Michael R. Solomon of Saint Joseph’s University: “Take a risk to do something dramatic in your career”

Many consumers today (especially younger ones) are much more likely to patronize a brand that they believe gives back to stakeholders and thus reinforces their core values. Patagonia has long been a crusader for green causes, and (among other things) the company donates 1% of all sales to environmental organizations globally. As part of our […]

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Many consumers today (especially younger ones) are much more likely to patronize a brand that they believe gives back to stakeholders and thus reinforces their core values. Patagonia has long been a crusader for green causes, and (among other things) the company donates 1% of all sales to environmental organizations globally.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Michael R. Solomon.

Michael R. Solomon is professor of marketing in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University and he resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He advises global clients in leading industries on marketing strategies to make them more consumer-centric. He is the author of several leading textbooks on marketing, consumer behavior, advertising and social media.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was a teenager, I worked as a salesman in a formalwear store. I witnessed the same scenario hundreds of times: A woman drags her unhappy fiancé into the store to get fitted for a tuxedo. He looks like he’d rather have razor blades inserted into his eyes. He slouches into the dressing room. But when he emerges wearing the tux, there is a magical transformation: His posture is better and he looks like he thinks he’s James Bond about to order a martini shaken, not stirred. The clothing he wore seemed to literally change who he was as a person.

This observation stuck with me, and as a graduate student in Social Psychology I decided to do my doctoral dissertation on the “dress for success” phenomenon. I was able to show in a controlled laboratory setting that people who wear “appropriate” clothing in job interviews are more confident and assertive. My early focus on the psychology of fashion turned into a lifelong fascination with the ways that material objects and brands determine how we feel about ourselves and how we evaluate other people. I began to work with manufacturers and retailers to help them to understand how their products actually influence their customers’ lives, and the rest is history.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t know if it was funny, but definitely an eye-opener. One of my first consulting jobs was with a large advertising agency in Manhattan. The client was a major personal care products company, and the brand was a popular skincare product. I interviewed people at the agency and the client’s brand managers to understand their primary customer (today we call this creating a brand persona). They all told me the same story: She’s a fairly affluent woman in her late 20s and early 30s, cosmopolitan and active. Basically, Carrie from the TV show Sex in the City. However, when I dug deeper into the actual purchase data, I discovered a very different persona: The typical user in reality was a woman in her 50s who lived alone and had a lot of cats!

The lesson: Marketers often make decisions based upon the customer they want to have, rather than the one they actually have. Always talk to the actual customers and don’t take everything brand managers say at face value.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

When I was a green Assistant Professor at NYU, I was supposed to be working on getting academic publications 24/7 (and it come close to that at times). However, after a few years I realized that there was little to nothing going on in the young field of fashion psychology. I saw an opportunity to play a leading role in the development of this new discipline. I decided to organize a large, interdisciplinary conference on this topic to kickstart it. This was a huge undertaking, and a big risk because it took me away from my research. The conference attracted about 500 people (most from the fashion industry); this event and the book I edited afterward was a major impetus to focus attention on this area and my profile benefited as a result.

The lesson: Sometimes you have to just hold your breath and roll the dice. Take a risk to do something dramatic in your career — especially if this gives you an excuse to network with many other people as you establish a solid base of connections.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m looking at the factors that determine if or how consumers will interact with automation in their daily lives. For example, how do people think about wearable computers (e.g. Apple watches, Fitbits) and what factors impede or accelerate adoption? Or, as we increasingly interact with AI and robots on the sales floor and in call centers, what design issues influence our willingness to do so and to trust what these automated agents tell us? For example, are shoppers more likely to trust recommendations from a robot that has human features? The next decade will see a huge acceleration in these kinds of interactions (especially as the pandemic encourages many of us to distance from human salespeople), so it’s vital to understand what moves the needle and gives consumers the value they seek from companies and retailers.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

The large majority of managers I’ve known are very good at what they do, but they focus almost exclusively on competing within their own narrow vertical. It’s invigorating — and often highly useful — to look up now and then to explore best practices in other verticals as well. Usually, the challenges you face are common to marketers in other industries even though on the surface what they sell is not similar to what you do. Take a broader view of the world and don’t get bogged down in the micro-politics of your organization and its direct competitors.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Ideally the brand is the uber-platform that drives everything the organization does. It’s a rich story that your own people and your customers can buy into. Advertising plays an important but supporting role in telling that story. People buy things because of what they mean, not because of what they do. Marketers who focus only on extolling the functional attributes of what they sell usually are doomed to fail. We buy a brand story, not just a product!

