Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Let's start the new year with an excellent reminder from Katy Keim of a brand's true essence:
Reputation, I think, is one of the most forgotten or neglected attributes of a brand, in spite of the fact that it’s typically the single most important factor that allows a brand to grow value and inspire loyalty. It’s the unique combination of how we perceive a brand, how it speaks to us, how we engage and interact with it, as well as the value it brings to our lives. It’s a multi-directional dialogue between a brand and its customers – a brand’s key differentiator in the marketplace. But how do we measure it?
Think of it as the point of convergence between what a brand says about itself and what others say about it. It’s the delta between aspiration and reality or, colloquially speaking, “talking the talk” vs. “walking the walk.” It’s the total experience a brand creates across multiple touch points in relation to the impact it makes relative to its customers wants and needs.
I've said many times that the work of branding is aligning an organization's identity (how it perceives itself) with it's image (how others perceive it). When those two things line up, excellent brands emerge.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Perfect pitch

Those of us in the marketing business are all too familiar with clients who are so close to their products that they're simply unable to see things in a fresh way. We constantly search for ways to break through and make connections with clients like that.

Enter Don Draper, the cheating, conniving ad exec of Mad Men. For all his foibles, Draper knows how to make connections with the toughest of clients. Even though it's fiction, I consider this particular client pitch to be the greatest of all time:

A few lessons learned: First, don't compromise your own professional expertise, especially when you know you're right. Be prepared to walk away if you have to. Second, the gentle way of leading a client to change isn't always the best way. Sometimes you just have to draw a hard line. Finally, wear a convincing poker face. (Great hair, great teeth and a well-tailored suit can't hurt, either.)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The importance of staying focused

One of the hardest aspects of marketing is NOT doing certain things. Marketing involves setting priorities, whether it's targeting a specific audience, keeping creative work focused only on objectives or scaling a campaign to fit a defined budget.

All too often, our clients try to push us to be all things to all people. They want their marketing investment to go as far as possible, and to them it only makes sense to cram as much as they can into the white space or write the ad copy to appeal to anyone who can fog a mirror. The trouble is, the law of diminishing returns applies. The less focused and targeted a marketing effort, the less effective it will be.

Try to keep your clients focused on objectives, not creative execution, which is best left to the experts.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The ALS "ice bucket challenge" and the myth of Narcissus

The latest social media flash-in-the-pan is the ALS "ice bucket challenge." Think what you like about the effort, it joins the ranks of a few brilliant uses of social media, particularly Facebook.

But it appears that the "challenge" is much more about self-promotion than it is fundraising for an important cause. What it demonstrates is the influence of the social media community, in which its members seek validation and acceptance within the context of that community.

This excellent post by Catherine Palmieri makes a compelling case for how marketers should approach social media. I think she would agree that the "ice bucket challenge" proves her point.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Five keys to managing an internal marketing program

"Marketing is like sex. Everyone thinks they're good at it."             --Steve Tobak

This marks my 35th year leading marketing and strategic communications for various organizations. None of them has been about marketing, but all have heavily relied on marketing and communication (whether they know it or not) to advance their missions and drive their successes.

There is a certain beauty to functioning as the internal marketing agent in an organization for which marketing services are not its primary focus. Unlike traditional marketing and advertising agencies, "in house" marketers get to zero in on a particular client and a narrow set of products. This allows internal marketers to "wade deeply" in a way that outside consultants cannot. Internal marketers better understand the products, the company mission, the corporate culture and organizational politics.

But internal marketers run the risk of being viewed by their company peers as barriers to progress. As the keepers of the organization's brand voice, they are the people who must often say "no" to subjective attempts to mess with things like visual standards, web design standards and other policies that serve to build strong brands. Over time, internal marketers can become disrespected simply for doing their jobs well.

This is why outside agencies often succeed in such organizations. While they typically say and do the same things, the sheer cost of hiring them almost ensures a level of success that internal marketers can only dream about.

Everyone's a marketing expert

An art director-friend of mine once joked that people would never go to their doctor and say, "I believe I have cancer, so I want you to do surgery right away."  And yet, companies do this with their internal marketing experts all the time.

Marketing is generally not understood, nor is it viewed as a precise science. Most people approach marketing from the crafty side of the business -- creating ads, designing websites, writing news releases and other creating activities. They have no concept of the business behind the words and pictures. Further, with access to tools like PowerPoint, Publisher, website-building platforms and other readily available systems, all you need is your own sense of creativity and you're basically an expert. This explains why there is so much bad marketing execution in the world.

What are internal marketers to do? I believe there are five keys -- let's call them five best practices -- to effectively managing internal marketing in any organization.

1.  Focus on the science of marketing

I once had an internal client who insisted that our marketing department create a series of outdoor (billboard) advertising. When pressed on why outdoor, she eventually revealed that she drives a lot and wanted to see her ads on her drive to and from work.  That was great subjective reasoning on her part, but a stupid approach to marketing.  We were able to reshape her thinking by first showing her how outdoor ads would completely miss her target audience. Second, we outlined a better media plan, using CPM data, to show a much better buy for the money. She was convinced.

It's easy to lose arguments over subjective reasoning ("I like blue." "But I prefer green."). It's much more difficult to lose when your reasoning is based on solid numbers and research. Do your homework. Gather the facts. Present your recommendations with solid data that tie your ideas to objectives like increased sales or an improved bottom-line. Generally, if you don't do this, you are guaranteed to lose because you'll be left to follow someone's subjective notion of what works.

