Pro Bono Advice: Be Like the Watermelon

Marketers often turn to pro-bono or charity work to give back to the community, to use their skills for good or even just to get experience they can parlay into paying work.  I can’t tell you why you should volunteer.  However, if you do volunteer, I advise you to be like a watermelon: develop a thick but porous skin.

I am not even remotely above using pictures of babies to get you to read my blog

The watermelon analogy stems (sorry) from the realities of charities and not-for-profits.  Most often, people work or volunteer in this sector because they have strong feelings about the subject, whether it’s the environment, religion, an illness or civil rights.  Moreover, these people often have a difficult connection to that subject.  This connection both makes the work more meaningful and more difficult.

You need a thick skin to take on some of the more uncomfortable issues, yet you still need to let some of that discomfort in to remind you of why you take on the work.

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So You’ve Painted Yourself into a Corner

Some articles by marketing strategists expand your horizons and render your giddy over the endless possibilities of our craft with soaring language and sparkling analogies.

This is not one of those articles.

Instead, this article focuses on one of the more grind-it-out aspects of our trade: what to do when you’ve got to provide strategic input for a purely executional project.

Rise and grind, kids.  Rise and grind.

You know the type: you have to direct your creative team to complete a very prescribed set of display ads, emails or social posts to meet a specific set of objectives, which usually boil down to clickthroughs, even if objective focuses on branding.  More often than not, someone else, perhaps at a different agency, has finalized the brand strategy and creative idea, aka “the fun part.”  More to the point, this project may not actually make sense to you.  For instance, in the above example about objectives, clickthroughs do not serve as an effective proxy for branding.

Or the task may involve picking existing creative assets to fill a role they weren’t designed for.  You’ve got the proverbial hammer all right, but none of the problems looks like a nail.

I liken this situation to the proverbial “painting oneself into a corner.”  It doesn’t matter what color you’ve used; you’re stuck.

Here’s the secret: don’t think of it as a chore, think of it as…ah, who am I kidding?  It’s a chore all right.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t stretch your strategy muscles and make something as good as can be.  Hell, maybe you can even make it fun, as long as you have a flexible definition of fun.

Let’s assume “do something else” isn’t an option.  I’ll admit that I’ve often taken “no” for an answer when I could have pushed back a bit.  Mea culpa, but mea cupla minima as I’ve learned the hard way that pushing back ends badly more often than not.

Instead, try this approach:

    1. Clarify objectives and metrics.  Go over both thoroughly with the client or client manager.  As the strategist, you have to be clear about them even if the powers-that-be aren’t.  Pay close attention to any disparity between objective and metric, such as the branding/clickthrough inconsistency.  You better believe that when it comes down between the two, the metric will matter more than the objective.
    2. Find the most likely key.  Here’s where you earn your kibble.  Use whatever you can to establish which factors drive the metric that matters most.  In the best case scenario, you have previous results that you can parse for clues.  Fire up Excel and look for anything that you might compare.  These comparisons might include the basics (segment, offer) and any and all creative factors (headline/subject line length, call to action copy, image content).
      Unless you have really huge audiences, you’ll probably end up with anecdotal evidence.  But that’s better than nothing.  By the way, if you do have nothing, raid whatever you can for insight, including the overall brand brief, customer research or even insights pulled from competitive or desk research.
    3. Build your brief around the factors that emerge.  Present those factors to the creative team as puzzle pieces.  Encourage them to think of themselves as beating the brief; finding the tricks that will make the whole thing work.  Then let ’em rip.

 

While we pride ourselves as strategists and planners by our ability to weave together the whole cloth of new brands and platforms from the frayed threads of consumer insight, business requirements and cultural trends, we still have to pay the bills.  In this case, paying the bills means writing the quotidian briefs and offering the quotidian feedback on the long tail of client relationships.  Rise and grind.

How Soon is “Too Soon?”

How soon is “too soon” for promoting tourism after a terror event? Three weeks seems to be the norm.

While it may feel unseemly to talk of commerce in the wake of a murderous event, the question bears asking. For one, tourism drives the economies of many cities, meaning that people depend on it to make a living. For another, terror attacks show no sign of stopping.

Sadly, it pays to be prepared.  I would argue that a tourism-dependent business not thinking about this issue would be like an citrus grower not having a contingency for frost.

Times Square, Veteran’s Day 2014

This week’s cowardly attacks about five miles from my home and hard by my nephew’s high school (he graduated in 2016) prompted an article in the New York Times about how terror attacks have affected New York.

However, I also happen to have my own experience with this grim calculus.

