Article category “Differentiation”

Marketing isn’t a shouting match.

The Web has set marketing back 150 years.

One of the side-effects of the World Wide Web is a plethora of do-it-yourself advertising that often looks as unsophisticated as the earliest days of advertising. Professionalism has been swallowed up by amateurism.

How did that happen? Because Web sites and online messaging are largely created by technologists. They’ve replaced trained, experienced copywriters and art directors.

That, of course, has been made possible by inexperienced clients who have come to believe that a Web site or “mobile messaging” is an end unto itself. (Just get online and the world will beat a path to your door … ) That’s how Web designers and coders have – despite themselves – taken up the pole position of marketing.

Business owners and managers, who often barely have a concept of what marketing should be (justifiably, since that’s not the business they’re in) count on technologists to create their one and only channel to their potential target audiences. Their one and only broadcast message. The proof is in the pudding. They end up with Web sites that look nice, work well … and so often say little.

Marketing – real marketing – is much more than that. Technologists think they’re in a shouting match, which is what “me-too” Web sites amount to. When done correctly, though, effective marketing convincingly conveys relevant, compelling benefit messages to your true target audience.

And effective marketing is also often remarkably memorable, especially when it’s done with humor and cleverness, or when it touches our deepest emotions. (Just think about those commercials that everyone shares online.) That has nothing to do with coding, apps or plugins.

What’s missing from nearly all marketing today.

For any communication to be effective, it must be compelling. To be compelling, it must be relevant to the true target audience. To be compelling, relevant and successful, your communication must be on strategy. And to be on strategy, your messages must clearly convey the benefits or solutions that matter most to your specific target audience.

That takes digging, lots of it. That takes the kind of know-how ad agencies developed over decades. That takes knowing how to uncover what a target audience cares most about … and how a client’s product or service answers those needs.

The key objective of marketing is to stand out from the competition – with relevance and believability. How do you achieve that? By asking the right questions. Such as:

  • What’s the key audience for your product or service?
  • What matters most to them?
  • What’s your key benefit?
  • Who’s the competition?
  • What’s their track record?
  • What’s different about your offering?
  • What will it take to win?

The answers to those and the market-defining, follow-up, drill-down questions are the building blocks for a rock-solid strategy. Without one, it’s impossible to achieve marketing success.

With a solid strategy to build on, marketing professionals can create the kind of messaging that’s compelling, relevant and memorable for your target audience.

And that is the only way to get your message through. When it’s both compelling and relevant, it will be memorable. (And getting a compelling and relevant message through is way more important than eye candy.)

Marketing always has one goal: to increase your market share by enhancing the perception of your product or service within your target audience.

That requires a singular, clear, coherent, incredibly relevant message.

The bottom line: creating marketing is easy; creating communications that clearly separate you from the competition isn’t.


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“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Clarity and success.

That quote up there was something taught by Ludwig Wittgenstein (April 26, 1889–April 29, 1951) an Austrian-born philosopher who spent most of his life in England, including teaching at Cambridge.

Since Wittgenstein‘s original statement was in German (“Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”) there are variations based on how it’s translated. For example, it could also be written as “The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.”

Because the definition of bedeuten is “to mean” or “to signify,” I might have been less literal. Using Wittgenstein’s own ideas, I’d translate his statement using an English word that has more impact for English speakers: “The limits of my language define the limits of my world.”

It may seem like splitting very fine, blond hairs, but Wittgenstein dedicated his life to clarity and precision of language. (And translation requires bringing both the meaning and the intent into another language, so it’s seldom accomplished with literal translations.)

Wittgenstein also expressed the same idea from a slightly different angle, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”

He talked about language and understanding as being inseparable, and that the language we use determines whether or not we are clearly understood. Of course, he also said the extent to which we can be understood will be limited if our audience lacks the language to follow what we say.

The ability to name things, and understand each other when doing so, is one of the key things that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Parenthood and responsibility.

While Wittgenstein – considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century – was describing the limits of one’s world as an adult being determined by the depth and quality of one’s language, a recent New York Times article describes a study that shows that the very same is true for very young children: their futures can be determined by the quality of the language they’re taught.

There is nothing simpler or quicker than creating a child. Nature designed it that way. (It takes more time to make breakfast.) Conversely, few things are more difficult than raising a child properly and ensuring some amount of independence and success.

More than ever, language is at the core of that success.

Wittgenstein also said, prophetically, “The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know.” That certainly isn’t a statement I’d limit to philosophy.

People who say far more than they know is a symptom of our age. Language, sadly, is seldom used for clarity today. Lawyers, politicians … and even TV news anchor persons make a practice of using as many words as possible in an effort to make certain that all meaning is lost.

As communicators, clarity of communication is what we’re about. Obfuscation is what “they” are about.

It goes double for marketing.

Early in my career, I was interviewing for a position at an ad agency and the creative director wasn’t just looking at my samples, he was reading every line of copy. I felt slightly embarrassed because I had a lot of samples. So, to be polite, I said something like, “I didn’t expect you to read all the copy.”

His reply was illuminating. “I always read the copy because lots of people can be involved in headlines. It’s usually just the copywriter who writes the copy.”

Writing ad copy is a remarkable education. It’s unlike any other kind of writing. Even when the copy is short, it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to be like a very short story that educates readers while exposing them to something new.

The copy has to pay off the headline – which has to be good enough to get people to read the copy – and it has to close in a satisfying way, if possible with humor.

The copy also has to tie in to the tag line, which is often something inherited and which every writer on an account has to work with because tag lines go on far longer than any other element of a campaign.

Copywriters are taught that what we write has to be able to stand on its own. Meaning, if you have to be there to explain it to the reader or viewer, it doesn’t work. (Don’t you wish movie-makers followed the same rule?)

Copywriting is a craft unlike any other, and its demands teach one a great deal about writing.

Most of all, it shows that we have to know how to use language better than “the average person.”

I know full well that Wittgenstein might not be amused to see his ideas being applied to something as prosaic as marketing and advertising. But what he taught applies to our discipline as much as any other, if not much more.

Our job is to touch people where they live – to reach their emotions. In order to touch people’s emotions – because that’s what good copy does – we have to know a great deal about language in order to be able to use the precise language that will get us there.


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What New Year’s really means.

Guess what: our calendar is only 431 years old.

While most people using the Western/Gregorian calendar might understandably assume that our calendar is now 2,014 years old, that just ain’t so. It is in fact (as of this writing) only 431 years old, having been brought into existence in 1582 to mark the precise celebration of Easter.

Our calendar is called the Gregorian calendar because it was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull – a decree – signed on February 24, 1582. It was several centuries before it was adopted throughout the western world.

Pope Gregory XIII’s motivation for his reform was that the Roman Julian calendar (which had preceded it) placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a “year,” or a full rotation around the sun) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Extremely cool math for 1582, eh?)

With the aid of Jesuit priest/astronomer Christopher Clavius (who built on the work of Aloysius Lilius/Luigi Lilio) it was determined that the 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries. That resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox occurring on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar.

You know why that irked Pope Gregory, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t at all reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, they wanted to peg the new calendar to the date of birth for Jesus, but that’s quite an iffy thing. No one was really certain of the year and most scholars agree that his likely birth month was actually March. But early Christians hid their celebration on December 25th (or thereabouts) when pagan festivities were already in play for the winter solstice.

Pope Gregory XIII et al calculated Easter, by the way, using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his fellow Jewish disciples. Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, so the date of “the last supper” was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.

The fact that Easter is based on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, by the way, is why it’s a movable feast, unlike Christmas which is always on December 25th.

Today, of course, we think of the calendar as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was the main reason the Gregorian calendar was ultimately adopted. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on setting the correct dates for religious celebrations.

Think about this: anybody who uses a computer, anywhere in the world, inevitably is following the Gregorian calendar.

Is it New Year’s everywhere?

2014 will no doubt see further globalization take hold. Our clothing, computers and customer service (alas …) can come from anywhere in the world. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our maps.

Brazil, for example, has taken a monster lead on the global stage, having moved ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too have Russia, India and China moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.) Portugal, Italy Greece and Spain now worry the rest of the world when their economies teeter, and teeter they do.

So, bearing all that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who continue to follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, both of which are based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2013 was 4711 (or 4651 depending on their epoch starting point) and the Chinese year 4712 begins on Jan. 31, 2014.

For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2013 was 5773 and 5774. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2013 was 1434 and 1435. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.

The diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that everyone is a year older. Not sure about cheering that. And, as you can tell from the preceding paragraph, the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated (or measured) the same way by all people on earth.

Perhaps some of the old Roman and pagan superstitions lurk in our Bacchanalian New Year’s celebrations. Perhaps we truly think that we and the world will be magically different when the ball drops and the calendar changes.

What do we measure when we measure time?

Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time?

It seems that we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used and we look forward to some future calendar event, which might be a religious holiday or vacation, and which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.

But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we’re actually measuring when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun-up, sun-down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons.

Bearing that in mind, it’s possible to see that days and years are in reality markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact simply measure the passage of time as it relates to us. In other words, what we think of as time is highly subjective.

Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time (one of my favorites) that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” It goes like this: one twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns seven years later; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years. But for his brother, back on earth, several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)

This just in: More proof that time is a human construct

It’s all relative.

The point is that time is not as fixed as we think it is … or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time on our planet and the calendar we’re using.

We subjectively say, “one year has passed,” “our child is two years old,” “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time, an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movement of the planets around our star, which is what calendars theoretically measure.

Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars – New Year’s day would come more often. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the calendar we’ve all agreed to use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, highly subjective starting point.

In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. What we now call New Year’s day is a relatively recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event.

Happy New Calendar.

New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming. That’s what Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was all about.

No one can deny that our lives are run by calendars. They determine when we go to work and when we rest. They determine when we play and when we pray. They determine when we’re paid, and even how much. And all of that works because we all agree to it. Do we have a choice? Not really. But I’m certain if you asked any number of people what their favorite day is, the most frequent answer would be whatever day they consider the sabbath. 

And all of that is why I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. But, hey, knock yourself out.

New Year’s is supposed to be about new beginnings. January 1 strikes me as a very poor date for that. What it really means is that we’re celebrating a calendar event rather than a cyclical, natural event. It seems to come down to celebrating Happy New Calendar. I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else.

This just in:  The world almost had a 13-month calendar



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“Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”

I won’t work for free, either.

As soon as I read the wonderful New York Times piece by Tim Kreider, I knew I had to share it: Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

It’s gratifying to see these facts go “national.” And to see The New York Times bring to light how often the services of professional writers, illustrators and artists are undervalued, or not valued at all.

This Web site is almost four years old and from day one we’ve been writing about the dark side of the Internet, how it has opened competition for creative services to the globe.

Instead of raising the level of quality, the opposite occurred: a drastic lowering of pay levels (lower than could possibly be imagined) along with dropping quality down the toilet.

Instead of seeking professional services directly, many clients now seek out the “online resources” that pit professionals and pretenders against each other, bidding on far fewer projects than there are project seekers. As more and more clients seek the lowest-cost providers online, the rate of pay for professional writing has dropped well below the minimum wage. And the reason for that should be obvious: the third world is in there bidding as well. (Good luck with that.)

I doubt that it’s ever been more difficult for writers and artists to earn a living. Although, in the 1890s, the French writer Jules Renard said, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

(He also wrote, “Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”)

Just say no.

Some of the worst inventions to spring up in this rapacious, virtual, electronic world are content mills, farms and scrapers. Writers are either paid peanuts for original articles (e.g., $10-15 for 1500 words), or our work is stolen and “re-purposed.” The polite Internet term for this form of plagiarism is “mash-up.”*

So did we spend all those years in school and college and university learning and perfecting our craft to work for free? Or to work for one-quarter the hourly rate of the uneducated masses who say “would you like fries with that?”

Sadly, we writers undermine ourselves and each other every time we accept low-paying projects. Those of us who are professionals are no less professional than attorneys or plumbers or dentists. Good luck trying to get any of them to work for $2 per hour.

Part of the problem – perhaps the largest part – as Kreider wrote, is that everyone thinks they can write. That is, until they attempt to produce a coherent marketing piece, or a truly compelling ad. That’s when the fecal matter usually hits the air rotation device.

The services professionals provide do more than turn out carefully crafted messages and marketing – they help clients look more professional. If clients can’t understand that and still prefer to go for “the lowest bidder,” then vaya con Dios.

