For Retailers, The Struggle Continues

Two years ago I wrote about the struggle of retailers. At that time the big story was Target’s retreat from Canada. The chain closed 133 stores, laid-off 17,600 employees and absorbed US$2-billion in losses. That figure did not include the $7 billion the company invested to enter the market.

Target dominated the headlines but at the same time in Canada Sony closed all 14 of its stores, Mexx 95, Smart Set 107, and Jacob 92. In North America, Staples shuttered 225 stores, Office Depot 500, Radio Shack 200, Abercrombie & Fitch 180, Aeropostale 250, JC Penny 39, Wet Seal 338 and Coach 70.

Are they missed? Not really and the numbers and types of stores shedding physical locations continues to grow. Credit consulting firm F&D Reports that in the U.S. 3,600 stores have closed since January. That is about 20 a day. The firm expects the number will reach 10,000 by the end of the year. Vulnerable brands include Neiman Marcus, Sears (no surprise), Claire’s, and J. Crew.

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The “Women and Wine” Industry

For decades beer marketing and advertising was largely directed at men. The ’70’s was all about singular masculinity and a brew. The ’80’s and ’90’s was beers, babes and swimming pools. The 2000’s have been a bit weird. Craft brewing has put focus on quality and artisanship meanwhile wine has been steadily outpacing beer in consumption. Yet, the wine industry spends very little in traditional marketing.

What it has done is focus on women. And this a bit of a chicken and egg thing. It is impossible to know what came first … women’s love of the drink or pop culture’s promotion of women and wine? Our society is replete with women and wine references from movies to television to books. Kathie Lee and Hoda bizarrely normalized daytime imbibing. Popular TV shows “Scandal”, “Modern Family”, “Cougar Town”, “The Affair”, and “The Good Wife” all feature female leads unable to detach from a glass or five.

Megan Garber writing in The Atlantic in the article, The Women and the Wine, makes the point that these TV heroines “telegraph their internal turmoil via swigs of Syrah” and “wine, gulped just as often as sipped, is a visual metaphor for that most modern of afflictions: stress.” Garber makes the point, “You rarely see TV’s men gulping wine from goblets, alone in their kitchens—and, when you do, the sight will immediately suggest A Problem.”

Novelist Jodi Picoult deliberately or unknowingly has many characters across her ubiquitous works enjoying wine. Take this line from Plain Truth, “The wine—it made her limbs loose and liquid, made her feel that a hummingbird had taken the place of her heart.” Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath said, “I drink sherry and wine by myself because I like it and I get the sensuous feeling of indulgence…luxury, bliss, erotic-tinged.”

The wine—it made her limbs loose and liquid, made her feel that a hummingbird had taken the place of her heart.

Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli, commonly known as Margaret Fuller, was an American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She also enjoyed wine saying it “is earth’s answer to the sun.”  Fuller lived in the 19th Century so this shows that women and wine are by no means a recent combination.

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10 Communications Challenges

Communications holds the power to change minds, prompt action and move the world. But it has to get better. It has to strive to be the best. In business communications, we have identified ten challenges that are standing in the way of it being better. These come from the breadth and depth of our work with leading brands and brands that want to lead.

Challenge #1

Everyone is talking about disruptions and innovation yet communications are predictable, safe and boring. Are you satisfied with being a me-too brand? Communications that are compelling and different are in short supply. Effort and spend are going up in smoke. Too few brands are bold.

Challenge #2

Communicators are attracted to shiny new toys and forget the fundamentals. Are you overcomplicating while missing the tried and true? Social media, V/R, video, SEO, programmatic – these are important tactics but they are that, tactics. What is missing is smart, sharp and penetrating strategies.

Challenge #3

Businesses think impersonally in terms of “audiences” and “targets” and “markets”. Do you really know who wants and needs what you have? The science and art of segmentation is a terrible state these days. The business schools teach it poorly and businesses employ it haphazardly. This leaves very real customers thinking you do not know them or care to.

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Dissecting FT Weekend’s New Branding

Two months ago The Financial Times refreshed FT Weekend. This was introduced through an integrated marketing campaign “aimed at a growing readership who favour the immersive experience of print on the weekend while remaining highly engaged with digital journalism during the week.” That is an insightful and challenging objective.

