Why Brands Are Turning to Live Streaming to Reach Consumers

By Katie More


As video content continues to be the central focus for social media platforms, it is no surprise that an increasing number of brands are testing live video streaming as part of their marketing strategy. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube have all added this capability to their respective platforms and have seen a steady increase in branded video content. (For the Silicon Valley fans out there, Pied Piper has unfortunately taken a hiatus from live streaming since their initial success with the “Condor Cam” in 2015). Regardless of industry, there are several reasons why brands should consider adding live streaming to their playbook.


Live streaming has become a popular experiential marketing trend for music, art, and cultural events. Coachella, the annual two-weekend long music festival held in Indio, California, has seen great success through live streaming musical performances on their YouTube channel. In 2016, Coachella added YouTube’s 360° Live option for the second weekend, which allowed viewers to rotate the camera in any direction, giving them a more authentic feel of the concert’s environment. Fans also had the option to choose which stage they wanted to stream and could re-watch performances from earlier in the day that they may have missed. These capabilities have transformed the way that viewers experience live events by allowing them to “attend” from a remote location.

Image Source: Coachella YouTube Channel

Live streaming also facilitates a two-way conversation between brands and consumers. In April 2016, Buzzfeed utilized Facebook Live to stream a live video of two employees putting rubber bands around a watermelon to see if it would explode. In true Buzzfeed fashion, this was an unplanned (and rather bizarre) challenge, yet users couldn’t look away. The video lasted 45 minutes and garnered 807,000 viewers, as well as over 315,000 comments, indicating high user engagement and interest. (For those who are curious, it took 690 rubber bands for the watermelon to finally explode). The event even started trending on Twitter under the “#watermelon” hashtag. While this was not the most conventional way to experiment with live streaming, the video’s high viewership demonstrates how quickly users can become invested in real-time content, especially if there is an element of surprise.

Image Source: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/this-exploding-watermelon-why-facebook-pays-buzzfeed-live-video-1553983

In the era of overly curated, filtered Instagram feeds, live streaming also offers a refreshing “behind-the-scenes” look at popular brands. Rachel Silver, brand consultant at Birchbox, praises the authentic feel of the brand’s live streaming content: “I’m OK with the low quality; it almost forces you to be real. I’m over the polished video thing.” This approach works especially well for a subscription-based brand like Birchbox, which caters specifically to beauty product newcomers. Through live video content, Birchbox aims to educate its customer base with makeup tutorials and product information in a conversational style. The brand even opens a live Q&A section at the end of its videos, encouraging further interaction. Despite dwindling attention spans among consumers in general, Birchbox has also proven that long-form live content can still be valuable, with its most successful live stream reaching an average view time of 10 minutes.

Image Source: Birch Box Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/Birchbox/

While there are many positive characteristics for live streaming, one general concern for product marketers is the difficulty of attributing specific user conversions to a live streaming video. There are several consumer engagement opportunities in live video, such as comments or likes, yet it’s not clear if these specific actions are boosting sales. Live streaming therefore appears to work best as a branding/engagement tool to reach large audiences rather than specifically drive purchases. However, as user tracking capabilities become more advanced, brands will likely be able to connect video engagements to lower-funnel conversions in the future.


Live streaming is an effective method for brands to engage with their fan base and expand to larger audiences. Whether the goal is to enhance the user experience or to respond to consumers’ questions, live streaming can complement all types of marketing strategies. At minimum, brands should at least experiment with the channel to see how it benefits their business and strengthens their relationship with consumers.


-Katie More

Katie More is a graduate student at Northwestern University pursuing her master’s degree in integrated marketing communications with a specialization in marketing analytics. She has three years of advertising agency experience at Havas and hopes to work in marketing analytics/research upon graduating in December 2017. To contact Katie, you can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

An Inside Look at Medill IMC’s Media Economics and Technology Course

Image from IMC Lecturer Judy Frank’s PowerPoint presentation

By Xintong (Joy) Zhou

As one of the most popular courses in IMC, “Media Economics and Technology” is famous for its insightful key learnings, highly interactive classroom exercises, as well as a heavy workload. Why is it so popular among students? What on earth does it teach? What key takeaways do students get from this course? To give you an overall view of Media Econ, Vitamin IMC interviewed Professor Judy Franks and students who are currently in the course.


Vitamin IMC (VI): Can you give a brief introduction of this course? Why do we have this course in the IMC program?

Judy Franks: Marketers cannot engage with consumers without some form of media, which serves as a pipeline to deliver messages and incentives to consumers. However, the media world changes so fast with all the emerging technologies. This course intends to help students, who are future CMOs, ignore all the gloomy scariness, and understand how the media, such a mythical black box, works.


VI: What kind of key takeaways you want students to get from this course?

