You need to be able to explain your advantage in 10 seconds or less
Here is a conversation I had with a potential new client a few weeks ago:
ME: "Okay, I understand what it is you do and sell, and you've told me a little about your sales goals and that you have an aggressive growth strategy for the next 18 months. But I can think of a few players in your space who seem to be doing similar things. Can you tell me how you're different or better?"
CLIENT: "What do you mean?"
ME: "I mean, if a potential customer is trying to decide between buying your product and buying that of a competitor, what factors will make them choose you? Are you cheaper, faster, more reliable...?"
CLIENT: "Well, we deliver a quality product."
ME: "Yes, but what does that mean to you? What will that mean to the customer?"
CLIENT: "Hhmmm...I'm not sure."
ME: "Well, how are you getting clients right now?"
CLIENT: "Most of our business comes from referrals from our existing clients, actually."
ME: "That's a good sign - it means you're doing something right. Why are people referring their friends and colleagues to you? Are they telling you why they're calling you?"
CLIENT: "They say that we're more trustworthy than other companies in our space, and that we have better customer service, and that we do a better job of solving their problems, and we become a better long-term partner. Oh, and we always save them a lot of money over the long-term, because we don't sell them stuff they don't need."
Marketing is really all about communicating key differentiators
I knew this business had something going for it, because I happened to know that it had done pretty well in the preceding 2 years, even without doing any marketing. So clearly it was delivering a decent product. But getting them to articulate their key differentiators - service, strategic partnership, cost-effectiveness - was like pulling teeth.
This is a common problem for small businesses, especially those in the 'professional services' category. They've had initial success as a result of personal relationships - typically those of the founder - but after a couple of years, those relationships are saturated. They know they need to broaden their target market, but when it comes time to explain why they're different, and better, than their competitors, they find themselves tongue-tied or reliant on 35-page PowerPoint decks. Either way they lose the 10 seconds they've got to make a big impression with a potential new client.
Here's the thing: If people could do what you do, they wouldn't be in the market for your services in the first place. In other words, they probably don't know a whole lot about your industry or field. So you have to make it easy for them to understand the benefits you're offering before you try to explain all the details to them.
That's where the key differentiators come in. It's all about boiling down the ways in which you're different - and better - to a few key points that you can use any time you're communicating to a potential client, whether that's in marketing materials or in person.
Don't try to squeeze everything in at once
As I wrote the other day, trying to explain every little detail to a customer can backfire - people only have a limited capacity for new information at a given time, and the goal of marketing is to capture their attention long enough to get them sufficiently interested to give you more of their attention. So rattling off a laundry list of features and benefits isn't the best strategy. Instead, pick 2 or 3 and work them into a compelling story.
Make a list of all the features and benefits of your product or service, and how they're different from your competitors
Choose the top 3 based on what your current customers are telling you mean the most to them
Construct your messaging around these 3 differentiators
Test the messaging in the marketplace, and take note of which ones seem to resonate with potential customers
Refine as required
Over time, you'll probably find that different messages work with different target groups: Your public-sector clients may respond best to cost and security messages, while your private sector clients may respond best to the fact that you deal with other 'big names' in their industry. That's okay - at least the next time someone asks you how you're 'different and better' than your competitors, you won't have to say "What do you mean?"
So I guess Internet Explorer is trying to make itself relevant again:
But I can't help thinking that it's a really, really bad idea to associate your outdated product with a whole lot of other outdated products. It just reinforces the idea that your product is about as relevant as troll dolls. And the tagline ("You grew up. So did we.") is too weak - other than the Explorer logo on what appears to be a tablet computer at the end, there's no actual evidence presented regarding this 'growing up'. And I'm gonna need some evidence, since right now, half the websites I visit look like crap on IE - why would I change?
Maybe I'm missing something here. After all, I'm a child of the 80s, not 90s, and when diet Pepsi did their 'Forever Young' campaign using a Flock of Seagulls song, I thought it was great - even though I like neither diet Pepsi nor Flock of Seagulls. The nostalgia worked for me.
But diet Pepsi isn't a high-tech product. If you're a software-related brand, don't you want to be seen as cutting-edge rather than charmingly old-fashioned?
It's harder than ever to know when 'brand exposure' will turn into 'brand disaster'
I've done it plenty of times: You organize a branded event in a bar or other venue, with lots of expensive signage. By 2am, you've finally cleared everyone out, you're cleaning up and you're exhausted, so you think "Oh heck, I'll just leave that signage up there. Maybe they won't bother to take it down and I'll get a few extra days of exposure out of it. My client will like that, and anyway I'm too tired to get up on a ladder and get it all down now."
Except that the next night's event is a dog-fighting exhibition, which almost everyone thinks is terrible. And now the brand is attached to something awful, and thanks to the internet it goes viral in about 5 minutes. What's worse, it won't go away: The Heineken dog fighting photo [above] first circulated in April 2012 and Heineken dealt with it pretty promptly, but it showed up again in my Facebook feed just this week.
The lesson? These days, marketers have to be able to predict the future more accurately than ever - what's more, they have to be able to see all possible future scenarios in order to avert disaster.
Marketers have always had to be prescient: After all, most of the time what you're really saying to a client is "If we spend $X on Y initiative, we can expect Z results." It's the hardest - but maybe most exciting - part of the job, because you really have no idea whether spending $500k to put your product in a will.i.am video is, in fact, going to deliver an incremental increase in sales (and in fact you may not even have the ability to draw a straight line from that $500k investment to any incremental sales at all).
But these days you not only have to be a 'visionary creative' (ugh), you also have to be a brilliant strategic-thinking tactician, like [insert name of famously successful military thinker here], capable of seeing both the potential wins of a campaign or initiative, as well as all the ways in which that campaign could turn into a giant disaster.
What does this mean for marketers? Well, I wish I could say it means that marketers will get smarter and the rest of the world would stop thinking we're pretty much idiots who try to sell people stuff they don't need. However, I think it's more likely that the real consequence is that big brands will become even more squeamish about taking risks, and successful marketing types won't be the ones with great ideas, but the ones who are best at convincing their clients they've 'driven results' without causing any controversy.
A few weeks ago I was working in a client's office, when I suddenly realized I was hearing someone saying words I'd written. At first I thought perhaps I'd turned into Oscar Wilde without knowing it, but then I understood: It was an employee, on the phone, and they were talking about the company.
What was satisfying about what I was hearing wasn't that the employee (a senior exec) was repeating something I'd created word for word - he wasn't working from a script or cold-calling. A former colleague had called to find out what the guy was doing these days, and the employee was telling him about the company. But he wasn't just talking about the products and services or even how many people he was managing now.
He was telling the brand story.
What's a 'brand story'?
Essentially, it's a compelling explanation of who you are, why you're different, and why someone should care, all in a nicely-wrapped little story that gives some indication of your history and culture. You can create brand stories for personal brands or big multinationals - the idea is that they're easy to remember and retell.
The truth is that if you give people a list of facts, you'll be lucky if they remember one or two of them. Put those facts into a story, on the other hand, and you stand a much better chance of the information sticking. It's why it's easier to figure out the answer to a physics problem that starts with "If the sailboat was drifting towards the cliff at 5km/hour..." than one which starts with "Calculate the vector for X..."
And stories do a better job of inspiring and motivating people than facts alone can do.
(Years ago, Seth Godin wrote a very nice piece about using stories to market ideas - you can read it here.)
They need to take on a life of their own
Brand stories don't work if the only person telling them is the president at the annual meeting, or if they're just stuck on a website somewhere. They have to be told and retold, internalized and shared, both within the organization and by stakeholders on the outside.
(One of the ways Google got so popular, even though they're so big, is because their story, "Don't be evil", became widely known.)
So how does that happen?
By making sure that the story is:
Real (you can't talk about how your food products are based on 'family recipes' without showing your employees a framed copy of Grandma's original cookie recipe, for example)
Organic (think grassroots, not top-down)
Consistent ('friendly' means being friendly to suppliers and employees, not just customers)
Interesting (a "rags to riches" story will get you a reality show quicker than a "slow and cautious" growth story)
Possibly most important is making new employees feel like they've joined a special team or an exclusive club - an organization that they can feel proud of, and that they want to tell others about.
My client's organization isn't the hugest in their industry, but they do a great job of onboarding their employees: They make them feel important and special, they make sure new employees know the brand story from the very first day, and they go out of their way to make sure new employees feel like part of the brand story - that every employee has the power to change the company.
And maybe that's the key to the whole thing: When employees feel like they're part of the brand story, they start telling the story to others, because they feel a sense of ownership.
If you've been awake at any time during the past 6 months, you've heard that 'Someone That I Used to Know' song by Gotye. It's a pretty good song, and a strangely compelling video, but I found myself feeling kind of sorry for poor old Kimbra, the woman who duets with Gotye on the track. While his parents apparently supported him while he noodled around in a farmhouse somewhere, Kimbra's been working her backside off trying to become a pop artist for years.
So I was happy to see that Victoria's Secret has decided to use Kimbra's song 'Settle Down' in their new commercials:
It's a good choice in some ways: It's got a distinctive beat and they've given it a remix with a lot of breathiness and echo that works well with the visuals.
But on the other hand, having heard the original song in its entirety, and watched the video - a sort of Stepford Wives-esque parody - I wonder if it was entirely the right choice:
Then I realize I'm probably the only person in the world who worries about this stuff, and remarking on it is part of the reason I never mastered the politics of ad agencies, where it doesn't do to overthink these things.
