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“Nothing is more powerful than person-to-person talk; it’s genuine, trustworthy and has legs,” keynote speaker Rory Finlay ’88, senior vice president of Beam Global Spirits and Wine, told students during the Kellogg Marketing Conference.

2009 Marketing Conference

Rules of engagement

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 times

By Rachel Farrell

1/26/2009 - 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.

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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.

During 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.

Mike 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.

Conference 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.”