Judy: I want students to appreciate media as a valuable asset, which is critical to the life of customers and also to them as marketers. Marketers should not treat it as a swamp to go fishing audiences from as cheaply as possible. When students read Napoli’s theory about dual product marketplace, they may have a sense of how important audiences are and how difficult it is to get them, while media companies have to engage with audiences every day. Without healthy media, marketers cannot do this by themselves.

I always think that the best way to learn is from each other so I have many group projects and the groups are self-selected by students. And there are very few right and wrong answers since media economics is experiencing such a period of chaos and no one knows where it is going. I ask students to debate pieces of curriculum and force students to form their own opinion.


VI: Since many of my classmates in this course are currently working on the project, “Build Your Media Company,” can you talk about this project? What key learnings do you want students to get?

Judy: I hope students have a sense of how difficult it is to build a successful media company and make them have an appreciation for challenges that media companies face. Also, this project urges students not to act like marketers – “how can I get customers as cheaply as possible,” but to think from IMC perspectives – “what is the typical day of a consumer and why do they spend time on this media?”


VI: Anything else you want to share with students?

Judy: Students may think this course is difficult but that isn’t my intention. I just feel there are so many things that I want to share with them and give them all the possible opportunities to learn, by reading materials, working on cases, and working within groups. Since there are so many learning modalities such as online videos nowadays, I want to build a kind of in-class experience which students could not manage outside the classroom on their own.

I’ve been passionate about media my whole life and now I teach and share this passion with students. It is important to work with passionate people even if you may not share the same passion.


Thank you so much for sharing, Judy! Now let’s hear from our classmates –


VI: Could you introduce the project you are currently working on?  

Thomas Nissen: We just finished up a project called “Build your own media company” where we could envision, describe and pitch a brand new media company to the rest of the class. Our team created a children’s television streaming platform we called “Playground”. It is similar to Hulu or Netflix in execution and it is loaded with children’s TV shows from PBS, Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and so on.

Tasmina Chhugani & Zuzu My Dang: Our media company, “Just Got Here” was based on providing a platform for people who are relocating and to give them all the advice, resources and recommendations they would need to help them through this stressful situation and make them feel comfortable in their new home. 


VI: What was the most fun part of this project?

Tom: The most fun part was building up the content library for “Playground” with classic television shows from my youth.

Tasmina: Identifying an unmet need which we based on our own experiences of moving to a new town. It was also fun to come up with a range of creative solutions with my group and to continuously build upon and improve our initial idea.

Zuzu: Drawing from personal insights to identify a need that is underserved. Deciding on a name for the platform was also super fun when you had five people in the team and each came up with so many crazy ideas.


VI: And what was the most challenging part?

Tom: Pricing the platform competitively while working in the class concepts

Tasmina: Making sure that this concept was not currently being done today and that it was a completely novel idea.

Zuzu: Throwing challenging business questions at ourselves and trying to resolve them within a short period of time.


VI: What are your key takeaways from Media Economics course?

Tom: While media changes at such a rapid pace, it’s evolution follows very set patterns. Media “disruptors” like Snapchat today or Youtube 10 years ago seem like game-changers but they are playing by the same rules as every other form of media. They all need advertisers to fuel their growth. The revenue streams generated by media will always need to find ways to become profitable, even when media platforms change overnight.

Tasmina: How to successfully reach your audience despite changing the media environment due to technological innovation and changing audience behavior, and to recognize the importance of the consumer and the content over the actual channel.

Zuzu: My key takeaway so far, from a marketer’s perspective, is that to navigate the media chaos we need “a few simple tools and one big picture” (Judy Franks). Start with a great story then fund combinations of media so that they work together to support our story as it goes on and engages with our customers – Fully embrace the power of the audience in our media planning.


Big thanks to Judy and my classmates for giving us a look at the Media Economics and Technology course! Judy will have this course in the spring quarter again – don’t miss the chance to take it!


-Xintong (Joy) Zhou

Born in Nanjing, China, Xintong (Joy) completed her undergraduate study at Fudan University, Shanghai, with a degree in English. Currently studying in the Medill IMC program, she is interested in digital marketing and marketing analytics and aims to become a marketer who works on building data-driven strategies. LinkedIn

Should Brands Get Political?

by Daria Gorodnia

The following post was inspired by a professor-student discussion in the Brand Communications Decisions graduate class in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University.

Less than a month ago, we drank Starbucks to express social status or lifestyle. Today, some of us drink it or don’t drink it for that matter, to express political affiliation. Politics are everywhere these days – on TV, online, on Facebook, in our conversations, and on our minds. Keeping their fingers on the pulse of the American society and trying to make it into trending discussions, brands start to get political by taking stands on social issues, and by doing so, send politically-charged messages to consumers around the world.