However, it did get me thinking - and not for the first time - about music licensing, and how it's become such a cornerstone of an artist's ability to make money in the music business, rather than a sign of selling out. Moby, for example, has publicly regretted his 'overlicensing' of tracks, especially in English-speaking countries, but no one ever seems to criticize Justin Timberlake for turning one of his songs into an entire McDonald's campaign.
(It's true you may not remember this particular commercial - it's the director's cut and was only shown on TV a handful of times. But the "I'm lovin' it" tagline is still being used.)
What about the money?
Ah, yes, the money. How much do artists get for licensing tracks like this?
Well, there's where it gets a little tricky, because no one talks about the deals, and I've just spent almost 30 minutes searching for hard data on that, without success.
Twelve years ago I was told, by a longtime music industry type who was in a position to know, that Steve Goodman's widow was offered $350,000 to use the chorus from 'The City of New Orleans' (which he wrote) in a laxative commercial in the mid-1980s. This seems high, since it would only have been for mechanicals, but perhaps I'm underestimating the power of broadcast media back in the day.
In the mid-2000s, a PR exec told me that Justin Timberlake had been paid $10 million for 'I'm Lovin' It' and that seems reasonable, given that he appeared in the original ads, the campaign was worldwide, and they were using the name of the song as a tagline. Plus it was a bit of a gamble for McDonald's in 2003, since Timberlake's first solo album was just about to drop and no one could really be sure that he'd be able to shed his former boy-band credibility gap.
On the other hand, I've licensed songs from unknown artists for $100. So the answer to the money question is probably a complicated formula involving (the artist's agent's negotiating skills x the artist's brand equity) + (artist's current level of desperation x potential for exposure).
Anyway, today's blog didn't have a particularly insightful point to make, I suppose. Except: I'd really like to see a peer-reviewed research paper which quantified the sales increases directly attributable to the use of 80s new wave music in commercials designed for a target audience of university-educated 40-somethings. Because I'm almost positive there is a demonstrable connection between the two.
I guess this is what happens when there are so few taboos left to break.
Last time I wrote a blog post tagged #badvertising, it was about a strangely discombobulated spot for Depends undergarments in which figure skaters (who took pains to indicate they did not need the product) leapt around in adult diapers 'for charity'. I had a little sympathy for the advertisers, though: It's hard to make incontinence appealing.
Today, however, I have no sympathy for our #badvertising culprits. Readers, I give you Harvey Nichols' latest ads:
Just in case you can't believe what you're seeing here, those dark spots in the crotches (sorry) of the models' pants are in fact supposed to be pee stains. The point of the ads, you see, is that you'll be so excited by the Harvey Nichols sale that you will literally wet yourself.
And it continues:
Now, in case you are unfamiliar with Harvey Nichols - or Harvey Nicks, as Edwina and Patsy would say - let me just explain that it is a London-based department store where you'd go to find, say, an $800 pair of shoes. In other words, this isn't an Urban Outfitters sort of a place that is trying to appeal to the ironic hipster crowd. And while I could no doubt make some cheap jokes about the likelihood of the Tara Palmer-Tomkinson socialite set both (a) dressing badly but expensively and (b) wetting their pants after some particularly salubrious nights out, I just don't think associating your brand with urine stains is really the way to go.
(What's more, I have a suspicion that the biggest-spending clientele of Harvey Nichols - as with many of the higher-end stores - is in fact the 50-but-dying-to-look-like-their-teenage-daughter crowd, and the last thing about which they'll care to be reminded is their impending incontinence. But that's just my opinion.)
Harvey Nichols' spokesperson said something about how the ads were supposed to be 'tongue-in-cheek', irreverent, blah blah blah. The usual. But wouldn't it have been so much more tongue-in-cheek if the 'excitement' was represented by, say, visible engorgement of erectile tissue? Or possibly headlights?
Okay, I can't write any more. I'm cringing as much as you are.
Helping clients overcome the fear that branding will somehow 'cheapen' their product.
(I have borrowed this image from Saatchi & Saatchi's mostly failed concept of 'lovemarks': brands that go beyond loyalty into passionate emotional attachment. Lovemarks never really got off the ground, but I still think this is an interesting way to look at branding in general.)
Last time we talked about how small business owners - especially ones who have already had some success and are looking to take their organization to the next level - can be reluctant to embrace the idea of branding their company (or their product/service) because they feel that brands are somehow fake.
I understand: No one wants to think they're turning their professional services firm into the Kim Kardashian of consulting.
But, reality tv stars aside, branding really isn't about fakery, because as a small business owner you can't 'trick' anyone into having an emotional attachment to you, your company or your products. Branding is all about identifying the reasons people already feel strongly about you, then amplifying them so that it's easier to spread the word.
In fact, your brand already exists - you just haven't identified its components, articulated the message, and made it consistent.
How to get to a comfort level with branding
Okay, so how do you start to build a brand that's a real reflection of what you're already doing? Start with these steps.
1. What 'story' are you already telling about your company?
If you've been in business for any length of time, you've already been telling some kind of 'story' about your company. This may involve the strengths of the founder, how you got started, your philosophy or approach. As I've said before, branding is really just about telling the right story about your company. It's hard to say your brand is fake when it's based on a story you're already telling.
2. Examine the brands you personally love
I do always think it's funny when people tell me they don't believe in branding - but then pull out their iPhone, make impassioned speeches about whatever haircare product they use, or say something like "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." But it's a good opportunity to think about the notion that branding is somehow fake: If you really believed that branding was trickery, you wouldn't be using these products.
3. Remember that branding is really just a way to help people navigate a sea of products and services
If you walked into a grocery store, and everything in it was in black-and-white packaging without any branding at all, it'd take you hours to do your shopping because you'd have to examine every single product in the store. Branding is really just a shortcut to decision-making, a way to help consumers/clients understand "Oh, this is what I was looking for!" When you look at it that way, branding is really more about helping the consumer than tricking them.
4. List your real functional benefits.
'Functional benefits' are the 'factual' ways in which you're better than your competitors. They may include being cheaper, faster, having more selection, more convenient hours, better customer service, longest in the business, etc. Make a list of them, and be honest - only include the ones which are really different from your competitors.
If you've done a good job of editing, you'll end up with a list of 2-3 key functional benefits which genuinely differentiate you from the competition.
5. What do your best clients say about you?
Most successful small businesses have a core of loyal clients who keep coming back to them again and again, and who refer them to other clients. If you don't already know, ask them why they love you so much. Chances are, you'll find their reasons have little to do with what you listed in #1. They may like that you have convenient hours, but love that you always give them good advice; they may think you have good customer service, but love that your staff doesn't have much turnover and they can count on seeing the same faces every time they visit your office.
What your best clients say about you to their friends and family is the best place to start when building your brand - and it's absolutely not 'fake'.
Emotional attachments to brands has become a lot more acceptable. But many small business owners are still sceptical.
In my opinion, one of the most significant developments in communications in the past 15 years is the widespread acceptance of the notion that 'branding' is important for virtually every product, service, organization and even people - not just for packaged goods products.
It hasn't always been this way. I remember, in 2000, making a presentation to an educational products company who needed a new website. They were still wrestling with the fact that a transition to a web-based delivery system meant they needed a better visual identity; when I started to talk about ephemeral concepts like 'brand personality' and 'emotional engagement', they started to roll their eyes and I could see them dismissing me as another crackpot marketing person who was going to try to get them to spend all their money without regard for their bottom line.
"Look," they said, "All this talk about emotional attachments to brands may be fine when you're trying to trick people into buying your product, like if you're trying to convince people there's a difference between Coke and Pepsi. But people buy our product because we provide the best materials at the best price." In other words, when the functional benefits of a product or service are legitimate, branding is not only unneccessary but somehow distasteful.
The DotCom era changed all that
Say what you will about the dotcom boom and bust of 1999-2001, it changed the branding landscape forever. People watched as vaporware high-tech companies which had nothing but a couple of tech geniuses and a compelling brand story managed to attract an awful lot of money - and everyone had to admit that even in boardrooms, lots of purchasing decisions were being based on emotional responses.
Throughout the 2000s, more research was done on emotional attachments to a brands and how they affect buying habits across all kinds of market sectors. Today, most of us accept that the products we love - and buy - the most are not necessarily the ones with the optimal combination of functional benefits and low price. We're not only comfortable with the fact that emotional responses trigger buying decisions, but that buying certain products and services can trigger emotional responses in return.
Branding still makes some people very uneasy - especially when it comes to their own business
These days, I don't get much eye-rolling when I talk to clients about brand-building and emotional engagement with brands - especially when half the people in the boardroom have an iPhone in their pocket.
But there's still one group that remains resistant: The small business owner.
The successful small business owner may be just as brand-aware as anyone else, with a passion for their iPhone or their Range Rover or their Sub-Zero refrigerator. But when it comes to their own business, they still feel, somehow, that to put too much effort into their brand identity - to try to attach meaning to their product or service that goes beyond purely functional benefits like being smarter, cheaper or faster than their competitors - somehow cheapens what they do for a living.
I get it: If you've grown your business from nothing to a $5-$10 million organization, you've usually spent years trying to deliver a great product, provide excellent customer service, building strong relationships with your stakeholders. In many ways, you are the brand - so when someone comes along and says that if you want to take your business to the next level, you need a 'brand identity' with a 'personality' and 'emotional resonance', it's natural to fear that you'll be pushed into a brand that seems 'fake' and not reflective of the very real values - and value - that you stand for.
