August 2014

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I’ve said before that “a brand is an empty vessel into which we pour meaning,” but that isn’t exactly correct. If a product, the brand is not an empty vessel, it’s a thing – a thing to which we “attach meaning.” A bottle of water is a bottle of water. We expect it to be clear, tasteless, and priced reasonably. It bring meaning that marketers must work with when branding. The same can be said, somewhat, for a service. Though not a thing, it does come with prepackaged meaning: a lawyer provides legal service, physicians healthcare, etc.  Services can be branded but present a slightly different challenge.

My approach to brand development for both is the same. I work to understand at what ta product or service is great and what consumers want most.  This is the area in which I live as a brand planner. As a beyond the dashboard planner I may think delve into what the customer doesn’t know s/he needs (but will need)…and dial that up a bit.

Where a service differs from a product is often in process. For a healthcare system a brand plank might be about “sharing.” For a website, maybe “community.”  Services, though they may not have a visual or taste appeal, can open up exciting new ground based on the simple fact that employees who deliver the service, who affect the experience, become part of the strategy. Done well, with a tight plan, that can be very meaningful. And very appealing.

Product brands live in your hand and your mind. Service brands only in the mind. But that’s a powerful place to be. Peace.

 

 

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A life lesson I’ve learned that is quite profound and one I have tried to share, especially with my kids, is that “asking for help” is a very human and important behavior.  I’m not talking about the “could you pick up my dry cleaning?” help, I’m talking about real help. More of the desperation variety; the kind where you must let your guard down and share fallibility. A student about to fail. A mortgage in need of payment. An anxiety in need of treatment.

When a person asks another for real help most people will give it. It’s who we are having crawled out of the primordial soup. The Inuit people have 8 or 20 words for snow, we only have one for help. Sadly, the word has become watered down.

In marketing and brand positioning, the better practitioners are “you” focused not “me” focused; consumer focused rather than product focused. And that’s good. But bazillions of dollars are spent trying to convince consumers our products can “help” them. You’ve heard of a pity-fest? Well, much advertising today is a help-fest. I love the Brits for their advertising. It’s often a bit out there, but tends to work better than ours in the U.S. Why? Because they aren’t always trying to help. They share value. Imply value. Identify with people in their quest for better life experiences. But they don’t go all mother-in-law on you with help.

If you have a product that really helps, with a capital H, then sell as such. Little “h” help, however, is not really, well, helping. Peace.

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The T word.

I met with a technology CEO this week who has been doing some work with a brand strategy boutique. The executive shared with me the main output of the work – the main brand idea – and it was “trust.” Without giving too much away about the company and the category I will admit consumers who trust his product more than a competitor’s are likely favor the company with business. Trust is not wrong, but as a brand idea it is not right either. You can’t just manufacture trust. It’s a process. It’s something that has to be built. If the endgame, therefore, is to be trusted more than a competitor, one needs a strategy that engenders trust. So the brand idea needs to be the about the path not the end point.

A good branding shop should know better. But of course, one can sell trust to any number of clients to get heads nodding. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That makes sense.”

Coke wants to create preference (end point) but it uses refreshment to get there. Branding is about the journey not the end point. (Did I just use the word journey? I must be slipping.) Branding is also about using words, images, deeds and experiences to create context that get you credit for other things. Things left unsaid. Things you earn but don’t have to say. Like trust.

Peace.

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Blank Strategy.

You know I’m like a dog on a bone when it comes to brand strategy. Especially in this blog. It’s all I talk about. Why is that? Because I’m in the brand business of course. The reality is, not everyone is in the brand business. They have their own businesses and may not think about brand more than one or two days a year.  As a brand planner if I go in to meet with C-level execs and ask them brand questions, they look at me funny. So I don’t. I ask business questions.

To that point, a new question I’m employing in my interview process is this: “At executive level meetings, when you use the word “strategy” what other word do you most often paired with it?”  Usually the word precedes “Strategy.” A publisher might say “editorial.” A retailer might say “price.” A healthcare provide might say “Medicare” or “Physician.”

When you find the word most often paired with “strategy,” you are on to something. You need to probe and follow that trail. As I said in an email yesterday “always thinking, sometimes right.” Hee hee.

Peace.

 

 

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I once thought it would be cool to open an ad agency, following in my father’s footsteps, and name it Foster, Bias and Sales. Foster attention, create bias, generate sales. As much as I love the ad business — and to me there is no greater business feat than creating a sale via creative means – it really is, more often than not, a dog of a business. Consulting on the other hand, though the hardest work of my life, really has crazy upside. Interestingly, my current business What’s The Idea? is not about foster, bias and sales but about: share, educate and excite.

Let’s start with educate. The goal of educating is learning. And learning is a marketing and branding staple. Frankly, learning is a human staple. When a consumer learns something positive, or as Bob Gilbreath would say “meaningful,” about a product. it is not only retained it is processed and categorized into the value volt. Everyone wants to learn. Sadly, not everyone wants to be taught. So be careful.

Sharing is a relatively new phenomenon is marketing. There are good shares and bad shares. Most advertising falls into the bad share category — that’s why consumers fast forward through commercials on TV. The online share (bedrock to much digital activity today) is really more about the sharer then the share. Search this site for Posters vs.Pasters for more on the topic. A personal heartfelt share (read giving) is one of the most powerful gifts in all of humanity.

Lastly, there is excite. Loyalty and comfort are qualities not always aligned with excite, but let’s face it when marketing in a commoditized, price-driven world a little excitement can go a long way. Excite can come on many shapes and sizes but it is certainly a goal of good strategy.

In my business Educate, Share and Excite are drivers of the strategy. They are foundational for the brand idea and the planks. It is a kinder and gentler approach and really works. Peace.

