Posts tagged “Audience”

Elements of branding, part two.

Yeah, branding is not really brand new.

Some marketing folk talk about “branding” as if it’s something new. But even the most cursory look will tell you that branding is merely a repackaging of the classic ad agency “USP” process – Unique Selling Proposition.

USP was developed by Rosser Reeves at Ted Bates & Company in the 1940s – about 75 years ago as of this writing.

Not long after it’s introduction, USP became the standard by which all advertising and marketing agencies would judge themselves and their work. It introduced such breakthrough questions as:

  • Are you selling the benefits?
  • Are you making empty claims?
  • Why should people care?

Little things like that. Things that shook up the world of advertising.

Every ad agency eventually created its own nomenclature for the USP process, but it was all thanks to Rosser Reeves. And so is “branding.” Even Mad Men used his ideas.

Welcome to internal and external audiences.

What branding brings to the table that is somewhat new is the concept of companies having internal and external audiences.

What does that mean? You have to market to your own troops before you market to the world at large. This means creating an awareness of your marketing and branding efforts, and an esprit de corps within your firm while pushing the message out.

Some proselytizers will go so far as to encourage companies and their staffs to “live the brand.” I wouldn’t go that far. Because I took my father’s life advice to heart: “We work to live. We don’t live to work.”

It takes good input to have good output.

One of the most important lessons contemporary marketing folk could benefit from learning is that you can’t just make stuff up.

Branding has to be based on real, factual differentiation. That takes work. That takes digging. But it’s important stuff.

Too many branding buckaroos skip right over that part because they never had the training.

In Reality In Advertising, Rosser Reeves defined USP in three parts:

  1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer – not just words, product puffery, or show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, for this specific benefit.”
  2. The proposition must be one the competition cannot or does not offer. It must be unique – either in the brand or in a claim the rest of that particular advertising area does not make.
  3. The proposition must be strong enough to move the masses, i.e., attract new customers as well as potential customers.

Focus on your differentiation.

You may have a service that’s identical to all similar services, but maybe you do it just slightly faster. Speed becomes your USP.

You may have a me-too product that looks indistinguishable from all the similar-looking products, but maybe you build it just slightly better and longer-lasting. Durability becomes your USP.

It’s the job of marketing folk to get to that element of their branding campaigns. Shooting from the hip or pulling any old idea out of a hat does not qualify.

Tag lines are not optional.

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.

That’s something that “branding” folk too often overlook.

A tag line is also a commitment. It’s an embodiment of your identity that should be around for a while. It’s a statement of what you offer and what a customer can expect.

One of my favorites from many years back was the classic FedEx tag, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” [Ally & Gargano, 1982] That really established their brand.

Only tag lines will consistently appear in ads, commercials, on stationery, at trade shows … and they can endure even as campaigns evolve, and headlines come and go.

The bottom line is that tag lines are the hook for all the marketing you do. Choose one carefully because you don’t want to be changing it every six months. You’ll only confuse and lose your audience.


There are dozens of “super-brands” today – Coke, Kleenex, Xerox, FedEx, etc. What makes them super-brands? They don’t just define their product or service, they define their category.

It’s why we refer to Coke when we mean most any kind of soda, or Kleenex when we mean any kind of 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, because we, the people, have given FedEx a significant branding edge. We’ve made it common to say “FedEx it,” regardless of how we’re actually shipping a package.

That’s how FedEx became a super-brand. Lots of folks will say “overnight it,” but few will say “UPS it” – it just doesn’t have the same ring.

*** *** ***  *** *** ***  *** *** ***

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

P.S. If you missed Elements of branding, part one, just click the link.


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Elements of branding, part one.

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 target audience

These things 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
  • how you’re better or different.

And that, folks, is what branding is all about.

What we’re talking about when we talk about branding.

Branding has been the marketing buzzword du jour since the 1990s. However, too many people use it without understanding its true meaning … or origins.

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 largest ad agencies in the world.