Just in these last few weeks, Starbucks made an announcement supporting refugee employment, Airbnb launched a program on diversity and inclusion, 84 Lumber sent a mixed message on immigration, and Audi took a stand on equal pay for women. While such statements can appeal to thousands of consumers on an emotional level and help brands cut through the clutter by staying relevant in pop culture, they can also be double-edge swords when it comes to impact on brand equity and business performance. So, before taking a side and making a loud statement, brands must evaluate potential gains and risks, make a plan to address business objectives, and prepare to deal with the inevitable backlash from segments of the public. In the evaluation process, the following questions should be considered.

Who is the brand’s audience?

Many international brands serve hundreds of thousands of consumers on a daily basis. While they need to understand all of their main target segments, they must truly know their best customers. They are the brand’s most loyal and engaged consumers who drive product adoption and conversation. By taking a stand on a political issue, the brand will inevitably alienate some of its customers, but it has to be very careful to not alienate its best ones. This is where a deeper look into brand identity and its initial audience is needed. What are the best customers’ sentiments towards a certain political issue? If they are in-line with the brand’s sentiments and identity, it may be worth it to speak out.

What is the brand’s identity and image?

It is critical to ensure that any politically-charged statements issued by the brand are in line with its brand identity, image, and long-term strategy. Neil Golden, former Chief Marketing Officer at McDonalds USA and current Adjunct Lecturer at Northwestern University, says that brands have to be very careful with taking sides on political topics. If the brand has not been historically vocal on the issue, speaking out about it during the time of political unrest and resistance movements may be seen as opportunistic and produce even more backlash from the public. For example, when Starbucks made a statement on refugee employment, many consumers felt it was a stretch for the brand’s identity. Although Starbucks often speaks for fair employment practices, it hasn’t focused specifically on refugees before. So by making such a loud statement through a press release, Starbucks actually appeared somewhat insincere and opportunistic. 

Source: http://www.towleroad.com/2012/02/the-anti-gay-starbucks-boycott/

Is there a plan in place?

Next, it is important to consider any statement as a part of a larger, comprehensive, integrated plan. Airbnb and Audi both took stands on social issues in their Super Bowl ads.  Airbnb ran a #WeAccept spot that stood for diversity and inclusion while Audi ran a highly emotional spot on equal pay for women. Both spots were produced beautifully and evoked feelings and emotional connections with the respective brands. However, from the larger brand communications plan perspective, Airbnb’s statement was better thought out compared to Audi’s. Airbnb reached far above making an emotional connection with the public and into solving an actual business problem with a comprehensive plan. In particular, guest discrimination by hosts was the issue that Airbnb aimed to address, but the timing of a statement on diversity and inclusion could not have been better from the current political conversation stand point. Minutes after the Super Bowl ad aired, Airbnb followed up with e-mails to the Airbnb community, both hosts, and guests, asking to accept the brand’s stand.

In contrast, it is not clear where Audi’s message fits. The brand currently does not seem to have any program or plan in place to walk the talk on its advertised commitment to equal pay for women. Interestingly, its well-intentioned message produced backlash from some women who pointed out the lack of diversity in the brand’s leadership ranks.

What are the business objectives?

Any brand communication should be tied to a business objective. Is the company trying to improve brand awareness or brand image? Is it trying to attract qualified employees? Or perhaps grow sales and acquire new customers? Objectives can be very diverse and span across a variety of business aspects, but at least one has to be addressed by the message. A Super Bowl spot by 84 Lumber, a brand that currently operates only a few locations, puzzled many consumers with a very emotional but rather unclear message on immigration; it wasn’t clear whether the brand supported or opposed it. But most importantly, it was not clear what business objective the brand was trying to solve with a roughly $15M 90-second spot during the most-watched national sporting event. The brand claims that it aimed to attract a younger employee base, but still, what message did it really send to the rest of the country?

All in all, brands are people. They are operated by people, for people. And people have sentiments, opinions, and passions. Politics touch on many emotional strings, making people feel the need to express their stand publicly, to feel support and inclusion. Strong brands are often viewed as integral parts of consumer lives. Indeed, many consumers view brands as extensions of themselves.  As brands become vehicles for self-expression, consumers start to expect them to take a stand and participate in social movements. This expectation gives a new meaning to the social responsibility concept, but brands must not forget to evaluate the aforementioned business considerations. Likewise, it is essential that they stay true to their brand promises when speaking out.


Daria Gorodnia

Commercials That Stick: 6 Super Bowl Commercials We Will Remember

Let’s face it, the final score isn’t the only thing that people will be talking about after the Super Bowl ends. Commercials often steal the show and stick in our minds for days after the game. Who can forget that adorable Volkswagen advertisement of the little boy dressed like Darth Vader and if you can forget Mountain Dew’s “Puppymonkeybaby,” I’m jealous. Because whether we like it or not, some commercials are just that sticky.

