Skip to Content

Eric Asche at ComNet18

ComNet18 Keynote

Eric Asche, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer at the Truth Initiative (introduced by Jade Floyd of the Case Foundation) accepted The Clarence B. Jones Impact Award and spoke about Truth’s successful communications efforts to eradicate youth smoking.

Below, watch the video, listen to the podcast, or read the transcript.

Watch

Listen

Transcript

Eric Asche: Got it? All right. Awesome. Thank you so much. Thank you very much for this award. To say that I am, and we are, humbled and honored is an understatement. Thank you for your contribution and thank you for honoring us. I must confess, I am having a little bit of a, “I’m not worthy,” moment at this stage, but I’m not giving this back, if it’s okay with you. I am going to keep this award. Thank you very, very much. I’m really excited to spend some time with you and share our story, how Truth has really made a difference in impacting youth and youth culture and, I think, changing the public landscape to a large degree.

Just real quickly, some things that we’re going to go over. I’m going to talk a little bit about us. Actually, I’m going to talk a lot about us. In that section where I talk about us, I’m going to try my best to really focus on the key strategic decisions that we made early on in the formation of the organization that have led to our success. I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about things that you already know. How many of you in the audience know who we are when you came in? A good number of you, awesome. So I won’t spend a lot of time belaboring the finer points of the 501(c)(3) status. You know a bunch about that, but really, who are we, and why is that important, and why is it germane to our ongoing success?

Then we’ll talk about, a little bit, how do we actually structure and make the magic happen, so a peek behind the curtain, what does it look like when we actually try to formalize the strategy, and go into a little bit more granularity in terms of how we make decisions, how we measure the campaign, how we know it actually works. I’ll go into that. Then I’ll talk about our posture. I’ll share some of the works, some show-and-tell. As we talk about the strategy, it’s helpful, I think, to see that play out in the real world versus just talking about this in an inferior way. Then I’ll spend a little bit of time talking about the road ahead, and it’s thorny, to say the least, and just share with you some things we’re thinking about, some of the challenges that we’re going to face, and hopefully come back in the near future … Sean, that was a little plug there … to share how the story ends up evolving for us over time.

So, a couple of ground rules as we get engaged. Number one, I want you to get your marketing vibe on. I want you to feel the marketing vibe. For some of you, based on what you do, it’s natural. Some of you would think … When you hear the word marketing and if I use some of the marketing terms, that may feel uncomfortable to you, particularly if you’re a practitioner. If you’re in the research side, you may have some skepticism when you hear those words, but I want to challenge you, because whether you think this way or not, if you are engaging with consumers or a constituency or any population, you are competing for their attention. You’re competing for market share, if you will. I want you to think that way. It may not be your default position, in terms of how you think about the work you do and how you deploy your resources, but for this conversation, I want you to think about a marketer and put aside any of the negative connotations that may come with those terms.

Second, I want you to lean forward. There are so many times when I share our story and people will opt out because they say, “Well, we don’t have the resources, and we don’t have a clear binary enemy the way that you do in the tobacco industry.” That’s all fair, very fair. I realize that we are, in many cases, an anomaly based on who we are and how we’re structured and the funding mechanism, but I challenge you not to use that as an excuse to say why you can’t do something. There’s something here for you to learn. It’s really a question of scale. You can take every single thing that I’m sharing with you and figure out a way to scale it for your budget, your audience, your needs. So please, please, lean forward. Don’t lean back.

On that note, I want you to give your inner critic a break. Try not to criticize me. Try not to judge me. I wouldn’t have said it that way. That slide’s not that clear. Don’t judge yourself. I couldn’t do that. I don’t have the resources. Just relax. Take it in. I find, when I’m in your position and I hear people talk, sometimes what I hear the individual actually presenting is really salient, and I write that down, and it sticks with me. Other times, if I just relax and try to silence the noise and be present, what happens on stage leads me to think about other things in a new way. I really hope that happens for you.

One other rule of engagement, I am fighting a sinus infection, and I’m so sorry to share that with you. There is a distinct possibility that I may have to come over here and blow my nose during the presentation. What I’m asking you is a vow that you will not post that on social media. All in favor, say aye.

Audience: Aye.

Now, if Congress worked like that, we would be off to the races, right? Thank you for that.

So, I’m going to start at the top, a little bit about us and who we are. I’ve been married for 10 years, almost 10 years, and I love my wife. She’s amazing. If you’re married or with a significant other, you’ve probably had the same experience, and you’re dating or you’re with someone for a while, and you’re trying to get to know them and the rhythms and the patterns, and then you meet their parents and you go, “Oh, it makes sense now. I understand why they talk the way they do,” or if you aren’t married and you meet your grandparents and you understand, “Oh, that’s why my parents act a certain way.” The reason I want to talk about us and how we were formed is because it’s been very important … The DNA of how we were formed has played to our advantage. It’s who we are as an organization. It’s a strength, and my guess is the same thing is the case with you as well. You see it in your personal life and probably from your organization.