Here is Kreider’s description of the current state of affairs: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”

This is the phase of history in which we find ourselves. This is the point in the evolution of the Internet in which we are attempting to ply our craft while putting food on our tables. These are, the best of times and the worst of times.


*[Copyscape can help you learn if your content has been stolen. Simply drop in the URL for your original work into Copyscape’s search field. And if you find out your work has been copied, visit this page:]


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Being an idiot used to be a good thing.

Yes, languages are slowly going to hell.

The original meaning of “idiot” was derived from the Greek term for “individual,” which came from the Greek for “private person.” When someone was called an “idiot,” way back when, it meant: “one who keeps to himself” – neither a gossip, nor someone interested in politics. How it came to mean “stupid” or “moronic” is a history lesson in the devolution of language.

Finally there’s outrage. Finally a great deal is being made of the mis-use of some of the most common words in English. Such as “great,” “awesome,” “ironic,” “travesty,” “enormity,” “literally” and “terrific.” Those and many other words are increasingly misunderstood and mis-used by people who think they mean something completely different than how they’re defined.

Why? Because of the devolution of language. The group that defines itself as “descriptivists” (essentially, “linguists”) will disagree. They’ll tell you that nothing is devolving, merely changing with usage. That change is inevitable, they will tell you. Because when usage becomes common, it enters the dictionary.

Bah, humbug.

It turns out that as a “prescriptivist” (someone who cares about the rules of grammar and usage) I am as disturbed as are nearly all other professional writers, editors and proof-readers by the combination of laziness and ignorance that degrades both communication and understanding.

Take “idiot.” You don’t need to look any further for proof of the devolution of language than the astonishingly altered meaning of that innocent word.

The homonym trap.

Homonyms (and often homophones) are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. Often, all it takes is changing one letter in a word to alter its meaning. Drastically. How can we possibly expect to be taken seriously if we use the wrong word, with the wrong meaning, in our writing?

Want some examples?

Accept, except / affect, effect / allusion, illusion / capital, capitol / climactic, climatic / compliment, complement / elicit, illicit / emigrate, immigrate / lead, led / principle, principal / than, then / there, their, they’re / to, too, two / your, you’re.

The point is that language can be an incredibly powerful tool. It can illuminate. It can educate. It can paint pictures in the mind. If the person wielding that tool has full control of it.

[update: 10/2/2013 NY Times photo caption: “Tim Hodges, a police officer at Jacksonville International Airport, lead a bomb-sniffing dog around a terminal on Wednesday, the day after the facility was shut down by a false bomb report.” Clearly that “lead” should have been “led,” an absurdly common homonym error. Alas. Full Story]

Your welcome?

Can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten that depressingly incorrect usage in an e-mail response.

It seems that if words sound similar a great many people assume that it’s all right to use either. It’s not.

Speaking of “all right,” there’s really no such word as “alright.” It’s nonstandard English. The American Heritage Dictionary advises “it’s not all right to use alright.” Similarly, “all together” and “altogether” have distinct meanings – they are not the same. Neither are “alternately” and “alternatively.” Or “beside” and “besides” – they are simply not the same.

“Affect” and “effect” are in no way similar. And neither are “allusion” and “illusion.” “Allusion” is a noun that means “an indirect reference,” as in “His speech made allusions to something that fascinates me.” “Illusion” is a noun that means “something that is false or not real but that seems to be true or real.”

Look it up, please.

We’re now fully in the electronic age. And that doesn’t just mean computers and smart phones. It means every form of communication. Words are flung at us from every direction because people really are trying to get messages through.

Words matter. What’s a movie worth without a good story? How effective is an ad without a relevant message?

But the ease with which words are tossed around may have a great deal to do with the increasing mis-use and misunderstanding of words. It’s just so easy to text and post. But, by the same token, it couldn’t be easier to look up a word before flinging it into the electronic universe.

Meaning matters. And so does intent. If you’re trying to get a point across and use the wrong words to make your case, your case falls apart.

copyblogger makes the same case and is well worth the read.

Save the language. Use a dictionary.

Some words really need to be looked up to be sure of their meaning because they look and sound nearly identical, even though they are not. “Discreet” and “discrete” are not two spellings of the same word, they are distinct (discrete) from each other. “Discreet” is an adjective that means “careful and circumspect in one’s speech or actions,” as in “Her discreet handling of the situation put him at ease.” On the other hand, “discrete” is an adjective that means “separate or individually distinct,” as in “Each firm is a discrete entity.”

Same with “bimonthly” and “semimonthly.” Totally different meanings. Along with “cite” and “site.” And please, please look up “complement” and “compliment” before dropping a word bomb into your text. Really. Just type “dictionary” into your favorite search engine and multiple choices will arise.

This could go on for quite a while. For example, how “few” and “less” are entirely different. As are “figuratively” and “literally.” Along with “historic” and “historical.” “Disinterested” and “uninterested” are not the same. And neither are “elicit” and “illicit.” “Elicit” means “to draw out,” while “illicit”means something unlawful. “Farther” and “further” are, in fact, different words with different meanings and different uses. “Farther” means “to or at a more distant point.” “Further” means “to or at a greater extent or degree.”

I guess I should take this no further … except to say that I’d happily be called an idiot … in the original sense and meaning of the once noble word.

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Are you paying for plagiarism?

That question up in the headline could mean several things, and could be taken several ways … I mean all of them:

    • Are you promoting plagiarism in your content by using the cheapest possible provider?
    • Are you knowingly or unknowingly paying someone who is providing you with plagiarized or mashed-up content?
    • Are you suffering the business consequences of having plagiarized content on your site?

No, this is not a “public service announcement” of the kind we’re subjected to on DVDs. This is about how the writing profession is being undermined online and why clients who hire inferior writers are suffering along with the professional writers.

You get what you pay for.

There are a great many problems with how Web site content and online articles are being written today. Chief among those problems is third-world pay and a words-per-pound attitude. That’s why much of the content we read online has been written in the developing world, even though it’s intended for first-world consumption.

The drivel we are subjected to in poor-quality links may also have been written by poor sods in North America or Western Europe who haven’t yet realized that, shortly, they won’t be able to pay their rent or buy food.

Many misguided owners of Web sites and online businesses think “content” amounts to nothing more than words on a page – that they’re required to have some measly words on their sites for the sole purpose of giving “visitors” a reason to visit. They are the enablers, the people who are bringing down the quality of online content as well as the value of the Internet.

They have not yet realized that while the Internet has been a tremendous boon to everyone, it has also done what Thomas Friedman termed as “flattening the earth.” Suddenly wannabes in developing countries are competing in the same “space,” for tenths of a penny on the dollar.

Google has noticed.

Virginia Heffernan has written about this (very, very nicely) in The New York Times, describing how Google decided it was time to take down the SEO tricksters who managed to get drivel at the top of our search returns: Google’s War On Nonsense.

“Imagine a sci-fi universe in which every letter, word and sentence is a commodity. Companies make money off chunks of language. Bosses drive writers to make more words faster and for less pay. Readers then pay for exposure to these cheaply made words in the precious currency of their attention.”

If you happen to be a writer looking for work online, you’re likely to encounter the slave mentality clearing houses that Ms. Heffernan has written about, such as oDesk, Demand Media, Associated Content, Answerbag, etc. When you do, you’ll understand why she wrote,

Last year, The Economist admiringly described Associated Content and Demand Media as cleverly cynical operations that ‘aim to produce content at a price so low that even meager advertising revenue can support it.’

Ah, the five-cent click. The new world order of advertising. The “volume” approach to sales.

Side note: While the merger of Publicis Groupe SA with Omnicom Group Inc. has just created the world’s largest advertising company, their combined billings of $35 billion is still not a match for Google’s $50 billion in revenues. (All those clicks, all those dollars …)

So, Google has decided to change the rules of SEO: The new rules of SEO **

Could you survive on $2 per hour?

So, if you you happen to be a writer looking for work online, you’ll soon discover that content mills pay $1-2 for short pieces and $10-15 for a 1500-word article. Think about that. It takes 2-4 hours to write a thoughtful, meaningful 1500-word article. That’s $2.50 per hour, maybe. Plus the time to figure out how to submit that article.

When you do figure how and where to submit, you may notice that your competition on those content mill and farm sites are “content & SEO” providers in the far east, middle east and Africa. That’s when the penny drops. Who can survive on $2 per hour in any Western economy?*

Not that long ago, the average payment for professionally-written articles was $1-$2 per word. Per word. 1,500 words equaled $1,500-3,000. (You could eek out a living on that if you received around 20 assignments per year.)

Something similar happened to the photography profession a few decades ago when stock houses entered the scene. They bought up a photographer’s entire inventory (meaning they then owned it all) and then rented out each photo for $100-300 per use.

Guess what? Pretty soon no one was paying $2,000-$5,000 for major photo shoots. And the photography profession became a mere shadow of its former self.

That’s what’s happening to professional writing now. The bottom is falling out, and the Internet is making it easy.

We’re forcing people to plagiarize.

Yes, content mills and farms (Elance, oDesk, Demand Media, etc.) are the truly despicable part of “the flattened earth.” The Internet started out as an incomparable boon, and then it became the place that may kill professional writing as a profession.

If you’re only being paid $1-2 per hour, it’s easier (or necessary) to rip off what’s already online than to do your own research, writing and editing.

Content farms don’t seem to care. (Well, they have shareholders and CEOs to keep happy.)

But you should care. What if the kind of writers who are able to provide high-quality, carefully written articles become harder and harder to find? After all, how can writers in the Western world survive at the rates Demand Media et al are willing to pay?

It’s time for there to be online tools to check for the ripped-off, mashed-up, out-and-out plagiarized stuff that’s everywhere.

Our online existence has become a double-edged sword. We have virtually unlimited access to “information,” but also enormous responsibility not to spread half-truths and full-out lies.

And, by the way, we also have to be even more diligent about grammar, spelling and punctuation, because the misuse of language is rampant. (Again, thanks to content mills and farms.)

A rather interesting site called Brain Pickings posted something out of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: “Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed.”

In other words, originality is preferable to reworked bromides. And when you think about that, it means its better for both the writer and the reader. After all, aren’t you sick and tired of re-worked, re-hashed, pointless content?

[* We can’t survive on $7.25] [** Google has updated its Webmaster rules]

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Working with virtual marketing professionals.

I’m virtual, you’re virtual, we’re all virtual.

The Internet first appeared in the late 1980s but wasn’t fully commercialized (the World Wide Web we now knowuntil 1995. Less than 20 years ago. Yet we could hardly imagine being without it. The Internet changed the way we read, work, communicate, make phone calls, watch TV, look up restaurants, find directions … and shop. The Internet also dramatically changed the way we do marketing.

Online marketing is now crucial to every kind of business. Because that’s where everyone looks first – to find out about you … and to find you. The other side of the online marketing world is that you can now use the Internet to tap into a global, virtual talent pool.

Anyone who needs marketing to promote their products and services is no longer required to hire an advertising agency. Because there’s a virtual army of writers, designers, marketers and coders available via the Internet to help you achieve your marketing goals.

I’m one of them and I partner with many of them, on both coasts and in-between.

Is there a question in the back?

Some of you are likely wondering, “what’s the difference between hiring an ad agency and working with independents?”

Good question. When you hire an ad agency, the entire process of marketing communications (strategy, positioning, competitive research, media planning, media buying, copywriting, art direction, production services, etc.) is managed for you … and you pay for that privilege.

When you work with independents, you don’t pay the hefty fees or retainers agencies typically charge, but then you have to manage the process and pay for à la carte services, as needed.

It’s pretty much the same as handling your own home renovations – you can hire framers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, painters, etc. and manage a renovation yourself, or you can hire a contractor who will manage it all for you … for a fee.

Back to marketing. Agencies will hand-hold clients through the process of figuring out key messages, key audience, and the best way to get the messages to the true target audience. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to participate in the discovery process as well as guide the outcome of your creative, you may be happier with virtual marketing services in the end. Because you’ll control your own destiny, save money and be present at the birth of your marketing.

Quicksand ahead.

The agency model has had to change since the traditional media outlets (print, radio, outdoor, television) that used to pay them 17.65% commissions are getting hardly any advertising dollars these days. Online marketing is now significantly ahead of traditional media spending. The vehicles through which ad agencies used to earn income are rapidly disappearing. Big-budget TV commercials and outdoor advertising are still going, but print (newspapers, magazines, journals) and radio are mere shadows of what they used to be.

