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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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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Measured Marketing: Why Aren’t Marketing Departments Run on a P&L?

Jay Baer has it right. Baer is a marketing consultant, speaker, and the author of book, Youtility. He said, “Make your marketing so useful people would pay you for it.” It is a wonderful notion. The quote gets at excellence in marketing while holding the practice accountable.

It is strange that most marketing departments are structured so loosely. I am not talking about the organizational structure. There is far too much written and explored on that topic. I contend that the organization of a marketing department would become extremely clear, efficient and effective if it was subject to being its own profit and loss center.

Instead the vast majority of marketing departments get a budget. The team executes within that spend and produces mediocre results for the most part. The next year the budget gets a little bump to reflect inflation and higher costs. This cycle repeats until the CEO removes the head of marketing due to vague results.

I have run global marketing teams and advise companies on how best to set-up their marketing organizations. In chats with CEOs and CMOs I passionately suggest the P&L route. CEOs love it. CMOs not so much. That is too bad because it would make marketing so much better and would weed out the real good CMOs from the ones who bluster and obfuscate. This move would have positive impact on CMO turnover.

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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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How Blogging Has Influenced Writing

It is hard to comprehend that a new blog is created every 7.4 seconds. Nearly 3,000,000 posts are made public every day. Over 10,000 updates take place each hour. These statistics come from Technorati and prove that there is a hell of a lot of content in our world.

The Internet and social media democratized writing. Unfortunately, so much of it is poor. The content tends to be unoriginal, dumbed-down, misleading and misinformed. Other issues persist including the regurgitation of the same content and the writer lacking credibility. There seems to be a need to pump out more, for more’s sake, rather than providing real thought, real value.

These issues impact the profession of writing and the efficacy of blogging. For those with a formal education in writing the vast majority of blogs provoke cardiac arrest. The very basics of writing are missing; structure, spelling, tenses, storytelling, and grammar. Too many blogs fail to include a unique point-of-view and a motivating call-to-action.

It is fair to say that the very nature of blogs is sloppy. They are opinion pieces lacking interviews and research, they are short compared to articles and papers, the content is built around SEO keywords, the style is casual, and, as covered, good writing is optional. Every single blog post would benefit from proofreading and editing.

Writing is an art form. Blogging must correct the ‘quantity over quality’ mission it currently pursues. Here are ways to make that correction.

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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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The Right Place to Write

Tyler Moss, Managing Editor at Writer’s Digest, inspired me with a tweet today. Tyler shared this photo of Roald Dahl from 1979. It shows the author in the garden shed where he wrote many of his books—including Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. I was struck by the image. It is obviously far from opulent given locale and decor. In fact, Dahl is dangerously fending off the cold in a sleeping bag all too close to portable propane heater.

There is plenty more to observe and enjoy. Two rotatory phones, a steamer trunk for a footrest, wastebasket full of discarded writing, a homemade writing table resting on an older chair. Beyond the tangible items I had to ask myself, could the space be any less inspirational? But to each his own and I cannot argue with Dahl’s prolific output. It worked for him so I thought where do other notable writers ply their trade and love?

Sebastian Faulks wrote Human Traces, Engleby and Devil May Care in this space. He has noted that the window and its view provide helpful respites from the page. It is tight and focused. There is precious little decoration but comes with the advice to “Carry On”.

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