Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Needle And The Damage Done

It’s sacrilegious to say this in the context of a marketing blog, but I’m 99 percent sure we marketers spend way too much time reading about marketing and way too little time actually marketing.

With that said, I can’t say what is the right amount of time to spend marketing. Some of the marketers I’ve known were actually better off when the reading-about-marketing /marketing mix was 90/10. And their clients were way ahead.

Still, the lure of the next great marketing article draws us in ever deeper, and what are we rewarded with? Another excursion into the lands of Morpheus disguised as an examination of pay-per-click metrics. A series of jolly anecdotes on how the Old Spice Man is transforming modern marketing, on the back of a horse. An interview with the developer of the Preparation H mobile app. The back of Seth Godin’s head. And a little story I ran across on how marketers are confusing marketing via social media with Social-Media Marketing.

Well, of course they are. I haven’t met a marketer who doesn’t sometimes mistake the sandbox for the sand castle. Before there were social media, people were mistaking selling on the Web with Web Marketing. Before that it was selling through the mail versus Direct-Mail Marketing. Selling using TV versus TV Advertising. And the grandpappy of them all, selling versus Advertising.

As God is my witness, I love the Jordan Playboy ad. “Somewhere west of Laramie” et cetera, like to send a chill down my spine. But do you know how long the Jordan Playboy lasted after that ad appeared? Two years. Fewer than 100 Playboys were sold.

The greatest ad of all time, and it couldn’t sell 100 units of anything. Because it wasn’t written to sell.

Say you get it. Please say you get it. It’s the difference between the tool and the job, the accordion and the polka, the needle and the damage done, and today’s marketers have more glittering needles than ever at their disposal. Anyone who’s surprised at the unprecedentedly high level of infatuation with the type font at the expense of the letter has not been paying attention to history or the here-and-now.

The article cited Snakes on a Plane as proof, but I can think of a score of others. Skittles’ abortive abandonment of its Web site for Twitter and Facebook. The Old Spice Guy. The “pants on the ground” dude. More embarrassing branded Facebook pages than there are Republicans in Utah. More embarrassing branded Facebook pages than there are embarrassing Republicans in Utah. And yes, even the Subservient Chicken.

Great ideas, for the most part. Brilliant execution, except for that picture of the pelican on the dental-insurance Facebook page. Additional products sold: not many.

Maybe it’s time to rock this place back to the studs and remember why we market. We market to sell. Marketing is successful when someone buys what we want them to buy. Whether it’s a product or a message, they buy.

Marketing itsownself I’ve defined many times as the targeted application of common sense … in service of a purchase. What makes the most sense if we want Tibetians to buy iced coffee? If we want Gen Y to buy burial vaults? The question may not always be logical but the answer has to be if the marketing is going to be successful.

If we answer the first question, “Drop 10,000 Espresso Shots from an airplane,” we are not using common sense, unless we are with the Chinese government. On the other hand, if we answer it, “Fill every begging bowl from here to Lhasa with iced coffee,” we’re getting somewhere.

Short of equipping coffins with USB ins and guaranteeing cell reception, I can’t think of an answer to the second question.

The role of social media in this process is to serve as word-of-mouth on steroids, to take our common sense and throw it around. Social media works best in marketing when it’s used to spread the simple message from friend to friend, “This product is good. You should buy it.” The most successful social-media campaigns have been among the least publicized. The greatest contribution social media has made to marketing is the citizen review. The most overrated is the viral video. If the dudes making the trick basketball shots wore Skechers T-shirts, would Skechers sell more shoes? A couple of pairs maybe – yet that’s the sort of stuff that’s being passed off as Social-Media Marketing.

Which it is. It’s using social media to come up with new ways for marketers to justify their worth without actually selling anything, which marketers have been doing as long as there’s been marketing.

Tawdry as it is sometimes, we are salespeople all. We start the morning unemployed, and we make our wage and save our job through the course of the day. Of all the things we can’t lose sight of in marketing, that might be No. 1 with a bullet.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Anyone Want To Fund A Chair At The D.L. Menard School of Marketing?

