Who’s got attitude?

If there's a common theme behind the attitude four courageous marketers show in their behaviour, it's that they have little time for

If there’s a common theme behind the attitude four courageous marketers show in their behaviour, it’s that they have little time for

pretension. Whether it’s WestJet, MINI, ING Direct or Couche-Tard, their path to success has been to talk to consumers the way friends talk to friends and shoot even straighter.

These marketers have that and one other critical ingredient, says John Torella, senior partner and consultant at Toronto-based J.C. Williams Group. ‘If you’re going to have an attitude, a point of view or be edgy and

differentiate yourself, then those have to be brand characteristics that resonate with the target audience. If it’s done just to do it then it has no relevance and that’s when it falls apart.’

WestJet, for example, positions itself as a youthful, energetic, no-nonsense airline that will get you there with a minimum of hassle and cost. Over at MINI, the mantra could well be, ‘Just get in the car and drive, dammit!’

Rob Van Shaik, national manager for the Toronto-based carmaker, puts it more

diplomatically, but no less directly: ‘Either

you get it or you don’t. [MINI's advertising] tends to address people who like to drive cars.’

And if we’re going to talk about succinctness, how can we fail to mention ING Direct spokesperson ‘Frederik,’ who strongly urges you to ‘save your money?’

Meanwhile, Montreal-based retailer

Couche-Tard has faced the challenge of giving the convenience store an identity that rises above non-descript purveyor of chips and pop with help from Montreal-based agency BOS.

‘Convenience stores are perceived as very low profile, almost boring places,’ says Claude Carrier, partner at BOS. ‘But with Sloche

[a carbonated beverage], for example, the product itself and the way it’s projected makes it feel like a teen can identify very closely and feel good about it. That was at the root of what needed to be done versus doing very

traditional things.’

Similarly, Andrew Ross, VP marketing at Toronto-based ING Direct, says tone and

message are the keys to its now semi-

legendary attitude. ‘We were established as a challenge to the status quo,’ he says. (ING Direct is owned by Amsterdam-based ING.)

Why do it? Because it works.

It’s about standing out – either because the market is cluttered or because you’re an upstart entering a seemingly impenetrable market – but never for its own sake. Most of these marketers say it’s important that your branding genuinely reflect your company’s philosophy and internal culture. It has to start from home, says Siobhan Vinish, director, PR and communications, at Calgary’s WestJet.

‘[When we launched in 1996] Air Canada and Canadian were spending a lot of time and energy competing for the same passengers,’ she says. ‘They were fighting for the high-end business travellers and their advertising

strategies were very much the same.

‘We were really trying to invert that pyramid and we were going after the everyday traveller. We had to come out with a brand message that was more youthful, more energetic and more targeted to the everyday flyer.’

WestJet did that through methods both

cosmetic and tangible. For example, it calls customers guests, not passengers. Flight attendants dress casually in shorts and jean shirts. Pilots wear leather jackets, not suits and hats. WestJet was also the first airline in Canada to launch a ticketless service.

While Vinish says WestJet founders Clive Beddoe and Bill Leverton and Calgary-based agency Creative Intelligence Agency came to the table in 1995 already of the same mind, it was the former who brought the WestJet spirit consumers see today to the fore. ‘The people who lead this organization are very honest,

outright and outspoken,’ she explains, ‘and they wanted to build the internal culture of this airline completely opposite from traditional

airlines – a culture of empowerment, trust and a casual atmosphere.’

Something’s working.

According to Vinish, WestJet launched with 22 flights per week in 1996 and is now up to 1,700 per week. Three planes have become 50, five cities now 24 (with another eight in the U.S. added for September) and neither SARS nor war and terrorism stopped revenues from growing from $125 million in 1998 to a projected almost $1 billion this year.

Virtual bank ING Direct has seen similar runaway success even through the dot-com crash. The story of the company’s well-known pitchman is important because it is a literal embodiment of the bank’s attitude. Bruce Philp, president of Toronto-based GWP Brand Engineering, ING Direct’s agency, says

nothing about Frederik is incidental.

Everything is a point of distinction. A spokesperson-focused approach was chosen because banks have not traditionally had human beings speak to consumers in advertising. He wears a suit, but minus the tie, thus presenting what Philp calls ‘an alloy of conservatism, but at the same time a sort of modernity.’

And his accent? Planned. ‘I’ve seen Frederik tested in a number of other English-speaking countries and the reaction is always the same: There’s an underlying appreciation of the fact we’re being honest about where we’re from.’

The other characteristic these marketers share is each came to the table with a forward-thinking attitude that made working with

similarly progressive agencies easy. There

wasn’t necessarily much haggling around boardroom tables when it came time for the agency or client side to pitch the other on the direction each wanted to take the brand.

