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MORE ADS NOW CATER TO NEW STATUS SYMBOL THAT HAVING LESS IS BEST

SHARE MORE ADS NOW CATER TO NEW STATUS SYMBOL THAT HAVING LESS IS BEST

When the ultimate status symbols have become scarce commodities like a happy marriage or well-adjusted kids, marketers of mere things have to take notice.

Their dilemma: How to sell more stuff to people who say they need less. The engines of postwar prosperity have been oiled by Madison Avenue's relentless message that more is better than less and that dreams can be fulfilled with the flash of plastic.Now some companies are applying that same creative energy to pitching their wares to people who value experiences and free time more than fancy watches or flashy clothes. These marketers have concluded that shoppers who already own everything now hanker for simple, practical, environmentally friendly gear. That is, all the trappings of a simpler life.

Rockport Co., a unit of Reebok International Inc., has created an ad campaign it thinks will speak to the new values. Shots of mud-crusted boots with glowing testimonials from their actual owners "make it cool to be frugal, cool to be smart and not cool to be frivolous," says Angel Martinez, president and chief executive of Rockport. Since the campaign broke in March in New York and San Francisco, sales at key store accounts in those markets have risen 20 percent, the company says. Related TV ads are running in other cities as well.

"The idea is to buy less but buy our stuff," says Kevin Sweeney, director of environmental strategies for Patagonia Inc. The closely held sportswear manufacturer has pared down the number of items in its catalogs, offers to repair used goods damaged by wear and tear and promotes its garments as rugged enough to pass along to the next generation. Consumers who support such efforts - and are willing to pay a premium for, say, fleecewear made from recycled soda bottles - have helped Patagonia grow into a solidly profitable, $150 million business.

For those who merely want to affect the look of wear-it-out frugality, a J.Crew catalog boasts $48 chinos "stone washed till the edges actually begin to fray, like a favorite old pair of your own."

Even Sharper Image Corp., the purveyor of high-tech gadgets, is finding new ways to reach customers. While visiting a spa a couple of years ago, Richard Thalheimer, founder and chairman of Sharper Image, talked to women guests about his company. He learned that "they don't mind spending money, but they don't want more gadgets," he says. "They're after a better life experience, stress relief, relaxation." The result was Sharper Image's SPA catalog, which sells items ranging from aromatherapy and facial peels to a clock that awakens sleepers with simulated sunlight.

Meanwhile, binocular sales are growing 10 percent annually at Sharper Image. "I'm sure it's due to bird-watching," says Thal-heimer. "My marketers tell me that bird-watching is the single biggest spectator sport in America." Another hot item: A $79 shock-absorbing walking stick.

Automakers, too, must reckon with new consumer values - as evidenced by the strength of used-car sales and rapid growth of used-car superstore franchises. Since 1989, new-car dealers have been selling more used vehicles than new.

But Robert Thomas, president of Nissan Motor Corp. USA, argues that consumers' avowed practicality goes only so far. He says that in focus groups, consumers talk a lot about needing only functionality and reliability in a vehicle, but "then you come out with a sharp car and it's hot."

Nonetheless, advertisers have begun tweaking the time-tested fundamentals of "aspirational marketing," whereby everything from convertibles to wine was pitched as a passport to sex, status and upward mobility. Today's yardsticks of success tend to be such intangibles as "satisfaction with self, getting control of your life and having a terrific family," says Ann Clurman of Yankelovich Partners, a Norwalk, Conn., research group that annually monitors consumer attitudes. So it's no surprise that advertisers are picking up on buzzwords like "balance" to imbue products - and by implication, their purchasers - with more-substantive values.

The men's fragrance Bernini Beverly Hills strikes this note in its ads with the line, "A man's convictions should be strong, not his cologne." When the Bernini Inc. men's clothing chain launched the cologne in 1995, it did so with a classic "sexy, suggestive" campaign, says Kim Miyade, president of the Advertising Consortium, Bernini's Los Angeles ad agency. Although she says that campaign was successful, it was dropped in favor of a more-conservative theme. "The point is, our audience is not the guy who drives a Ferrari and wears alligator shoes, he's much deeper than that," she says.

Depth aside, today's guys - and gals - are stretched for time, which is another chord marketers are striking. "It's not just that you need less stuff, but shopping has to be an easier experience," says Lisa Bayne, vice president and corporate creative director at Spiegel Inc.'s Eddie Bauer subsidiary. People no longer invest time buying and accessorizing extensive new wardrobes each season. "They want simple solutions - no-brainer dressing," she says.

Accordingly, the sportswear concern has introduced AKA Eddie Bauer stores and catalogs, offering comfortable career clothing in fabrics and colors that remain in stock so that new pieces can be added over time. "We may be moving toward variations on uniforms," Bayne jokes. Eddie Bauer's first national advertising campaign, launched in March, also echoes the precious-time theme. It urges the frazzled: "Take the day off. Call in well."

Earlier this year, the ad agency Bozell Worldwide co-sponsored a survey showing that one in 12 Americans had consciously made a life change, such as reducing hours on the job or refusing promotions - to reduce stress and gain time with their families. "That's a wakeup call to marketers," says Allan Gardner, managing partner. "It was the first time in our purview that consumers were taking action."

One lesson for advertisers "may be that we want to talk more quietly and more seriously to people, rather than out-yelling the competition," he says. Though he concedes that such a strategy "would be a tough sale" on Madison Avenue, he points out that the commercial selected as the world's best in Cannes in 1994 was a spot showing a Jeep silently burrowing through snowdrifts. "There's not a word of copy," Gardner says. "But people get it."