To make a short story very short, we were born out of a fight. We’re fighters, and we are good at fighting. This is a picture on the New York Times. I guess this was in the ’99, close to 2000. The tobacco executives, when they were testifying before Congress and they all said, “Tobacco is not addictive. Tobacco doesn’t cause cancer. No, we didn’t do anything wrong,” of course, they lied. As a result of all of those findings, the states sued Big Tobacco and money was dispersed. I’m not going to go into the granularity of that, but what’s important behind that is that we came out with a charge to fight for the people who were taken advantage of, because they were lied to. Communities were devastated, the countless number of people that died from cancer. For us, we use that as real power, real momentum, because we are fighters. In everything we do, we’re fighters.

What we try to do, really, is focus on what are we best at, and when we talk about tobacco control in the landscape, if you hear me say things like, “We’re the best. We’re the greatest,” yes, I think we are great. If you hear me take credit for everything we’ve done, that’s an overstatement. I stand on the shoulders of the people who went before me. I stand on the shoulders of decades of work that were done at the community level and states. As an organization, the only reason why we exist is because people were really doing the hard work on the ground for decades. We came on top of all of that work and that effort, and we were able to use that momentum to our advantage to make a real impact. I recognize that.

The other thing that’s really important to note is that, for us, we know public education doesn’t work in a vacuum. There are lots of things that go into how do you curtail prevention and drive down the smoking rates? One of them is public education. That’s what we do and we focus on almost exclusively, but these things happen in concert with things that are happening on the ground, the hard work of policy change. When tobacco prices increase, when you tax tobacco, cigarettes in particular, and you change the Clean Indoor Air laws through legislation, and then you put a tobacco message, a prevention message or a sensation message on top of that, your smoking rates plummet. Our success hasn’t happened in isolation. Just know that I recognize that.

Let’s go back to the beginning. 1999, 2000, what did the landscape look like? Well, the smoking rates for teens, youth and young adults … I’ll use those terms interchangeably throughout … was somewhere close to 25%. 25%, a massive number. So, the first thing that we did was try to figure out why in the world is this happening? You’ll see a theme throughout my conversation with you today of when we have questions, we’re going to the audience, try to understand why is this behavior taking place? What’s going on that we don’t understand? Because when you look at the product itself, it’s a fairly easy conclusion that you get to. If you use the product as designed, you will die of cancer. It’s a pretty straightforward … You can’t really find many benefits. You can’t find any benefits to smoking. If you use it correctly, you die.

At the same time, when we look at the smoking rates for adults, the vast majority of them start before the age of 18. 80% to 85% of adult smokers start before the age of 18. If you take that aperture up to 24, 25 years old, you almost have virtually every single adult smoker. We know it kills you. That seems like a logical conclusion. You’d think that would be a deterrent. However, the vast majority of the individuals who start as adults, they start when they’re young. So, where do we start? We started to look at what’s going on with this audience, the adolescent.

I don’t know if many of you have a teen in your household. I have a six, a four, and a two-year-old, all boys. We’re just getting the crap kicked out of us. Everything I own is broken. But if you have an adolescent in your house, you’re going to … I’m sure I’ll get an amen from the group, but you have this rational and irrational war going on at the same time, at all times, where they act like an adult, right? “That’s a very logical decision they made. I think they’re going to be just fine.” And then they make this irrational decision. You think, “I thought we were advancing.” Well, some of that is just biological. They’re trying to figure it out. So, this tension between the rational and irrational is always taking place, and there’s a lot of just … That’s how we’re designed as human beings.

So, we started to really dive into what does this tension look like for us in terms of how the youth and young adult audience are making their decisions? Because, again, we’re trying to understand why is someone making a decision to use this product? We landed on what we’re calling need states. We’ve had different buckets come and go throughout our tenure, but ultimately, we think that adolescents … and you can look at the literature, and this backs it up to a certain degree … their actions fall into these need states where it’s self-expression. They’re trying to figure out who they are. My favorite is this, “I want to be independent and I want to fit in.” I love that. “I want to be different, just like all my friends.” I’m sure you see this. Respect is huge. The risk, right? I mean, why are they making these decisions? Why are they jumping off … fill in the blank. It’s innate for some, just naturally how we’re born.

But all of this, we think, goes into trying to carve out themselves, have some measure of control, and it’s kind of a power play. In 2000, this power play of really trying to seize power … and you think about the cohort in 2000. I’ll talk a little bit about that. That was a main driver for decisions and the developmental process. Well, who else do you think knew this? Right? The tobacco industry. They knew this. They were way, way, way out in front. What are they trying to do? They’re trying to play into those need states. They’re trying to appropriate culture. “We’re just like you. We’re for you. We’re on your side,” while they were saying horrible things. They were exploiting communities behind doors.

How did the public health community respond? C. Everett Koop, who is awesome, by the way, hero. But when you think about competing for the rational and the irrational at the same time, the tobacco industry knew that they couldn’t make it a logical argument. It wasn’t based on fact. The numbers don’t hold up that it’s just based on fact. So, what the public health community did was come out with facts. It’s bad for you. Don’t do it, which what? Was playing right into the need states of saying, “Back off, old guy.” Everything that he was saying was true. It is true, still true today. So much of the public health has been built on the work that he did, but at the same time, when you’re talking about the audience, it wasn’t getting through and resonating with them because he wasn’t speaking in a way that they could actually internalize it and own it.

