On Eve of the Holiday Shopping Season, Consumers are Buzzing About Retail

holidayshopping Word of mouth about retail and apparel is on the rise as the nation heads into the all-important holiday shopping season – Americans are engaging in 4% more offline WOM conversations about brands in this category over the past 8 weeks versus the same time a year earlier. Further, buzz about children’s products is up 7%, more than any other category measured by Engagement Labs. This compares favorably to an overall decline in brand WOM of -2%. This should bring good cheer to the nation’s retailers, and lends support to the just released National Retail Federation’s forecast that holiday sales will grow between 3.5% and 5.2%. “Given the pandemic, there is uncertainty about consumers’ willingness to spend, but with the economy improving most have the ability to spend,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “Consumers have experienced a difficult year but will likely spend more than anyone would have expected just a few months ago.” But not all categories of retail & apparel are poised for growth, if WOM is an indicator as we have demonstrated it is. The biggest gainers are discount stores, which are garnering 57.4m more word of mouth impressions each week now versus a year ago – an increase of 10%. Athletic brands and stores are up 34.3m (+21%), and home centers and hardware stores are up 17m (+8%). This all reflects a desire to spend smartly despite difficult economic circumstances for many Americans, as well as continued investments in physical fitness at home, and home renovations and enhancements. Department stores, in contrast, are seeing significantly less WOM than a year ago, with 17m fewer word of mouth impressions this year versus last, or a 21.8% decline. Change in Year Over Year Word of Mouth Impressions by Retail/Apparel Subcategories More specifically, the 10 brands seeing the greatest year-over-year growth come from a diverse set of brands including some who’s word of mouth has grown 100% year over year. The list includes athletic shoe and clothing giants Nike, whose word of mouth has grown by 15.7m weekly WOM impressions over a year ago, or 19%, and Adidas (+9.9m, or 30%); discount retailers Walmart (+13,8m or 4.6%), Costco (+12.3m or 72%) and Target; HomeGoods (+10.4m or 100%) and Ashley Furniture (+10m or +60%) in the home goods category, Ace Hardware (+8.7m or 49%) and Home Depot (+8.4m or +12%) for the DIY’ers; and Shein, the fast fashion ecommerce platform (+6m from only 500k weekly WOM impressions a year ago). Top Ten:  Change in Year Over Year Word of Mouth Impressions by Retail/Apparel Brand In the children’s category WOM has grown by 7% overall, more than any other category (as noted above).  This is consistent with the Black Friday forecast just released by Publicis entitled, “Toys Set the Tone This Cyber Weekend.” Publicis notes, “there are a number of reasons toy deals are rising to the top. Families may want to give them a little something extra in light of smaller holiday gatherings or are preparing for at-home family game nights, especially those in the northern hemisphere as winter approaches and outdoor activities decrease.” The children’s brands showing the biggest gains are seen for Hasbro (+5.9m WOM impressions per week, or +183%), Gap Kids (+4m from only 600k a year ago), likely due to the success of their masks, Lego (+2m or +14%), and Baby Einstein (+2m or +70%).  

Despite Impressive Gains for Some, There are Sharp Declines for Others

The rising WOM tide in retail and apparel has not lifted all boats. As impressive as some of the gains have been both in absolute as well as a percentage gain basis, there are more than 35 brands in the category that have seen declines over last year. Leading the way is Forever 21, the fashion brand that is being shuttered (-9.2m WOM impressions versus a year ago, or -55%). This is followed by Macy’s (-5.6m or -27%), Best Buy (-5.4m or -23%), Marshalls (-4.7m or 59%), and Kohl’s (-4.5m or -14%). Bottom Ten:  Change in Year Over Year Word of Mouth Impressions by Retail/Apparel Brand “We know this holiday season will be unlike any other,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said as he released his forecast. “Consumers have shown they are excited about the holidays and are willing to spend on gifts that lift the spirits of family and friends after such a challenging year. We expect a strong finish to the holiday season.” With WOM trends as a leading indicator, there is sure to be gifts a plenty in the stockings for many of these retailers, but sadly also coal for others unless there is a holiday miracle that will help them quickly turn things around. Wishing you good cheer and a safe holiday season.

How Does Politics Affect Your Brand and Sales? Should You Take a Stance?

Consumer Conversations Provide Guidance to the Post-2020 Landscape

How Does Politics Affect Your Brand and Sales? Should You Take a Stance? For many marketers, 2020 was the year when engagement in social issues became almost impossible to avoid, with issues related to race relations, a global pandemic, climate change, and the future of democracy taking center stage during a watershed election year. That’s not likely to change just because voting in the 2020 Presidential election is behind us. Record voter turnout and razor-thin margins are reflective of a much more politicized environment for the foreseeable future—offering opportunities for brands that get engaged skillfully, and hazards for those who don’t. One case in point is the Hispanic food brand, Goya, which exploded into the national conversation after CEO Bob Unanue praised President Trump in a White House meeting. Online and offline conversation levels for the brand exploded and turned rather negative, especially on social media, yet the brand appears to have benefited. The private company revealed third-party sales data to the trade publication Food Dive to back-up its claim that sales are soaring, and the company is building a new $80 million plant in response to demand. Goya Conversation Volume Up Sentiment Turbulent While progressive leaders and celebrities in the Latinx community launched boycotts of Goya, the brand likely benefited from the fact that the long-time niche brand was introduced to Donald Trump’s voter base just at the moment people are looking for new home cooking solutions and flavors during a pandemic that has reduced restaurant patronage. The Goya experience mirrors—from the opposite side of the political divide—the Nike experience of two years earlier when the brand controversially embraced former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s crusade against police brutality sparking an explosion of negative talk among conservative voters but driving up brand sales nonetheless. In 2018 Dick’s Sporting Goods invited negative conversation about its brand when it sharply restricted gun sales in its stores following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, FL, but that hasn’t stopped its stock price from doubling since then amid the rising demand for home exercise equipment. Gillette weighed in with ads about toxic masculinity. And this year a multitude of brands joined the conversation about voting, race relations, climate change, and a host of other topical issues. The NBA is an example of a brand that may be suffering from the increasing political activism of its stars. LeBron James has led NBA players in advocating for black lives and in promoting voting. While this could be a factor in the 49% reduction in audiences this year, there are so many other unusual circumstances during the pandemic it is hard to know for sure. But there’s no question the conversation has changed—the NBA is showing up in social media conversations about racial justice, and the net sentiment of conversations has been volatile—particularly in social media. Activism Impacting NBA Social Media Conversation Having said that, racial justice is the #1 issue being discussed by NBA fans, more so than Covid-19 or the election or schools, and in that regard the league’s support of its players and their activism about racial justice fits well with their fan base. This is why it’s important to understand the fit between a brand’s audience and the issues agenda it supports.  