USP 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 have created …) was about finding and focusing on the unique benefit of the product or service that the client and agency were advertising.

Once USP took hold, you could no longer just claim, “XYZ is the better detergent,” you had to say “why XYZ is the better detergent.”

The big bang.

USP changed everything, and even helped ad agencies develop their reason for being. Advertising became a process, with specific, scientific steps.

Clients seldom could 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. If there was more than one, all the better.

(Remember “Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 12 ways?” Or Purdue’s “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken?”)

The Chivas story.

The introduction of Chivas Regal to the U.S. is a classic example of USP.

Chivas was, when all was said and done, another blended, 12-year-old whiskey from Scotland, like Johnnie Walker Black Label. (Nothing like a single malt.)

The story goes that the agency of record at the time had trouble developing a true USP, so they finally suggested pricing it higher than other blended, 12-year-old whiskeys and using “it costs more but it’s worth it” as the basis of their campaign.

Luxury, indulgence, prestige. Bang. There’s your USP.

That, folks, is how Chivas came to be perceived as “a really fine whiskey” – it was positioning based on a pricing strategy. Remarkably, that top-shelf image still holds today.

The safe car?

Similarly, Volvo became perceived as “the safe car” even though it never was the safest. (That distinction could likely have gone to Saab or Mercedes.)

Volvo’s agency product positioning became a self-fulfilling prophecy through pure luck – or at least nothing the agency could have controlled.

It was hardly a sexy car when it first came to America, so calling it “the safe car” created a distinct niche. (Good USP.)

However, by positioning Volvo as “the safe car,” Scali, McCabe, Sloves unwittingly made it the choice of people who already drove safely. Soon, insurance companies were rating Volvos as “safe cars” because of their low accident records … which was not really about the car, but rather about how its owners drove.

Marketing magic had happened. Before “branding” even existed. (Some years later, the Ford Taurus took that “safe car” position because that’s what older, more cautious drivers were choosing.)

The branding differentiation.

The point? Branding is not something completely new and different, as too many folks believe. It builds on and expands the concept of USP. What branding has added to that proposition is essentially, “consistently say the same thing to all people all the time.”

What does that actually mean? That a company or organization must recognize that they have internal as well as external audiences. 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 market).

It may not sound like a big deal when you break it down, but it has value. I’ve 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 and saying, “huh?” Not good.

The consistency dictum.

Branding also dictates that everything – from business cards, to stationery, to signs, to advertising campaigns – 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 recommended that as well, and even produced style guides for their clients. Branding simply makes it a rule.)

I’ve always thought 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, Apple, FedEx, BMW. The marketing for those and many, many more breakthrough brands 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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So who is your target audience, anyway?

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To spend your marketing dollars wisely, you need wise marketers.

People who are experienced, knowledgeable and self-confident will tell clients when something they ask for is not a good idea … from a positioning, identity or branding point of view. It’s important to listen to those people. They know what so many clients don’t: you don’t create marketing for yourself. Whether you like something is not always relevant. What matters most is whether your target audience likes it.

Business is usually about profitability. Running an ad campaign or building a Web site that pleases you but does nothing for your target audience is not good marketing. The goal of marketing is to produce results.

To do that, marketers who know their stuff slice and dice the target audience by asking tough questions: How does your product or offering solve a specific need for your target audience? How do your benefits and claims set you apart from the competition? Is your marketing message relevant to your audience’s concerns? What moves the needle for your target audience? How do you know when your marketing is working?

“Hello, is this the party to whom I am speaking?”

Do you know who you’re trying to attract with your marketing? Do you know if it’s working?

Business owners and managers are increasingly counting on technologists to create their only channel to their potential target audiences. Their one and only broadcast message.

They may end up with Web sites that look nice and work well … and so often say so little.

Marketing – real marketing – is much more than that. Technologists often work from the point of view that they’re in a shouting match. That can lead to a “me-too” Web site. The core messages are too often taken from key competitors.