Over a short time this will mean that the quality of marketing will degrade since there will be fewer ad agencies in existence, and therefore fewer opportunities for marketing professionals to learn their craft on the front lines. For the moment, there are still a good number of us out there – people who trained in agencies. The problem is that, thanks to the Internet, there are also a great many more people claiming to be marketing pros who really have very little training or background.

So, while a good many of the people who make up the virtual talent pool are former ad agency people, many others are not. Most of those you’ll find online are not, in fact, professionals with years of writing or design experience taught by the pros who came before them.

If you look, apart from experienced professionals, you’ll find both neophytes to marketing, writing and design, as well as wannabes without a clue. So this is a “buyer beware” situation. And – to further complicate matters – the Internet makes it difficult to discern exactly where in the world the self-proclaimed “virtual professionals” actually are. Some are nearby, somewhere in the U.S. or Canada, some are in Western Europe, and others – a lot of others – are in developing countries.

Passports please.

This is where things get tricky. Communication professionals have to know the language better than the average speaker – far better. That’s the only way we can create the puns and double entendres that bring humor to advertising and marketing. And humor really does matter. It’s the golden key to giving your audience a reason to pay attention your advertising.

So how exactly can someone in a foreign country, especially a developing country, for whom English is a second or third language do that? Simple: they can’t.

And this is one of downfalls of seeking virtual marketers online: they may or may not know the language well enough to do what it takes for your product or service to break through the clutter and succeed.

I experienced this challenge first-hand. My parents were Belgian and my father insisted we always speak French at home. So I grew up bi-lingual. But my parents’ French was from the 40s in Europe, and the French I was taught in school wasn’t much hipper. So when, one day, I found myself on the Paris Metro staring at a poster I couldn’t understand, I seriously considered what was going on. It was in French, but I couldn’t decipher it. I looked around at the other posters and had just as much difficulty with most of them. Then I figured it out. They were obviously clever or funny, playing with the language in contemporary Parisian ways. And I had no idea what they meant. My French wasn’t up to it.

It was very frustrating since I could easily get around Paris, order meals, book rooms, get directions – but clearly I was not actually fluent, only functional. The people who wrote the ads were able to deftly and subtly play with the language to grab passers-by. And that’s what it takes to succeed in marketing since the first job of any marketing is to draw attention to itself.

“Two with everything.”

I used to say that a lot during my Madison Ave. agency years when I was ordering grilled hot dogs from a long-gone corner shop on Lexington Ave. and 48th. They only sold hot dogs, egg creams and boxes of cigars. Some of the most successful people in mid-town Manhattan would come to that tiny corner hot dog stand where the hot dogs were cheap and the cigars were not. They probably handled more money each day than most banks. (I nearly always saw bills with Ben Franklin’s picture changing hands there.)

“Two with everything” was all it took to communicate your order. But what would that mean to someone from outside North America? Probably nothing at all until it was explained, in detail, since hot dogs are not part of their culture.

And, to a large extent, that’s who’s out there in the virtual marketing world. People who know they can make more money working with English than their own language. They charge next to nothing compared to Americans. But they also know next to nothing about how to use words and images to make magic – the magic that makes sense to this, specific target audience, your audience.

A long-time client was convinced by a new employee to use one of those off-shore providers to re-do their Web site. The client came begging to us to fix it. And, just like renovations, it can cost far more to have to re-do something than build it right the first time.

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Our brains are the sexy thing.

The marketing automat.

With the introduction of the Mac (January 24, 1984), art direction and design changed forever. This was as big a change to civilization as the introduction of firearms. Suddenly, anyone with a Mac had a slew of tools for creating marketing and promotional materials that used to be the exclusive domain of designers and art directors.

But, to the trained eye, their work was always obvious. They were locked into a grid system, and it showed. (You can see evidence of that in this Web site, too.) The computer could only do its work within specific parameters. A blank page wasn’t really blank – it had to have defined column widths, borders and other elements that gave everything the computers produced a certain sameness.

Then something else happened. Anyone with a Mac (and not long after, anyone with a PC and the right software) could claim to be “a designer.” The automat had come to marketing and advertising. When Web sites entered the landscape  – bringing design full-circle, from being created on computers to being delivered on computers – developers, coders and programmers were saying, “hey, I can do this, too.”

But they all quickly learned that technology and software could only take them so far. To be “creative” means to create something out of nothing, something captivating, fascinating, compelling. At multiple points in the creative process, one’s judgement is the critical element, not CSS (cascading style sheets), plugins, widgets or themes – those are merely the tools in the toolbox.

Our brains are the sexy thing. And our creative judgement is what sets us (writers, art directors and designers) apart from everyone else.

“Hey, I can do that.”

We are indeed in a brave new world where “design” has morphed into “build,” and “build” means software rather than the trained and educated aesthetics of true architecture.

My background is advertising. I’m a writer – not a designer or developer. But 80-90% of the business I get these days is Web sites. I need to work with designers to create those Web sites, because design is a critical element when creating a Web site. Anything “creative” needs a concept and a concept is something quite apart from “a build,” it’s a marriage of design and copy – images and words blended in such a way that a particular feeling is conveyed.

Let me say that again: a concept is a marriage of art and copy – graphics and words – to deliver a message. That goes for movies, brochures, ads, billboards … and Web sites.

The Web is strewn with ill-conceived bastard children of techies who have no clue about “design.”

(There, I’ve said it. And, yes, I feel better.)

What’s the point of all this “creative” work that we do if not to pass on a message? The message is not only key, it’s critical. It’s the reason we’re paid to do what we do. It’s why clients and corporations want marketing materials and Web sites. They want to get the message out.

So, what happens when bad or entirely missing creative judgement comes into play? The message is obscured, or perhaps buried. People – especially the target audience – may miss the message entirely. Then what? Why was the work done? Why was the money spent?

Let the buyer beware.

Sadly, this is where things get tricky. How do clients know they’ve chosen the right creative team? They often don’t until the work is done. This is no different than discovering we’ve chosen the wrong doctor. In both cases one might go through considerable physical pain and even agony before realizing that the person one has chosen has neither the skills nor the know-how to truly help us.

The best advice I can offer is: “look at the work produced by the people you’re considering and ask for references.” That’s the same approach we’d use when selecting an attorney – have they done the kind of work we need done? What’s their track record? What do their previous clients say? And creative services professionals are consultants, just like lawyers and physicians. The same rules apply, in how you choose them and pay them.

Even though technology seems to have made “amateurism” the new “creative,” don’t be fooled. Just because someone produced a YouTube video doesn’t mean they’re a film-maker. And just because someone may have produced a Web site it doesn’t mean that they’re a designer, a real designer. Our instantaneous, ubiquitous displays of amateurism have engendered the “heck, I can do this stuff” attitude. So it comes down, again, to the centuries-old caveat emptor warning – let the buyer beware.

All of this comes back to our media-centric existence. The Mac, back in 1984, led inevitably to smart-phones that have also contributed to the absurd belief that anyone can be a photographer or movie-maker. Somehow we’ve gone from a society that dreaded being invited to someone’s home to view vacation slides and films to a society that can’t get enough of watching other people’s boorish attempts at movie-making.

What it all says is that we are in an age of rampant amateurism. And I have no idea when it will change or get better. The Web is growing exponentially along with the tools we use to create messaging. Everything is in flux. It’s up to brand and marketing managers to protect their marketing by choosing true professionals. And I fervently hope that they do.

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The crucial importance of tag lines.

Tag lines tell us who you are.

Thought I’d start the first post of 2013 with one of the first principles of truly good advertising campaigns:  truly good tag lines.

Lots of people think of them as an after-thought. Not me. I’m always thinking about tag lines from the first moment I start thinking about a campaign or Web site.

Headlines come and go. Tag lines hang in there through campaigns and often for years after. Headlines are a flash in the pan. Tag lines have to sum up who you are, what you offer and how you think … sometimes in as little as two words.

For example, “Think different.” (TBWA\Chiat\Day, 1997-2002.) Even though it’s been one of the most enduring tag lines of the past two decades, I’ve always been bothered by its flagrant abuse of grammar. (see Grammar matters.) Despite that intentional flaw, one has to admit that those two words (in combination with the Apple logo) have truly defined Apple since the 90s. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Even though they moved on from that tag line way back in 2002.

Copywriters, not clients.

Tag lines are also one of the most important things ad agencies bring to the party. Take military recruitment ads – perhaps the most tag line-dependent campaigns in existence. All those ultra-inspiring, “sign me up” tag lines (“Be all that you can be.” “It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” “We’re looking for a few good men.”) were written by (ta-da!) copywriters, not the Army, Navy or Marines.

The same is, of course, true for every attention-getting and easy to remember tag.

What happens when clients come up with their own tag lines? Take a look at Mezzetta, a California company that makes our favorite stuffed olives, jalapeños, dill pickles, etc. Their tag line? “Don’t Forgetta Mezzetta.” (Are you reminded of the Marx Brothers? I’m reminded of the Marx Brothers.)

A tag line defines the brand.

Brand names tell us the rudimentary facts about a company or corporation: we know that Melitta makes stuff for making coffee; we know that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks, and we know that McDonald’s sells fast food. Those are the simple facts.

Add a tagline and you add an emotional message that makes those brands stand out and stick in our memories. Tag lines take the brand up a notch. (Did they cover this in Mad Men? I can’t remember.)

When Chevrolet wanted to convince people that they built really tough, reliable trucks, they did it with a tag line: “Like a rock.” (Campbell-Ewald, 1992-2004.)

When Avis wanted to take on Hertz, the number one car rental company, they did it with a tag line: “We try harder.” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962-2012.)

When FedEx wanted to put its name on the map as an overnight delivery service (a breakthrough concept at the time) they did with a tag line: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Ally & Gargano, 1978-1983.)

When AT&T wanted to humanize the monolithic communications company that was euphemistically called Ma Bell (since they owned and controlled everything in U.S. telecom) they did it with a tag line: “Reach out and touch someone.” (N.W. Ayer, 1979-1983.)

When GE wanted to humanize its massive research, electronics and appliance manufacturing company, that did it with a tag line: “We bring good things to life.” (BBDO, 1979-2003.)

In my opinion, none of those companies would have become what they are without those tag lines. That’s why I call them crucial. Think about this: each of those tag lines accompanied hundreds of headlines through the years. Who remembers the headlines?

Great tag lines through time.

Many of these tag lines are classics, not even used any more. But we remember them. People even borrow them to use for our own purposes. Because they’re so often so pithy and convey so much, folks find they can’t help themselves. (“Betcha can’t eat just one.” – Young & Rubicam, 1963.)

Naturally, you know that none of those companies came up with those classic tag lines. It was their brilliant ad agencies … or to be fully precise, the brilliant creative department folk at their ad agencies.

Here’s a  Wikiquote list of “slogans” and a Web site that lists the results of a survey trying to list the 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948. (FYI, can’t stand the term “slogan.” Only folks who haven’t worked in ad agencies would use that term. Almost as bad as “jingle.”)

That list of 100 includes tag lines chosen from a field of 400 candidates. Not a list I would have put together. For example, I can’t believe the UPS “What can Brown do for you?” was actually nominated in place of their short-lived and far superior (IMHO) previous tag: “Moving at the speed of business.” (Ammirati Puris Lintas, 1995-2002)

But that’s show biz.


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Is it all right to talk about things you know nothing about?

Only if you’re a member of Congress.

“Write what you know.”

Take writing workshops or classes and you will inevitably hear this piece of advice. Things that sound so obvious often belie their depth. This particular advice is ultimately about producing writing that rings true, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. When that advice is passed on, it means: try to BS your way through your writing and the BS meters will ring instead.

For copywriters and marketing writers, that means we have to study our subject until we know it well enough to write about it convincingly – which can mean knowing the subject nearly as well as subject matter experts. It all begins with input. If we don’t get good input, we can’t provide good output. That simple. If the client doesn’t know how to clearly explain what they do or produce (an all too-common problem), it’s our job to dig for what we need.

This is a crucial aspect to copywriting, and one that’s not always understood. I’ve often had new clients look askance at me, wondering out loud if I really can write about their particular widget if I’ve never made any. What they don’t know is that a real copywriter is a generalist. A seasoned copywriter can write about anything. Because ad agencies can’t survive on just a single client or line of business – you’re asked to work on whatever comes up. (That’s one very realistic thing about Mad Men.)

