Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Last Lecture -- Or My Last Lecture, Anyway

I know it's early in the morning and the last thing you want right now is a lecture. So I won't lecture. Instead, let me paint a scene of tranquility, like the Chinese yoga ladies do.

Imagine we're sitting in a sidewalk bistro in Paris. It's a glorious early summer day, and the air is awash with jasmine, cigarette smoke, profanity, accordion music, and diesel fumes. And love, of course.

You have a vermouth-cassis in front of you, but you're not drinking it, not even a sip. That's because your mouth has been sewn shut. All you can do is listen. To me.

I'll be kind. Promise.

First, let me acquaint you with a communication term called "sensemaking." Basically, people approach the world with a great deal of uncertainty and use communication to help reduce the uncertainty and help them make sense of their world.

Now, we like to all think as businesspeople that we know our market and understand what goes on in it, but at the very least we're continually afraid that we don't understand. You see this behavior all the time, especially from salespeople, who are nothing if not skittish as a new kitten when the competition unloads its latest innovation.

So what we do is communicate with people we know within that market in an attempt to make it make sense. We ask the field. We leverage our network. We collect qualitative data. We grab some CI.

Of course, all these sources are uncertain and looking to make sense of the world around them, too, so there's a sort of mutual reassurance that goes on. It's like a group of settlers on the prairie, forming a circle with guns pointed outward and inching back towards the fire. All sides come away not necessarily understanding the world better but feeling like they understand it better, and that's the important thing.

The application that has for marketers is that it's very valuable to position yourself as an entity that can help a customer make sense out of their market.

How? By breaking it into pieces, and then by collecting all the pieces and putting them into a coherent whole. By identifying customers and opening a dialogue with them. By identifying the key messages those customers want to hear. By identifying the desired end results of communication acts -- everything from an elevator speech to an annual report -- and working towards them.

Most people view the world as fragmented and dissonant. One of the prime goals of successful marketing communication is to make it less so.

I have a favorite quote along these lines, from the Scottish poet/mystic/wacko Thomas Carlyle: "On earth, the broken arcs; in Heaven, the perfect sphere." It all makes sense up there, in other words.

It can make more sense down here, too. It starts with the understanding that people very badly want it to make sense.

Here's a real-world story to illustrate and end things. My friend Chris has to do a series of very complex reports every year analyzing his company's sales potential. Now, Chris is a pretty talented guy and could write these for semaphore flags if you asked. His first boss liked a highly regimented, stats-heavy approach, so he spun them that way. Lots of work, whole bunch of data, and they really made sense of the markets -- if you invested the time in them.

Chris has a new boss who likes things simple and pretty -- big ol' pie charts. To do things his new boss' way Chris has had to dumb down everything he does so that it can fit in a big ol' pie chart. There's less analysis, fewer actionable conclusions, a narrower scope, and bullet points instead of paragraphs. Instead of a perfect sphere it's a meager collection of broken arcs -- stained glass, mind you, but broken arcs nonetheless.

You can guess the rest. The public loves the new reports. Chris doesn't.

Hey, sensemaking is a two-way street. Your publics can't make sense of the world if they can't make sense of your stuff. If they're too dumb or lazy to make sense of your stuff, say (under your breath, please), "What a bunch of tools," and simplify it. Half a world is better than none.

Okay, I'll let you talk now. Where'd I put that scissors?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It Ain't Bragging If You Keep Your Big Yap Shut

Dizzy Dean was fond of saying about himself, “It ain’t bragging if it’s the truth,” which is fine if you’re Dizzy Dean and the truth is an approximate thing, like the distance from here to Buckwheat after a couple shots of moonshine.

It's not so fine if you’re a conservative, button-down organization in a mature market talking about yourself – which is about 95 percent of all organizations when it comes to talking about themselves.