When done correctly, though, effective marketing convincingly conveys relevant, compelling and distinct benefit messages to your true target audience.

Talk to your audience, not yourself.

Understanding your target audience is a key requirement for successful marketing.

One of the first things we learn as writers is that we don’t write for ourselves – we write for our target audience. So we have to cut what will bore them and only keep what will touch them where they live.

Running an ad campaign or building a Web site that pleases you but does nothing for your target audience is pretty much the opposite of a sound marketing approach.

Marketing is both an art and a science, and its ultimate goal is to produce results. To do that, marketing professionals focus on the problems that the target audience wants solved. Then they address those solutions as benefits. And it’s especially effective when those benefits answer your target audience’s key concerns.

Write for them, not yourself.

Copywriters learn fairly early that they need to follow the advice of William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Writers who fall in love with what they’ve written, and are unwilling to change it – even after being told that it’s not relevant – would be better off keeping a journal.

Writing is communication. If your objective is to communicate with a potential target audience, you’d better know what they find interesting … and what they don’t.

It takes good input to have good output.

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.)

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.



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Marketing works because we believe in magic.

Ever wait for a bus?

When I was 13 and waiting for a bus, I kept stepping off the curb to see if the bus was coming. After a while, I started to feel silly doing that. Then it dawned on me that in some way I was thinking I could make the bus come more quickly by looking hard for it.

My 13-year-old mind came to the conclusion that I couldn’t perform magic and the bus would come when it comes. So I stepped back, sat on the bench and calmly waited.

That change in thinking was truly freeing. I didn’t have to “do” anything. I simply had to accept that the bus would come.

About 12 years later, when I began working on Madison Ave., it dawned on me that what we were most often selling was “hopes and dreams” … and belief in magic. Get this or that product or service and your life will be better.

If we didn’t believe in magic, marketing probably wouldn’t work very well.

Are we what we want?

The magic we believe in is that we can be different if we get different things (or go to different places). We believe we can change. And we believe “things” we buy can bring about those changes, and at the same time improve our lives.

That last one was tricky. “We believe we can improve our lives with things.”

There’s no doubt that our lives can nearly always be improved. However, there’s also little doubt that we don’t really improve our lives with “things.”

I’m probably reminding you of a bumper sticker: “The best things in life aren’t things.”

Yes, a better, newer car is nice. So are better, newer appliances. And better, newer places to live.

But after owning any of those things for a while, we realize that there will always be newer, better things. And it’s literally impossible to always have the latest and greatest.

We work because we want.

I know … revolutionary thoughts for a marketing professional. They don’t serve the gods of capitalism.

But can’t we be both consumers and pursuers of true, inner happiness.

I am by no means saying that not having the option to have “things” will make us happier. (That didn’t work out so well for the communist countries.)

I’m simply talking about what actually makes marketing work.

We can decide we need a new car, but then we have to decide what kind we want. That’s when imagining, wishing and searching begin.

Perhaps it’s our millennium’s version of hunting and gathering. Our ancestors knew they needed food, but they may have wanted big game over what was easy. Maybe wanting is in our genes?

Can marketing create wanting?

Our job, in marketing, 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.

Most often, that language is about “wanting.” Wanting can be a hair’s breadth away from needing, but usually beats out needing. In more ways than one, we are what we want.

We work, we get money, we spend our money on what we want, then we have to go back to work to get more money.

While we’re making other plans …

Not everything that we want, of course, has to do with “things.” Wanting is frequently based on practical demands. When we get married, we often need to move … and buy things.

When we have children, we may have to move (again), and buy more things. Such as a different car, along with all the other things that are in fact necessities (rather than “things”) for our children.

So, in those instances, “wanting” becomes much more closely aligned with “needing,” except that the decisions we make on which crib, stroller, car seat, etc., etc., once again opens us up to marketing, along with word-of-mouth, which is often repeating marketing.

