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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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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An Ad 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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The Real Reason Clients Hire You

I have spent my career in professional services. From Price Waterhouse to Interbrand to DDB to now running my own agency. Over that time I have become an expert in branding and marketing professional services. At least that is what peers and clients say. To make that claim myself is analogous to me telling you that “I’m cool” or “I’m funny” or “I’m smart”. The credibility is in others saying it. Having others speak well of you is the goal of branding.

This specialty allows me to work with law firms, management and marketing consultancies, advertising and digital agencies, and accounting firms. An engagement with an investment management firm led to an insight about how and why clients truly decide on one professional over another.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-8-58-40-pmFor a long period we assumed that clients first and foremost chose expertise. This assumption led ad agencies to talk about themselves way too much, law firms to numb clients with superior high-minded jargon, and management consultancies to dazzle with mysterious black boxes of proprietary processes. To their credit many professionals identified this as a problem but mistakenly identified the solution. They chose to switch emphasis and focus on the prospective client’s situation.

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Your Brand Story is Your Brand Strategy

So much has been written on storytelling in business that a subset of the marketing community is pushing back against its purported benefits. Yet, increasingly creative agencies big and small are specializing in helping clients better tell their story. More and more conferences are dedicated to the topic. Content marketing and copywriting professionals now fall under the umbrella of storytelling.

All of this activity is taking place with the hope that customers will identify with the story, tell it, and share it. This sounds a lot like the overall purpose of branding and IMG_4556marketing and that makes me a believer in the power of storytelling.

When it works, it really works. I am not a fan of overly simplistic stabs at business storytelling. Those attempts rob brands and businesses of what makes them interesting in the first place, namely, their depth and complexity. This does not mean everything should be “War and Peace” but it certainly should not be dumbed down to a tagline or strive for a one-word association.

I use two different constructs to help build an engaging narrative. The first answers seven questions and generally works better for B2B, professional services, and association clients. These require honest and uncomfortable answers to be successful.

  • Where do we come from?
  • Where is our world going?
  • Who are our communities?
  • What are we like?
  • How do we behave?
  • What is our purpose?
  • What is our brand idea?

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Chief Marketing Officer Turnover Persists

Spencer Stuart, a global executive search and leadership consulting firm, first brought attention to the short tenure of Chief Marketing Officers. In 2004, they reported that CMO’s lasted less than two years (that number now is now four years). Spencer Stuart’s work prompted McKinsey, Bain, and other consultancies to examine the role in papers and articles. All this analysis could be Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 9.29.27 AMboiled down to two primary reasons for short tenure: too-high expectations and poor cultural fit.

There was a fad-like quality to the early rounds of hiring CMOs. It was like CEOs looked around and said, “Hey get me one of those!” I recently interviewed Chris Hummel, CMO at United Rentals, for my upcoming book, Needs and Wants: The Universal Truths of Marketing. Chris has been CMO at Unify and Schneider Electric prior to his current position. He believes the hiring company often defines the position too broadly or may not know what they really need so it is critical to be specific in what the role is to deliver while ensuring solid chemistry with the company and fellow executives.

Executive Search consultants, Russell Reynolds, recently added to the discussion with their own report on marketing executive turnover. You can access the PDF here: RRA Marketing Moves Q1-Q2 2016 or read it below. You will find that being a marketing leader is not for the feint of heart.

MARKETING MOVES
To better understand current trends in the appointment and turnover of marketing officers, Russell Reynolds Associates tracked and analyzed 175 notable, publicly disclosed marketing-leadership moves in the first two quarters of 2016.

Key Findings

Record turnover. So far, 2016 has witnessed the highest level of marketing-leader appointments and turnover since Russell Reynolds Associates began comprehensively tracking all major appointments four years ago. In the first six months of this year, we recorded 175 marketing-leader appointments, compared to 147 in the prior six months and 134 in the same period of last year.

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Ad Agencies Confuse Public Relations with Branding

Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution in advertising from the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is viewed as the pinnacle of Madison Avenue’s influence. At the same time, the public relations profession was having its own golden days. The masters of spin were as sought after as the martini-soaked mad men (apologies for reinforcing the stereotype).

Soon competition among ad agencies grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing. Work dried up so agencies turned to their public relations cousins for help. From the mid ‘60s on, this meant pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. Most of this trumpeted new business wins and awards gained at the ever-increasing number of shows. This contributed no real or meaningful differentiation especially given all agencies followed the same playbook. The biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house.

