pilot. Discount tissues (for the realists), spa products (for the football haters), or coffee (for the morning after the big match).

Listening is the first step – responding appropriately is the crucial next step, and the hardest one. Brands come to us all the time, pointing at their competitors, saying “we want to be like them”. That is crazy: branding is supposed to distinguish you from the competition! This is where design is crucial. A visual expression of your values and the way you communicate across every single touch point has never been more important. Offering cheap products dressed up as value is not enough. It’s about finding that delicate balance between tradition and innovation.

Doritos: a delicious success story

When we were asked to rebrand Doritos, finding that balance was a huge challenge. The brand is immensely popular – it didn’t need fixing. But the branding needed aligning across the world and the whole identity lacked relevance with their audience. We didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken. Instead, we listened to the audience, collected visual data from every corner of the globe, lived with them for days and immersed ourselves in their lives. We studied global trends and we found global glue. The new design is pitch perfect and super relevant with their consumer. And we received the best possible acknowledgement of the success of our changes, not just in sales figures – although they were great – but in validation from, of all places, the Seattle Police Department, who reacted to the legalisation of pot there in autumn 2012 by handing out 1,000 of bags of freshly rebranded Doritos at the following year’s Hempfest, stickered with friendly guidance on how to behave while stoned.

“Warning: The contents of this package are as delicious as they appear,” the sticker read, going on to give pointers including “don’t drive while high,” “don’t use pot in public” and “do listen to Dark Side of the Moon at a reasonable volume.” Great brand validation for Doritos – and also for the Seattle PD, who demonstrated their ability to do exactly the kind of reinforcing of community feeling that makes the consumer love a brand.

Get limbering, start listening

Brands, particularly bigger brands, need to limber up. Small businesses are agile – just look at today’s examples, where pop-up stores, clever social media campaigns and innovative thinking help engage consumers with exciting ideas and new communities via brands they may never have heard of before. Like human beings, brands can get stiffer and more lumbering as they age. Or they can do the brand equivalent of getting a makeover, dropping a few pounds and taking up yoga.

They can make themselves look good and they can start listening. The first without the second is a very short-term solution; try the second without the first and nobody will notice. Like Lidl and Aldi, or Waitrose and Marks and Spencer, every brand needs to know who it is, who its customers are, what they need, and who their people are. Those are the four pillars of successful marketing: allow any of them to crumble and the roof falls in.

WRITTEN BY Christina Arbini

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