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Part Five: Acting and Adapting

Finally we’ll look at how you can put all of this to work for your company. In this final passage, we’ll start to craft a plan for your brand and marketing that you’ll actually use. You’ll also learn how to make change work for you, as well as how to find good partners and work with them. For fun we’ll go over a few ways to screw the whole thing up! I don’t think you have to worry much about that though.


Chapter 22: The Inverted Pyramid

I’d like to provide a framework of sorts for developing an overarching plan for your brand and marketing efforts. While there isn’t room in this chapter to address every single consideration, this will help you start.

“Big” does come with privileges

If you were in a marketing role at a big company you’d probably be part of a vastly different scene. Certain things would be clearly determined, allowing you to get focused on more well-defined projects. On top of that, you probably wouldn’t be left with so many big picture questions. The boss wouldn’t walk into your office and ask, “What matters most to us?” or “Are we going to be happy doing this sort of work?” or “Do we really want to grow?”

Instead, they’d figure all of those things out, leaving you with mission statements, identity standards documentation, and maybe even some data regarding your customers and their habits. All of these are great things to have and tend to make a marketer’s job that much easier. Once you have all of these great things determined, you can concentrate on more highly defined tasks with clearer goals and objectives. You might even have an organizational marketing plan in place, allowing you to concentrate on very specific efforts with the support of other more senior people to help you through.

Around here, it’s different

It isn’t really like this for most small companies. From what we’ve seen, small companies face an altogether different side of marketing. Most of them have very few of these things clearly defined. Perhaps they have an old business plan that hasn’t been consulted in years. Maybe they had some conversations a while ago regarding the company’s mission and values, but everyone felt weird about them. What came of that was vague and hard to buy in to.

Most small companies are just trying to fight through the day with rarely an extra moment to spare. We’re typically bombarded by a seemingly endless stream of things to do and choices to make. Amidst all of this hustle and bustle, marketing tends to get kind of “piecemeal.” When The Yellow Pages calls, an ad is prepared and placed. When you’re asked to give a talk, you stay up past midnight for days trying to make a nice looking PowerPoint presentation. When a patron tells you that your website sucks, you’re left trying to figure out why they’d say such a mean thing and asking what isn’t working.

I believe this way of working is exponentially time wasting. While one of these considerations opens a can of worms, combined with the rest, it gets even worse. Every one of these things has an impact on the other tools and channels you employ. Few realize this, as they’re mostly scrambling from one thing to the next. When they do finally have a chance to sit back and look at these elements together, they realize their marketing is scattershot and awkward.

When you’re rushing to put out fires, it’s hard to think about how your actions impact the big picture. Your website says one thing, but it’s not echoed in your telephone manner, or the promise made in your ads. Getting each of these things to function alone is hard enough; without a clear direction, making them work together becomes almost impossible. These inconsistencies come with an added price: to the outsider it seems like your company is out of tune. Worse yet, it leads them to doubt if you can deliver on what you propose.

The “sauce”

Allow me a brief tangent. This whole mess reminds me of something I once concocted in a high school cooking class. I didn’t have much experience in the kitchen, but I suppose I likened myself to a culinary daredevil of sorts. I made the bold decision to… experiment. In my pursuit of finding new gastronomic delights I felt it best to be unencumbered of any rules or restrictions. To support this, I began with no clear direction or end goal in mind.

I began by frying some onions and adding assorted ingredients. Soon it seemed like I was making some kind of soup. I continued with this for a while, until it started to seem a little dull. To counter this I decided that it would be “neat” to make into something a little heartier—perhaps a stew. I then used dollops of flour to thicken the mixture. Next I added tomatoes, carrots, peppers—come to think of it, I might have even tossed some pickles in the mix. I started to hesitate at this point, and realized that no, it really should be more “soup-like.” I added some water to thin it once again.

This fiasco carried on for some time and by the end of the afternoon, I was left with what might be characterized as a grayish mush. For dinner that night we ate something I’d rather forget. My parents christened it “the sauce.” I still think that was a more generous name than it really deserved. My invention didn’t taste like much of anything—largely because I didn’t ever figure out what I wanted to make. To this day, you can ask my parents about the sauce and they’ll laugh.

Some companies make “the sauce” when it comes to their marketing. They start with a little of this and add a little of that. They veer from one thought to the next, largely led by how they feel at the given moment. Perhaps they stumble upon something interesting here or “sort of neat” there. Unfortunately, without a clear direction in mind, a company’s marketing can quickly turn into bland and uninteresting mush.

