It’s been a while since I last posted (been busy building a second business – <a href=”http://www.myweddingworkbook.com/lp/wedding-software.html” target=”_blank”>wedding software</a> for engaged couples and <a href=”http://www.myweddingworkbookpro.com/how_it_works.cfm” target=”_blank”>professional wedding planner software</a> for bridal consultants) but I’m back in the saddle and ready to post in 2010.
So, I just started to dive into a true treatise on, of all things, basketball. By the ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, it’s aptly titled The Book of Basketball, and it must say it’s very entertaining thus far. There’s one part of the book when he recounts the time when he met Isiah Thomas and the two of them waxed nostalgic about the championship Pistons teams of the late 80s/early 90s. When asked why that team succeeded, Thomas said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Most teams have 2-3 great players, but if you stop them then they lose. We wanted a team so that we had 8-9 guys all with special talents that you had to stop.”
This got me thinking about how most businesses set themselves up. Most companies hang their hat on one or two attributes, qualities or innovations. While I can appreciate the work involved in coming up with one or two angles or differentiating attributes, in most cases it’s pretty easy to copy one or two attributes. But seven, or nine, or twelve? That’s a whole other level of difficulty (we’re talking Chinese diver levels of difficulty). It also means you have your work cut out for you if you truly want to maintain a market advantage over a long period of time. But isn’t that a great challenge … come up with a dozen ways in which you can set yourself apart from the competition and make your company as bullet-proof as possible? I’m game if you are…
When you go to a party, who do you remember? The people on the other side of the room who avoided eye contact with you? The guy who babbled on incessantly about his online gaming hobby/habit? Or the woman with the short haircut and garishly colored skirt who told a vivid story about her adventure in the Amazon rain forest while gesticulating with her hands in an exaggerated fashion and imitating the noises of the animals she saw? Definitely the last, and for good reason … her personality came through and made her different from everyone else.
The same goes for brands, and even small business brands. Those with strong, well-articulated personalities are the ones people remember after they have left the party/store/Web/insert venue here. But the odd truth is that most brands bend over backwards not to reveal a personality. It’s as if they believe that showing any sign of character, any peculiarity or even quirk, will be seen as a flaw and not simply a differentiator. Here’s a little secret that the best brands don’t want you to know – people like peculiarities and quirks. It makes brands more human and gives people something to relate to. Plus, if you’re as boring and flat as the next brand, why should they bother paying any attention to another stiff?
But Jeff, you say, what if I have a boring product or service, like, say, housecleaning? Well, just because what you offer is boring doesn’t mean how you provide it or who you are should be just as insipid. You could be the singing housecleaners, the houscleaners who leave an inspiring note for customers to find after each cleaning, the charitable housecleaners who will also haul away appliances, furniture, etc., and donate it to charities. Any one of these things starts to reveal a personality beneath the feather-dusters and sponges.
I’m halfway through reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide – which is a very intriguing book that any marketer ignores at their peril – and one of the many things that has already stuck with me is this nugget – the pain of losing something (money, prestige, etc.) is always stronger than the good feeling of gaining something. This means that if a person loses $10, that feeling is twice as strong (or more) than if they gained $10.
This speaks volumes about marketing and branding, because it speaks directly to risk avoidance. People will go far, far out of their way to avoid a bad purchase, deal, wager, etc., even if it means accepting less of a gain or maintaining status quo. You see this all the time when customers pick the brand with the biggest market share, the brand that’s been around the longest, the brand that other similar businesses have chosen. That’s because, although these brands may not be the best, coolest or highest rated, because of their common use and heritage, they seem less risky than other choices.
If this is true, then what’s a small business to do? You certainly can’t compete with the biggest, oldest or most reputable/established businesses in your industry. However, you can do one thing better than many big companies: because of your size, you are nimble and agile enough to innovate your way into a customer’s life. See, in this day and age, it’s actually percieved as risky by many customers to buy something that’s not forward thinking, mostly because people don’t want what they buy to become obsolete or out-of-date. Such a purchase would be painful for a few key reasons. 1) The customer may have to purchase an updated product sooner than they want, leading to loss of money. 2) The person’s self-image takes a blow because they must admit to themselves that they weren’t a prudent shopper. 3) The person may feel left out because what they bought isn’t like the better product(s) that others bought.
Simply put: Innovation enables the small business brand to compete with the big boys because it gives you a way for your customers to avoid risk in buying your product or service.
In sports you always hear announcers talking about momentum. Alike in business, you hear about companies with momentum, riding some combination of innovation, timing, good decisions, great service, some luck, media attention and several other factors into a commanding market share. And everybody is jealous. I must admit that I often cringe when I pick up my copy of Fast Company to see what 23 year old is riding momentum into a massive payout. Momentum is what everyone wants … but nobody really knows how to get it.
