Putting air in the balloons

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.

Creating focused expectations

I’ve been thinking about brand personalities lately, especially ones for b-to-b companies. It’s really the essence of branding, because personalities lead to expectations and expectations lead to preference (or, in the case of a negative expectation, lack of preference). We have the opportunity to build a focused expectation with every ad we place, every web page we design and every tradeshow display we erect.

Unfortunately, many b-to-b companies have yet to pick up on this.

With most b-to-b advertisers, creative responsibility is pushed as far down in the company as possible, although marketing and sales managers still enjoy dabbling in the process. It’s like an exciting hobby, except they get paid to do it. The result is that advertising for Division A rarely conveys the same look and feel as ads for Division B or C. Because of this, customers fail to receive a focused impression of the company’s image. And that’s a serious mistake.

Caterpillar’s “One Voice” program is a great example of how to overcome this problem. You won’t find any dainty Caterpillar ads because daintiness doesn’t fit the Caterpillar voice. You won’t find any funny ones either, nor will you see eye-popping computer effects.

It’s not that Caterpillar doesn’t have a sense of humor or that their graphic designers don’t like special computer effects, but that they make conscious decisions not to use these techniques because they feel building a consistent personality for their brand is more important. Each ad reminds customers and prospective customers what they can expect from Caterpillar: strong, reliable products backed by serious, competent people.

IBM used to stand for business machines – boxes with complex computer stuff inside. But just about the time that personal computers started looking pretty much alike to computer buyers, IBM changed its image to that of a company that could help us do more with our boxes — like hook them up in huge networks, integrate enterprise software solutions and mine data for better decision-making. Our expectations of IBM have changed as a result.

I’m old enough to remember drilling for oil with truck-mounted drilling rigs that were essentially designed for shallow-depth water wells. You can’t do that anymore. Now you go down more than a mile just to get to the ocean floor and you drill several more miles before you reach pay dirt, assuming your geophysical information is correct.

That’s why Schlumberger, a leader in seismic and geophysical data services based in Houston, makes each and every one of its ads in oil-industry publications convey a serious, technologically advanced image. Its body copy is full of high-tech phrases like “microresistivity imaging” and “deep-water cementing for zonal isolation.” Layouts are always similar with the Schlumberger logo in white on a reflex blue background (which gives magazine production managers the heebie-jeebies, I’m told).

Schlumberger’s customers risk hundreds of millions of dollars on these subsea projects and the asset managers they’re trying to reach are not likely to settle for second-best. So in their world, either you look like the one-and-only right choice, or you’re no choice at all.

Having a deadly serious brand personality isn’t always the way to go, of course. New Pig Corp. based in Tipton, PA has built a $100 million business in spill-containment products by taking just the opposite approach. When you call the toll-free number (800-HOT-HOGS) or get ready to select something from their “Pigalog” of more than 5,000 leak and spill control products, you’re probably already smiling. New Pig has happily built a loyal, predictable customer base that shares a messy, disgusting problem: industrial seepage. And they’re smiling all the way to the bank.

So you see there are many ways to skin this cat, and there’s not any one right way to do it. .

If you’re going to spend the time and money to develop a brand image program, make sure you consider the personality aspects of it. Because your brand personality tells people what they can expect from you, and if they expect something good, you’re on the way to making a sale.

From Brand Hate to Brand Love

I just finished reading an article in FAST COMPANY about Ticketmaster, the World’s Most Hated Brand (July/August, 2011). And while that distinction is debatable, CEO Nathan Hubbard didn’t disagree with it very much. It seems that years of slow service and inflexible systems have generated strong consumer dislike for Ticketmaster.

“If Ticketmaster were a person,” one person tweeted, “I’d kick it in the f**king face.” And other stuff like that.

When you think about it, there are many hated brands out there. Who doesn’t have a horror story about the cable company or your wireless provider?

Banks are a popular subject of hatred these days, thanks to our multi-trillion dollar stimulus program that made them healthy and able to pay themselves huge bonuses again – while they turn their backs on small business owners who desperately need investment funds to expand and create jobs. I’m amused by Ally Bank’s ad campaign parodying abusive bank practices while they pretend to be different. Efforts like that usually only remind viewers how all banks are abhorrent.

Some brand hatred scenarios are temporary or limited to small segments of the population. I was recently surprised how many well-educated, financially successful people in my inner-city neighborhood rose as one to register their hatred for Wal-Mart when the retailing giant announced plans to locate a store not too far away.

And it’s easy for an otherwise respected company to become the subject of passionate, vitriolic loud and ugly protest when it makes an environmental false step. You don’t want to get the tree-huggers riled up.

So what should you do when you find your brand love turning into brand hate? Here are a few suggestions to help steer the ship back into safe harbor.