In other words, it’s seldom as simple as merely buying a stroller. We usually buy the one “we want.” And the one we want is usually the one with the best marketing and the best reputation … which are often the very same thing.

(For the longest time, Volvo was marketed as “the safe car,” which transformed into “a fact.” Soon, it seemed irresponsible to not own a Volvo if one had a family. And insurance statistics backed that up – Volvos were less often involved in fatal crashes. But … was that because Volvo was the safest car or because people who chose to drive safely bought Volvos?)

Wanting is like falling in love, again and again.

For some folks, “wanting” is like an addiction. It may be what keeps them on track at their jobs.  But it’s also what keeps us on the treadmill.

Falling in love can feel like magic. And wanting brings a little bit of that same kind of magic.

I remember looking through magazines and newspapers while commuting and being less interested in reading articles than in looking for things I might want. A Burberry coat. A Brooks Brothers suit. A Rolex.

The boredom and tedium of work, commuting to work, living our lives according to work calendars – all of that makes us want some sort of reward beyond the pay check. And half the reward can be in the searching for what we want.

Bingo. Enter marketing and advertising to help you along.



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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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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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Grammar matters.

Can grammar affect sales?

I think so. Easy example: if that short sentence above had been written “Can grammar effect sales?” you, being the intelligent sort, would likely have lost interest in whatever followed. Why should you read something by someone who can’t write?

Same goes for food. Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?

This could go on forever, alas. (Just Google “signs with bad grammar.”) Seen in a church: “No Confessions To-Day.” (Ummm ….) Seen in a car dealership: “Certified Pre-Owned Nissan’s.” (Uh-oh.) Seen in a restaurant: “Please Seat Your Self” (Noooo …)

Too many business owners don’t realize the critical importance of correct grammar and professionalism in marketing and messaging of every kind … even menues. Every printed message tells people who we are, what we’re about and how much or how little we know about grammar.

The fact that you might have been bored in school and have some trouble remembering the difference between “to” and “too” or how to use apostrophes doesn’t have to stop you from presenting a professional, polished image to the public. Just hire writing help. That’s all it takes.

The problem with ‘no problem.’

A non-print example of crumbling language use is the now ubiquitous “no problem” restaurant server response. It always leaves us shaking our heads. Why, you ask? This imaginary exchange posted by Graham Guest in a LinkedIn group may help explain:

“I’d like the steak with fries, please.”
“No problem.”
“I wasn’t anticipating one! And a beer please.”
“No worries.”
“I’m very pleased for you.”

Some establishments are attempting to train the “no problem” problem out of people by educating them as to what they’re really saying with that bland expression – how it bears no relationship to “my pleasure,” or “you’re welcome,” and is an entirely inappropriate response to “thank you” in a service situation.

Surprisingly, when I posted about this in some LinkedIn grammar and writing groups, a lot of people responded that they don’t see the problem with “no problem.” They “understand” what the server means. Bad sign. To us, “no problem” means “I don’t mind that you troubled me for a glass of water,” or “I don’t mind that I had to bring you the food you ordered.” It in no way indicates gratitude for one’s business, or even one’s saying “thank you.”

When we hear it (more and more each day) we know two things: a. you aren’t actually thinking about what you’re saying, let alone understanding the meaning of words; b. you weren’t trained at all by management. And that makes us wonder, “what else is lacking here?”

(Maybe it’s an Americanization of the down-under “no worries?” It might also have arisen out of the Spanish de nada, although no server in any decent Spanish restaurant would ever dare say de nada to a customer. That would be recognized as outright rudeness.)

Commas change everything.

The importance of commas can’t be overstated. Their role in assuring clarity of communication is vital. Equally, their over-use and misplaced use can cause endless confusion. When I’m editing client copy, I often find commas stuck in odd places that could only indicate a pause when speaking. But written text is not spoken text. So it’s most often a mistake – and grammatically incorrect.

Commas are actually quite simple: they separate parenthetical thoughts, and they separate a series. They are not intended to indicate a pause when reading.