2.  Start with problems, not with solutions.

Over the years I've worked with many clients who initiate their request for marketing assistance with a brochure sketched out on the back of a napkin (or, more recently, already designed using a fancy template in Microsoft Publisher). These are the "I've-considered-my-idea-and-found-it-to-be-good" folks.

Because most people consider themselves marketing experts, the true experts need to ask a basic question: "What's the problem you're trying to solve?" Nine times out of ten, this will not have been carefully thought out.  This takes real finesse, because most peoples' sense of creative expression, no matter how bad, is tied directly to their egos. Crush their idea, and you basically crush their very sense of existence in this world. So find careful ways to get back to the root problem they should be thinking about.

"That's an interesting idea you've come up with. Before we talk about that, can we first talk about the problem you're trying to solve."  You can usually guide the discussion from there.

3.  Surround yourself with pros, then get out of the way

As a CMO, I've often said that I have surrounded myself with people who are a lot smarter than I am about things like graphic design, creative direction, photography, promotional writing, website design and media planning.  Micromanaging a group of such pros would be a disaster.

Successful marketing management is a bit like conducting an orchestra. Let the virtuosos make the music -- your job as a leader is to a) ensure you have the right team to begin with, b) clear a path for them to be successful, c) get out of their way and let them do the work they're best at and d) keep everyone on the same page and headed the same direction.

You can really wreck good marketing execution by trying to call all the shots. Believe me, it does not work.

4.  You must have a direct, trusting relationship with the CEO

About 15 years ago, the financial services company I was working for reorganized. My line of accountability shifted from the CEO to a new boss who came from the manufacturing industry. He was named senior VP of marketing, but had never worked a day of his life in the marketing field. In our first meeting, he said, "Barth, I don't know anything about marketing or financial services. You'll need to help me learn."  The next five years of my professional life were painful as my boss, who had been Peter-Principled into his position, struggled to learn Marketing 101, which proved a huge distraction from the important task of marketing the organization and its products.  (A word of advice here: If you suddenly have a new boss who has been elevated to a top marketing position in your firm and you hear words like, "I don't know anything about marketing, you'll need to teach me," start polishing your resume.)

Good CEOs drive their organizations' brand directions. If you are not at that table, fully trusted by the CEO, you will have a hard slog being accepted within your organization. I've learned, almost without exception over 30 years, that marketing enterprises which don't report to or at least work closely with the CEO cannot succeed.

5.  Accept small victories

I'm a backpacker. I do a lot of hiking on mountain trails, which means there's a lot of climbing to gain elevation, often on twisted, rocky paths. With a heavy backpack, it can get pretty discouraging, especially for newbies. When I'm hiking with someone who has little experience, I often encourage them to stop from time to time; to take a moment to look back down the trail to see how far they've come and how high they've climbed. Only then can they continue again, knowing that they're making progress and that all the work is worth it.

So it is with corporate marketing. It's never easy. Organizational culture and politics, and the ever-present subjective reasoning of "marketing experts," create obstacles that often impede progress.

Nothing that I've outlined above is absolute. There are always exceptions. One thing I do know, however, is that progress quite normally feels like two steps forward and one step back. You win a few and you lose a few. The key is to win a few more than you lose. And look back down the trail now and then to see the progress you and your organization are making.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A lesson learned?

Somewhere, in the midst of this public relations debacle, is a lesson. I'm still trying to sort out what it is.

1. Think, really think, before you click "send."
2. Test your brilliant idea with at least one other person before going public with it.
3. Don’t go to war with the Shockers. Don’t start no stuff, won’t be no stuff.
4. All of the above.

Read more here:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

I beg your pardon, Goshen College

My alma mater, Goshen College, issued a news release yesterday that points to a classic misunderstanding about brand identity.  Here's an excerpt:
Goshen College Set To Rebrand Maple Leaf Athletics Logo
Tue, Mar 04, 2014 - [Leafs]

GOSHEN, Ind. - The Goshen College Athletics Department is excited to announce its plans to re-brand its Maple Leaf logo this Spring.
Known as the "Maple Leafs" since the late 1950's, Goshen will continue the tradition that comes with the moniker. Plans also call for the re-branding to stick with the traditional purple and white as primary color marks of the program.
A new brand identity, though, will be created to help better tell the story of Maple Leaf student-athletes. Additional goals include creating a system of logos which will provide options for multiple uses, more uniformly representing all athletic programs, modernizing the program's look, and increasing brand recognition for Goshen Athletics and the college as a whole.
Here's where Goshen College starts down the slippery slope of really not understanding branding: "The Goshen College Athletics Department is excited to announce its plans to re-brand its Maple Leaf logo..." Okay, some basics here. First, a logo is not a brand. Second, you don't "brand a logo," you introduce one.

GC continues: "Plans also call for the re-branding to stick with the traditional purple and white as primary color..." Really, what the college is trying to say is that they are sticking with the same colors currently used in their visual identity program.  Again, visual identity is not a brand.

But then, GC really shows they don't get it: "A new brand identity, though, will be created to help better tell the story of Maple Leaf student-athletes."  Every good marketer knows you don't "create" a brand identity. Brand identity is determined by your customers and constituents. The only thing you really control is consistency, and GC is at least trying to create a program that does that, although having "a system of logos which will provide options for multiple uses, more uniformly representing all athletic programs" will likely work against building a tight, consistent system. Further, if GC marketers think that a new logo will "better tell the story of Maple Leaf student-athletes," they've got another think coming.

What my beloved Goshen College should have said in their news release is that the college is excited to introduce a new logo for its athletics program that will further enhance the school's existing visual identity program.  After all, with a maple leaf for a mascot, you need all the good karma you can muster.