But a good brand is anything but fake - and tomorrow we'll talk about how to build one.
The other day, my friend and former ad agency comrade Alanis and I were talking - via Twitter, of course - about the dismal state of television ads for yogurt, with specific reference to that terrible 'Find Your Source' series.
Alanis was referring to a fresh new disaster in this line, featuring a bizarre fruit-surrounded woman DJing her way to yogurt happiness, but I can't find it online. No matter, because the one I could find is just as representative of the genre:
However, the yogurt commercial that's been driving me nuts lately is the one for Yoptimal yogurt, which uses what must be the oldest trope in the commercial business: The star of the spot keeps 'ruining' each take because she's enjoying the product so much that she can't stop eating it.
Unfortunately, everyone involved with this spot is apparently so embarrassed by it that the best I can offer you is the thumbnail above - even the production company (Spy Films) doesn't have it on their website, and the ad agency (Bos) doesn't have it in their portfolio.
Why did this one stick in my mind? Because I remember this actress - Natalie Brown - starring in one of the most 'iconic' tv commercials of my youth:
(I do give her credit for looking almost exactly the same as she did 20 years ago. I don't know what she's doing, but it's clearly working.)
Those of you who are a certain age will no doubt remember this Heinz commercial. Slightly cheesy, but with a little story and a nice idea and decent casting.
But that's the thing: 20 years later, we can still remember this spot. When I went looking for her current yogurt commercial, it took me ages to figure out it was for Yoptimal - I finally had to find a list of Canadian yogurt brands and search each one of them until I got a hit. When people can't remember the product, and can't find the spot even when they're looking, your commercial has failed.
I know that television advertising has had to change in the past 15 years: When I first started working in ad agencies, 15 years ago, clients didn't blink at forking over $350,000 for a commercial or two, because everyone was watching tv and that's how you reached them. And everyone knew that, between ad agency fees, ACTRA contracts, and studio time, the costs just mounted up.
These days, everyone has a high-quality digital camera and iMovie on their computer, they're watching tv shows online where they can avoid commercials - so what company is going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a tv commercial when they can crowdsource something for $1000? But while 'crowdsourcing' your commercial sounds like a fantastic idea when you're in the boardroom trying to impress everyone with just how iHipster you are, it very rarely translates into an iconic ad in the end.
Don't worry - I haven't turned into a curmudgeon here. There are plenty of interesting commercials happening - they just aren't making it on to television. They're living on the internet:
But it's kind of a shame, because it's making television even more annoying to watch than it already is.
I know - just what you wanted: Another blog post about personal branding. But for all that's been written and said about personal branding in the past 5+ years, I still find myself getting asked about it by people who are fantastic at what they do, but who aren't getting the recognition they deserve because they haven't really figured out how to build their own personal brand.
This is what I tell them.
Chocolate bars: Four basic ingredients. Almost infinite positioning.
No industry has done a better job of branding a commoditized product than what the North American and British confectionery indutries have done with chocolate bars (or 'candy bars', if you're in certain parts of the USA).
Fundamentally, 99% of chocolate bars are exactly the same: Around 50g of the same four basic ingredients (chocolate, sugar, caramel and peanuts), combined in different ways.
And yet somehow we know that:
OHenry bars are for when you're really hungry
KitKats are for when you just want a 'break'
MARS bars are good energy for sporty lives
Smarties provide hours of amusement
Hershey bars are somehow as patriotic as a bottle of Coca-Cola
I find it amazing that there are so many ways to combine and package the same basic ingredients to create such distinct offerings.
It's time to start thinking of yourself as a chocolate bar.
It's my belief that anyone who takes their career seriously and is even moderately ambitious should create their own personal brand, even if they never want to start their own company or consultancy. Being 'known' for something is also a great way to get ahead in a 'regular' career, because it helps employers and potential employers reach that 'eureka' moment when they realize that you're a perfect fit for a particular role.
Spend too much time in the twitterverse or blogosphere and it's easy to think that everyone's creating personal brands all over the place these days. But in the real world, most people find it hard to deliver a compelling 2-sentence summary about why they're different and better, let alone come up with a personal brand. They know it's important; they just aren't doing it.
So what's stopping them?
Most of the time, it's that they don't really believe that they're all that different or special than everyone else.
"I mean, I know I'm pretty good at my job and I think I know a lot about what I do, but I'm not exactly a visionary," they tell me. "There are lots of other people doing what I do, and I'm not kidding myself that I'm some kind of genius. So what would my brand be about?"
Worrying that you're not a genius misses the point: Branding is all about turning a commodity product into a special, premium or beloved one. You don't have to be a 'genius'; you just have to position your professional equivalent of 50 grams' worth of chocolate, peanuts, caramel and sugar in a way that makes people think: "Whenever I need to solve [insert relevant business challenge here], I always think of [insert your name here] because s/he is an expert on [insert solution to relevant business challenge here]."
For example: "Whenever I think about branding in the small business space, I think about Sarah Welstead because she has done such great work for other companies I admire." (!!)
You already have a great USP. You just don't know what it is (yet).
Here's the thing: If you really are good at what you do, are committed to getting better at what you do, and are genuinely passionate about what you do for a living, chances are you're already combining your 50g of basic ingredients in some kind of unique way - you just don't realize it.
So ask 5 colleagues (present and past) for their input:
Ask your boss why s/he hired you. What made you stand out from the other applicants?
Ask your manager what things s/he 'counts' on you to provide (interesting ideas, super-fast work, lateral thinking, etc.)
Ask your co-workers what they think you're particularly good at - and tell them to include even stuff that seems irrelevant, like "Somehow you always manage to fix the photocopier"
Ask subordinates/direct reports what they've learned from working with you (this one may be the most revealing, because you may find that you're highly respected for knowledge that you take for granted)
Ask a trusted client why they like working with you
You'll probably be pleasantly surprised by the responses you get - you may be inspiring or helping people in ways you never realized.
More importantly, once you know that colleagues think of you as a reliable partner or an inspirational leader, coming up with the basis of your personal brand will suddenly become a lot easier.
People who think advertising is a new thing that is somehow 'evil' haven't read any history books lately.
I've borrowed this excellent image from Zazzle.com, where you can make customized stuff in small quantities. They'll be less annoyed about this if you click here to visit their site!
(Today I ran into someone I knew in high school and they seemed appalled that I'd ended up in marketing, so I dug this up from my old blog on ERE.net and I've reprinted it here. It was originally part of a series on personal branding, but I think it works fine by itself.)
Advertising: The profession everyone loves to hate
I've spent my entire working life in 3 industries that people think are filled with cheats, charlatans and idiots: Real estate, advertising, and recruiting.
So I'm used to the faces people make - as though they'd just sucked on a particularly sinful lemon - when they hear what I do for a living. Many people can't restrict themselves to just the faces, either, and are happy to tell me that all real estate agents/advertising people/recruiters are shallow, materialistic, fake, incompetent, mean, and self-absorbed.
If I'm meeting them at, say, a dinner party where the other guests work in non-profits, government, academia or healthcare, there often ensues a lengthy discussion on how advertising types - and the evil corporations they represent - is pretty much responsible for the downfall of society.
The anti-branding position goes like this:
"If marketing people didn't keep trying to convince people that they 'needed' 8 televisions, 3 cars, a 4000 sq foot home with a 100-ft frontage, several $1000 handbags and a perfect size 2 figure, we'd all be much happier, society would be a meritocracy, eating disorders would be eliminated, and China would have uncensored internet access."
Thanks to the popularity of Mad Men, this is usually followed up with some comment about how shady advertising types are a recent invention of the past 50 years, and that we need to be stamped out before the sky actually does fall in.
Except that's not really true...
Let's just break it down:
"...8 televisions, 3 cars, a 4000 sq ft home, etc."
Guess what? Once you have enough to eat, are safe from predators, have a roof over your head and sufficient clothing to keep from dying of exposure, everything else you own is just stuff you want, not stuff you need.
"...with a 100-ft frontage..."
The human desire for land precedes advertising agencies by about 10,000 years, as evidenced by about a zillion wars over various patches of ground throughout the whole of human history.
"...we'd all be much happier, society would be a meritocracy..."
If there were any actual examples, in all of recorded human history, of societies in which happiness was rife and a meritocracy prevailed, I'd have an easier time believing this.
"...eating disorders would be eliminated..."
I hate unrealistic airbrushed models as much as anyone, but eating disorders have been documented since the Middle Ages, and there's evidence to suggest they've been around for more than 10,000 years.
"...advertising types are a recent invention of the past 50 years..."
Advertising and marketing has been around as long as humans have - archeologists have found evidence of marketing messages in Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, and classified ads in Ancient Rome. The first clear-cut examples of 'modern' advertising in the 15th century, and the first newspaper ad appeared in 1622 or so.
In other words: As soon as the first human wanted to get other humans to 'do stuff' (help with the boar-killing expedition, believe in their god, buy their corn, or fight their war), marketing's existed.
What have we learned?
Since human society has managed to survive - nay, thrive! - 10,000 years of marketing and 500+ years of advertising, I feel certain that society is in no imminent danger of collapse.
If you want a rebrand to work, you have to engage the whole team. Here's how to get started.
I'm often brought in to help companies transition from their very first branding efforts to one that's more suitable for the ways in which they're growing: They may have set up a basic website when they first started, but now they have a few employees, a few big clients, and they need a brand that is a little more polished and sophisticated.