I love Cajun music. Now, I realize Cajun music is really just polkas with fiddles and steel guitars instead of wind instruments, so, by extension, there is no reason why properly played Polish polkas should not be every bit as cool as Cajun songs, but I love Polish polkas too, so at least my yin equals my yang in the ethnic-music department.

One of the all-time greats in Cajun music is D.L. Menard. D.L. Menard is no relation to John Menard, the genius behind the Menard hardware chain and the bankroll behind his son's rotten racing career. However, D.L. has it all over John when it comes to knowing his marketing.

My favorite D.L. Menard album, both from a musical and marketing standpoint, is titled "No Matter Where You At, There You Are."

Think about that from a marketing standpoint. Marketers expend a tremendous amount of effort trying to deal with the crisis at hand. On the ground, most of the true marketers I know spend 80 percent to 90 percent of their time dealing with the fire du jour. The rest of the time they're in meetings, getting excoriated for not moving the organization forward.

I have a good marketing friend who is ostensibly a product developer -- and he'd be a crackerjack product developer if he'd ever get a break from fighting fires long enough to develop a few.

Hey, you can't move the organization forward if you're always dealing with the here. In D.L. Menard's terms, you can't be where you are and where you're not at the same time.

And you want to know the funny thing? If you don't deal with where you at you're still going to be there ... because, according to the D.L. Menard School Of Marketing, no matter where you at, there you are. So you may as well move the organization forward.

Now, this is not a call to indolence. I'm not saying every Tom Marketer, Dick Marketer and Jane Marketer should respond to a call for instantaneous action by saying, "Sorry. I'm focused on moving the organization forward for the next, oh, five years."

That's not in most marketers' DNA, for one thing. In my experience, marketing people and engineers actually get things done in organizations. Everyone else is along for the ride, more or less.

However, it is an encouragement to meet those constant requests for fire-fighting with something like, "Okay, but if I do x I can't do y. Which is more important to the organization?"

The assumption most non-marketing people make about marketing people is because they can do x, y, and z, they should be doing x, y, and z, and right this minute.

Well, sorry. Take a number. If you leave it up to the marketers, the good ones will do what is best in their view for the organization, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. The bad ones will do whatever looks the best to the most people. The plodders will do whatever's on top of the pile.

However, all marketers, when given the chance, will move the organization forward. The engineers too. There's a lot of sense in leaving both these groups to their business and spreading the aggravation earmarked for them among other entities in the company.

Assuming you want to be somewhere other than where you are, that is.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Service In The Age Of Facebook

Yesterday someone was supposed to come from the cable company and install the converter for cable phone service. They never showed.

Later yesterday a sales rep from a door-to-door knife company was supposed to come out the house and sharpen the expensive set of knives we bought three years ago, and replace one broken knife. He arrived an hour late, unapologetic. “I can’t keep the phone number of every service call I have,” was his non-excuse.

Sorry, but you can. In the age of mobile everything and constant connectivity and 8 GB of storage attached to your pen, you most certainly can. You could even when phones were in booths and storage was something that required a shed. It’s a minimum expectation of service.

Service, as everyone knows, is an extension of a previous sale and a preparation for a future sale. It’s the sale between sales, in other words.

The cable company didn’t lose a sale by not showing up. We’ll likely do business with the cable company for as long as its business model holds, which ought to be about a year.

The knife salesman? He’s not coming back. His products are staying, but his chances of a future sale went away. And with word-of-mouth reviews capable at the touch of a button of being spread to infinity and beyond, his chances of many future sales are in jeopardy.

Of the two faux pas, the knife salesman’s mistakes are the most egregious. He lives in a business world of door-to-door sales. Every time he steps into a house or makes an appointment to step into a house, he is engaging a client. He is both servicing and selling, on a turf that is not his own. The only thing he can do to level the playing field is provide a level of service capable of taking people’s familiar surroundings and making them unfamiliar, to use service to create enough imbalance or weakness to make a sale possible.

It’s been that way since the day of the Fuller Brush Man, and it hasn’t changed today. In fact, it’s more important today than ever, because it can now be monitored and measured as never before. We have more ways of defining and measuring good service, but do those definitions and measurements really draw a box around good service – or is truly good (or bad) service beyond our ability to measure?

