When it comes to promoting a product, many marketing folks are often very myopic in what they believe will work. Instead of thinking creatively, they stick with what they have always believed will work. For conservative marketers, this usually means spending money on the same promotions they have spent money on for years and years. Taking risks with new promotional options is not something they consider, possibly because they are inherently risk-averse marketers.

Yet, spending relatively little money on non-conventional methods can often pay off. For instance, directing a small amount of promotional funds to target a younger demographic may not seem to make much sense if a company’s market is primarily middle-aged (e.g., a financial retirement company). But appealing, in a small way, to a group while they are still young could begin to build a level of brand awareness that will be with this younger group as they grow older. On the other hand, as we note in our Managing the Advertising Campaign tutorial, sometimes companies have no choice but to spend in unusual promotional methods so their message is heard above the clutter that is created by their competition.

A good example of a company experimenting with an unusual method of promotion, at least for its industry, can be seen in this story from NPR. It discusses the newest promotion from the mid-level restaurant chain Olive Garden. The company has created a number of food trucks, a common presence in the downtown streets of big cities and college campuses, to hand out free products. Is this news suggesting Olive Garden is testing out a new distribution channel for eventually selling its products? Not likely, as it appears to be more of a method for generating publicity for their restaurants.

However, it is interesting to contemplate what would happen if customer response to these trucks is overwhelmingly positive. Maybe it would encourage Olive Garden to explore this as another distribution channel. Certainly in large cities, where leasing downtown store space can be extremely expensive, having a fleet of trucks selling Olive Garden meals, albeit a limit selection, could make sense. And if it does, watch for other restaurant chains to take to the road as well.

A few weeks ago we discussed how high-end food retailer, Whole Foods, was planning to roll out a chain of stores selling lower priced products. The company suggested the new chain would be “uniquely-branded” though we wondered whether this meant the name of this chain would not include the Whole Foods brand name. As we noted, doing so was a “bit of a gamble as there are not many examples of retailers that have successfully launched a new retail concept using a name that does not contain the well-known brand name.” We even offered examples of other retailers, including Nordstrom and Target, which have created alternative chains but did so by including the main brand name in the name of the stores (i.e, Nordstrom Rack and TargetExpress).

We now know Whole Foods “uniquely-branded” message is not exactly accurate. According to the title of a story in the Los Angeles Times, the chain will be called 365. However, this is a bit misleading. In actuality, the full name of the new chain is 365 by Whole Foods Market. So their branding strategy, at least in terms of the chain's name, is not quite unique as it contains the the parent company's brand name.

By including the Whole Foods name in the new chain name, the company is following a Family Branding strategy. A key advantage of Family Branding is that including the name of a well-known brand in a new brand name may help build customer awareness more rapidly compared to naming the chain with an entirely new name. Of course, this is the same benefit Nordstrom and Target expected when using their brand name as part of the name of new retail chains.  Now, what Whole Foods is doing that is somewhat different from what Nordstrom and Target have done, is if this new chain takes off it will be easy for Whole Foods to drop the “by Whole Foods Market” portion and eventually just call the chain 365. This could then develop as a stand-alone brand. 

It is also important to understand, that branding is not all about a name. 365 by Whole Foods Market could certainly produce a retail experience that will set it apart from other retailers. Possibly to the point that when customers hear the name, 365 by Whole Foods Market, they instantly associate it with certain desirable marketing elements (e.g., value priced products, colorful interior, etc.) or beneficial shopping experience (e.g., speed of shopping, nice employees, etc.) that are different than what is experience at Whole Foods. If this is the case, the two chains may evolve with completely separate brand images even though they contain the same Whole Foods name.

The average consumer’s home is filled with products containing complex electronic parts. Of course, most consumers have no idea what is found inside their televisions, appliances, computers and other products. But what consumers do know is if a key internal part stops working, they have little choice but to either get the broken part replaced or dump the whole product and buy something new. For expensive products, customers are especially interested in an option to replace parts. If replacements parts are not available, and a customer’s only option is to shell out big money to purchase another product, customers may not be happy.

A good example of this can be found with an issue now facing KitchenAid, one of several appliance brands sold by Whirlpool. A number of customers, who have purchased refrigerators, are experiencing internal parts failure. For many customers, the failure is associated with an electronic control board that essentially runs the refrigerator. Normally, replacing this control board is not that difficult nor very expensive, especially when compared to the cost of purchasing a new refrigerator. For instance, KitchenAid’s built-in refrigerators sell for over $6,000 while the control board that is failing probably costs KitchenAid less than $100 to manufacture (or more likely acquire from a contract supplier).

So why are customers complaining? Because the replacement control board is not available, and no one at KitchenAid knows if it will ever be produced again. Thus, an expensive appliance, which otherwise is working fine, may need to be disposed of because an inexpensive part is not readily available. As expected, customers are not happy.

