New & Improved: This Branding Trendsletter Is A Must

Its not on any set schedule. We send out New & Improved when we have good stuff to share. Not only our own ideas, cases and thoughts leadership but the best thinking in branding, marketing, and thought leadership. Sign up here. If you don’t like it you can opt-out any time though we will go into a deep depression.

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The Marketing of Advice: Lessons in 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?

The business of professional services is to take away problems and to capture benefits. This is why they exist. This applies 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 and offer amazing lessons in strategy and management for businesses in any industry. In fact, 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.”

Professional services are tough businesses and tough to brand. They offer intangibles that hopefully lead to tangibles and, in my professional experience, need help in branding, marketing and business development.

Professional Service Essence

Whether it be a consulting, accounting, law, advertising or architecture firm, common characteristics apply. Each involves a specialty that demands highly talented people (who can be highly demanding). Most firms also share the pursuit of a new and big idea that can be repeatable and trainable to efficiently and effectively grow revenue. And though their services are offered to a broad spectrum of clients, they must be delivered in a customized manner through 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.

Based on these commonalities, firms tend to share the same business model. They often rely on the notion of leverage in organizational design for profitability, structure and process, and career path strategies. They quickly develop the posture of being either a hunter or farmer. Then they endlessly debate how best to go to market and usually arrive at an unnecessarily complex matrix involving some combination of service, geography, industry, and/or client segmentation. This means they end up boring the market because they are talking to themselves.

The vast majority of firms are challenged to define their own strategy. Firms are dominated by those who react to any opportunity and any expression of interest from a prospective client, making them quite willing to deviate from “strategy.” Or they chase management and service 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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The Best in Narrative Psychology

When you meet someone for the first time or reconnect with an old friend or go to a dinner party what takes place? Think of any situation where you are interacting with others. We share an anecdote from our day at the dinner party. We tell that old friend about what has taken place with our family and career. We attempt to connect with someone new by conveying our experiences and interests. This does not mean listing or dating activities. In every instance we use storytelling to communicate, engage, and relate.

Storytelling helps us make sense of our lives and the world around us. They are an incredibly effective method of finding and sharing meaning and context. Mary Catherine Bateson, writer and cultural anthropologist, believes that, “The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” We are hardwired for stories because we have been telling them for centuries.

Marketing and advertising practitioners continue to debate the application of storytelling in business. The most voracious advocates cannot see past the construct and even the hardiest critics employ storytelling. So why all this sharing of tales? Stories inspire and motivate. Stories make ideas stick. Stories persuade. Stories educate and entertain. That makes for good marketing.

A few years back at the Festival of Creativity in Cannes I had the pleasure of interviewing Arianna Huffington, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, of The Huffington Post. It was also a challenge as her handlers held me to just three questions. She once said, “People think in stories, not statistics, and marketers need to be master storytellers.”

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Marketing’s Golden Rule Ensures Relevance

Recently, I was named one of the 50 Over 50 Marketing Thought Leaders by Brand Quarterly. Beyond enjoying the honor and sharing my age with the publication’s entire readership, I was stumped by a bit of the process. BQ asked me to provide my “marketing mantra” and how it makes better marketers. It seemed like an easy request at first glance.

Then I got it into and quickly discovered I subscribed to many. Perhaps too many. So I sorted through them to see if there was commonality. I also looked for something fresh but compelling and by no way contrived. In the end, I brand-quarterly1landed on the notion of the Marketing Golden Rule. It is a representation of what I have witnessed and experienced as both marketer and consumer. The Marketing Golden Rule speaks honestly to the relationship between buyer and seller.

What is Your Marketing Mantra?

Always ask, “How would I like to be marketed to?” I don’t want to be fooled. I am not looking for false promises. I do not want to be entertained for entertainment sake. I am seeking fit with a brand. This modified ‘golden rule’ keeps the focus on reciprocity. Marketing is a relationship, a two-way street, a process to achieve mutual benefit between people and brands. People expect marketing but do not want to be sold. They want to be valued, heard, and feel special. This makes the profession and practice a profoundly human activity.

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How does Following this Mantra Make Better Marketers?

Marketing facilitates sales by respecting and helping people make the best decisions concerning what, how, and when to buy what they need and want. David Ogilvy said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” He was imploring marketers to truly know who may buy what is being sold. This demands an understanding of an individual’s situation and personal motivations to provide an objective rationale and honest justification for every purchase.

Marketing is the study of human behavior and our behavior has not changed in centuries. It has been consistent from ancient open-air markets to modern online exchanges, from Pompeii to eBay. We are both rational and irrational, and we frequently confuse our needs with our wants.

