Infinite Variations, Finite Universe

Posted April 2nd, 2019 in blog, marketing, thoughts by Gary

A piano has seven full notes and five half notes. That feels like a relatively small number. The instrument, however, has been used to produce – and continues to produce – countless pieces that are different from one another. The Goldberg Variations, Erik Satie, Bruce Hornsby, all come from that same finite number of keys and represent different levels of success depending on your taste.

So it is with marketing.

The number of actual tools at our disposal are as finite as the interests and incentives of our fellow human beings. Is your campaign focused on branding? Are you offering a BOGO deal? A \discount? A raffle? Points? The question is not whether your offer or idea is new, it is whether it is compelling. And, of course, properly executed.

To prove this point, I present the Guinguette, or turn-of-the-century French dance hall. We are all familiar with the music, the accordion, the cheesy frenchiness of it all, images of Maurice Chevalier or Edith Piaf come to mind. These dance halls have their origin more than a century earlier, when the white wine made from the guinguet grape became popular. In order to increase sales, the local wine-producers in the Nogent-sur-Marne area outside of Paris, where the grapes were cultivated, created popular dances and balls to attract people to the region to… drink.

My point is not that this is special. It is not. The execution of these efforts, however, has created an indelible image of a specific time and place because it was done well. Another great example is the loyalty card, most ingeniously employed by the Catholic Church. If you  attend mass and follow the rules, you will receive the ultimate loyalty prize: Heaven and an eternity relaxing with friends and relatives who all decided to be a part of the same club. But I digress, and fear to offend.

Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement – the Medium is the message – reinforces this notion of a finite universe that requires the need for inventiveness and execution.

Put in a simple way, we can all use a piano to make noise. All you have to do is hit the keys and sounds are produced. But to make music – truly beautiful and memorable music – takes skill.

And with the number of ways to reach people today – print, radio, television, outdoor advertising, social media in its ever increasing complexity – that skill is more and more in demand.

The real question is: Who has it?

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Focus, People, Focus

Posted March 12th, 2019 in blog, marketing, strategy, thoughts by Gary

Don’t you love focus group data?

A bunch of people paid a pittance to answer questions honestly about your product or service. They come in, talk a bit, get some free soda and then go on their merry way, oblivious to the fact that their answers may hold the fate of an entire company, or perhaps an entire research division in their responses.

Do you think they know how important what they do is? Is the data they provide really that good? How important were they in the New Coke debacle?

As any marketing person will tell you, I love data. Tendencies, numbers, proof that the campaign we chose to execute is effective. Or not. I think data is the reason that I never became an artist: I like the confirmation, the certainty involved when you can actually measure the effectiveness of what you’ve done, or been a part of doing.

We all know Guernica is amazing, I’m just saying that I couldn’t paint it. Of course, I have always been more of a copy guy, but that isn’t the thrust of this post: the importance of understanding the data we get from focus groups.

People in focus groups generally try to do the best they can to answer the questions that they are asked honestly. I credit them for this, for the role they play is invaluable. My interest today is not about the group itself, but abut the moderator.

In any group setting, there is the possibility of peer pressure weighing in on the responses. No one wants to look like an imbecile or play the role of outsider even among strangers with whom the only thing they have in common is the desire to get paid for opinions. This reality brings us, in turn, to the importance of the moderator. Or as I like to refer to the role, the opinion therapist.

The person running the focus group is extremely important to the quality of the data and opinions produced. He or she needs to be able to put strangers at ease and inspire them to share opinions that may go against the grain, or simply against the prevailing wisdom in the room. We’re not talking about Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, but rather the ability to get people to be honest and keep ideas flowing freely.

These people are rare.

And they have a direct impact on the quality of the data. I observed a moderator asking a group of people if they were comfortable with the term “Energy Supplement.” Most of them said yes. Supplement is a big word, and no one likes to admit that they are uncomfortable with big words. So these people are confronted with a choice: either I agree and I don’t look stupid. Or I make the effort to tell the moderator that the term energy supplement sounds like something a body builder would buy. Or some guy trying to make his car run better. Or that it sounds like some kind of pill instead of a beverage. Everyone said that they were comfortable with the term.

Which proves my point: Your opinion therapist is as important as the patient.

Why Not Make a List?

Posted February 26th, 2019 in blog, marketing, strategy, thoughts by Gary

I have come to the conclusion that I hate features. Not feature films, mind you. But those annoying things that are supposed to make a product or service better. If I am going to buy a television, I would like it to be big and have a really good picture. Do I need it to levitate? Or serve dinner?

Those qualities would be nice, of course, as I wouldn’t have to hire someone to hang the plasma on my wall and I could finally fire my butler. Seriously, though, by features, I am talking about the clutter that gets in the way of understanding why people make decisions. More importantly, this clutter gets in the way of companies defining the human value of what they do.

I am not saying that the various, specific qualities of a given product are not important, but they often get in the way of what should be the underlying theme driving your marketing message. As a colleague once said about silk underwear: if you have gotten to the romantic point where you are in your undergarments in the presence of another human being, you really should be able to close the deal.

