Before love is even remotely possible you need to establish some level of awareness. Most marketers race about madly shouting their taglines, marking territory with their logos, and trying out any device that could possibly raise awareness. While this behavior and its motivations are understandable, it’s still flawed. Perhaps we can best contemplate this challenge by looking at our own actions. Let’s consider how we become aware of the companies that we eventually buy something from.
How do you find a plumber?
The Yellow Pages has countless listings for plumbers in any city. This can leave us in a rather odd predicament. Imagine that the pipes have burst and someone needs to be called. Who’s trustworthy: The one with the big ad? Or the funny name? Or the neat mascot? It’s hard to choose, so we do one of two things: we take a random guess or we ask a friend who they suggest. I prefer the second option, as I trust my friends. I also think there are other factors to consider.
One of the most important ways to succeed in life is to simply “be there.” For example, of the people I’ve hired, many had reminded me regularly that they wanted to work for our company. Likewise, I buy from the florist next door, because their location makes them focal. Additionally, I tend to get wine at a shop a block from our apartment out of pure ease. This says little of the brands that are more universally “there” as a result of consistent and repeated messaging: I Google when I need to find something, I blow my nose on a Kleenex, and I Xerox documents.
I admit that these are a somewhat tired set of references. Still, it proves how important it is to just “be there.” Additionally, becoming ubiquitous in a given industry is quite viable, if one’s determination to do so is strong enough. Some may have to concentrate on servicing and marketing to a specific region, while others may choose to narrow their offering to a particular type of clientele. These are both sensible ways to make becoming top-of-mind less arduous.
This notion of “being there” is really about becoming a known quantity. No matter how adventuresome you are, I bet that you frequent the same few restaurants more than others. Additionally, I’ll wager you order the same few things there repeatedly. It stands to reason that their other dishes would be as good—or perhaps better—than what you’re comfortable ordering. Similarly, there are likely dozens of other delightful establishments you could try, which you’d enjoy equally so.
Each time we try something different, we run the risk of finding something that we don’t like. This desire to remain in one’s comfort-zone is really important when we look at brands. In a world containing limitless varieties, most people reach for the same brands (and experiences) time and again. Almost anyone could order crème brûlée and give it a try. They could take in an opera to see what all the fuss is about. Or, they might forsake a year of work to live in a beach-hut in some reasonably-priced tropical climate. Sadly, few do, regardless of means, because doing so involves the possibility of the unknown. Horror films have taught us well that the unknown is where danger resides. So instead, we do our “9 to 5,” after which we curl up in front of the television with a bag of Doritos and watch an Adam Sandler movie. Thankfully, those all end exactly the same way—no risk there!
I could carry on regarding what a sad statement this is about the human condition, but that would be off-topic. What’s important to take from this is that people crave known quantities. When I see companies trying to do something exciting and different every time they approach their marketing, I worry that they’re missing the point. Customers really want to know what you are, and that you’ll always deliver on the same promise: “The café with the amazing peach pie!” or “The oil-change shop where you never have to wait.” or “The technology company whose stuff always works.”
The French painter Matisse once explained he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman.79 Some will say—particularly in light of new technology—that we should push the boundaries and do only edgy and wildly exciting things when we market our companies. I feel this advice to be flawed, and argue that we should instead create companies that feel like that armchair Matisse spoke of. Our companies should strive to be classified easily by customers and hold this position by maintaining their trust. A customer should feel as safe in calling your company as they would settling into that loyal, old chair that’s been in the basement for as long as you can recall.
To do that, we need to first determine why our companies matter, and then craft a message that can be repeated indefinitely.
My “ordinary” mistake
For all of the assistance I give to others, I’m often hamstrung by one of the simplest mistakes. I erroneously think our company needs a massive qualitative advantage when we market our own services. If I say that we create “great” websites, I want to have a method of proving that this is more than just exaggeration. Similarly, as a young fellow trying to meet women, I was often limited by my fear of being overly ordinary. What’s problematic here is that so many of us are stuck by these same misconceptions. In ways you are ordinary—as is the person next to you, and the one next to her, and so on and so forth. Your company is likely quite ordinary as well.
I have met with numerous law firms that have sought to differentiate their operations by building a brand identity or website that would show how great they are. One specific website we built years ago is to blame for this. Countless law firms have since called us into their offices and asked us to create the same for them but better. This is typically after the seemingly compulsory discussion about how “different,” “out of the box,” or “fresh” their firm is compared to all of those other “boring” law firms. (I never have the heart to burst their happy fantasies.)
Most all of these firms were doing fine, being ordinary law firms and doing what I suspect is pretty ordinary “law stuff.” This in itself is probably enough to keep clients walking in the door. A few firms might find a competitive advantage by servicing a specific kind of clientele, or differentiating in some way. The unfortunate—and notable—part is that those who want to market better typically aren’t willing to do so. Instead, they just copy their competitors with the intention of being “a little better.” This leaves a lot of companies relying on a set of vague superlatives like “fast-acting,” “super strength,” and “exceptional service.” The real issue at hand isn’t one of being better. Instead, it’s a matter of getting known for one specific thing.