I don’t know but I’ve found that when it comes to discussing anything they do on any level most organizations are as skilled as a 15-year-old boy with a speech impediment and a weak chin, who takes piano lessons and advanced-placement classes, is on a first-name basis with several minor anime characters, and whose defining moment in life was when he stumbled upon his dad’s Joy Division tapes.

Because organizations are so awkwardly bad at talking about themselves, they take a step most 15-year-old boys would never do: They hire someone else to talk for them.

Imagine how that could change the delicate bashfulness of first crushes. Instead of making a tentative advance toward the retainered, oboe-playing 15-year-old English-class-mate of his dreams our hero hires, oh, Justin Timberlake to do the talking for him.
The trouble is that when Justin Timberlake talks the oboe player melts, and you can't do anything with a melted oboe player, believe me.

About this time too the 15-year-old thinks, "Man, I've got Justin Timberlake doing the talking for me. I don't need to settle for an oboe player. I could get, you know, Miranda Cosgrove." So Justin Timberlake goes and talks to Miranda Cosgrove on behalf of Mr. Joy Division and she goes along with him because she thinks she's getting Justin Timberlake, but when she finds out what she's actually getting instead of Justin Timberlake she splits, leaving our hero with no Justin Timberlake, no Miranda Cosgrove, and a melted oboe player. And a bill for $8.9 million.

What a waste. See, the anime fan really needs to be with the (unmelted) oboe player. They belong together, lest they make two otherwise innocent people unhappy. The only thing that has to happen to set off skyrockets is for him to talk to her, awkward as it may be, about what he likes about her, because -- and he may be the only person in the world who can say this -- he really likes her. And she may be the only person in the world who really likes him, and she's willing to say that, too ... but he has to say it first.

This sound like anything out of modern-day marketing? No? Not the dialogue everyone claims to want between the owner of a brand and the purchaser of a brand?

Yeah, it is, actually. The most important dialogue in marketing right now is the one between the owner of a brand or product and its purchasers and consumers. And it's a dialogue that does not need to be besmirched by the intervention of brand gigolos.

I begrudge no agency its right to exist, to bill, to have lunch, and to bill again. I simply don't believe they have a role to play in brand dialogues.

The practical application of common sense says this: You need to be the No. 1 advocate of your product or brand. If you believe it's crap, or even if you believe it's somewhat flawed, you cannot expect the sales force to believe it's wonderful and communicate that to buyers, and you can't expect the buyers to give it a big, wet kiss.

Belief in the product has to start with you -- not R&D, production, engineering, distribution, or anyone else along the chain but you. If it's not something you can believe in as being the absolute best at what it does, it is your responsibility to go back to the responsible parties and tell them what needs to be done to make it a product worthy of your belief.

To heck with the organization chart; channels be damned. It is your responsibility to make sure a broken product or brand is fixed. You cannot walk away from it.

But that's only half your responsibility. The other half is once you have a product you can believe in to brag about it -- and here's where you brandish your diploma from the Dizzy Dean School of Marketing. Tell the truth. Speak plainly but loudly. Yell it from the mountaintops. Tell it to everyone you see any chance to get. It ain't bragging if it's the truth, and it's not annoying if you're simple and honest about it.

Here's a real-world bedtime story for you before I go. A client had a new product that was just about ready for market. I asked him what was special about it. "Well," he said, pausing a little, "we've made it harder for people to see it's not a very good value."

"Then it's going to die," I told him, and the only reason why it hasn't died yet is that it hasn't made it out of the shop. They can't figure out how to make it something people will want to buy ... or what to charge for it ... or what to call it ... or who to sell it to ... or how.

Simple lesson: Know your market. Create a product or brand you believe in wholeheartedly. Be an evangelist for your brand. Talk to the people who talk to you, because down deep almost all of them like you.

And don't spend $8.9 million on Justin Timberlake. Give it to your people. They got you here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Crisco And Crowdsourcing

Two things you need to know about me: I read a lot of marketing e-newsletters and I listen to old-time radio shows at work.

