Originally published in Atlanta Business Chronicle.

By Mary Johnson  – Contributor


It was the Super Bowl commercial everyone was talking about back in 2017.

At the time, 84 Lumber, a brand with little awareness outside the construction industry, was in the midst of a massive growth spurt. If the company was to capitalize on a defined period of housing growth, it was going to need to put its name on the map.

Brunner, an ad agency with offices in Atlanta and Pittsburgh, started putting together a strategy to make that happen, said Rob Shapiro, chief creative officer at Brunner.

“84 Lumber is a company of opportunity. They look for the people who run their stores to be independent and have a strong stake in how the company grows,” Shapiro explains. “So, we decided to tell a patriotic story: In this land of opportunity, they are a company of opportunity.”

The result was the stunning story of a mother and her daughter leaving their home in Mexico for the promise of a new life in America. The commercial chronicles their arduous journey to the border, with the little girl collecting scraps of trash along the way and weaving them into a makeshift American flag.

At a time when public discourse around immigration had reached a fevered pitch, it was definitely a bold move, Shapiro said. The company was taking a stand and opening itself up to backlash from those who would disagree. But 84 Lumber went in with eyes wide open.

“They knew that it would spark discussion. They were game for that. And ultimately, we achieved our metrics — to have them be part of the discussion and to have everybody know who 84 Lumber is — in big ways,” Shapiro said.

In many ways, it was a case study on the value of being brave, Shapiro said. Increasingly, that is no longer a choice for brands, but an expectation from modern consumers. In a survey conducted by Brunner and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, only 20% of local leaders said their brands are leveraging cultural issues to create a connection. At the same time, 59% identified “relevancy” as an essential element in building connection to a brand.

“In the past, the safest path was to stay away from topical issues or culture issues. Now, it’s not so easy to do and may not be the best measure,” Shapiro said. “Now, you’re expected to be brave but you have to know how to avoid being burned by it.”

That’s the hardest part to overcome, Shapiro continued. Many brands fear potential backlash or worry about alienating future customers. While you may turn some people away from your brand, the people who are drawn in tend to be more valuable for your business.

“There are brands out there who just want to please everyone. But when you want everyone to be your customer you have no true, devoted fans because they haven’t connected to you deeply,” Shapiro said. “When you take a stand, you are going to connect deeply with a segment of the population, and then you are going to disconnect with another segment. And you have to accept that going in.”

To that end, brands need to have a strategy in place to deal with the reaction that their particular issue may provoke. They need to be prepared to listen and respond to the conversation that may unfold as a result, he said.

“It’s not going to go away if you ignore it; it’s just going to grow,” Shapiro said. “And if a brand has screwed up, admit it and do something about it. Consumers today respect that. They respect the transparency and the admission.”

These conversations are happening largely via social media, which millennials have embraced as an opportunity to weigh in and wield influence, Shapiro said.

“The generation of people coming into adulthood now deserve the credit for a lot of brands looking inward, reassessing their values and making sure that what they do matters — because they’re being held to task on that,” Shapiro said. “Not only can you bring down a CEO or a company through social media, if we think back to the Arab Spring, social media toppled a government.”

It helps if the brand chooses an issue it believes in, rather than cherry-picking one that might resonate with prospective customers, Shapiro said. According to the recent Brunner survey, the vast majority of business leaders — 68% — identified “authenticity” as core to forming strong brand connections.

“It has to be within the brand to begin with. It’s got to be genuine. That’s first and foremost,” he said. “If your motives aren’t genuine and real, consumers today are so savvy, they can sniff that out and they’ll turn their backs on you.”


For your free copy of the Brunner 2019 Atlanta Marketing Report, visit go.brunnerworks.com/atlanta-business-chronicle and find out how Atlanta-area brands connect with their audience throughout the buying process — and where opportunities exist.

Brunner is an independent Atlanta-based marketing agency 100+ people strong, with 35 years of evolutionary experience based on “what’s next.”

Mary Johnson is a freelance writer for The Business Journals Content Studio.