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A Few Quick Thoughts on Themes from the 2011 ANA Conference

I had the pleasure of attending the 2011 ANA Masters of Marketing Conference in Phoenix this past weekend.  The annual event drew its largest crowd to date, with more than 1,700 delegates taking part. While a number of topics were discussed over the three days, some key themes emerged.  Here are a few that caught my attention:

Taking Risks

Courage was among the more prevalent themes of the weekend.  Kraft’s Dana Anderson perhaps summed it up best with her call to action – “Leap!” – in which she encouraged the audience to eschew small, incremental change in favor of bigger, bolder moves.  Anderson said these volatile, uncertain and complex times make it even more important for marketers to embrace “strategic intuition” and remain perpetually flexible, as the ultimate “destination” is likely to change.

Kimberly-Clark’s Tony Palmer echoed similar sentiments, stressing the need for both constant innovation and fostering environments in which people are “less afraid of losing.”

“Think big, think integrated,” was the message from Bryan Reese of Bolthouse Farms on Saturday, who touched on the subject of risk from a bit of a different perspective.  Reese discussed the brand’s recent baby carrots effort, a launch that quite ambitiously – and successfully – repositioned the product from a vegetable to snack.

Creating Experiences

“We’re not about the phone call anymore,” AT&T’s Esther Lee said in describing her company’s shift from viewing itself as a technical and functional company to one that’s fundamentally about the experience of connectivity.  Now that technology is perceived as less of a “burden,” the brand has been able to focus on the emotional, experiential element what it does: Helping people connect.  Central to this, she emphasized, is to “do it, don’t just say it.”

Walmart’s Stephen Quinn also focused on this point, discussing the three lenses – communities, attitudes and technologies – that the brand is using to redefine its customer experience.  Quinn stressed that creating better, more meaningful experiences is ultimately the solution marketers should look to for sustaining growth.

Social Rules

Perhaps no surprise, but social was a subject that arose in most of the weekend’s presentations.   Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg showcased some of the ways in which marketers are further engaging with the platform, buttressing the pitch with a few case studies (Leo Burnett’s own “Mean Stinks” effort for P&G’s Secret was held up as a best-in-class example) and numbers including a Nielsen statistic suggesting people are 68% more likely to remember an ad in a social context – and twice as likely to remember the message.

“Consumers determine when and if to share our message,” said Walmart’s Quinn, who walked through the organization’s efforts to reshape its marketing to be entirely “social by design.”  Technology is the means, not the end, he explained, which is why the retailer will continue to invest in multichannel social hubs like its recent partnership with Facebook to create an app that’s customized to each local store. Weight Watchers is a brand that was “social before it was digital,” said the company’s SVP for marketing, Cheryl Callan.  Callan discussed the importance of being a “social business” not just “social marketers” and stressed that, for Weight Watchers, “the community owns the brand.”

Placing Branding Earlier in the Process

AT&T’s Lee asserted that doing so helps a company better understand its vision and strategy, while IBM’s Jon Iwata told the story of the internal conversation at the company about corporate character that helped define the way it would move forward in shaping both its marketing and culture.

New Models and Relationships

Kraft’s Anderson talked about the much-discussed “Operation Spark” initiative in which it farms out short-term projects for some of its portfolio’s smaller brands.  And Albe Zakes from  “upcyclying” outfit Terracycle heralded the company’s triumphs via the power of PR and low-budget ventures like a TV show it developed for National Geographic and partnerships with brands including Coca-Cola and Target.  Terracycle estimates its garnered earned media in excess of $52 million… despite having never paid for an ad.

No wonder Zakes’ address — before a crowd of the nation’s largest marketers — drew some of the largest applause of the weekend.