The former is so I can keep up with the Joneses; the latter is because … well, sometimes old-time radio takes you to a place nothing else can. And the dialogue-writing is amazing. Paul Rhymer really is one of the unsung greats of 20th-century American media.

You would think these two avocations could not get within two continents of each other – but they did, just last week.

I’ve been following the concept of crowdsourcing with great interest because I also just finished work on my master’s in communication and crowdsourcing has some interesting communication implications – to me, anyway.

I find it interesting that the idea of a marketing entity abdicating to the people significant responsibility for slogans, products, and brands is causing such a furor in marketing circles.

Brands – and marketers – have been doing it for years. The only only only thing that’s changed is the media used to do it.

The old-time radio show I listen to is called Vic and Sade. It’s sponsored by Crisco, and around five minutes of every 15-minute show is consumed by Crisco ads.

The ads are read improvisationally by the announcers, including nascent game-show impresario Ralph Edwards, Miracle Whip pitchman Ed Herlihy, and Yankees voice Mel Allen, and their folksiness further serves to personify the brand.

The announcers talk about how good Crisco is for cakes and pies and frying. They eat cake on the air and put a microphone to a pan full of sizzling apple fritters, but they also spend much of their ad time pitching the Crisco slogan contest.

Pretty simple stuff: Get an entry blank at the grocery store, write a new slogan for Crisco, mail it in. The best slogan wins $5,000 – big, big zoot in those days – and gets used in Crisco’s ad campaign.

Back then it was a slogan contest. Today we would call this crowdsourcing.

Some marketers act like brand interaction is a new thing. Hardly. Some marketers wise enough to know that brand interaction is not a new thing act like personal, immediate brand interaction is a new thing. Hardly again.

When Crisco rolled out its Sure-Mix formula in 1935, ahead of the slogan contest, it sent out women, ostensibly housewives, to distribute cans of Crisco to fellow housewives and then follow up with them on how they liked it. These women encouraged the housewives to not only tell them how they liked Sure-Mix Crisco but to tell their friends about the new Crisco.

These encounters were then reinforced nationally with re-enactments condensed into three-minute ads and dropped in front of each Vic and Sade episode – a pre-roll, if you will.

It may not be the immediate brand interaction offered by Twitter, Facebook, mommy blogging and mobile phones, but it was pretty darn quick – and likely as effective as many of today’s crowdsourcing efforts because it leveraged face-to-face communication.

Telling this story is not meant as an exercise in told-you-so. It's an exercise in common sense as good marketing.

Use the tools at your disposal to get people interacting with your brand. It might be Crisco and housewives going door-to-door, tailed by a followup visit and a slogan contest; it might be Mountain Dew and crowdsourced flavors.

It's all the same idea, and it's all part of the right way 'round when it comes to marketing.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I Went To The Bob Dylan School Of Marketing, And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

I work in an organization that reveres numbers. The organization is so number-conscious that even the numbers are numbered, so you can look up numbers by number when you have to find a number.

And that’s fine. There are places in the world for numbers. Inside a computer, for instance. Great place for numbers. On the backs of hockey jerseys. In ZIP codes and phone numbers. In batting averages. On speedometers.

You’ll never find me doing a Lord Byron mashup and saying that I have not loved numbers/And numbers have not loved me/So let us part fair foes. No, sirree. Not this kid.

I really, truly am okay with numbers. Except when they get in the way of great marketing.

The No. 1 way this happens is when the lack of numbers, the lack of definitive numbers, or the lack of appropriate numbers delays or prevents a decision. Sometimes it’s almost as if management has a Ouija board comprised of numbers. They ask the board a question and place their hands lightly on the thingummy and set it in motion, and write down the number when it stops, and compare that against the pro forma, and if they don’t match it’s sent back to Marketing for further study. And then Charles Babbage emerges from a cabinet and announces it’s time for tea.