We copywriters learn how to dig for what we need. By contrast, someone who has spent their entire career as a specialist, rather than a generalist, say for pharmaceuticals or farm implements, will have serious trouble writing about cars or perfume or shoes.

That’s the first secret.

Here’s the second: understand your target audience. It’s not enough to become familiar with the product or service we’ve been hired to promote – we must also understand who wants or needs the product or service, and why. We can’t possibly write convincingly if we don’t know that. (That’s a hint – if you’re working with somebody who doesn’t bother to learn about your target audience, you could be working with the wrong somebody.)

Example: I’ve never used chewing tobacco but I’ve advertised that product. (Not happily, but I did. See clients.) To do that, I had to learn about the products and the people who do use them. And it’s not just cowboys. They’re called smokeless tobaccos and they’re popular with people who work where smoking isn’t allowed. Ultimately – potential health risks aside – it’s no different than selling laundry soap, brassieres or riding tack: you have to know (1) the category, (2) the audience and (3) how to differentiate your client’s offering.

Yes, it takes work. Being able to craft sentences that sparkle like perfectly-cut diamonds is only half of the six-pack you’ll need for this picnic. You have to know the target audience even better than they know themselves. You have to know how to reach their emotional hot-buttons. You have to know how to get them thinking and talking about your client’s product or service. No matter how dull.

When I was building my spec book, I had a campaign for Mercedes-Benz that was a beaut. But several CDs with whom I interviewed told me, “That’s too easy. Everyone would buy a Mercedes if they could.” (Light bulb moment.) What they said, was “How do you get people interested in your client’s me-too product? Such as deodorant? Or beer? Or fertilizer? Or acne treatment?” That’s the real work. (And, yes, I’ve done all that.)

Are you convinced, yet?

Marketing is pre-sales. It’s the navy shelling the beaches in advance of troops landing. It’s about creating awareness of products and services. It’s what some of the early greats called “planting a bur in the brain.”

Here’s why. Tide advertising isn’t primarily about convincing you that they have the best laundry soap. It’s actually about trying to sub-consciously guide your steps in the grocery store so that the laundry soap you ultimately reach for is Tide. You may not remember why you think Tide is best, but you may remember that you probably ought to buy Tide (your brand here). And that’s all they ask for.

Mountains of research have shown that it takes multiple impressions (exposures to an ad or campaign) for a brand name to sink in – typically five. Ever gone car shopping? Ever gotten to the point when you couldn’t remember which car had which features, or even which one you liked best? That’s the minefield marketing is trying to step through.

Our method is to employ truth. Truth will get you through that minefield. Empty claims will get you blown up. If you really know what you’re talking about, it comes through. If the copy rings true, you might actually convince your target audience about the “superiority” of your client’s offering. And the copy can only ring true when you’re sticking to things that you truly know, and that are true. Surprised?

The opposite of truth.

We’re in the middle of campaign season in the U.S. Something like a four-year flu. Empty claims are flying all around us. The perversions of the basic principles of marketing are sickening to watch. All methodology is abandoned for scare tactics and promises of a better future. Outright lies replace basic truths.

Tobacco advertising requires health warnings  – this political stuff should come with warnings that it will rot your brain.

My point isn’t to rant, it’s to point out that we all have built-in BS meters and we all know when they’re going off. Like now, during presidential election season.

The really good writing in really good marketing and branding campaigns won’t do that. It will make you feel better about yourself for wanting or liking something. It will make you feel like your life could be just a little better with that particular item that just tickled your fancy. And that’s what really good marketing will do.

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Marketing isn’t sales, it’s communication.

What are we talking about when we talk about marketing?

The meaning of “marketing” seems to become more and more confused every day. Social media hasn’t helped: mere opinions are stated as fact. (Hey, don’t give me that look. I’ve been working in advertising and marketing for more than 30 years. No mere opinions here …)

Marketing titles have also blurred the lines between marketing and sales. “Marketing Director” has come to mean nothing in particular, and everything in general – both sales and marketing in some cases, so that both the roles and functions have become confused. Pure marketing has always been about communication.

But what you’ll see in all the articles and online “marketing groups” is something disturbingly obvious: mystification and misunderstanding of the true purpose of marketing.

Marketing has always been about communication. For communication to work, it must be on strategy.  That strategy must be arrived at before materials are created, and it must be communicated through compelling messaging. To be compelling, the marketing communication must be relevant to the true target audience.

If your message isn’t clear, it won’t get through.

Marketing has been pummeled as a topic. It’s even been turned into a pseudo-science. Shills are selling the secrets to marketing. Get-rich-quick gurus will gleefully guide you to wealth and happiness. Webinars promise you’ll learn everything you need to know about marketing in 90 minutes. (Ha.)

Ever wonder, “if their stuff is so good and so effective, why do they need to sell us their baloney?”

But no matter how complicated we get about it, when you boil marketing down to the bones, it will always come down to:  what are you saying, and to whom.

To achieve clarity in marketing, you have to be crystal clear about what you’re communicating, and to whom. It’s not enough to generate messages. You have to know that you’re sending the right message to the right audience. You have to know – with complete certainty – what your true target audience cares most about.

No matter what you’re trying convey – no matter how complex or arcane – effective marketing requires effective communication.

That means:

1) understanding and clarifying your key message/benefit

2) understanding and clarifying your true target audience

3) defining your key competitive differentiators

4) understanding the messaging of your closest competitors

5) clearly communicating your key benefits/differentiators to your true target audience.

(Hey, this is good stuff, here. Are you getting this?)

If you’re not sure who your target audience is, you’d better find out.

Marketing only works when it’s properly targeted. Example: you’re watching a particularly bad TV show and you begin to wonder, “who watches this stuff?” The answer will appear in the next round of commercials when you’ll find out who the real target audience is. (Sometimes that’s embarrassing.) What you’re selling may have great value to a particular audience, but they need to know that you’re speaking to them.

Here’s the scary part: it’s not enough to build the ideal widget; you need to know if there’s a market out there for that new, improved product. That’s what business plans are all about. They involve research into a particular marketplace and the potential for a new item or service in that finite arena.

True marketing has always been about getting people to march into stores or pick up their phones. Today, of course, it’s more and more often about getting people onto specific Web sites. That’s not as easy to do as it sounds. If your target’s already online, then your home page is a click away, right? But, if you’re wasting their time, they won’t waste a second clicking away.

If your targets are in a car and hear a commercial, or sitting in doctor’s offices and see an ad, they’ll have to care enough to remember your Web address. Tricky. You have to give your true target audience a real reason to visit your Web site. Motivate them and they will remember your Web address.

Marketing creates awareness. Sales seals the deal.

Sales and marketing are inextricably, symbiotically connected. The ultimate job of marketing is to support sales. And the ultimate job of sales is to execute on the promise of marketing. Marketing is about driving awareness and interest. Sales is about closing the deal. They’re connected, but distinct. They need each other, but cannot do each other’s jobs.

The bottom line is that marketing is a sales aid, not a sales tool. Think of it as a support system to help bring customers and sales people together.

Marketing is also at the core of branding – it’s how we create crucial awareness about a product or service within a specific targeted audience. It’s about defining the benefits of your product or service and how best to communicate those benefits.

Marketing creates the tools that support sales. If the tools are not working, sales has to let marketing know and, together, you have to redesign those tools to end up with communication that does work.

If either marketing or sales gets the idea that they’re running the show, someone in charge needs to sit them down, straighten them out and then turn them loose to try it again.



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How does marketing work in L.A.?

The L.A. I grew up in is gone. Los Angeles gave me my start in P.R. and marketing. From working in the record business at Capitol and RCA Records, to pursuing a new advertising career with UCLA extension classes in marketing, my career was formed there.

While at the record companies, I worked with the major movie studios whenever movie soundtracks required it. I got to know Hollywood pretty well. And, in many ways, Hollywood defined L.A.

I just returned from a short trip to L.A., visiting some friends I grew up with, and little was the same. First, the number of cars on the road was daunting, making it extremely difficult to get anywhere at all times. It’s certainly logical that it would be that bad since the state of California has more people living in it than the entire population of Canada … and that’s only using the official census.

More than 40 million people now live in California. And around 17 million of them are in Los Angeles. That’s one factor that has changed the character of the city. Another that’s related is the Phoenix effect: L.A. now has high humidity. When that many people are living and working in a place, running air conditioners, watering lawns, filling pools, etc., the environment has to change. The formerly dry desert environment now feels like San Francisco when the fog rolls in. Damp.

I left L.A. about 30 years ago. It’s shocking how different it has become … and how much like some of the sci-fi visions of a future Los Angeles. It’s not full-tilt Blade Runner yet, but clearly minorities and immigrants are everywhere, so the city’s accent has changed.

As a result, I’d have a hard time advising someone in Los Angeles how to manage a marketing campaign. Target marketing requires having a clear picture of audience demographics. That’s a tough call in L.A. And one of the friends I met with (who left for England when I left for New York City) said that there’s now clearly a separation between “the haves and have-nots.”

New York City has always been a melting pot. That, in many ways, has been what defined New York. Now I have to wonder if Los Angeles is heading the same way. When I left L.A., there were clear target markets: glitzy Hollywood style, upscale (or conspicuous consumption) Beverly Hills style, coastal living style, and “the valley.” Those distinctions seem to have melded and reformed while possibly being displaced by “inner city.”

According to the 2010 census, New York City has just over eight million people living there. That number swells every day with commuters, but they leave at the end of the day. Compare that to the 17 million in Los Angeles – and that’s only the official tally. That could mean 20 million or more people are there. And they never leave.

So I can only guess that marketing in L.A. is a process of “self-elimination.” You put out the message for your product or service and let the right people for your target audience find you. But even so, the level of “noise” and “clutter” that marketing has to break through seemed overwhelming.

I used to think I missed L.A. What I missed was the memories of an L.A. that is no more. What’s there now is a marketing nightmare.

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Is this the future of advertising?

Are commercials leaving TV?

Something is changing, slowly and steadily. Have you noticed? Commercials are moving online as videos, and they’re spreading virally.

An online “commercial” does not have to be exactly 30 seconds or 60 seconds, the way they are on TV. No one cares. In fact, when they’re funny and entertaining you almost don’t want them to end.

This is a major breakthrough. Think about this stunning fact: Volkswagen paid NBC approximately $3.5 million to run a 30-second spot of barking dogs during the Super Bowl. What’s the cost for running a spot online? You guessed it, zero. Production costs are production costs either way, but free air time is the astounding, revolutionary breakthrough.

Some advertising history.

Ad Age sets the date of the first newspaper advertisement in America as 1704. (If you look at a European timeline, it could go back to early Rome.) When advertising first hit the pages of newspapers, it was something of a revelation: you could reach far more people via print than other methods. Online advertising – a very recent phenomenon – is still working out the kinks. But it could change everything.

The options for getting the word out way back when were limited. You could hire somebody to wear sandwich boards or paste posters on walls. In both those cases, your advertisement would only be seen by people who were in the physical vicinity of your signs. Newspapers, however, went far and wide, and were also shared. They proved to be a far more effective method of getting the word out.

And so it progressed, first with the addition of radio and then television. While folks who faithfully listened to early radio shows might grumble about the “announcements” that interrupted their shows, the reality was that there would have been no shows at all without the “sponsor.” Ideas for radio shows were either sold to sponsors or they never got past the idea stage. Television was the same – no sponsors, no show.

The cost of advertising.

Advertising has always had a symbiotic relationship with media. First newspapers, then radio, then television. And that relationship was based on CPM:  cost per thousand. The CPM model refers to advertising bought on the basis of “impressions.” The total price paid for CPM is calculated by multiplying the CPM rate by the number of CPM units. For example, one million impressions at $10 CPM equals a $10,000 total price.

1,000,000 ÷ 1,000 = 1,000 units // 1,000 units X $10 CPM = $10,000 total price

To drill down further to the cost per impression, divide the CPM by 1000. For example, a $10 CPM equals $.01 per impression.

$10 CPM ÷ 1000 impressions = $.01 per impression

That’s a very different model from online advertising where payment is only triggered by an agreed upon event, such as click-through, registration or sale.

The new (cough, cough) paradigm.

Here’s a commercial that as far as I know has only appeared online (and only could have):

Commercials can cost a great deal to produce. I worked on one AT&T spot that hit the million-dollar mark. But that’s still only the cost of production – then comes the cost of putting the million-dollar spot on the air.