Zooming out

I recognize many readers of this book probably don’t even have a marketing plan. I’d wager that the ones who do find theirs isn’t working as they desire. Regardless of one’s dislike of such things, it’s important to come up with a plan that is well suited for your organization. I believe that the size of your operation may necessitate a kind of plan that’s tailored around your unique challenges and needs.

My problem with some marketing plans is found in how they are often outward facing: concentrated solely on customers, competitors, market forces, and the like. If you’re a company like General Mills and you’re working to bring a new consumer product to market, such a lens makes a great deal of sense. If, on the other hand, you’re a small video production company, your considerations are different. You might be wise to step a little further back yet, and look inward first.

While I can’t speak to your specific situation, I can share what we’ve witnessed at our agency. In our experience, small companies generally make disconnected moves that result in that aforementioned mush. They bounce from one thing to the next, each time becoming more confused. By the time they reach us, they don’t really know what to do, nor in what order.

We’ve found that it’s been helpful to “zoom out” and ask them some more general (or perhaps bigger) questions. We’re often able to help them isolate the root of the problems they face. In working through this process, it seems that other opportunities and a logical course of action are clarified. I suppose it’s almost absurd to suggest any other result, isn’t it? Many only address their marketing when a specific task demands their attention, instead of putting aside adequate time to outline expectations and develop a plan. Can you think of another setting in which such action make any sense? Just think of how silly it would be to start building a house by assembling the cabinets!

Most would instead start by asking what their life is like, what they want out of a house, and how much they can afford. Once those things were determined, they might hire a contractor to help them find (or draw) plans for something suitable. I’ve never built a house, but I’d expect from that point forth they’d take a series of steps, each informed by the one prior. We like to think that crafting a company’s brand and marketing isn’t altogether that different.

The inverted pyramid

Given the size of the companies we work with, we’ve found some ways to help our clients get a handle on things and determine a course of action. The nice part is that this all boils down to a fairly simple way for small companies to develop a big picture plan. Our approach has evolved over the years and I’ll touch upon the high points here. You can fill in the rest, either on your own, or with the team you bring in to assist with such efforts.

I visualize our approach as an inverted pyramid. Imagine an upside down triangle comprised of four stacked layers. Each of these tiers represents a broad set of considerations and choices, and each follows the next in a defined order. From this characteristic, decisions made on one level inform the following ones. As this occurs, the direction, strategy, messaging and method of delivery are clarified.

This works well because it asks us to consider the long-term; meanwhile, it forces us to take subsequent steps that lead us further down this road. In turn, we’re left with an approach that fits the organization’s long-term needs but can still be implemented immediately.

I suspect that your marketing—not to mention your business—has forced you to face more questions than you had ever anticipated. I want to lighten the load, leaving you with fewer questions to deal with. Working through this process can do just that. The questions you’ll be left with are made more manageable given that they operate within a less ambiguous context. This means the questions you do ask will be the right ones. Let’s take a brief look at those four layers.

The first layer: Direction

Many believe they are facing a marketing problem when they are actually dealing with a direction problem. Worse yet, some have no direction. If you’re inundated with challenges in your marketing, I ask you to take some time to stop concentrating on it so closely—instead let’s pull back to examine and articulate what it is you want out of your life and your business. Knowing this will make everything that follows substantially easier.

To some, this might feel like an unnecessary step backwards. Even if feels cumbersome, it’s highly important and worthy of added consideration. Should you have already determined all of these points, you can look at this as a good refresher that shouldn’t take much time. A great many companies flail from one service to the next because they didn’t ever take a “time out” and give suitable deliberation to their direction. This moment—this very moment—is the absolute best time to ensure you are on track. By asking, some may even determine that they don’t have a track. If that’s the case for you, count your lucky stars! When better than now, to learn of this and address it?

Clarifying your direction first requires an honest appraisal of who you are and what you really want. I emphasize this last point because it is so highly personal. Lots of people are trying to build a business that is like their neighbors’; yet, if they actually achieved it, they might find that it wasn’t at all what they had expected. So… what do you want from the organization you’re building? Are you growth focused or are you in it for the cash? Is your business focused on allowing you to maintain a certain lifestyle? Are you perhaps in it more for the art (or craft) of what you do? Are there some aspects of what you do that are simply more rewarding than other parts?

