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Agency Collective / Exec: Families Need a Different Type of Brand Message

By:   Date posted: December 5, 2012

marketing-to-familyWhile the idea of the family unit hasn’t changed, the look and makeup of the “traditional” idea of family has. Same-sex couples. Racially diverse families. Single-parent households. Stepparents and grandparents raising children. Responsibilities have changed, roles such as the “breadwinner” or “caretaker” have evolved and, overall, the idea of “one family, one message” doesn’t connect with a large — and influential — group of consumers. So how should brands think about and navigate this complicated territory?

For the launch of our new series — The Agency Collective — we asked our Exec Collective members to comment on how the evolution of the family, as seen in popular shows like “Modern Family” and “The New Normal,” has changed the ways that brands should market to the family.


Create a View that Transcends Marketing

“The short answer is that it isn’t really, not for brands that have a sense of what it means to be human. That might sound lofty, but as society and culture evolves and changes, the strongest brands will continue to have a unique and compelling view that transcends marketing. We consume advertising privately — even when we live our lives publicly — so human truths about love, fear, pain, greed and aspiration are as relevant to human beings now as they have ever been.

Some brands may seek to engage with cultural change, to champion progression, and I would applaud them as long as it stems from a genuine belief. As we have witnessed recently with marketing around Hurricane Sandy, nothing stands out quite as badly as misguided opportunism in our profession.

This could however lead to an exciting argument, one that says that advertising has subjugated certain cultures for some time, and therein lies an opportunity for affirmative action. Then I get excited, and I see a world where marketers have the opportunity to do some good and form deeper bonds, like Oreo’s ‘rainbow’ cookie did. Like JC Penney has. They just have to be brave, committed for the long term and believe in themselves.

The definition of family will continue to change in America, at different speeds, and in different ways across this vast continent. We can either stick to the basic human truths to succeed or be brave and champion progression. Either is fine by me.”

— Robert Harwood-Matthews, President / TBWA\Chiat\Day\New York


Don’t Pander to Stereotypes

“Just the fact that programming like ‘Modern Family’ and ‘The New Normal’ are being made suggests that society has already given us permission to think more broadly about families in general. Even their names are indicative of a collective societal shift away from the ‘nuclear family’ as the only kind of household worthy of showcasing in primetime. So, in order to remain relevant, brands can no longer rest on old, tired traditions or pander to stereotypes. Adaptation is the name of the game.

At the end of the day, it’s still all about the message. Brands must do the appropriate research to ensure they are tailoring the right marketing message to their core audience. The trick, of course, is finding a balance between the old normal and the new normal.”

— Andrew Graff, CEO / Allen & Gerritsen 


Find Truth and Honesty

“It is true across many markets that the family unit is evolving — and nowhere is this more evident than the way it is represented in shows such as Modern Family and more latterly The New Normal (living a solitary and isolated existence in the UK — is a TV show I’m yet to fully appreciate — but I kind of get the idea).

Initially, I think there is an important distinction to make between ’marketing to the family’ versus ‘depicting the family in marketing.’

If we take the latter, depicting or representing any group in advertising comes with a certain amount of risk — because really what we are talking about here is about identity. The nature of the things people identify with, necessarily has the potential to be profound and complex — and because of that — occasionally misjudged.

From my experience of ‘Modern Family’ — its success lies not in the portrayal of an evolving family unit per se—- but in sharp, witty and truthful observations of behaviour from people in situations that we can identify with. Ok, we know these are then taken to the nth degree for great comic effect — but the themes that are present are enduring and universal. Because these are the things we connect with. As people.

So, does this change the way we market to families? Not in terms of the marketing principles at play. Great marketing is often based on two things — creating an emotional connection and doing so with truth and honesty. When brands get this right, they tell stories that people identify with and it motivates them to engage and buy stuff. The principles haven’t changed, but society has changed (it has and always will) — so it is really only common sense to acknowledge this truth if we want to really connect with our audience.

