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?


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.


Questions, Questions

Posted August 21st, 2018 in blog, marketing, strategy by Gary

One of the things that I have always enjoyed is the creation of a new marketing campaign. Introducing a new product, revisiting an old one or simply adding a new service opens the door to the creative process. That messy, collaborative exchange  forces long term reflection and combines it with immediate realities.

Without getting into specifics, I am currently working with two different companies: one is developing a new product, the other is repositioning itself in the marketplace and revamping its sales process. Being involved with both projects at the same time made me realize that the important information needed is basically the same.

Most people that I have worked with believe that the first question to be asked is whether or not there is a market for the product. This seems simple enough to answer. If your company or start-up has the resources, you put together focus groups, get some real data. If you don’t, a market study usually does the trick.

I believe, however, that before you start trying to prove your case, there are two fundamental questions that need to be asked:

Why are we better? Can we be the best?

The answer to these two questions ultimately involves the quality of the product or service to be provided. This, in turn, gets you closer to nailing your value proposition. If the quality isn’t there, it will be an uphill battle, constantly compensating for a product or service that doesn’t deliver on its initial promise. There are many examples of flawed products that succeeded anyway, but in most cases that is because the flaws were part and parcel of the struggle to create the best product.

When you are on the cutting edge of technology – the introduction of the automobile, the radio or the personal computer – there are going to be bumps and glitches along the way. Quality and flawlessness are not necesssarily the same thing, although one should always be striving to achieve both.

By asking yourself if your product or service is better than the competition forces an honest analysis of what it is that you do. If this analysis cannot get off the ground, or if you find yourself unable to answer uncomfortable questions posed by the team it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

This is not the same as trying to differentiate yourself from the competition. They say in sports, your team needs to execute its game plan because it plays to your strengths. These strengths need to be better than those of the opponent or you will lose. Being different doesn’t mean you’re necessarily better, it just means that you’re different. If different means that you have strengths that the opponent does not, and these are the better strengths to have and increase your chances of winning.

Different is good. Being better is, well, better.

The tension between the two questions lies in the fact that they address the here and now as well as the future. They also imply the passion that is necessary to achieve one’s goals. It is much easier to work your tail off if you believe that what you do is better and that there is the possibility of becoming the best. The balance that one is able to establish between the responses to these two questions helps shape the development of the product or service, the projected resources required and the marketing strategy over time.

If it turns out that there is a market for your idea, you can now develop it with confidence. Playing to your strengths.

With passion.

My Portfolio: Walkabout Excursions

Posted July 1st, 2018 in portfolio by Gary

I developed copy, strategy and positioning for this high-end, boutique travel agency. With a focus on the web, digital sales cycles and a heightened understanding of the importance of customer service, we successfully executed across media, web ( and trade shows.