Most CMOs are charged with increasing purchase and consumption behavior among consumers for the brands they are entrusted to grow. Now imagine what it would be like to convince your target consumers to do the exact opposite.
CMO.com had the opportunity to speak with Asche for the truth about how to build an engaging movement with Millennials.
CMO.com: Tell us about your business and marketing journey before you came to Truth Initiative in 2006.
Asche: My career really took off when I joined [ad agency] GSD&M, in Austin, Texas, working on influential clients. I learned there that within the right creative environment, great ideas combined with grit can act as an accelerator toward success. There truly is no replacement for hustle and determination. If you don’t have this, you will underachieve. I owe a lot of my success today to those formative years.
CMO.com: What are the important things for us to know about your organization?
Asche: Truth Initiative is a national public-health organization that is building a culture where all youth and young adults reject tobacco. The truth about tobacco and the tobacco industry is at the heart of our nationally recognized “Truth” public education campaign, our rigorous and scientific research and policy studies, and our innovative community and youth engagement programs supporting populations at high risk of using tobacco. Truth Initiative, formerly known as the American Legacy Foundation, was established and funded through the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between attorney’s general from 46 states, five U.S. territories, and the tobacco industry.
CMO.com: Can you elaborate on the “Truth” campaign?
Asche: With an ever-evolving target audience, we must continually change strategy in order to stay relevant. The campaign hijacks popular culture and invites teens and young adults to use their social footprints and influence to be the generation to end the tobacco epidemic and “Finish It” [another Truth Initiative campaign] for good. To do this, we use an integrated approach and meaningful content to drive audience interest and awareness of an issue across multiple platforms. We want to empower the audience, asking this generation to take collective action on a social issue by leveraging their social influence to make national impact.
CMO.com: Interesting. Leveraging brand advocates is a huge topic among CMO.com readers.
Asche: We leverage cultural influencers who we know will have an impact on our audience. Our brand proposition is a heavy one for our young target consumers because our ultimate success will be years in the making. We are in the business of saving lives, which can be a no-interest category, and that’s why building a brand is so important to us. We have to find a way to always be relevant. We’ve been very effective with that.
CMO.com: How do you know?
Asche: While awards are not our end goal, they are a barometer proof point from our marketing peers. Since the launch of “Truth,” we have won 400-plus awards, and Ad Age recently named us as one of its 15 best ad campaigns of the 21st Century.
Ultimately, our measure of success is declines in smoking rates. When we launched the campaign in 2000, the smoking rate for teens 12 to 17 was roughly 23%, and today it is at 7%. We are extremely proud of this drop and message uptake from our consumers. The gap between 23% and 7% represents real lives saved. Not bad for a marketing gig!
CMO.com: How has Truth Initiative changed the approach to engaging consumers?
Asche: As we are developing our strategies and tactics, we take the posture that no one in the marketplace cares about our cause. With this lens, we work backward to figure out how we make them care. The reality is, no one cares about the smoking issue as we do. If I only used logical, rational facts, which are irrefutable, to make our case, people would not pay attention and change their behavior. But if I tether the issue to things that they care about in the here and now, we have a chance to capture people’s attention in a meaningful way. Given the shift in our target’s behaviors, we have also evolved to a “joiner” brand, where we focus on how we aggregate the audience and get them to join the “Truth” movement, and then use their power to achieve a common goal: ending tobacco use for good.
For example, in the “Left Swipe Dat” video, we used research insights from the Tinder dating app, which shows that people who had a smoking profile picture had half the number of right swipes as people who did not have a smoking profile, meaning that if you post that you are a smoker, you are not going to connect. Tying into the current vernacular, we say in the spot, “You’re going to get left-swiped if you smoke.” What could be more relevant to a 15- to 21-year-old than their attractiveness to a potential mate?
[The video] secured more than 1.9 billion earned media impressions and drove more than 50 million views over the course of the campaign. #LeftSwipeDat reached No. 1 worldwide trending status twice.
CMO.com: What can you tell us about the more recent “CATmageddon” ad?
Asche: We took a similar approach where we tapped into the enormous popularity of cat videos online as well as the high percent of people who own cats or dogs. Leaning into insight, we called out the fact that “cats and dogs are twice as likely to get cancer if their owner smokes,” drawing the conclusion for our audience: Smoking = no cats = no cat videos. We all know that pets are like members of your family, and people are concerned about their well-being. Leveraging this insight allowed us to place the smoking issue onto common ground that made the discussion relevant and engaging.
The more we connect with people using cultural moments, [the more] we give ourselves a much better chance to connect with our audience on something that they typically wouldn’t care about. “CATmageddon” became the most-watched video in the history of the “Truth” campaign and provided a new message that engaged our teen audience to end tobacco use.
CMO.com: What are you truly most proud of?
Asche: “Truth” topped this year’s North American Effie Index in a three-way tie for first place, with CVS Health and Walmart, for the most effective brand. Truth Initiative was named a top five most effective marketer, tying with CVS Health and Walmart for fourth place.
But, ultimately, I will be most proud when the smoking rate drops again–and eventually gets to zero.
CMO.com: What big-picture marketing takeaways do you have for fellow and aspirational CMOs?
Asche: There are four principles I’ve learned over the course of my career. First, adopt the position that consumers don’t care about your brand. This forces you to find a relevant, relatable reason to get people to care. Never take for granted your brand’s role in a consumer’s life.
Second, brand authenticity is more important today than it has ever been. Especially with the youth and young adult audience, brands need to be hyper-vigilant on being authentic. This is an opportunity and a great source of angst for marketers today. You can’t fake cultural competency with this audience the way you may have been able to with previous generations. They are the most informed, wired, and pragmatic cohort of any generation to date.
Third, the best, smartest idea does not always win. Understanding the political landscape that you are operating in and developing a refined EQ–emotional intelligence–in terms of knowing how to navigate the landscape–is key for any leader to be effective for their organization. I’ve learned the importance of building and sharing a narrative along the way as critical to getting ideas produced and out the door. The more I do the storytelling, the more successful we are as an organization at getting ideas into the world.
Fourth, no one makes it on their own. I owe my success to a lot of people along the way who took a chance on me. Also, success is a lot more fun when you do it as a collective. There is a powerful level of energy that comes from working in a collaborative environment where people are challenging and pushing me. I thrive in this type of environment. I can’t work in a vacuum or silo–it is unfulfilling for me. Most CMOs are wired this way.