Advertising has told us that we’re all too busy, old, fat, boring, suburban, smelly, wrinkly, ordinary... and the list goes on. The implicit message is no matter how good you are, you still haven’t arrived—and you should keep on buying something else until you do. This leaves many of us looking at the people around us, asking what we can do to better ourselves—regardless of whether such “betterment” is relevant or necessary. You may think that you’re immune to this, but a lifetime of being told that we’re not good enough does have an impact. It even skews how we see our companies.
This nonsense leads us to look at our lives—and businesses—and get “change happy.” We’ve had enough of being deficient, and we start to make bold, sweeping changes.* We call in branding firms, ad agencies, change consultants, and designers to “right” every wrong and change everything we can. That classic logo dating back to the start of the company thirty years ago? “Hah! Garbage! We’re getting one of those neat ‘web 2.0’ ones!” The old brochures? “Those will go to the recycling bin—besides they are so last year!” Positioning statement? “Do you really have to ask? We’re a whole new company. Everything is going to be different. Change is good!”
This seems a little like me deciding to run ultra-marathons, abstain from alcohol completely, and embrace an all raw-food diet. These goals, although admirable, may be too “whole hog.” Perhaps I just need to exercise more, limit myself to a glass of wine a day, and go for a balanced-meal instead of a Whopper and fries. It’s almost impossible to change our personalities. I ask if the answer might be to steer clear of transformative change, and concentrate on isolating and addressing our real problems.
*Please note that “bold sweeping changes” are sometimes necessary—particularly if you make lousy products.
A small twist of the knob
What if the only change your company requires is a small one? Getting a message across in marketing tends to require some deal of repetition. Establish one clear message and avoid deviating from it. This also holds true for your brand. Sure, you can make changes along the way, but haphazard ones can be perilous. Each time you abandon your track and begin anew you lose the inertia you’ve already established. You are then forced to completely start over.
Bold changes in your marketing direction shouldn’t be undertaken without ample consideration. For many, I propose there is little necessity for disruptive change, but rather a need to turn a few knobs. The one that most often needs to be tweaked is labeled “Presence.” Quite often companies have a strong value proposition, exemplary service, and effective marketing assets. Yet they fail to act upon them. An analogy for you:
Doug is a nice guy. He’s employed, well read, and spends his weekends volunteering; at the same time, he’s a little lonely and would like to date more. After work on Fridays he goes for a run, showers, and prepares for a night out. He primps his hair and gets dressed, only to look in the mirror and realize that something’s not quite “right.” He changes clothes, then changes yet again. Each time his garments look fine, but he can’t get past the notion that he could do better. He sneaks in a brief dinner, tries on a few more things, and finally realizes that it’s too late to go out. So he sits down on the couch, impeccably groomed and dressed, and watches a movie alone.
Scott’s a different sort. He wears out-of-date clothes and ratty t-shirts. His hair is unkempt at the best of times and he has a little dandruff. Sometimes he forgets to put on deodorant and gets a little “aromatic.” He’s funny and nice, but has a tendency to speak too loudly—sometimes putting off those around him with his bad breath.
Both are decent fellows who are just a twist of a knob away from meeting people. Doug just needs to pick something to wear and get out there. (It doesn’t matter how well you’re dressed if no one ever sees you.) Scott, on the other hand, has to get some dandruff shampoo, deodorant, a toothbrush, and a clean t-shirt and jeans. These aren’t pivotal, life-altering, Tony Robbins’ Personal Power kinds of changes. We’re talking easy stuff.
When I look at small companies who want my business they often fall into one of these categories: well presented “Dougs” who never make themselves known, and “Scotts” who are visible but don’t give their presentation a moment’s thought. Ask yourself: which one of these are you? I’m betting that we have a lot of “Dougs” out there who do good work, but feel uncomfortable making themselves heard.
By the way, Most large companies are Edgar: He stands at the bar wearing tacky but expensive clothes shouting, “Hey buddy!” to all those around him. We might dislike Edgar, but he still meets lots of people.
Position, refine, speak, repeat
I’m fascinated with the moment of change. What turns a funny ad into a cultural meme? When do loose connections become movements? At which moment do you achieve breakthrough? This is elusive and difficult to pin-down; nevertheless, I believe there’s a pattern that can help lead us to this moment. It’s not guaranteed, but the architecture for it seems sound.
