Millions of dollars and some of the best consumer-marketing brains work hard to “meet people where they are” so they can earn consumers’ trust and sell them products and services. But consumers are getting smarter and smarter, and as a result, marketers have had to evolve their messaging and tactics to maintain a persistent courtship of their target audiences.

We recently had the pleasure of chatting with two powerhouse consumer marketing leaders. Pam Piligian is the Chief Marketing Officer of Navy Federal, the largest credit union in the U.S. that services more than 13 million members of the military and their families. Doug Zarkin, was recently named for the second consecutive year to Crain’s New York 2023 Notables In Marketing and was until recently the CMO at Pearle Vision for 11 years, one of the largest franchised optical retailers in North America with more than 500 locations.

Pam and Doug shared valuable insights on the trends they’re seeing in the ever-changing world of consumer marketing.

Consumers Are Educated – and Empowered

Both Pam and Doug mentioned that consumers today feel a strong sense of empowerment because they’re able to do so much research before making a purchase decision. It used to be that the amount of research a consumer did correlate directly to the expense of the purchase they were considering, things like luxury vacations, automobiles, and high-end appliances.

Thanks to the internet, we now shop differently – whether we’re buying everyday products or extravagant items. Google lets us compare similar products, brands, and prices with just a few keywords. We read brand and product reviews on Yelp. We take to the mean streets of social media to get suggestions from our connections – and now from robots. By the time consumers are ready to buy, they feel empowered to make the right purchase decision.

Intentional Indulgences

While the economy is still a driver for buying decisions (and always will be), Pam says today’s consumer is making what she calls “intentional indulgences.” Post-pandemic, people have become more deliberate in making decisions about how they spend their time and their money. For example, vacations might have been something that got cut when budgets were limited.

But now, families whose budgets have been limited by the current economy are still going on vacation, but are making it work by choosing cost savings measures – like booking an Airbnb with a kitchen so they can cook their own meals instead of going out. They’re still indulging in experiences, but they might look a little different.

“Consumers make emotional decisions first, followed by rational choices.

-Doug Zarkin


Messaging: Focus on Value (and Values)

The result of consumers feeling more empowered is that brands must work twice as hard to resonate. This means speaking to the customer in a way that plays to their emotions and speaks louder than the consumer’s more rational pre-purchase research.

Pam and Doug reflected on the changes in their messaging over the past few years – especially on the topic of value. For Doug, “The value of our brand became increasingly important as consumers were coming into our locations more educated. We had to build out more extensive knowledge sources so they could feel emotionally satisfied with their decision to choose us or schedule an appointment. They found what they needed to see on our website and saw the value in our products, which made them want to buy.”

Navy Federal has also embraced the notion of value – helping customers save money and time. Additionally, they’ve added values to the equation too. As Pam explained, “We were chartered as a credit union to help military families and their needs, so we amplify the message of the value you get from us, and we tie it in with messaging to reflect our brand values – our loyalty to these families.”

The values of your brand are critical in a world where consumers are so much more informed.”

-Pam Piligian


(Marketing) Mix It Up

How has the marketing mix changed for B2C professionals? Direct mail and out-of-home (OOH) are two channels that are seeing a resurgence. Doug said “Marketers jumped on the efficiency and cost of email. But many in the space exploited the channel, and now consumers have had enough. So, brands are bringing back channels like direct mail and OOH that worked before and could work again. And in some cases, the medium itself has changed, making it easier and more effective for us. With billboards, for example, it used to take weeks to set up the buy, produce the art, and get it posted. Now, the use of digital billboards is faster and more interactive with 3D, sound, and QR codes.”

Pam added that the way they’re using the medium has changed more than the mix. “We’ve always done a lot of direct mail. But our data shows now that it works well as a second touch for customers. So, we lead with broadcast (TV and radio), and then the direct mail piece they receive acts as their personalized invitation.”

Incidentally, we’ve been hearing from a lot of marketers lately about the cyclical nature of marketing channels and how what’s old is now new again.

Not Just Brand Trust, Brand LOVE

If there’s one truth we can all agree on, it’s that wooing and winning over consumers takes a lot more time, effort, and creativity than it used to. Using data to understand your customers’ values and the value your product or service can offer to them is the first step in forging a real relationship with your brand. Brand trust is critical and creates a friendship with your consumers.

But developing the intensity of the relationship is what is going to send your customers out of the friend zone and have them fall in love with your brand. As Doug says, “it’s not easy to get customers to fall in love with you, but it’s really easy to get them to fall out of it. But when you’re in it, it’s a beautiful way to live.”

Special thanks to Pam and Doug taking the time to share their insights with us.

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