Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ban The Plan

If there’s a document more frustrating to marketers than a marketing plan, I haven’t seen it. Invariably someone devotes an entire decade to writing a single year’s marketing plan, pours a vial of his blood into the ink like KISS did with its comic books, wraps himself in a nice warm iron maiden and ensconces himself in a project-manager-infested garret, and produces a veritable Great Gatsby of marketing plans that is promptly vilified and ignored by turns, and spends the rest of its days sopping up coffee stains on a few wayward VPs’ desks.

It’s not supposed to be that way.

Marketing plans are not supposed to be DOA. They’re meant to be breathing, vital documents, like Colbie Caillat songs with pie charts. The problem is that everyone has the wrong set of expectations for marketing plans.

I know. I have written marketing plans that read like fiction (don’t say it) and marketing plans that read like schematics, and it really doesn’t matter. People read the wrong things into them and get the wrong things out of them, and frankly, I don’t know how to prevent that from happening. In a world where everyone thinks they’re a marketer, everyone has an idea of what should be in a marketing plan. Invariably, that boils down to: their stuff. And that is not what a marketing plan is there for.

So let me give my few ground rules of marketing plans, both for the people creating the plans and the people consuming them. The people who use them to sop up coffee messes may carry on.

First, for the creators of marketing plans: Stop using the marketing plan to justify your existence.

There are a lot of insecure marketers out there, people who make the lead character in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series look like Terrell Owens. And they view the marketing plan as their manifesto for empire-building, or empire-maintaining, or empire-not-shrinking-too-much. If they read this they’ll see why we need a $5 million budget, and five new hires, and iPads all around, they think, and she’ll have to marry me then! (Whoops; got my marketing-plan fantasies mixed up with my adolescent fantasies involving Traci Ludvik.) But the readers want none of that, especially in a marketing plan. They know why you exist. They’re not quite as dumb as you think in that regard. They want to know where you’ve been, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there. Do that well enough and you’ll get your booty.

Furthermore, I’m sorry, but if you need any document to justify your existence you’re not doing your job properly. And if your document of choice is the marketing plan, you’re doubly inept.

Second, also for the creators of marketing plans: I don’t have a foolproof formula for creating a marketing plan; marketing-plan time is the season of the witch in most marketing cycles, when all the fools come out to dance beneath the full moon and eat your Life Savers. However, I do have a recipe for a virtuous marketing plan. It may not get you that unicorn, but it will accomplish its job without wasting too much of anyone’s time, leaving you that much more time to properly fashion your unicorn wishes.

The recipe starts by revisiting the brand. Spend a page – no more – and state what the brand is made of, what it does, and how you define it. If you accept the idea that marketing exists to support the brand, this is the only logical way to begin.

Next, outline what you’ve done over the year to support the brand. If you’ve defined the brand well and done your homework, your brand-building efforts should flow logically. State how much you spent in general terms; don’t break it down to the penny. If you feel that’s absolutely necessary, stick it in an appendix.

You may have to break down this section by specific brand attributes. For instance, if you’re in the business of selling educational software and your key brand attributes are product, pricing and service, you’ll probably have to spend time and space discussing how you supported product, promoted pricing and celebrated service. That’s okay, but don’t get carried away.

Just as everything you do in marketing has to support the brand and its key attributes, everything you do in the marketing plan has to support the brand and its attributes. Lose track of the brand and you’re a small boy’s idea of a marketing director, doing stuff simply because it’s cool.

The next section needs to deal with the effectiveness of your efforts. Here’s where you add the measurements – but not too many. Remember, effectiveness has to be measured in context, and in support of the brands and their attributes. The measures of choice are not necessarily the number of click-throughs, the number of awards your ads win, the new places you found to spend money, or the attitudes of core audiences towards your call-center staff.

Many columns ago I defined the key measurements as your budget, your sales goal and your actual sales. I’ll stand by that. I’ll add that many of the best customer-service attributes need to be measured qualitatively, maybe even anecdotally, and Facebook and Twitter can help. But those measurements, such as they are, exist to help explain sales. If you have numbers and illustrations that aren’t directly related to your budget, your sales goal or your actual sales, get them out of there.