Asking and finding appropriate answers to these questions is pivotal to the small company. Sure, it steps back into business plan territory, but it’s so important to your brand that it deserves reflection. Some have a great brand strategy and marketing plan, but are unmotivated to continue. If you hate what you have to do every day, what’s the point?

I’ve met with a number of people who have given up on a particular kind of work (which may have been quite lucrative) to do something that better suits their desires. Some find that they are best off doing something other than what they had once planned. Personally, it makes little difference to me what you choose to do, or for what reasons. The purpose of this exercise is to align whatever desires you have with a method for building your business. You need to define what your company means to you, on your own terms. This way, if all of your marketing works, you land in the right spot.

From here I think it’s important to look at the Hedgehog Concept as illustrated by Jim Collin’s Venn diagram in his book Good to Great.95 In it he takes three circles, each defining a simple measure of your situation. He breaks these down to the following questions: “What you are deeply passionate about?”; “What you can be the best in the world at?”; and “What drives your economic engine?” I like to simplify these to: passion, capacity, and money. Either way, there’s likely an answer of sorts for you where those three circles overlap.

You should think about or have already determined all of these considerations. On the other hand, I suggest that some of us have drifted a little over the years and perhaps even lost our way. Let’s take pause, and run your current direction (and offering) against these measures. How do your expectations and plans stack up? Honestly—are you in good form or do you need to redefine your direction?

The second layer: Strategy

Defining where you want to go is a huge step. Many of us struggle throughout our careers, changing path many times as boredom sets in or our interests shift. This same challenge is compounded when one starts a company. We wrestle with all the same considerations, in fact, it’s sometimes harder as more people tend to be involved. This makes the path even more difficult to navigate. Now that you have a clear direction, it will help you reduce the number of variables that you have to contend with. Better yet, you can start to come up with a way to achieve these ambitions.

There are countless ways to craft a plan for your organization, and I accept that I’m skimming over many relevant considerations. The thing is, I’m biased. While I’m obsessive about planning things out, I don’t want you to get burdened by details prematurely. Instead, I’d like you to get the broad strokes in place. Once those work, you can always pin down all of the specifics.

I guess I should just say it here: I hate mission statements. They’re long, vague, and difficult to act upon. Part of the problem is that we think a mission statement has to sound like a mission statement. They often do that but little else. This leaves one with a block of text that seems “right,” but is rarely ever considered again or even used. On the other hand, I like sentences—particularly the ones that don’t require fancy words. For these next points, I ask you to vehemently avoid the vapid bullshit that’s endemic of those wanting to seem smart, important, or business-like. Get down to clear answers. If you do so right, you should be able to share your responses with someone completely uninterested, and still have them understand what you’re doing.

I think there are a few key questions you need to answer clearly for your organization’s strategy. The first is purpose: What do we want this company to accomplish? This is like a mission statement, but much more plain and actionable. In a sentence, can you tell me what you’re about? You get bonus points if you can do so with only a few words. By the way, most people would address this earlier. I put it later as I think it’s important to first determine what you want as a person, and then see how your company’s mission fits with that.

The second, and closely related one, comes down to offering: what does our company do? I admit this seems like something that should be implicit; yet, if you ask some business owners this same question they’ll hum and haw before stumbling through a vague and overly long description.

The third question relates to value: What do our customers get from buying from us? I probably don’t have to say it, but this goes past the hard goods and services you provide, and relates to the greater value you afford to them. Finally, we’re left with positioning: How are we unique from everyone else in the market? This last question can alone uncover some of the answers for how you can most effectively market your organization.

These may seem like very simple questions. If you find them so, I ask if you are truly giving them the time and deliberation they deserve. Alternately, having these answers could mean that you know exactly who you are and how you are situated amongst competitors.

Casting aside the apparent straightforwardness of these questions, you’ll likely find that each requires you to think further and do a little legwork. For example, you’ll need to define your organization’s vision and goals. You’ll also have to carefully identify and reflect upon your audience, asking: who buys our stuff? Is there someone more suitable—or profitable—to consider selling to instead? What are these people like, and what do they need?

You’ll also need to boil down exactly what you offer and why this is relevant amongst all of your competitors. This will force you to assess the landscape. You can do so by examining your competitors, their messaging, and asking what gaps exist in the marketplace. Along the way you might find certain patterns. Perhaps there’s an opportunity in between what you offer that what others haven’t really concentrated on.