First, organizations need to know who they are. Without a defined purpose, the company will progress in no clear direction, simply floating about wherever the wind takes them. Second, with a strong position in place, messaging is honed to articulate this proposition. Without it, your message will run long and be incapable of elevating past the noise. Next, this message must be spoken where people can hear it. Failing to do so leaves you with a “Picasso in a vault.” Sure, it may be yours, but no one else will ever get to enjoy it.
With all of this in place, we come to repetition. Every brand, tagline, jingle, logo, icon, and treatment that has become lodged in your mind has done so through repetition. Coca-Cola, IBM, Nokia, Toyota, Intel, Disney, and all those others have done many things well. At some point they clarified their brand proposition and pummeled us with a few core messages and icons until it became virtually impossible for us to forget them.
Remind me you exist
Almost every group that our company has worked with has had something notable—or even remarkable—to offer. For one reason or another, though, they didn’t talk about this advantage. Perhaps it seemed too insignificant in their minds. Maybe they didn’t even realize they had it, or it could be that they didn’t know how to pitch it. Once they had isolated this value, you’d think it would have been easy to move ahead.
A moment ago, a representative from a print shop just downstairs from our office walked in with some samples. I’ve seen their logo a thousand times and they’re probably worth considering when we need a printer, given how close they are to us. Still, I continue to work with remote suppliers because I’m familiar with them. It’s not like I’ll redirect all our business to the print shop downstairs through a single personal introduction, but they did remind me that they exist. Heck, I might consider them for our next print project.
When I suggest that you need to spread the word, I don’t mean it to be in lieu of everything else you need to do. You can’t have bad service, scrimp on your marketing materials, or treat your staff poorly. That’s the hard part: you have to do all of these things well and you need to get out there to actively spread the word.
Make some action
Maybe you need to devote a fixed amount of time each day to tell people you’re available to lend a hand. Perhaps you need to call the people you’ve previously worked with and ask if they might introduce you to new prospects. You could even have an open house and invite potential clients to meet your staff and try out your products. Without knowing your company, it’s hard for me to suggest what will work for you. Regardless of your circumstances, I think it’s safe to say that you need to act.
I’m always surprised by the faith put on marketing pieces. Some think that a blog will bring in new sales on its own. Others hope that a presence established through social media will make sales efforts unnecessary. Some go-live with a new website and think that the all work is done.
A few weeks ago I met with a client over drinks, who noted, “I hoped the website you created for us would bring in some new work, but I guess it doesn’t work like that.” I was somewhat taken aback. This is a highly intelligent and insightful fellow; yet, he seemed under the misconception that the website alone had this sort of power. I felt pretty guilty about this for the rest of the night—as though we hadn’t delivered on a promise. I’ve thought about that conversation and others like it, and found a bit of a pattern. All of these prescriptive notions surrounding marketing have us putting a disproportionate amount of trust in the tools, and this is a problem. Buying a lawnmower doesn’t result in a cut-lawn; it’s only the means by which you could cut it. Similarly, a website is a fine way to convey a proposition to interested parties and remove any doubt about your operation. But before that can happen, prospects need to find your website. This requires you to get out there and spread the word.
Marketing collateral, advertisements, and identity materials are important but largely inert—on their own, they do nothing. Printed materials need to be put in people’s hands for them to be read. Advertisements must run where customers will see them, to encourage action. The most suitably crafted corporate identity will do little in a documentation booklet; it needs to be implemented and real people need to touch and see these things. Websites and blogs are particularly challenged in this regard. Aside from turning up in search results they are islands. You have to direct people to these properties and cultivate an audience.
No one plants a garden expecting it to take care of itself. You must water, weed, fertilize, and prune; its success depends on constant attention. With marketing, some think that the collateral will magically do the work for us without any intervention. I once spoke with a fellow who was completely frustrated with the poor performance of a campaign. It later turned out that 90 percent of their promotional booklets remained boxed in storage. I suppose the customers should have been delivered to their brochures, instead of the other way around. ;-)
Word of mouth is a wonderful phenomenon that we should all seek to harness. In the meantime, we can’t expect such buzz to occur spontaneously. We need to be active participants in this process, and the first pushes are often the most difficult. These days it’s easy for Apple to get amazing word of mouth, but they spent decades building relationships that allow this to happen. I’m guessing they experienced a few tough days along the way too.
Marketing isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon that requires you to simply put one foot in front of the other. It would be odd to think of any one stride being more important than the rest. Similarly, it’s unlikely that a single campaign or marketing device will result in an overnight success. Although such miracles make for great headlines, reality tends to be less dramatic.
So keep moving and don’t get preoccupied with little slips along the way. Call a few prospects every day to introduce yourself. Send a thank-you to someone who lent a hand. Write a blog post that provides insight for those who are struggling in an area that you are knowledgeable. Check the site statistics to learn who is referring traffic to your site and how you might encourage more. If you want customers to know your company, you’ll have to get off the couch… no matter how nice your outfit is.
Next chapter: How to Flirt With Your Customers
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