As I've said before, I think that great brands are built from the inside out. The best brands seem organic and almost inevitable, because they're an accurate reflection of the business and of the people who work there. Which means that when you undertake a 'rebranding' exercise, it's important to engage employees in the process.
In my experience, the best way to do this is to gather everyone (or key stakeholders, depending on the size of the organization) together for a workshop session (with pizza is best) in which we discuss the functional and emotional benefits of the company and the current brand identity. Employees become invested in the new brand; more importantly, the session can help identify key insights which form the basis of the new brand identity.
Ask for answers to these key questions
It's important that these workshops are productive and don't deteriorate into free-for-all 'brainstorming' sessions which can drone on for ages and don't really go anywhere.
So we stick to gathering answers to - and controlled discussion about - these questions:
What made you choose to work at this company? What made you apply here in the first place?
What's the best thing about working here?
Was there a 'deciding factor' in your decision to work here?
When you're talking to friends/family, what do you say about the company?
When you're talking to colleagues/former co-workers, what do you say about the company?
When you're talking to potential clients, how do you describe the company?
In your opinion, why is this company better than others in the market?
What do you think this company does really, really well?
What do you think this company could do better?
If you had to come up with 3 words to describe this company, what would they be?
If this company was a retail store, what would it be?
If it were a product brand, what would it be?
Depending on the size of the group, this exercise will take 2-3 hours - but will generate a huge amount of internal brand loyalty and investment as you move forward.
Strategies for helping reluctant clients find better ways to express themselves.
Yes, this is a dung beetle pushing a large ball of dung. At least I didn't use an image of Sisyphus.
Yesterday I wrote about how to approach the problem of a client with a brand identity you don't like, and making sure you're not mistaking 'personal opinion' for 'professional advice'.
But what happens when you've asked yourself the right questions, remembered you're not the target, and still come to the conclusion that the client's brand identity is getting in the way of overall marketing success?
Negative know-it-alls never prosper
You know who I'm talking about: The people who waltz in and proceed to tell the client, with a boatload of condescension, that everything they've done up to this point is a giant heap of awful and they need to rebuild everything from the bottom up if they are to have a hope in hell of getting any more business from anyone, ever.
These blowhards do manage to get the odd client, but it's amazing how they never seem to keep them for very long. Because anyone who tells you they have the magic marketing answer to everything never does - sooner or later clients realize this for themselves, and go elsewhere.
When you first meet a client, you don't know how much money they've already spent on their brand identity; you don't know how emotionally invested they are in it; you don't know how the organization feels about it; and you definitely don't know if what they're doing is working for them or not. Walking up to someone at a bar and saying, "You know, you're really kind of ugly, but if you fix your hair, makeup and wardrobe, maybe we could go out sometime..." is the start of a totally dysfunctional relationship.
Ask questions, build trust
Client relationships are like any other relationships: Before they're going to take your advice, they're going to have to trust you. So before you make pronouncements about their brand and their organization, start by asking questions. These are the questions I ask when I think a client may need a brand identity overhaul:
1. Tell me the story behind your brand.
As I said yesterday, a logo or brand identity that looks unappealing to you may in fact have a great story behind it. You may even find that that story has value for their sales team, or quite a bit of equity in the marketplace. ('Kleenex', for example, is actually a terrible name, and the logo isn't much better. But it doesn't matter, since 'Kleenex' has been around so long, and is so ubiquitous, that it's become the generic name for any paper-based facial tissue.)
How this can help your case: If they struggle to tell you the story behind their brand, you can suggest that building a brand identity with a proper story behind it will make their sales and marketing efforts a lot easier.
2. Tell me the history of your brand identity. Have you worked with designers or marketing people before?
This is important to know, because if they say they just spent $50,000 on a new brand identity - especially if they worked with one of the blowhards mentioned above - they're going to be highly sensitive to criticism or suggestions for change. On the other hand, you may discover that the current logo was designed by the CEO's 18-year-old nephew.
How this can help your case: If you discover that they're new to 'marketing', educating them about how a properly-articulated brand identity can help them position and sell themselves can be all you need to propel them in the right direction.
3. Tell me about how you think marketing can help your business.
Good marketing starts with understanding the client's business, so by the time you're talking about branding you should already know what they do and why they think they're unique in the marketplace. Now it's time to drill down to identify gaps or opportunities that marketing can help to fill. Ideally this will become a discussion between you and the client - with you recommending opportunities, not just taking orders from the client - but it's good to start with what the client is thinking about how you can help them.
How this can help your case: If the client identifies a specific challenge ("Our salespeople aren't getting enough meetings" or "People aren't spending enough time on our website"), they open the door to a conversation about how the brand identity might be part of the problem.
4. Who is your target audience/market?
Over the years, I've worked with several property management-related companies, many of whom have had dreadful brand identities. At first I tried hard to get them to change, until I realized that 95% of their business happened as a result of long-standing relationships within a fairly tight-knit community of guys (yes, it's usually men) who have known each other forever, have owned commercial/industrial properties together, and tended to make business deals based on handshakes and beer. They didn't need expensive brand identities with charming brand stories - they just needed some basics to make them look professional.
However, when some of these businesses grew, and were looking to penetrate larger consumer markets, then it was time to push a better brand identity.
How this can help your case: Knowing your client's target market will allow you to demonstrate who else is excelling in their space - and show them how important it is that their brand identity is good enough to compete.
5. How do you see your business growing in the next 12-24 months?
As a business grows, so does their need for marketing materials. Today, all they think they need are business cards and a website; 6 months from now they may need anything from billboards to tradeshow displays to RFP templates; 2 years from now they may need branding and materials for line extensions.
How this can help your case: The more you know about your client's future plans, the more you can help them identify the marketing and communications materials they'll need down the line - and the easier it is to demonstrate how their current brand identity won't accommodate that kind of growth in the long run.
It's an organic process
It's a rare client who, after being asked a question or two, says, "Okay! I get it - let's revamp the whole brand identity! How soon can we do it?" That's okay - I'm a firm believer that the best brands are built over time, and as a result of a close relationship between the organization and their marketing team. Asking the right questions will help you build that relationship.
You love your new client, but you hate their existing brand identity. Here's how to approach it.
In the past week alone, 4 different people - designers, web developers, content writers - have all called me and said the same thing: "I've got this great new client, who have this really interesting product, but their brand identity is terrible. It's so bad that I'm worried that whatever I do for them will end up being terrible too, and they'll either be mad at me or I'll be embarrassed to tell anyone I did it. What do I do?"
This is what I say:
1. Is it really as bad as you think?
If you're 'in the business', you probably have some very decided ideas about the way marketing materials should look and feel. I myself can't stand inconsistent fonts and colour palettes - they stick out like sore thumbs to me, they make me think that everyone involved with the company is unprofessional and highly un-detail-oriented, and I want to give the people responsible a stern talking-to.
But many times when I mention it to the client, it turns out that neither they, nor their stakeholders, have ever really noticed that there are 3 different fonts on their homepage. Their business is percolating along, with no noticeable gap in sales, and they've got bigger fish to fry at the moment. And so I have to step back and realize that I am not the target, I am more critical than the average person, and what I see as a 'disaster' isn't, really.
2. Is it actually having a negative impact on the client's business?
I think this website is terrible. The colours are totally 1990s, the site is loud and far too 'sales-ish', and I end up feeling that the guy behind it is far more interested in selling me stuff than in 'helping' me. But here's the thing: This guy makes a lot of money (he famously retired at 35); lots of people love him; and I understand that his website does a fantastic job of sales conversion for him. In other words, the site is working - so it doesn't really matter if I don't like it, or respond to the story he's telling.
The whole point of marketing is to drive the business goals. Unless you can demonstrate that your client's brand identity is actively getting in the way of doing this, you may just have to accept that your client may in fact know what they're doing.
3. Is there a good story underpinning a bad look and feel?
For years I worked with a company called Head2Head, and everyone hated their logo, which looked like this:
I inherited this logo - I didn't create it. In fact, it was created by the founder, who famously drew it on a napkin (and painted it) in the very early days of the company. Initially, I hated it, too - but then I realized that (a) it had a nice backstory; and (b) it became a sort of interesting talking point.
Plus, it's relatively easy to contain a difficult logo with good design:
See how nice and polished that looks? In fact, we often got compliments on our materials, and it didn't matter if those compliments were followed by "...but I still hate that logo."
(To celebrate their 10th anniversary, Head2Head renovated their brand identity, and it looks great - but now it has a different kind of backstory.)
4. What does the target audience think?
You may hate the look and feel of this website, for all kinds of reasons. But they "manufacture and supply researchers in the biomedical fields with specialized complex organic small molecules", and I'm pretty sure their target audience doesn't really give two hoots about how sexy their brand identity is - their brand equity and credibility is going to reside largely in word of mouth via scientists and whoever else cares about complex organic small molecules.
On the other hand, if you're about to spend a huge amount of money on a custom-designed house, are you going to trust a guy whose sense of aesthetics resulted in this site? Not so much.
Before you start worrying about the brand identity, it's important to remove yourself from the equation and insert the target market instead.
5. Is the current brand identity going to cause problems in the longer term?
One day last year, I got into a bit of a fracas with some woman on Twitter who took issue with my assertion that logos should never be black and white and brand identities should always include 4 colours in the official colour palette. She seemed to think that black-and-white logos and single-colour brand identities were just fine.