Super Bowl commercials face tough competition in cutting through the clutter of game-watching chatter and a strong lineup of other well-produced spots. They need to make the viewers remember their products and services. They need to make their idea stick. In the IMC Strategic Communication course, we are reading “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which outlines six principles that make an idea sticky. The six key elements to stickiness are simple, unexpected, credibility, concreteness, emotion and story, or SUCCES.

Taking a closer look at Super Bowl commercials from this year it’s easy to see these principles at work. Most of the memorable advertisements contain more than one of these ideas but some of them use the certain principles more prominently than others.

Here are some of the commercials from the Super Bowl that best represented the principles of stickiness and show us how brands are making use of them to cut through other advertising clutter.

“We accept” – Airbnb

Airbnb uses the first principle of stickiness, simple, to make a very clear point about its business. The element of simple gets at stripping an idea down to its core and making that message very clear to your audience. Airbnb’s commercial had a simple format of words and faces and a simple idea that Airbnb accepts everyone no matter your race, region or sexual orientation.

“The Journey Begins” – 84 Lumber

The unexpected principle of stickiness is definitely one of the more overused ideas during Super Bowl commercials. But it’s important to remember the goal is not to just surprise people for the moment but to generate long-term interest and curiosity. 84 Lumber’s commercial, “The Journey Begins” did just that. Most people spent the length of the commercial trying to guess what brand the long-form advertisement was for. The shock of seeing 84 Lumber popup on the screen with a call to action caused a great deal of curiosity. Not only did 84 Lumber’s website crash but Amobee reported 1,180 percent jump in digital mentions.

“Google Home” – Google

This one may come as a surprise. Although Google can be seen as a credible company, that’s not why the commercial is considered credible. The idea of credibility comes from showing the product, Google Home, at work. In “Made to Stick,” they say that an idea needs to carry credentials. So instead of Google telling you about all of the cool things this Google Home can do it showed the consumer that the product works through practical and relatable demonstrations.

“Go Further” – Ford

What does someone in traffic, a kite in a tree and a cat with its head in a box have in common? They are all stuck! Nobody likes to be stuck. Ford made that idea extremely concrete in its commercial “Go Further.” Using images of people “stuck” in various ways sent its message loud and clear. Then they matched clear language with concrete visuals about what Ford is doing to get people “unstuck.”

“Daughter” – Audi

This principle of stickiness is pretty clear. You want to make people feel something. However, “Switch” cautions that in order for this principle to work, you need to know your audience. Audi did this well by recognizing that people don’t connect to objects they connect to other people—the focus of the commercial was grounded on the relationship between the father and daughter, not on the product, which only made a short appearance at the end of the spot. This car ad was able to stand out amongst its competition because it was able to evoke emotions in its target audience.

“Born the hard way” – Budweiser

Essentially the “Born the hard way” commercial is Budweiser telling the story of the founders of Anheuser-Busch. Storytelling is the final element of stickiness and one of the strongest. Telling someone a story makes it easier for them to recall the information later.  Storytelling can also easily be used alongside other principles of stickiness to make an advertisement even more effective. Anheuser-Busch was strategic in tying social relevance to the brand’s history through storytelling.

Although the Super Bowl provides a captive audience, brands need to make the most out of the heavy investment they pay for that advertising space. The principles of stickiness can help advertisers craft brand messages that can stick in the minds of consumers, creating emotional connections, positive brand sentiment and top-of-mind awareness.

-Elle Bausch

Elle Bausch is a student at Northwestern University in the Medill IMC graduate program. In May 2016, she graduated from the University of Missouri, Columbia journalism school. Throughout her studies, Elle interned for the PR department of the Mall of America as well as the PR department of the Minnesota Vikings.


Super Bowl Ads Expressing Brand Attitudes Toward Social and Political Controversies

2017 Super Bowl commercial by Airbnb

By Anthony Fleet

The United States of America is becoming more racially, ethnically and socially diverse. For years there have been large populations of Hispanics and Asians immigrating to the U.S. African Americans continue to excel in fine arts, culture, film, democracy and sports. Women have asserted themselves as leaders and thinkers in a variety of industries. LGBTQ members have the ability to marry and express themselves more freely. With the blending of cultures and ubiquity of technology and information, American citizens as a whole are more sophisticated now than ever before.

The National Football League’s Super Bowl is one of the most watched television programs in any given year in America. Super Bowl LI had an audience of nearly 114 million (if you incorporate streaming telecasts and a Spanish-language simulcast). This is a golden opportunity for advertisers to put together commercials that can be broadcast throughout the game and seen by such a large audience. But the real-estate for buying a slot that offers such unparalleled reach is not cheap. For Super Bowl LI, advertisers had to pay $5 million for a 30-second spot.