Another way to think about this was how we were positioning ourselves in the issue in the mind of the consumer. I’m going to use a little bit of marketing speak. What the tobacco industry did really well was really own this quadrant of being rebellious and being empowering. You can be an individual. Be your own person. Take it. Use it. Do it. Where did public health land? Well, we landed down here. Just say no. Think, don’t smoke. My favorite is tobacco is whacko. I love that. That’s awesome. If I remember correctly, that was an actual prevention campaign that was produced by the tobacco industry and … Wait for it … it actually wasn’t effective, because they knew that too.

So, we had a decision to make, and it’s hard to underestimate how important this decision was and how controversial it was when we first made this decision, but we decided to go at it with Big Tobacco and compete for that space. We decided to act like a marketer, develop a brand, and compete for that space. It was a really difficult road for the early pioneers in our space to do that because there wasn’t a lot of evidence at the time to do that. So for us to take this on, we had two decisions. We could either, A, continue to go against the momentum head-on … Don’t rebel, kids. Don’t rebel. Don’t rebel. Don’t do this. Know the facts … or we could use the momentum to our advantage and channel it.

Kids are going to rebel. They’re going to try risky things. We know that. You know that if you have them in your household. It’s impossible. The best thing you can do is push them on the right path, right? Give them the tools so that they can make the decision. How many times, those of you who have a young adult in your household, have you had an argument or a fight because you’re treating them like a kid and not an adult? Happens all the time. We decided not to fight against that. This isn’t a conversation that’s like getting your chickenpox and getting shot or vaccinated. It’s not binary. “Go do,” and they’re going to go do it. It’s much more complex than that. We decided to use that momentum to our advantage, and this is how the first iteration of the campaign manifested itself in the real world.

You may be familiar with that ad. Oh, thank you. Thank you. Really, really proud of that work. You may be familiar with that ad, but you can feel the Gen X-ness of that ad. You can feel the angst, and we were incredibly effective. From the time we launched in 2000 to 2014 … and I’m going to talk about why I’m picking 2014 … a tremendous, tremendous decline. We just hit that hammer again and again and again and again. We’re not solely responsible, again, for that decline. We did play a significant part in that, and we drove the smoking rate all the way down to roughly 10%. You may be thinking, “Great. That’s awesome. Let’s just keep going. We’ve got this thing figured out.” We literally celebrated for about an afternoon, and then we quickly sobered up and realized that we had a significant challenge on our hands, because we did what? We went right back to the consumer to understand what was going on.

We started to see early on from some of our research that our audience was saying, “Yeah, Truth is cool. I get it. There’s a high recognition, but that’s for my younger brother or my younger sister. It’s not for me.” We were really surprised by that. We pride ourselves of being of the culture and for the culture and by the culture, and so we started to dig in. We found a pretty drastic change had happened, which all of you are probably aware of, but when we first launched, we were talking to this guy, Slim Shady. So angsty, right? Sorry about the middle finger, but I sort of feel like that’s indicative of that generation. But everything that we did up to this point came from a Gen X tone.

A little bit about Gen X, latchkey kids, super independent, the not-joiners. If you were to look at the top 10 brands for Gen X, you wouldn’t find any overlap with their parents at all. They would not call their parents their friends. There was no helicopter parent, and so very much the momentum there was give the finger to the man, and the tone of the brand and how we positioned ourselves was really to appeal to that Gen X. Well, if you fast forward to 2014, you couldn’t have a more polar opposite community, right? I mean, this could be anywhere in the country. The most diverse, the most wired in. In many cases, they’re the IT person of their family. If you’re an adult and you have a teen in your house, they’re the ones that are programming everything in your house for you.

What we found was this really interesting momentum, and you’ve seen this. It’s probably been well documented that this group didn’t have the same angst with authority. Why is that? Well, it really wasn’t that they were struggling for power, because they had power. So, our value prop really changed for us to be successful. It wasn’t about channeling that rebellion the way it was for the past generation. It was really about channeling that power in a constructive way. You could see examples of how the audience and the generation was really trying to figure out their footing on what to do. You’d see these really, really helpful things. The marriage equality, depending upon where you land on the issue, a really helpful thing in terms of getting behind the issue and using their power and their social footprint to influence behavior. Then you would see this bubbling up of things that were really unhealthy, the shaming, the bullying online.

We saw this like there’s a chance to channel that momentum, and then we took a step back and realized … The smoking rate at this time had dropped to about 9% versus almost 25% in 2000, down to 9%. We made a pretty significant shift then. Instead of focusing on the 9% that we were trying to get, those at-risk teens to convince them to do something different, and looking at what we knew about the generation, their thirst to make a difference, their ability and their uniqueness to see themselves as a collective … Many of you in the room feel that way. That’s why you’re here. We could take that 91% and get them to engage on this issue on their own behalf. We could appeal to the desire to make a difference, and we could stamp this out.