 

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Experience More.

The University Medical Center of Princeton redesigned some hospital rooms so they were more friendly, accommodating, and less hospital-like. A funny thing happened. Patients asked for 30% less pain meds. Less pain meds resulted in more rehab, faster healing and reduced hospital time. Egro lower overall cost. I bet anyone in any country can draw a picture of a typical hospital room. They’re functional, spare with chairs that squeak as moved about the linoleum. Only now is room design a topic of the hospital experience. Someone mixed it up. Someone took a chance. And that’s a good thing.

Extend this thinking to your business, to your category. If you change the expected experience what might be the outcome? Imaging a gasoline station with really clean bathrooms. Imagine a deli line with a waitress taking orders and upselling. Think about a doctor’s waiting room with Netflix at every chair or a grocery store with a bag pre-packed with your weekly staples.

The experience is something not changed enough in marketing. It’s expensive. But when you and the category get stuck in a rut it becomes a topline money issue. Think experience and outcomes, think like a customer, think about refreshing how consumers see your product and category. Not everything will work, but that’s okay. You will still be a step ahead of your competitors. Peace.

 

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Having worked in technology, marketing and branding for a while (a fairly unique combination) I have come to a conclusion about homepages. The best home pages are a lot like product labels. They sell at the point of contact. The worst ones are like tables of contents. They help visitors navigate through cluttered over-complicated environments. Environments where every dept. in the company gets a piece.

My new thing is the landing story. It’s strategic and it is a serial presentation of product, benefits, reasons to believe and value. It is told by brand managers and people with creative chops whose main goal is to sell. Not provide information. The more mature a product and, therefore, the more familiar consumers are with it, the easier it should be to tell the landing story. Coke doesn’t have to educate new visitors as to what a cola is. They just have to get them to buy or buy more. There are real correlations between engagement levels on a website and purchase, no doubt; but getting someone into the library and getting them to read a book isn’t one and the same. So engagement for engagement’s sake is not the way to do it. 

The home page, in my opinion, is one of the most misunderstood and misused marketing tools in the digital arsenal. Let’s try to fix this. Let’s bring home pages to life. Let’s storify them. Peace. 

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Conde Nast just announced its intention to sell its Fairchild Fashion Media to Penske Media for a $100M so it can focus on its core brands. References to core brands and core business is what you hear from companies under financial pressure or companies with slowed growth. There was a lot of talk about core during the recession. The opposite is growth into new tangential businesses. It is what really profitable companies do. Growth companies are looking for that next big business thing. They are investing in futures. Finding places to write down taxes. Google’s self-driving cars, energy initiatives and hardware escapades are non-core.

Brand planners love the core. It helps them see what a company does really, really well. It helps them articulate and cluster competencies. It allows the planner to plumb the depths of consumer resonance. Understanding the core is important groundwork for beyond the dashboard planners. Those who do planning that is future-based. Before Steve Jobs and team came up with the iPod and iPhone, they had to understand the core. Then translate it into futures.

There are rearview mirror planners, sideview mirror planners, dashboard planners and beyond the dashboard planners. The best are a combination of all 4 — but focus beyond the dash. Peace. 

 

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When doing a brand brief I often look at two primary target types: movements and independents. Movement targets are communities of people driven by a desire for an outcome. When doing a brief for an obesity product this was a movement target; see how it extends beyond the patient to the family.

Ill Fitting – The morbidly obese understand morbid obesity is a diagnosis not an adjective. We call them Ill Fitting because they are both ill and view themselves as not fitting in with the normal population. They look different and are treated differently. (Other than home, the only place with chairs built for them is the bariatric physician’s office.) The Ill Fitting are loved, liked and often conduct their lives in typical ways, but know they suffer discrimination. Just as is the case with those who are discriminated against for race, religion, and sexual preference, the Ill Fitting have their hypersensitivities. The Ill Fitting are quietly defensive about their condition but willing to accept help so long as it is nonjudgmental. Much of their learning about the diagnosis takes place online. The ability of the Ill-Fitting to actively participate in their wellness is welcome but extremely difficult.

The non-obese population, caregivers and loved one of the Ill Fitting are also Ill Fitting when it comes to the condition. It is a topic they find hard to broach.

The other type of target, the independent, appeals to the individuality in people. The opposite of community really. Sometimes people don’t want to follow the crowd. They want to be the trail blazer. It’s a natural phenomenon but for marketers a little more daring. When writing the brief for Zude, the web’s first drag and drop web publishing tool, I used a target called Webertarians – web libertarians — a construct that identified people tired of being governed by closed, proprietary software tools.

Both approaches are viable. Pick one, don’t waver.

 

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So now that the business questions are out of the way and brand plan is set (the sausage making clients aren’t particularly fond of) we can begin to make “stuff.” The best way to make stuff is to present it in the form of a marketing communications plan. The plan recaps and toplines what was learned during the 24 Questions and organizes strategies, targets, messages and tactics based upon the brand plan. In the Behind the Curtain workshop I will share a marketing communications plan — key deliverable #3 for marketing consulting clients.

After the marcom plan review I will probably show a slide with 5 or 6 planning tools and let the room decide which they want to hear about. The Is-Does is a simple tool, kind of like an elevator speech, that helps explain what a brand is and what it does. Posters Vs. Pasters is a reductionist social media segmentation intended to improve virality and engagement. Twitch Point Planning is a digital age communications planning tool, the object of which is to move customers closer to a sale. Brand Spanking is qualitative research construct develop to knock market leaders down a peg. The Fruit Cocktail Effect is what happens when you lose focus. And ROS, or return on strategy, is a quant approach to proving value beyond tactics. I will leave 20 minutes for Q & A and the workshop will be done. Looking forward to it.

Peace.

 

 

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