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The Best in Cause Marketing

Swystun Communications contributed to PRNews’ 7th edition of the CSR and Green Guidebook. Our paper, Changing People’s Behavior: 8 Best Practices in Cause Marketing, is included along with submissions from JetBlue and Time Warner Cable. We cover the efforts of Uber, LUSH, H&M and Gucci. You can purchase it here and here is an excerpt on Gucci’s “Chime for Change”…

Building on the survey results and interviews, we looked at a select number of campaigns cited as best practice examples. One we heard repeatedly was Gucci’s “Chime for Change”. Robert Triefus, Gucci’s Chief Marketing Officer describes the investment, ”Chime for Change aims to realize a world where girls and women have the safety and protection they need to 1. Gucci Chime Adthrive.”

It was launched at TED and backed by celebrity endorsements from Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini. It has since thrown a mega-concert headlined by Beyonce, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. Recently it hosted Chimehack 2, “a female hackathon to develop solutions for relevant challenges in today’s world.” Chime for Change has been lauded for directly engaging consumers using a crowd-funding platform called Catapult.

For all of this they get admirable press. Yet, outside of the fashion industry, precious few people have actually heard of it. Respondents noted that Chime for Change has fallen for two common traps in cause marketing. The first involves celebrity. Celebrities are often used as avatars for the cause and a quick way to raise awareness.

This presents a long-term disconnect as consumers may desire to be a celebrity but they cannot easily relate to them. It produces an artificial association with the cause. Second, the cause leverages big events that generate press releases but questionable results. Chime for Change is an amazing premise executed in a traditional way. One respondent said she would be surprised if 1 in 100 of Gucci’s own customers have heard of the program.

8. LUSH a little does a lot

Why Most Brand Launches Fail

This piece originally appeared in Brand Quarterly.

In the old days of branding, and I am talking of just ten to fifteen years ago, there began a very predictable playbook for launching a corporate brand or rebrand. It borrowed a great deal from traditional public relations. It called for some combination of a press release, an unveiling of a new logo at a largish and often garish event, a fresh website, and a mousepad for each employee. Not much has changed in the interim except the mousepads have been replaced with coffee mugs or USBs.

Make no mistake, a brand or a rebrand is a deep, invasive and jarring intervention in the life of a business Needless to say, this is all very vacuous, fleeting, often expensive, and delivers limited real results. Make no mistake, a brand or a rebrand is a deep, invasive and jarring intervention inWhy-Most-Brand-Launches-Fail-Q1-1 the life of a business. If a company discovers it needs branding, I equate that to a serious call for help. Yet, most continue to launch brands in the most predictable and pedantic ways. It is analogous to conducting complicated surgery and then immediately throwing the patient onto the street. Here are the reasons why the approach is wrong:

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Marketing’s New Myopia

The marketing and advertising world is full of lore. These stories often take on a life on their own and grow with each telling. Many revolve around famous campaigns. DDB’s 1960’s ad, “Daisy”, has been given credit for helping Lyndon B. Johnson defeat Barry Goldwater. It also landed Maxwell Dane, a partner in the agency, on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List”. This political ad, like the “I Love New York” cam paign have many claiming outright authorship or at least participation i-love-ny-t-shirt-whiteon the team.

New York’s iconic tag line is often attributed to Milton Glaser who is said to have creatively borrowed and built upon the idea from a Montreal radio station. It turns out that CJAD Montreal’s campaign titled “Montreal, the city with a heart” was of great influence and represented the creative spark. Mary Wells of Wells Rich Greene also lays claim in her book to this forty year old, highly successful bit of place branding.

Absolut Vodka made a fairly indistinct bottle one of the most recognizable in the world. The original campaign, which featured print ads showing bottles “in the wild,” was so successful that they continuted for 25 years. It is the longest uninterrupted ad campaign in history and comprises over 1,500 separate ads. When the campaign started, Absolut absolut-vodka-absolut-peak-1207had 2.5% of the vodka market. When it officially ended in the late 2000s, Absolut supplied half of all imported vodka in America.

A few years back while working at Interbrand I heard a grand story about Peter Arnell of the Arnell Group. Both businesses were part of Omnicom. Peter was a noted character and larger than life. In fact, he was quite large in stature and took it upon himself later to lose a significant amount of weight. He was also known to be an exceedingly tough boss but most agree he possesses a brilliance for positioning products and services.

This particular story involved a prospective pet food client who was bemoaning the lack of growth in their industry. They presented Peter with undeniable evidence that pet food was a stagnant market. They could at best hope to steal a couple of points from aggressive competitors. Peter’s eyes may have glazed over looking at the pie charts and bar graphs. At this point, he is said to have made a dramatic pronouncement along the lines of, “I know how to double your market and revenue.” Read more