Small Business

How to Sell Against the Tide


Universal Pictures, Carl's Jr., and Southwest Airlines do it: Use the counterprogramming principle to appeal to an audience your competitor missed

Last month, Batman: The Dark Knight put up the biggest opening-weekend box office numbers in history. That certainly was no surprise, given the overwhelming hype that surrounded the movie (hype based largely on the tragic death of Heath Ledger, who played the title character's nemesis, the Joker). But what you may not have known is that beyond the success of the Warner Bros. (TWX) franchise entry, the weekend's overall box office numbers set an all-time record, too.

The reason? As the Caped Crusader was again rescuing Gotham, Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan were singing and dancing their way across screens in the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Mamma Mia! Together the movies created a one-two punch that floored all previous competitors.

Why did the brain trust at Universal Pictures (GE) choose to launch Mamma Mia! on the same weekend as the summer's biggest blockbuster? One word: counterprogramming. Universal knew the Batman movie would trump its own film at the box office, but it would do so on the shoulders of a typically young, male audience—a segment that wouldn't be caught dead watching a film based on an ABBA soundtrack. And they bet that the older, female demographic that would be attracted to Mamma Mia! wouldn't have much use for The Dark Knight. They were right, and the $27 million Mamma Mia! took in put the weekend's box office receipts over the top.

Stuff it, health freaks

Counterprogramming is an age-old strategy used by radio stations, television networks, and movie studios to attract audiences for whom their competitors' offerings may not be so appealing. It's the reason why the DIY Network (SNI) aired a knitting program and Animal Planet ran its Puppy Bowl opposite the Super Bowl last February. Similar counterprogramming efforts are playing against NBC's (GE) Olympics broadcast from Beijing.

Not surprisingly, the counterprogramming principle works in other aspects of business, too.

For example, quick-service restaurants have been on the defensive for years. This began when increasing numbers of health-conscious consumers began questioning the high calorie count and questionable nutritional value of the typical fast-food meal. It gathered momentum with high-profile criticism from consumer advocacy groups and from Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary, Super Size Me. Now cities across the nation have launched crusades against trans fats, and Los Angeles wants to ban fast-food restaurants from even opening their doors in its poorest neighborhoods. Clearly, the trend is not working in the fast-feeders' favor, and such industry leaders as McDonald's (MCD) and Taco Bell (YUM) have introduced healthier fare.

Not Carl's Jr. The chain recently introduced a 730-calorie, 47-fat-grams "Monster Breakfast Sandwich" with the tagline: "Breakfast as Big as Our Burgers." For several years, Carl's Jr. has defied industry trends by touting the size and sloppiness of its sandwiches. While competitors pursue a growing segment of nutrition-conscious consumers, Carl's Jr. proudly serves fast food's heaviest users (no pun intended): hungry young men. The company's "countermarketing" strategy has enabled it to stand out in a crowded fast food field.

conventions=opportunities

Southwest Airlines (LUV) also has "countermarketing" in its DNA, long bucking industry conventions like in-flight meals (peanuts, anyone?), assigned seating, and the hub-and-spoke approach most airlines use to move people across the country. Southwest has responded with "countermarketing" to recent decisions by its competitors to nickel-and-dime their passengers. Boldly stating "Fees Don't Fly with Us," Southwest says it won't charge for a second suitcase, snacks, window seats, pillows, blankets, water, or even fuel (easy to get away with when you call it a "surcharge").

Keep in mind that Southwest would make hundreds of millions of dollars if it quietly followed its competitors' desperate tactics, and with the equity it has built up over the years could probably fly somewhat under the radar in doing so. But instead the company has taken the opportunity to reinforce its low-cost brand identity in a public—and proud—way. It's a perfect example of effective "countermarketing."

Taking a countercompetitive (and sometimes even counterintuitive) approach can be a great way to get peoples' attention and make your brand stand out. Put more product in your packages, not less. Sell a narrower selection, not a broader one. Be intolerant about something (it doesn't have to be a political issue). When all of your competitors are headed down the same road, take one less-traveled. That may turn some people off, but it will fire others up.

Every industry is subject to its own conventional wisdom. Try to identify the conventions in your industry and consider what might happen if you turned a handful of them upside down. You'll probably come up with a lot of ideas that would never fly. But you may discover one or two that are so crazy, they just might work.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, a firm that specializes in helping stalled companies rekindle growth. He is the author of the new book, When Growth Stalls.

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