How critical is a comma? Take the recently photoshopped cover of Tails, a pet magazine, that made the rounds of the Web with Rachel Ray on the cover and this doctored (series) quote:  “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.”  Someone had removed a single comma after “cooking,” which made all the difference.

Commas matter. Properly used commas matter most. The person who perpetrated the joke understood that, even though he or she is a dunce.

Hire proof-readers.

Proper proof-reading protects your reputation. Without proof-reading, we look unsophisticated at best and ignorant at worst. We all need proof-readers. There are some simple, basic mistakes that our eyes simply miss. When glancing rapidly at text, we’ll skip right over things like “the the.” (I do.) And spell-check can often make things far, far worse.

Here’s a doozy from The Washington Post that would have made it past spell-check: “After the iconic and illusive Apple chief executive died last year, Wired magazine submitted information requests to the Pentagon and FBI for copies of Jobs’s secret records. Top Secret, actually.”

The first comment posted after the article sums things up nicely: “Jobs was ‘illusive’? It seems any hack can get a job with the Washington Post these days, as writer or copy editor. Where can I submit my resume? I would never let a bonehead error like that get by me.”

It’s shocking how often I spot typos in the digital versions of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other once-honorable pubs. They’re clearly using kids for the e-mail alerts that go out each day with headlines, and they’ve cut proof-readers. It shows. And it’s embarrassing.

Blame it on spell-check? Stupidity? Hard to know. What’s clear is that proof-readers are worth their weight in Au.

Oldie but goodie: NY Times on typos

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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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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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Guns don’t kill people, bad ads do.

We’re at a crossroads in marketing – real “marketing,” by the way, as in communication, not sales. On the one hand, you have the rabid mob screaming “social media,” and on the other you have the voice of experience, wisdom and reason saying, “hold on, there bubba, social media is still just one, small component of a total marketing strategy and campaign.”

By the way, this is a true crossroads: there are four directions from which to choose. In addition to understanding the difference between “social media” and “targeted marketing,” anyone who manages marketing is also facing a decision on whether to hire “technologists” vs. true advertising and marketing professionals.

What’s a technologist? 

Ever since the Mac was introduced, software has been following which automates the creation of all things communication – ads, posters, brochures, flyers, Web sites, etc. Much of that automation software became available to PC owners as well. The result is that a great many of the folks who call themselves designers and writers are, too often, simply owners of hardware and software. “Technologists” in my book. Many can do an adequate job, but they will also have a limited repertoire of designs and approaches. Especially if they’re self-taught.

Of course, none of those folks think of themselves as “technologists.” So you can’t find out just by asking. How can you tell the difference? With some basic, pointed questions: “Got any formal training?”  “Where have you worked?” “Got any clients who can provide success stories?”

Things can get tricky, though. Everyone is using the technology now, even those of us with training and expertise. So the fact that designers and art directors use hardware and software doesn’t necessarily make them “technologists.” To know the difference between the pros and the pretenders will take a little digging.

(Here was a sure giveaway: one of them, an impertinent young pup, referred to print materials as “offline” marketing. Harrumph.)

The advertising Catch 22.

In the days of David Ogilvy, one couldn’t get a job in advertising unless one already had one. Tricky, isn’t it? That was still going on when I finally got to Madison Ave. How did we overcome that? That’s a secret. (O.k., I’ll tell.) When you didn’t have actual samples from actual jobs, you had to create your own. You had to prove yourself. You had to run a gauntlet, many times over. And then you had to watch your back while everyone around you was eyeing your office. (Ah, yes, those were the days.)

It wasn’t all fun and games, though – you actually got one hell of an education.  After a dozen years on Madison Ave. you could take on any Harvard MBA, and win. They couldn’t slice and dice your presentations and campaign positioning because you’d been through the ringer in-house before you ever got to the client’s offices. You knew exactly why you were recommending a specific direction and ultimately so did your client. (Not quite the same with many of the “marketing folk” vying for your business today.)

