5 Marketing Lessons from Mr. Rogers

As my little girl grows up and gets interested in television and "brands" that appeal to her, I can't help but think of those of my own early childhood. The brand she is exposed to the most is Sesame Street: It started with her diapers, moved into plush animals, and has manifested into a full-blown television love, fueled by the show's release of a "Best of..." of its first 40 years on the air.

Mister RogersFor me, Sesame Street existed right alongside one of the most revered figures in television history: Fred Rogers. I haven't gotten Ms. Emma Belle any Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood DVDs lined up yet, primarily because there's very little available. (There's a petition circulating with almost 2,000 signatures to get the DVDs released.) However, I have caught some episodes in re-run. And I've been giving a lot of thought to the lessons Mr. Rogers handed down to a young Samuel Earl all those years ago.

So, consider this a bit of a refresher course: the lessons marketing can learn from "the neighborhood":

1.) Relationship-Building Trumps Flashiness: It's hard to imagine a children's show getting less flashy than Fred Rogers. Most of the time, it was him directly addressing his viewers. He took us on trips to see a few guests. And he had people stop by. Even his "make-believe world" was of the decidedly low-tech sort. Yet, I don't remember ever feeling bored when spending time with Mr. Rogers, because he replaced that flashiness by building an honest relationship with his viewers, by making the show constantly address "our" concerns...at least as best a television personality might do in the days of a one-way medium.

2.) Don't Promise More Intimacy than You Can Deliver: A few months back, I distinctly remember stumbling upon an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in a hotel room somewhere when the most extraordinary thing happened: Fred looked into the camera, and he said something along the lines of, "I've really enjoyed talking with you this week. I hope I have answered a few of the questions you've had. I really wish I could know each and every one of you personally, but unfortunately this television show is the only way we have to talk. If you have other questions that I haven't answered, find someone you love and who loves you in your own life and ask them." Really, is there a more perfect mindset that brands should take, online or off?

For brands that appeal to a large customer base, the company cannot have personal relationships with everyone. Social media provides a way to be more conversational, to give a venue for customer contact when they have a problem, etc. The key is to take the appropriate tone with customers, to demonstrate approachability but also be honest about the limits, lest customers be disappointed. (In a recent episode of FX's Louie, Louis C.K. ends up stalked by a fan's brother who thinks he should eat dinner at IHOP and make out with his sister because she's a fan. Perhaps Louie hasn't managed his professional reputation and approachability appropriately...And, yes, I am cognizant of the fact that this may be the first and only time Fred and Louie are compared.)

3.) Be Consistent in Who You Are and What People Should Expect from You: From Fred Rogers' first show in 1968 until his last in 2001, surprisingly little changed about Fred Rogers. That's in part because his brand stood as a calm in the changing seas of culture. There were many subtle shifts in the nuances of his shows: the anxieties he addressed and the topics he covered. But Fred always found a way to address them from the standpoint that people expected from his brand. Mr. Rogers was a trusted friend we could always return to. Brands should be responsive to culture, should have their ears on the latest changes: but they should do so always remembering why audiences might come to them and respecting the audience's desires in the process. Fred didn't hire a trendspotter to map out every new clothing shift or music shift in American culture to make sure he was part of it, that he was hip. Instead, he listened to the gentle hum of "slow culture change," and he made sure his show remained relevant for decades.

4.) Customers' Questions Are Worth Answering: Mr. Rogers answered all our questions, occasionally including the ones that we may have been afraid to ask. He assured us that there's no way we could get washed down the drain when we take a bath. He helped assuage our fears surrounding war, divorce and other somewhat taboo topics for children's shows. He talked us through the death of his goldfish we'd watched every day on his show. In short, his staff seemed to do a great deal of research to address the fears of children, from the serious, uncomfortable issues adults didn't want to discuss to the trivial issues parents might often dismiss or laugh off. Mr. Rogers took us seriously, asked us what our pain points were, and offered the best solution he could. Brands might be well served to do this a little more often for their customers.

5.) Brands Can Take a Stand: Despite his calm demeanor, Mr. Rogers was known for taking a stand for what he believes in, in a way that was consistent with his public persona. When President Nixon proposed cutting the budget of public broadcasting in half to fund war efforts in Vietnam, Rogers spoke passionately to the Senate. When the media industries tried to block the spread of the Betamax, Mr. Rogers testified as a staunch supporter of home recording and timeshifting. And, when Burger King parodied Rogers to advertise their fast food, Rogers held a press conference explaining to parents that he not affiliated with the burger chain and that he was afraid children would be misled by the ads and think that Mr. Rogers endorsed their food. (His response was so convincing that Burger King issued an apology and pulled the ads.) In short, when it was a topic that was consistent with who Mr. Rogers was, Fred was known as being quite outspoken—albeit always in his calm and respectful tone. Brands too often shy away from supporting something, or else—when they do—their "causes" are disjointed from the work the company does and what they stand for.