The marketing lesson here may seem to be an easy one: to avoid upsetting customers make sure parts are always available. However, in this case, it is unclear if this is a fair statement. Maybe there is a good reason this control board is not available. Unfortunately, KitchenAid is not fully disclosing what is happening with this part. So a better lesson is that companies need to be upfront with customers as to what is happening. For KitchenAid, the people who connect directly with customers (i.e. customer service representatives) need to know what is going on so they can interact honestly with customers. Not being forthright with customers can only lead to a negative image for the brand.

On the brighter side, a problem not addressed by one company can often be a good opportunity for someone else. And that seems to be happening here as several companies are now offering fixes for the control board problem.

Writer’s Comment. For purposes of full disclosure, the reason I am aware of this issue is from personal experience. While I am not happy with the situation, my intent in writing this post is not to release my frustrations but to point out what is amounting to an important marketing lesson.

Companies that have a leading market share position in their industry often have a tough time when it comes to how they are viewed by customers. For instance, Comcast, McDonalds and America Airlines/US Airways (now one company) are often at the low end of their industry’s customer service rankings. Another company that also finds itself in this unwanted position is one of the biggest on the planet – Walmart.

However, while customers who actually shop at Walmart give the retailer low ratings, many people who are not customers possess an even dimmer view. Some dislike Walmart because it has become too big and dominating, and they believe no business should be this large. Others harbor distaste not just because of Walmart’s size but because they blame it for the demise of many small, local retailers. And still others are turned off by the in-store experience that at times has lead to customer-on-customer altercations.

Whether you are a Walmart supporter or you are fiercely opposed what they do, from a marketing perspective, you have to be at least somewhat impressed with the investment they are making to improve the retail experience. Now this is not to say Walmart is at the cutting edge of retail innovation. In fact, they tend to take a wait-and-see approach before jumping into something new. For example, their entry into online selling did not occur until the early 2000s, more than five years after Amazon started shipping products. But who can blame them for taking innovation somewhat slow considering how many stores they have and that adding something new may involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars. So before they adopt a new marketing method they do what good marketers do – lots of research and testing.

A good example of Walmart researching and testing innovations can be found in this Washington Post story. It reports on several new tools the retailer is developing to assist shoppers. For example, one tool being tested at the company’s Sam’s Club division is aimed at improving online grocery orders that are then picked up at the store. This tool has customers notifying Sam’s Club when they are on their way for pick up, which enables Sam’s Club employees to wait until the customer is near the store before they package frozen product. The other tools include an order storage system, where a customer retrieves their online purchases from a secure bin housed at gas stations that are located on or near main roadways, and a mobile app that shows exactly where a specific product is located in a store.

Measuring Customer ValueOver the last 20 years, probably the most significant development to impact marketing is the role collected data now plays. Whether in the form of data analytics, statistical modeling or advanced formulas created within Excel, marketers' reliance on numbers and estimations is reshaping how key marketing decisions are made. Of course, the use of quantitative techniques has long been part of the marketing research process, such as information obtained through surveys or collected through sales data. But now, with advances in computer, mobile and Internet technologies, as well as the creation of specialized customer management software, advanced web analytics and other software, the type of data being gathered has dramatically expanded well beyond what used to be obtained with traditional marketing research.

The information now collected is being used in myriad of ways including managing online advertising, selecting new locations for retail stores, and setting optimal price points. Data is also being used to predict whether a customer can be classified as a "good" customer.

As we note in our Managing Customers tutorial, marketers do not treat all customers equally, as some offer more value than others. One commonly employed way to determine whether someone can be classified as a "good" customer is to estimate how profitable he or she will be over his or her lifetime experience with the marketer. Estimating customer lifetime value (CLV) requires significant information about individual customer's purchasing habits and how they interact with the organization. For instance, a retailer can easily track purchases when customers use a shopper card. With this information, they can see what is purchased, how often purchases are made and what methods are used to make the purchase. By plugging this and other data into software that estimates CLV, a marketer can obtain a prediction on whether one customer offers more value than another. For example, a customer whose purchasing patterns do not seem to be overly influenced by price may hold more value than a customer who waits until price discounts are available before making purchases.

While CLV has been a key part of marketing strategy for many years, some have questioned how useful this is in a digital age. As discussed in this CRM Magazine story, one advocate for changing the reliance on CLV comes from Georgia State University marketing professor V. Kumar. He suggests customer value is a multi-dimensional measure and should not be based on profit alone as customers can positively affect a company in other ways. For instance, a customer's positive comments on social media can prove beneficial.

Unfortunately, tracking customers across many contact points is not going to be easy. Thus, fully assessing what customers offer and the value the provide may be challenging. However, the fact there is now discussion of changing how customer value is determined is a positive sign and marketers should at least give this serious thought.