Brand Expression February 10, 2021

Audience Targeting: Making BraunAbility Go

The Story of How BraunAbility, the Category Leader in Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles, Located and Targeted New Customers

In 1947, at the age of six, Ralph Braun was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. By the age of fifteen, Ralph could no longer walk. Facing a future of having to rely on others to get around, Ralph instead focused his energies on regaining his independence. In his autobiography, Rise Above, he says, “Always the optimist, I figured it had to get better.”

And it did get better, because Ralph made it better. In 1962, he built his first motorized wheelchair in the shop of his cousin’s farm. Then, a year later, he built the first Tri-Wheeler in his parents’ garage, which he used to travel back and forth to his job as a quality control manager at a local manufacturing plant in Winamac, Indiana. A few years later, Ralph invented a wheelchair lift, which he then installed on the back of an old postal jeep. In 1972, the Braun Corporation was established.

Over the years, the Braun Corporation (rebranded as BraunAbility in 2008) grew into a $500 million dollar business with over a thousand employees. From its modern assembly plant in Winamac, BraunAbility customizes vans and SUVs to meet the wants and needs of its customers across the country. BraunAbility also holds large commercial contracts, such as providing wheelchair accessible vehicles for New York City’s taxi fleet. Along the way, BraunAbility has continued to innovate, all part of Ralph’s mission to provide others the same freedom for which he fought in his own life.

Now, it’s possible for neighbors to exist on two entirely different planets, and these planets rarely, if ever, collide.

For decades, BraunAbility has remained the key leader and innovator in the wheelchair accessible vehicle category. But in recent years, two events placed the company at a crossroads: the death of Ralph Braun in 2013 at the age of 72, and the rise of competitors. To make matters even more complicated, BraunAbility’s marketing had been aimed at older users, and while maintaining this base audience was important to the company, BraunAbility also needed to reach out to new audiences in order to continue to grow.

Taking the Mass Out of Marketing

Before we get to the story of how BraunAbility went about locating and then targeting new audiences, we must first consider a fundamental question: Why even bother targeting your brand’s message to specific audiences?

For decades, the basic model of marketing was to tell a brand story that as many people as possible would find attractive. Examples of this strategy are too numerous to list, but here are a few classics: McDonald’s’ “I’m Lovin’ It,” Maxwell House’s “Good to the Last Drop,” Nike’s “Just Do it.” The assumptions underlying these famous slogans are that 1) every single American is a potential customer, and 2) every potential customer is receptive to roughly the same message.

And for most of the twentieth century, those were safe assumptions to make. The world was just so much smaller. People watched the same television shows on the same three or four broadcast channels, read the same handful of syndicated columnists in the newspaper, listened to the same Top 40 hits on the radio, bought the same brands at the grocery, and ate at the same chain restaurants on their way to the same summer vacation destinations. Our collective behavior, and our collective lack of options, really did put the “mass” in mass marketing. It was possible for a brand to sell the same product to a farmer in Iowa and a banker in Boston and a student in Berkeley, and to use the same message to speak to all three.

But everything has changed. The internet has been a driver of much of the change, along with social media, Amazon, Big Data, the proliferation of cable channels, and the atomization and polarization of the country as a whole. Now, it’s possible for neighbors to exist on two entirely different planets, and these planets rarely, if ever, collide. To use a previous example, imagine Maxwell House trying to use the “Good to the Last Drop” message on these two modern neighbors. Neighbor #1 eats and drinks only organic and uses Amazon reviews, along with the opinion of Instagram influencers, to guide their purchases. Neighbor #2 is 20 years old, only watches shows on streaming services, and prefers brands that tout their commitment to environmental sustainability. How is Maxwell House supposed to speak to these two consumers with the same catchy slogan? They can’t, and if they try, they’ll probably go the way of Blockbuster, Zenith, and Oldsmobile.

The Target Just Shrunk

In today's marketing landscape, if you want to market a product, you first must locate a specific audience, or audiences, for whom that product fills a need. And finding a target audience isn’t just about placing people in boxes based on generic demographic assumptions, i.e., the assumption that white females over the age of sixty will all respond to the same message in kind. That approach still assumes that all people of a certain race and age are basically the same. Instead, brands need to accept that audiences are no longer monolithic; sure, a consumer’s age and geography and income might provide some basic insights, but modern brands need to approach consumers on a much more granular level.