She was wrong, and here's why: Successful businesses will eventually need all kinds of materials, from websites to infosheets to business cards to product line extensions and patented processes. All of these things require graphics, imagery, and a brand identity that retains consistency even when fresh ideas are added. If you don't plan ahead, you'll run into trouble later on - it's almost impossible to shoehorn a new colour into a black-and-deep-red brand identity, for example. What's more, without a broader palette and a couple of fonts, you run the risk of a monochromatic site that doesn't give you anywhere to go, design-wise.
Print ads can express great ideas. They're just hardly ever worth the money.
This is a pretty ad. Unfortunately I have no idea what it's trying to tell me. I'm pretty sure dentists won't know either, since mostly they practice in offices, not fields.
A few months ago I got a call from one of my clients, who was excited. "I got an email from a business magazine and they want to do a feature on us! I told them you'd get back to them with all the details."
Neither of us had ever heard of the magazine, but that didn't matter. As long as they're not asking my clients to pose naked or offer opinions on religion, I'm happy to take PR where I can get it. And we'd had a lot of media exposure in mainstream channels in the previous 12 months, so I wasn't surprised that we were getting the call.
So I called the 'editorial assistant' who'd contacted my client. We discussed the feature (4 pages! with photos! and case studies!), and the various angles we could pursue. I investigated the magazine (something to do with 'women in business'), which seemed legit, if a little obscure. Over the course of 2 or 3 weeks, I provided detailed responses to questions, information about the business, and even provided the names of a couple of clients they could contact for 'commentary'.
But then the sales pitch started: They wanted a list of my client's suppliers (with contact information), and I started getting emails from a sales manager type 'recommending' that we purchase a half-page ad to accompany our 'feature'.
Finally I got a bit annoyed, and called the editorial assistant. "Look," I said, "you pitched this to my client as a proper feature article. Now I'm getting the impression that this 'feature' is entirely dependent on us or our suppliers spending a lot of money."
She denied it, of course...but after a couple more emails from the sales manager guy, we didn't hear anything from them.
It's all about the opportunity cost.
These days, most of my clients are small businesses who don't have a single dollar to waste on marketing. So spending $5000 for a half-page ad in some obscure business publication whose distribution is basically a mailing list they bought in 2006 just doesn't make sense.
I always think about what else I could do for my client with that $5000: I could host a networking event with good snacks, create several webinars, do a direct mail campaign, create a mobile version of their website - or my client could take 50 clients for fancy lunches, during any of which I know she could generate more business than she will through an ad in some magazine that no one ever reads.
Sure, print ads sometimes have their place.
Don't get me wrong - I know that for some brands, print advertising works, especially as part of a larger campaign. Big luxury brands can get a lot of mileage out of spreads in Vanity Fair or GQ, and from what I see on YouTube (where bedroom walls can often be seen in the background), kids are still cutting out ads from magazines to use as posters. Heck, I even had this Hermes image as my computer wallpaper for a while. Ads like these, which look like print ads but mostly live online, can generate a fair amount of brand awareness.
And I also know that even in this digital age, there's something kind of cool about being able to pull out a printed publication and point to your very own advertisement. For small business owners, especially, it can confer a sense of credibility, like "Wow, I have a real company, and here's the proof."
But ultimately, the goal of advertising - as a part of a larger marketing strategy - is to sell more stuff, and at the end of the day, a single print ad just isn't going to do it for you. So the next time someone calls you about advertising in a magazine you've never heard of, just say "no, thank you". I promise you'll have made the right decision.
Using different suppliers might be saving you money, but costing you brand equity.
If you're a small business owner, chances are you haven't got a dedicated marketing department or the budget for a big marketing agency. So you've probably engaged a variety of different suppliers to give you a logo, stationery, printed materials, a website, etc. You're not a marketing expert yourself, so you've relied on these different suppliers to be experts in their fields and do their due diligence.
But are they?
Here's what can happen when you have different suppliers providing different pieces of your marketing materials:
LearningRX (with whom I have absolutely no connection, by the way) is a franchise-model business. That means that each of their franchise owners are out there doing marketing efforts on their own, using different designers and different channels (the ads above represent both online and offline advertising).
The result? Marketing with all kinds of different visuals, fonts, colours, messages - even the logos aren't consistent. You've got to be paying pretty close attention to even understand that these 3 ads are actually for different locations of the same brand.
Why does this matter?
Because branding is all about building relationships, and relationships are the first step to long-term loyalty and, of course, sales. Building a consistent brand identity is all about providing mental shortcuts for the audience: Giving them visual and textual cues which trigger feelings of recognition and familiarity which lead to relationships. When your branding is all over the place, you can't get to that sense of familiarity, and that makes relationship-building more difficult. Which in turn means that it takes longer to build up brand equity - you end up having to spend more money on marketing just to stay in the same place.
In the case of LearningRX, above, this creates two problems: LearningRX headquarters doesn't get the cumulative benefit of their various branches' advertising, because it all looks and feels so different, and individual franchise owners don't get the cumulative benefit of all this LearningRX advertising because the audience isn't connecting it all together. So the audience never thinks "Wow, I keep seeing this LearningRX company everywhere - maybe I should check them out."
How can you protect your brand, even if you're not a marketing expert?
As a marketing consultant, I of course tend to think that it's best to engage a marketing expert who can ensure that your printer, your web designer and anyone else who touches your brand is using it consistently.
As a pragmatic marketing consultant, however, I know that this isn't always possible. So in the meantime, here's what you can do:
When you get your first logo done, make sure the designer provides you with source files, which should include AI or PSD files of your logo and fonts
Get documentation of your official colours (PMS/Pantone/HEX)
Get documentation of your official fonts (both the ones used in your logo and the ones in your body copy)
Tell subsequent designers, print suppliers, web designers, etc. that you expect them to use your official logos, colour and fonts exclusively - if your colour palette is purple and green, they should not start injecting red headlines
Keep track of your images - don't let different suppliers use different images in different contexts without checking with you first (you may need to add images over time, but if you use a particular photo on your website, that's what should be on your printed materials, too)
Get source files for all your marketing materials, whether it's a print ad, online ad or website. (All reputable suppliers will give you these once you've paid them for the work.)
It's important to keep your source files and documentation in a safe place, so that a year - or three - from now, when you can't find your original supplier and need to get something done, you can provide the new supplier with the correct information. One of the biggest sources of inconsistency is when a client can't find the original material and a new supplier - who may or may not be an expert in their field - has to recreate something based on a low-res jpg or find a 'comparable' image.
And remember: If you've done your due diligence and provided the supplier with the source materials and documentation, and they come back with something that doesn't look consistent with previous materials, it's okay to say "Hey, this doesn't match what we've done in the past. Are you sure you've used the correct fonts/colours/images?" or even "Dude, what the heck? Why did you stick a huge orange headline in there when you know our colours are purple and green?"
BONUS PROTIP: It's true that even the same 'official' colour can look a little different in different media - a deep purple is probably going to look slightly different on a printed card than it does on a computer screen, for example. Sometimes this is unavoidable; other times your printer can advise you how to mitigate the visual difference. Make sure you ask for an official print proof before doing any big print jobs, and if you see a big difference, ask about it.
Knowing how you're going to fit into the marketplace should happen even before you've picked a name.
I came across this image today, over at Brands for the People, a new online brand development company which is designed to help small business owners create new brand identities for reasonable prices.
It's an interesting concept - and one for which I think there is probably a pretty good market - but what really caught my attention was the order in which they've arranged their 6 steps to creating a brand identity.
You'll see that 'Naming Your Business' is the last step in the process.
As someone who's been helping clients create brand identities for 10 years now, I could not agree more. Too many times, I've worked with organizations which have spent all their time and money on creating a product/service, getting an office, hiring staff - and only then start to think about how they're going to go about marketing their wares. And of course it's hard to create a marketing strategy when you don't know what 'story' you're going to tell to potential customers, or where you're going to fit in your competitive set.
I was going to write a long explanatory piece here, but the more I look at 6-step diagram, the more I think it speaks for itself. (The only one which might need explanation is Step 3, because what they mean isn't so much "how does your supply chain work" but "how will we approach the way we get things done".)
The bottom line is that before you choose your name - or lease an office, or start hiring office managers - you need to know why you're different, why you're better, how you'll stand out from the competition and why people will care about what you're doing. Knowing all that will determine whether you name your company "Clara's Cakes" or "Baked Nirvana", and whether your brand identity will be home-country-kitchen or super-modern-cult. And knowing those things will determine where your office is and what it looks like, the type of staff you hire, and even your product offerings.
You can't buy your favourite brands at Shoppers any more, and you may not want to buy their replacements
If you've been in a Shoppers Drug Mart store lately, you may have noticed that many of your favourite brands are missing. As I discovered this week when I traipsed up and down the aisles for 10 minutes looking in vain for a can of Planter's nuts, there were approximately 16 feet of shelf space devoted to various nuts and trail mixes, but only one brand represented: Life Brand. And this is happening throughout the store, as Shoppers' brands (which, in addition to the Life Brand, include Quo and GOSH cosmetics, Balea Skincare, RAW Essentials, Simply Food and Nativa, among others) are knocking name brands off the shelves.
You don't have to tell me about the advantages (for the retailer) in promoting store brands: Better margin, lower marketing costs, repeat visits to the store, exclusivity, brand awareness in the home, etc. I get it. The problem for Shoppers, however, is that - unlike President's Choice, Loblaws' super-successful store brand - Shoppers' products mostly aren't all that great.
The food products are substandard (I dare you to ingest a Nativa cracker or cookie and then want to eat a second) and not all that cheap; a box of the facial tissue won't last you through 24 hours of a cold; and the Quo makeup always gives me a rash.