You can certainly put some pieces in place to help you when momentum arrives – talented staff, streamlined processes, outstanding customer service practices, a mindset of innovation – but lots of companies have all these, and they too are seeking momentum. So what can you do to create that groundswell that leads to and onslaught? The first thing is a dramatic shift. Doing something merely different isn’t good enough anymore. It must be dramatic, in that there is some sort of appealing story behind it, and it must be a shift, which implies a change of direction in how things are done.
The second thing is that you need to stick with this for a long time. You might think that companies that have momentum are startups that catch a lucky break in an emerging industry, but what you are seeing online with companies like Google and YouTube and Twitter is rare and not the norm. Most companies are carrying out their dramatic shift for years before enough people take notice to create that critical mass you need to create momentum. The question you have to ask yourself is “Do I have the patience?”
Recently, one of our credit card companies said they were discontinuing a particular rewards card product because it wasn’t worth carrying anymore, and they told us our account would be closed within a month, not providing us with any viable alternatives. We called them, saying we had been loyal and very good customers and would like some similar type of account. Although the rep acknowledged this and said she wished there was something she could do, all she could offer was a card with a crappy rate and average terms.
This is a common scenario in these hard times. When the economy was flush, companies bent over backward and exteneded themselves to reach out to all types of customers. But when the going got tough, these companies couldn’t run away from their B and C customers fast enough. Which tells you a lot about what a company values – money over relationships.
This might work for a quarter or two, but in the end, a company’s brand – and long-term prospects for success – hinge on nurturing and sustaining its relationships with customers. With the damage these shortsighted companies have inflicted upon their brands, they would have been better off rejecting these customers from the get-go if they weren’t an ideal match. But here is the difference between brands built to last and brands built for the moment. The former are built with a purpose beyond money; the latter are built for the sole purpose of making money.
Yesterday at the office we received a box delivered via UPS. There was no return address, and after I opened it up before me was a half-dozen “cookie” flowers, which are gourmet cookies affixed to faux-rose stems. They were bound by a ribbon that had a company logo printed on it, so I went to my business partner’s office and asked him if he knew anything about this company. He smiled and said, “Oh, yeah. That’s company called and emailed me to see how I liked the cookies and how cool I thought their ideas was. Looks like they finally arrived.”
I was wearing a big pair of grumpy pants yesterday, so at first I was irked by all the waste (i.e., unrecyclable materials) that they just produced to try and impress us. But then I got even more peeved because what we were sent has absolutely nothing to do with what this company actually does, which is provide Web-based software to PR firms (heck, we’re not even a PR firm, so they better clean their list before they send out another mailing). I initially thought this was a bakery sending me their wares or a promotional items company offering a glimpse of their wares. But a PR software company sending me a cookie gram? Now that’s a marketing non sequitur.
What do cookies and PR services have to do with each other? Nothing. All this shipment showed me was that this company was willing to throw away money on a lame idea in an attempt to impress me. For me and the rest of the population, it takes imagination and moxie as well as some good linear thinking (meaning that the tactic should somehow relate to your product service) to connect with us. Anything else is, at best, a sad waste of resources and, at worst, an insult. So next time somebody comes up with a hackneyed idea to give away a golf club at a trade show, unless you’re in the golfing industry, think a little bit harder on how you want to promote yourself.
Quick thought …. Would you walk up to a stranger on the street and launch in to a diatribe about your product? As you sit on the bus or subway, would you nudge the man next to you and try to engage him in a conversation about the benefits of your offerings? If you got an e-mail from a friend with some cc’d e-mail addresses of people you hardly know, would you e-mail each of them personally to introduce them to your services?
In each case, the answer is certainly “no” (unless you have no boundaries and sense of self-awareness, which would make you perfect for sales … oooh, that was mean.) So if it’s not okay to importune yourself with these people individually, then why is it okay to market your brand to them in the same fashion? Our mass communications have set an unfortunate precident of making it not just permissable but laudable to market to strangers in any method possible to increase revenues. And the returns on push marketing are starting to either flatten or decline for the same reason that you wouldn’t interrupt a stranger’s day. Nobody likes a pest; figure out how to get introduced and make them your friend before you pitch them.
You might have an innovative product, a moving story, spot-on pricing, the perfect channel, but if you don’t have the right timing, then you ain’t got squat.
Timing is a critical part of branding that rarely ever gets mentioned in branding books, probably because brand gurus don’t want to talk about something that they can’t precisely control … that might make them appear less of an expert. Yes, you can influence a brand’s timing somewhat, but the game you play with timing is often more reactive than proactive.
For instance, when and how forcefully you respond to a competitor’s move is a timing issue that many businesses face. In some scenarios you may be better off making small improvements and getting something to market faster, while other occasions may call for waiting to release a massive new product that blows everyone away. It depends on the economic climate, the customer base, the competitor’s position, and a number of other factors you must consider.