The people at Dollar Shave Club have achieved a lot of attention with a clearly low-budget production and a fairly low marketing budget. They needed a Web site that supported their strategy and their approach. And they needed to produce their online spot. All together it sill has to be far less money than a national TV buy.

I think this is brilliant. (FastCompany and Huffington Post, among many others, seem to agree.) Producing a low-cost video then posting it online bypasses the traditional media costs associated with TV commercials … which most of us no longer even watch.

I think this is the future of advertising. What do you think?

(added 5/6/2012:  A fascinating, in-depth, social media story on How McDonalds came back bigger than ever.)

(added 5/11/2012:  A great spot you better watch before they take it down … click the “full screen” symbol and turn up the sound.)


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You’re not paranoid. You really are being followed.

Are we what we buy?

I find myself more and more frequently coming back to the remarkable visions of Philip K Dick, a science fiction author who transcended his genre. He died in 1982 at 53, long before the release of the eight major motion pictures  based on his fiction. In both Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and, even more so, The Minority Report, highly personalized and targeted marketing plays a significant and sinister role.

Dick foresaw a future – nearly our present – where incessant messaging became a prominent aspect of “modern” life. Now it seems his visions, like those of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, are becoming fact. A recent NY Times article describes the use of analytics to do “predictive marketing.” [NY Times February 16, 2012, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.”]

Based on tracking our online purchases, posts and comments (and, yes, that information is available to those who want it) companies like Target can now “target” specific life events and send marketing materials to us based on those analytics. The in-depth NY Times article focuses on “the holy grail of marketing: new parents.” The concept is that when life-changing events occur – such as having a baby – shopping habits can suddenly change and consumers (us) are up for grabs.

Haven’t I seen you here before?

Apparently we (the generalized, averaged “we”) shop habitually – according to set habits that are hard to break. But during busy, disorienting times in our lives we apparently don’t care anymore where we buy certain things, just that we can get them as easily as possible. Target, and other mega-stores, hope that by tapping into our consciousness at those times, we’ll decide that we can keep on going back for other things we might not habitually buy there.

This is not merely theoretical: it’s now a proven fact. However, it is a tad insidious, and Target doesn’t want us to know they’re doing it. Once they got the gist of the NY Times writer’s intentions and subject matter, they shut down communications and prevented him from visiting their offices.

That’s because, according to the article, what they’re doing will only work if they don’t alert expectant moms and their families that they are doing it. If that happens, the fecal matter hits the air rotation device.

The article mentions one very pissed off dad storming into his local Target, demanding to see the manager, then thrusting coupons for Pampers, etc., into the poor, confused person’s hands. The man angrily said his daughter, the recipient of said coupons, was still in high school and was not pregnant. However, when the distraught manager (who had no clue about the corporate program) phoned the man a few days later to apologize again, the father sheepishly said he owed the manager an apology – he had recently learned that his young daughter was indeed pregnant.

Yes, we are being watched.

So, how did Target know when the girl’s own dad didn’t? Online postings and patterns. We are – as Philip K. Dick predicted we would be – being watched. And the people watching are looking for specific patterns and indicators in order to sell us stuff.

I don’t know about you but I’m mostly casual and often incautious when posting online. I assume I’m among friends. When we’re on forums and online groups, we respond in the moment and move on. I don’t usually think about those tweets or forum posts for any longer than it takes to type them. And I’ll bet it’s the same for you.

So are we really only what those rapid-fire posts and updates say about use? Obviously, no, we’re not, any more than Chief John Anderton was what his fellow cops thought he was when he was set up. But it seems it’s enough for desperate marketing departments.

There are, of course, more standard ways to slice and dice audiences, such as motor vehicle registration. It’s reasonably possible to predict who a person is, down to gender and age, based on the vehicle that’s registered. For example, the owner of a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle (euphemistically called a rice burner or a crotch rocket) can reliably be predicted to be a male, between 17 and 24. Certain Buicks and Toyotas can reliably predict age groups, and with the addition of car color, possibly gender. But then there’s the name on the registration. That helps.

Another method is magazine subscriptions. If you want to find a certain audience, traditional methods have been fairly reliable for a number of years. But things are changing, rapidly – both how marketing is being done as well as to whom.

Is marketing evolving or devolving?

This is a bigger deal than it may sound like. It’s not just about Target and it’s not just about selling us stuff. We may not end up running for our lives like the characters in Philip K. Dick stories, but a whole lot more about us will be available to way more people than we ever thought possible, thanks to this tracking trend.

It’s one thing to have broad-based demographics for magazines and TV shows that tell us where to place marketing dollars based on the media content, and quite another to send coupons and offers that are just a little too close for comfort, just a little too personal.

Demographics are based on the population at large, not specific individuals. And they’re typically made up of generalized data. Tracking, on the other hand, is all about us, up close and personal. Do we really want that?

The newly developed practice of “predictive analytics” (… yep, The Minority Report, again) isn’t just about understanding consumers’ shopping habits – it’s about figuring out what’s going on in our lives, and our personal habits, in order to more efficiently market to us, specifically, individually.

As stated in the New York Times article, predictive analytics is “the science of habit formation … a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs.”

Feeling manipulated, yet? Feeling invaded? It will only get worse. Statisticians, scientists and mathematicians have been increasingly in demand at places like Target, Walmart and Amazon.

It’s déjà vu all over again.

There apparently are positive applications of predictive analytics and the studies of habit formation, such as turning around sports teams, improving safety records at manufacturing plants and the ability to diet effectively. But there are also those nasty, “marketing from the dark side” applications.

Am I over-reacting? Well, is this really only about selling us paper towels and laundry soap? I don’t know. We’ve come a long way in limiting the intrusiveness of advertising, perhaps too far. So “they” are fighting back. They’re having a much harder time reaching us via television and radio, or a near-impossible time. And our online reading has been eroding print media at an alarming rate.

It’s been a symbiotic relationship for nearly ten decades. Commercial magazines and newspapers, as well as radio and TV shows, still are unable to exist without advertising dollars. That’s always been the case. But our ability to zap commercials, listen to anything but radio and selectively read what we want online has precipitated tectonic changes in target marketing. Many companies are grasping at the straws of SEO and social media, but find those still-developing alternatives fall far short.

So, they’re constantly working on new tools to achieve sales quotas. As technology advances, so do marketing techniques. We can now be tracked merely by having cell phones, and GPS devices in our cars. Potential employers can see everything we’ve posted online, should they choose to. Do we really want everything we do, say and buy, as well as everywhere we go tracked at all times in the name of marketing?

Sadly, our new lifestyles based on interacting with an online world means that we may lose the great journalists for whom doing in-depth, investigative reporting paid off. Not only is the pay for providing content on Web sites abysmally bad (see my posts about content mills), the newspapers that they wrote for are disappearing.

Of course, everyone knows that television journalism has already been replaced with infotainment. It’s all about ratings, just like sitcoms, not informing the public or the journalistic integrity of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Ever since the O. J. Simpson televised car chase, news has become a spectator sport.

Privacy is less and less so every day.

Our private lives used to be private. Period. No hazy edges to it. We apparently have given that up for the freedom, ease and flexibility of the Internet. As soon as we began spending so much of our time online, privacy stopped being black and white. We have to proactively tell the sites we visit and the search engines we use to not hold onto our data.

The newly developing practice of “predictive analytics” couldn’t achieve anything if it had no data to analyze. Everything we do is being tracked to create that data. GPS. Credit card purchases. Online ordering. And forums. We provide the data.

Will all this tracking become merely white noise to us? Will we simply stop noticing and carry on as if it doesn’t matter?

As of this writing, Google’s privacy policies are making a lot of news. Their purpose in tracking where we go online, which videos we watch, which businesses we visit, and even just plain searches, is not as invasive as it might sound. For the time being, they aggregate data rather than drill down to specific individuals the way Target and others are doing. Their objective is to have data to sell, not our actual e-mail addresses or other personal information. But who knows what the future holds?

Data mining is the gold rush of this era. In a way, we haven’t left “them” any choice. We’ve circumvented the standard marketing options of television, radio and print ads. Pretty much all that’s left of the classic media buy era is outdoor board. And we’ve all learned to not even notice those.

So what’s seemingly free – all that stuff we do online – does have a cost, which we pretty much suspected all along. What they want us from us in exchange for our time online is to know where we go, how long we stay there, what we buy, how often we buy it … and whether or not we’re their target market. So far it’s about selling stuff. Someday soon, though, as Dick foresaw, it could become about a whole lot more.

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Occupy Madison Avenue?

The harm we do.

(As David Mamet repeats ad nauseum,) here’s the thing: advertising is the life-blood of free-market capitalism. It’s the critical building block of our competitive marketplace. Without advertising’s ability to create awareness of options, choices, innovations and benefits, none of the global, powerhouse brands would even exist. None. And the world would be a very different place.

If it weren’t for highly effective marketing, we’d likely have just one brand of automobile, or soap, or burger. We’d likely have just one place to buy clothing. Might as well be communists, right?

But that doesn’t mean that all we do in the name of competitive advantage is good and just. Much of what we’ve done is inexcusable. For one, our profession has permanently affected language in negative ways that may well never be changed back.

Just one example is “think different” (created by TBWA\Chiat\Day … not Apple.) That intentional aberration of adverb use (along with its gap-toothed cousin from AT&T, “rethink possible”) has wrongly taught at least one generation, and infuriated a good many of us.

Another highly annoying example is “lite,” the moronic bastardization of “light” that has become the norm for beer, music, “healthy menu options” – just one more aberration that confuses the hell out of school children. Does this stuff bother you the way it bothers me?

Granted, the English language is highly inconsistent. We say bite, but not nite (or lite … or nite-lite). Bear and tear serve multiple purposes. It takes practice and focus to keep it straight. Knowing and sticking to the rules is the only way to make certain things are as clear as possible.

Language defines us.

So, is it all right to be hip and cool at the expense of language? Be careful how you answer that. To many (me included), language is culture – the very thing that defines who we are.

English in the U.S. is already 400 years away from English in the U.K. We’re culturally distinct. (The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have said that in less than 200 years’ time we’ll need translators.)

How powerful is language? Imagine that one morning every German suddenly could only speak Italian, and all Italians could only speak German. Would they still be Germans and Italians? If that morning had occurred in the 1930s, would there have even been a WWII?

You see where this is heading. Language doesn’t just inform us, it defines us; language conveys our level of consciousness; language is what distinguishes us from all other life forms. So how can ad agencies be so casual about its fundamental laws of use?

The before-our-time Madison Avenue slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” outraged grammarians and educated people everywhere back in the 50s. Yet it stuck. For 20 years. Such is the power of advertising. If you’ve seen it in print, it’s hard to argue against it.

“Winston tastes good as a cigarette should” hardly would have sounded as snappy in the brand-making, RJR cigarette-selling jingle of early television days.

“Think differently” would likely have not had as much of an impact as the entirely incorrect version that has come to define Apple.

But at what cost?

This is your brain on advertising.

The very language that we’re taught and depend on to communicate clearly and effectively is what suffers the consequences. At the very least, we’ll have more and more misguided “copywriters” bastardizing the English (or your choice) language.

What am I talking about? Take a look at these jaw-dropping, grammar-destroying automobile commercials:

Mercedes C-Class Coupe – More power. More style, More technology. Less doors. (Uggghhhh. I can hear the copywriter’s mind working … “People say ‘more or less,’ right? Not ‘more or fewer.’ So it must be ‘less.’ Besides, we don’t want to be less hip than Apple…”)

Honda Civic – To each their own. (Ouch. This noun subject and possessive pronoun disagreement may well have arisen from a desire to be ‘PC.’  … “You know, why ‘his,’ why does it have to be male-oriented all the time? What? Singular, plural? What are you talking about? Let’s just go with ‘their.'” “Yeah, dude, ‘their.'”)

[That’s a whole other topic: if you don’t use a cliché in its original form, it loses its power.]

This slope is very slippery.

See where this is going? See how things are snowballing? As more grammar-flaunting (grammar-ignorant?) “copywriters” decide that they, too can bend the rules, the ill-advised will be increasing the number of the ill-educated. And who’s at fault? Yep, ad agencies.