Today, advertisers understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. Their products and services have to appeal to a broad and diverse pool of consumers. Social media plays a tremendous role in seeing that brands do not discriminate, or affiliate with anything that shows any signs of discrimination. Just ask Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, who supported President Donald Trump… but then ceased his support in the week amid Trump’s ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Almost immediately after word was spread about Kalanick’s support, people took to social media to voice their displeasure and encourage many others to cease using Uber as a means of transportation and delete the Uber app altogether.

Some of the most noticeable commercials aired throughout the Super Bowl included spots from Airbnb, Coca-Cola, 84 Lumber and Honda displaying their products and services while featuring a multitude of ethnicities. And a bold ad from Audi flagrantly promoted equal pay for women. However, not everyone was enthusiastic about the diversity and inclusion being showcased.

People wanted to #BoycottBudweiser after an Anheuser-Busch ad seemed to be “pro-immigration” and depicted Americans as not welcoming to foreigners. In addition, threads of tweets by a public figure, national newspaper and automotive company demonstrate the controversy surrounding the messages some of the ads portrayed.

Nonetheless, there is a disruption occurring here in America, a social shift. Brands are not afraid to voice their concerns on prejudice and inequality, and are increasingly adding opinionated content to the current social narrative. However, at the same time, there are plenty of American citizens who strongly resist this cultural shift, and social media is the premier platform for them to display their resistance.

Like it or not, America is becoming more diverse, more accepting, and more opportunistic for those who have been oppressed for so long, and now, it looks as though many brands are ready to project their support for a more diverse and inclusive America.

-Anthony Fleet
Northwestern University Integrated Marketing Communications M.S. Candidate, 2017

A Big Hello From Vitamin

Hey there!  

We are the new leadership team behind Vitamin IMC,

and we’re eager to start rolling out new content for Vitamin.

As we forge through our winter quarter, we are just starting to get our student writers and IMC alums in on the VIMC mission of creating and sharing valuable content that explores the world of integrated marketing communications in 2017.

This year we want to bring more alumni contributions to the blog to get a taste of what’s really going on out in the marketplace from working professionals with the unique IMC orientation. We want to deliver more multi-media content than ever before, and really put to use the resources we have available here at Medill along with the creativity of IMC students. We want to engage more with our other student-lead initiatives like CMI and JIMC to highlight the amazing work being done here at IMC by our multi-talented classmates. And most importantly, we want to continue the Vitamin IMC legacy that promises to bring a freshly-squeezed take on Integrated Marketing in a way that will engage, entertain, and educate our readers.

Ann, Sylvia, Daisy, and I are excited to see what we can do with Vitamin IMC this year, and we hope you’ll join us along the way as we bring you the latest from Medill IMC. Stay tuned!

Lainey Fox
Editorial Director, Vitamin IMC

Immersion Quarter Reflection: Internal Communications at Mondelēz

As part of the Medill IMC full-time graduate program, students are required to work for a company over the summer in what is known as the Immersion Quarter. Students have the option to work in a group with others in the IMC program, or they can venture out on their own in an individual assignment. I decided to work as part of a larger group, as many jobs rely heavily on working with others. As a result, we were provided a list of about twenty companies who had designed IMC-related projects and we were asked to select our top ten, one of which we would ultimately be assigned to.

Having taken a number of classes related to communications, I selected projects that centered around that aspect of IMC. A project that was of particular interest to me was one surrounding internal communications at Mondelēz International, the company that owns Oreo’s and Ritz Crackers, among other brands. I was very excited to find out that I had been assigned to the Mondelez project, and was glad to find out that I liked the people who I was assigned to work with.

For me, working at Mondelēz was a completely new experience. While I had taken a year off between college and graduate school, I was unable to find a full-time job during that period and the internships I had found were for relatively smaller companies. Walking into Mondelēz, a global organization with more than 100,000 employees, was a bit daunting on my first day. Here was a real company, and I was supposed to help develop a solution that impacted the entire business. I knew that I had a unique set of skills, but being an outsider and never having actually worked as an employee on internal communications I felt like it might be difficult to actually affect change in the organization.

While the task we were faced with initially seemed like it might be difficult, we knew that we had the ability to succeed. Starting out, we utilized some of the information we had learned in Professor Michelle Weinberger’s Consumer Insights class and tried to discover significant pain points among employees (for our project, employees were the ones who would be using our “product,” and in this way were similar to customers). While we did not do full-scale ethnography, we conducted a number of interviews and distributed surveys to different stakeholders in the company, not just at the organization’s Chicago-area headquarters, but around the world. As a team of five, we also used these interviews to better understand the company and its culture so that we could create recommendations that would be impactful and accepted by the organization.