Undoubtedly there will be brands that get this and some that won’t. Equally, there is a danger some marketers will hold a mirror up to modern society in the mistaken belief that this is a strategy or idea. It probably (almost certainly in fact) isn’t.

Finally, the idea itself of marketing to the family is fraught with potential complexity. Understanding who really makes the buying decisions in any family is pretty difficult, and they’re often the real target for marketing. In fact, I suspect that’s a whole other subject altogether.

It’s probably the mum in the house though isn’t it?

I mean dad. Both of them.

Eek.”

— Dan Gregson, Managing Director / Beattie McGuinness Bungay


Understand Unique Aspirations

“American families are becoming more blended, so it makes sense that their depictions in entertainment and marketing would follow. The 2010 census found the number of households containing interracial married couples grew by 28 percent since 2000, and cohabiting same-sex couples increased by 50 percent.

TV networks have been fairly conservative in the way they’ve integrated non-white or LGBT characters into shows. Those characters were often drawn broadly, relying on stereotypes — think Doug’s African-American pal Deacon on ‘King of Queens’ or that time ‘The OC’’s Marissa decided to temporarily date girls. Rather than being fully integrated into the (white) main characters’ families, those with different ethnicities or sexual orientations were typically two-dimensional characters drifting in and out of the main plot lines.

Today, viewers are more sophisticated — and have more choices — so they’ll walk away from inaccurate representations. ‘Modern Family’ has been lauded for portraying interethnic marriage and a gay couple with a child, drawing 13 million viewers weekly. However, it attracts less than a million Hispanic viewers and has been criticized for portraying old-fashioned Latina stereotypes.

As marketers, we have the power to influence these public portrayals and help the industry catch up to what our own families look like. For brands willing to take the risk of doing something different, there’s enormous potential in being meaningful to these groups. They want to know that brands care about who they are and know they have different purchasing criteria and aspirations than the majority.

Target recently incorporated same-sex couples into the marketing for its wedding catalog, which Huge was proud to help with, and it’s not even the only large brand to have done this in 2012. By tapping into these differentiators using research and engagement, brands can attract new consumer bases that are currently underserved.”

— Shirley Au, President & COO / Huge / Connect on LinkedIn


Lead the Cultural Conversation

“‘I Love Lucy’ was the first sitcom to feature pregnancy, long after women started getting pregnant (so I’ve been told). The Brady Bunch’s blended family resembled a quiet, but growing, divorce and re-marriage trend that began in the early 1960s. ‘All in the Family’ tackled racism and women’s rights a decade after these issues entered the forefront of American life. When it comes to mainstream television and film, art imitates life — albeit, slowly. It’s no different with ‘Modern Family’ and ‘The New Normal’ than it was with The Keatons, Huxtables or Bluths. Family sitcoms represent idealistic or satirical, yet charming, versions of the everyday lives of families.

As marketers, we tend to be late adopters of cultural norms and societal values. Rather than build connections on our own, we find it easier to co-opt, through advertising, the relatability and popularity of TV shows, magazines and web publishers. So why are marketers following instead of leading the cultural conversation around family? In many ways, ‘Modern Family’ and ‘The New Normal’ reveal what we already know: American families and relationships are more complex and varied than most corporations are comfortable acknowledging or investing in. Marketing is responsible for shaping public opinion, and it should be progressive in representing all aspects of American life. By capitalizing on marketing’s present content evolution and America’s appetite for diversity, brands have an opportunity to create content that is as equally entertaining and compelling as the symbolic families we see every week on TV.”

— Justin Cox, Strategy Director / Pereira & O’Dell / Connect on LinkedIn


Harness Diversity with Respect

“The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. We always achieve great things when we harness that diversity and work together. The same holds true in marketing. We’re making some progress by including racial minorities in our advertising and on our staff —though we have a long way yet to go.

Meanwhile, family structures are more diverse. 68 percent of children live in a home with both a father and a mother. At first it sounds traditional, doesn’t it? Yet for many of that 68 percent, one of the parents is a stepparent, or one of the siblings is adopted or of another ethnicity. My own household is a mixed-race, blended family.