How Best To Navigate the Nation’s Issues Agenda

For brand marketers, is it possible to anticipate consumer reaction to forays into politics and issues? While the 2016 political campaign showed the challenge of predicting politics, conversation trends can provide guidance. One powerful approach is to analyze the overlaps in political and brand constituencies. Indeed, many of the same people who engage in political advocacy are also engaging in brand advocacy. It is important to know which issues your brand’s most loyal supporters care about and are advocating about—and which ones turn them off. Take the issue of racial justice. Unsurprisingly, the people talking about racial justice are about 2.5 times more likely than the average person to also talk about the Twitter and TikTok social media platforms which have provided a forum for racial justice discussion. But would you also have anticipated that those same people talking about racial justice are also the most likely to be talking about Scott brand tissues, Arizona beverages, and Chipotle restaurants? People who talk about racial justice—whether on the side of Black Lives Matter protestors or against them—index at a 273 for talk about the Scott brand, meaning they are almost three times as likely as the average consumer to talk about the brand. Consumers who talk about Arizona, Chipotle, Apple, and Metro by T-Mobile also stand out on racial justice, as do those who talk about Chick-fil-A, a brand that has long engaged in political issues from a right-leaning perspective. Brands Talked About Most by People Who Also Talk About Racial Justice Another issue that has become increasingly political this year is the public policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This issue also correlates to the people talking about specific brands, among them the Walgreens and CVS drugstore brands and United HealthCare, companies that are playing important roles for COVID advice, sterilization products, and an annual flu vaccine. Other brands with a strong association with the COVID-19 conversation are Fox News, Neutrogena, Microsoft, and Hulu. Brands Talked About Most by People Who Also Talk About COVID-19 People who talk about the environment stand out as particularly influential for consumer brands. Environment talkers are more than four times as likely as average consumers to talk about the GMC automobile brand, Arm & Hammer, Sephora beauty products, and the Spotify music streaming service. They are also three times as likely as average to talk about the brands Ulta, Angel Soft, Scott tissue, Apple, 24 Hour Fitness, and ESPN. Brands Talked About Most by People Who Also Talk About the Environment Indeed, people who talk about the environment stand out as the people most engaged with brands in 14 of the 15 consumer categories we measure in TotalSocial, most notably beauty (average index of 184), travel services (177), telecom (171), and technology (170). Only the category of financial services is not the most talked about by people talking as well about the environment—but in that case, the environment is the second most correlated issue, after economy-related issues. Environment Talkers Engage in Consumer Categories, Too The political tumult of the 2020 election has motivated many people to engage in political advocacy, including retired military leaders, celebrities, and normally neutral journalists. But politics are likely to become a larger factor in the consumer marketplace, as well, as we head in 2021. For brands venturing into these turbulent waters, it makes sense to listen to the conversation that’s already happening among their most loyal consumers and use this as a mapping tool to help guide your agenda. SIGN ME UP TotalSocial Briefing

Presidential Election Word of Mouth Engagement Is High Again, and Less Negative than in 2016

● Biden Holds 20-Point Word of Mouth Sentiment Advantage ● Republicans More Activist than Democrats, Especially on Social Media


Just before James Comey’s late October surprise about Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, the two major party nominees were generating very negative conversation about themselves—particularly Donald Trump. This October, the Democrat again has the advantage in word-of-mouth sentiment, but the incumbent Republican President is enjoying higher levels of activism and advocacy from Republicans than Joe Biden is getting from Democrats. In 2016, the 2016 candidates’ “net sentiment” stood at -53 for Trump and -29 for Clinton, based on subtracting negative from positive opinions about the candidates. Immediately after the October 28 James Comey letter, the conversation flipped for the first time in the campaign, with more negative for the Democratic (-46) than the Republican (-42) nominee—and the rest was history, as we described it in our widely reported post-election analysis. Election Word of Mouth Sentiment vs 2016 This year, the two nominees are again in negative territory, but not as deeply negative as four years ago. Again, the Democrat, now Joe Biden, is again less negative (-7) than Donald Trump (-27). Absent another late surprise, it appears that Biden has a clear edge in the word of mouth sentiment battle, as we’ve seen for the last five months. Indeed, three weeks ago, Joe Biden briefly flipped into positive territory after the first Presidential debate, although he has since slipped back slightly to net-negative. Net Sentiment About Presidential Candidates The word of mouth trends for the candidates have been highly polarized in recent months as Republicans’ conversations have been consistently positive toward Trump and negative toward Biden, while the opposite has been true among Democrats. One potentially important shift can be seen among independents who affiliate with neither major party. In September, word of mouth among independents was less negative for Trump than Biden, but now those conversations favor Biden by a 16-point margin. Independents' Net Sentiment About Candidates Overall conversation engagement in the elections is slightly lower this year than in 2016, with 33% talking each day about the elections compared to 37% then. One reason may be the reduced social contact people have due to the pandemic, cutting down on the chances to have these conversations outside of the home. And the other might well be a larger number of important things to be discussing including family health, children’s educational needs, and overall economic concerns. How Many Talk Each Day About National Elections

Offline Word of Mouth is Bipartisan, But Social Media Leans Republican

Word-of-mouth conversations remain the most important way that Americans engage in the Presidential election. For each of the last three weeks ending October 25, an average of 37% have been talking at home about the election, 23% have talked face-to-face outside of the home—despite pandemic-related restrictions—and 23% have talked over the phone about the election. Social media have been a factor, with 18% of Americans posting about the election, followed by 13% who have written private emails and messages, and 9% who have posted their opinions on news websites. How Americans Are Engaged in 2020 Election - Election Engagement in October 2020 While members of both parties engage at similar levels in face-to-face word-of-mouth, Republicans are more engaged with the campaign and in election-related advocacy via social media. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to post opinions on social media, to post comments on news sites, and to display yard signs and bumper stickers. Republicans are also more likely to engage in a variety of “activist” behaviors such as attending campaign events and protests. Democrats stand out in just one area—using a telephone to talk about the election. These patterns may be related to different responses to the pandemic—with Republicans more willing to attend real-world events while Democrats prefer virtual ones. But it also suggests that President Trump has been successful in driving enthusiasm among his key supporters. Political independents lag partisans on almost every measure of engagement, which is typical of infrequent voters who are less committed to either side. Turnout among these low-involved voters will be a priority for the Biden camp in the last days of the campaign. How Americans Are Engaged in 2020 Election - Election Conversation & Engagement by Political AffiliationPolitical conversations help to explain campaign momentum, as people respond the larger national campaign narrative, and they amplify the impact of that narrative among their friends and family. In 2016, conversation trends helped to demonstrate the shift in narrative in response to the Comey letter, even before it showed up in traditional opinion polls. As of now, the narrative appears to be holding steady, with Biden enjoying less negative criticism than Donald Trump. However, the Trump campaign clearly has had success in activating its core supporters, who are more actively promoting their candidate online and in their front yards compared to Democrats. That enthusiasm gap probably would be valuable in a low turn-out election, but this year with half of last year’s total vote cast a week before Election Day, high levels of voter turnout is already a given, advantaging the Biden campaign and its superior word of mouth sentiment.  

About Engagement Labs and the Study

Engagement Labs has a unique methodology that captures the word of mouth conversations of Americans – the true kitchen table things people talk about. Our data and method has found some notoriety after the 2016 campaign and was written up in the Clinton and Lanny Davis books as evidence of the impact of the Comey letter. Engagement Labs measures offline conversations using an online survey about political candidates, issues and brands talked about “yesterday.” For this report, analysts focused on the offline conversations of representative national sample of people 18-69 years old. The study involves approximately 32,000 people surveyed per year (600 per week).