This runs counter to the philosophical underpinnings of all the major schools of marketing, but it’s particularly offensive to graduates of the Bob Dylan School of Marketing.

The Bob Dylan School of Marketing has as its motto, engraved on a rather largish shield, the famous line from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Its curriculum includes Gut Instinct 370 and Playing Your Hunches 225.

Its faculty includes Steve Jobs and Lee Iacocca – and Bobby D, of course.

From its initial orientation session all the way through to graduation it soothes and challenges students with these words: It’s all right to make decisions because you just Know.

You don’t have to be an expert’s expert. You don’t need a mess of numbers. You don’t need a biomass-plant-in-the-making’s worth of reports. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just have to Know. And once you know, you go.

I realize the Bob Dylan School of Marketing willfully swims against the current of metrics-driven modern marketing, but it’s not simply contrarian for the sake of being contrary. The Bob Dylan School of Marketing exists because what it teaches is common sense – the essence of marketing.

Let me give you an example. My friend the Successful Professional Poker Player says winning at poker is less than 20 percent knowing the cards and more than 80 percent knowing the players. It’s marketing, baby.

Let me give you another example. Two years ago my friend Tamara the Number-Cruncher noticed that sales of Product B, which was generally considered to be overpriced and poorly designed, were growing at precisely the same rate that sales of Product A, which was thought to be the company’s flagship product in that segment.

One day the COO happened to drop by her cubicle (it’s a fairly small company).

“I won’t begin to tell you what to do,” Tamara said. “But if I were COO, the first thing I’d do is release a kick-ass Product B.”

I talked to her last week. The market has shifted even more emphatically in the direction of Product B, she said, and her company’s Product B is still a laggard. There’s still no kick-ass Product B. The numbers haven’t been right.

What numbers? Tamara found the numbers that matter: sales results, demographically divided and longitudinally observed. She knows where the product is and where it’s going. She knows her price points and where the areas of price resistance are. She knows the players in her market. She has drawn a box around her market and profiled its inhabitants. She Knows. What more is there, really?

It’s like she’s a professional baseball player at the plate. She steps out of the batter’s box and looks at the outfielders. They’re shading her to hit the ball to the opposite field.

She knows that every time this year she’s been played the other way the pitcher threw her inside fastballs. She knows this pitcher likes to throw inside fastballs.

Now somewhere she knows most assuredly that there’s a coach on her team who has compiled all these tendencies and can give her a probability that the next pitch will be an inside fastball. She could also observe several pitches to see if she gets an inside fastball. Three pitches might provide a reassuring level of statistical significance. If they’re all strikes, at least the hypothesis was supported.

The other option is for her to say, “I’m going to get an inside fastball,” open her stance, and jack it down the line.

Not only is the latter option eminently more satisfying, it’s the right thing to do.

To return to the hallowed halls of the Bob Dylan School of Marketing, what does it take to know which way the wind blows?

Well, you have to be outside, for one. Looking at the radar map is just a numerical approximation of actually being out in it. Get out in the field. Do some legwork. Talk to people. I really don’t care whether this is a continually wired, Twitterfied, instant-feedback era. Nothing – nothing – compares with sitting face-to-face with a person and talking.

Second, you have to be able to tell the wind from the hot air. That’s where numbers help. People lie; the right numbers don’t. Numbers are a check on what you Know. They are not a substitute.

Finally, you can’t be blocked or sheltered. That means working, living and thinking holistically – ignoring the largely artificial lines of department, management level and job description. You need to have a touch of graphic designer, production-line supervisor and IT programmer in you. The worst mistake one of my clients ever made was thinking they were big enough to wall off their marketing people, put each one in a box and say, “This is what you do now. Be happy about it.” They took the dimensions away from multidimensional people, and then paid more to have outside people do the same work less well. To have great marketing, you need to let the wind blow and the river run.

This all sounds fine, if a bit high-blown. How do you make it work in your organization?

