Sustaining proximity with influencers - Strategic Brand Management

Today, mass targets have disappeared. Statistics should not create an illusion. What might appear to be mass targets are in fact made up of an aggregation of smaller ones, of micro targets. Even if mass advertising campaigns are still used, what is needed for a brand is a shared image, a collective bonding tool within societies.

To develop the brand over time entails improving the brand’s relationship with each of the strategic micro targets. These strategic targets are made of more involved customers, or those who are currently non-customers but have the potential to become involved. Once involved they can act as influencers. They can reenergize a brand image that is weakened by the deleterious effects of time.

This is critical for sustaining the equity of mature brands, facing new entrants. Such brands run the risk of losing contact with the trend-setting groups in a society. The risk is that they will be perceived as yesterday’s brand. Recreating contact with trend-setting ‘tribes’ or micro-groups is of paramount importance even for brands that are not involved with fashion in any direct sense. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming just another supermarket brand.

Ricard provides a good example of best practice in its long-term engagement in recreating lost ties with critical groups. It is a historical leader in the aniseed-based alcoholic drinks sector, which comprises the fifth largest spirits sector in the world. It has introduced relational programmes aimed at three groups: women, those of high socio-economic status (SES), and young people.

Ricard faces competition both from spirits such as whisky, vodka, gin, rum and tequila, and thus from world-famous brands such as Johnnie Walker, J&B, Absolut, Bacardi and Cacique, and from fashionable modern brands of beer. Finally, it is 40 per cent more expensive than the distributors’ brands and other low-cost brands of aniseed drinks. Part of its resistance to these massive attacks has been to remain close to its core clients and to invest in reconquering proximity with the trend-setting groups, those most attracted and seduced by international competition.

Women may like the taste of Ricard but they did not like its image. They perceived it as a male, popular brand, not a sign of good manners. As a response, Ricard runs very specific adverts in trendy women’s magazines, and sponsors events involving women. The brand sponsors literary events where new female writers are promoted.

It is a major organiser of St Catherine’s Day, a promotional event for national design schools. It continues to try out specific relational operations such as a cooperation with Mod’s Hair, a youthoriented hairdressing franchise. Typically, this involves the hairdresser’s customers being offered a Ricard to drink while waiting in the salon in the summer. The new format RTD – ready to drink – is very useful for this purpose.

High-SES people of all sexes and ages are addressed through Espace Ricard, an art gallery, open to the latest forms of painting, thus creating a proximity with the most advanced artists and art lovers. In addition, advanced designers are regularly asked to redesign the basic ‘tools’ that accompany a drink of Ricard, a carafe and an ashtray. The world-famous designers Garouste and Bonetti did the latest versions.

To gain proximity to young people interested in music and sport, Ricard has developed three long-term actions supported by a specific budget allowance. One is creation of the Paul Ricard car racing circuit, compatible with F1 international racing standards, and now the most modern and safe circuit in France. It hosted most of the major international car races, until a law was introduced preventing sports sponsorship by alcoholic drink brands. It was then sold but the name has been retained.

The second innovation is the Ricard Live Music Tour, providing the largest free music events in Europe, featuring famous rock stars. It has attracted more than 1 million people each year, and its name has become synonymous with quality music and concerts. The company has gained unique know-how in organising open concerts in the middle of major cities and synchronising sales events around them to maximise synergy. Each concert attracts a great deal of free publicity.

The third youth-oriented initiative is the organisation of 1,000 integration parties (for students just going up to university) and graduation parties each year. The targets for these are the top business and engineering schools, since their students will be the elite of tomorrow.

Of course, it is not possible to remain a popular brand without also maintaining a proximity to core consumers, existing heavy buyers and the engaged segment (see the segmentation scheme Figure below). Locally, at the micro level, pétanque contests are still sponsored by the brand in Provence (the birthplace of the brand) and elsewhere. In summer, a squadron of Ricard ‘fire girls’ runs onto major beaches and offers sunbathers free drinks. For image management purposes, each brand needs to decide which of its many PR activities should receive publicity.

Nine lessons can be learnt from this example:

  • Because change is permanent, and new competition is always coming in and can be very seductive, the brand’s profile is always threatened over time. It must be nurtured and proximity eventually reconquered.
  • No brand can stay apart from trend-setting tribes in its sector.
  • Proximity and strong ties can only be built at points of direct contact.
  • Strong ties need to be continuous: this is not a ‘coup’ policy, but a continuous decision.
  • This activity must be supported by a strong investment.
  • It must be done by courageous people.

Trend-setting groups are not waiting to be approached by a currently unfashionable brand, and sometimes they will look down on its promoters.

  • Again, targeting is key.
  • Again, creativity and disruption are of paramount importance, to surprise and create a buzz.
  • Finally, this is the occasion for creating selective publicity, deciding which of these ties should be most squarely in the spotlight.

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