On a recent assignment for a client who conducts large-scale event marketing, I had to ask–and answer–the “how soon?” question. The client had planned an event in a large U.S. city that they would promote in email and other digital channels.  It’s telling that I can maintain client anonymity due to the prevalence of terror activity.  So, while police combed the crime scene, I felt a duty to advise the client on the go/no-go decision.

In the absence of a social listening tool to measure consumer sentiment,  I used Google Trends.  If you’re unfamiliar, Google Trends tracks the popularity of a search term according to an index where 100 is the high water mark.  Researchers can filter results by location down to the city, by time and by other factors.

Specifically, I looked at search trends for terms that included “[city name] travel” and “what to do in [city name] this weekend” for several large worldwide cities over the past several years, before and after terror attacks.  I found some interesting things:

  1. Travel interest drops after an attack but returns to seasonal normal after about three weeks on the outside.  While the number of terror attacks hasn’t reached a robust sample size, I feel confident saying that the length of time before returning to normal roughly reflects the severity of the attack.  Interest in London travel rebounded more quickly after the Westminster and London Bridge attacks than interest in Paris travel after the Bataclan attacks.  As the kids say, YMMV.
  2. Counter-intuitively, interest in travel searches increases during and immediately after the attack.  I suspect the spike comes from people en route or about to travel who want to change plans or simply determine prosaic details such as whether the airport remains open.  I would call this more of a “huh” than a marketing opportunity, of course.
  3. Locals rebound faster.  Again, sample sizes preclude me from making broad promises, but weekend-related search terms get back up to normal within a week or so.  Speaking as a jaded New Yorker, I suspect that after the initial shock wears off, people still gotta get out of the house.

In the end, I recommended that the client go ahead with the promotion as the earliest mail date would come a month after the attack.  Without a doubt, I’ve never made a sobering recommendation.

(Non) Humblebrag

Hey, pals & gals!  I got someone else to publish my drivel for once.

Check out my article in Gamechangers, a publication of the Troyanos Group.

It’s my take on how rideshare companies like Uber and autonomous cars will create a passenger economy sooner rather than later.  Moreover, that passenger economy will have profound impact on retail, entertainment and even health and wellness brands.

Enjoy and tell your friends!

Tom Petty’s Death Signals Radio’s Approaching Sign-off

I don’t usually post about entertainment figures, because I don’t work in the industry.  However, the passing of Tom Petty brings up a salient point about marketing: he’s one of the last musicians from the era when radio mattered.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Commercially and critically successful, Tom Petty earned some scorn from rock cognoscenti because, they felt, radio had made him more popular than he deserved to be.  Whatever that means.

However, this criticism (fair or not), points to a conspicuous absence: radio can’t do that anymore.  Radio will no longer crown pop princesses like Madonna or Britney.  It will no longer unleash the Monsters of Rock.  Hip hop seems to have maintained a local radio tradition and maybe country has, too.

Sure, mass distribution of a sort exists in the form of YouTube and music streaming, not to mention satellite radio and alternate channels such as movie and TV soundtracks.  However, these channels have fragmented.  You never have to hear Tom Petty even if you like a lot of similar acts such as the Allman Brothers or Bruce Springsteen.  A high schooler today could live out the old joke of not realizing that Paul McCartney had been in a band before Wings.

We no longer have the social contract that radio wrote: you listen to music that someone else chooses and, every once in a while, you’ll be exposed to something new that you’ll like.  As marketers, Tom Petty’s death reminds us of a channel that offered distinctly emotional human connections for brands.

I offer apologies if this post comes off more as a Jeremiad than the usual “Everything Is Awesome” posts on LinkedIn (and, yes, I realize that in the world of “The Lego Movie,” that song was a radio hit).  I just want to call something out that we, as music lovers and marketers, have lost.

Marketing When Marketing Should be the Last Thing on Your Mind

We have had a rough time of it lately.

Hurricanes.  Riots.  Earthquakes.  Mass shootings.  Hardly a day goes by when a horrific event dominates the day’s news.

Times like these are the last times anyone should worry about marketing.  And that’s the point I’m going to make.

Outside the affected area, marketers still have jobs to do.  Would that we could back away from our laptops, don jumpsuits and go help the people who really need our help.  Outside of volunteer first aid squad members, National Guard personnel and the Cajun Navy, however, that means most of us still have to show up at the office.

Yet, as an ancient Rabbi told generations: “it is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

I think this statement has implications for marketers.

A large-scale disaster that takes the lives of dozens or destroys a community cannot simply breeze by the rest of the nation–or perhaps the world–like the closing Dow Jones Index.  Things aren’t normal and don’t proceed like business as usual.  Even when seeking escape by watching TV or browsing our social networks for cat pictures, these events lay heavily on our minds.  Marketers can’t ignore a pall like this.  Who can think about which brand of peanut butter to buy when watching people begging for food?