It was a big shift for us because we were no longer the little guy fighting the giant. When you think about the 91%, you think about the power of this audience. We suddenly had become the giant, and it was very important for us to position ourselves that way and to position the issue as a generational call to arms, victory in sight. There’s something magical that happens when you start … We’d see this in focus groups. The smoking rate was 25%. Once it got to 9%, single digits, people are like, “Oh, yeah. Well, we’re going to crush this. We got this.” We had to use that to our advantage. To say it was a significant shift to being a brand that does not want to empower to a brand that facilitates and hands over the keys to that young adult or adolescent was seismic. Here’s what it looked like when we relaunched the brand in 2014.

Hopefully, you can see the … By the way, I get that. I see it. I’m just like, “Sign me up,” I’m such a sucker for my own advertising. I just love it. Let’s fight. Hopefully, you can see the shift and the transfer. We’re still going after an enemy. I think it’s really important for us to have an enemy, but you can see that we’re actually now trying to be less about what we’re against and what we’re for, which is a pretty significant shift. You also may have picked up language there. We’re asking you to enlist. We’re asking . you to participate, which means there’s got to be a role for you, which was another big shift for us, in terms of how we staff, how we think about it, how we measure the campaign.

So, from 2014 until today, smoking rates have continued to plummet. We’re down right around the 5% mark, 5.6. I’m looking at Jotti who’s with my … 5.6. Oh. Yeah, 5.4, sorry. Jotti’s a stickler for getting it right. 5.4%. We’re extremely happy about that. When you look at the impact we’ve had over time, which is in part why we’ve won the award, we’ve saved over a million lives from smoking cigarettes. We’ve won tons of awards for the effort, Emmys, Clios, Lions. Ad Age has named us a top 10 campaign of the 21st Century. Most important today, we were able to win the Clarence B. Jones Award for our impact and what we’ve done in society. Thank you. What I thought was going to be a short story was actually a long story. I apologize for that, but the short story is it works.

Now I want to talk a little bit about how we make sure that it’s going to work, and so a little bit about our process, what we do to ensure that we can deliver campaigns and messaging and a conversation that’s going to make a difference. When we look at the work that we do, basically everything that we do in terms of gathering research and intelligence, evaluating the efforts that we do, they all fall into these three buckets. We spend a lot of our time in the formative phase. The formative phase would be spending time with consumers. That’s qualitative groups. That’s ethnographies. That’s doing discussion boards. That’s looking at secondary research for trends. We do a lot of that work before we even engage on how are we going to have a conversation?

If you’re like me, you probably jump to, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for an ad. I’ve got an idea for a great tagline.” We try as hard as we can to hold that at bay and let the intelligence drive that decision, because we all have a bias. We all do. So, we spend a lot of time on the formative research. Eventually, we get to developing concepts, and then we have a very rigorous pre-market testing protocol that we go through where we force exposure to a statistically significant quantitative group to find out, are we changing attitudes before we ever put real money behind it at scale? That’s the formative phase.

Then we have a very big robust offering around the implementation of that. Implementation for this is going to be, are people engaged with the ads? Are they watching the videos or not watching the videos? Do they like something? Do they not like something? Then sentiment, which, my gosh, has gotten so much more increasingly difficult, those of you who are dealing with sentiment in the room of what do we do with this conversation? We’re used to people disagreeing with us. In fact, I love it when people disagree. Why? Because they’re engaging in the conversation. I mean, the reality for us is there’s no 18-year-old in his bedroom today going, “God, my life would be complete if I had a Truth ad right now.” It’s not the case. So, for someone to engage with us and say, “I think you’re wrong about that. Where’d you get that fact?” they’re talking about a topic that’s a low-interest category. That’s a win.

Now, for us in the sentiment side, where it gets destructive is when people get aggressive and they start to shout people down. That’s a big challenge for us, but we do look at sentiment, and then we also have what’s called continuous tracking. We’re in the field capturing data. Do you see the ad? Do you like the ad? What your affinity for the ad? Can you play the ad back? We’re doing that every three weeks. We have a rolling average. All throughout the year, I have a data point to understand are people seeing what we’re putting out there? Can they recall what we’re putting out there, and what kind of affinity do they have?

That’s very important because when we get to the outcome, that’s a longitudinal cohort that we have. We’re following anywhere between 10 and 14,000 kids on a panel. We go in, and we do a cross-sectional survey every six to nine months. We have a baseline of their attitudes. We have a whole litany of questions that we’re asking them. That’s the hammer to understand are we moving the needle? If I wait every six to nine months to find out are we making an impact, it’s too late, which is why the continuous tracking is helpful for me to understand are we breaking through? What’s happening? There’s a lot that goes into those three prongs, but we are extremely disciplined and extremely rigorous at producing everything that you’ve seen. If it doesn’t look like or feel like it’s been rigorous, that’s by design, because it’s designed for the 12-to-24-year-old audience, but there’s a lot of discipline that goes behind that.

Everything that we do is built on a conceptual model. I just nerded out there and dropped a conceptual model PowerPoint for you. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on here. I realize it’s hard to read, but those of you who are researchers, what you need to know is this is based on the Bob Hornik model. He’s at UPenn. It’s very disciplined. It’s well documented in terms of how we look at exposure and how that changes attitudes. I have taken the liberty … My research team loves it when I do this … to simplify this model into something that I can more easily understand, and it’s this. When we think about our model for change, this is how we talk about it. This is how we develop the work. We look at short-term wins … Think about that continuous tracking and the engagement … and how that’s going to play out for long-term success.

