Manning left the milk-marketing business five years ago to go on his own as a consultant. Now, the biggest continuing gig for the 63-year-old, who lives in Orinda, Calif., is his work as chief marketing officer for the Cherry Marketing Institute. Manning’s other clients include Jamba Juice and Hewlett-Packard.
While on a shoestring budget compared with his “Got Milk?” days and with the deep pockets of many agricultural commodities that compete with tart cherries for business, Manning has helped the cherries – many grown in the Upper Midwest – to climb to No. 3 among “dark superfruits” by many measures of American consumer awareness and brand recognition, after cranberries and blueberries.
Manning talked with brandchannel about what it’s like to create a classic brand, and what you do after that:
How do you decide what brands to work on?
I choose the things I’m really interested in that are intellectually challenging for me and don’t interfere with the cherry business.
What would you tell young branders who would hope to have a career as distinguished as yours?
A couple of things. One is, be brand-centric. Really dedicate yourself — whatever brands or brands you’re working on, put them first. Put them ahead of your business, if you’re a consultant, and ahead of the agency’s business. Put the brand first.
You do that by having the chutzpah to fight for the brand inside your own agency or if you have a choice -- for example, if you’re a creative guy doing something nifty that isn’t right for the brand versus something not as edgy that is better for the brand. Because in the end, everyone will know if you’ve done what’s really right for the brand.
The second thing is to be strategic and not race off into execution. Every brand has a persona, a personality, a reason for being. Too many people are racing off and doing tactical things before they’ve dealt with, “For what reason does the brand exist? Why do people choose it?” A lot of people like to race off to execution. It’s getting caught up in the nifty little things and not dealing with core strategic issues.
So work on the stuff that you really have a heart for. If someone asked me if I’d work on an alcoholic beverage or a cigarette, I’d say no thank you; I just don’t have a heart for it. Or technology, for that matter; I just don’t have the heart for technology. I couldn’t … love it. Try to work on the stuff that you really have a heart for and you will be better for the brand and as a marketer.
How did you come up with the “Got Milk?” idea?
It came from consumers. The whole milk-deprivation thing – running out of milk, when you’ve got cookies, so you need milk – came from consumers. We didn’t make it up. We were just talking with people and said, “Well, we know that most milk is consumed with food,” and we asked, “Why do you like it that way?” People were telling us lots of taste-related things, which was all pretty boring – telling you that cookies and milk taste good together isn’t exactly profound.
And then someone had the good idea to give people in these focus groups chocolate brownies and chocolate-chip cookies and bowls of cereal — and not have milk there. And the consumers in our research went crazy. They said, “You’re torturing me. This is like prisoner-of-war stuff.” That was the moment. We just had to look and listen.
How did you know it was time to move on from “Got Milk?” to other opportunities?
When I would go into the office and sit there and look at our program and after 12 years didn’t know how to make it better. There were only increments available – we could make it more efficient or more effective, but at that point only in 1-percent increments. I wasn’t willing to change the program just because I wanted something to do. It was when I realized I couldn’t make the sort of strategic or creative contributions I needed to make that I said it was probably time.
Twelve years on one product isn’t like 12 years at General Mills; [milk] is white and comes in gallons – and that’s it. That’s 90% of the milk industry. I wasn’t using enough of my gray cells anymore. And I haven’t looked back.
How did you end up helping the cherry-marketing group?
I was doing speeches and trying to drum up business and someone at the Cherry Marketing Institute in Lansing (Mich.) said, “Can you build a brand?” I had previously done work with bananas, strawberries and raisins, mostly at Ketchum, and that’s how I got the milk job in the first place.
Are you ever surprised by the continuing cultural relevance of “Got Milk?”
Yes, for sure. For instance, recently I was in San Francisco on my way out to dinner and drove by one of the strip joints which had a neon sign that said, “Got Porn?” I looked at that amazed at how (“Got Milk?”) has become such a part of the American vernacular.
We even made an effort once to see if we could get “Got Milk?” in the dictionary. It turned out it would be too laborious and there was some regulatory stuff. But when you see a garbage truck go by and it says “Got Junk?” you certainly realize it’s become part of how we speak. And I still do presentations on building brand potency using “Got Milk?” because it’s a great case study for building a brand even though it’s not really a brand.
So I guess we know where you got your marketing tagline, “Got Manning?”
Actually, it was a bit of a conflict for me. I thought it was a bit self-serving. But most people that I trusted said, “Jeff, you’d be an idiot not to do it.”