Mr. Rogers saw the value of cultivating his own brand. But he did so in a quiet and dignified way that made the tone and authenticity of his show—and his relationship with viewers—unmatched by any television property I've seen before or after. And, as I consider how many marketers likely grew up with the words of Fred Rogers guiding their way as kids, I can't help but think that we've all too often strayed away from some of those first lessons we heard as children.

By the way, a quick shout-out to others who have written on business lessons from Mr. Rogers in the past (who I came across after writing this piece): Brad BrobergMitch Joel, John J. Wall, and Eastonsweb Multimedia.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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  • Sam Ford

    Thanks for stopping by, John, and hope you'll come back and post an update when the Mr. Rogers app is complete!

  • John Easton

    Sam, I am late to the discussion but wanted to also express my thanks for the backlink reccognition. You know, from your post I am thinking of contstructing an iPhone app that rates your Mr. Rogersness (smile). Seriously, I particularly liked your focus on the importance of addressing customer questions and concerns. There is gold in listening and opportunity in solving customer problems.

    John Easton

  • Sam Ford

    No problem, John. I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon your piece (and the others) after I had finished mine.

  • John Wall

    Hey Sam, thanks for the link out. I had forgotten all the statistical analysis that went into proving how Mr. Rogers was more powerful than Chuck Norris!

  • Sam Ford

    To Chris and to Ackthpt, thanks for writing back. I thought I'd take a Mr. Rogers approach to his comment...And agreed that the sweetness of Mr. Rogers is an important part of it. He was direct, didn't shy away from tough topics, etc., but he did so directly and in a way that encouraged dialogue and allayed fears.

  • Chris Reich

    This is a wonderful essay on relationships with application to marketing. It's wonderful that Sam noticed the sweetness of the Mr. Rogers experience and it's comical that Scott entirely missed the point as evidenced by all the nonsensical jargon in his corny commercial post.

    Scott embodies what I see as wrong with [American] business today. It's tied up in meaningless, jargonized rhetoric and unable to see the simplest points.

    Chris Reich

  • Ackthpt

    hey Scott, it's a post about Mr. Rogers - probably didn't need a 1000 word, thinly veiled spammy comment.

  • Sam Ford

    Hi Scott,

    I wasn't familiar with that particular "buzz term," but agreed that customer engagement must be at the centerpiece of customer strategy. The problem I see is that this is, too often, a one-off approach to talking to the audience. Each department does it differently. Customer service is measured by how quickly they can get off the phone with people, while sales is charged with blasting everything they can at them to get them to pay attention. That lack of internal coordination can be really frustrating to the customer, who may have bought into the myth that the corporate is some single and unified entity instead of the often disjointed, fractured mess it often is.

  • Scott Asai

    What a great story from a legend. Who could engage an audience more than Mr. Rodgers. I once saw him give a speech after receiving an award and as he thanked everyone who helped him, the crowd burst into tears. He did address tough issues, but in a way that was appealing. You knew what he stood for and he stayed true to that throughout his career. What a wonderful example of someone made his career on being authentic.

  • Scott Zimmerman

    I would agree that marketers can learn many fine lessons from our good neighbor, Mr. Rogers.

    A particularly important lesson is that developing solid relationships with your customers is critical to marketing your business and building brand loyalty. One of the best ways to do that is through a concept called Engagement Communications.

    Engagement Communications utilizes advances in communications technology, such as voice messaging, SMS text messaging, e-mail and web portals, to help businesses tailor the type of information their customers receive, as well as when and how they receive it.

    These communications create many points of engagement with a customer rather than just a simple connection. A connection might inform a customer, but it doesn’t necessarily motivate them to take action. Create engagement points and the path is opened up for activation.

    Engagement Communication involves campaign-based outreach which encourages two-way dialogue. While outgoing messages can be scaled to the thousands and hundreds of thousands, each is delivered and experienced in a tailored, personalized manner.

    At TeleVox, we help many of our utility clients leverage Engagement Communications to better support their customers, while helping to prevent the power grid from failing during high demand periods. The utilities engage their customers by sending out automated notifications via e-mail, voice mail and SMS text messaging to provide tips on ways to conserve energy. Messages are sent asking customers to cook during later hours, turn down their thermostat when they leave the house or to close blinds during the day. Because these messages are sent how and when the customers want to receive them, this approach is meaningful and effective, and creates a deeper connection with their customers.

    Likewise in the healthcare industry, Engagement Communications allow an OB/GYN clinic to send e-mail messages to expectant mothers reminding them to take their pre-natal vitamins and to attend child care classes at the local hospital. Patients with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure could receive a series of text message reminders to renew their prescriptions. Or, a patient struggling to quit smoking could be encouraged to enroll in a smoking cessation program or purchase nicotine patches and gum.

    These are just a few examples of how businesses can extend online engagement by making highly scalable, yet personal connections with their customers. In the end, businesses that pay attention to what customers do, and listen to what they say, can deliver precise and intuitive recommendations that result in more sales and greater loyalty.

    Thank you for the post.

    Scott Zimmerman, President of www.televox.com