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Welcome to the second edition of Hitting the Mark – a monthly analysis of developments at the intersection of business, marketing, and politics meant for the modern C-Suite. This month’s topic? Inflation. 

Inflation is in many ways the most pernicious of economic problems because it affects so many people at the same time. Inflation is at its highest rate since the early 1980s, and, as I wrote recently in the New York Times, “Many Americans under 60 have relatively little experience with anything but comparatively low fuel costs, negligible interest rates, and stable prices. Virtually overnight these assumptions have been shaken.” Consumers are already changing their behavior, becoming more cautious and pessimistic about the state of the economy. All of those COVID savings are being eaten up through the mystery of runaway higher prices.

Most marketers have some real choices in how to respond to inflation and the goal is to be on the side of the consumer during these more difficult economic times.

Of course, the easiest solution is simply to raise prices. It’s no longer 10 cents for a pack of gum; one bellwether of higher prices is the cost of treats like chocolate and spearmint. In 1974 a pack of 7 sticks of gum cost 15 cents. That probably does not even cover the sales tax on a package of gum today. Chocolate is a luxury and luxuries have the most elastic pricing, so they generally have the most room to simply pass on cost increases, so don’t expect to pay the same at the Godiva store.

Other companies have tried hard to conceal price increases by simply reducing the quantity. Cereal companies are famous during inflationary times for simply taking an ounce or two out of those cereal boxes. Consumers can easily miss this shrinkage but go too far and expect a backlash.

Perhaps the best way to get on the side of consumers during this time is to offer bigger units at lower prices. This is why Sam’s Club and Costco generally do better during these times, as their business model is all about delivering more value for less.

Inflation is of course great for products that are perceived as keeping pace with inflation. No product is known for holding its value more than gold – expect the airwaves to be filled with ads that sell gold as the one true hedge against rising prices.

Fast food prices and their consumers are super sensitive to inflation. As the McDonald’s dollar menu inches up from $1, to $2, to $2, its competitors have done a great job advertising $5 fill-up boxes that are brimming with food. These “inflation busters” become the perfect partners to penny-pinched consumers. While prices for organic groceries soar, families know they can rely on these restaurants to remain affordable.

 

What does this mean for marketing? 

Growth slows during inflationary times, so marketing will also be more about fighting for market share than selling new products to first-time consumers. This means that effective competitive marketing will be a lot more useful for brands. Especially when consumers are motivated by cost-saving, nothing can be quite as powerful as reminding them of the superior value of your business versus competitors.

It’s important to remember that value is not always the same as cost. I once ran advertising on behalf of Microsoft against Linux. Linux was difficult to compete against because the company was giving away some of its software for free. We created the concept of the “total cost of ownership” and showed that the free offering, over time, would be more costly than paying Microsoft. This campaign labeled “Get the Facts” was a huge success.

Focus is important during inflationary times. The consumer is once again king, and behaving somewhat like a taxpayer, skeptical of companies who are focused on giving their money away for causes because they feel like they are being called upon to finance these programs out of pocket when they buy goods and services. Companies with a heavy focus on social programs should evaluate whether they will now be seen as out of step with the needs of consumers. While helping soup kitchens might still be a popular idea during inflationary times, funding the opera might raise eyebrows, and throwing a huge fashion show might alienate consumers at this time.

Now is the time to stop simply watching inflation worsen and pick the right strategy for your company, whether it is reducing package sizes, creating affordable bundles, raising costs, or digging into competitive advertising to fight for market share. As for me? I have to go load some gold bars into my car…

Up next in our Hitting the Mark column? The pandemic, inflation, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, political crises – all these issues raise the importance (and trickiness) of “brand leadership” in our modern era. As we noted in Stagwell’s 2021 research on brand reputation, those perceived as delivering solutions to the pandemic received a major reputational boost over the past few years. Today, a majority of voters are not confident in either the Biden administration (55%) or the Federal Reserve’s (56%) ability to fight inflation. Brands won’t deliver the silver bullet to America’s inflation woes but adapting strategy to give consumers a lifeline amid economic stress can go a long way towards building reputational capital.

Stagwell’s 2022 Reputation Quotient, our annual ranking of the 100 most visible companies in America, is set to release in late May. I look forward to sharing an updated picture of the state of corporate reputation and brand leadership then.

