We Compare to the Top Brands

Have you noticed the same handful of businesses lead every brand ranking, are mentioned repeatedly at conferences, and are consistently referenced in books and articles? One cannot escape testimonials to Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, and Disney. It is if there are only a handful of successful brands on the planet.

Now it seems consumers believe that to be true. Wunderman and Penn Schoen Berland surveyed 2,000 people aged 18 to 65 in the US and the UK, and the findings were consistent across generations, geography and gender. Here is an amazing finding: 87% of US and 85% of UK consumers compare all brand experiences to those they consider the best, such as Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks.

That means when we pick up our dry cleaning, rent a bicycle, or buy a shirt we are judging the experience as compared to ordering a venti cappuccino from Starbucks or streaming Better Call Saul.

After working with tons of brands and consulting to agencies who work with an exponential number of brands I am confident I know what consumers truly want from brands. They demand a solution. A solution that makes their lives easier and more enjoyable. Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks do that.

All that other brand stuff involving authenticity, consistency, and transparency are in the next consideration set. Those considerations are important for sure but when you boil it down consumers consume. Sure, some vote with their wallets if a brand does bad or badly but we buy to satisfy our very selfish needs and wants.

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Creativity: The Rituals and Routines

Recently my stepdaughter shared an article called Rise and Shine: The Daily Routines of History’s Most Creative Minds. She is entering the creative and competitive world of acting and writing in film and television. In sharing she could not help but note that I am well practiced in the routines of coffee, long walks, and inebriation (aren’t I the greatest influence?).

All family kidding aside, I struggle with the discipline and creativity required by writing. Writing is so much of what I do now. Branding and marketing requires conveying relevant and different ideas so I have always honed this talent. Now I am writing fiction and screenplays, as well as, ghostwriting for others. I like to think I am getting better at the craft but that does not mean it gets any easier.

Oliver Burkman’s article is a review of Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In it Currey notes that Joyce Carol Oats worked the morning, took a big break and cranked up again in the evening. Anthony Trollope set the goal of 250-words per quarter-hour. Meanwhile, Friedrich Schiller could only write in the presence of the smell of rotting apples (for me it’s fermenting grapes).

I like background noise and always have. Since studying in high school and university, the tunes or television have been on. As I type this blog on my computer, one earbud is in place hooked to my tablet where Better Call Saul is in rotation.

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Ad Greats on Social Media

The advertising greats who dominated Madison Avenue in the 1950’s and 1960’s left the industry an incredible legacy. Among the assets passed down and still passionately referenced are their quotes. Taken in the aggregate these bon mots represent key philosophies of business and communication. It is amazing how timeless these musings and lessons remain. Yet, much has changed in the practice of delivering compelling communications.

“Advertising” is too confining a label, consumers play an ever increasing role in how brands define themselves, technologies proliferate at ever greater speeds and we are firmly in the grip and promise of social media. This led me to wonder what the leaders of Madison Avenue would think about social media. So I combed through their thoughts to find relevance and application.

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The Slow Decay of Substantive Content

William Henry wrote In Defense of Elitism in 1994. Though the title may come across as pompous the book is actually a rallying cry for curiosity, exploration, and discovery for all. Henry was the Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic for Time magazine. The book was slammed by critics as a very thinly veiled stab at egalitarianism. In fact, it was an attack on the dumbing down of society. More specifically, it identified the strange path America was on and goes a long way to explaining where it finds itself today.

One passage points out, “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

Henry was accurate but may have miscalculated how quickly and, to what extent, this has taken hold in society. One only has to see the headlines in once-respected newspapers and magazines or take in the astonishing range of poorly written blogs or view scrolling tweets of perpetuating nonsense to conclude that we are losing the ability to search for, develop, and discover knowledge. This morning I was greeted with the following headlines from various sources “7 Things You Need to Know About …”, “13 Do’s and Don’ts of …”, “The 9 Most Common …”, “Top 10 Tips for …”, “5 Ways 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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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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We Are Addicted to Stories

How many stories did you tell today? Think about that for a moment. I am not talking about the stories we tell ourselves because that is constant. Our head gets choked with rational and irrational sagas. I am talking just about the ones you tell. Did you share the tale of your commute with colleagues? Did you tell an anecdote from your high school days?