Financial Brands Struggle to Join the Conversation

How Can They Command Both Offline WOM and Social Media to Grow their Brands?

consumer-finance Insurance agents, financial advisors, and bankers all know how important word-of-mouth is to their success in the marketplace. Few consumers or investors are willing to put their financial futures in the hands of an agent or company not recommended by somebody they trust. It is the reason they put so much focus on customer referrals. Yet financial brands perform poorly, as a rule, in our TotalSocial® analytics platform that measures conversation performance. The vast majority are what we call “Whisper Brands,” underperforming on both offline and online conversation. Why does this matter? The clout of consumer conversation is real – and it is an imperative aspect of any marketing strategy today. Brands that achieve strong performance both offline and online are in an enviable position. Their ability to activate both offline and online engagement drives millions of dollars to their topline. One without the other will not drive brand performance as well, and one is not a surrogate for the other. FINANCIAL TOTALSOCIAL TALKSCAPE A reasonable number of financial brands, particularly investment brands such as Fidelity Investments, Edward Jones, and Charles Schwab are “Word of Mouth Mavens” performing above average in real-world offline conversations but not in social media. Just four brands including American Family, State Farm, Kaiser Permanente, and US Bank perform above average online but not offline, earning the label “Social Sirens.” But the largest number of financial brands, 23 of 41 in our database, fall into the “Whisper Brand” category because they are below the average US brand both in social media and in real-world, offline conversations. Banks earn among the lowest scores, including BB&T and SunTrust (which merged to become Truist but for now each remain the brand name face to their customers), Citizens Bank, and TD Bank. But they have plenty of company from insurance, investment companies, and payment cards. Why do financial companies, and especially banks, perform so badly in terms of consumer conversations? One reason is that people don’t talk very often about financial companies, leading to low scores for volume. Brands in food, beverages, and entertainment benefit from the fact that they are relevant to everyone and represent daily conversations—what to have for lunch or dinner, or what to watch on television. But investment brands are likely to come up only when quarterly statements arrive or when there is a dramatic change in the stock market. Insurance companies may not come up in conversation until you need them—when you have a claim, or when you are buying a new car or home. Thus, we find the average performance for brands in every type of financial institution is below average for offline conversation volume, and only credit cards perform above the average in social media. Investment companies—which are unlikely to be topics of conversations for people without investable assets—have the lowest performance, both online and offline.Average Conversation Volume for Financial Brands Another problem for financial companies is that they are generally unpopular, earning below-average sentiment score due to fairly high levels of negative conversations, particularly insurance companies and banks. Whereas investment companies perform poorly on volume, but they are strong performers on sentiment, especially offline, perhaps due to the fact that the stock market has held up fairly well, even during the pandemic. Credit card companies stand out for having the most positive conversations in social media. Average Conversation Sentiment for Financial Brands

Pathways for Financial Services Brands to Achieve Conversation Commander Status

Merely one financial brand, GEICO, qualifies as a “Conversation Commander” excelling at both online and in real-world offline conversations. Financial services is a real outlier compared to many other categories which have greater representation in this coveted quadrant. Give credit to the generous advertising budget of GEICO, which spent $1.6 billion in 2019, significantly more than the other big spenders in the property & casualty insurance category. The heavy advertising levels for all auto insurance companies like GEICO, Progressive and State Farm reflects the fundamental challenge of trying to be top of mind—and tip of tongue—when the category’s relevance to a consumer is infrequent. GEICO’s paid media strategy helps the brand perform well above average for both offline and online brand sharing – when people talk about GEICO they talk about its media. This is a reflection of the size of their spend, to be sure. But it’s also about the creative, where GEICO is a strong performer with its Gekko but by no means is it alone. Progressive’s recent success was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal for its response to COVID-19 in an article entitled, “Coronavirus Upended Advertising. Here’s How Brands From Progressive Insurance to Budweiser Responded.” A more modest investment in social media content is also a highly effective way to move a brand from being a Whisper Brand to a Social Siren. That’s what State Farm has done, at half the ad spend level of GEICO. Much smaller brands can achieve Social Siren success as well by learning the lessons for driving sharing of social content. What prevents State Farm from being a Conversation Commander is it’s offline sentiment, which trails the category average by a fair degree. Several brands perform very well among offline influencers – people who are sought out for advice and recommendations and whose advice is trusted and acted upon. Financial brands that do particularly well with influentials are Progressive, Citi, GEICO, TD Ameritrade, American Express, Edward Jones, and Regions Bank. In a category like financial services, that’s a key audience to identify, engage with and let them become your advocates. A tactic we’ve seen work well for driving offline conversation is to enlist your most socially-connected customers into a VIP community that can help distribute your news and content, both online and offline. These influentials are a real asset to call upon. Fidelity, TD Ameritrade and American Express are examples of brands we call “WOM Mavens,” strong performers offline but are merely average online. Fidelity, for example, has the highest offline TotalSocial score of any financial services brand. However, its online volume is below the category average as is its performance in sharing of its social content. American Express, as stated above is a strong performer among offline influencers, but its online influence performance is among the lowest in the category. There’s no question that financial brands are at a disadvantage in the word-of-mouth game, but category is not destiny. Consumers are hungry for advice from trusted friends before making big-ticket, long-term financial decisions. That’s why it pays to make a plan that puts your financial brand at the center of the conversation.