This takes time. If that’s one important takeaway for you to have, if you’re in the business of creating behavioral change, you will have the temptation to say, “This effort is going to do the heavy lift for us.” Maybe it will. From our experience, it’s a long-term value proposition. For us, we focus much further upstream. Again, if you think back to the quadrant I shared with you earlier, the normative change, or the behavioral change over here, is the, “Hey, kids. Don’t smoke. Hey, kids, don’t change. Stop it. Stop it.” Right? We know that’s not effective.

For us, when we started to dig into why are kids actually smoking, it led to a whole host of issues and challenges way further upstream. They don’t know it’s bad for them. Perhaps they don’t think it’s that bad for them. In some cases, if you’re in the LGBT community, you don’t know what they’ve been saying about you, or if you’re African American, you don’t know what they’ve been saying about you. When I share with you what the tobacco industry has actually done, what they are saying about you behind closed doors and I change your knowledge here, it’s going to take care of itself down here. We look at tons of different attitudes and beliefs. We’ve looked at hundreds of attitudes to try to understand what is the correlation between this knowledge gap and the short-term wins to this long-term success? Every single attitude that we have, they all fall into what we call a themed construct or an attitudinal construct.

Sometimes we’ll have items that enter in, they enter out, but these are the constructs that every single attitude that we have funnels into. Consequently, every piece of work that we do funnels back into this, because if it doesn’t start pushing those knowledge and attitudes in the short term, I’m wasting my time, I’m wasting my money, and I’m competing for market share. Why am I competing for market share? I may have skipped over that. Today, 1,200 people in the US are going to die of a tobacco-related disease. 1,200 people. We tease that out in some of the ads that you’ve seen.

If you’re in the tobacco industry, if you’re in that business, I feel sorry for you, but if you’re in that business, you just lost 1,200 of your most loyal customers. The business challenge for you is you have to get 1,200 new customers today just to stay afloat, 1,200 tomorrow and the next day and the next day. We know, as I mentioned earlier, that the majority of those people come from the under 18 or the 24-and-under age group. So, I get this wrong, those are people that are going to go on to die of cancer. The stakes are high, so we have to get it right. We have to be disciplined. We have to be intentional in terms of what we’re doing. Everything that we do funnels into these constructs.

What we’ve been able to find over time is that the more you’re exposed to the campaign, the more that you can replay these ads, that we are actually pushing these attitudes in the right direction, this is how we’re actually having an impact and having an effect. We can tether back through our longitudinal cohort that if you are aware of the ad and you can play it back to us … and I should also say the brand. We’re going to have more research coming out that is not solely focused on an ad, but it’s more on what role the brand has, the affinity of the brand. We’ve done some research on this, and we’ve documented that. We’ve had some papers published that show high affinity for our brand leads to prevention. We’re going to be playing more in that space, if you think about what’s an ad, if you were to ask a 15-year-old.

So, everything that we do has been pushing on these intentions. I’ll just give you an example, the lower perceived prevalence of tobacco use. Part of that is framing this that nobody’s doing this. This is something that’s so old. It’s in the past. Why would you ever do it? Because we know that if we ask someone, “Hey. What are the smoking rates of people around you?” their answer is an indicator of how at risk they are. If they say, “Oh, everybody smokes,” whether they actually smoke or not … It doesn’t matter if they do or not … if they think that the people around them smoke, and it’s a high prevalence number, they’re at risk, versus if they think, “Oh, nobody smokes. Who would do that?” Bingo.

A lot of what we do in our work is to try to say, “Nobody does this. This is so 2000. This is so Gen X. Why would you do that?” For each one of those buckets, that’s what we’re trying to do, is change those perceptions, change those attitudes, directly tie it back to what we’re doing so that you will make a different change. Said another way, we’ve been able to show that campaign awareness is directly tethered to changes in beliefs related about smoking. It changes the norms, and it changes behavior. There’s a lot of data and science behind that, but that is a very shortened but robust look at how we think about the world, how we think about the universe, how we go about looking at messaging, and how we think about holding ourselves to a standard of, “Is it going to have an impact, or is it not?”

I’m going to pivot now. I’m going to talk a little bit about our posture. If we have all this research and we have all this work, how do we actually function now when the landscape changes so quickly from a 2014 even to a 2018 and beyond? Well, one of the things that we’re very dedicated to and is the ethos as part of our organization is we are committed to the iterative process, because it’s hard to stick the landing. It’s hard to stick the landing, regardless of what you’re doing. Whether you’re skateboarding or whether you’re a gymnast or whether you’re trying to get the right messaging, it’s not easy. We struggle with that.

But we are dedicated to this process of design, implement, and repeat. In there, I would say evaluate, tweak, design, implement, repeat, design, implement, repeat, iterate, iterate, iterate, iterate as much as we can, because we know we’re not going to get it right out of the gate. We’re going to fall, and we’re going to stumble, and that’s okay. For us, if we can get to failure more quickly, the better off we are. What I don’t want to have happen is wait 9 to 10 months and find out, “Oh my gosh, I missed the mark.” That’s money wasted, and those are people that are going to get addicted. We have to be committed to this process. It’s not always easy, but it’s important for us to get to a better place.