How many stories did you hear today? If you spoke with three people you probably heard upwards of twelve to fifteen stories. Little ones are seeded throughout our conversations. Big ones entertain and engage.

How many stories did you read today? Between newspapers, that novel you are working your way through, and even advertisements you will have read a ton of stories.

How many stories did you watch today? We live in an era of binge-watching. Movies are everywhere. We can load tv shows and movies on our devices and consume them anywhere. Most shows now have four or five subplots so there are plenty of narratives to follow.

John Gottschall author of The Storytelling Animal says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Stories are the primary construct for human interaction. It is how we connect.

I have been practicing storytelling and narrative psychology for the past ten years. What has surprised me is we see narratives even where there are none. The storytelling format affords meaning to our lives. It is an engrained form of problem-solving. It helps us make sense of the world.

Humans have always been storytellers. We started with pictograms on cave walls then became masters of the oral tale before we took up the pen. Stories provide a way for humans to feel control over the world. They allow us to see patterns in chaos and meaning in randomness. They are sorting devices and educational vehicles for what has come before, what is happening now and what may take place.

Storytelling shows us how other people think. We compare and contrast when digesting stories. This may affirm our own beliefs and perceptions but more importantly they can throw them into question.

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The Hot Dog Stand Story

This business fable has stayed with me since I first heard it in university. Over the years, interpretations have popped up at conferences, meetings and in articles. It is an entertaining tale offering different lessons depending on what is emphasized. Apologies to the original author. I would gladly give credit if I knew who you are. Here is my version.

There was a man who ran a roadside hot dog stand. It was located far outside the city. For years he worked hard to make it a success. That effort paid off and eventually people would travel long distances for one of his hot dogs. It became a popular and sentimental institution. Families formed traditions around visiting the stand and tourists were told to fit it into their schedule if possible.

So what made it special? It was not one thing, it was a combination of quality and care that was difficult to match or copy.

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Taglines…need to be all they can be

Read this piece below or download the nicely designed PDF (Taglines).

It is ironic that a short bit of writing used to concisely convey an idea is called different names. These communication devices go by slogan, catchphrase, motto or tagline. For the sake of this piece and my preference, I call them taglines. Slogans possess a cheap connotation, 8701catchphrases seem vacuous bits of pop culture, and a motto is actually a hard rule more than an idea or aspiration. You can also throw jingles amongst them as a type of slogan set to music. So tagline it is.

Taglines are battle cries and statements of benefit and intent. They exist to offer information in a succinct, appealing and creative way. Ideally they deliver a message that shapes opinion and changes behavior. Taglines, when combined with action, have spurned whole movements.

These tools have been around for centuries and were refined during political campaigns in the 1800’s. In the latter half of that century they began to be employed to create awareness for products and services. Ivory Soap’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure was a pledge of quality to ivory_old_1954consumers. It floats was added in 1891 because competitive soaps did not float. Heinz’s “57 Varieties” came along, as well as, Nabisco’s clever Uneeda Biscuit that was both tagline and name all in one.

Memorable taglines have stated clear positions. There is American by Birth. Rebel by Choice. for Harley-Davidson, A Diamond is Forever for De Beers, and AVIS’ We Try Harder. Some engage by asking questions including Capital One’s What’s In Your Wallet? And UPS’ What Can Brown Do For You?

These lines tend to offer clear benefits like M&Ms Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand or the United States Postal Service We Deliver for You. Others include the name of the product or company to firmly plant them in our conscious or subconscious. Examples include Virginia Is For Lovers for Virginia Tourism and Like A Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There. Some appear www-VA4L-neg-verdefensive like Live in your world. Play in ours. for PlayStation.

