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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

Operation Optimism
Do mood-lifting strategies sell more burgers and soda?
Chris Wolf of Turover Straus Group.

The time-honored practice of appealing to consumers’ emotions is in vogue among restaurant and beverage advertisers lately. But this time the plan is to lift consumers’ spirits rather than to tug at their heartstrings.

Until recently, restaurants were so intent on making competitively based “better-tasting-than” and “less-expensive-than” comparisons that the sparks flamed into some legal battles. Now the tone has shifted significantly, and companies are focusing instead on inspirational messages and imagery.

Free Speeches: Some sectors of the food industry seem to be borrowing from the inspirational playbooks of Tony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within) or Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul) to give America a big pep talk. Dunkin’ Donuts embraced the notion in its newset $100 million campaign titled “You Kin’ Do It.”

One Dunkin’ ad features a variety of Everyman Americans in common, but overwhelming, situations like shoveling mountains of snow, processing piles of paperwork, or caring for multiple babies. Thanks to Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, these people beam, “I kin’ shovel out this driveway,” “I kin’ make it to nap time,” and “I kin’ finish off this paperwork.”

Similarly, Pepsi-Cola’s new “Refresh Everything” campaign features a catchy tune telling consumers, “The world is full of energy, and there’s a lot inside of you and me.” Meanwhile, the screen blinks with bright colors and moving shapes sending happy greetings that claim: “It’s Time for Optimism.”

Bootstraptivism: Decades ago, Pepsi told an increasingly sedentary American population that “you can do it; we [Diet Pepsi] can help.” But at the time the message was focused on losing weight. Now the goal is much loftier, given that it’s the economy that needs to get in shape.

Pepsi’s “Refresh Everything” campaign includes the empowering message to youth that “Every generation refreshes the world.”

To get everyone started, Pepsi has set up a “Help Refresh America” Web site, where people can conveniently record and display a video letter to the president. Respondents include a mix of regular Joes and celebrities like Eva Longoria Parker and Jeff Gordon.

Starbucks is even promoting a campaign that allows consumers to pledge at least five hours of community service in return for a cup of coffee. To aid in the effort, Starbucks partnered with the HandsOn Network to help people locate opportunities within their communities.

To help, Oprah Winfrey promoted the campaign, linking it to the president’s message of change and within two weeks www.pledge5.starbucks.com logged more than 1.3 million pledged hours.

EFFEXORtising: But for those consumers who don’t want to be motivated to shovel or think their way out of a crisis, Coca-Cola offers blissful escape to sparkling beverages and Web surfing. For some time, the company has been airing shiny happy commercials depicting a magical world of fantastical creatures flying around the insides of a Happiness Factory. Its newer “Open Happiness” campaign seems to suggest that drinking Coca-Cola is a nonprescription–based alternative to battling the blues, which we could dub “LEXAPROmotion.”

The best these companies should hope for is to build up good will and create favorable brand perceptions.

All Buzz, No Bite? The empowering programs and inspirational messages are certainly generating a lot of Twittering, blogging, and celebrity participation. But at the end of the day, aren’t these companies really in the business of selling food and beverages? Is any of this likely to be effective or is there a backlash coming? Jessica Hartstein, a blogger for www.culture-buzz.com, believes the Coca-Cola Happiness ads are “Uppers … which is precisely what consumers need now that they [are] getting bogged down by the economic meltdown.” But not everyone shares in these sentiments. One anonymous poster on the bluemaumau blog site said, “Sorry Dunkin.’That ad is lame … and condescending.”

Another blogger at www.socialvibe.com (a Web site that facilitates corporate-sponsored donations in return for brand advertising on social networking pages) didn’t feel quite as positive about the recent optimistic advertising. “Volunteering has to be a will,” not a bride, he says.

The verdict on this optimistic messaging trend is certainly a mixed one, it seems. But will the ads pay off for these marketers? Advertising Age polled its professional reader base earlier this year and more than three-quarters of the respondents (78 percent) said they thought the strategy would move more products.

Of course, these were marketing professionals answering the poll, not consumers. And they were probably getting caught up in their own optimistic messaging campaigns.

Certainly, Starbucks’ program is an immediate call to action, which could inspire a sales transac tion in the process. And Denny’s free-breakfast offer in its Super Bowl advertisement inspired some 2 million Americans, but it’s yet to be seen how soon those consumers will come back with cash in hand.

For the most part, I believe the best these companies should hope for is to build up good will and create favorable brand perceptions, all of which could eventually translate into increased sales when consumers feel like opening their wallets a little wider. There are some risks of offending with these messages, but the greater risk is going dark on brand building and hoping to regain voice and relevance when things get better. Consumers might be less forgiving to those marketers who didn’t even try to cheer them up.

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.