Even in briefs.

Once you begin enumerating the various qualities of your product, you have basically said that there aren’t any substantial differences between you and your competition. You have admitted that your brand isn’t a brand at all, just a list of various qualities that no one has figured out how to explain in a way that would make someone care.

Too many times have I met with companies that explain what they do by explaining what they do. I would like to know why they do it, or at least get the feeling that they understand the role that they are playing in the great human comedy: It’s how they define that role that makes them special.

And then your brand can become my brand, from California to the New York Island.

Woody Guthrie would kill me.

Promises, Promises

Posted February 5th, 2019 in blog, marketing, strategy, thoughts by Gary

I came across an article recently that focused on a study about check lists and the impact that they can have in hospitals. The study proved that the lists help prevent the transmission of diseases inside the hospital and reduce the number of infections caused by an overlooked step like neglecting to swab an area before inserting a needle. One example that struck me as counterintuitive but screamingly obvious after the fact: doctors should not wear ties because the article of clothing collects and transmits germs as doctors move from patient to patient during their rounds.

The most shocking detail in the article: there are doctors and nurses who don’t want to use these lists. In spite of overwhelming evidence that these lists make them better at their jobs, they felt that they aren’t necessary and would add another layer of bureaucracy to the onerous amount of paperwork that they are already required to do. When I thought about it, the detail didn’t shock me at all.

People, especially professionals, do not like to be told what to do. Much less how to do it.

Which brings me to the challenge of the brand promise.

How do we ensure that companies, and the people who work there, fulfill the expectations of the client and customer?

The first step, of course, is to identify what those expectations are. It is then a good idea, if you have the resources, to do a touch point analysis and determine how your company is interacting with the client at each stage. And then comes the hard part: how do you improve each of these interactions to ensure that the brand promise is fulfilled.

Creating a check list so that doctors and nurses focus on certain basic aspects of their jobs seems like something that would have been put together in the 1920s, if not earlier. It is a low tech, simple solution that helps people make sure that they don’t miss the little things. The customer expectation in a hospital – that institution’s brand promise – is that the patient will be made well again. These check lists help achieve that promise.

And still, there is resistance when the stakes are as high as human health. In some cases, life and death.

The fact of the matter is that when people are good at doing their job, as most doctors and nurses are, there is a tendency to take certain things for granted and the little things fall by the wayside. But the devil is in the details, as some like to say.

If something as simple as a check list can help your business, wouldn’t it make sense to create one? Are you thinking about ways to interact better with your clients? Has your company articulated its brand promise to the extent that you can follow either of the two previous suggestions?

Once you figure out what that promise is, it becomes possible to fulfill it better. But it isn’t easy, as the hospital example shows.

Professionals don’t like to be told what to do. Or that they can do their jobs better.

 

Getting the Foundation Right

Posted January 22nd, 2019 in blog, copy, design, marketing, thoughts by Gary

There is no greater intersecting point for marketing, copy and strategy than the value proposition. Articulating this effectively feels like a simple task: tell the consumer why your product or service is worth more than the competition and they will buy it. Once you have satisfied the buyer’s expectations, you earn their loyalty.

Marketing at it’s most basic, right? Easy stuff.

Not quite. Getting the value proposition right is very hard. As in most cases, it is easy to get something almost right. And almost right isn’t good enough. It is one of the reasons that there are so many small companies and so few new businesses actually succeed. When defining a value proposition, there is always a lot of clutter: egos, beliefs about human nature and different ideas about what is important make cutting to the core a lot more difficult than most people realize.

I was recently tasked with defining the brand values of a service company. In business for many years, the company was looking to expand and was embarking on a new corporate adventure. The specific industry and company itself are of no importance, but the challenges we faced I have encountered a number of times. Meeting those challenges and accepting them as opportunities unfolds generally the same way.

In a small company or a start up, it begins with the realization that no one in the company can actually define the business that they are in or what it is that they do. More precisely, everyone defines the business differently. I have learned over the years that this is a wonderful moment to explain the importance of consistent messaging. When a company believes that people, both consumers and employees, ‘get it’ – without ever having figured out precisely what ‘it’ is – the message changes from person to person and employee to employee. In this environment, creating a coherent messaging strategy, executing the right copy and developing the right marketing become secondary to building the foundation upon which all of this will rest.

The next step involves a discussion about features and pricing, with sales weighing in about the need for promotions and the fact that the only thing that people care about is money. As I mentioned in an earlier post, these are the low-hanging fruit. Getting to the essence of a value proposition is not about features or cost, it is about what you do at its most basic.

Getting the answers to those questions right in our day-to-day existence is extremely difficult. If it were easy, there would be neither a reason to seek the guidance of a priest nor the analysis of a psychiatrist. Getting to the truth involves brutal honesty tactfully delivered and an understanding of what it is that a company really does.

The last step usually involves a few simple expressions, the kind of statements that inspire a shrug of common understanding. “Save Money. Live Better.” is a great example of this. It’s so obvious anyone could have come up with it.

I guess that is why there are so many Walmarts.