Biden’s Word of Mouth Sentiment Swings into Positive Territory for First Time

27 Point Difference Between Biden and Trump Sentiment About Former VP Stands in Sharp Contrast to Clinton in 2016

  Published on October 20, 2020 in MediaPost “Biden Word-of-Mouth Sentiment Turns Positive For First Time”  Biden’s Word of Mouth Sentiment Swings into Positive Territory for First Time Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden is being talked about slightly more positively than negatively for the first time during the campaign, according to the latest 3-week rolling average from Engagement Labs. Joe Biden has a “net sentiment” of +1, meaning slightly more kitchen-table conversations about the candidate are positive rather than negative, a big improvement from three weeks ago when he was at -18. By comparison, conversations about Donald Trump for the three weeks ending October 11 are at -26, similar to three weeks ago (-24). This is the headline finding from the most current weekly tracking of word of mouth from Engagement Labs, using a methodology to measure everyday conversations that in 2016 helped prove the crucial role of the James Comey letter in swinging the election to Donald Trump in the campaign’s final days. Net Sentiment About Presidential Candidates Even when in negative territory, the conversation about Joe Biden has been less negative than Trump’s every week of the campaign since Memorial Day when Biden emerged from seclusion due to COVID-19, wearing a mask. At that time, Trump was at -37 and Biden at -38. Word of mouth trends in the 2020 presidential campaign are quite different than four years ago when conversations about both nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, were consistently more negative than today. During the second week of October, Clinton was 38 points worse than Joe Biden now, and Trump in 2016 was 29 points worse than now. Over the last three weeks, improvements for Biden have been driven by improvements among groups that were quite negative about him before: white voters (20 point better now), Hispanics (37 points better), and those who have a high school diploma or less education (29 points better). Net Sentiment About Presidential Candidates, By Education The conversation shifts among Hispanics and those with less education are particularly dramatic, coming in the first two weeks of October and corresponding to a series of major news events, including the first presidential debate, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and the president’s COVID diagnosis. The conversation data do not necessarily indicate how specific groups will vote, merely the conversation momentum that may influence future behavior. Three weeks ago, women’s conversations were more negative about Biden (-23) than men’s (-13) despite overwhelming evidence in traditional polls that women favor Joe Biden much more than men do. Since then, men’s and women’s conversations have become more positive toward Biden. Net Sentiment About Presidential Candidates - Table Trends in conversation topics for Biden suggest the shift could lead to increased support at the ballot box. The biggest topic of Biden conversations among those with a high school diploma or less is about “wanting to vote for the candidate” (47%) while fewer people are talking about “disliking the candidate (32%). Biden conversations among these voters now more closely resemble those among college graduates. Selected Topics of Biden Conversation, by Education Another change in recent weeks is the rise in conversation frequency about Joe Biden. With the benefit of incumbency, Trump’s ability to drive news has 58% talking about him each day compared to 43% for Joe Biden, but the gap between the two has been much smaller since the two nominating conventions. Talking Daily About Presidential Candidates Conversation dynamics can be a leading indicator of both consumer and voter behavior because conversations tend to precede action whether at the cash register or the ballot box. Consumer research has shown that conversations are responsible for approximately 19% of consumer purchases. In 2016, a dramatic shift in the voter conversation helped signal that Clinton’s candidacy was in trouble following the release of the James Comey letter about Clinton’s emails 10 days before the election.  

About Engagement Labs and the Study

Engagement Labs has a unique methodology that captures the word of mouth conversations of Americans – the true kitchen table things people talk about. Our data and method has found some notoriety after the 2016 campaign and was written up in the Clinton and Lanny Davis books as evidence of the impact of the Comey letter. Engagement Labs measures offline conversations using an online survey about political candidates, issues and brands talked about “yesterday”. For this report, analysts focused on the offline conversations of representative national sample of people 18-69 years old. The study involves approximately 32,000 people surveyed per year (600 per week). SIGN ME UP TotalSocial Briefing  

Engagement Labs’ CEO Remarks on His Induction to Market Research Council Hall of Fame

Ed Keller inducted into the Market Research Council 2020 Hall of Fame The following is a transcript of Ed Keller’s thoughtful acceptance speech at his induction into the Marketing Research Council’s Hall of Fame. In 2014, Keller was also elected to the Word of Mouth Marketing Hall of Fame by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). Chartered in 1927, the Market Research Council is the oldest and one of the most prestigious market research organizations in the world. The MRC Hall of Fame annually recognizes outstanding marketing research professionals since 1977 celebrating leaders such as Arthur Nielsen, David Ogilvy and Burns Roper.  

Introduction by Josh Chasin, President of Marketing Research Council (MRC)

Ed Keller is a true pioneer in the field of word of mouth marketing measurement. Ed’s career spans four decades, starting with Yankelovich and then Roper Starch Worldwide (later Roper ASW), where he rose to CEO. A former President of the MRC and member of the ARF Board, Keller started the Keller Fay Group with Brad Fay, and developed the only syndicated tracking study of Word of Mouth, which is acknowledged as the standard by which offline consumer conversation is measured. That work evolved when Keller Fay merged with Engagement Labs and is now the only data and analytics platform to integrate offline and online word of mouth, with predictive analytics to prove their significant impact on marketing ROI and brand performance. In addition to being inducted this year into the MRC Hall of Fame, Keller was also inducted into the Word of Mouth Marketing Hall of Fame in 2014.  

Keller Acceptance Speech

Thank you, Josh. And thanks to the MRC membership. This is a wonderful honor. Let me start by congratulating my fellow inductee today, Alan Wurtzel, the long-time and highly regarded President of Research and Media Development for NBCUniversal. And congratulations to Kalinda Fisher as the inaugural MRC Change Maker Award Winner. I would also like to acknowledge an amazing group of other current practitioners who were nominated this year. I’m humbled that I am receiving this award today when each and every one of them is so deserving. There have been 97 inductees into the Market Research Council Hall of Fame before today. I am proud to say that my lineage is tied to 10 of them. These are luminaries from the firms I worked for, including three of the founding fathers of our industry: Daniel Starch, who founded his firm in 1923 and was a pioneer in advertising research; Elmo Roper, who started his firm in 1933 and — along with George Gallup — invented the field of public opinion polling and scientific sampling; and Elmo “Budd” Wilson, who founded International Research Associates in 1948, which pioneered international research. (In case you didn’t catch it, two out of those three “founding fathers” were named Elmo. When I started at Roper Starch Worldwide, I joked with my wife that our first born would need to be named Elmo – thankfully we had two girls.) Those three all predated me, but I was fortunate to work with the other seven. These include Dan Yankelovich, Florence Skelly, and Kevin Clancy from Yankelovich Skelly and White, where I began my career and enjoyed 5 amazing years. And there are four from Roper Starch Worldwide: Jay Wilson, Elmo Wilson’s son; Bud Roper, Elmo Roper’s son; Harry O’Neill; and Timothy Joyce. I had the honor to introduce both Jay and Harry when they were inducted. I stand on their shoulders. What made them all stand out was not just their success as professionals, but also that these were wonderful people, so smart and so giving of their time to me and others who worked with them.