It must be a conscious decision to warp grammar in order to suit a marketing concept. There’s even a warping of a “rule” to justify it: The Pareto Principle – the 80/20 rule, which originally described how 20 percent of Italian landowners owned 80 percent of the land.

As applied in advertising, the Pareto principle has come to mean that 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of a specific target audience. In the case of messing with language and grammar, the ad agency self-justification seems to be that 80 percent of people won’t care about bad (or non-existent) grammar … or even recognize it. (Shudder.)

Clearly, I’m one of the 20 percent. Are you? Wonder if we should occupy something …

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Social media fatigue and really bad writing.

The sheep in wolf’s clothing.

A great deal of social media is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. There’s absolutely nothing simpler than posting an opinion or an article to a blog, or a brief message on Twitter, etc. Does that mean everything we see and read is trustworthy, reliable … even true?

One of the biggest lies is about SEO. So many folks out there are still shouting that SEO is the end-all and be-all of marketing. But you know better. You’ve been frustrated by pointless search results that bring up mash-ups of rehashed articles that ultimately say nothing of interest or importance. That’s why Google has clamped down on SEO abusers.

And that’s one reason we’re all suffering Social Media Fatigue.

Here comes the research.

The Gartner Group’s December, 2010 and January, 2011 survey of 6000+ social networking users – among the first adopters of Social Media – showed that they’re experiencing fatigue and are visiting social networking sites such as Facebook less often. Gartner’s recommendation:  “Advertising and marketing firms should re-think their stance as this survey might point to the beginning of boredom as a result of the ‘social media fatigue.’”

They said “people are bored,” but they didn’t say “why.” I can tell them. It’s not just about being overwhelmed by too many sites and options multiple times per day; it’s because of the truly dreadful writing you find on so many of the sites. If there actually was good content, would we be so bored? So fatigued?

Professional writers constantly see pleas for help writing “content.” That’s because so many businesses have launched Web sites and Web-based businesses without really thinking through content. So when we get there, we find little of value, and simply click away.

These dolts believe that all they need is “words” to hold people’s interest … any words. So they’re paying SEO and “content writers” to provide said words.

However, most of these so-called writers couldn’t create compelling match-book covers. Bad content is bad content. People will always click away.

Welcome to the Wild West.

The World Wide Web is the Wild West of today. Seemingly, anything goes. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and more and more software comes out every day that does most of it for you … except for creating compelling content.

Think of it this way: you’ve decided to launch a new magazine. It’s going to be a doozy. It will top all other magazines that have come before. So, how will you do that? Could you possibly, just maybe need some really good writing to fill those stellar pages? Are there that many great writers out there with articles at their fingertips to enthrall the throngs waiting for your whopper publication? Sadly, no. (You knew that, of course.)

Listen up people: no content, no audience.

Web sites that are like this fictional magazine are desperate for stuff to fill their pages. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of truly bad writers offering wholly unoriginal, uninspiring content. Once again, we get there, take a quick look around … and click away.

That’s why contemporary marketing departments are stuck between a rock and a mouse click. They feel they have to have a “social media component.” But they’re never entirely sure it’s working. Maybe that’s because it’s not. If it was, you’d know. If we found something tremendously interesting, we’d spread the word in a nanosecond.

The wedding dress story.

Some years ago, a fellow who seemed in every way a down-home, even red-neck kind of guy put his ex-wife’s wedding dress up for sale on eBay. The writing was down-to-earth, straightforward and hilarious. For example he wrote, “I’ve been told that you have to have someone model clothing. Since I don’t have anyone to do that, I’m just putting on the dress myself.” Yes, he had photos of his burly self in a wedding dress. The reaction was likely the textbook definition of “going viral.” It had more hits in less time than anything ever before on eBay. He even got multiple marriage proposals. And the dress sold for a very high figure.

So “social media” can work, if the content is compelling, interesting or relevant. But that’s rare these days. Most of it isn’t any of those things. And that’s why we’re just plain bored with it.

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Is your marketing in the twilight zone?

Marketing is far more than merely making a statement. The if you build it they will come” approach doesn’t work. Seriously. “Hey! We’re here! Come on in!” Seriously?

It takes real marketing to bring real attention to both your business and … your marketing. Because the first job of any marketing worth its salt is to call attention to itself. And hold onto it. The best way to do that is for your marketing to convey not just what you do but also how it benefits your specific target audience. If your Web site is merely an electronic business card, it will only be noticed if you push it into someone’s hands.

In today’s “online first” approach to marketing, many firms are shouting to be heard among billions of others shouting just as loudly. The question is: “how do you make your voice stand out?”

What is real marketing?

Ask that question and you’ve opened a real Pandora’s box – endless answers, opinions and variations will bubble up. Historically, the concept of offering to sell something to someone else was associated with carnival barkers and “snake-oil” salesmen. (Naturally, that kind of history makes us “professionals” want to avert our eyes.)

But marketing is much older than that. As old as rug merchants and camel traders in souks and bazaars – the pre-Christian era, and the kind of Oriental markets that lured Marco Polo. Those, um, business people pre-dated used-car salesmen by at least a few thousand years in hawking their goods as if they were the finest ever produced in their corner of the world.

The point is, marketing has undergone an evolution. It’s evolved from “making claims” to presenting “benefits.” Give people a compelling reason to listen to your pitch and you’re heading toward better marketing – real marketing.

In the 50s and 60s, gasoline companies were led by savvy marketers to talk about “the experience of the road” rather than about the components of their noxious product. That was something big. They were guided into talking about the benefits of using their fine petroleum distillates rather than the gasoline itself. (Eventually, though, they moved on to claim that their ingredients were tops, or clean your engine, or give you better mileage … you get the idea.)

How to get there.

Giving things new names doesn’t always make them better. So beware “branding” experts when entering marketing waters. Building a brand and an identity involves much more than merely a checklist of what current, self-styled “professionals” refer to as branding.

The basic rules of marketing will always apply:  (a) define and refine your core message about your offering; (b) determine your true target audience; (c) determine what that audience needs or wants; (d) determine who else is doing what you do and what they say; (e) make sure you have at least one point of differentiation; (f) make sure your benefits are clear; (g) make sure your messaging “speaks” to your true target audience’s concerns, needs and desires.

What’s happened recently in marketing is a mass move to an online presence led by technologists, not marketers. Many of them claim to be marketing experts, and many of them cry “social media” much like that boy in the fable about the wolf. But they often know not what they say. Social media can never be more than one component of a complete marketing strategy. And it’s still in its infancy.

Remember The Great Oz behind the curtain pulling levers and cords, saying “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain“? That’s a good metaphor for social media as marketing.

Remember who you’re talking to.

We don’t produce marketing for ourselves – we do it for our specific and distinct target audience. So it’s not about what you or I like. It’s about what “they” like. Too often, clients think their tastes should dictate the messaging. But what if your tastes are nothing like your audience’s? Will you lose your audience – and sales – by sticking to off-base messaging?

And if you’ve already dipped your toes into the social-media-as-marketing waters, you’ve already learned that “followers” seldom equal “customers.” You have to do a lot more work to get that pay-off.

Social media may have altered the landscape, but it hasn’t changed the basic rules of marketing. Client, know thy audience.

The model may be entirely Web-based, but is everything? Is your business? Not if you’re in a service business, a retail business or in business-to-business. For those, the classic marketing rules apply. And assuming a Web site and a social media agenda is the be-all and end-all of marketing will land you in the twilight zone of one-dimensional marketing.

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Has social media fatigue set in?

My problems with social media.

Quite recently, Google began severely limiting how several of the largest placers of SEO (search engine optimization) can do business. Why? They finally had to admit that the quality of online searches had been significantly degraded by “SEO tricks” that always placed certain companies (e.g., JC Penney) at the top. People were starting to lose interest in even searching on Google. And, worse, Google was losing credibility.

That’s one problem. The other problem is the very anti-climactic explosion of so-called “social media marketing.” Is it really marketing if it’s social media? Seriously.

Jaron Lanier, one of the original Internet gurus, has himself said that much is wanting in terms of what happens when we view “search results.” His warning is that the methods of aggregating data now leave out the human element. In other words, searches will bring up results, but they may be futile, and worse, frustrating. Why? Because SEO can be rigged, like bad slot machines. What Lanier says is that SEO is ultimately marketing to machines, not people. It’s based on bringing about certain results between computers, not humans.

Sadly, social media marketing can indeed force us to momentarily look at results and ads that are wholly irrelevant, but if a certain percentage of naïve folks click on those links, the SEO “gurus” rate that as a success. It ain’t necessarily so. It’s a numbers game, not a targeted marketing campaign.

The next big thing isn’t really that big.

Very few of the very young proponents of social media know much about advertising. Most of them are technologists, not conceptual creative people. They also know little about recent advertising history. For example, how everything about advertising changed in the 1980s when the Saatchi brothers and then the WPP Group (led by Martin Sorrell, the disgruntled former employee of Saatchi & Saatchi) ran amok with mega-mergers.

The tone, quality, look and feel of American advertising was never the same again once so many professionals ended up on the streets as a result of what the British call “redundancy.” (A very appropriate term since both the Saatchis and Sorrell are British, and are now either Lords or Sirs … follow the money.)

Part of the outcome of all the ugly mergers was the burgeoning of smaller shops, most in places other than New York, Chicago or L.A. Boutiques became more common, and creativity got a second chance at life.

Then, over the past decade, social media started to poke its head out of the horizon. To those of us who came of out Madison Ave. agencies, trained in surgical marketing techniques, we instantly saw social media for what it was: a shotgun approach to marketing or branding. The social media approach is diametrically opposed to the targeted marketing approach.

I know of lots of folks who will claim that you can slice and dice Facebook, Twitter, etc. like other media, but I frankly believe they know not what they talk about. You can also see numbers on how many people drive down a certain highway. That doesn’t mean they’re all heading to your business.

Where’s the science? Where’s the methodology?

My experience has shown that you can’t truly target a specific audience through social media. You can “assume” you have, and you can also “hope” that you’ve attracted the right “followers” for the right reasons. Saying, “dear client you have 5,000 fans on your Facebook page” is ultimately a far cry from buying lists for specific zip codes or doing magazine buys like “Vogue” or “Car & Driver,” or buying TV spots during the Super Bowl.

Just because someone “likes” your company on Facebook doesn’t mean they actually “like” your offering. That’s a whole other kettle of fish. And even if you have 30,000 “followers” on Twitter, what does that actually translate to in sales? (I’m waiting …)

The biggest advances in advertising (e.g. Doyle Dane Bernbach) were symbiotic with the growth and sophistication of research and media departments. Social media is an entirely different ball game, and has very little to do with what was achieved in the best years of Madison Ave. when advertising became both a science and a methodology. The creative was always the wild card, but it could always be measured against a very well-defined strategy to make certain it was at least on target. (Remember creative briefs?)

With social media, you’re ultimately saying the same thing to everyone at the same time. Google Adwords, for example, are very similar to billboards on highways. They have milliseconds to get their message across. And there’s no way of knowing that the exact right people are on that very highway on the very same days when the billboard is up. While clicks are an indication of something, they’re not at all the same as telling us know how long people actually stay on a page, or what they do as a result of “visiting.”

You’re on social media right now, right?

Am I suggesting we ignore social media? Of course not. (I’m doing this blog, aren’t I?) I’m saying that marketing is evolving, and that social media is still figuring itself out. We don’t entirely know where things are headed. What we do know is that we all zap TV commercials now, we listen to anything but radio in the car, and print media is struggling to stay alive. Things on the social media landscape are nothing like the creative for which some of us won One Show, Clio or Andy awards.

We can (and must) create “spiders” with online media, but are their results anywhere as precise as knowing who reads “Nature” or “Sports Illustrated” or ” Better Homes and Gardens?” Clearly not.  Yes, social media results can kinda, sorta tell you who’s searching on “dry skin issues” (although blocking “cookies” defeats that). But it doesn’t help you much beyond seeing numbers for the search. You may know that some folks drilled all the way down to a $2.00 coupon for some dry skin treatment. But then what do you really know? Was there actually a sale, or was there merely someone intent enough to actually drill all the way down?

There are only two ways I can get information about who’s visiting this site: Google Analytics (anonymous) and comments.  The lack of precision is my bugaboo. Along with the fact that social media is largely dependent on numerical averaging vs. real “reader/viewer/listener/visitor” stats about “real humans.” (Back to Jaron Lanier). Alas, what we get more than anything with social media is spam. Put yourself “out there” and the “there” bites back. (I delete around 10 per day.)