1. Quantify the problem

Do some basic research to find out how widespread the problems are, and hopefully identify the key issues. Don’t assume from anecdotal information that you know how deeply rooted the consumer issues are. Look for underlying causes and segment your study so you can determine if the problems are widespread or limited to certain groups.

If there are multiple problems, prioritize them and determine which ones need attention first.

2. Develop solutions

In some cases the solutions are obvious. You make a slow process faster. You give the buyer more options before they buy. You provide “insurance” if the buyer decides to back out.

For bigger issues, like those related to the environment, you provide facts that help people understand the whole picture. You make sure they know about things you are doing to minimize the impact or improve the quality of life for those affected.

Wal-Mart is dealing with their urban penetration problem with some creative new strategies involving smaller footprint stores with more attractive facades. From the 195,000 square foot Super Center behemoth, to the 42,000 SF Neighborhood Markets and the newer 15,000 SF “Marketside” concept stores emphasizing fresh foods, Wal-Mart is attempting to serve inner-city customers with smaller stores that stand out less obtrusively.

In other cases where the issues are more complex and solutions less obvious, you invite interested parties to participate in the discussion. You establish forums for open debate and sharing of ideas. You become transparent.

3. Spread the word

Once you’ve identified the problems and started the process of developing solutions, you get the word out that changes are underway. Everyone knew that’s what BP was doing after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but there’s no denying their television commercials helped soften the blow of negative opinion along the Gulf coast.

Social media has given millions of Twitter and Facebook users a platform to vent their unhappiness, but it also offers the opportunity to spread the news about service and facility improvements.

The worst thing a brand owner can do when faced with mounting negative attitudes is ignore the complaints. The old saying, “Their perception is your reality” applies more now than ever. If customers think you have a problem, you do. And the sooner you start fixing it, the better.

Pacesetter or passenger?

I was attending a luncheon the other day with several hundred oil and gas industry marketing folks, enjoying the food and experience of dining at one of Houston’s finest country clubs. At my table were four bright-eyed, intelligent young ladies, all employed in marketing communications by a leading oil equipment and services company. It’s hard to guess ages, but they were easily shy of the thirty-year mark.

It took me back to 1992, the year I spent as chairman of the Business Marketing Association. I made an honest effort that year to visit all of the association’s 30 or so chapters and share some of my chairman-like wisdom with BMA members. The title of my talk was, “Pacesetter or passenger?”

The reason I chose that subject was, even 20 years ago, the average age of marcom practitioners was dropping rapidly, along with the relative influence of our members. No longer was it common for marketing communication managers to have titles like senior vice president and report directly to the chief executive officer (who in those days was referred to simply as president). With every reorganization the marcom function was being forced further down the corporate ladder.

As I sat there listening to my luncheon companions laugh and talk amongst themselves, I wondered how much influence they were having on their company’s strategic direction. Were they helping chart the course and steer the ship, or were they just along for the ride?

It seems like an impossible question for people with limited experience in large organizations. Not only are you left out of the sessions where strategy is determined, often you have to make a Herculean effort just to find out what strategies have been adopted. As I advised my BMA colleagues 20 years ago, however, there are several things you can do to insert yourself in the decision-making loop.

1. Understand corporate priorities

It’s hard to master anything if you’re out of step with what top management wants for the company. Understanding the “corporate vision” is not that easy, but by scrutinizing annual reports, long range plans, mission statements and other vision-setting documents blessed by top management, you should be able to pick up clues about issues and initiatives that are critically important.

The most direct way to determine top management priorities is to ask someone. But make sure it’s someone who really knows. A lot of people act like they are “plugged in” to C-level thinking, but they’re not.

And it’s important knowing what questions to ask. You’ve got to do a little homework before you can even approach the wavelength that top managers operate on. It’s best if you prepare questions from your perusal of “vision” documents, ones that will help you understand how things fit in the grand scheme.

2. Prepare a formal marketing communications plan

Most large companies have marcom plans that spell out what they hope to accomplish, how they intend to go about it, and who will have to be reached to accomplish their goals.

And yet it’s always surprising to discover how many companies never bother to link business-level marcom plans with strategic vision issues.

Preparing a formal plan forces managers to share their game plan with you, and it gives you the opportunity to add value by recommending complimentary strategies to support the corporate vision. Make sure your plan addresses all the issues.

3. Take initiative to get things started

Assuming you know what the corporate priorities are and have taken the time and effort to prepare a formal plan, now you can start using time to your advantage.

Stephen Covey, in his classic book, “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People,” points out there is a huge difference in effectiveness between people who exercise initiative and those who don’t — up to 5,000%, he says. Anticipate needs by putting key dates on your calendar and developing timetables so you aren’t caught off-guard.

Using another Covey tip, be sure to block time on your weekly schedule for the important activities that aren’t critical yet, but will be if you delay getting started. If one of your marcom strategies supports a corporate issue that’s beyond the scope of your usual topics, give yourself plenty of time to get the messaging developed.