We can include families like mine without having to make an overt statement. I especially like this Subaru commercial featuring a father and two children of vague ethnicity. It’s completely natural and reflects a modern family. Bonus points: the dad is portrayed as self-controlled, wise and gentle.

Many parents go it alone. 24 percent of children live with a single mom. About four percent live with a single dad. Keep this in mind not just when making ads, but making products. Most of the families in these situations face economic hardship.

We succeed when we harness diversity. Treat families — dads, moms and kids — with respect, not stereotypes. Find messages that resonate across different kinds of families. Where necessary, target a specific kind of family with a specific kind of message.”

— Steve Schildwachter, Executive Vice President / Draftfcb


Don’t Rely on Laughs

“Shows like ‘Modern Family’ more accurately reflect the demographic and social diversity of modern society and blended families — something pretty much everyone under 25 identifies with. But brands can take it further than the laugh track; moms work, moms and daughters are confident and empowered (like their male cohorts) and more than ever, Dad knows a few things about shopping, making a meal and caring for a sick child.”

— Jon Cook, CEO / VML


Challenge Old Clichés

“I’m not surprised that many ‘non-traditional families’ are feeling ignored.

Let’s put aside the slightly worthy thought that we have a duty to reflect the diverse and changing world around us. For creative and commercial reasons, we should take advantage of the opportunity that comes with challenging the status quo. The rewards of cleverly challenging old clichés are obvious, cut through and engagement for the brand with a wider target audience can all follow. This small spot broke the stereotype and achieved huge coverage and support for a promotion on a tiny spend.

There are a couple of other examples that spring to mind. Sainsbury’s campaign features a dad doing the primary child care, which isn’t revolutionary but more of a gentle step forward.

The Christmas ad that’s creating debate in the UK right now is ASDA. It depicts a mum working frantically to provide the perfect Christmas. It ends with her finally sitting down, only to be asked ‘what’s for dinner, luv?’ She responds by smiling affectionately. I checked out Mumsnet (the best weathervane when it comes to how Mums are feeling). “What a pile of sexist shit” summed up the mood on the spot.

Finally, here is the launch campaign for a bank. This aired in 1999. 1999 people. What have we been doing since then to make so little progress?

Maybe it’s because our industry is surprisingly traditional? We’re not brilliant when it comes to ethnic diversity. We’re not brilliant at recruiting young people from less privileged backgrounds. I know gay people who aren’t too comfortable coming out in certain agencies. And as for age? Well, how many over-40s are there in the industry (management positions aside)?

Maybe we won’t affect change in our output until we affect deep change within our industry?”

— Juliet Haygarth, Managing Director / Brothers and Sisters


Leverage Universal Truths

“At the end of the day, producers of shows like ‘Modern Family’ get it. The answer today is simple: evolve or die.

The reality is not that the makeup of the American family unit is evolving, but instead that the makeup of the American family unit has already evolved. With only 4 percent of today’s families falling into the census’ definition of ‘traditional,’ marketers who choose not to evolve with the rest of the country will get left behind. Brands should adjust their current approach by reflecting the hopes, aspirations and realities of all the audiences they serve.

Brands can deal with the complexities brought on by the new modern family by leveraging universal truths that exist for all families. This can be accomplished by generating strategies and ideas that are relevant for all, and in turn reflecting the diversity of the American family landscape in their mass media communications. Brands should then extend these platforms to ‘non-traditional’ family types by utilizing targeted media, insights and nuances that speak directly to these often ignored populations. Finally, brands would be smart to recognize there is a business opportunity outside of just communications, as ‘non-traditional’ family types may have unique unmet needs the rest of the marketplace is failing to deliver on.”

— Detavio Samuels, Executive Vice President, Client Services / GlobalHue


Deliver Something that Matters

“Avoid easy, lazy assumptions. Be open-minded. Be true to who you are. Go out into the actual world. Watch. Listen. But don’t be a wallflower. Mingle. Take the time to genuinely understand the people you want to talk to. And, respect the fact that they may be absolutely nothing like you.