The Internet has changed the world. Literally. And social media is one of the outcomes. It’s certainly here to stay. But it’s also certainly far from fully formed. (Infancy would not be a stretch.) When a client asks for links to FB, Twitter, blogs, etc. on their new Web site, I always ask, “Who’s going to maintain them?” “Who’s going to keep the content fresh?” “Who’s going to make sure your spiders are up to date?” Hardly anyone ever knows the answers to those questions.

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What are you selling when you run an ad?

I know, I know.  Sounds like a “duh?” question but, really and truly, it’s not. While everyone will immediately tell you they’re selling their product or service in their ads, my question is “how?”

If your ad is all about price, then you’re selling on cost. That’s kind of like the burger wars. You know, when McDonald’s does their $1 menus? Do you really want to go there against your competition? Selling on price means you have to be willing to duke it out to the end.

Sometimes that can mean undercutting your profit … all your profit. I managed a record store long ago and far away in Santa Monica. It was a single retail location, but the owner wanted to draw people in with a loss-leader. So he’d run a full-page newspaper ad for the latest Stones, or Bowie or whoever album at cost … his cost. The problem was, Tower Records paid a much lower cost for their total volume so they always undercut my old boss. That was a battle he couldn’t win. (And a lesson I never forgot.)

If your ad is all about a limited time offer, that’s kind of like a price ad, but with a limited lifetime. Not good. That’s a sign of a desperate retailer or service provider trying to convince folks that “now’s the time to shop at Crazy Crandall’s.” Now, not only are you trying to woo folks from your competitors with some price incentive, you’re telling them that they only have to care for the next week, or month, or whatever. That message usually goes directly to the delete file.

If your ad is about longevity, how long you’ve been in business, you’re getting warmer, but you’re still not delivering the goods. A message that tells people how long you’ve been in business is a feel-good message, especially for the business, but it doesn’t necessarily convince your true target audience why they should come to you. How you’ve stayed in business for that long is closer to what matters. Have you done it by being better than anyone else? Have you done it because yours is the only business of its kind in your area? Have you done it because you always treat people better? As in fairer and as in no-hassle returns? If that’s the case, that’s starting to look like the real deal.

Sell on benefits and you’re selling for the longterm.

An endless number of businesses have learned the hard way that conveying the benefits of doing business with you is the only way to get and hold onto new customers. Price is not a benefit – it’s too temporary and fraught with sand-traps. If the price is too good to believe, most folks don’t believe it. Meaning they don’t think they’re really getting quality goods or services when it’s “that cheap.”

Short-time promotions also only excite a certain kind of audience – the kind that’s only ever looking for bargains. Do you really want them on your mailing list? They’ll only come in when you’re having a super sale, so you’ll start thinking you always have to have them.

Selling on benefits is the only to have both loyal customers and customers who help you sell by convincing others that yours is the business to go to. Sell on quality, reliability, trustworthiness and fairness and then you can charge enough to make some profit and still grow your target audience.

Quality. Reliability. Trustworthiness. Fairness.

Those are not promises, they’re benefits. If you focus your advertising budget and message on those benefits, you’ll develop a loyal following of repeat customers.

Some years ago the packaged goods companies dug their own sand-traps: they started doing promotions. What happened as a result was not the simple blip in sales they’d hoped for. Instead, they had created a new kind of consumer: the kind that only bought their particular soap, or soup, or frozen goody when it went on sale. The “stocking-up while it’s on sale” approach to shopping changed everything, and the packaged goods companies were never able to go back to “the way things were.”

The “big box” stores were the natural evolution of that approach to shopping. They took the promotion from an occasional event to an all-year deal. And the packaged goods companies will never able to go back to “the way things were.”

The message here is simple: sell on benefits and deliver on the benefits. In today’s excessively price-conscious marketplace, it’s the only way to make your advertising dollars pay off – both now and in the future.

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USP vs. Branding: What’s the difference?

What are you talking about when you talk about branding?

Branding has been the marketing buzzword du jour since the 1990s. However, a great many people use it without understanding its true meaning.

In most cases, when people use the term branding, they’re really talking about USP – the Unique Selling Proposition. That concept was first presented to the advertising and ad agency client world in the 1940s by Rosser Reeves who worked at Ted Bates & Company, one of the biggest ad agencies in the world. It changed how ad agencies approached the business of advertising, as well as how ads themselves were created from then on.

The USP (which every agency claimed to create in their own version) was about finding and focusing on the unique benefit of the product or service that one was advertising. You couldn’t just say, “XYZ is the better detergent,” you had to say “why XYZ is the better detergent.”

The big bang.

USP was the real big bang in advertising. It changed everything and even helped ad agencies develop their reason for being. Clients often couldn’t come up with a USP on their own. Agencies, through diligence and in-depth research, could. The whole idea was to get to the point of differentiation that could be perceived as a benefit by consumers and customers.

One famous example was the initial positioning for Chivas Regal in the U.S. It was, ultimately, just another blended, 12-year-old whiskey from Scotland. The story goes that the agency of record at the time had trouble creating a true USP, so they finally asked, “what does the most expensive blended whiskey cost?” The client responded, “$12.98.” So the agency replied, “Fine, we’ll price it at $12.99 and use ‘it costs more but it’s worth it’ as the basis of our campaign – luxury, indulgence, prestige. Bang. There’s your USP.”

That’s my understanding of how 12-year-old Chivas came to be perceived as “a really fine whiskey” – it was positioning based on a pricing strategy. Similarly, Volvo became “the safe car” even though it was never the safest. (That distinction could likely have gone to Saab or Mercedes.) It was a self-fulfilling prophecy since Scali, McCabe, Sloves’ positioning it as “the safe car” (an extension of their “durability” campaign) meant that people who drove safely preferred buying Volvos, so insurance companies noticed that Volvos had better accident records … which was really not about the car but about how its owners drove.

The branding differentiation.

Branding is not something completely new and different, as many folks believe. It builds on and expands the concept of USP. What branding has added to that proposition is that you must “consistently say the same thing to all people all the time.” What does that mean? It means that a company or organization must recognize that they have an internal as well as external audience. Whatever the USP is, it must be stated first to the internal audience (your entire staff) so that everyone is passing on the very same message to the external audience (your target audience).

It may not sound like a big deal when you break it down, but it has value. I have seen more than one company roll out an advertising campaign or promotion without letting the troops know it was coming. What do you get when that happens? People answering the phones saying, “huh?” Not good.

The consistency dictum.

Branding also dictates that everything – from business cards to stationery to signs to ads – be identical. And that raises the game somewhat that was started with USP. Every message (according to branding gurus) that comes out of an organization, in any way, needs to look the same and sound the same. That, in a nutshell, is branding. The really good agencies have always done that instinctively – now it’s a rule.

I’ve always though that “branding” was created by someone who decided they needed a new tool to compete with ad agencies. There are certainly some smart and sensible ideas behind the branding concept, but it’s not enough – on its own – to build the kinds of great campaigns that USP has consistently brought us. Think Volkswagen, Absolut, Nike. Those were all based on the concept of USP.

Bottom line: branding is the cart, not the horse. You have to start with a USP in order to end up with truly effective branding.

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The secret to good P.R.

It’s not promotional.

Public Relations is a clear, precise, methodical communication function that innumerable people mistakenly equate with promotion. When they do, their “releases” are doomed for the circular file.  No editor will consider anything as a valid press release if it contains hyperbole or promotional language. And attracting the attention of editors is the ultimate objective of any true press release – in print, broadcast and online media.

If that’s not your objective – if you’re actually simply trying to put out some sort of announcement – you might want to rethink your communication piece, and you will definitely not want to call it a “press release.”  Because that means very specific things to very specific people.

Just the facts, ma’am.

The secret to good P.R. is relatively simple: a true press release is always written in third-person, journalistic style and is wholly objective. Its first paragraph always contains the “who, what, where, when, why and how.”  Promotional copy is the exact opposite – it’s entirely subjective, full of adjectives and frequent use of such phrases as “we’re thrilled” or “we’re very excited.”  Those are the kiss of death.

While the formula is simple, it can be challenging to execute unless you’ve been taught how.

How, then, do all those articles from your competitors end up in all those editorial pages?  Why do the publications seem to feature story after story about some company that’s not so different from yours? The  answer – as you surely suspect – is that they have knowledgeable, experienced public relations pros working for them.

What the pros know.

P.R. pros not only know how to write a release that will get an editor’s attention, they also know that relationships with those editors are key to getting both good coverage and … interviews. Yes, the holy grail of every sales effort – the interview. (Kind of like free advertising and an endorsement all in one, isn’t it?)

P.R. pros have lots of media experience and know how to select the pubs that best match their clients’ category; how to sell a story to those pubs, who to promote it to and how to work editorial calendars to your advantage.

Those P.R. pros also know how to successfully set up media interviews and tours, and how to help make trade shows successful.

Good P.R. is more than P.R.

Good P.R. means creating the right editorial climate for clients’ businesses, products and services by influencing the target audience through appropriate media. That can mean a great many more things than just the releases. Things such as:

  • Background materials/press kits
  • Editorial round-tables
  • Media relations
  • Executive speeches
  • Feature articles
  • Case-history testimonials
  • Trade-show support
  • … and News releases

Truly, the biggest problem with press releases is that so few people understand what they are, or what they’re supposed to be. I’ve frequently been provided “press releases” as input for writing projects and have just as frequently been horrified to see entirely promotional copy vs. true releases. Along with a dearth of facts (who, what, where, when, why and how). Too many people just don’t know. But editors do.

What P.R. is not.

Press releases are not ads, they’re not fliers, they’re not trade show hand-outs, and they’re most definitely not akin to wedding announcements. If you actually want something to be a press release, then it’s got to be in classical, third-person, objective reporting style. Period.

Why? So that an editor might drop it in to a publication, as is (the real secret), or use the first paragraph, as is. (The who, what, where, when, why and how of the story.) Send editors promotional garbage and it will go where other garbage goes.

P.R. has far less to do with what corporations want to achieve or say than what news outlets will accept. That’s why a true, classical press release is indistinguishable from an AP or New York Times news story. No hyperbole, no exaggeration. Ever.

Naturally, companies are welcome to put out whatever they want, even dinner napkins. But if they plan to drop something “on the wires” or send it directly to editors, it has to be in the lingua franca of the business. Anything that isn’t is a waste of both your time and your resources.

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Separating the pros from the pretenders: craft.

“That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

With a nod to Truman Capote’s summation of Jack Kerouac, typing is not necessarily writing. Writing is ultimately the practice of a craft.

Anyone who crafts words into sentences, and sentences into the grammatically correct perfection of a thought, a story, a piece of marketing, journalism, technical documentation, etc., is someone who understands what it means to be a writer.

Ironically, while one may have to show credentials or a college degree to be hired as a writer, one can’t really go to school to learn how to write. One simply has to write, lots and lots. Schools can only teach techniques, tricks, methods of practice and examples of good writing. But, just like pottery, it’s ultimately up to the practitioner. And writing requires a very similar kind of centering to reach the inner voice that then can be transmitted.

This thing called the World Wide Web has created the impression that writers are everywhere. They are not. They are outnumbered by typists. The Web has also been steadily lowering the bar for quality of writing. And that is sad. Writing, in so many ways and in so many places, seems to have been reduced to “content.”

It also saddens me that while the world is continually being increased in population, that growing population is less and less familiar with the truly magical power that words on the page have held since the original Egyptians elevated what we do to “scribe,” and Guttenberg first set paper on a press. It was why some of us longed to be writers, and why we struggled to learn the craft.

Before there can be a movie, there has to be a story. And so it goes for every form of communication: the genesis is always writing.

The power of communication.

The author and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu wrote:  “The real technology – behind all our other technologies – is language. It actually creates the world our consciousness lives in.”

This is an astounding summation of the power of communication. From the moment we learn language, most of us begin taking it for granted. It seems that it’s a precious few, like Codrescu, who remain in awe of the ability to communicate our thoughts, feelings, needs and wants.

This awesome power is at the heart of what we writers do for a living. People throw the word “branding” about as if it’s magic dust. Just say it and you’re suddenly creating a higher level of communication. Not so. The real magic is in the language. If the language is not effective, relevant, compelling and consistent, there is no branding. If the message does not hit home in the eyes and ears and emotions of the target audience, there is no branding.