From the responses we obtained, we were able to gauge some of the pain points experienced by company employees, as well as suggestions for improvement going forward. This information proved to be essential in developing our ultimate recommendations for the company, directly influencing a number of our suggestions. In developing our ideas, we also incorporated concepts from Professor Dan Gruber’s Managing Integration course, such as engaging employees on a deeper, more personal level beyond their work. When we delivered our ideas, the employees that we presented to seemed very happy with the work that we had done, which was nice to hear and showed that our hard work paid off.

As a whole, the project was really enjoyable. The people that we worked with at Mondelēz were very helpful and open to sharing their thoughts with us. It was nice going in every day knowing that the company supported what we were doing. While the project itself helped our team grow, it was also very enjoyable going to and from work as a team. This gave me an opportunity to learn more about my team members, as I had not worked with some of them before.

Another benefit of working at a snack company like Mondelēz is that there was an employee store where one could buy products from all over the world at a discounted price. Personally, I know that I often would go to the store in the morning and buy some chocolate to give me a boost through the rest of the day. People should pay attention to things like this when looking for a job!

Chocolate and bonding aside, spending my Immersion Quarter at Mondelēz really helped me grow as someone about to enter the professional world for the first time. The experience allowed me to utilize what I learned in IMC within a real organization and to gain valuable experience with a large company. I will certainly use what I learned from at Mondelēz in my work going forward.

Why the Voice of the Customer Matters

A perspective combining lessons from fundamental IMC principles and the IMC’s course on Managing Integration

It’s Sunday night and I’m starving. My weekly grocery delivery is late. My meal prep is ruined and there’s nothing to eat.

My grocery delivery had previously notified me that my delivery would only be 2 hours late, but it is fifteen minutes away from extending past that time and I had received no new notification of an update on when it would be arriving. This is the third time a delivery has been late in as many months. I had previously let these issues slide, but I’ve had enough.

Fueled by low blood sugar, I call the grocery delivery service’s customer service line. I explain my grievance. The delivery is 4 hours late. The customer service rep apologizes. I can hear the powerlessness in his voice. He’s gracious, but clearly not empowered to do anything to alleviate this issue. I’m calm though – despite the growling in my stomach – because I know it isn’t this person’s fault. It’s obvious to me that this employee’s hands are tied. I feel bad for him. How disheartening is it for an employee to have to listen to customer complaints but not be given the power to do something about it? The only action he can take is to apologize. The one consolation he can give is to give me an update on when the driver might arrive. Even though it’s clear to me this person cannot help me, I feel the urge to vent. I tell him that the entire purpose of the service is for busy people to not have to go through the trouble of going to the store to buy food and that the fundamental principle underneath that is convenience. Yet, it is violating the whole business model by being grossly inconvenient when the delivery is consistently late. The rep agrees with me and says he will make a note of it. I thank him and get off the phone.

Going through Northwestern’s Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program is like “getting religion.” By the time you reach the fifth quarter, the doctrine of IMC becomes thoroughly embedded into your fundamental values you can’t even imagine approaching a business problem without it. Annoyed with the situation, my IMC brain screams “This is not a customer-centric approach!”

I calm myself down and try to think rationally. If I’m such a good IMC student then what would I do about it? (Yes, this is what nerdy IMC students do for fun on Sunday nights!)  So I go into analysis mode:

  • First, I would set up my customer service representatives up for success with unhappy customers. I would give them the power to provide discounts on future grocery deliveries to extremely unhappy customers who call. This is a win-win on both sides. The customer feels valued by being offered something for the inconvenience, and the employee feels he or she has made a positive impact by taking action to alleviate an issue.
  • Second, I would take a serious look at the company’s operational issues. A quick bit of online research on Glassdoor.com reveals that there is high turnover in the warehouse and in delivery. These employees are the most customer-facing parts of the organization. I would examine why there was high turnover, and why these employees were not being valued more highly. If you can’t get the supply chain and delivery part right, what value are you really bringing?
  • Third, I would learn from the competition. Despite being in different industries, I find myself comparing this service to Zappos. One time Zappos accidentally sent me a duplicate of a piece of clothing I ordered. I notified them and asked if I should return it. I didn’t really want to go through the trouble of doing the return, but I told them about it anyway not wanting to be charged later. A cheerful sounding email from Zappos replied, “Our mistake. Keep it!” I was ecstatic. I got a free piece of clothing from Zappos! A small gesture, but now I’m a customer for life, and notably spreading the good word on Zappos now here in this very public forum.  Are Zappos and grocery delivery the same? Absolutely not. Zappos deals in apparel and the grocery delivery service in perishable food items, but that’s the reality of the world in which we do business. Customers will compare services across industries. The competition of a grocery delivery will not be only against other grocery delivery services. The customer experience across categories will be scrutinized and compared. Having a gold-standard customer-centric experience with one company will make your mediocre customer experience pale in comparison in a whole other industry. To win and retain customers you must compete on service. This is a matter of long term company survival.

