Experts at the Kellogg Marketing Conference

explain that there’s a right way -- and a very wrong way -- to engage

with consumers during these economic time.

Listening to your consumer isn’t going to cut

it anymore. These days, firms need to engage, interact and connect with

their customers on a deeper, more meaningful level if they’re going to

survive the economic downturn.

That was the common thread of

advice given by marketing scholars and practitioners at the 2009

Kellogg Marketing Conference, held Jan. 23 on the Chicago campus and

Jan. 24 on the Evanston campus. Themed “Consumer 2.0: The Game Has

Changed,” the conference featured a series of panel discussions,

lectures and networking opportunities directed at marketing

professionals and Kellogg students, faculty and alumni.


his keynote address on Jan. 23, Rory Finlay ’88, senior vice president

and global chief marketing officer for Beam Global Spirits & Wine,

emphasized the importance of increasing the “talkability” of brands

during a recession. “We know that when people talk about a brand, the

odds that they will consider using it go up,” Finlay said. “Nothing is

more powerful than person-to-person talk; it’s genuine, trustworthy and

has legs.”

Finlay offered several examples of how Beam has

increased the talkability of its spirits and incited “brand fans.” For

instance, Maker’s Mark consumers can now sign up online to become

“Maker’s Mark Ambassadors” and have their name printed on the barrel of

“their” whisky batch. Today, there are more than 600,000 registered

ambassadors, and “we’re starting to see people listed as ‘Maker’s Mark

Ambassadors’ in obituary listings,” Finlay said.


Mickunas, global vice president of consumer insights at the Kellogg

Company, shared similar strategies during his keynote address on Jan.

24. To drive consumer engagement with Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes,

Mickunas said, Kellogg’s introduced a “Plant a Seed” program to rebuild

playing fields across America. Consumers can visit the Frosted Flakes’

Web site to nominate a playing field in their community and send

“virtual seed packets” to friends to spread the word. Not only has the

campaign allowed Frosted Flakes to connect with “Mom,” Mickunas said,

but the program has been picked up by national media.


participants selected from a series of panel sessions on Jan. 24,

including “Reframing Brands for the International Consumer,”

“Minorities as the New Majority” and “Customizing an On-Demand Nation.”

One of the most popular sessions, “Letting Go: When Consumers

Control the Message,” evaluated how firms can benefit from, and be hurt

by, close engagement with consumers. On the positive side, Andrea

Winitsky, regional marketing director of, explained that a

moving company saw its sales jump 30 percent in one year after

customers posted positive reviews on However, when Chevy

allowed consumers to post videos on their Web site about how much they

loved their Chevy trucks, “wouldn’t you know that many of the videos

were made by people who hated trucks and were interested in green

technology,” said Andrew Strickman, managing director and vice

president of creative at Ammo Marketing. “It did a huge amount of

damage and threw egg on the face of Chevy. And the press picked it up,

which was the ultimate egg on the face.”

Moreover, it’s

dangerous to speculate on the needs of your consumers, said Teaque

Lenahan ’01, associate partner at gravitytank. “A lot of businesses

assume that that people using technology like Facebook are Millennials

or younger,” he explained. “But that’s a mistake. One of the fastest

growing consumers of Facebook is 36-45 year olds. So what you expect is

not always reality.” To get at the heart of your consumers, Lehahan

said, you need to do some dirty work: Hit the streets, “play dumb, shut

up and let the customers talk.”