Language is the ultimate tool.

Everything about marketing is communication, whether it’s words, images or sounds. And what is communication if not language? Even when we see a commercial without words, we’re working out in our thoughts what it means and whether it’s relevant to us  And those thoughts are the language of our consciousness.

I almost hate to admit it but brands make up a large portion of our consciousness in the western world, “the world our consciousness lives in.” It was distracting at first to watch the film Minority Report and see all of the brands flash by that were part of that particular time and consciousness. Then I figured out what was bothering me – the sub-text was, “we are what we want.”  Minority Report was, of course, written by Philip K. Dick, the brilliant, visionary sci-fi writer who also wrote Blade Runner. There were nearly identical brand images in that film as well, even though the word “branding” barely existed, if at all, in 1984.

So is it our job to make people and companies want things? I prefer to think of what we do as creating awareness of choices. That’s what capitalism is ultimately all about – the freedom for anyone to create a competitive offering, and the freedom for each of us to choose which competitive offering is right for us.

It is, of course, remarkable, that we can go from using language for reasoning to using language for offerings. But both prove our humanity. Because, in the end, nothing sets us apart from the animal kingdom more than language. Without the ability to communicate effectively, we are hardly human. And that is why language really is the ultimate tool.

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Give clients what they want? Or what they need?

Every professional writer has been faced with the client from hell.  They’re the ones who insist that their marketing materials or Web sites must contain every last detail about their business.  Yes, even the kitchen sink.  If we do what they want, are we really giving them what they need?

Any effective and competent marketing professional knows that we’re writing for the client’s target audience, and that often it’s not about writing what the client likes.

Yes, the client loves reading about their product or service. And, yes, the client can’t comprehend how others may not find that level of detail fascinating. But, if you give in, are you doing yourself a real favor? Or are you just taking the easy way out?

You’re not writing for the client, you’re writing for their target audience.

In the long run, when materials don’t work, the client will blame the writer. If you know that what you should be doing is very different from what you’re being asked to do, it’s well worth mustering up the courage to say so. If your client understands, they’ll thank you. If he or she doesn’t, you’re better off moving on.

Clients frequently need to be educated about the fact they they are seldom the true target audience. It takes a real sense of objectivity to separate oneself from what’s written for one’s company. If you can help your clients get there, they’ll value you all the more for helping them make that leap.

Watch out for “give me something just like this.”

Creating a “me-too” product is bad enough. Creating me-too marketing will only take your work down several notches. (And you may even be helping the competition.) You’ll also find yourself apologizing for samples that remind everyone of “that something else.” Saying, “the client asked me to do that” won’t cut it.

As has been said in every creative writing class ever taught, “writing is about making choices.” Just because the client can’t understand originality and differentiation, it doesn’t mean you should lower your standards.

Making our clients’ product or service stand out from the pack is the ultimate goal of the marketing communications we create. Help your client figure out what makes their offering different or better. Find out what their target audience cares about most. And, if possible, find out what would make them switch.

Don’t wait for the second date.

Find out as soon as possible if you’re going to have creative freedom. And find out if you’ll get the input you need to execute effectively on an agreed-upon strategy. We’re not investigative reporters, even though we often have to act like them. It’s not our job to provide ourselves with input – but it’s usually our job to have to dig for it. That’s because clients don’t always know where the gold lies.

Most clients expect that it’s enough to announce to the world that XYZ Widgets are now available. We know that we have to create both awareness of and interest in XYZ. Especially if the public at large has been using ABC Widgets for years and is perfectly happy. We have to dig for really good reasons why people should care, and why they should try something new. If we do our jobs properly, then XYZ won’t be viewed as just a me-too widget, it will be viewed as an important and valuable addition to the world of widgets.

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Marketing is strategy. Sales is execution.

Marketing’s job is to create awareness

In recent years a confusing, disturbing trend has evolved: marketing is being confused with sales, or being treated as if it is sales.  True, pure marketing has always been about communication. It has encompassed P.R., advertising, promotions, direct mail, trade shows, etc.  It’s about the message, not about closing the deal.

Marketing titles have further blurred the lines between marketing and sales. And it’s a very important line to keep perfectly clear.  But in order to give sales people exalted titles, such as “Marketing Director” (and to avoid the word “sales”) both the roles and the functions have become confused. In particular, it’s brought us back to one of the oldest questions in business:  who’s in charge, sales or marketing?

What Fast Company says:

“Marketing’s primary function should be to develop the market, to create demand for the product or services which results in High Probability Prospects. The primary function of sales-people should be to find and do business with the High Probability Prospects, as they develop.”  [Jacques Werth, co-author “High Probability Selling]

In other words, marketing’s job is to create awareness; sales’ job is to make the sale.

With the blurring of the line between sales and marketing functions, you’ll often find that a “director of marketing” is really a sales person in marketer’s clothing. If one of those hybrids becomes your client, it can make it very hard to create effective communications.

True marketing people understand both the process and the reasonable expectations from marketing efforts. Sales people only expect results. Immediately. That’s not how marketing works. Coke became Coke through more than a century of branding. You don’t get there overnight.

The point is, when sales is in charge of marketing, the true purpose of each is lost.

Marketing creates awareness. Awareness creates sales.

Often, companies get the mistaken idea that sales can do just fine on their own. (“Who needs marketing?”) They get the idea that sales is all they need if they see dollars marching in every time sales people come back. But how often are those sales people doing it all on their own? If they don’t have good marketing materials and support, are prospects really as receptive?

My simile is that sales people are the ground troops and marketing is the navy, pounding the shoreline to make it possible for sales to land on the beach. The troops need that covering fire to make it, but because they’re down on the ground, it tends to look like they did it all on their own. Ultimately, neither one can win the war alone. (O.k., that simile is done.) The simple point is that prospects are far more receptive after they’ve been softened up by really good marketing materials.

And don’t forget that a single piece of marketing can be seen by tens of thousands of people at a time, while a salesperson can only talk to one prospect at a time.

Marketing is strategy.

Marketing has always been about communication. For communication to work, it must be on strategy.  That strategy must be arrived at before materials are created, and it must be communicated through compelling messaging. To be compelling, the marketing communication must be relevant to the true target audience.

(By the way, figuring out exactly who your target audience is must come first. You need to be able to answer, “For whom does your product or service exist? Why will they want it? Who else does what you do? What makes your offering different? What will it take to win?”)

Sales is execution.

Sales has typically been based on making promises. Things go wrong when those promises are at odds with the marketing strategy. That’s bad, very bad. One of the basic tenets of branding is that the very same message is communicated by everyone, in all departments, across the board. If outbound sales is saying whatever comes into their heads to make a sale, you’ve got to rein them in and make sure, absolutely sure, that they’re only communicating the agreed-upon strategy.

Sales and marketing are inextricably, symbiotically connected. The ultimate job of marketing is to support sales. And the ultimate job of sales is to execute on the promise of marketing. Marketing is about driving awareness and interest. Sales is about closing the deal. They’re connected, but distinct. They need each other, but cannot do each other’s jobs.

The most successful sales people I’ve ever known say, “I’ve never made a promise I couldn’t keep.” The most successful marketing corollary is “Never over-promise.” By sticking to truly relevant, entirely believable messaging, everyone will succeed.

Example: if you’re doing an ad for a coffee maker and write, “How to make the best coffee in the world,” it stretches believability and accessibility. It’s over-promise.  But if instead you write, “How to make a better cup of coffee,” you’ve now set a believable, attainable goal (with thanks to Leo Fassler).

Keep them separate, but together.

What’s communicated by everyone in an organization is vitally important – to the company image, and to the brand. If you want a consistent message going out to all your current and potential customers, you have to make sure that your internal folks understand exactly what to say to your external audience.

Sales cannot make up its own version of the marketing message. Marketing cannot remain aloof and separate from sales. You have to talk to each other to communicate and agree on the messaging that works best for everyone.

Marketing strategy is defining the target customer – understanding their needs, knowing the competition, setting appropriate pricing, developing effective promotional materials – and then communicating all of that to the sales team so that they can apply their sales techniques most effectively.

You need each other. Really.

Marketing is at the core of branding – you’re creating critical awareness about a product or service within a targeted audience, and about your specific potential for fulfilling the need for that product or service. Marketing is also about defining the benefits of the product or service and how to communicate those benefits effectively – all of which is given to the sales force to execute on.

Sales is the other end of the stick, using inbound or outbound people to zero in on specific targeted prospects as a result of warm leads from responses to marketing materials.

Marketing creates tools that support sales. If the tools are not working, sales has to let marketing know and, together, you have to redesign those tools to end up with communication that does work.

If either marketing or sales gets the idea that they’re running the show, someone in charge needs to sit them down, straighten them out and then turn them loose to try it again.

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The basics of branding.

Branding baby steps.

The idea of “branding” may sound formidable to many companies. A daunting new task for marketing to add to its plate. I can make it simple for you. A company’s brand is ultimately defined by three things:

  • Competencies – what you do
  • Standards – how you do it
  • Style – how you relate to your marketplace

These are things that need to be both defined and agreed upon before any creative work starts.

Once they are agreed upon, they need to be maintained with consistency across every form of communication – from e-mails to business cards, and from one-on-one conversations to a major marketing campaign. Without that consistency, there can be no brand.

To put it into simple steps, you need to determine:  your message, your target audience, how your product or service benefits them, what the competition is saying, and how you’re better or different. And that, folks, is what branding is all about.

Tag lines rule.

This may raise a few hackles:  to me, a tag line is the heart of any brand. Headlines come and go. Vision and mission statements are useful when you can’t fall asleep. But to know what an enterprise’s brand is really about, look at their tag line.

One of my favorite, short-lived tag lines of all time was from UPS: ”Moving at the speed of business.” When that came out, I thought, “boy, now they’re going to give FedEx a run for their money.”  But what did they do a year or two later? Changed it to: ”Trust brown. ” Trust brown? Their rationale (if there is one) was that they didn’t want to frighten off their non-business clientèle. Umm, no matter what you’re shipping, or to whom, wouldn’t you want it moving as fast as possible? ”At the speed of business” sounds pretty darn fast, doesn’t it? Alas. (Imagine a FedEx did me-too … that might be “Pick Purple.” Ugh.)

And only a tag line can consistently appear in ads, commercials, on stationery, at trade shows … heck, you can even answer the phone saying your tag. (Although I don’t recommend that since those scripted greeting are long enough already …) The bottom line – in my experience – is that tag lines are the hook for everything you do that’s marketing. Choose one carefully because you don’t want to be changing your tag every six months.


There are many “super-brands” in our marketplace today – Coke, Kleenex, Xerox, FedEx, etc. They are super-brands not just because of how they define their product or service, but also because they define their category. That means, in part, that we refer to Coke when we mean most any soda, or Kleenex when we mean any tissue, and Xerox when we mean any kind of photocopying. (It’s good to be a super-brand.)

While UPS is a huge company with a well-established brand, it still needs to distinguish itself from FedEx, even though they are in the same category. We, the people, have given FedEx a significant branding edge by making it common to say “FedEx it,” regardless of how we’re actually going to overnight a package. “UPS it” just doesn’t have the same catchy feel.

I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that the only people who say “UPS it” are the ones who mean just that and only that, while “FedEx it” has become ubiquitous, no matter which company we ultimately use to overnight something. We’ve done the same with Kleenex for years, which was why some years ago they changed their actual product name to “Kleenex brand facial tissues” in order to protect their brand. (Thank goodness for lawyers.)

Branding is not new.

While some “marketing folk” may try to beguile you with their branding acumen, know this:  branding is a repackaging of “USP” – Unique Selling Proposition. USP was invented by Rosser Reeves in the 1940s at Ted Bates & Company.

USP became the standard by which all advertising and marketing agencies would judge themselves and their work:  ”Are you selling the benefits?  Are you making empty claims? Why should people care?” Little things like that. Every agency came up with its own nomenclature for the USP process, but it was all thanks to Rosser Reeves.

The key differentiation that branding brings to the table is the concept of companies having internal and external audiences. To put it simply, you have to market to your own troops before you market to the world at large. This means creating an awareness of your branding and an esprit de corps within your firm while pushing the message out.

Some will go so far as to encourage companies to “live the brand.” I draw the line there, recalling what my European father always said, even after moving to America: ”we work to live, we don’t live to work.”

Now you know enough to cause some serious damage. Go forth and brand.

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