My complaint is a symptom of a larger issue in the organization. Namely, that the customer isn’t a priority, and the organization hasn’t put into place an infrastructure to support this nor is it empowering its employees to do anything about it. It calls to mind what I learned in Professor Dan Gruber’s IMC 457 course, Managing Integration, this past spring. In class we read, Karl E. Weik and Kathleen M. Suttcliffe’s Managing the Unexpected, which explains the concept of reading into “weak signals” or signs of larger problems within organizations. My complaint is a weak signal that with time could snowball into an unexpected and serious consequence.

And here’s an example – I find myself wanting to do something about the lack of competition for grocery delivery in the area. I am frustrated enough to send an impassioned email to Amazon Fresh (Amazon’s grocery delivery service) to bring their service to Evanston. And here I am now, writing a blog article intended for public consumption detailing the gulf between the mission of this grocery delivery company and it failing to deliver on its value proposition.

So now the question is, how many other customers like myself are doing the same? Petitioning an e-commerce giant like Amazon who gets delivery and service so right to enter the area? Or which customers are going online to write negative reviews about the service received. Another quick bit of research on to Yelp, and I immediately see two negative reviews. Words like “it sucks” and “if I could give it zero stars I would,” have risen to the top.  Sure, there are some positive reviews, but how much longer till the negative outweighs the positive? As I’ve learned in Managing the Unexpected, it’s important to remain preoccupied with small failings rather than overhauling an entire organization. I don’t have an inside view into this grocery company. Perhaps they are working on improving operations as I write this. Perhaps, they are aware of these customer complaints and working on a strategy to deal with it.

Despite the negative bent on this article, I am a positive person. My purpose in writing this article is not to bash a company and lord over it the lessons I have learned from my graduate education. This is why I have left out the specific company name. The reason I have written this is because I want to channel a negative experience and use it as an opportunity to learn. To use IMC frameworks to understand what may have gone wrong, and to exercise my abilities to think about solutions to fix it. For the sake of this company my sincere hope is that it is working on a plan to solve these issues. It makes me happy to see companies getting customer-centricity right and succeeding because of it. So if there were a single piece of advice I could give to this company it would be this – listen to your customers. A single one is trying to tell you something. You can do better! This is your opportunity to prove that. Recognize how this one voice could represent many customers. Do something about it before it’s too late.

Alphabet Soup: Why Al Ries Missed the Mark with His Four M’s


KPI, ROI, ELM, CTR, LTV, SEO … Marketing students must navigate a world of acronyms and frameworks. However, three stand out as particularly overlapping and in need of resolution: The Four P’s (Product, Price, Promotion and Place), the SIVA model (Solution, Information, Value and Access), and the newest one to hit the presses, Al Ries’ Four M’s. Ries’ proposal to bring E. Jerome McCarthy’s Four P’s into the 21st Century acts as a perfect sounding board to understand which framework works best.

In his September 5 AdAge article, Ries suggests changing the first P – Product – to Merchandise, a somewhat nitpicky attempt to expand the idea of product beyond physical products and include services, movements, organizations, cities, ideas, et cetera. But merchandise carries an even stronger colloquial connection to physical products, conjuring up images of “merch” at sporting events or conferences. SIVA’s employment of the term “Solution” does a much better job of encompassing anything someone could purchase while also introducing a bigger idea: brands exist to serve customers. While Ries has the right intention to broaden the scope of marketing, his framework should use more than synonyms to find a word that better captures the essence of a brand’s “Product.”

In his discussion of the first letter in his acronym, Ries correctly dismisses “Price,” arguing that it should be wrapped up in Product. But he leaves the discussion at that. The SIVA model takes this argument a step further by encouraging a focus on “Value,” meaning products, merchandise or solutions should not be framed solely by dollars and cents but also by added-value and benefits. This once again necessitates an understanding of consumers’ problems and potential solutions, making it a much more consumer-centric way to approach marketing.

Next, Ries introduces “Market” as the second M in his framework, advising marketers with merchandise to “pick a segment of the market to appeal to.” Here Ries misses the mark completely: market should not come second to product, but should be ingrained in the production process itself. No product, merchandise or solution should be devised without a clear understanding of what, where and who the market is or of what consumer problem the product solves. The term is a useful element of the framework, but it is misplaced.