Is “new” always “better?”

New is often just “new,” and not automatically “better.” Although everyone has heard the expression “snake oil salesman,” everyone still hopes for magic and is desperate to believe that it’s out there. So when the social media bandwagon showed up, everyone was ready to jump on it, hoping it was a magical shortcut to quick riches and fame.

But the basics of marketing haven’t changed one iota. (The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.) Whether you’re using Twitter or Facebook or your own Web site, your messaging has to be compelling and relevant to your true target audience. Without that, you’ve got zip. No matter how many “followers” you may have.

Anyone who works in any form of marketing or communication can’t help paying attention to what’s going on in the world. Whether it’s technology innovations, or business trends in our areas of expertise – we simply have to notice, and we unavoidably must have an opinion.

Who let them in?

It’s becoming more and more challenging to achieve quality in communications because of how many non-professionals are cluttering the field. The Internet has not only changed everything, it has also kinda, sorta leveled the playing field … by bringing the bar down to barely inches above the ground.

What a lot of them don’t get is that branding isn’t a single event, it’s an ongoing, never-ending process. And every marketing decision you take can make or break your brand.

Why choose a pro over a non-pro? Maybe an analogy would help. Let’s say you decide you’d like to be trained to shoot. Would you prefer to be trained by someone who had bought their first gun last month, or someone who’s been through all the military and police training available on all kinds of firearms? That’s pretty much the situation that people in your marketing shoes are facing today.

Remember, guns don’t kill people, bad ads do.

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Whose New Year’s is it, anyway?

Our calendar is barely 430 years old.

Any marketing person with training and experience begins any assignment by looking at context and environment – perspective. I can’t help approaching New Year’s that way. While we may think our calendar is now 2,012 years old, it is in fact (as of this writing) only 429 years old, and was created not to mark the passing of 365 days of our revolution around the sun, but rather to know when to celebrate Easter.

As you likely know, the calendar we use is the Gregorian calendar, also called the Western or Christian calendar because it’s based on significant dates in the Christian bible. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull, a decree, signed on February 24, 1582, and took several centuries to be adopted throughout the western world. The motivation for the Gregorian reform was that the Roman Julian calendar placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a year) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Pretty cool stuff for 1582, huh?)

That 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries, which 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 what that meant, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church.

Easter, by the way, was calculated 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 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.

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 slowly adopted over time through much of the world. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on 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?

2012 may well be the year that globalization truly takes hold. We, in the U.S., have come to grips with the fact that we are no longer an island unto ourselves, dictating “what comes next.” Our clothing, computers and customer service (sadly) can come from anywhere in the world … and usually do. 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 has taken a monster lead on the global stage, moving 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.)

So, bearing 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 follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, which were both based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2011 was 4708 (or 4648 depending on their epoch starting point). For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2011 was 5771. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2011 was 1433. 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.

That 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 we’re all a year older. And the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated the same way by all people on earth. Perhaps some of the old Roman 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, or lost. And we look forward to the next calendar event, such as a religious holiday or vacation, 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 measure 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. Days and years are actual markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact measure simply the passage of time as it relates to us.

Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” One twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns; 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.)

It’s all relative.

My point? 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.

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. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the actual calendar we use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, 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 very recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event. 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.

New Year’s resolution? Nah, thanks anyway.

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



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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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Communication: Practical Magic

The title of this article is from Abe WalkingBear Sanchez, who posted this on LinkedIn: “Words are magic. The very idea that by making sounds we can paint pictures in the minds of others, is magic. We choose whether we practice white or black magic.” – Jack Brightnose, Cree Medicineman.

That post really made me sit up and take notice. A writer’s life is all about communication, yet how often is it about the magic? WalkingBear’s teacher knew a great deal more about what was to become my life’s occupation than I did. I’m sure I had some teachers along the way who understood what Jack Brightnose taught. But what I remember most was their individual preferences for certain authors and certain kinds of phrasing. Not the reverence for the pure power of words shown by Jack Brightnose.