Michel Bernard, who was senior director of marketing in Quebec for Couche-Tard when Sloche was launched, and is now VP operations, Mid-West region in the U.S., says, ‘We had a few push-backs [from Couche-Tard executives], but not much when we explained why we were doing it.’

Bernard says research into what the target, 14- to 18-year-old youth, liked in advertising and what they expected from a product like Sloche was key to selling the marketing

campaign internally. But what put it over the top was something a little less formal: ‘At that time I had my own focus group because my two children were [in that age group], so it was easier for me to understand and to push for it because I was looking at what they were

consuming and we listened to them.’

Company executives were most concerned about the impact potentially controversial advertising would have on customers outside of the target. However, Bernard again relied on numbers to get the BOS campaign greenlighted. He pointed out that while the target made up 17% of Couche-Tard’s consumer base, it accounted for 40% of transactions because of frequent purchasing. ‘We put those numbers in perspective for the executives,’ he says, adding that they also made the case that Couche-Tard would be building for the future.

‘If you start building loyalty at this time, you will keep them for beer and cigarettes and all other kinds of products. So they listened to those arguments. We also tested the campaign with our regular customer base and in Quebec they were not that shocked.’

In the case of MINI and ING Direct, the global positioning was already edgy and

challenging of the status quo. Still, local efforts took things a step further.

MINI’s Van Shaik says that in 2000 the company brought in two pre-production models for a presentation in front of show dealers and a collection of agencies, media companies and PR agencies who were then asked to come back with creative or ideas. Taxi ‘got it,’ says Van Shaik.

‘They got a sense of that small car, and how we could position it to break ranks with other small cars. Small cars tend to promote themselves as small cars. Why do you have to do that? We knew that we wanted to do things differently.’

Taxi has indeed done things differently with irreverent, eye-catching work such as the

‘Parks faster than a Ferrari’ and ‘Screw point B’ outdoor campaigns. The MINI-in-a-cage

promotion for the 2003 Toronto International Auto Show was created out of a request by Van Shaik to his creative group and Taxi to come up with something particularly attention-grabbing. He rejected Plexiglas (‘too boring’) and a display mounted directly on the nearby CBC building or the host building, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, before greenlighting the cage. The idea was so well-liked that it has since been picked up by MINI in several other countries, including Germany, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

Of course, there is one potentially fatal problem with marketers who have established themselves as something plucky, or cool, or charmingly brusque, and that’s staying that way in the face of success. It’s a challenge because many of these marketers’ positions are predicated on being the upstart. But what happens when you become so successful that playing the underdog ‘attitude’ card becomes less intuitively believable?

Don’t piss people off, whatever you do, says Van Shaik. ‘We always maintained that if we were going to take that edgy approach then you need to dance on that fine edge where you attract attention and you get a message across, but if it’s not everybody’s cup of tea then don’t alienate them. MINI is a bit mischievous in its character. You can do mischievous but there is a line where mischievous is no longer fun and it becomes insulting.

‘We had a sense of where the centre line was because BMW tends to be pretty sophisticated in its marketing approach and we knew we could get considerably left of that.’

Change as your business grows, says WestJet’s Vinish, but never forget who you are. ‘We don’t believe that we need to change our branding or positioning or that we will,’ she declares.

WestJet now has a sizable fleet and 50% of its passengers are flying business class. Vinish says the airline is adapting by doing such things as offering live TV, food, installing leather seats and flying to more cities.

‘The principles of that brand and the way we promote ourselves haven’t changed,’ she says.

Dean McKenzie, principal at Creative Intelligence Agency, says creative for WestJet has shifted somewhat. ‘We’ve moved a bit beyond the colloquial ‘aw shucks’ attitude and are attempting to make the humour a little more sophisticated to appeal to a broader audience.’

He says buys in the Globe & Mail, for example, use a different, slightly more sophisticated voice because its readers care more about scheduling and time, than price, unlike leisure travellers.

‘I won’t says that we’ve specifically altered our approach, but it’s just a natural evolution of an airline that is no longer a regional carrier in the West.’

And from ING’s Ross: stay on message. He points out that while the brand has a reputation for taking shots at competing banks, ‘The key distinction that makes it all work is that we never directly attack the competition. We are always speaking in terms of advocacy for consumers.’

However, ING is getting big. Really big. And whoever heard of a ‘nice’ big bank? ING Direct launched in Canada in 1997 and passed the one-million-customer mark in April of this year. It has assets of $14 billion. It has been so

successful that it has since launched in eight other countries and now has 10 million

customers worldwide and assets of $150 billion Euros. This underdog is looking more and more like the big dog.

Ross says staying true to self – and by

extension, to the bank’s customers – is definitely a concern. ‘At this point we still have that

originating passion which keeps us on brand. We’re constantly working to grow that [passion], because the worst thing that could ever happen to us is to become like our competition.’