Special Brands for Special Needs
According to the US Census Bureau, as many as 54 million Americans have a disabilitythat's one out of every five Americans, or 20 percent of the US adult population. And according to Employer's Forum on Disability, as many as 10 percent of the total population worldwideor some 610 million peopleare considered disabled or have special needs.
Many marketers fail to realize that not only are the majority of the disabled population active members of their communities, they spend nearly US$ 200 million each year on the same things as everyone else. By falling short in their efforts to address the special-needs community, these marketers neglect the reality of this community's spending power.
"The special-needs market is largely ignored," says Jeanne Sowa, senior vice president of marketing and corporate relations for Easter Seals, an organization that has helped the disabled and special-needs community improve their quality of life for more than 80 years. "[This] is unfortunate, because there is clearly a market here with a considerable disposable income, looking to make choices in the marketplace."
"From a branding perspective, the special-needs market is the largest minority market today, yet brands shy away from being associated with it," says Nadine O. Vogel, founder and president of Springboard Consulting, a New Jersey-based firm that helps educate marketers on developing products and services for the special-needs segment. "What they don't realize is that disabilities don't discriminateall races and creeds are included. They also think the disabled don't have money, which couldn't be further from the truth. Adults with disabilities, or who are part of a household where a member is disabled, have the same income, assets, and spending power as any other adult."
Representation of the special-needs segment in advertising is a rare but important way for brands to position themselves as "inclusive" of this segment. "The key words here are open and inclusive," says Sowa. "Campaigns don't have to evolve around the [special-needs] community, but being included is so important."
The Marriott Corporation has long been recognized by the special-needs community as an inclusive brand, having ensured its facilities are highly accessible to the handicapped well before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established legal requirements.
Roger Conner, vice president of communications for Marriott International, theorizes that brands often shy away from the special-needs sector in ad campaigns for the sake of dollars and cents.
"Many organizations have a limited amount of financial resources for advertising," Conner explains. "Maybe they feel they must commit that money to the largest group of people. Hopefully, things are changing in terms of diversity. To truly be inclusive is to include everyone."
Adds Sowa, "Easter Seals encourages companies to think about how they can include people with disabilities and special needs as customers. We focus on what people with disabilities can do."
CVS/pharmacy, America's largest retail pharmacy chain with more than 6,100 locations stateside, has put a toe in the water by including the disabled in regional efforts promoting programs for them.
The company recently launched a campaign to promote All Kids Can, a five-year, $25 million commitment by the CVS/pharmacy Charitable Trust and CVS/pharmacy to support children with disabilities.
All Kids Can is primarily focused on developing awareness in local communities with co-branded endeavors, like building playgrounds inclusive of disabled children or a softball field with an artificial turf that accommodates wheelchairs.
Eileen Howard Dunn, vice president of community relations and corporate communications for CVS/pharmacy, says using real children with disabilities in ads to promote All Kids Can was a very rewarding experience. "The sheer joy they felt as being part of something was so rewarding," she says. "These kids are really living it, and by creating this campaign, we are letting our customers know that, by thinking more inclusively, they can have an impact too."
To succeed at reaching the special-needs community, marketers have to do more than just represent themselves as inclusive. They have to demonstrate the commitment to including the disabled inside their organizations. "It's important for brands to not only include these profiles in their advertising, but to hire the disabled as well," says Sowa.
An example is Bridges, a program sponsored by the Marriott Foundation. Saluted by former President Bill Clinton and a host of American lawmakers, Bridges has implemented programs in seven US states that show employers the value of hiring the disabled, while preparing members of the special-needs community for the workplace. Says Conner, "We are proud to say that our program serves as a role model for other companies seeking to develop programs that take the right approach."
Sowa feels that understanding the special-needs community is not a mystical process, but one where traditional practices can serve to educate marketers. "The best way to get to know this demographiclike any demographicis to develop a better understanding of it," she says. "Marketers need to understand the questions, issues and motivations to create products and services that appeal to people with special needs. That's the number-one issue."
In positioning a brand as inclusive, marketers should take steps to learn the language of the special-needs market. "When it comes to messaging, brands need to take the time to learn the correct languagewe call it person-first language," says Vogel. "They also need to convey the message that they see the special-needs segment as part of the brand: not in spite of their disabilities, but because the brand embraces how unique and important these people are."
Another key approach in reaching this segment is to use a wide lens in considering the target. "From Easter Seals' perspective, there are two key audiences," says Sowa. "Those with special needs, and the families of those with special needs. A child or adult with special needs affects the purchasing decisions of the entire household."
Vogel feels more brands would truly be inclusive if they'd just reach beyond carefully measured charitable efforts. "It's vital for brands to engage the community with more than the occasional sponsorship," says Vogel. "A co-branded effort, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, would speak volumes to the public."
For marketers who tweak their efforts to be more inclusive of the special-needs community, the rewards are great. "Whenever you tap into the needs and wants of any segment, you earn brand loyalty," says Sowa. "Marketing to the special needs segment can be inclusive of the general market segment, while engendering trust and loyalty."
Conner agrees. "The special-needs community uses the same media outlets that everyone else does, so it's responsible to interweave messages to them in general campaigns," he says. "Our philosophy with regard to the special-needs community stemmed from our philosophy about customer service in general. Being in the lodging or service business, you need to take into account all of your customers' needs. Coming down from that, if you take care of your customers, your customers will come back time and time again."