The dark side is always there.

Everything we do in marketing is about communication. But everything we do often becomes so habitual that we forget about the magic of words. In the world of marketing, the ultimate objective of communication is to influence, and perhaps sell something. In many cases, such as tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals, that’s leaning toward black magic – designed for profit, not for the good of the public. And I’m not making judgments about tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals – I’m talking about how they’re sold, how the words and images are used.

This is the dark side – the black magic – from which we professionals avert our eyes when asked to write copy for things that we might never ourselves purchase, or allow anyone in our family to use. It’s always there, in the background. And it’s hard to avoid when you enter the world of business. After all, that’s why agencies are hired, to help sell stuff. And as soon as anyone is trying to sell us something, motives become questionable.

Clearly free will was taught by Native Americans. Our choices define us. If we choose to profit by using words to convince people to buy our stuff, stuff we know can harm people, we have chosen black magic. But somehow that has been completely forgotten. The idea of profit as justification has wedged itself between white and black magic like some form of religious indulgence. In modern society, the profit motive excuses the intentional use of black magic.

Communication makes us human… sometimes.

What struck me when I read what Jack Brightnose had taught WalkingBear was how little respect is left for the magic that is communication. It’s virtually the only thing that sets us apart from the world of beasts. Sure, we have clothing and automobiles and iWhatevers, but would we have any of those things without the ability to form and understand words? Clearly not. We’d still be among the beasts, with bodies covered in hair, as we foraged and hunted for food and shelter.

Words lifted us out of that prehistoric life. Words gave us the lives we have today. It’s a little disheartening, though, to think that in only a few thousand years we went from “In the beginning was the word …” to sitcoms. No doubt that particular road to hell was paved with a loss of respect for the magical power of words. Instead, the shine of silver and gold became the lure, and the use of words to get the booty became the meaning of the words, not the magic inherent in communication.

So choices had to be made and we made them. Landing and keeping jobs became the new hunting and gathering. And we’re often asked to make tough choices as a result. The words used to force us into those choices are definitely not white magic. If only it were easier simply to walk away.

Can’t forget why we communicate.

Am I undergoing some sort of religious awakening? Nah. I’ve simply been reawakened to why I first fell in love with words when I was a boy. WalkingBear’s post reminded me of that. I’m sure the magic was what attracted anyone who chose to live as a writer. But being reminded that there’s always a choice between white and black magic is the real awakening.

In an almost indefinable way, I think that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets its mojo from calling people on their misuse of communication. He calls out liars and connivers and deceivers. He pulls back the curtain to reveal that The Great Oz is in fact a fake. And we all instantly recognize the truth of the revelations. We laugh, but recognize that what we laugh at is tragic. His show reminds us that we’ve learned to ignore the deceptions, because they’ve become standard operating procedure. We don’t pay attention, until our attention is drawn to the deceptions.

The Internet has both exponentially increased communication and brought it down in ways we could never have imagined. Not long after the explosion of the Web onto our psyches, it became obvious that sites (early on given the ludicrous euphemism “portals”) were only of value if they provided relevant information. Content (could there be a more demeaning term for writing and communication?) became critical. Site owners became desperate. So “content writers” were born, largely manipulators of existing content into mash-ups. Most of them are rank amateurs, often linguistically challenged, who are apparently happy to make a few dollars per day.

Here’s another fascinating quote that goes beyond marketing: “All poetry begins as self-expression. But if I only write for myself, who’s going to want to read what I’ve written except me? I tell my students that, at some point, writing stops being self-expression and starts being communication, or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.” – David Kirby [Kirby’s “Thirteen Things I Hate About Poetry,” in Lit from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art & Craft of Writing].

That was from a post by Erika Dreifus who has a blog and newsletter titled “Practicing Writing.” And it’s about the other side of what Jack Brightnose taught: in order for words to be magical, we have to remember that we’re not using them for ourselves alone – we’re using them to communicate, to paint pictures in the minds of others.