We also just have to embrace the fact that our audience, their attention span is limited today. You probably have seen the report that compares from … I think it was looking at the attention span of humans from 2000 to 2016, and our attention span is one second better than a goldfish. I don’t know if you’ve seen that report, but our attention span has declined by like three or four seconds from 2000 to present day. We feel that tension. We feel that, “What have you got for me now? What have you got for me now?” For us, it’s really about how do we just play into that? How do we use that to our advantage?

This is an omni-channel world for our audience. They think about and engage with multiple issues, multiple topics, multiple things all at once. Their ability to multitask and at least consume data at a high rate is unmatched by anybody previously. I know there are lots of studies that show the harm in that, but it’s the reality of where we are today. We also have found that our audience, with the advent of technology, expects everything to be tailored to them. If you have someone in your household, you’re like, “Can it not be about you?”

I’m the same way, though. I’m the exact same way. I mean, that’s why I spend so much of my time on Yelp because I want to pick the right restaurant that’s going to fit my needs right now, today. For us, we just can’t have a one-size-fits-all message any longer. You can’t either, and you probably are feeling this tension with whatever line of work you’re in or whatever issue that you have, but this idea that it’s got to be and positioned in a way that makes it unique to them has put a tremendous burden on us in terms of how we position ourselves.

Then they’re not binary. What they’re going to say today may not who they’re going to be tomorrow. It’s very hard for us, in some cases, to find anything that we can get the audience to take a stand on. This, “You do you,” gosh, that is hard. It’s extremely difficult. I just think the reality is whatever I think is going to be the answer today, it could change in just a couple of days, depending on what happens in social and how the trends take place.

What does it mean for us to have an audience-first approach? So much of what we do is digital. I’ve shown you some TV spots just because they’re easy for you to get an idea of who we are and what we do, but so much of what we do is in digital. Taking a page from how we think about the universe and how we think about the audience, we very much look at building segments to drive the conversation. As much as there’s a lot of fluidity in how people identify themselves, when we look at the digital landscape … and you probably see this as well … there are patterns of behavior. One of the things that we do during that iteration process is really try to identify what are people doing, how are they engaging with us, what are those patterns, and how can we group them into buckets, at least in theory, to see if we can communicate them in a helpful way?

We then look at those conversations like, “What’s happening? Did we get it right? Did we get it wrong? How do we perfect that? How do we implement that and close the gap to be a little bit more quickly … or get there more quickly?” Then we take all of that learning and we basically try to replicate it where we can. We find out where are we having conversations, what piece of creative is working, what piece of creative is not working, and more importantly, what are they doing when they get to our site? How are they engaging with us? How do we find more people like me? How do we find more people that are more like Sean? How do we add more diversity to our portfolio of people who are engaging with us? We go and we crank that engine again and again and again and again.

Over the past four years, if you were to look at our media spend, just on acquiring consumers, the efficiency for our media spend has gone down tremendously over the past four years. Part of that is because we dedicated staff. We brought people in who spoke this language and speak this language better than I do. I think very highly of my skills. My wife, if she were here, she would say, “Oh my gosh, yes.” But I’ve got a six, a four, and a two-year-old. I can only consume so much media. It is impossible for me to keep my finger on the pulse in everything that’s going on, as great as I think I am, not to mention the issues way too big for me to get my arms around it. For us, it’s bringing people in that do things better than I do.

We have someone who runs our digital media who is amazing. He is awesome. He talks about things that I understand conceptually. He uses acronyms that I don’t really understand, but he just crushes it when it comes to getting people into our pipeline in an efficient way. I am so incredibly thankful that he’s there. We have multiple people, someone who understands the nuances of Snapchat in a way that I won’t be able to get. Part of my job as being a good leader is to empower those individuals to really have ownership of that space so that we will be better. You need to do the same thing. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are and that fill your gaps. That’s been a really, really sweet learning for me, as we’ve gotten a little bit … or as I’ve gotten a little bit older, and also having kids and have been humbled a little bit.

When we take this audience-first approach and we start to apply it, we are really intentional about developing what I’m calling an engagement funnel, or even an acquisition funnel. If you were to look at how we’re spending our money in the digital space, we believe we have to inform you, which we talk about informed being primarily through video views or viewing our content in some way, and then we know we’ve got to get you engaged. Engagement for us can take a lot of different forms, but just give us something. Engage with us in some way, shape, or form. If you engage with us and we can collect some of that information on you … so that’s acquire. If you complete a form on our site, if you take a quiz, if we get some bit of information from you, that’s how we start to raise that information, that data back into the funnel to understand who’s coming to our site, what are they doing, and how do we get them to be more active and participate with us?

As we have transformed ourselves from being just a Gen X into how do we talk to the modern youth and young adult cohort today, we’ve also had to develop an expertise in a muscle that we didn’t have over the past … even over the past five years. If you’re in the same boat, it’s not too late. It’s not too late. I think you can and should think about how do you bring in expertise to complement and speak into these disciplines that you may not have within your organization today?