Remembering my mentors

Denzel Washington once said, “Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living – if you do it well, I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing you the way. A mentor.” “A mentor,” observed Oprah Winfrey, “is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” I was blessed in my career to have amazing mentors. I’d like to acknowledge a few of them today. The first is George Gerber, the long-time and renowned dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, with whom I studied from early in my undergraduate days through my graduate training. Gerbner was one of the foremost scholars studying the impact of violence on television. Among his contributions are what he called the Mean World Syndrome that posited that television violence influenced the public’s conceptions of violence in their lives and in society, making them more fearful and of the belief that the world is more violent and brutal than it really is. New York Times Columnist David Brooks recently invoked Gerbner and the Mean World Syndrome in an Op Ed following the Republican National Convention entitled Trump and the Politics of Mean World. In addition to all the typical things a graduate student learns from his advisor, including as a research and teaching assistant, I will never forget a career changing conversation Gerbner had when I asked him to provide a job reference for my first job offer. I finished graduate school in the fall of 1978, the year of a Yankee World Series Championship (Go Yanks!) but also the Energy Crisis, double digit inflation, and an impending recession. It was not an easy time to find a job to say the least. I finally received an offer. They called Gerbner to ask about my credentials. They asked him at the end if there was anything else about Ed Keller that he wanted to discuss. He said, “Yes. I know why Ed Keller is well qualified for this job; but why is this job good enough for Ed Keller?” My jaw dropped when he told me this, but it was also a powerful reminder to set high standards and not settle. I took his advice and turned down the offer. Shortly thereafter I had two additional job offers, including one with Yankelovich Skelly and White, which launched my career in the market research industry. I worked there for 5 years with Madelynn Hochstein as my boss and an early guiding light; then Arthur Shapiro, a senior Yankelovich executive at the time, invited me to start a business with him. That’s a story in its own right but time won’t permit me to tell it today except to thank both Arthur and Madelynn. In 1986 I joined Roper Starch Worldwide, and my career became heavily influenced by two MRC Hall of Famers and mentors. Bud Roper and Jay Wilson. Bud was a highly regarded public opinion pollster. He placed particular attention on the importance of question wording. In fact, his obituary in the LA Times was headlined, Burns ‘Bud’ Roper, 77: Pollster Who Changed Focus of Questions. He authored this now-classic political question, which I am sure you all know: “Do you feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction today, or do you feel that things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?” I learned a huge amount from Bud about questionnaire writing, as well as how to think creatively about study design. I also learned important lessons about integrity and ethics in marketing and opinion research. He believed strongly in openness, honesty, admitting one mistakes if and when they happened, and generally adhering to the highest ethical standards. My other mentor at Roper Starch Worldwide was Jay Wilson, who was CEO until our sale in 2001 to NOP World. I served as his COO and then succeeded him as CEO.   I learned a huge amount from Jay about the business of market research and leadership, and I gained tremendously from his being a good and loyal friend. Unlike Dan Yankelovich, Florence Skelly or Bud Roper, Jay was not a researcher by training but a salesman; before he entered the research industry, he sold ad space for the Reader’s Digest. Jay proudly displayed a sign on his desk saying, “Nothing happens until someone sells something.” I can certainly relate to that, especially after I started my own company. Jay’s philosophy for building a successful business was to find unfulfilled information needs and find ways to fill them. This helped guide me as Brad Fay and I set out on the pathway to start up the Keller Fay Group. There are a lot of reasons why Jay was so successful. But at the core was his truly heartfelt belief that ours is “a people business,” a phrase he would often repeat. He placed a priority on identifying talent, nurturing it, and getting the most out of the people who worked for him. I’ve tried to incorporate this philosophy in my career, too. Jay was generous to me not only while I worked for him at Roper Starch, but also when Brad Fay and I launched the Keller Fay Group in 2005. Jay was the first in line to help us with his advice, encouragement and to help us secure funding, from both himself and from the long-time investors in Roper Starch Worldwide, Loeb Partners.  

Word of Mouth Marketing

My on ramp to word of mouth marketing came as a result of the 2003 publication of my book, The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy. I was still CEO of Roper at the time and wrote the book to help boost the visibility of this trend setting segment of the population that we had tracked for many years in Roper Reports, our trend research service. Early in the book, I wrote these lines that would come to define the next chapter in my career: “The American public has long known the value of word of mouth recommendations. Americans today are far more likely to turn to friends, family, and other personal experts than to use traditional media for ideas and information on a range of topics. . . .This is the bottom line: when Americans make decisions today, it’s a conversation. Before Americans buy, they talk. And they listen.” Word of mouth marketing was gaining – or shall I say, regaining – favor. My book put me firmly into that world, and led me to meet a group of really smart entrepreneurs who were starting companies to serve this rising demand. We formed a community and a trade association, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, for which I served as the first Board Chair for a few years. In the measurement arena, all the action was around the emerging world of social media listening with companies like Buzz Metrics, which later became Nielsen Buzz Metrics.  Brad and I knew that offline word of mouth was of equal if not greater importance. So, we took a play straight out of Jay’s playbook – find unfulfilled information needs and fill them. We created a methodology to measure offline word of mouth and syndicated it through a system we called TalkTrack. I will always be grateful to Kate Sirkin and Starcom who became our first client. We demonstrated at that time – and it remains true today – there is far more offline word of mouth than there is posting on social media.  We then joined forces with Engagement Labs to expand our focus from offline word of mouth only, to a broader perspective including the integration of word of mouth and social media. We built and launched a platform called TotalSocial that integrates the two. We demonstrated that there is no correlation between what gets said on social media and what gets talked about offline – in other words, one is not a mirror on the other; and our analytics proved that word of mouth and social media are each predictors of business outcomes such as sales and brand health, with offline word of mouth playing a slightly bigger role. I am proud of our work as it shines a light on important elements of the marketing ecosystem and the forces that drive marketing success that are otherwise unmeasured and therefore unmanaged. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all my colleagues at Engagement Labs, and none larger than to Brad Fay. I started working with Brad when he was right out of graduate school back in 1988, based on the very good advice of Bud Roper who had been his graduate school professor. I saw in Brad someone with tremendous intellect, creativity, and integrity, and it’s for that reason 7 years later I asked him to join me as my business partner. My thanks to Brad for decades of partnership and it’s my hope that one of these days soon, you too will be receiving this award. And lastly, I would like to thank the partner who really contributed the most to whatever success I have achieved, my wife of 35 years, Karen. And I love watching the budding careers of my two daughters, Isabel and Meredith, both of whom are destined to achieve great things. Let me end with this quote by Albert Schweitzer: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” I have always loved being a part of the market research industry, loved the work I do, loved the colleagues and clients I’ve been able to work with, and I truly appreciate this honor. Thank you all very, very much.

The New Conversation Commanders of COVID Era

Part 3: 28 Brands That Join a Select List, Commanding Both Online and Offline Conversation