Mark Penn 

 

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Mark Penn

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Welcome to Hitting the Mark – a critical analysis of developments at the intersection of business, marketing, and politics meant for the modern C-Suite. For our inaugural edition, I tackle the issue keeping leaders awake at night: Russia’s war against Ukraine. Brand leaders: did you ever anticipate you’d be drafted into a war? Well, you have. And here are some thoughts on what to do.

Over two months into Russia’s brazen assault on Ukraine, brands are the newest foot soldiers in the economic warfare the U.S. is waging to isolate Putin and his regime from the rest of the world. The United States has decided it is too dangerous to confront Putin directly, instead electing to levy crushing economic sanctions on the country and encourage U.S. business leaders to do the same. Should U.S. corporations participate in this economic warfare against the Russian people? So far, the answer is a clear yes. Typically, involvement in political issues splits a company’s consumers; in contrast, this move appears to be bringing consumers together.

 

Unprecedented Consensus on Brand Withdrawal

Per a recent survey by HarrisX into voters’ perceptions on the ongoing Ukraine conflict, about 80% of voters believe all American companies should stop doing business with and in Russia. That holds across two key segments we polled for: tech companies and fast-food companies. Further, 90% of American voters agree that Putin has committed war crimes for his role in the invasion of Ukraine.

 

Of course, this decision is easy for companies who have little or no operations in Russia. It is more difficult for those companies that have made a major investment in the country. They may have thousands of employees, stores, and other investments. What will happen to those assets? Will they have an opportunity to re-open operations if peace is achieved? These are difficult questions given the larger ramifications those decisions have.

Given the illegal and immoral actions of Putin’s unrestricted shelling of innocent civilians, an overwhelming number of well-known brands have either pulled out of Russia or suspended operations there. Morality surely swayed many; Anonymous, the hacker group, also threatened cyber-attacks against companies that did not withdraw. In the U.S., the sentiment is so strongly in favor of Ukraine and against Russia that any company remaining in the region is likely to draw significant consumer and media disapproval. Watch Nestle closely: the brand took a middle ground, announcing it would continue to sell baby food and products while pulling out of more indulgent lines like KitKat, and are donating any profits to the Ukraine relief cause.

 

Tech in Hot Water

Tech companies are as likely to be banned by Russia as they are to ban operations in Russia. Tech companies have generally focused on US internal political battles and yet carried the accounts of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran on an unfiltered basis. RT, a U.S.-based news operation that really was a Russia propaganda front, operated online here for years without interruption. By continuing to operate, tech companies argue they are serving as a communications channel into Russia. At the same time, they could be vehicles for the spread of Russia propaganda. As of now:

  • Facebook is banned in Russia while Goggle continues to operate there in limited fashion.
  • Google News has been banned though it appears search is still operating. Google advertising has been shut down voluntarily.
  • YouTube is operating but they have prevented the Russian military from posting videos of “liberation” on the site and so is under threat of being banned by Russia.

Business software companies like Salesforce, Slack, Dell, Microsoft and IBM stopped selling to new customers while supporting old ones for now. Many had policies of not doing business with the Russian military in any event. Perhaps the single most significant help from tech companies for Ukraine is the deployment of Starlink satellites by Elon Musk. These provide an uncuttable lifeline to the Ukrainian people and government to stay connected and communicate to the outside world.

 

Et Tu, Vodka?

Then there are the companies – especially vodka companies – that have for years traded on the idea they were Russian in origin, now communicating with consumers that they were really American or European after all. This is some careful marketing legerdemain.

Companies will not be able to right every wrong, and as a matter of policy we have encouraged companies to operate in areas like China as part of showing other cultures how democracy, and economic freedom work together. There is now far less belief that by working with rogue regimes, we can change them; 3 In 5 Americans in the latest HarrisX poll now reject that strategy and believe we are better off disengaging.

 

When President Bill Clinton addressed the conflict in Kosovo, a non-NATO country, in a speech that I helped work on, he argued stopping the atrocities against civilians there was an imperative because 1) it was morally right and 2) it was within our capacity to fix. The situation in Russia is similar as there is no real moral issue or debate – this is clearly naked and unjustified aggression on a scale we have not seen since World War II. American companies should feel confident that pulling out of their Russian operations will by and large not hurt their American operations. This is both the right thing to do and what is within our capacity as business leaders to do.

Have thoughts about the Russia-Ukraine war, brands’ responsibilities in it, or corporate purpose? Email me at mark.penn@stagwellglobal.com.

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