The Noodle


Understanding what your consumers really want.

When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.

Paulo Coelho

There were no hidden agendas. Debra Berman’s job was simple. Just several months after being named JCPenney’s chief marketing officer in July 2013, Berman was tasked with rebuilding the relationship the once storied brand had with its customers. Wrought with negative headlines stemming from liquidity concerns and plummeting analysts projections, the retailer’s stock had hit levels not seen since the early 1980s.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, when Berman looked at the marketing resources at her disposal, she wasn’t confident there was anything there to help woo Penney’s consumers back to the brand.

The former Kraft Foods executive and turnaround specialist acted quickly, bringing in a whole new agency team, including vaunted branding firms such as Doner, EVB and Victors & Spoils. To give Penney’s consumers what they wanted from the brand, the new marketing team had to drive traffic – period. There would be no friction between “this is branding” and “this is promoting.” The strategy rested in a broad tool kit that could do both. In the end, the goal was to restore faith and footsteps in JCPenney.

Two recent branding campaigns – “Rise,” which aired during JCPenney’s first foray into the Olympic advertising game and athlete sponsorship, and its “When It Fits, You Feel It” initiative – have helped jumpstart the retailer’s rebirth. But there is much work to do.

A closer analysis of JCPenney’s plight shows that the key is not only in knowing what your consumers want, but also what they need – a task that can be as daunting as it is simple amid today’s ever-changing consumer mindset. The real key, as marketers like Berman aim to achieve, is to build a trust factor between the brand and its consumers.

“Consumers love clear and direct messaging with a clever twist,” says Jen Whitesell, owner and creative director of MKJ Creative. “This type of messaging causes an emotional response that makes a brand unique. Marketing clients want bold ideas that help them stand out from all of the other messages that consumers encounter. They are looking for a brand that is a match for the promises it makes.”

Whitesell, who has worked closely with Fortune 100 companies for more than 15 years, says a campaign’s potential success can be seen during the creative process – a time when the brand’s story is brought to life.

“This process is why their customers are able to connect to their brand,” Whitesell says.

The key is to help the brand differentiate between what your customers want and what they need – a process that can be tricky at times. “Often, our clients come to us with ideas of what they think is needed, and, after time, they come to see that they may be too close to be objective,” Whitesell says. “After this realization, they often let us lead them through our discovery process to get them on the right path. We believe that listening is a key factor in differentiating what clients want and what they need.”

The MKJ team spends a lot of time listening and asking questions to their clients. Through those conversations, its clients can begin to see alternative ways of looking at things. This is when the magic begins. Clients begin to open up and share the passion and commitment of why their product and/or services had them so excited in the first place.

MKJ recently led a startup through the brand development process. The owner, who understood the true value of his product and audience, greatly aided the process. In just a few working sessions, they finalized the brand vision, mission, promise and tone. The company had audience-driven messaging that spoke clearly to its needs and at the same time caused a “want” for the product. In the end, the collaboration process positioned the company in a way that few startups can.

“I often find that many marketers want to just please their clients by giving them what they ask for, even though it goes against what they know to do,” Whitesell says. “We take a bold but compassionate route, and sometimes being direct is the only option. We are fortunate our clients can see our commitment is not about being right, but about our commitment to their success. It’s our job to know what they want. Each time we work with our clients is an opportunity to discover what’s needed. We don’t want to regurgitate old ideas. We want to be as excited as they are over what is possible each time.”

Know thy customer

It used to be that if you asked a successful company the secret to its success the answer would be that it catered to its customers. Not so much anymore. Today’s consumers want more. They expect companies to come to them. They expect them to provide a pleasant, productive and personalized experience – something that makes them feel special.

The smart companies – which is what the aforementioned JCPenney is trying to do – respond to these changing customer expectations by putting their customers first, engaging them in new ways and focusing on customer service and satisfaction.

That’s the way Dan Antonelli approaches his customers. “It is our responsibility to uncover the challenges and objectives of a customer’s business so that we can provide insight into what they need, not what they want,” says Antonelli, CEO and creative director of the advertising agency Graphic D-Signs, and author of “Building A Big Small Business Brand.”

A need addresses a challenge or objective, while a want is a preference or desire of a customer. “It is our job to know,” Antonelli says. “A good marketer leverages his research and insights to uncover trends before everyone else gets on the bandwagon. A good marketer is able to market to customers of the future, not just of today.”

Antonelli’s team engages in market research, competitive analysis, and then reviews and assesses their clients’ current brand and marketing tools in order to develop a strategic marketing plan to help accomplish their goals and address their challenges. The strategy is to build an initiative that can connect with the ever-evolving tastes of today’s consumers.

“Often, our strategies revolve around branding and consistent brand integration on all the consumer touch points,” Antonelli says. “Customers are looking to connect more emotionally to those who they do business with, and a great brand can deliver on that type of brand promise.”

By Michael J. Pallerino