shutterstock_1723428592 This is the final installment of a three-part series on “Conversation Commanders.” These are the select few brands that excel at both offline and online conversation. It’s not an easy feat, but highly beneficial to those that are able to do so. Here we feature those that have risen this year to Conversation Commander status. If you’ve missed Part 1 or Part 2, brands that have been Conversation Commanders last year and this year, give them a quick read!   Brands earning lots of positive consumer conversation in social media can’t count on doing the same in everyday offline conversation, as Engagement Labs analytics have proven again and again for more than a decade. We find no consistent relationship between online and offline conversation trends for brands. Nevertheless, 76 brands out of more than 650 measured manage to succeed both online and offline, earning the designation of a “Conversation Commander.” Among these brands, 28 achieved that designation just recently, during the COVID era, replacing 37 brands that have dropped out of the top classification. New Conversation Commanders Brands of Covid Era One key example of a rising brand is the Disney+ streaming service, a brand that is less than a year old, meaning it didn’t have a chance to be a Conversation Commander a year ago. Even so, Disney+ is now one of the strongest leaders both online and offline. On a 0-100 scale, Disney+ clocks in at a 73.1 for offline conversation performance, the highest among the new Conversation Commanders. It also earns a 58.4 for social media performance. The other brand making the biggest leap into the Conversation Commander category also is a media brand: HGTV. Thanks to a dramatic rise in both offline and online net sentiment, reflecting much more positive conversation, HGTV is now one of the strongest conversation brands in Engagement Labs’ TotalSocial® measurement system. The HGTV brand has benefited from the new focus of consumers on home and garden improvement, the focus of programming on HGTV. The New Conversation Commanders Outside of the media category, many other brands are gaining thanks to successful programs they have launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. GEICO is a case in point. The brand moved sharply upward into the Conversation Commander quadrant thanks to dramatic improvements—both online and offline—in sentiment and “influence,” meaning well-connected people were talking about the brand. It is the only financial services brand to earn Conversation Commander status. A likely reason is during the pandemic GEICO announced it would rebate 15% of customers premiums due to the rapid decline in auto accidents, for a total of $2.5 billion in rebates. The rebates were promoted in heartwarming, pandemic-themed commercials, including one that has been watched by more than 10 million people on YouTube. Budweiser is the only brand in the beverage category to hold the Conversation Commander status for 2019 and 2020. Samuel Adams is the only other beer brand to move into the Conversation Commander for 2020 while many beer brands—Bud Light, Coors Light, Blue Moon, and Miller—have dropped out of that top right quadrant due to the closure of bars and restaurants where lots of conversations about beer occur. Sam Adams has done it by adapting their “Your Cousin from Boston” series of commercials to the COVID era with commercials depicting Zoom calls among friends. The brand also has launched an economic relief program for restaurant workers unemployed by the pandemic. Although Samuel Adams remains one of the less frequently talked about brands in our TotalSocial system, the conversations about the brand are even more positive than before, especially offline conversations, and more of them are being stimulated by Sam Adams advertising and marketing. Despite steep declines in the purchases of automobiles during the pandemic, Hyundai has become a Conversation Commander by improving both online and offline net sentiment. The company has been especially proactive in offering COVID programs to customers, including its job loss protection program that was first offered during the 2009 financial crises and donations for COVID testing. The brand also gained positive sentiment in April when it launched an Earth Day social media campaign with the K-pop group BTS in support of its new electric vehicles. One impact of the pandemic has been increasing consumer engagement in basic product categories often taken for granted. Some of the fastest rising conversation volumes during the pandemic have been registered for household products such as Clorox and Lysol, and supermarkets like Kroger. Fitting that pattern, the Huggies brand from Kimberly Clark has moved into the Conversation Commander category. The brand has benefited from the new focus on necessities, and the brand has been responsive to the pandemic by donating 5 million diapers and $1 million in funds to economically strapped families. Consumer conversation trends provide brands with an indication of the underlying strength of their brands at a time when consumer purchases are depressed by the pandemic, particularly in non-essential categories. Brands that have responded most effectively to the pandemic through changes in products, messaging, and marketing should be in the best position to rebound once the economy returns to normal. Importantly, brands need to remember that social media alone cannot provide a holistic perspective on their performance, given the lack of correlation between online and offline conversation. A TotalSocial perspective is vital during these difficult times. And knowing that online and offline each drive positive business outcomes such as sales and brand health, it is a strategy that will reward those who succeed. Brands that Lost Conversation Commander Status During COVID Era

Lessons from the Leaders of Social Influence

Part 2: Five Brands that Excel at Both Online and Offline Social Engagement

LessonsFromLeadersCoverimage Last week we talked about the 45 brands that achieved strong performance both offline and online, placing them among the top 10% of all brands we measure. Their ability to activate consumer engagement via both channels is powerful and drives millions of dollars to their topline. These brands that command consumer conversations achieve “social success” through a variety of methods. To illustrate that point, we’ve selected five brands that were “Conversation Commanders” before the pandemic and remain so in 2020.  

Amazon: Commanding the Conversation, Online & Offline

Amazon gets a lot of attention for dominating the retail landscape, particularly during the pandemic. It also is a commander of the American consumer conversation. Amazon is the third most talked about brand offline—behind only Apple and Walmart—and the seventh most talked about online. Since the pandemic struck, Amazon’s volume has risen both offline and online. The chart below shows scores of between 0 and 100 on four dimensions—volume, net sentiment, “brand sharing,” and “influence.” Each of those dimensions is measured in offline conversations and in online social media. The scores are derived to compare a brand’s performance on a metric to nearly 650 other brands performed. A score of 100 is the maximum, 50 is about average, and 0 is the lowest possible score. Conversation Commander - Amazon TotalSocial Performance Despite Amazon being a brand of the digital economy, it performs more strongly in everyday, offline conversations than it does in social media, with an overall offline score of 75.2 and an online score of 56.4. This pattern is particularly evident when it comes to the net sentiment of conversations, for which Amazon scores much higher offline (70.2) than online (44). Indeed, for every dimension measured, Amazon’s offline score is higher than the corresponding online score, despite the brand’s enormous online footprint. This is consistent with a pattern we have seen throughout the growth of the digital economy. Increasingly, consumers talk offline about the things they see and experience online. It’s long past time to think in terms of two separate worlds, digital and analog. Powered by mobile technology, the two worlds are almost fully blended now for consumers; they should be for brands, as well.

Vans: A Beloved Youth Brand Earning Conversations with Content

Several athletic shoe brands are Conversation Commanders, including Nike and Adidas, thanks to highly successful efforts to make themselves the centers of conversation and the larger culture. We have written previously about Nike, in particular. The Vans shoe brand has also achieved Conversation Commander status while being deeply imbedded in a more niche culture: youth skateboarding. As proof of the brand’s targeted focus, a recent commercial includes the comment, “Everything is so much better when you are like, young.” They’ve remained a youth brand despite being around for more than five decades, having achieved notoriety in 1982 when a young Sean Penn donned a pair of Vans in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The focus on youth means the conversation is really limited to people under 30 years of age, producing relative low “volume” scores for Vans, in contrast to Amazon or Nike. It’s difficult to generate a lot of conversation when you are just speaking to a slice of the consumer market. But, those who talk about the brand love it. The brand has extremely high net sentiment scores for conversations occurring both offline (72.6) and online (72.9), with an 18-pt increase in online sentiment, compared to last year. Conversation Commander - Vans TotalSocial Performance One thing that has changed in recent months is the amount of “brand sharing” related to Vans. Consumers talking offline about Vans are increasingly likely to talk about advertising and other brand content they have seen, particularly digital content they talk about offline. The consequence is that the offline brand sharing score has jumped from the mid-range of 40-60 points up to a score of about 90 since early May, as shown in the chart below. Vans Brand Sharing Scores The rise corresponds with pandemic and social-justice initiatives of the brand, including a campaign called “Foot the Bill” that has empowered 80 small businesses to generate revenue while closed during the pandemic by designing and selling custom Vans products.

Budweiser: Commanding Conversation, Even Without a Bar Scene

Budweiser is the only beer brands that was a Conversation Commander one year ago and has remained so. Bud Light, Coors Light, Blue Moon, and Miller Beer have all dropped out of the Conversation Commander quadrant, while Samuel Adams has moved up. Budweiser performs most strongly on the online dimensions of brand sharing and sentiment, and the offline dimensions of sentiment and volume. The erosion of word-of-mouth for beer brands has occurred primarily in the offline conversation metrics, likely due to the loss of public bars and restaurants as places where people consume and naturally talk about beer brands, and also due to the sharp reduction in professional sports during the first few months of quarantine, which normally provide powerful advertising opportunities both on television and in arenas and which in turn drive conversation. Conversation Commander - Budweiser TotalSocial Performance Why has Budweiser retained its position? The main reason is that the brand’s offline sentiment has improved in recent months, rising to the top score among all beer brands during the first six months of the pandemic at 77.8. More recently, in July and August, the brand reached an offline net sentiment score of 89.3. The improvement is driven by its core demographics: affluent and middle-aged men. Budweiser Sentiment Scores To what do we owe this love of the Budweiser brand? One part may be its association with the pandemic efforts of parent brand Anheuser-Busch, which converted some production to making hand sanitizer. The brand itself also reprised its 9-11 themed commercial in support of a nation dealing with a global pandemic. But another possibility may be that the pandemic has brought on a sense of nostalgia for the lifestyles and brands of days-gone-by, including the “king of beers” that in America dates back to the 1850s.  

