marketing principles

Wiedemann: Young’s 3 Immutable Marketing Principles

What Shirley Young taught me about competition and what customers want

Allow me to share a lesson learned in 1980 that is as relevant today as it was then.  Ed Meyer at Grey Advertising had just recruited me to found and build Grey Direct, because they had lost the Merrill Lynch pitch to Y&R who offered direct marketing via Wunderman (where I was Director of Client Services) and Grey did not.  Grey’s clients were also demanding direct marketing services.

In my first month Grey’s client General Foods, and the specific client Post Grape Nuts cereal, asked Grey for direct marketing services. The first assignment came along with a serious multi-million-dollar budget for direct promotion.

The head of the account called an account team meeting, and as standard practice, Grey’s Director of Research, Shirley Young, attended.  Shirley was unique and had quite a resume.

She received a BA in economics, Phi Beta Kappa, from Wellesley College in 1955 and attended graduate school at New York University from 1956 to 1957.

She started at Grey Advertising in 1959 where she led an internal market research division until 1988; she was among the only women and Asian-American employees at the firm at the time. In 1963, when Young was pregnant with her first child, she forced Grey to rethink their maternity leave policies as she didn’t leave the company or take the severance package they offered.  In 1988 she was hired by General Motors. GM had been a client of Young’s at Grey Advertising since at least 1985. At GM, Young led an initiative to help the firm regain market share, as its reputation was suffering in the early 1990s.

Young left GM in 2000 to found her own consulting firm, Shirley Young Associates, which advised US companies interested in Chinese opportunities.

Shirley YoungThe first thing the team told me was that Post Grape Nuts had an opt in database of 3 million customers who had signed up to – of course – get direct mail promotions, which to that point consisted mostly of coupons.  Important take: over 40 years ago customers took brands into their lives and wanted a brand relationship.

The next thing Shirley advised, and which I have never forgotten, is that to grow the business – which was the mission – that customers never move to your brand without leaving a competitor, either literally purchasing the competitor’s product or just having in their mind your competitor’s brand, not yours.  If you cannot displace the actual or mental competitor, you lose.

The third thing Shirley taught me is that we needed a research study to learn what we are competing against, and what the customers wanted from the brand.  Step one then became launching a study.  I worked with Shirley’s assistant Barbara Feigin, who became Director of Research in 1988 when Shirley went to GM.

The first finding from the study was that Quaker Oatmeal was the main healthy cereal competitor.  We needed to make Post Grape Nuts a better alternative.

What we also learned blew my mind, has stuck with me since, and is even more relevant today.  It is about what the customer wants from a brand they take into their lives.

One clue about our findings was that Euell Gibbons was the spokesman for Post Grape Nuts because he connected with the healthy, outdoor lifestyle of the customers.  After a life of embracing the outdoor, healthy lifestyle, he became an author.

Capitalizing on the growing return-to-nature movement in 1962, his first book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, was an instant success. Gibbons followed it up with the cookbooks Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop in 1964 and Stalking the Healthful Herbs in 1966.

His publishing success brought him fame. He made guest appearances on The Tonight Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, and received an honorary doctorate from Susquehanna University. A 1974 television commercial for Post Grape-Nuts cereal featured him asking viewers, “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” While he recommended Grape Nuts over pine trees (including the oft-repeated quote that Grape Nuts’ taste reminded him “of wild hickory nuts“), the commercials gained attention and fueled Gibbons’ celebrity status.

Eye-opening to us was that our research showed the customer wanted much more from Post Grape Nuts than coupons.  In 1980 they wanted chat, which unlike online chat today had to be in a print newsletter which captured customer Grape Nuts experiences.  Gibbon’s cookbooks probably allowed you to guess that they wanted recipes, because they cooked with Grape Nuts.  Proud of their lifestyles they wanted logo merchandise to purchase – hats, T Shirts, Sweatshirts, and logo imprinted coolers for their camping trips. Besides just sending mailings with coupons, we had to start a newsletter, a recipe practice, and go into logo merchandise sales all sent to the database!

The bottom line here is that today it is even more important to know these things about your customers, and prospective customers.

What competitor must you replace?  My recent experience with clients is that to one important way to answer this question in real time is to start with search.  What is the brand’s top 25 search words?  Using the top five, use incognito search in key zip codes of the brand, and see what happens when you plug a key word into the search bar.  Your competitors are there to take your business; this makes search an important place to begin competition.

If you have gained trust from the customer, if they have agreed for you to have and use their primary data, then go down the path of learning what they need and want from your brand.  Rather than quick hits with promotions, building this kind of knowing relationship will lead to a high value customer over time.  In our industry speak, the best practice is to ground all customer engagement budgets in the key metric, CLV – Customer Lifetime Value.

Focusing on competition and how to beat the competitors, coupled with using all means to understand what customers want from your brand will help you build the base, and build a valuable enterprise.

So, here’s what I learned from Shirley about prospects, customers, and competitors:

  • Figure out what competitor you need to replace.  These days, I start with search terms.  What are the brand’s top 25 search words?  With the top five, use incognito search in the key zip codes of your customer base, and see what happens when you plug a key word into the search bar.  You’ll find the competitors, and realize they are there to take your business.
  • With your existing customers, with whom you already have a relationship, and they are in your database, dig deeper into their needs.  Don’t just go for quick hits with offers and coupons.  Develop the customer relationship based on insight, built via research and testing.  This is your best path is to expand the lifetime value of your customers and your business.

Sadly, the world lost Shirley in 2020.  But her wisdom and experience will live on for the ages.

George WiedemannGeorge Wiedemann was founder and CEO of Grey Direct for 21 consecutive years of worldwide growth; CEO of pioneer Silicon Valley email platform Responsys; and CEO of The DRUM Agency. He is founder and CEO of Relationshipping Consulting, focusing on bringing efficiencies to large-scale enterprises through deep budgetary analysis and process alignment. George is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.

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