But don't take my word for it. "Oh, I never use any of the Life Brand medications," one Shoppers staffer, who asked not to be named, told me. "There have been way too many recalls on those products - you can't trust them. And the food products keep going on sale because no one buys them."
"I tried the chocolates when they first came out," said a merchandiser for one of the big Toronto stores. "They're terrible! I wouldn't buy them for myself, let alone buy them for anyone else. I don't understand why they keep trying to force us to promote them as gifts - I'd be too embarrassed to give them to someone."
Store owners don't have a choice
If the Shoppers house brand products are so bad - and the people who work in the stores know it - how come they continue to get more shelf space, while even big, established brands are getting pushed out? Shoppers head office is forcing them to take the product.
Stores are sent batches of the products, whether they order them or not, and are required to merchandise it according to the pre-determined planogram. Head office doesn't really care if we sell it or not, since they get paid once it goes out to stores. (It's worth noting that in 2010, Shoppers owner-operators filed a class-action suit against Shoppers management, for similar heavy-handedness.)
Eventually, this has got to erode margins
I know what Shoppers is trying to do and why: As a publicly-traded company which has lost revenue in recent years to changes in the way prescription drugs are sold, they're looking to shore up the stock price - and brand loyalty - in other areas. And replacing independent name brands with higher-margin, supply-chain-controlled store brands is a good way to improve 'shareholder value'.
Except they seem to have forgotten a key factor in the retail process: The consumer.
Consumers are much more willing to try store brands than they were 20 years ago, and it's not difficult to get them to try a new product, especially when you remove the element of choice. ("I wanted Planter's nuts, but I can't be bothered going to another store, and Life Brand nuts can't be that bad, can they?")
But once consumers have tried a handful of products and found most of them disappointing, they'll eventually give up. At best they'll keep shopping in your store but avoid your house brand products; at worst they'll switch stores entirely. "I never go to Shoppers any more," a friend of mine said to me recently. "All their stuff is way more expensive than Rexall, and I can't get what I need anyway." Some store managers say that retail margins are already being affected because they have to put the house brands on sale all the time just to get them to move.
The problem is that it takes time for consumers' buying habits to register with the people pushing the house brands. After all, Shoppers has 1000 stores across Canada, so by the time the store-brand product rejection causes a real dent in the bottom line and the individual store owners manage to convince head office that the products just aren't working no matter how much they're forced to merchandise, it'll probably look like the problem is coming from another direction.
Will Shoppers survive this? Yes. Are they risking long-term competitive advantage for short-term perceived gains? Definitely.
Your competitive set may be a lot different than you think.
Years ago, when I was young and stupid and working for a big advertising agency, I was part of a team that pitched a big television campaign for a packaged goods company. We spent weeks on a flashy presentation (quite literally: it was 1999, and using Flash in a boardroom presentation was still considered cutting-edge), packed the room with black turtleneck-wearing hipsters, and did the elaborate ad agency tapdance. We had feelers out at the 3 other agencies we knew were in the running and were certain we'd totally outperformed them in every way.
We didn't get the business. Neither did any of the other agencies. It went to a couple of guys we'd never heard of who'd invested in some digital equipment and some super-creative spec work, and offered the client a whole set of commercials for less than we'd budgeted for a single spot. And it turned out that the client was sick of high-octane presentations that tended to have little or nothing to do with the quality of the final product.
These days, I'm on the other side of the equation: Half the time we get a new client, it's because some marketing/design company pitched them on a website that was going to cost $30,000 and take 3 months to build, with an incremental $1500 tacked on for connecting their Twitter feed to their Facebook page. Sooner or later, the client expresses their incredulity to someone else, who says "Why don't you just call Sarah at StayAwake, because she can at least tell you if that's realistic."
I guarantee you that the other marketing/design company had never heard of us - and in fact I've had the odd angry phone call demanding to know who in fact we think we are - and never considered us their competition.
A different economy means different choices
It's not even as simple as choosing one marketing partner over another, either. It's that when an individual has $100 to spend on something personal, they're choosing between clothes and perfume, or between eating out and buying a lamp. When an employer has $10k to spend on employee development, they're choosing between a training program or a rewards program. Or when a company has $1 million to spend on growing sales, they're choosing between infrastructure and marketing.
And don't forget that your customers may not see your competitive set the same way you do. In my experience, above, we naively assumed that the client was only going to consider other 'big agencies' - but they were looking at a much broader set of possibilities.
Defining your competitive set
Fully understanding just who and what you're competing against for your customers' time and money has a lot to do with your industry, price point, and proposition, but asking these questions will help you get a better handle on what your competitive set looks like:
Are you selling a commodity where customers can compare apples to apples? Or a service which has all kinds of different variables?
What do your customers have to give up in order to purchase your product (i.e. if they spend money on your product/service, what will they have to forego buying)?
When you lose business, who are you losing it to? Is it the same couple of companies, or a wide variety?
Who do your customers see as your competitors? Are you sure about that?
What is the end result/benefit of buying your product? What are the other ways a client could get to that result/benefit?
BONUS TIP: Try pretending you're a potential customer and Google some of the search terms you'd use if you were looking for a supplier. The stuff that comes up that you thought had nothing to do with your product or service is a good way to start thinking laterally about your competition.
So, as my Twitter feed fills up with endless tweets about the vapidity that is Pinterest, I can't help noticing that marketing types aren't talking a whole lot about this week's debacle involving the Susan G. Komen foundation and their funding of Planned Parenthood.
For those of you who haven't been following the story, here it is in a nutshell: Susan G. Komen For the Cure, the organization which brought you the ubiquitous 'pink ribbons', raises something like $400 million annually for cancer-fighting-related causes. This year, they were slated to give $700k of that to Planned Parenthood, an organization which works to "...improve women's health and safety, prevent unintended pregnancies, and advance the right and abilities of individuals to make informed and responsible choices." Pro-lifers in the US interpret this to mean that Planned Parenthood 'promotes' abortion; pro-choicers see Planned Parenthood as a vital resource for disadvantaged women who are most in need of assistance.
Last week, Komen announced it would pull their grant to Planned Parenthood. The religious right was thrilled, because they saw it as a victory for their agenda. But the left-wing internet blew up, and Komen not only reversed its stance but parted ways with Senior VP Karen Handel (a former gubernatorial candidate who was outspoken in her desire to defund Planned Parenthood), who was widely believed to be the architect of Komen's initial move to withdraw their Planned Parenthood grant.
This is really all about politics and religion
Most of the mainstream media is carefully skirting the issue, but let's be honest here: The whole furor about Komen, Planned Parenthood and Handel is all to do with politics and religion. And these days, especially in the US, politics and religion are inextricably intertwined.
And here's where Komen has just done itself a huge amount of damage. In a matter of days, they've gone from a fairly neutral, non-profit, friendly-pink-everything organization to one which has managed to antagonize both the left-leaning, less religious camp (by withdrawing their support for Planned Parenthood) and the right-wing, conservative Christian camp (by reversing their decision and getting rid of Handel).
Komen has now become both political and religious, and it's already causing huge problems for the brand.
They've made it okay to boycott pink ribbons
I don't know about you, but when I saw pink KFC buckets of chicken and pink M&Ms, I had to wonder if the whole pink ribbon campaign had gone too far - should we really be eating more fried foods while telling ourselves that we're helping women's health? And I had heard rumours about how the Komen foundation was more interested in selling pink stuff than they were in actually finding a cure for cancer.
But I wasn't about to stand up and start criticizing pink stuff, because I'd look like a misanthropic luddite who didn't appreciate awareness or research or, even worse, was somehow 'against' supporting women with breast cancer.
A brand misstep of New Coke proportions. Or at least Netflix.
Two weeks ago, I would have said that Komen was one of the most successful non-profit brands in the world, and in fact could compete with for-profit brands in terms of top-of-mind awareness and loyalty - they've raised something more than $1 billion in less than 10 years.
Today...I don't think Komen is going to collapse overnight. There are too many people with too much emotionally invested - and too many brands with too many runs and events and products invested - in Komen-related programs for the whole organization to implode in the next five minutes. But if their bottom line hasn't been cut in half in the next 18 months, I'll be greatly surprised. I only hope that that money finds its way to other cancer-fighting causes.
You know you need some marketing. But where do you start?
These days, most of my work is with small-but-fast-growing brands, like this and this.
I spent the first 10 years of my marketing career working with big brands, but I much prefer working with entrepreneurial companies: They're willing to take more risks, the limited budgets mean you have to get more creative, and there's more room for a big vision that isn't going to get hijacked by layers of stakeholders because you're creating a brand from scratch with a small team of highly invested people.
The challenge in starting from scratch, however - especially when you're working with companies who don't have in-house marketing or communications resources, and who have never really undertaken a marketing project before - is knowing where to start. When you've got a limited budget, it's crucial to focus your resources.
So how do you do that?
The 11 questions you need to ask to arrive at a marketing strategy
Most entrepreneurial businesses don't want to shell out $25k to a 'consultant' to generate some 50-page PowerPoint deck about Their Marketing Vision. And I agree - that's $25k they could be spending on results-oriented marketing efforts.
Here's how to get a good handle on what your marketing strategy should look like, in 11 handy questions.
1. What are your top 3 business goals for the next 12 months?
All marketing initiatives need to be tied to specific business goals - with specific revenue numbers. There's no point in increasing retail sales if what you really need is to increase sales via sales brokers. Answering this question will also help you arrive at a realistic marketing budget.
