Selling Happiness: Flaws in Marketing Wellness

Before bookstores became dinosaurs I worshipped within their walls. The Strand in New York, Chapters in Toronto, Barnes & Noble in Chicago, and Nicholas Hoare in Ottawa. Now bookstores sell more tchotchkes than actual books (but that is another story). One section that never drew me in was “Self Help” books. That category was always expanding and encroaching on my beloved literary fiction and history sections.

From The Power of Positive Thinking to Chicken Soup for the Soul to Awaken the Giant Within the shelves were stuffed with how-to’s to become a happier and healthier winner. What screamed out at me was, “Snake-oil!” That is my active skeptic (and I love him) though I conceded there must be a few things of value in so many books and so many pages.

Mostly though the content is all derived from the same few pieces of common sense wisdom. Then it is repackaged and regurgitated resulting in a nauseous cycle of vacuous repetition. Of course the writing, publishing and selling of these magic panaceas continues. In fact, Amazon has 660,249 Self Help books available online.

In the last decade we have seen the definition and explosion of a broader industry. This is wellness. It encompasses so many businesses that it is losing specificity. The Global Wellness Institute has proclaimed that the industry is now worth $3.7 trillion. That is more three times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry.

In one sense that is a victory for humanity. Simply speaking we are seeking solutions beyond doctor-written prescriptions but we are medicating in new ways. That is because marketers would have us believe we are facing new problems. Stress, anxiety and depression are more widely accepted and talked about. That is fine as long as it is never absolutely normalized. We are close to having normalized divorce even though it is incredibly destructive within the family unit and society overall.

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Hiring the Right CMO

It has been called the most dangerous title in business and many pundits have suggested it does not work and should be banished. No role in the last fifteen years has been scrutinized and debated more than the Chief Marketing Officer. Businesses have struggled with the title and role since it was first coined not too long ago.

I remember working in Price Waterhouse’s Marketing and Customer Management practice when I first saw it referenced in the mid 1990’s. I think I danced a nerdy marketing jig. My excitement was shared by marketing practitioners who long thought our services were poorly understood, inaccurately recognized, and under valued.

The hope was this executive position would set the record straight and have uber impact within a business. What happened and continues to take place are huge assumptions and unrealistic expectations placed on the CMO that almost always result in disappointment. Of course, I have seen situations and models work but I have witnessed many more fail.

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Where is the Content in Content Marketing?

The marketing world has finally discovered that honest and valuable content makes a difference in interacting with consumers. Not surprisingly, marketers had to name and define this activity. We called it “Content Marketing”. Definitions abound but it is meant to encompass all marketing formats involving the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumers.

It begs the question…is there such a thing as non-content marketing?

Beyond my jadedness, content marketing’s intent is to provide high-quality, relevant and valuable information to prospects and customers to drive brand awareness, consideration, and purchase. Content Marketing can take many forms such as custom magazines, print or online newsletters, digital content, websites or microsites, white papers, webcasts and webinars, podcasts, roadshows, roundtables, interactive online, e-mail, and events. Read more

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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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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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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Storytelling Good Reads

Enjoy this round up for recent and relevant storytelling articles. Some are geared to the practice of writing but you will find they can be applied in a commercial context to help drive your brand, marketing and advertising.

Inciting Moments (find it here)

From the Writers Write blog comes this education on two types of inciting moments that drive interest and the story. At its root is how a problem is solved so this construct can be applied to a brand beautifully and creatively.

Storytelling Is Not a Strategy (find it here)

Kelly Wenzel, Chief Marketing Officer at Contently, chooses a provocative title for this piece but the content is less contentious. It deals with content marketing. A term I have always disliked…has there ever been non-content marketing? Those who choose to identify themselves as content marketers seem to believe the goal is producing and pumping out more and more stuff. Wenzel gets teasingly close to what should be happening – a solid theme that motivates the audience and supporting communications that keep it fresh.

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Intended Messages Do Not Always Arrive As Intended

In 1906, O Henry penned his short story, By Courier. It runs just shy of 1,500 words, yet, it is packed with entertaining and fascinating lessons in communications. I am not talking about the craft of short story writing but rather O Henry’s lessons on how intended messages are not always received as intended. If you care to, I recommend reading the story prior to absorbing what follows or enjoy the synopsis. Here is a link to the story.

By Courier features a man and woman sitting on different benches a distance apart in a park. They use a young boy to run messages to each other. These messages get twisted and turned for many reasons. The man initiates the back and forth with his own subjectivity. The boy relays it in less refined language and different emphasis. The woman absorbs the message with her own interpretation. There a couple of to and fro’s that further confuse. Eventually the tale ends with a fun and ultimately clear resolution.

Of course, clear resolution or even understanding does not always take place in our interactions and communications. We make assumptions, embrace subjectivity, lack empathy, fail to grasp key points, and hear-what-we-like-to-hear among other issues.

Communication comes in many forms. There is written, spoken, visual, gestures, non-verbals and more. All communications share the same steps. O Henry’s story captures these beautifully:

  1. Motivation or reason for communicating
  2. Message composition
  3. Message type … digital data, written text, speech, pictures, gestures and so on
  4. Transmission of the message using a specific channel or medium
  5. Natural forces and human activity that influence the message in sending
  6. Message reception
  7. Interpretation and making sense of the original message

These steps come across as rather clinical, if not, linear. If you think about it, they are far more dynamic especially in our sped-up, always-on, technology-driven world. When I communicate or design communications for clients, I try to build this complex “sandwich” by first focusing on the bread. The bread are numbers one and seven of the steps.

If you concentrate on your motivation and reason that will add intended clarity. Then you have to mentally ‘hop-over’ and think as the recipient. How will they receive, interpret and decode your message. This will further refine the message. You will never get it perfect because other elements come into play. However, that effort will pay off in greater accuracy of intent and, often, appreciation by the recipient for you having taken the time to think and communicate from their perspective.

Let’s close off with The Blind Man and the Advertising Story. This is well- and oft-told tale in business schools. You will find many lessons in it as well. The biggest is wrapping a fact with personal and emotional relevance. I invite you to note the others.

An old blind man was sitting on a busy street corner in the rush-hour begging for money. On a cardboard sign, next to an empty tin cup, he had written: ‘Blind – Please help’.

No-one was giving him any money.

A young advertising writer walked past and saw the blind man with his sign and empty cup, and also saw the many people passing by completely unmoved, let alone stopping to give money.

The advertising writer took a thick marker-pen from her pocket, turned the cardboard sheet back-to-front, and re-wrote the sign, then went on her way.

Immediately, people began putting money into the tin cup.

After a while, when the cup was overflowing, the blind man asked a stranger to tell him what the sign now said.

“It says,” said the stranger, ” ‘It’s a beautiful day. You can see it. I cannot.’ “