Here’s another way to think about it. Most brands market to the lowest common denominator: They try to make something true in a small way for as many people as possible. If you are marketing a new car, for example, the car company’s marketing department would search for a benefit that the largest group of people find appealing—“The most reliable vehicle on the road.” Sure, reliability may not be at the top of most people’s list of priorities, but it’s probably somewhere on everyone’s list.

We try to figure out where a brand has the most right to win.

The more sophisticated approach would be to craft a message that is true in a large way for as many small groups as necessary—“The safest car on the road,” for example. Safety may not be on everyone’s list of priorities, but for those groups for whom safety is important, it’s really important. In fact, for many groups of potential buyers—parents with babies, parents buying cars for teenagers—safety is the only benefit that is important.

In other words, instead of targeting large audiences and hoping that the brand is sort of relevant to them, brands now must seek out audiences for whom the brand is really, really relevant.

Contrast the coffee brand Stumptown with Maxwell House. Stumptown is so successful because they don’t target every coffee drinker in America, as Maxwell House did for so many decades. Read this from Stumptown’s website: “When people talk about the flavors of coffee—notes of orange, or hints of clove—it’s because those organic molecules are contained in the coffee bean. If a coffee reminds you of apple pie, it’s because coffee shares some of the same components as food, like lactic and malic acid.”

Stumptown’s genius is that they recognized the opportunity at the intersection of consumer needs and product. There was an audience of serious coffee drinkers, mostly on the coasts, who treated coffee like fine wine, and who were willing to pay upward of $25 for 12 ounces of coffee beans. Stumptown then set out to tailor their brand around this audience’s needs.

Making Big Data Smaller

So, how do brands locate the audiences for whom their brand message is really, really relevant? The short answer is: data. However, in the era of Big Data, no process involving data is short. There is just so much of it: social listening, search analytics, next-generation syndicated data, context mapping, CRM appends, and media targeting pools.

In the case of BraunAbility, BMDG consulted search analytics and next-generation syndicated data in combination with a McKinsey Study that BraunAbility had previously commissioned, which put demographics in context with consumer need. Our team then ingested all of BraunAbility’s internal data: sales numbers, previous strategy work, focus groups, user identification, and any other documents or numbers they made available.

Brands now must seek out audiences for whom the brand is really, really relevant.

All of this data was then used as a conversation starter when BMDG traveled to BraunAbility’s headquarters in Winamac for a series of cross-functional discovery sessions. In-person sessions with corporate stakeholders are just as important to the process as all the data; listening to the different points of view inside of a company—and then realigning those points of view around a single goal-oriented action plan—is crucial to getting buy-in once our team determines new audiences to target, and how to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate the brand’s current core customers, or betray in any way the brand’s legacy.

After sifting through all the data, and after having tough conversations with BraunAbility’s internal team, BMDG got down to brass tacks. The process looked something like this: Our team mapped BraunAbility’s share of audience relative to total category sales by audience, and then by brand buyers, competitor buyers, category-aware non-buyers, and category-unaware buyers.

This let us see the potential latent upside of their current core audiences; it also allowed us to prioritize the new audiences they would need to win in order to meet their sales goals.

Creating Strategic Creative

Once we knew who to invite to the BraunAbility party, BMDG began crafting the actual invitation. In this case, the invitation was an actionable marketing plan that included prioritized audience profiles, a benefits ladder, and a flexible communication architecture, complete with a tagline and visual creative direction. The communication architecture recognized that brand communication must be a live, dynamic, and evolving system. Once our team had identified the audiences necessary to grow the business, we built a messaging framework capable of maintaining the existing audiences, while at the same time seamlessly activating new audiences that were younger, had different needs, and approached the category in a fundamentally different way than older users.

We worked with BraunAbility to build a library of new, emotionally-evocative creative assets for a refreshed website, as well as providing different segments of their business with new marketing and communication tools. All of these efforts reflect a mindset shift about locating the BraunAbility brand at the intersection of audience and opportunity. What makes it such a pleasure to work with BraunAbility is that they are, in spirit, already working within this new model. Every ounce of energy at BraunAbility, both in the corporate suites and on the factory floor, is expended in the service of their customers, and that culture of service, of working to improve the lives of their customers, deeply resonates with us.

Most importantly, we helped BraunAbility tell the amazing stories of its founder, the company's passionate employees, and their inspirational customers, and to do so in a way that leaves a lasting impression on the new audiences who encounter the brand.

Photos: Shutterstock, BraunAbility

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