The challenge isn’t to hold up a mirror so that people can see themselves. The challenge is delivering something that actually matters to them.

When people say they feel ignored by advertising images and messages, they’re saying that what they’re seeing isn’t relevant.

Understand whom you’re talking to and what matters to them. It won’t just lead to relevancy; it will lead to more interesting ideas and better business results.

Understanding people is the only thing that makes it possible to create ideas that capture their attention, overcome their doubts, solve their problems and address their needs.”

— John Condon, CCO / The Distillery Project


Don’t Make Assumptions

“As marketers today, we need to recognize the importance of not making assumptions about families. While adult women still make most of the household decisions, today’s generation of children and teens have far more influence on those decisions.

So, how do we as marketers look for opportunities to influence as well as sell? As always, it’s critical to look to research, but today we need to look at it differently. We also have to be open to connecting these insights with the ways that modern consumers consume content.”

— Robert Guay, SVP & Managing Director / Digitas


Address Core Values

“Marketers need to catch up to what today’s families really look like. There is no doubt we are behind in our portrayals of them. Today’s families are more multicultural. Mom and Dad may be different races. Dads are taking on more traditional ‘mom’ roles, as more moms work, often at levels that are higher than or equal to Dad. Families are more likely to be led by a single parent, or two dads or two moms. Grandparents are also more likely to be living in the home or be a primary caregiver.

As marketers, we need to ensure that all types of families feel welcomed by our brands (or at least make sure that we and our clients are aware of the possible sales revenue we are leaving unrealized by not addressing them). When creating messaging, we need to closely examine the core values today’s families hold dear regardless of age, gender, race or sexual orientation — things like authenticity, compassion and conscience. We need to figure out how those values align with our brands’ values and how they can be woven into our messaging.

From a creative perspective, that means seeking out ways to show multiple reflections of what families look like in our creative without relying on stereotypes or creating something that feels like a Benetton ad.

When it comes to media, we need to change the way we think about targeting messaging. Rather than targeting moms ages 25 to 50 as our catch-all, we need to broaden our target, taking into account key psychographics and the presence and age of kids in the home since that significantly affects the type of products sought and activities engaged in.”

— Nicole Granese, Vice President, Strategy & Insights / Slingshot / Connect on LinkedIn


Influence Culture Through Marketing

“As the saying goes, advertising can be a reflection of culture.

‘Modern Family’ shows that human truths and family values are not compromised by gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or age. By that logic, a brand truth will still be valid and quite possibly more relevant if delivered in a fashion that looks and feels like the world around it.

The world and consumer marketplace is currently divided, opinionated, diverse and ever-changing. (Sounds a lot like most families.) It also sounds like fertile territory to help push, twist and influence culture through marketing. Brands have an opportunity to directly speak to and target the ‘new’ as opposed to adhering to outdated/inaccurate definitions of the family construct.”

— Ed Brojerdi, President & Co-Chief Creative Office / kbs+


Emotional Connections Win

“Brands crave acceptance, thrive on relevance and get off on aspiration.

Admittedly, the cultural lag between real life and the boardroom is widening. But, if marketing is a mirror, it will always be a rose-tinted one.

The family of the breakfast brand, of Heinz or of McCain, is still ingrained in our subconscious aspirations. Look at the recent heartfelt advertising of John Lewis and Thomson.

The important thing here is the feelings associated with family, not the makeup of those family units.

Although the mirror of family composition may change, slowly and purely driven by numbers, the emotional power of connecting a brand to you and yours never will.”

— James Denton-Clark, Managing Director / Karmarama

The Agency Collective is an ongoing, monthly series featuring a group of select advertising professionals who provide insights on marketing trends and issues. The Exec Collective features professionals in a leadership role. 

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Jami Oetting is the Executive Editor of The Agency Post. She is an advertising nerd who's big on creativity, quick wit and good conversation. Interact with her on Twitter @jamioetting or connect on LinkedIn or Google+.

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