Food Network Rebounds with Renewed Focus on Home Cooking

Media brands have a built-in advantage over other brands when it comes to driving conversations, because they are platforms for distributing engaging content that is meant to generate water cooler conversation and attract families to watch programs together. This is evident in the fact that media brands usually have high “brand sharing” scores, both online and offline, because of conversations generated by their content. The Food Network is an example of a media brand that has retained its status as a Conversation Commander—thanks to the pandemic. Over the prior year, the brand’s offline conversation levels had been steadily eroding, hitting a low point in December 2019. The fact is, Americans have been forced to rediscover their kitchens, making programming related to food and cooking relevant in a way it hasn’t been for at least a generation. Conversation Commander - Food Network TotalSocial Performance The Food Network’s strongest measure is online “brand sharing,” ranking among the top 20 among all brands with a score of 80.6, thanks to its enormous popularity on Facebook.   The brand also enjoys a lot of love offline (sentiment score of 77.9) and online (73.7). It also scores very well among everyday influencers with lots of social contacts, both offline (78.4) and online (75.8). Food Network’s only below-average score is offline conversation, an area that has improved recently, but could easily return as a problem once lifestyles change again.

Sephora: A Consistent Top Performer in Beauty but with Cautionary Signals

Sephora has been a standout performer in the retail and beauty categories, as evidenced by the brand’s performance in TotalSocial over the years. The brand was and remains a Conversation Commander, but that status may be at risk. Conversation Commander - Sephora TotalSocial Performance In the last six months, the brand performed enormously well on offline metrics such as offline sentiment (69.5), offline influence (69.2), and offline brand sharing (67.3), meaning consumers like to talk about its marketing and advertising content. Yet the brand’s offline sentiment has started to erode quite sharply toward the end of August, falling from consistent scores of nearly 80 to below 50. The drop in offline sentiment follows months after several sharp drops in online sentiment in the wake of large scale layoffs that produced embittered employees and negative publicity. The biggest declines in sentiment have occurred among younger, lower income, and non-white consumers who may be the most likely to relate to Sephora employees. Yet another factor may be shifting needs, with work-from-home trends during the pandemic reducing the relevance of beauty products. The decline in sentiment was more than 50 points among those “completely” staying home due to the pandemic. Sephora Sentiment Scores While we often see online and offline trends operate independently of each other, Sephora may be a case where initial negative sentiment online foreshadowed what was to come in offline conversations. We hope you will return to read the final installment of this series with brands that have risen to Conversation Commander status in 2020 that were not there a year ago. We will profile what is driving these rising stars.

The “Conversation Commander” Brands that Excel at Offline and Online Social Influence

Part 1:45 Brands (Out of 650) Earned Conversation Commanders During 2019 and 2020

Conversation Commanders Before consumers make buying decisions, they talk. Online AND Offline – through social media, product reviews, face-to-face or via Zoom, by text or IM, or via whatever channel – we all seek recommendations, feedback and validation in our choices of entertainment and products. These conversations, reviews and the counsel of our peers have enormous impact on consumer choices and thus on brands in terms of sales, brand health, and other KPIs. At Engagement Labs we have demonstrated that for most brands, there is little to no correlation between what gets talked about online in social media and what gets talked about offline. At the same time, our analytics have also demonstrated that offline and online each contribute about equally to business outcomes. Across a market basket of brands, offline WOM drives 10% of sales and online social media drives 9%. The clout of consumer conversation is real – and it is an imperative aspect of any marketing strategy today. Brands that achieve strong performance both offline and online are in an enviable position. Their ability to activate both offline and online engagement drives millions of dollars to their topline. We call these brands Conversation Commanders because of their commanding position both offline and online. Sadly, only a small percentage of brands really excel. But there is much to be learned from those who do. We have analyzed brands that achieved Conversation Commander status during the six months since COVID-19 hit and consumer behavior took a dramatic turn. We also looked at brands that were Conversation Commanders during the same six month a year prior. There are 45 brands (out of 650 studied) that were Conversation Commanders during both years. They have achieved enduring success and include some of the country’s most notable names that should make all brands aspire to the same position. These are the brands that we want to highlight – and celebrate – in this blog post. In addition, there are 30 brands that have risen to Conversation Commander status in 2020 that were not there a year ago. And 37 brands that were Conversation Commanders a year ago but lost their position in 2020. We will focus on those subsequently.

Brands that are Enduring Conversation Commanders

Who are the brands that are Conversation Commanders now and were a year ago as well? They are some of the best-known brands in the country. Amazon is in the top 10, satisfying our shopping needs. So are Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, along with the Food Network and Nintendo, all helping to entertain us. Nike and Adidas too. Toyota. And Avon. Taking a look at the full list of 45, there is a diverse list that is led by media/entertainment brands, followed closely by retail/apparel and technology, but also includes a good representation from food/dining/grocery and beauty. The categories break down as follows: 020-09 EL03 CONVO COMMADERS BLOG v4-01

How Do Offline and Online Performance Compare?

Conversation Commanders are brands that are above average both offline and online. Across the full set of 45 that are featured here, performance is about equal both offline and online. But there are some notable differences, in particular brands that are relatively stronger offline versus online. For example, Amazon’s offline performance is +18.8 points stronger than its online performance, representing the largest gap and demonstrating that eCommerce can drive superior offline performance – there are no silos that constrain consumers. This is followed by Adidas (16.5), Toyota (15.2), Sephora (14.7), Nike (14.7), Oreo (11.2), and Apple Mac (10.3). What about the flip side, where online performance outperforms offline? Only Spotify has a double-digit differential, with a 14.3 point stronger online performance vs. offline. The rest of the top 5 that are stronger online are Kindle (9.9), MLB (9.5), NBA (7.5) and ESPN (7.2). The power of media and sports to drive online performance is evident here, remembering that these brands are also strong offline performers. Looked at another way, only two of the Conversation Commander brands earn top 10 honors in both the offline and online lists: Netflix and Food Network. TOP 10 Conversation Commanders by Mode of Conversation

Change versus 2019: The Enduring Power of Disney World is on Display

The power of these Conversation Commanders can be seen in the consistency between 2019 and the very different and much more difficult 2020. Disney World received one of the top honors in our 2019 Most Loved Brands. Feeling the impact of Covid-19 that devasted so many travel brands, Disney World saw the biggest decline in its TotalSocial score, dropping 11.7 points — but it is a testament to its power as the “most magical place on earth” that despite the decline it nevertheless retained Conversation Commander status. MLB declined by 5.6 points, due a sharp decline in net sentiment as players and the league entered into acrimonious negotiations about how to open the MLB season; and Betty Crocker which declined by 5.3 points as a result of a sharp decline in our brand sharing metric, which is likely due to reduced ad spending during Covid-19 when demand for baking goods was high but in short supply. Amazon Prime Video was the biggest gainer among this group rising 6.2 points, followed by Vans (+5.9). None of the other brands that were Conversation Commanders in 2019 and 2020 rose or fell by more than 5 points.