2. Where do you see the business in 3-5 years?
While the answers to #1 should be highly specific ("Increase revenue on X product by X%"), the answers to this should be more 'visioning', like "We'd like to be the leading provider of X in X area"). However, it's important to keep this realistic: If you're currently the #10 player in a saturated market, know that 3 years probably isn't long enough to get to the #1 spot.
3. What are your top 3 most pressing business issues?
Are you suffering from a lack of awareness? Not being considered in the competitive solution set? Not being able to communicate with customers? Operational delays? Confused employees? Marketing and communications can help with all of these - and sometimes it's more effective to spend marketing dollars training and educating employees than to build a fancier website.
4. Which of your products/services is currently making you the most money right now?
The product/service with the best margin may be the best place to start spending marketing dollars, because you'll get more bang for your buck. Once you've tested the market, you can invest in other products/services.
5. What are your top 3 barriers to sale/sales objections right now?
Are your salespeople having trouble getting meetings? Are they having trouble closing them? Are potential clients having a hard time finding you, or are they worried about your credibility in the marketplace? Do you have a great sales team but a confusing message? Before you start undertaking television advertising, it might be best to focus on sales materials or a more coherent brand identity.
6. What do(es) your target market(s) look like?
This is a big one for small- and mid-sized businesses, who typically want to sell to 'everyone'. But when you're just starting with marketing, the more you can segment and target narrow niches, the better results you'll have. It's better to divide and conquer than to go scattershot.
7. Do you have a 'brand story'?
Do you know what you sell, why it's different or better, and how it will make the lives of your customers and clients better? In my experience, most small-but-growing businesses do have a compelling story - they wouldn't have made it this far if they didn't - but it's not being clearly and consistently articulated. Sometimes this is where an outside marketing consultant can help the most.
8. What are your current communications assets (website, infosheets, social media, etc.)?
It's important to understand what marketing tools you're already using, and whether they're working or are just placeholders. Maybe your current website doesn't need a huge overhaul - maybe it would be better to spruce it up a little, then focus efforts on that dormant Facebook page that already has 250 'likes' and which could grow. And don't forget that people can count as 'assets': Maybe you have a salesperson who happens to be a technology geek, who'd love to take on your social media responsibilities.
9. What are your customers/employees/other stakeholders saying about the way you're communicating with them right now?
The other day I talked about how great branding comes from the inside. Employees who are on the front lines - both with customers and with management - probably have some great insight into your communications in terms of what's working and what isn't. One anecdote from one strident employee shouldn't direct your whole strategy, but if you've been hearing from employees and customers that, say, your website is difficult to navigate or they don't really understand your product line, that's probably something to consider.
10. What does business success look like to you, 12-24 months from now?
This sounds a lot like questions #1 and #2, but it's interesting: If you go through these questions in this order, you'll find that by the time you get to this question, you'll get answers that have more to do with positioning, proposition, corporate culture, client base, etc. Because while the answers to 'business goals' tend to be expressed in terms of sales and revenue, overall business success is a lot more complex.
11. What does marketing success look like to you, 12-24 months from now?
99% of the time, marketing is a long game, especially when you're just getting started and need to build brand identity and awareness, and test the marketplace. Sure, the goal of marketing is, ultimately, to 'sell more stuff', but it can do that in a lot of ways, from driving site traffic to increasing engagement to improving customer service to improving the sales function. So the answer to this question isn't just "Sales should have increased by X%", but also "Increased customer retention", "Lower cost of customer acquisition", etc.
I know, I know - another long post. But whether you're a marketing consultant or a new marketing client, I promise these 11 questions will get you an effective marketing strategy, faster than you thought.
Do great brand stories come from within - or from focus groups?
The other day I had lunch with a big-budget marketing consultant and we got to talking about one of his clients.
"I spent most of last week in focus groups," he said. "We're rebranding and repositioning the product and looking for insights from our customers as to which way we should go."
It got me thinking: When you're looking to invent, reinvent, transform or migrate your brand, should your direction come from your employees or your customers? Should your brand be created from the inside out, or the outside in?
I'm coming down firmly on the side of branding from the inside out.
First of all, you know how I feel about focus groups: Most people, who don't work in marketing or communications, don't give a whole lot of thought to their feelings about brand loyalty. That doesn't mean they don't have strong and complex feelings about the brands they choose to buy, use and love - it just means they haven't spent a lot of time analyzing how they got to these feelings.
People go to therapy for years to understand why they've made various choices in their lives. It's a bit much to ask them to explain why they're buying your brand of margarine, or how they'd feel about your margarine if you replaced the blue mountaintop design with a green forest design.
Not having your own vision virtually guarantees a parity product.
As a marketing 'expert', on the other hand, your job is to think about your product, the marketplace, the gaps in that marketplace, and more about what's possible than your customer does. You're supposed to be able to make the creative leaps that non-marketing types can't make. Most of the time, the customer's frame of reference is only their own limited interaction with margarine or butter-substitutes, so the best they can come up with (at least in a focus group environment) is "Well, I really don't like X...", not "What I've really always wanted is a brand of margarine that made me feel the way Godiva chocolate does, from the purchasing experience to the consumption experience..."
That doesn't mean customers are dumb or unimaginative - it just means that when you rely on non-experts to guide your vision for a brand, you're less likely to come up with the Big Idea that will give you a brand story that stands out.
When you're just starting to spend marketing dollars, it's all about the balance.
Quite a few of my clients are small-but-growing-quickly companies. When they call me, it's because they're just starting to expand beyond their original footprint. They're spending money on new salespeople, looking to build on early success, and they need to find a way to make a mark in a larger marketplace.
Typically, these companies have strong entrepreneurial leaders who've attracted some great talent, and they have a good idea of what's working well with their clients. But they're so busy wearing so many hats, and getting approached by so many vendors trying to sell them marketing 'opportunities' (how on earth do those obscure trade journals find small businesses so quickly? And manage to convince them that spending $4000 on a half-page ad is actually a good idea?), that it's easy for them to waste money on marketing efforts that don't work, and don't build anything for the future, either.
Successful marketing strategies are based on a continuum.
The best way to start building a brand and a marketing strategy is to start by defining 3 key areas, and then keep refining, revisiting and reiterating them.
Successful entrepreneurs are already telling a story about their business. Growing the business means codifying that story, and then making sure that everyone in the company is telling it consistently.
This becomes the basis of the brand identity, but for small and growing companies it will change and grow over time, as new products and services - and points of difference - are added.
In my experience, the best entrepreneurial companies are selling stuff all over the place, and not always doing it in a systematic manner. This is fine when there are only one or two core salespeople, but can become problematic when the company starts hiring a more junior salesforce.
So before you even start recommending a marketing spend, you have to take the time to figure out a sales strategy for the short, medium and longer term. This includes identifying target markets, termite strategies (i.e. quick and easy sales that will lead to long-term sales relationships), and products.
The sales strategy will also change over time, as the client moves into different markets or expands its offerings.
This is really about defining what success looks like in both the short and longer terms. Sometimes a smaller company can get so focused on short-term cashflow that they don't have time to look at long-term goals; other times the company dreams big but isn't balancing long sales cycles with quick hits. Some entrepreneurs dream of winning awards for R&D; others define success as being able to spend 6 months in Tahiti.
Balancing Story, Sales and Success
In the first year of a real marketing strategy, it's all about balancing these 3 elements: Making sure the story is the right one to achieve the sales and success goals; making sure the sales goals are reflective of the story; making sure that the story and the sales are the right ones to lead to the vision of success.
All three will change, especially at first. But if you keep them all firmly in mind, you'll find that it'll be much easier to assess, budget for, and measure marketing efforts.
Kim Kardashian may not fully understand the true cost of her 72-day marriage.
I realize that none of the Kardashians are big on introspection - unless they're being paid for it, of course - but I can't help thinking that before Kimmy K here decided to announce her big divorce after less than 3 months of wedded bliss, she might have done well to consider the tragic story of Jennifer Lopez, circa 2004.
You remember the early 2000s, I'm sure: Jennifer Lopez was the hottest girl on the block, with a hit album, reasonably successful movies, a clothing line, perfumes and sponsorships up the wazoo.
JLo was gorgeous, seemed to be everywhere, and had no problems trading on her appearance (including a distinctive rear end).
Then Bennifer happened: Her much-publicized, shamelessly commercialized relationship with Ben Affleck. In those days, we hadn't yet handed over our brains to reality television shows. But that didn't stop Bennifer from appearing on screens everywhere, from music videos to really, really bad movies to hyper-promoted tv interviews focusing on the ginormous engagement ring and endless prognostications about married life, kids and the future.
Oh sure, plenty of us complained about the relentless People covers, the Bennifer sightings in various glamourous locations - just as so many of us have complained about the Kim Kardashian media obsession.
But the whole thing didn't really implode until the marriage was called off at the last minute. And two careers were left in a mess. (Even Matt Damon uncharacteristically called it "the worst thing" Ben Affleck could have done for his career.)
It's taken JLo 6 years to recover.
Post Bennifer, Jennifer Lopez's career took a huge hit: Her movies with Afflect (Gigli, Jersey Girl) bombed critically and at the box office; her albums fared poorly; her sponsorships dwindled; and her JLo clothing line was 'retired'. She spent most of the last half of the 2000s out of the public eye.