Ries uses his third M – “Media” – to replace McCarthy’s Place. While it is convenient that media begins with an M, there is much more to “Media” than what the term media implies and a different word could better reflect this. In the 21st Century, anything can be a medium and consumers come across products, merchandise and solutions everywhere. SIVA’s use of the term “Access,” which emphasizes that consumers should be able to access solutions however they want to, elevates the conversation further by framing it in terms of the consumer and by encouraging brands to seek out multiple paths to reach consumers, whether or not those paths involve places or media. Ries’ proposed term “Media” does not reflect marketing’s need to more seamlessly fit into the lives of 21st Century consumers.

Finally, Ries replaces “Promotion” with “Message,” but this near-synonym does little to clarify how messaging’s role in marketing has changed or should change. SIVA addresses this element with the term “Information,” which focuses on providing the consumer with what he needs to know to make a purchase. The term hints at the need for two-way conversations and engagement, each of which are at the heart of 21st Century marketing.

The Four P’s are still useful in that they cover a whole swath of operational concerns that a C-suite contends with on a daily basis: What am I selling? What does it cost? How do I sell it? Where should I put it? The problem is that it is operations-centered rather than market-focused. It ignores the consumer, who is a powerful force in today’s marketing. And Ries’ proposed Four M’s do little to address this shortcoming.

Marketers could spend years concocting the best mix of p’s, m’s, c’s, or any other letter but this is simply a distraction from the real task at hand. You don’t need acronyms to be a great marketer; just use the customer as your framework.

One Simple Marketing Procedure Drives Credibility, Sales, and Product Ratings

This blog was published as one of the Medill Spiegel Research Center’s series of articles written by the student Marketing Impact Team. 

The Spiegel Research Center studies how consumer engagement drives purchase behavior. Join the conversation and follow Spiegel on Twitter: @SpiegelResearch

For more information about the SRC please visit: http://spiegel.medill.northwestern.edu/

The Spiegel Research Center has partnered with online review platform PowerReviews to study which consumers write product reviews, why they post them, and how these factors are reflected in product ratings. As high ratings often drive high sales, understanding the factors involved is key to successful marketing.

Yorgos Askalidis, the newest addition to Spiegel’s research team, joins the Spiegel Research Center with the research goal to help marketers and consumers experience reviews that are “more credible, trustworthy, and representative.”

Askalidis’ initial research findings illustrate key differences between reviews consumers leave unsolicited on a provider’s web platform and reviews they post when prompted by emails from providers.

Reviews posted without prompting…

-Are often driven by strong reactions to a product. These reviews tend to be extremely positive or negative, and their average ratings fluctuate noticeably over time. Ratings can also be inflated by non-verified “customers” who may not have used the products themselves, but want it to succeed or fail.

-Create a self-perpetuating selection bias. In other words, moderately satisfied customers may be influenced by existing site reviews to post extreme reviews themselves.

While reviews prompted by reminder emails sellers send to customers…

-Express more moderate reactions. These reviews often include more mid-range ratings than site-sourced reviews do. Not only do their overall product ratings tend to stay the same over time, but they are generally higher than web-based rating averages because fewer of their ratings are extremely low.

-Are written by verified customers–who are not likely influenced by previous reviews. Also, as these reviewers may not have posted at all without the email, they form a larger, more representative sample of the customer population than those who write reviews independently.

Altogether, it seems ratings and content from email-based reviews may reflect users’ experience more accurately. Since they also lead to higher ratings, these reviews are also very likely, per the Spiegel Center’s body of research, to drive higher sales.

It’s tempting for platforms to eliminate site-sourced review bias by only allowing customers who have received email invitations to review on the official platform. This can be hard to execute, though, as timing the email to product use is both essential and almost impossible to manage. Using only email-sourced reviews also removes the valuable insight that rawer, unsolicited reviews could provide.

This research is still ongoing, but Askalidis does have suggestions for marketers to leverage both types of reviews, maximizing their accuracy, power, and representative value.

-Incentivize Reviews—For Free: Both Amazon and Yelp give “stars” or badges to frequent verified reviewers, designating them as opinion-leaders. This reward costs nothing and incentivizes other verified customers to write their own reviews and achieve the same status.

-Show Verified Reviews—As the Default: Setting the review platform to show only verified reviews hides unverified reviews, but does not censor them. Site visitors can still choose for themselves which reviews they read.

Askalidis identifies this as the “nudge” approach, which leaves customers free to choose their content but “nudges” them toward the more credible choice. This “nudge” could be especially effective on today’s savvy customers, who may already believe verified reviews are the most trustworthy.

Both of these options, as well as other custom solutions marketers can create for unique businesses and goals, work toward the “more credible, trustworthy, representative reviews” the Spiegel Center is working to provide for the benefit of providers and consumers alike.