Case Studies

Brands that command consumer conversations achieve “social success” through a variety of methods. To illustrate that point and provide insights into pathways to achieve Conversation Commander status, in next week’s blog we will profile five brands that were “Conversation Commanders” before the pandemic and remain so in 2020. This will include Amazon, Budweiser, Food Network, Sephora and Vans. We hope you will return to read this analysis.

Amazon’s Offline Consumer Conversation is Soaring During Pandemic, and It’s Not Alone in Retail

A Tale of Two Retail Landscapes, as Pandemic Era Drives Big Offline Conversation Gains for Large Retailers of Necessities and Youth-Oriented eCommerce Sites, as Department and Specialty Stores Suffer

amazon-walmart-target It looks like the pandemic is producing a retail industry apocalypse with the bankruptcy and/or retrenchment of venerable retail brands from Brooks Brothers to Lord & Taylor and from Pier 1 Imports to JCPenney. Yet the offline conversation trends suggest we’re seeing a tale of two very different retail landscapes, as discount merchandisers, home centers, supermarkets, drug stores – and especially Amazon – are earning a lot more conversation from consumers. Consumer conversation trends—particularly offline conversations—provide a unique window into what’s happening in the marketplace, as the continuing pandemic has done nothing to reduce consumers’ enthusiasm for sharing opinions with each other about brands. Offline word-of-mouth is always an important part of the consumer decision journey, and especially during these times of rapid transition and change it helps consumers navigate their way through the new retail landscape. Across all brands and in a diverse set of fifteen categories tracked by Engagement Labs, retailers represent one-third of the brands gaining the most offline conversation this year, with Amazon the biggest winner among them. For the weeks between March and August 30th, Americans have participated in conversations about Amazon 137 million times per week on average, up 46 million from the prior year. Only Netflix has gained more conversation volume during the pandemic. Other big retail winners among the top 12 have been Target (up 19 million), Walmart (17 million), and Home Depot (16 million). Rising conversation patterns suggest that the purveyors of necessities such as food, cleaning products, and medicine are benefiting the most, along with “nest feathering” retailers such as Home Depot. Retailers Among The Brands Gaining Offline Word-of-Mouth Indeed, when you look at what has happened for different types of retailer companies, discount retailers are up the most, followed by hardware and home centers, supermarket chains, and athletic stores and brands, as many Americans have equipped themselves for individualized outdoor exercise and recreation such as bicycling, hiking, running, and walking. Supermarkets and drugstores have joined the upper echelon of word-of-mouth retail brands thanks to consumers’ increasing appreciation for brands that give us our daily bread, our milk, and our sanitizers. Kroger offline conversations are up 10.8 million impressions per week, or 38%, followed closely by CVS (up 8.4 million, 31%) and Walgreens (up 7.2 million, 23%). Starting from lower levels of conversation, the trendy supermarket brands Whole Foods (up 4.7 million, 49%) and Trader Joe’s (up 4.7 million, 36%) are up sharply. Retailers Gaining The Most Offline Word-of-Mouth At the other extreme, we are seeing enormous declines in conversations about department stores, specialty stores, and apparel brands, consistent with the recently announced bankruptcies and closures of venerable brands such as Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, JCPenney, J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, and Pier 1 Imports. A few retailers are gaining word-of-mouth against type. The China-based fast-fashion brand Shein has enjoyed a 3.8 million increase—fully 221%—in offline word-of-mouth conversation, thanks to an enormously popular eCommerce app favored by the talkative Generation Z. Similarly, the California-based Fashion Nova brand has seen conversations rise of 2.4 million during the pandemic, 160%, by focusing on a youth-oriented eCommerce strategy. And Brandy Melville, in the same niche, rose by 1.9 million conversation impressions, an increase of 275% from a year ago! Kohl’s has fared the worst in terms of offline conversation data volume, declining by almost 6 million weekly conversation impressions versus a year ago. Others losing conversation relevance include Forever 21, Old Navy, Sears, Barnes & Noble, and Hot Topic Music. Retail Brands Losing the Most Offline Conversation Volume Providing evidence of the importance of offline conversations, many of the brands enjoying big gains in their social media presence this year are brands that are doing poorly in offline conversations—and in terms of business performance. Several of the brands losing the most offline conversation have improved strongly in social media during the pandemic, including Michael Kors, Hot Topic, Dollar Tree, Forever 21, even the shuttered Toys R Us company. In some cases, the social media performance may be due to nostalgia and regret related to their closing and/or retrenching.  

Amazon vs. Walmart vs. Target

The rivalry among Amazon, Walmart, and Target are revealing to evaluate in the context of the pandemic. A year ago, Walmart enjoyed far more conversation volume compared to Amazon, with about 300 million weekly conversation impressions, versus less than 200 million per week for Amazon. But that gap has been steadily eroding, roughly cut in half. This shift provides a compelling argument for Walmart’s new Walmart Plus membership to compete with Amazon Prime, and Walmart’s courtship of TikTok in partnership with Microsoft. Although Target conversations are rising, the brand’s volume still lags both Amazon and Walmart by large margins. Offline Conversation Volume - Amazon vs Target vs Walmart Walmart may still have an edge in offline conversation volume, but Amazon is way ahead in social media, with more than half a million weekly online mentions, roughly double Walmart’s. Yet these social media conversations haven’t risen to the extent that we see offline discussions growing. Online Conversation Volume - Amazon vs Target vs Walmart Besides the erosion of its lead in conversation volume, Walmart has another vulnerability. The net sentiment for Walmart consumer conversations has long been less positive for Walmart compared to either Amazon or Target, both of which are top tier among all retailers. Since the pandemic, that pattern has worsened for Walmart as conversation have shifted in a more negative direction, both offline and online. Offline Conversation Net Sentiment - Amazon vs Target vs Walmart Online Conversation Net Sentiment - Amazon vs Target vs Walmart On an overall basis, retail category conversations are up slightly since the onset of the pandemic, but that shift belies enormous divergences in fortune, depending on the retail category and brand. Generally, discount general merchandisers, supermarket and drugstores, and ecommerce-focused brands are doing the best, while the department and specialty stores that have dominated indoor malls are way down. Yet there are exceptions for fast-fashion companies that have focused on young, app-based shoppers, suggesting that innovation propels brands forward even in the specialty apparel category that is struggling generally. The success these youth-oriented and online-focused brands are having in driving offline conversations also makes the important point that offline conversations will remain relevant and powerful as business drivers for generations to come.