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Hyundai Assurance Program

I can’t think of a major American corporation that doesn’t have one or more employees whose responsibility it is to gather consumer insights. So why are so few brands truly insightful about consumers in this turbulent economy?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that consumers are worried about the economy. Most studies like the Rasmussen Consumer Index show consumer confidence at a record low. But can you name any brands that are standing up to do something about it? Not many.

An example is Hyundai, which is responding to consumer anxiety by offering to let purchasers of new vehicles out of their contract if they lose their jobs. A great idea that seemed destined to be followed by other automakers, but the U.S. automakers have all been too busy lobbying for their own aid to think about lending a hand to their customers.

American Business seems to have adopted a victim mentality preferring to whine about circumstances beyond its control rather than demonstrate conviction and leadership despite adverse conditions.

Is there any reason Ford can’t announce a move to bring a percentage of its manufacturing back to the U.S., creating more jobs and stimulating the economy? What about Nike, or Target, or Dell, or P&G? Instead of eliminating hiring, what if they announced plans to reduce outsourcing so they could increase domestic hiring. Imagine how consumers would feel about a brand that demonstrated that kind of leadership!

Concern for internal issues shouldn’t keep corporations from turning some of their attention to brainstorming ways to help their customers and the economy. This is a time for decisive private action and those who participate in the solution will find themselves on top when prosperity returns.

Addendum: David Hartman, designer of the VCU Brandcenter’s logo and other works of graceful creativity, pointed out that Intel is bucking the victim trend by increasing its investment in the U.S. You can read about it here.

Sam Walton's 1993 Autobiography

Sam Walton's 1993 Autobiography

The folks at Walmart have been working hard to improve their image of late. They’ve pumped up their public relations, hooked up with environmental advocates and launched appealing new ads with the help of The Martin Agency. The work is beginning to take hold, but as the deepening economic crisis casts shadows on the U.S. economy, Walmart may have an opportunity to take a giant leap forward with their brand. 

Imagine if Walmart announced a decision to work with its manufacturers to move 20% of their production back to the U.S. within five years. It would be a private economic stimulus that would have a huge impact on the economy and the brand.

Walmart would have no problem arranging a press conference with President Obama – the press would be filled with quotes from grateful consumers – and the actions might inspire companies like Target and Home Depot to follow suit. Goods sold under the program could be showcased under “Made in the USA” signs. And while consumers might pay slightly more for these products, they’d be contributing to bringing jobs back to their hometowns.

Walmart’s significant economic power could really make a difference in increasing employment and jump-starting a recovery, which would lead to stronger sales and a higher stock price. Think of it as a virtuous cycle that results in passionate admiration of the brand.

Am I dreaming the impossible dream? Maybe, but Walmart is working hard to reclaim the legacy created by Sam Walton, a man who titled his autobiography “Made in America.” In his time, Walton encouraged his company to buy domestically made goods and consumers rewarded the company for it. What a powerful statement it would make for the brand to signal its commitment to the consumers who buy its goods, by buying theirs.



Google's Robert Wong and VCU Brandcenter's Rick Boyko

Last week the folks at Google brought a small army of trainers and a truckload of technology to the VCU Brandcenter as part of their Google Campus program.

In the early morning hours, workers started unloading trucks containing loads of interactive kiosks, touchscreen monitors and – just as essential for attracting the attention of graduate students – buckets of candy and snacks. By the time students started trickling in, they encountered about 30 Google employees, and the Brandcenter had been transformed into the Googleplex for a day.

The students and faculty were treated to in-depth discussions of a wide range of technology from Google Analytics and AdWords to new features in YouTube and GPS applications tied to Google Android and Google Maps. For the Brandcenter’s 200 students and faculty, it provided great exposure to new methods of engaging consumers in an increasingly digital world. And for Google, it was a smart investment aimed at influencing the influencers who will help to shape the future of brand building.

Richmond advertising firm The Martin Agency co-sponsored the event and many of their leaders attended – I ran into Mike Hughes, John Adams, Bruce Kelley, Matt Williams, Steve Bassett and others. Robert Wong, Creative Director at Google Creative Labs, gave a fascinating talk that covered a variety of creative topics and demonstrated some of the ways Google tries to live up to its “Don’t be Evil” motto.

In all, it was an outstanding event that provoked ongoing conversations about shaping brands in a connected culture.