4. Be an advertising scientist

In research-oriented companies, failure is encouraged because it promotes learning and leads to breakthrough successes later. Scientists develop the “ultimate” solutions by analyzing results and making each experiment a little better than the last. That’s what we should be doing with our advertising and marketing programs.

Many of our advertising forefathers were obsessed with measuring results so they might do better the next time. People like Claude Hopkins, Rosser Reeves, Marion Harper, John Caples and David Ogilvy all made research a key part of their rise to fame and fortune.

I’m convinced that if we, as marketing communications practitioners, are ever going to play a Pacesetting role for our clients, we’ve got to start doing a better job of measuring results and learning from our mistakes.

5. Be a strategist

Marketing communications people spend too much of our time doing tactical things. We worry too much about how to do something better, and not nearly enough about what should be done or why we should do it.

When the discussion turns to pricing, packaging or product distribution, we tune out — because that’s not our job. We’re oblivious to gaps in our product or service offering that put us at a competitive disadvantage. We pay attention to competitive advertising, but only to make sure our ads are more clever than theirs.

And we surely don’t ask field sales people for their opinions on our work because we’re afraid of what they might say. We don’t want them involved at the creative level, because they’ll get things all twisted around. Or so we think.

That’s the mark of a tactician, for sure. Marketing communications people who wish to play key roles in helping their companies achieve marketing success should stop being so concerned about “ownership” of tactical issues, and start looking for opportunities to participate in strategic activities that will make even bigger contributions.

So what’s it going to be — pacesetter or passenger? You can help chart the course and steer the ship or you can just go along for the ride. It’s one of the biggest choices a marketing communications practitioner can make.

The evils of borrowed interest

Borrowed interest is the lazy adman’s crutch. It’s the ultimate creative shortcut – a way to appear creative without actually having to come up with a genuine creative idea. I hate borrowed interest.

BTW, I’m always challenging people who use the word “hate” casually, but in this case, the term fits. If you’re ever summoned before the High Court of Advertising Appropriateness, I hope your file is devoid of borrowed interest examples. (There is a statute of limitations on borrowed interest, so if you accidentally did some of these ads early in your career, after ten years those don’t count against your record any more.)

Because business-to-business advertising is the toughest area of our industry, it has more than it’s share of borrowed interest ads. I’ve been calling attention to these atrocities and ridiculing them for more than thirty years to no avail. They just keep popping up everywhere you look. The same lame concepts over and over again.

In the oil and gas industry where I spend most of my time, you can currently spot race car pit crews (teamwork), track runners clearing hurdles (performance), magnifying glasses (seeing things differently) and mountain climbers (pushing the limits). Transocean, recently famous for its Deepwater Horizon debacle, is using a chess board analogy to ensure that you “make the right move.” I’m pretty sure that means not working with BP anytime soon.

But borrowed interest is not limited to oil and gas by any means. In every issue of every business and trade magazine you can find worthy examples of creative corner cutting. One recent issue of FORTUNE magazine featured a leading consulting firm with an inflated sheep to connote getting more out of existing resources, and a stack of light bulbs for another firm wishing to convince you they have better ideas.

Borrowed interest afflicts advertisers of all shapes and sizes. We have dart boards for hitting the target, jigsaw puzzles for putting all the pieces together, and no list of borrowed interest topics would be complete without globes to show globalness.

The sad thing is that in almost every case, if you study these ads carefully, you can find something worthy of a benefit-driven headline and visual. It’s usually buried about halfway down in the body copy.

For example, in a packaging industry magazine I once spotted a Hitachi printer ad with a photo of a huge diamond followed by the headline, “The quality gem you’ve been searching for.” Several inches down, however, is the revelation that Hitachi PXR Series printers offer the lowest operating costs of any inkjet printer. Isn’t that more significant than searching for gems?

The bottom line is that good b-to-b advertising requires you to get far below the surface barriers of jargon and technology. You can’t have a truly creative idea until you understand the message, and that takes some work.

One problem is that technical experts, when given the opportunity to help produce an ad tend to become amateur creative directors. Instead of helping you search for that salient point of difference, they leap frog into creative concepts that are usually just clichés. Amazingly, these individuals sometimes get upset if you don’t feed back to them their half-baked ideas.

The trick is to thank them generously for giving you a running head start on developing some distinctive concepts that will emphasize and support the primary advantages of your product or service – but not lead them to believe their starter ideas will necessarily be part of the final presentation.

I tell clients that we go through hundreds of raw ideas and idea fragments just to get to a half dozen or so worthy of presentation. Usually the final concepts are blended from several starter ideas, so if you need to stroke your over-eager client, point out how their embryonic idea led to the one you’re about to present.

They will love it. Guaranteed.