That said, marketers who choose to respond to disasters face criticism of taking advantage of people at a vulnerable moment.  I won’t name names here out of respect for past tragedies, but some marketers have gone so far as to attach a sales pitch to a solemn or even grim occasion.

Let’s look at one who did it right: Verizon (disclosure: I’ve worked on various parts of Verizon in that past and I’m currently working with one of their competitors).

 

By highlighting the efforts of first responders–and moreover by not including any sort of sales pitch–Verizon shows both that they can appreciate the stress many of us feel and also that they’re doing something about it.

It took a lot of effort by Verizon to script and edit a commercial in what must have been days.  More to the point, it took some leadership from somewhere in the organization to handle the situation with care and compassion.

I would like to see more marketers do the same, to show that they have the humanity to acknowledge the suffering of others and, where possible, to address their role in salving the wounds.

More brands could do this if they thought about it.  Procter & Gamble dispatches mobile laundries and wifi service trucks to hard-hit areas.  What could a bank do to make emergency cash available?  How could a clothing retailer help those who have lost their homes and all the clothes inside?

I suppose I could also make the more bottom-line-oriented argument here.  I could show how programs like these have positive impacts on brand image.  However, I’ll leave that job to others.  For now, I’d just like to see more marketers think about how they can address audiences collectively waiting for the next big shoe to drop.

 

Amazon’s Customer Strategy: New HQ Edition

At the beginning of the summer, I posited that Amazon bought Whole Foods not as part of a distribution or merchandising strategy but rather because they wanted to cater to the mass affluent consumer.

Now that Amazon has begun the great HQ2 competition, I’d like to take a moment to extend the mass affluent factor to geography.  In other words, where would Amazon build its second headquarters if they wanted to keep the mass affluent consumer in mind?

At first glance, this question seems irrelevant.  After all, Amazon already sprawls across this country with major offices in places like Newark, NJ and Grand Forks, ND.  Myriad distribution centers fill spaces in between.  They once got me a router the same day I ordered it in NYC from Kentucky.

That said, companies often relocate to get in touch with an audience or a workforce.  Many car manufacturers have design HQs in Southern California to take advantage of the region’s car culture.  GE recently announced a move of their headquarters from Fairfield, CT to Boston to attract workers interested in a more cosmopolitan environment (or maybe because GE likes Harvard better than Yale).

So where would Amazon put HQ2 if they wanted to immerse themselves in mass affluence given that they want to avoid the West Coast and such wealthy citadels as Silicon Valley, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs?

Don’t try to make it here

I’ll cross New York City and environs off the list first.   Continue reading

Adventures in Biz Dev: Agile

I have to imagine that whoever named “Agile Development” may well regret it by now.  The approach of complementing a long-term roadmap with frequent, short-duration sprints has proliferated to marketing, retail and even urban development.  So I’m trying Agile business development, aka biz dev aka drumming up business.

In the name of transparency and in line with a lot of other Agile [x] practitioners, I’m simply stealing the name and the broadest outlines of Agile.  However, I have done some actual planning around Agile Biz Dev here that I’m sharing.

Step 1: The roadmap

As with everything, step one involves setting an objective and designing plans to meet it.  Not surprisingly, that objective takes the form of more business.  However, since “get more business” would result in simply dialing everyone in my contact list willy-nilly, I’ve refined the objective both to give clearer direction and to focus on specific measurements:

Drive leads (net new prospects and requests for proposal) with a focus on market research offerings

In service of this objective, the current roadmap includes units such foci on specific industries, branding and thinking big.

To accomplish the elements of the roadmap, I’ve created a series of two-week (-ish; lots of fall holidays may force me to extend timelines a bit) sprints.  Each sprint focuses on one unit to leave time for my business-as-usual work.

Step 2: Initial sprints

So far, I’ve got a few sprints already planned.  These initial sprints include a few units of specific industries, since it makes sense (to me, at any rate) to create a specific pitch for a specific industry and then rattle the cages of the appropriate contacts.  After that, I’m including one unit to review and revise key branding elements (website, LinkedIn, elevator speech) and another to dream up new opportunities.

Of course, management retains the right to change plans without further notice!

Step 3: Ready, fire, aim

Having defined what I want to achieve and how I will go about achieving it, I have begun executing the plan.  I really appreciate the built-in self-correction implied in an Agile methodology.  As much as I joke about making up the rules as I go along, I believe that flexibility underpins Agile.  If something ain’t workin’, it means going back to the drawing board and making adjustments rather than simply pushing ahead.

Accordingly, I’ve built in a measurement check-in at the end of each two-week sprint.  I’ll take time to tally up leads, to confirm next steps and to hone strategy and measurement.