And remember once again to place sales in the context of supporting your brand. Sales are the only relevant measure of brand support, but they have to be defined that way in your marketing plan. Otherwise they’re just, you know, sales.

The third section builds off the first two and a half. Because the brand is x, and we did y to support it with results z, next year we’re going to do a, b, c, and d. It has to be that clear and simple. I have been accused of being a sort of Herman Cain of marketing, simplifying complex issues down to the point of incoherence, but I think I’m okay here.

Say what you’re going to do to support the brand based on what you’ve done to support the brand. Throw in sales goals for next year if you’ve got ‘em. This takes marketing out of the we’ll-make-it-up-as-we-go-along paradigm that I love nearly as much as I realize its non-sustainability. It's the only logical approach, and it also makes it loads easier to justify a reasonable budget.

The last necessary component of a marketing plan is the most overlooked, and in some ways the most important. Say what you’re going to do to support the brand the year after next, and the year after that, and the year after the year after that.

I know, I know. I can hear the howls from here. But tell the truth: By doing that, doesn’t the marketing plan seem more like a plan, a real-life process from getting from A to B over time?

Think if other areas of the company only thought in one-year chunks. Suppose your company makes snow-throwers. Engineering might say, “Well, we’re going to make snow plows this year,” one year and, “Oh, we’re going to make snowmobiles,” the next. Packaging might wrap them in bubble wrap one year and the next forget they ever wrapped anything in bubble wrap and put the whole shebang in a packing crate. Or human resources might raise the premiums for the health plan and lower the 401(k) contribution one year, and raise the 401(k) contribution and lower the premiums the next. Only Marketing seems to want to proceed like David Byrne in a bad digital transfer of Stop Making Sense.

I can’t guarantee this recipe for a marketing plan will work, assuming that any marketing plan can truly work. It will cut most of the fuss, feathers, positioning, and politicking, and if you’re as sick as I am of that junk messing with good marketing, then it’s worth a try.

Happy Marketing-Planning. And lay off the turkey. You may be one someday.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Comedy Tomorrow, Stragedy Tonight

A friend of mine in New York got a well-deserved new job about two weeks ago, and I called him up the other day to ask how things were going.

"Good," he said. "But I'm not sure about my boss."

Uh-oh, I thought. Bad moon rising (or for those of you with marginal hearing, bathroom on the right).

"What's up?" I said.

"I don't think he has a handle on strategy and tactics," he answered. "Everything he thinks is strategy is tactics, and everything he thinks is tactics – well, that's tactics too. He's got a billion ways to get things done but no idea where he's come from and where he's going."

Heard it. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that refrain I'd have enough for a peppermint latte at McDonald's, but only for a limited time.

One of the major ailments afflicting marketing directors is their embrace of the "director" at the expense of "marketing." Along with the secret handshake and the now-obligatory iPad some marketing directors are presented with a game of Risk on their first day, one of the fancy ones that looks like your dog-eared copy of New Mexico Statutes, 1956, only this game has “design” and “point-of-sale” and “brand management” and “corporate communications” and “marketing research” instead of Europe and Asia and the rest of the Risk worlds to conquer.

Once presented with this game, the average marketing director does about what you’d expect of it (marketing directors, like so many other people in marketing, being not awfully far down the road out of childhood): She plays with it the game all the time, like a steampunk version of Angry Birds, and draws boxes and concocts spreadsheets detailing utilization of resources – her resources, because they are her small plastic pieces – all to a near-total neglect of the actual objectives of marketing direction, which is to – say it with me – direct marketing. And that means furthering the direction of the overarching brand – corporate image, mission statement, divisional imperative, what have you – through specific substrategies, including individual brand management and marketing, and then executing those specific substrategies using a variety of tactics.

It's nothing more than the old targeted application of common sense, but in the service of an overarching, all-encompassing strategy. As the master marketer Thomas Carlyle called it, “On earth, the broken arcs; in heaven the perfect sphere.” On the ground you may only see a piece of the marketing strategy, but you see the whole thing when you get far enough off the ground. The trick is to shed the lead boots of marketing administration and ascend to the realms of true marketing direction.

