It was worth accelerating my morning a bit in order to attend the Chamber’s Sunrise Scrambler yesterday. It’s not often you hear a really great speaker. Coleman SVP Marketing and New Product Development Jeff Hillard is that guy.

The Value of Relevance

Jeff’s topic – The New Value Reality – was meaningful to companies large and small. B2B, B2C or a combination thereof. He didn’t just tell us why many consumers now consider it a badge of honor to shop Walmart. Why they’ve started saving more than they’re spending. Why they feel uneasy shelling out $4 for a Starbucks latte. He showed us how we’ve gotten to this place.

And he did it sans notes. He just talked to us.

What No PowerPoint Points?

Jeff used PowerPoint judiciously, reserving it for visual support – not bullet points. (Do I hear a hallelujah?) He walked us through the past 20 years and how market forces helped us spring back from 1987’s Black Monday, the early 2000’s Dotcom Bust, even 9-11. But some of the very things that helped us rebound – rising home values and easy credit – led American consumers to treat their home equity as the ultimate ATM, borrowing against their homes to such an extent that when home values fell, foreclosures soared.

Events of the past few years – Lehman Brothers’ non-government-bailed-out collapse, sky-high gas prices, unemployment approaching 10 percent, etc. – has led to fundamental changes in consumer behavior. Value rules. Conspicuous consumption suddenly makes you feel not only conspicuous, but none too bright.

Better, Smarter Shoppers

Every purchase is now a considered purchase. Shoppers research online. Talk to their friends. Share victories. Brag about the bargains they’ve found – not just on big-ticket items, on everything. Savvy, Jeff said, has become the new status symbol.

Just as consumer buying has changed, our businesses must change. Providing true value. Real savings. And/or creating something unique. He provided several fun examples, from Dutch Boy’s pourable paint can to the mini desserts many restaurants now offer.

Lighting the Way

Coleman’s insight has been to turn the consumer’s want into a need. Its new campaign – “The Original Social Networking Site.” – does that beautifully, selling connection and experience, not tents and lanterns.

Throughout the presentation, Jeff kept bringing his points back to our individual businesses and how we could be more successful. He didn’t promise it would be easy. In fact, he said in this new hyper-competitive, global economy, we’re going to have to work harder to get and retain the same amount of business we previously enjoyed.

I believe him.