Good service on one level exists on the Potter Stewart model – you know it when you see (or encounter) it. It may not be how quickly the phone was answered, or that the problem was rectified with one phone call, though both these numbers are eminently measurable and often thrown around as measures of superior service. It’s how the service experience made you feel.

The knife salesman/sharpener gave us no opportunity to feel good about anything. He sharpened the knives promptly without need for a followup visit (and actually, he played himself out of any future contact), but he tried to make us feel like his being an hour late was our responsibility.

Contrast this with another service experience. Two weeks ago my 11-year-old son broke the back window of our station wagon washing the car. No, he was not emulating his father by trying to wash a car with a hammer. He sprayed cold water on a hot window and the thing blew.

The station wagon is old and the tailgate had issues beyond having a blown window, so we decided to replace the tailgate with a tailgate from a junkyard, which has now rebranded itself as an automobile recycling facility. Whatever. Tailgates are cheap there.

There was, remarkably, a matching 15-year-old tailgate just down the street, but it was the wrong color and a trifle rusty. However, in Oshkosh, an hour and a half away, there was a nicer tailgate in the proper color.

I knew this by using an inventory search on the Web site of the mega-junkyard that owns the tailgate. The idea that a junkyard has indexed and computerized and made searchable its junk is sit-you-down-son amazing. I mean, it’s junk. What’s next? The hairs on your head? Ants? Grains of sand?

We called the toll-free number of the mega-junkyard and someone in their sales department – yeah, a junkyard has a sales department – said, “We’ll have it all ready for you. Just drive down to Oshkosh and pick it up. Two hundred twenty-five bucks.”

Cool. We hopped in the car and drive to Oshkosh – only to find that this junkyard, a wholly owned affiliate of the mega-junkyard, was a pull-it-yourself place. Bring your own tools, yank your own parts. I was in a polo shirt; my wife was in sandals. We were not prepared to pull a tailgate off a hulk.

We went to the office and, after a long wait, explained our conundrum to the lady working the desk. “Oh, they’re always forgetting to tell people that,” she said, and sympathized. There was no way we could get the part today, either, she said. We were unprepared to pull the part, and the part-puller had knocked off for the day. We’d have to come back.

At that point my wife offered her cash to circumvent the mega-junkyard people and sell directly to us. After a moment’s hesitation, the desk person quoted $175. My wife said, “Oh, no. We’ll pay you one-eighty.”

Did you get all that? We paid more than we were offered to get a part that we couldn’t even get that day.

In no way were we satisfied, on a superficial level. We had to drive an hour and a half home, then repeat the process on Monday, to pay above asking price. The problem wasn’t solved quickly, it wasn’t solved on first response, and the solution did not involve us getting something for nothing, or a significant discount. (While the tailgate did cost less, it didn’t cost as little as it could have.)

However, we were satisfied. We felt understood. We were united against a common enemy. The customer-company relationship had evolved into something infinitely more human. In fact, my wife wanted to give the desk clerk a hug.

Good service is not problem-solving. Good service is a communicative act that seeks common ground in order to elicit a positive human response.

Initial communication between strangers searches for common ground; once that common ground is found, substantive communication can proceed. The knife salesman/sharpener never got there, because he never tried. The junkyard desk clerk tried and got there, and profited as a result. How much time and money do service personnel waste by not first searching for the common ground before proceeding with the problem-solving?

There’s a simple moral to this story: Measure customer service all you want, but acknowledge that much of its power lies outside the realm of measurement. But the good news is, you can get there from here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Thurber For The Thing Thurbered

I really like Keith Olbermann. I have reasons: He wrote for me on occasion when I was editing sports periodicals, and he's a wonderful writer, as clean and crisp as someone who's written for broadcast all his life should be. His knowledge of sports cards is encyclopedic, as I found out whenever I confused my Turkey Reds with my Ramlys. I also admire his politics, and the fact that he doesn’t have to resort to a “This Machine Kills Fascists” T-shirt to get his point across.

I like Olbermann doing the highlights on Football Night in America (the best thing to happen to football since Hardy Brown invented the snot-knocker), I liked him on SportsCenter, I like his tweets, I like him in a box, I like him with a fox (but not at Fox) ... you get the idea.