All right. What else about us? What’s our tone? Hopefully this is self-evident from looking at the work, but we aggressively call out the BS. That’s something as fighters, something as the brand called Truth, I mean, for us to really step in this space, to have the courage to call a ball and a strike, if you will. Our audience expects that. They can eviscerate brands and people online better than anybody I’ve ever seen. If you’ve been on the receiving end of that, you know the scathing power that comes from the audience when they call out BS. As a result, not only do we feel like we need to do that, but the audience expects us to go hard. They expect us to peal the curtain back. They don’t want us to pretend and dance around the issues. That’s not who we are as a brand, and that’s not what they want from us.

We take on hard issues. We take on social issues. We talk a lot about what’s going on and what has gone on and how communities have been exploited. We had a campaign that we launched a year ago that went straight after the tobacco industry’s practices targeting African Americans and the African American community. We picked this hashtag knowing that it was going to cause a debate and there were people that were going to get supportive of it, people that were going to be really offended by that. We had a woman named Amanda Seales who really served as the voice for us. She’s on an HBO series … I’m drawing a blank now … Insecure, if you watch that show. The fact was if you live in D.C., in an African American neighborhood, 10 times more ads, cigarette ads, in your community than in non-African American communities. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the price cutting in those communities is significantly lower than in other communities.

Why is that? Well, if you look at the tobacco industry documents, you would see the deplorable things that the tobacco industry says about the African American community. They’ve said it for decades, and they have systematically targeted that group, that population, and have eviscerated communities as a result.

For us, this isn’t just an African American story because we know when we talk to the younger generation … and you see this in your own work. I’m sure you’ve talked about it today … they say, “That injustice is not okay. Stop it.” For us, we drive up that anti-industry sentiment. We’re empowering you to make a decision. There’s a real understanding now of what’s at stake. If I change that knowledge gap, their decisions are going to change as a result. This is one example of how we’ve leaned into the social justice space, and we have a long track record of really focusing on that as a core competency.

At the same time, I’d be lying to you if I said we didn’t think about entertaining the audience. Think back to the ADD nature. Think back to the environment that we’re in. It feels like the world is on fire right now, and we hear that time and time again when we go to focus groups. They just want a break. For us, it’s about how do we meter these things so that the brand, and if we’re looking at the brand affinity, so that the brand actually means something? But we don’t want to be that annoying person who’s always pushing their agenda. Our COO has said this to us time and time again. I love this phrase. “Don’t let your karma get run over by your dogma,” which is a great phrase. Again, I win the merit of the argument, right? But what do I need to say, and how do I need to position the issue in a way for the audience to make the right decision?

For us, I don’t have a product to sell, sadly. I’m competing with somebody who’s got arguably one of the best designed products ever made. It’s addictive, and they’ve got distribution that’s on every single street corner, and it’s legal. I have to be nimble in terms of how I try to compete for that market share. We use entertainment in a lot of ways to really dial in the relevancy of the issue. The strategy, in terms of how we do that, the framework … Those of you who speak marketing, who speak the creative brief, this is a boiled down, simple version of how we think about creating work off of this. We know that the audience is passionate about specific issues. The challenge is they’re not passionate about our issue. The key for us is, again, looking for momentum. Are there ways that we can take what they care about and connect the dots to what we care about so we have some common ground? Here’s an example of how we’ve done that.

Thank you. I mean, let’s face it. What life is worth living that doesn’t have cat videos, right? I think you can see the strategy there a little bit, in terms of how we’re taking something that they care about and using that to our advantage. The same thing happens when we talk about the environment. We did a whole campaign recently called Better Butts, which talks about all the kinds of beautiful butts that are in the environment, and no matter what shape or size or how they look, they’re better than cigarette butts. Cigarette butts are the most littered item on the planet, the most littered item today. It’s weird to think about that social norming that’s still … You walk out and see somebody throw down a cigarette on the sidewalk and you’re like … You don’t even think about it. It’s so normalized. For us, talking about the environment in a way … We know it’s a hot button for our audience. If you care about the waterways, if you care about the ocean, you have to care about cigarettes, and you have to care about the butts that are getting thrown away.

Another point, we really seek to embed ourselves in culture, whether that’s actually producing memes or videos. We believe we need to be tangible in the real world. Again, thinking about my competition, they’ve got a leg up on us. Any way that we can actually have ourselves be part of culture so that we’re changing the narrative is very important to us. Over the years, we’ve worked with people like Vans. I thought I had them on. I don’t have them on today. That was a faux pas by me. We worked with Kevin Lyons, who is a graffiti artist, a street artist, and he designed a capsule for us with Vans. This was put out into Journeys and it was all across the country. We did a three-year partnership with them.

We didn’t make a ton of money off having Vans in the marketplace. We actually drove a significant amount of affinity for Vans because when people understood, “Wow. Vans is standing next to Truth. That’s awesome. I feel better about my purchase,” but for us, it’s a tangible product that’s in the marketplace. You’re starting to see our brand. We’re using and helping to use culture as a way to propagate our message. It’s exactly what the tobacco industry has done for decades. For us, it’s about how do we compete for that space?