I’ll keep you posted on how things work out.

 

A Field Guide to Untying Knots

Office workers of the world unite!  Just for a few minutes so we can get our act together!

Flat organizations and ad hocracy have, on the balance, helped organizations adjust to the ever-increasing speed of business.  However, they’ve also created more knots, or situations in which people with misaligned goals or approaches bring a project to a halt.

Some examples from my experience include:

  • A content tagging project that bogged down because the account manager and I didn’t interpret the second-hand instructions the same way
  • A social media production calendar that got messy because the creative team and the account team had different understandings of the approval process
  • An industry research project that went awry because the client changed the scope and the agency team never came to a consensus whether to push back or to attempt to complete the changed assignment

It hardly matters what business you work in; sure enough you will find yourself in a meeting in which the attendees all look at each other and say “well…now what?”

Here’s what.

I’ve got four basic tools that I use to untie process knots and get things moving again.

Get Everyone.

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The Playbook for Terry Malloy Brands

You may not recognize the name Terry Malloy, but I bet you know his work:

 

I coulda been a contender!  I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum.

I’d like to apply “Terry Malloy” to brands, brands that have faded in popularity for any number of reasons including changing tastes, mishandled marketing or the relentless search for novelty*.  While we have a name for brands fighting their way up–Challenger Brands–I can’t think of any meaningful names for brands fighting to keep from falling down.  So I’ll enlist Marlon Brando’s iconic character from On the Waterfront.

Just to give a few quick examples, I’ll list some brands that enjoyed greater followings than they now have.  Mind you, I do this without malice; I like some of these brands, which is a point I’ll revisit presently:

Notice the lack of Fresca?  Fresca fans probably raided this Target’s meager supply already.

 

Aim relegated to the bottom shelf.  Perhaps a casualty of the 3,000 SKUs of Crest and Colgate.

 

Any number of spirits brands would fit here; I just watched an episode of The Sopranos where someone mentioned that J&B was Anthony’s favorite Scotch

 

Step 1: Admit the problem

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Terry Malloy brands lies in fessing up to being Terry Malloy.  Both client- and agency-side marketers work hard to reach positions of responsibility and, as a result, do not generally want to admit to problems in their kingdoms.  In my experience I can remember only one client who admitted “the old gray mare she ain’t what she used to be:” Blimpie.  In the mid-90s, Blimpie was still run by its founders, one of whom spoke openly about his business successes and failures.  To his credit, he knew when he had lost it and made every effort to get it back.

Every marketer needs to look at her brand and, in the matter of all Presidential candidates since Reagan, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  Or fourteen.  Or forty.

Step 2: Take a new look at old customers

Assuming that your brand still has sales, it stands to reason that somebody out there likes you.  Spend time with your customers to understand what keeps them with you.  If the answer is “it’s the cheapest,” then so be it.  At least you’ve learned something.

There is, perhaps, a temptation to take this learning and simply go retro–to present the brand as it exists in the minds of former customers.  However, I suspect that doing so limits the ongoing appeal of the brand.  How Pabst can anyone drink before realizing that it’s swill?

Whatever it is that keeps fans with your brand, firm though few they may be, will serve as a launchpad moving forward.

Step 3: Contemporize

To turn William Gibson’s famous quote on its head, “the past isn’t gone; it’s just not widely distributed anymore.”

While expression changes quickly, bedrock values change less so.  Almost no one can relate to Borax’s “20-mule team” strength these days, but we all want laundry soap strong enough to clean our clothes.  Instead, look for ways to update the meaning of the brand.

200-year-old Brooks Brothers might serve as a great example of a brand that contemporized without really changing all that much in terms of product.  It still sells essentially the same preppy polos and khakis that they always have.  However, instead of relying on the Nantucket set for sales, they’ve basically remade themselves as merchants of high-quality, reasonably priced and completely safe office wear.  They realized the same virtues that made them a favorite with the Groton crowd make them relevant to a much broader group of people today.

And if all else fails, be charming

Some brands just don’t make the transition to the modern world so easily, if at all.  However, they can still diffuse the situation with humor.  Arby’s has gotten a lot of mileage over its Twitter feed and quasi-feud with The Daily Show.  Oscar Meyer still has its Wienermobile.  And, dammit, Tad’s Steaks is still holding on, whorehouse moderne decor and all.


*I’m pointedly excluding brands that fell because of a failure to adapt to new technology, such as Kodak or Alta Vista.  Dying technologies rarely enjoy more than a niche following and helping companies recognize technology shifts is a road well traveled elsewhere.

I am also specifically excluding Sears because…wow, where do I begin?