The first step is to wean managers off of numbers. Start removing numbers from your reports. Move them into charts and graphs, gradually take the numbers off of those, then remove the charts and graphs. Remember though that these are powerful crutches, for you and for your audiences. You have to be skilled enough to paint a picture using words, or else it’s back to the numbers.

Second, foster the concepts of personal contact and cross-functionality in all you do, even if you’re the most humble marketing line worker. Walk over to someone’s desk instead of sending an e-mail. Mock up a brochure instead of just sending copy. Work on being a one-person shop. The reason the guitar lick on “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress” sounds so freaking amazing is because the person who was playing guitar picked up a guitar for the first time minutes before he laid down that lick. Cross-functionality leads to surprising outcomes.

Third, don’t forget that bullet points can kill. If you write better paragraphs than bullet points, write paragraphs. The tyranny of the bullet point is a horrible thing.

The revolt against metrics-based marketing is coming, and I’m not saying that because I despise metrics-based marketing. It’s just that people find ways to get new numbers, they get infatuated with those numbers, the relationship cools, and it’s back to looking at people again because they’re far more interesting.

And you don’t need to be a weatherman to know that wind has been blowing a very long time.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bad Marketing Means Never Having To Say You're Wrong

My definition of marketing has always been, "The targeted application of common sense." It seemed logical. In 25 years of marketing, I haven't been confronted with a sales or marketing conundrum that couldn't be solved with the tactical application of common sense.

Not the tactical application of dollars or resources or project management or outside agencies or metrics or consultants or social media or flow charts. Common sense.

But today, as I was lying ill in bed, I realized that the definition I held dear all these years was wrong.

Marketers don't like to be wrong – or more to the point, marketers don't like to be put in a position where they have no choice but to admit they're wrong. That's why poor marketers surround themselves with dollars and resources and project managers and outside agencies and metrics and consultants and flow charts. (Social media we'll leave out of this.) The more that surrounds them, the easier it is to find something to blame other than themselves.

This very act is more wrong than being wrong.

Being wrong in marketing is a contextual thing. If doing the absolute most logical thing in the world forces you to fall on your sword, so be it. It beats repeatedly getting hammered for illogical acts, or hiding behind stuff and pointing fingers.

To return to the definition. The problem with calling marketing the targeted application of common sense is that there are a myriad of targeted applications of common sense that are obviously not marketing.

For instance, shortly after I got married I tried to change a windshield wiper with a hammer, and put a piece of newspaper under the wiper as cushioning. Naturally, I broke the windshield.

The targeted application of common sense in this case would be to not change a windshield wiper with a hammer, but there's nothing marketing-related about that.

Let's look at today's headlines. The targeted application of common sense would have been for BP not to keep drilling an offshore oil well at a precipitous angle into a pocket of oil and gas that had been nothing but trouble.

There's nothing marketing-related about not drilling an oil well. It's an engineering thing – and what are engineers if not appliers of targeted common sense?

Since my definition is wrong, perhaps I should modify it, soften the language, add some caveats. You know, something like, "Marketing is the targeted application of common sense as it relates to the functions involved in selling a product, brand, organization, or service."

There you go. Soft as grandma's featherbed.

Nice, but before I give in to the quilted downy bounty, let's think about this for a minute. I tried to change a windshield wiper with a hammer because I had sold myself on the idea that I could change a windshield wiper with a hammer.

BP tried to drill an impossible well because it had sold itself on the idea that it could – and furthermore, it had sold itself on the idea that the world was clamoring for the oil and gas in the pocket it was drilling into.

This was marketing all right – a very personal, very internal sort of marketing. Me selling to me. BP selling to BP. Engineer selling to engineer.

Upon further review, I think I'll stick with my definition. I was wrong; the targeted application of common sense is not exclusively reserved for marketing situations. But it is a very fine definition of marketing nonetheless.

I'll examine many common-sense marketing situations and theories over the ensuing months. Share yours if you'd like. It'll be fun.