Another real important shift for us is giving the audience the stage. As we know, now so more than ever, this audience is not afraid to pick up a microphone and let their voices be heard. That’s something that we haven’t done a lot in our history. CVS went smoke free, those of you may know that. We have been putting pressure on Walgreens. We actually had some of our activists that we had gotten through that funnel to find the hand-raisers who wanted to participate. We went to their shareholder meeting and told them in a very vocal way that we thought they should take smoking out of cigarettes because if you’re about the health and wellness of your audience, you can’t be selling cigarettes in a pharmacy. Those two things don’t mix.

We took to the streets and staged a zombie-like effort to really showcase and bring attention to the fact that these two things don’t mix. You can’t be about health and wellness and sell the most addictive product on the planet that leads to cancer in your stores. Those two things don’t exist. We’re going to be doing more of that, giving the audience the microphone, giving them their share voice so that they can move into the space and actually have a physical presence.

Then really important for us, particularly with this generation, is we know we need to recognize the effort, in terms of what they’re doing. For anybody to participate and engage and to do something for us, we need to reward them, and we need to do it frequently. That can take a lot of different forms. It can be a badge. It can be putting them … taking over our social feed for a day, but some way of reward or recognize that, “Hey. You cared about this issue. You did something. Thank you.”

One creative way we did this is when we launched the brand, or relaunched the brand, in 2014, every single person who signed up to follow us got a personalized piece of artwork from a gentleman named Faust. Faust is a graffiti artist. What we did is we had everyone who signed up to follow us socially, he basically gave them their own piece of artwork with their Twitter handle or their social handle. We filmed it on Periscope, back when that was a big thing. Kind of came and went. We sent this to every single person who logged in to say, “Thank you. Thank you.” There are creative ways that we can do this, or creative ways that you can do that. Just giving you an example of one way that we’re trying to use technology, use our cache, and use our influence in a way to really push the needle forward.

Awesome. What do you do next, right? What’s the encore? Well, just like in 2014, the pathway for us is not getting any easier. With a brand like Truth, the question we’re grappling with today is how do you really function and what posture should you take in a post-Truth world? Before I came over this morning, two ads came on on television in the background that talked about the … They were playing into this like, “What’s the real truth? Do you know the real truth?” There were two different products. I was like, “Oh my gosh.”

This is now part of the cultural narrative of playing into our fear of not knowing the truth. For us, where facts matter, because the facts of what the tobacco industry has done, the facts about the harmfulness of the products, is really something we have to communicate. We’ve got to find our footing in how do we do that in a way that doesn’t automatically send up a red flag? We’re not walking away from our brand. We’re not walking away from the facts, because they are real, but how we do that, how we leverage that is going to be a real challenge for us moving forward.

Then the landscape for us is extremely thorny. I didn’t touch on, for us, the elephant in the room, which is vaping. Last year, vaping for young adults, youth and young adults, was somewhere around 9%, 10%, depending upon where you do the cutoff. Data’s going to come out in just a little while that shows that rate now at 20% to 22%. 20% to 22% in one year. If you look at JUULs, the manufacturer, and were to plot their growth over the last three years, it’s like a hockey stick. They own 65% to 70% of market share, in three years.

So, we’ve got our work cut out for us because that product is cool. There’s not a common knowledge of it not being cool. The momentum of how we disentangle the activity there is going to be extremely difficult and thorny for us. Then we have populations and groups and affinity groups that are much harder to move on the smoking … the initiation rate, the LGBT community. If you live in the South or the Southwest … We’re calling that area of the country Tobacco Nation … smoking rates are extremely high compared to the national average. It’s going to require us to do something unique there.

Then we’re tackling opioids. We’re in the opioids space. We launched our first campaign in June. 74,000 Americans died last year. I, without a doubt, would believe that people in this room have been affected by it, whether it’s in your family, whether it’s you, whether it’s a loved one. It’s a scourge that’s sweeping across the country. We’re in the fight, and we’re trying our best to figure out how do we apply the learning that we have to tobacco to prevent the misuse and abuse in opioids space? So, we have our work cut out for us, but stay tuned. I am in it. We’re in it. We’re fighters, and so we’re going to keep slugging away.

I would just say a couple of things, lessons learned, to finish out. I’m almost out of time. Aggressively compete. Compete, compete, compete. Just because you have a non-profit and you have the moral high ground, which I believe I do, doesn’t mean people are going to care about your issue. You have to get in there and compete, because there’s some other cause. There’s some other issue that’s competing for their mindshare. If you’re raising money, you’re competing for that share of wallet. Channel the momentum. I would encourage you, put down your bias. Look for where you have momentum. Channel that momentum to your advantage. Don’t try to be the person rolling the boulder uphill. Then be relentless in your focus. I really wanted to share with you those constructs on purpose so that you understand how we think about all of our efforts being channeled towards a focal point that we can measure.

On that note, be outcome driven. You may not have a longitudinal cohort the same way we do, but you aren’t going to know if you’re successful if you don’t know where you’re going and what that success should look like. I hope that’s been helpful to you. I’m very humbled for us to win the award. Thank you very much for your time and energy. Appreciate it.

 

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member