This makes marketing an amazing profession. It is a mix of psychology, data science, pop culture, history, sociology, music, consumer behavior, design, neuroscience, writing and literature, mathematics and so much more. This complex cocktail does not set out to overtly sell, it strategically and creatively promises and proves.

Increasingly marketing is technology-led and data-driven. Marketers are overwhelmed by reams of information. Every brand I work with is inundated with data. It is not making them better at marketing. T.S. Eliot got it right, he asked, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Data is great if it produces human insights that incite. It sucks when a spreadsheet replaces intimate knowledge of a customer.

Marketing connects on a human level. Consumers expect brands to market to them. Equally so, they expect brands to empathize and understand them. Marketers that hide behind vague, lofty claims or attach inordinate emphasis to dispassionate technology or fail to prove their promises will facilitate few sales because in this there is no relevance, honesty, value or humanity.

Broadly speaking there are two types of people in marketing. There are those who like to fool people and there are those who like to serve people. It is time our profession cast off the old-school, jaded types who believe marketing is about creating myths and trying to snow people with them. We need to celebrate those who know it is about finding a truth that connects people and brands for mutual benefit. All of this starts by asking, “How would I like to be marketed to?”

Cheers, Jeff Swystun

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A For-Profit Mindset: Trends in Association Branding

Years ago I spoke at a conference focused on crafting association business strategies. This was in the late nineties while in the Marketing and Customer Management Practice at PW (now PwC). My work to that point focused on professional service businesses and consumer products. To tell the truth I was filling in for a colleague who fell ill.

The presentation went well but it was the conversations following that stuck with me. In short, I was rocked by the complexities of the industry and the challenges faced by these entities. iacpconferencephoto1-520x346Associations have always been “up against it”. All share certain issues. After working with four associations in the past two years, we have discovered the following:

Cost Not a Benefit: in many cases, members join to maintain accreditation or there is a penalty for not keeping membership but not necessarily claimable upsides.

The “Nonprofit” Label: it suggests a softer culture, less talented employees than the private sector (but stronger than the public sector!), and lack of depth and sophistication in leadership, management and planning. Let me be clear…this is perception not reality.

Overlap: one only has to look at the marketing and advertising industry to see that an agency in the United States could belong to easily over twenty different associations. Imagine being a retailer or in healthcare and that number is many times higher. This makes it important for associations to differentiate. When you think about it associations are competing against every other association out there and be held to the standards of the best. Also note there are associations for every conceivable group in the world…there are even several associations for associations!

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2016 Top-Drawer Business Books

It is that time again. We are happy to share our annual business books picks. Welcome to the 9th edition of the Top-Drawer Business Books of 2016. Too many business book lists are narrow in definition. Our list is less traditional and duplicative to others. That is why it includes, and is sometimes dominated by, screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-3-32-04-pmbooks not categorized purely as “business”.

We always avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the knowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2016 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, Famous_Nathan_jacket_revise_new_trim_size.inddwell written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list, 4 more than last year, and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

Remember, life is too short to drink cheap scotch or to read books that are not Top-Drawer. So keep these selections within easy reach for repeated reference. Access the list here, topdrawer2016final.

Narrative Psychology in Brand Storytelling

Let me tell you a story. It’s a bit about our past. A bit about our future but more importantly, it concerns what is happening right now. It is also a story that nears 2,500 words because our complex world cannot be dumbed downed, reduced to a vague tagline, summed in a 140 character tweet, or captured in an oversimplified to-do list. True learning and understanding requires time and effort so heat the kettle or uncork a bottle and enjoy.

Marketing and advertising agencies claim to be professional storytellers. Methodologies at agencies deliver a brand story as part of engagements. Creative briefs bring the story to life. Agencies pump out papers on the subject and profile case studies where the story is key to client success. Within the industry, marketing conferences make room for storytelling as part of the agenda. Media and publications write on the topic with frequency. Storytelling permeates the profession.

Still, storytelling is constantly critiqued. It is viewed broadly as integral, over-used, irrelevant, or even dead. Storytelling is constantly evolving in interesting ways. Here are three changes taking place in business storytelling:

They Don’t Tell: by its very definition, storytelling is broadcast in nature. We tell a tale. It is ‘one-to-many’ like the Mad Men era of advertising. We know that no longer works. Stories must now invite consumers in and let them be both character and storyteller. It is now about storyparticipation not passive absorption.

