What These Brands Know About Marketing That You Don’t

The most powerful secret to unlocking brand growth is the ‘transformational insight.’

By Rob Malcolm

Each of these brands achieved dramatic and transformational growth within static or declining categories many years apart by mastering perhaps the most powerful and underappreciated lever in marketing. No, it’s not social media, harnessing big data, going digital, having the coolest mobile app, or even product innovation — although many of these tactics and tools were part of the implementation of their successful turnaround programs.

All of them — Folgers coffee in the 1980s, Johnnie Walker starting in the late ’90s, and Dos Equis in the 2000s — uncovered what I believe is the most powerful secret to unlocking growth for brands of all types: discovering the single most powerful motivation driving customer behavior in the category in which your brand or business competes. I call this the transformational insight.

Let’s briefly examine each of these brand turnarounds.

Folgers was stuck for decades in a head-to-head share fight with Maxwell House, trading marketing arguments about which coffee “tasted better.” Neither brand made much progress. They were stuck in tit-for-tat promotion and pricing wars of attrition. Mrs. Olsen tried to convince you that Folgers’ “mountain-grown beans” resulted in better tasting coffee while Cora the shop keeper argued that Maxwell House was “good to the last drop.” Stalemate.

It was only when the marketers at Folgers changed the question from the rational “why do you choose Folgers” line of questioning to the deeper qualitative line of probing around describing their best cups of coffee that they found the larger category motivation that no one else was addressing.

The answer was “to get their day off to a brighter start,” and that led them to abandon 20 years of “better taste” positioning to create what became the most successful, longest-running television advertising campaign in the history of U.S. marketing. “The Best Part of Wakin’ Up Is Folgers in Your Cup” is now in its 31st year on air and created dramatic growth for Folgers even in a home brewing category that has continued its slow decline.

Johnnie Walker — and the Scotch whisky category — was on a long-term decline in the late ’90s when the management at newly created Diageo took on the turnaround task. The brand and category had lost relevance, and the next generation had abandoned Scotch for cooler categories like vodka and tequila.

But then marketers discovered that the target group of 25–30-year-old upwardly mobile men all over the world were motivated by the same singular driving force — the desire to make progress. Johnnie Walker decided to embrace this fundamental motivation and “inspire men all over the world to make progress in their lives.” This led to the breakthrough 1999 global campaign “Keep Walking” that turned years of decline into rapid, sustained growth and was awarded “global advertising campaign of the decade” in 2010. The success continues to this day, some 15 years later.

More recently, Dos Equis cracked the code and separated itself from the tangled mass of imported beer by uncovering that its target — guys 23–28 — was maturing and no longer wanted to be seen as crazy frat boys. At this point in their lives, they wanted to be seen as more complex or sophisticated — a unique and powerful motivation that was not being addressed by any other brand. Enter the “Most Interesting Man in the World.” It’s been the most successful campaign in the beer market for the last decade, driving accelerated growth for the brand.

I was struck by a blog from Rishad Tobaccowala, chairman of Digitas and Razorfish, in which he laments about a particular malady in marketing today. He calls it “too much plumbing, too little water,” referring to the over-focus on data, technology, and digital marketing tactics at the expense of finding the true “water” — the powerful insights into consumer behavior we can use to unlock and support growth.

What so many marketers seem to forget in today’s world of digitally enabled cool tactics is that the root of all consumer behavior lies first in finding and harnessing the singular most powerful motivation that drives their behavior: their choice. Oftentimes it is about a fundamental human truth about your target — as in the case of Johnnie Walker and Dos Equis. Other times, it’s finding the driving category motivation, as with Folgers. Whatever it is, each brand and category does have one insight about purchase motivation that is the most powerful driver of their consumers’ behavior. Find it and the potential is enormous.

Until this foundation work is complete, the rest really doesn’t matter.

Rob Malcolm is executive in residence for the McCombs Center for Customer Insight and Marketing Solutions.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of The University of Texas at Austin.