It’s not easy. A marketing director has to know the big picture before she can tackle any of the little pictures, but when she’s thrust into the position what does she see? A whole bunch of little pictures with their mouths open, waiting for her to regurgitate dinner. The actual rising-above requires nothing more strenuous than thinking, but the thinking requires time, and there never seems to be any time whatsoever – especially when she could be playing Angry Birds. Or Risk.

However, without that breath to ascend and grasp the larger picture, you are sentenced to forever matriculate at the Firesign Theater School of Marketing, whose motto is, “How can you be two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?” I know I’ve said in the past that a good marketer can be dropped into a metaphorical desert and market her way out of it (see Menard, D. L., “Wherever You Are, There You Is”), but you need a compass to get out of that particular nowhere, and that compass is called having the overall brand strategy ensconced firmly in your noggin, and letting your direction – your way out – flow from there.

Without that, it’s like you’re going on a trip, and you know you’re taking a Prius because it gets 60 MPG highway and you really like the new ad jingle, and you’re riding on Goodyear Assurance TripleTreds because it might snow, and you’re going to take I-94 for a stretch because it’s really straight and the trucks stay away during the week, and then turn off on Highway 29 because it’s pretty, and stay at a Holiday Inn Express because you like the breakfast, and drive six hours before letting someone else drive six hours, and stop every four hours for gas and .. well, you know, and buy exactly 1.65 roller dogs during the trip – all without knowing where you came from and where you’re going.

Choosing a road may seem like a strategy, but it’s a tactic. Knowing that you have to get from Tehachapi to Tonopah is a strategy. Once you know that, everything else is just execution and details.

There’s no excuse for a marketing director – or anyone in marketing, really – not knowing overall brand direction. It tells you what to do -- down to the nth detail, if you let it.

Look at it this way: Do you go off blithely in other facets of your life and hope you wind up somewhere appropriate? When you drive to the grocery store do you drive west hoping to find a grocery store because you like driving west, or do you drive to the grocery store? When you shave your face or your legs do you just start shaving anywhere, figuring you’ll get to the right spot in time? Completely daft, yet I can’t count the marketers who just go gaily marketing away without knowing where the merry pharalope they’re going, until they wind up in some salt marsh and have to call on sales or the CFO or someone to bail them out.

If the marketing director is responsible for overall brand identity, it's her responsibility to communicate it to --and beyond that,  inculcate it in -- her department and all regions and realms that her scepter touches, including the mail room. If the person responsible for overall brand identity resides above the marketing director but south of the mail room, it's again the director's obligation to snatch that identity and inculcate merrily once more.

The real trouble starts when the neither the marketing director nor anyone at any of the layers above is thinking big brand thoughts. These cases call for a little subversive action.

Someone has to think higher brand thoughts, and if the marketing director is too tied up in her game of Risk and her spreadsheet with the stages and gates done up in carmine and chartreuse to do it and a sub-direction person has to pick up the standard, then they have to carry it with all the Salvation Army tambourine-beater spirit they have in their soul. If that's you, and you have to shout it from the housetops, shout and keep shouting. If it gets you in trouble with the boss, keep shouting, If it costs you your job ... it won't cost you your job. At some point short of that the marketing director will hear all the commotion and realize she'd better get behind this or be ready to do some 'splainin', Lucy.

What happens sometimes is that no one has a brand idea. Maybe a brand has been around forever and is operating in a sort of self-perpetuating catatonia, like George Will, or is functioning with a giant inflatable marketing director, like the autopilot in Airplane! but with prettier spreadsheets. Maybe a brand has been mandated from above to plug a perceived hole and is just commencing on a brutish life of insufficient sales and insufferable bickering about positioning. Maybe the keeper of the brand has moved on. It's not wrong to try to fill a total brand-identity vacuum, but it can't be done half-heartedly, or by substituting short-term tactical thinking for the strategy that's needed.

Marketing is too important to be wasted on things that shouldn't be marketed, or sent off on summer-camp branding exercises that fade as soon as fall rolls around. The only way to maximize marketing's impact is to have a clear idea of what needs to be marketed in the first place. Is that so hard? Apparently it is.