Another reason I like Keith Olbermann: He loves James Thurber and is committed to plugging Thurber to readers and Tea Partiers alike. Hey, so am I. In fact, one of my favorite Thurber pieces is the subject of today's column.

No, it's not "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" or "The Night The Bed Fell." This piece is called "Here Lies Miss Groby" and is about that all-time knee-slapper, parts of speech.

Thurber writes about how his English-composition teacher, Miss Groby, spurred his obsession with that part of speech known as The Container For The Thing Contained -- and its rarer sub-species, The Thing Contained For the Container.

His example of the former was, "Friends, Romans, countrymen -- lend me your ears." His example of the latter, which he thought up hisownself, was, "Get away from me or I'll hit you with the milk."

You gotta read the piece. You'll laugh.

Thinking about that piece the other day made me wonder: How much of your marketing effort should go toward selling the container, and how much to the thing contained?

At first blush, that doesn’t seem like much of a question. If you run a dairy you’re in the business of selling milk, not the bottle.

Oh, really?

Eighty percent or more of milk is water, and in this case at least, water is water. Without marketing, the remaining 20 percent is an assortment of subtlties so subtle that you could be presented with a lineup of milks from a dozen dairies running the gamut from Sunshine’s Hand-Milked Holsteins to BGH Acres and not be able to tell one from the other.

You can take this too far in the other direction, too, and place so much equity in the Container that you forget the Thing Contained has virtues as well. It’s easy to get so wound up in the fact that a Rolex screams six-figure income that you forget it does a hell of a good job keeping time under extreme circumstances.

Now that we’ve established the extremes let’s head to the middle, because that’s where the interesting stuff is.

When you’re given a product or service to market you invariably start with the product attributes. Some may be The Thing Contained and quite tangible – this garbage disposal has titanium blades – while some are the less-tangible Container – our airline is renowned for personal service.

Now, neither The Container nor The Thing Contained guarantees anything beyond itself. The titanium blades may be attached to a motor made from dental floss and spittle, for instance, and the airline that prides itself on personal service needs to deliver personal service because all its planes are two hours late.

If you over-promote The Thing Contained you run the risk of being copied. Other companies can make a disposal with titanium blades, and make the motor out of cardboard and malted-milk powder to boot.

If you over-promote The Container you effectively place a halt on progress. Think of the hoohah that ensued when Kentucky Fried Chicken got a face-lift. You’d have thought they replaced the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices with D-Con.

The answer, then, is to put everything where it belongs. Put The Thing Contained in The Container.

Oh, sure. Put The Thing Contained in The Container. Will do – right after solving global warming and finding a cure for cancer.

Here’s what I mean. Promote the product attributes as a subset of the brand attributes. Orville Redenbacher’s microwave popcorn tastes great because it comes from Orville Redenbacher. The cheese experts at Kraft make Kraft macaroni and cheese the cheesiest. You’re not going to die in a T60 because it’s a Volvo.

My favorite example of this is the Southwest Airlines “Bags Fly Free” campaign. Southwest took a hot-button issue – charging fliers for every bag they put on an airplane – carved out a unique position – we won’t charge for extra bags – and tied it to their overall brand identity – because we’re Southwest.

Bags fly free on Southwest. The Thing Contained squarely in The Container.

This is slam-dunk marketing, but it requires some ingenuity on a marketer’s part to weave a product’s attributes into a brand’s attributes. You can’t always say, “X exists because of Y.”

Let’s take an example where this sort of marketing is rarely done: beer.

A lot of beer advertising is built around the theme, “Our beer tastes better when you spit it out your nose ‘cause you’re laughing so hard.” How much more effective and long-lasting would the message be if instead beer marketers said, “We’ve been helping you have fun for the last 150 years. We’re gonna get this right”?

You can argue drinkability versus triple-hops brewing all you want. You can’t argue with 150 years of hangovers.

Just like hitting your spouse with the milk, The Thing Contained is almost always more effective when it’s in The Container.

James Thurber would understand. So would Miss Groby. And I know Keith Olbermann gets it.