They Are Organic: the best brand stories take root organically and get consumers involved. Then they really evolve. This scares traditional marketers. They fear ceding control. Still they control context and that is critical. Context provides the story’s framework. Granted it is a bit of a wild ride when consumers help build the story but this is what is taking place with Uber and Airbnb and has taken place with Apple and Red Bull.

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100 Staff: An Advertising Agency Tipping Point

Starting any business is a bold move. Not all survive and few truly thrive. Those that do face the challenges of managing growth and staying true to what made them successful in the first place. This is an interesting tension that I recently discovered in working with four advertising agencies.

These businesses had grown to 100 or more staff. Of course, that metric in, and of itself, is not an indicator of sustained success. The good news is the agency leaders know that. In fact, these leaders were concerned because interesting things happen when the payroll hits 100. Here are some issues that arise:

  • Agencies of 15 or 30 or even 75 employees possess a start-up or boutique feel. When you hit 100 this weirdly begins to dissipate.
  • You don’t know everyone any more. Small agencies talk of being saatchi-saatchi-office-funkt-1“family” where everyone has each other’s back. While a strong culture can keep this rolling as staff size grows, it cannot mitigate the realities of being larger. This is compounded when they open up other offices.
  • A bigger payroll and presence prompts new business pressures. This can mean chasing the wrong work to keep the machine humming.
  • Founders and principals move from client service oversight to functional roles. Marketing, people, service and product development and other areas need full-time leadership. This transition can be bumpy and skill-sets are stretched.
  • Specialisms and differentiators begin to lose their luster. You simply cannot make the same claims. Being “nimble”, as an example, gets called in to question.

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Every Agency Needs to Obsess About Loyalty

The company, Access Development, tracked and recorded, and recently shared every publicly available piece of data available concerning customer engagement and loyalty. They call it the Ultimate Collection of Loyalty Statistics. These data points, insights and themes are interesting unto themselves but add up to one big fat fact they did not note…any marketing business is in the business of loyalty.

I mean advertising agencies, marketing consultancies, public relations firms, market research bureaus, digital agencies, performance marketing shops, telemarketers, brand consultancies, social media marketers, media buying services, promotional material providers, influencer and celebrity marketing 200464106-001advisors…well, you get the idea. Any agency, firm or service that is in the business of marketing exists for one purpose. Of course, this includes those prescient to be specifically in the business of loyalty marketing.

The past, present and future of marketing has and will always hinge on loyalty. No company wants a one-time customer. Even businesses selling bomb shelters in the 1950’s wanted a client’s second home or to upgrade the first. Apple wants to sell customers a new cellphone every time there is a new release or every 22 months which is the smartphone adoption average.

Agencies and consultancies continue to talk about brand positioning, awareness, consideration and trial. Important stuff for sure but only the start. All efforts and spend should have loyalty as the end goal. Anything else is a dodge, a feint, a run from the real focus and fight.

Not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer is really talking about loyalty.

I see not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer talking about loyalty. This leads to churn, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and the regurgitation of the same ideas whose only result is a client’s frustration and dissatisfaction…and poor results.

Why spend money on branding and advertising if not to have repeat customers?

Let me say it again, no company wants a one-time customer. That is why marketing’s purpose is loyalty. You only need to give a cursory examination of Access Development’s aggregation to arrive at the same conclusion. We thank them for the following…and for also proving loyalty programs are a tactic not a strategy.

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What’s Happening in Brand Storytelling?

Storytelling has its sceptics and detractors in the business world. I fear the word and practice is both being overused and misapplied much like “business design” and “branding”. The only way to conclude its effectiveness is to give it a try. That starts with understanding by reading the latest thinking on the subject.

Moving From Fiction to Non-Fiction
Many brand and product stories “are just pretty commercials made to wear beat up sweatpants to try to boost authenticity and believability”. Jay Baer recently admonished such efforts saying, “Storytelling has to shift from an emphasis on the story to an emphasis on the truth.” He goes as far to suggest that this “will be the big content and social story in 2017.”

The Resurgence Of Storytelling
Devishobha Ramanan writing in The Huffington Post suggests that oral storytelling is needed in company leadership. Her introduction is an eloquent example of storytelling, “Stories are powerful. imageThey can teach us to be moral or immoral. They can help us cut through a situation analytically. They make us cry for someone else we didn’t know. They make us happy for someone we only wished we had met.” She calls for business leaders to draw on ancient practices. India’s Harikatha is an oral storytelling tradition with a primary storyteller and two other storytellers in support. China’s Shuosh and Japan’s Rakugo are other examples whose use can motivate and educate audiences.

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