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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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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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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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Five steps to creating marketing campaigns that work.

The most important element of marketing campaigns is effective communication.  Marketing, after all, is all about communication.  Effective communication is the only way to produce positive results.

How can you produce effective communication? By understanding that communication is a science. What’s more—as in any scientific field—there’s both a methodology and a sequence that need to be followed in order to achieve a stated goal.

The methodology for marketing is a sequence of steps based on critical questions. The people handling your communications need to know which questions to ask at each step.

The answers to those questions are essential for the people who write, design and execute a finely-tuned marketing program.

“If you build it, they will come” has led to many a business failure. The rule that businesses have learned the hard way is “if you create awareness, they will come.”

STEP 1: Define your message.

  • What is it about your product or service that needs communicating?
  • What sets your product or service apart?
  • What specific need does your product or service fill in the marketplace?
  • Who else is out there offering a product or service like yours; how are they doing?

This can’t be a haphazard attempt:  this is your USP, your brand.  The message needs to be clear, concise and compelling. And, most important of all, you’re not producing the message for yourself—you’re doing it for your target audience.  So it’s not about what you like or what folks in your company like; it’s about what your target audience likes and will respond to.

STEP 2: Define your target audience.

Once you’ve defined your key message, you need to know to which audience it will be directed.

This is not based on whimsy. The only way a product or service can succeed is if:

  1. It fulfills a specific need for a specific target audience
  2. You make the specific target audience fully aware of the existence of that product or service (which, by the way, is the key role of any communications effort).

These are the questions that need to be asked in order to arrive at your true target:

  • Who’s the key audience for your product or service?
  • What’s the key benefit to that audience?
  • Is your product or service something they’ve been wanting, or is it entirely new?
  • Who’s the competition? What’s their track record?
  • What’s different about your product or service?
  • What will it take to win?

STEP 3: Determine an adequate budget.

A base rule of thumb is to assign at least 5% of gross sales to marketing communications. But, remember, the most successful companies are spending an average of 15%.

The key here is to realize that it’s not enough to create great advertising—it needs enough exposure and time to be seen and assimilated. For advertising to work and build, it needs to be a sustained effort.

STEP 4: Establish an effective tracking system.

Most sales people in most companies typically ask the marketing people, “How will I know the advertising is working?”

One way is to have a “response mechanism.” For example a business reply card (BRC) in a magazine, or an 800 number in broadcast and web site advertising. In all cases, however, it’s essential that leads be tracked from their origins.

The BRC, for example, would be coded so you’d know which publications are pulling the most; the 800 number should be a dedicated number that makes it easy to track the source of calls. The Web site should have a response field for “How did you hear about this site?”

Another way to track the effectiveness of your communications efforts it to track sales for a measurable increase.

Once again, advertising is a slow-building process. It may take several exposures of an ad or commercial before results are seen. But once the momentum is established, the speed can be maintained.

STEP 5: Plan an on-going campaign to maintain ongoing sales.

Advertising is not just a kick-start for sales.  It can actually be the engine that drives sales cycles by creating and maintaining awareness .

The way to convince those who doubt its effectiveness is to ask, “How many additional sales people would it take for us to match the kind of exposure our marketing communications are giving us?”  A single ad can expose your product or service to thousands or hundreds of thousands of people at one time.

Once you’ve seen that what you’re doing works, you need to understand how to keep up the pace and—if you’re ready—how to increase it. Important caveat: don’t increase demand when you can’t match it with supply. Advertising works. If you’re not ready to meet the demand it can create, you can do more harm than good.

There are multiple ways to get the word out, including online. Ad placement is a science and needs to be carefully considered, preferably by media placement professionals who understand demographics and target audiences.  Allowing yourself to be persuaded to advertise by a sales rep at a publication or media company most often turns out to be just like the definition of a boat:  a place in the water where you throw money.


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