(Yes, I know she was busy having babies and all, but look at Beyonce: She's 5 months pregnant but still managing to release music videos every 2 minutes and if I see her in another Feria or perfume commercial, I think I'm going to lose it. Suffice to say that for most A-listers, pregnancy is no bar to keeping the machine rolling.)
It's taken JLo 6 years to climb back from the overexposure, and she still hasn't quite managed it entirely: She had to take a big risk with American Idol, and her new clothing line had to be a partnership with Kohl's. Her new album's first single did fairly well, but I'm willing to bet she's made more money from the corporate sponsorships in the videos than she has from the actual music.
Does Kim Kardashian have 6 years?
At least Jennifer Lopez could sort of sing, dance and act. What can Kim K do?
Well, she - or her mother, anyway - has a genius for exploiting mass media, and it's entirely possible that, having watched the world get tired of Paris Hilton, Kim decided she'd go for a massive payout now and take the backlash consequences later.
But I don't think so. I think that the Kardashians as a group genuinely think that their brand is far more aspirational than it really is. I think they forget that sooner or later, customers do in fact wake up to the fact that they're being duped, and generally aren't very pleased about it.
So the question is: When you've revealed yourself as willing to do just about anything to get headlines and cash - including what appears to be a 'sham' marriage - will people still want to buy your clothing? Or will they just be too embarrassed?
Twelve months from now, Kris Jenner may still be talking about all the 'deals' Kim is involved in, but I'm 100% certain you won't be bragging about the new Kardashian Kollection outfit you just bought.
When was the last time you bought Chapstick, anyway?
Is it possible you missed this week's blogosphere scandal?
ChapStick posted the ad above, a couple of (female) bloggers decided it was sexist and offensive. Not a huge deal, except then ChapStick apparently started deleting negative comments about the issue from their Facebook page, which got everyone really upset.
Suddenly it was such a big deal that even Forbes and the Wall Street Journal - who couldn't possibly be looking to cash in on the short-term traffic spike, could they? - felt it necessary to report on the issue. Adweek referred to the whole thing as a "death spiral".
Samantha Ettus of Forbes said that the ChapStick brand has been built on the strength of female athletes like Suzy Caffee and Dorothy Hamill - but what she (and everyone else) seems to forget is that the lipcare marketplace has changed in the past 10+ years, and has changed a lot since the 1970s when Suzy Chapstick was first introduced.
An aging target market has a limited lifespan
It's great if you can keep the customers you acquired in the 1970s, but ChapStick has a problem, which is, interestingly, contained within one of the offended bloggers' posts:
"I have used your brand for 25 years, ever since my mom put my very first tube of ChapStick in the bib pocket of my snowpants before heading out for an afternoon of sledding....I have used your brand on my own children...."
Her kids may be using ChapStick now, but you know what's going to happen: As soon as they can buy their own lip balm, they'll reject what Mum bought them and head for more 'adult' lip balms.
That's exactly what's happened to ChapStick: While the lip balm category has grown by 12%, ChapStick sales have fallen by 2.6%, while newer, 'cooler' brands like Burt's Bees have grown by double digits.
(And that doesn't include the lip gloss revolution. Ask any girl or woman under 30 and she'll tell you she's got a lip gloss stockpile that far outpaces her lip balm collection.)
You can only coast for so long on squeaky-clean sports figures.
"I kissed a girl", and other ways to make ChapStick more interesting
Some sources have suggested that Katy Perry's Cherry ChapStick shoutout in her "I Kissed a Girl" song triggered sales increases of 50% for cherry ChapStick. And it wasn't like that song was without controversy.
So you're a marketing strategist for ChapStick. You see that being associated with older sportswomen is leading to shrinking sales, but being associated with pop culture is getting you more attention than you've had in years.
What do you do? Continue with the status quo advertising you've been doing since the 1970s, or try something a little different?
To be honest, I have no problems with the advertisement above. I don't find it sexist (I'm far more offended by popstars and their ubiquitous naked body parts), and I happen to think it's clever (because aren't we all finding tubes of lip balm in odd places, 2 years after we lost them?).
More importantly, I think ChapStick has actually been pretty savvy here: The strategy ("Where do lost ChapSticks go?") is a good one for appealing to new consumers without alienating existing ones, and has a lot of legs.
No, they shouldn't have deleted comments from their Facebook page - censoring social media is always bound to get you in trouble - but in the long run I think the whole tempest in a teapot will go unnoticed by most of the target market, while giving them some much-needed top-of-mind awareness.
A couple of years ago, when Rock'n'Republic jeans were all the rage, a girlfriend called me in tears.
"I can't fit into any of the RnR jeans," she wailed. "They only go up to size 31. Why would they do that?"
Because the only way to get people to fork out $300 for a pair of jeans is to convince them that they're buying into some kind of aspirational lifestyle, and you can't maintain that fiction if "ugly fat people" are parading around with your logo on their bums.
(Don't freak out - I put "ugly fat people" in quotes to make it clear that it's not me making that judgment, but the people who make these products. Being size 32 in jeans definitely does not make you fat or ugly.)
But here's the thing: Emaciated LA-types represent a minority of the population, and they are extremely fickle, so restricting your target market to anorexics with an excess of disposable income is virtually guaranteed to limit your long-term growth. And when was the last time you saw someone wearing RnR jeans, or expressing a desire to buy them?
The Abercrombie & Fitch vs. Jersey Shore media frenzy
This week, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch generated a whole lot of PR for itself by making public an offer to pay the cast of Jersey Shore not to wear its clothes any more.
(Interesting sidebar: Two weeks ago, we had a friend from Germany staying with us, and on his list of things to do was a trip to A&F to pick up some clothes, since he can't get them in Germany. My reaction was so negative - and I did, in fact, reference the idiots on Jersey Shore - that he ended up not going. But in Europe, A&F is still an aspirational brand, and considered 'cool'.)
At first I thought the whole thing was a brilliant PR stunt. Then I wondered whether it wasn't a little short-sighted, serving only to cement the relationship between the brand and the cheesiness of Jersey Shore forever - I mean, has Ed Hardy ever really recovered from the whole Jon Gosselin association?
And then I thought about the Rock'n'Republic example, and about how popular Jersey Shore is, and I realized that (a) if you don't keep the plebes buying your stuff, you can't keep growing; and (b) if A&F could survive that piece of cheese, 'Summer Girls', the whole Jersey Shore association was probably a perfectly intelligent business decision.
The genius of Tiffany & Co.
As far as I'm concerned, the winner of the 'aspirational vs plebes' balancing act has to be Tiffany & Co. Somehow they've managed to maintain their position as a super-high-end brand, appealing to the Birkin bag set as a suitable place to buy a $25k engagement ring and a $2500 wedding present, while also selling masses of $100 bracelets to the plebes.
How have they managed this?
I think it's a combination of factors:
The brand has resided squarely in the 'luxury' segment of the market for 175 years, so they're less susceptible to the whims of the marketplace
Their pop culture references have tended towards the classic ("Breakfast at Tiffany") rather than shoutouts in rap songs
The cheapest thing they sell (on the Canadian website, anyway) is a $105 keychain - and $105 is still a fairly high entry-level price point
They have resisted the temptation to trade credibility for short-term sales gains: It's highly unlikely you'll see Tiffany in a product placement on Keeping Up With the Kardashians any time soon
So even as they've gained a huge following among teenaged girls, they haven't lost equity with their 50-year-old mothers. Which means that 20 years from now, Tiffany will likely have a healthier balance sheet than Abercrombie & Fitch.
Part of what we do for clients is manage their social media channels. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, YouTube - I'm a big believer in social media as a great way to generate buzz, keep your brand top-of-mind, build SEO through legitimate content development, communicate your USP, and all kinds of other good stuff. And I think just about every brand can benefit from social media strategies.
I know an awful lot of people who are spending an awful lot of time on social media, installing all kinds of Twitter widgets and checking their Klout scores every 2 hours and hosting online radio chats for the same 5 participants every week...and who still aren't making a whole lot of money, either for themselves or for the companies they're working for.
Remember, ultimately, the whole point of social media (for businesses) is the same as the whole point of advertising and marketing: To make it easier to sell stuff.
Oh, I know you can't always draw a straight line from 5000 Twitter followers and $X in revenue, any more than you can draw a straight line from a billboard by the highway and $X in revenue. And I know there are side benefits from strong social media presences, like recruiting. And I even know that it's important to look at the long-term build - it can take months for a successful social media campaign to really have an impact on sales.
If you've been spending 15+ hours a week on Twitter for the past year, and haven't seen a sales increase of any kind, it may be time to ask yourself some questions:
Do I really know why we're doing this? In other words, do we have a strategy?
Can we point to any anecdotal evidence that our social media efforts have delivered an ROI? (Such as a new client first heard of us because of the buzz we'd built on social media, or that the best hire all year came to us through our Facebook page.)
Is our website traffic benefiting from social media via clickthroughs from social media channels?
When our salespeople call potential clients, are they increasingly saying "Oh, I've heard of you guys!"?
Is it easier for us/me to get meetings with potential clients?
Has our Google ranking increased? (Good social media content, and a long-term blog about your brand's industry, will push your rankings higher.)
Are our products/services less price sensitive than they used to be, thanks to increased brand equity?
Have we been invited to events and speaking engagements (as a participant or speaker, not a paying attendee!) as a result of the profile we've built via social media?
If the answers to at least a few of these questions are yes, then you're probably not wasting your time with social media, and the ROI should start showing up any time now.
If not...well, it's possible you're spending too much time on social media for its own sake, and not enough time thinking about what it's really supposed to do for the business overall.