At the BMA National Conference recently, one of the speakers remarked, “we don’t want to become one of those people at tradeshows putting air in the balloons.” His point was that many marcom people spend way too much of their time doing tactical things that, to be sure, need to be done, but are not viewed by upper management as being terribly important.
The problem is exacerbated when you’re a young person working at a large company with so many layers of management you can’t even get close to the room where strategic decisions are being made. Is there any way to avoid the perception of being just another balloon inflator?
One way is to refuse to act and think like a low-level functionary. Your weekly to-do list may be full of mundane tasks, but that doesn’t mean you have to think mundane thoughts. If you can imagine being in the CEO’s shoes for an hour or so each day, you can probably also imagine having to handle some of the high-level jobs that come his or her way.
As you’re sitting in your imaginary Oval Office, envision that you or someone from your department walks through the door and sits down in one of the presidential guest chairs. What kinds of things could you have that person do to make your job easier? Or better?
Probably the most strategic issue that connects entry level marcom practitioners and C-Suite executives is branding. I’m not talking about logo design or graphic identity systems here. Or even snappy slogans.
The question you, the entry level person might ask You, the imaginary CEO, is “if we could associate our brand with one attribute, what would that be?” What is the one thing that would be most valuable to our company if we could convince our most important customers and prospects to concede that we are leaders in that?”
This sounds like an easy question, and sometimes it is. But usually it’s a very difficult question, and it’s not likely to be the first thing that pops into your mind.
When GE’s Jeff Immelt took over from Jack Welch in 2000, he decided the attribute had to be “innovation.” General Electric was the company of Thomas Edison, and yet it was not known at that time as an innovative company. So the attribute decision was made quickly and imperially.
Sometimes the key attribute is plucked from the bowels of a research report. Miller Electric discovered how passionate their welding equipment customers were about discovering ways to do better welding jobs. So they became the “applied welding” people, disseminating hundreds of stories about how to do every conceivable welding job better.
Sometimes the attribute is found in the middle of a voluminous marketing analysis. When SAS Institute founder Jim Goodnight saw the phrase “the power to know” in such a document, he shrieked, “That’s us. That’s what we do — our software gives our customers the power to know.” And with every passing year, the crush of Big Data makes SAS software even more indispensable.
Powerful brands create an expectation that helps customers understand why they like you better than other choices they might have. The expectation needs to be specific and appropriate to your company’s capabilities and strengths. It can’t be vague or puffy.
If your products are manufactured better, with higher quality materials and lower failure rates, go ahead and pursue a “high quality” brand expectation. But if you’re no better than the rest, or somewhat worse, don’t go down that path. You’ll never earn the high quality position.
If your products are easier to use, “user friendly” may be a better way to drive home the connection than hammering away with individual technology benefits, although I’m sure the technology benefits will reinforce the user-friendly brand positioning.
It is very important to consider the claims your competitors make. If certain expectations are already taken by them, steer clear. Otherwise you risk sounding like a me-too.
Young people can think about brand expectations just like grizzled veterans. You can think about things that are part of your DNA and company culture, and things that would be easy to claim. You can probably also identify things that would sound hollow if you tried to claim them for yourselves.
One thing’s for sure, if you spend a significant part of your time thinking and talking about important, strategic issues, you won’t be regarded as someone who puts air in the balloons.