What piqued my interest was the print component. The campaign’s tagline grabbed me (isn’t it great when that happens?). The three lines are compelling. “World-class writing” is sharp and smart. I can see how they arrived at it and am grateful they did. The cornerstone of journalism is a free press. That means possessing honesty and objectivity and marrying them with insight. Those are lofty ideals to sell a paper. Perhaps too lofty and I expect FT and their advertising agency thought so too.

Instead they now focus on global reach and fresh perspective along with how they write and communicate. The three words in the tagline are absolutely power-packed. The line represents the core skill-set of journalism and what must be the overriding differentiator of any publication online, off or both. That is quality of writing. As far as I know no other publication is landing on that notion or boldly claiming it even though it is fundamental.

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Tiny Muses: The Appeal of Writing Cabins

You do not have to be a writer to want a private little cabin…but it helps. The solitude, peace and focus could keep the words flowing. Here is a question, could you go without Internet in your small pad? Author Jonathan Franzen writes in the big city but on a computer without online connection. And that is the point, to make sense of the world either through fiction or nonfiction, you have to disconnect. Imagine doing so in any of these tiny muses.

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You’re Out of Order: Law Firm Marketing

The marketing of professional services firms is tough stuff. Whether it is accounting, advertising, architecture, or consulting firms, you name it, there is tons of competition and finding a unique position for the business is elusive. How about law firms? There are over 50,000 law firms in the United States with two or more lawyers, 173,000 solo practitioners, and 1,315,561 licensed attorneys. That is a big category folks.

A category that has historically and currently wrestles with the very idea of marketing. I am not talking about those tacky accident lawyer ads on TV or the calls for people to join class-action lawsuits that remind us of a John Grisham novel. Nor I am not talking about firms who think a logo and a website is all the marketing they need or those that buy ad space on a few city benches and wait for the phone to ring.

This hopefully helpful bit of writing applies to firms of size who would much rather focus on the practice of law rather than the perceived hell and distraction of marketing. Having worked with over 12 law firms on branding and marketing, I have noted a handful of challenges that are universal.

Marketing is a Dirty Word

This is a profession that was once not allowed to market. It was, in a word, illegal. I always thought that was cool. An industry forced to function on referral only. The concept was … do great work and more will come. Legal services was the purist form of business natural selection ever. All law firms had to use was a three person name (Smith, Jones & Smith), state they had been around for decades (Since 1933), and support the local community (Member of the Chamber of Commerce and The Elks). And, for a time, it worked.

Of course, times changed. When marketing became fair game, law firms put a partner in charge of promoting the firm. This was a short-term experiment because the partner knew nothing about marketing. Around the turn of this century, firms hired professional marketers from consumer product companies. I loved witnessing this epic failure. Cola and soup marketing do not translate well to legal services.

The last ten years has seen law firms flirt with every manner of marketing. Some experiments have worked but the vast majority has not. Marketing is still being grafted on law firms and that is the problem. Grafting is not enough. Marketing must be a core skill.

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A Day With John Cheever

We are in the communications business. That means we are in the writing business. In addition to penning business and brand strategies and crafting marketing campaigns, we write fiction and non fiction.

Here is a short story from Jeff Swystun on Amazon currently ranked #400 in Literary Fiction/Satire and #425 Literary Fiction/Biographical. You can find it here on Amazon. This is the story’s description:

James Wolcott writing in  said, “If a tinge of melancholy haunts the cocktail hour, if a croquet mallet left derelict on the lawn evokes a broken merriment, if the bar car of a commuter train gives off a stale whiff of failed promise and bitter alimony, pause and pay homage to John Cheever. Light a bug candle on the patio in his honor. For Cheever—novelist, master of the short story, prolific diarist—is the patron saint of Eastern Seaboard pathos and redemption, the Edward Hopper of suburban ennui, preserving minor epiphanies in amber.”

Cheever’s short story, Reunion, gripped Jeff from the first read. It is absolutely succinct at 824 words but has the heft of a full-length novel. That tale and others of Cheever’s are referenced in this inventive short story that pays tribute to Cheever. It imagines a day with the writer in Manhattan and draws not only on his work but also his personal essays and the amazing biography penned by Blake Bailey. It explores the dark and light of being and being remembered.