Even small timing scenarios can make a big difference. You may only have 1.5 seconds to get someone’s attention in a retail setting, so that timing directly influences how you design your packaging and purchase shelf space. The events that trigger when customers will need your product or service is also a timing issue that must play into how you build your brand and where people encounter it. Plumbers, electricians and locksmiths have always bought big ads in the yellow pages because they knew that’s where people would turn for their services; people don’t have time to call their friends for a referral when it’s 2 am and their ceiling is sagging with water. That’s timing. (Now people are going online for this information, probably because the Web is faster than the yellow pages, which itself is a sort of timing issue.)
So how have you built timing into your brand paradigm and your marketing plan? It’s probably in there, buried in the logic, but I’d suggest sitting down, creating a list of your critical timing junctures and identifying specifically how your brand will address each one. This way you can put timing on your side (sorry … couldn’t resist the bad pun).
Today my mom had outpatient foot surgery, so when I was waiting at the hospital during her surgery, I strolled over to the cafeteria for a late breakfast. It was just after 10am, and when I walked into the serving area, there was nobody manning the grill ordering area. When I asked if someone could scramble me up a quick egg or two (which was on the menu), I was told that the breakfast serving hours ended at 10 and that lunch wouldn’t be served until 10:45am. “But,” the girl said in a flippant aside, “you can get some yogurt or a sandwich or something.” Not really what I wanted to hear at that moment.
If this were a Golden Arches, where they have to change over the entire restaurant for the next meal, I would understand not trying to help out a guy who arrived there 5 minutes after they started to break down the breakfast setup. But the grill was still on, and I even saw some hash browns cooking (presumably for an employee who was hungry). So to whom was this scenario convenient for? Me or the staff? That answer was obvious.
I don’t believe it was a coincidence that this happened in a hospital, because the medical profession is one of the worst offenders in making life convenient for themselves and inconvenient for the customer/patient (waiting at a doctor’s office is almost as scream-inducing as the experience at the DMV). But they certainly aren’t the only industry that makes things easy for themselves and difficult for customers. Many Web sites have complicated registration processes and one-sided policies that only aggravate users (e.g., excessive information collection, shady opt-in/information sharing practices, ridiculous number of registration screens). Credit card companies are completely screwing with customers’ percentage rates and credit limits to the sole benefit of their bottomed-out bottom lines, making life extremely difficult for customers. And lots of software seems to be designed for the benefit of the company’s engineers and without a thought to the people who will actually be using the product.
So take a look at your processes, interfaces, policies, packaging and the like and make a list with two columns: 1) what is built to be convenient for your company, and 2) what is built to be convenient for your customer. Then try to figure out how to move everything from the first column to the second. It may take a while, and it may be temporarily painful for you and your employees. But you’ll start to see yourself attract and retain more customers, and customer retention is a proven way to boost revenues.
I was watching a soccer game tonight (Brazil vs. Uruguay, a World Cup Qualifying match that Brazil won 4 nil) and about 20 minutes into the first half I suddenly heard this little chiming logo come from my TV. I immediately knew it was the little T Mobile jingle/chime, and I frantically searched around the screen until I found their logo hanging under the score caption.
For the uninitiated soccer fans out there (that is, anyone without kids under 14), soccer games don’t have commercial breaks during the game, so advertisers have to find subtle (but sometimes insidious) ways to get their message across. I’ve written about logos on soccer jerseys. Then there’s the stadium ads running along the boundary of the field of play. Then there’s stadium naming rights. The list goes on and on … and now apparently includes little jingles in the middle of the game.
Such “aural signatures” as I will call them aren’t new. There’s the Doing-Doing-Doing xylophone chime of NBC that’s been around for decades. There’s the Ta-dah-dah Ta-dah-dah brass blast of ESPN’s Sportcenter theme. There’s even the non-sound, like EF Hutton’s silence. And because many people (yours truly included) have an aural memory, what is heard about your brand is sometimes the thing that sticks with people the most.
When most people think of branding, they think of visuals and text. But sound by itself is often overlooked (although many retailers now pay close attention to creating a branded sound … if you’ve been in a Starbucks in the last, say, 5 years, you’ll know what I’m talking about). So think about all the places where people might be listening and how you can shape your brand with sound at those intersections. In your lobby. On your on-hold message. At the beginning or in the background of presentations (as long as it’s not distracting). Even subtle use of an aural signature on your Web site might work well, but for god’s sake don’t play music unless you’re a music label, because whatever your choice for music, at least some of your prospects won’t like it and will probably leave because of it (I, for one). Even a chiming holiday card could be a nice touch.
But whatever the aural signature, use it consistently, make it memborable without distracting and make it consistent with your attributes.