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

As I noted above, the brand is the central organizing platform that should drive your entire business. Once you create a coherent and powerful brand story, everything else should flow naturally from that. If you don’t know what your brand means, your customers won’t either.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

When we become too familiar with a story, we don’t tend to pay attention to it anymore. And, over time it happens that a company’s mission has changed — usually it gets broader. So, a new or revised version of the story is necessary. For example, Xerox morphed from a company that made copying machines to a “document management” company. That requires a different story.

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

If the story changes too dramatically, consumers may no longer recognize the brand. That’s why packaging/logo changes are usually done incrementally — even after numerous iterations, the Betty Crocker we see today still vaguely resembles the original even though she now looks Hispanic. If you already have a winning story, think twice before changing it radically. It’s easy to be reminded of the famous Classic Coke story from the 1980s that we love to tell our marketing students: The company changed the beverage’s taste based upon feedback from consumers who reacted only to anonymous flavor variations. These customers liked the new flavor, but that didn’t mean they were prepared for their favorite brand to change. Coke had to retreat from its new value proposition.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

It’s no secret that we live in an eyeball economy, where the most important challenge is to win consumers’ attention. Shoppers are jaded, and they’re also overwhelmed with choices. In addition, many believe in “brand parity,” which is a nice way of saying that despite marketers’ efforts, in many cases they believe that competitors in a category are all “pretty much the same.”

At the same time, consumers still rely upon brands to help them to express their unique selves. As I discuss in my book The New Chameleons, consumers today change their identities frequently, and they value brands that help them to experiment with new social roles.

There are many paths to brand resonance, which I define as the extent to which a brand syncs with a consumer’s desired identities and life projects. To access a free audit that will help you to determine whether your brand does this, please visit www.michaelsolomon.com

For now, here are five ways to ramp up consumer involvement with your brand:

1. Gamification: Apply elements of gaming to non-game contexts. A well-known success story is Nike’s fitness app, NikeFuel. The app motivates users by fostering a spirit of friendly competition as members of the community share their progress with one another, and Nike rewards positive results with congratulatory messages.

2. Personalization: Ramp up identification with a product by customizing it for each user. M&Ms allows customers to select colors, text, and images that will appear on their candy shipments.

3. CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility): Many consumers today (especially younger ones) are much more likely to patronize a brand that they believe gives back to stakeholders and thus reinforces their core values. Patagonia has long been a crusader for green causes, and (among other things) the company donates 1% of all sales to environmental organizations globally.

4. Consumption constellations: As I’ve discussed elsewhere, product complementarity occurs when the symbolic meanings of different products relate to one another. Consumers use these sets of products as a consumption constellation to define, communicate and perform social roles. For example, we identified the U.S. “yuppie” of the 1980s by such diverse products as a Rolex watch, a BMW automobile, a Gucci briefcase, a squash racket, fresh pesto, white wine and brie cheese.

Companies may sell products, but consumers buy identities that are composed of items in many different categories. If you can link your brand to other elements of a person’s lifestyle, your chances of resonating will soar. For example, Lowe’s partnered with several fashion designers during New York Fashion Week; runway shows featured hand-picked items the designers felt epitomized their definitions of “home.” Then, consumers could purchase elements of these curated collections of lighting, patio furniture, flooring and building materials.

5. Augmented reality (AR): AR applications transform a drab package, store display, catalog or other medium into a dynamic experience that engages customers. For example, IKEA launched an augmented reality (AR) application that allows users to visualize how a product will look in the user’s living space. Customers can select from over 2000 IKEA products and “see” them positioned in their homes, then share their choices with others.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

A few decades ago, LEGO was in serious trouble. It was churning out a lot of action figures, but kids weren’t buying them. The company did a makeover; it actually talked to kids about what they wanted to do with the product and based on this feedback, LEGO retooled to focus on letting kids build what they wanted. This was a huge success, and to this day the company proactively solicits feedback from a network of users around the world.

The lesson: Your customers are your best product designers. Listen to them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For years, fast-fashion companies have trained shoppers to look for very frequent inventory turns and shoddy products at low prices (often useful to freshen up bloggers’ social media profiles with new looks). These cheap items then get discarded quickly as new ones continuously replace them. The pandemic is helping to reverse that trend, but a lot more consumers need to understand the life cycle of what they buy so they can focus on buying quality items (admittedly at higher prices) that last longer and don’t wind up in landfills within a short time.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My e-mail signature includes a quote by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin: “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” This observation is very important because it’s a reminder that rigorous, systematic thinking up front pays off in the long run. Marketers that don’t heed this advice tend to react rather than proact, and they’re much more likely to just reinvent the light bulb.

How can our readers follow you online?



Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

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