Taglines have been historically a pithy short sentence or combination of words meant to live for several years if not decades. They have been locked up with a brand name and logo. That choice of words, “locked up”, is deliberate. This use of taglines is incredibly confining and tethered to antiquated marketing thinking that has lost relevance.

They should not always be carved in stone. While the idea of finding some all-encompassing nirvana statement that nails it and resonates for years is appealing, I believe the tagline can be doing so much more for a brand. In fact, I view them as mini campaigns that deserve far more freedom.

This epiphany came to me through a series of client rebranding engagements. A new brand or rebrand all demand fresh communications. When launching a rebrand I was repeatedly recommending a launch tagline that would live for a few months or upwards of a year. Then at the appropriate time it would be swapped for an attempt at a more timeless rendition. This meant avis-logoconcocting a handful or more for the client to evaluate. In every case this bundle of taglines had one or two that did not create a spark but the others were always enjoyed. So why cast them all away?

I advocate the use of different taglines at different times for different audiences. Branding is much more flexible and tailored these days. The heavy and thick guideline books that once dominated the practice no longer exist for a reason. A single tagline has diminishing value given the fluid and variable applications we use today. I often think that brand guidelines were less about consistency and more about command and control from the brand owner. They limited creativity in a monolithic manner.

There was also the fear of the cost of changing anything “locked up” in the guidelines. This I can understand. No business can change where a key brand element lives with frequency. Now in this time of digital, brands can afford and need to tailor their communications and that includes taglines.

Arguably HSBC has been doing this for years. Granted they go by The World’s Local Bank but all of their communications leverage the notion of tailored taglines used in combination. They employ, We see no problem in different points of view. Only potential. Then there is, The more you look at the world, the more you recognize people’s different values. and The more you look at the world, the more you recognize what really matters to people.

So though A Diamond is Forever a tagline does not have to be. Taglines need to ‘try harder’. Rather than use a tagline as a static statement or one battle cry, set loose a manageable army of them. Lead them and make them work together but act fast because soon every brand will be doing the same.

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Professional Services Marketing

How do you differentiate a law firm?

What makes an ad agency relevant?

How can you tell one accounting firm from another?

Can brand-building really help a consulting firm win more business?

Professional services take away problems and capture benefits. This is why they exist. This applies to law firms, consultancies, advertising agencies, architects, wealth management or private banking services, creative agencies, and accounting firms. If they do it right they are rewarded with long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.

Professional services are fascinating. Tom Peters, management consultant and author, has said, “The professional service firm – with its obsession with clients and projects – must be the new organization model.” Yet, professional services are tough businesses to brand because the promise is intangible and requires a leap-of-faith purchase.

Professional Service Essence

Whether it be a consulting, accounting, advertising or architecture firm, common characteristics apply. Each involves a specialty that demands highly talented people (who can be highly demanding). Most firms pursue deliver services that are repeatable and trainable to efficiently and effectively grow revenue. And though these services are offered to a variety of clients, they must be delivered in a customized way demanding high levels of face-to-face interaction.

The essence of professional services is that they prepare clients for the future, preempt the undesirable, control what can be controlled, and identify new opportunities.

Because of these commonalities, firms tend to share the same business model. They rely on  leverage in organizational design for profitability, structure and process, and career path strategies.

In terms of business development, they become hunter or farmer. Then they endlessly debate how best to go-to-market and usually arrive at an unnecessarily complex matrix involving a combination of service, geography, industry, and/or client segmentation. They bore the market because they are talking to themselves.

The vast majority of firms are too flexible when it comes to strategic positioning. They react to any new opportunity or chase any expression of interest from a prospect, making them quite willing to deviate from “strategy.” They are known to chase fads. Or they bluntly apply defined service offerings to a broad range of client business problems, epitomizing the maxim, “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

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