Knowing where you’re going, understanding the landscape, and clearly articulating your value. That’s what you have now cemented. You’re now set to hone your organization’s voice and craft the tools with which you connect.

The third layer: Messaging

A challenge that many run into with their marketing relates to how they envision its function. We see this quite regularly at our agency when new clients come to us wanting what we call the, “magic marketing key.” This fantasy basically equates to: “Here’s some money. Build me a new ________. How soon will our sales increase?” While I’d love for marketing to be this clear-cut, it rarely is as direct as this notion implies.

In marketing, you don’t just insert your dollar and have a treat pop out at the bottom of the machine. I argue that to be effective in your efforts, you need to think of marketing as a more holistic practice. By this I mean that all of the dots need to connect, forming one clear presence for the consumer. This is largely tangible through an organization’s messaging and it has an awful lot to do with alignment. If you want to do one thing, but you say something else, you’re going to confuse people. While some think marketing has to be clever, I say it instead needs to just be really clear.

Tying all of your messaging elements together (and by this I mean all touchpoints for your organization) removes doubt in the customer’s mind. I use the term messaging very loosely here and intend it to reference any way in which others interface with your company. So your corporate identity, its styles, treatments, sensibilities, and the resulting emotions, all fit into this. You could think of this as your company’s “look,” and it manifests itself in your signage, displays, website, brochures, name tags, and business cards.

More than this, it relates to how your organization communicates in the broadest terms. This means the way you approach people when they enter your premises, how you respond to customer calls, the text you use in advertisements, the promises you make in your marketing materials, and so on. Such a list can get pretty long and intimidate some people, as it brings a lot of decisions to make. By having all those earlier steps sorted out, this becomes much easier. Establishing your messaging allows you to know what all of these things should look, sound, and feel like.

In doing so, you’ll find that even the smallest decisions are affected by these earlier decisions. If you’re part of an organization concentrated on environmental sustainability, you probably won’t print oversized brochures on thick, metallic stock that can’t be recycled. Similarly, if your company is big on being friendly and accessible, you probably won’t use ten-dollar words in your ad copy. If you want your organization to seem exclusive, you might not choose to advertise for staff on craigslist.

If you do all of this well—and you really should take the time to do this well—you’ll save headaches in the long run, as well as money and time. Doing it this way will keep you from starting from scratch every time you need to implement a new marketing tool. By not having to experiment with each individual task so closely, you won’t waste so much money building and rebuilding.

The fourth layer: Delivery

Finally, we arrive at the delivery stage, and you’re ready for it because you went through the steps in a logical order. This is radically different from how most small companies reach this point; some just skip all of the above steps and start right here. That’s why this stage gets so confusing for most of those folks. They find themselves tasked with picking the right tool, before they know what their plan or purpose is. As we’ve addressed, you’re in an entirely different position. You know what you want to do. You have a plan for how to do it. Additionally, you’ve clarified the way you’re going to say it. With all of that resolved, you just need to figure out where to do so.

This really comes down to a few basic considerations. The first is to determine what you want to achieve through your marketing; or, as some would say, you need to determine your goals and objectives. Remember that there is a difference between the two. Sure, you’ll want to feel out what you generally want to accomplish, but you’ll also need to get more specific. What objectives can you quantifiably define and set as hard targets? In doing this, you’ll be able to set out on a course and have established a hard set of measures for what you want to achieve.

From here, we can look more closely at your audience. Earlier you covered who they are, but this is a good time to get more detailed in our questioning. Where are they? What matters to them? What’s the most suitable—and highest value—way to engage them? Meanwhile, I think you’ll need to carefully consider the resources you have at hand. Do you have the necessary funds for a particular tool/venue? Let’s be blunt: there’s terribly little point in looking at ad rates for major magazines if you only have $10,000 in your annual marketing budget. Money is just one matter—you also need to consider how much of your valuable time can realistically be invested in your marketing efforts.

For example, lots of people get excited about creating their own content. I suggest that such thinking can prove dangerous. Creating a great video series, online resource, or blog takes time. Managing your company’s interaction on social networks is something that can take a real bite out of your day. Even if the tool seems inexpensive or free to use, think carefully about the time you have available. Can you really allocate enough to pull these things off effectively?

There are countless ways to spread your message but I have a hard time believing that any one thing is inherently better than the rest. I ask that you instead seek out the ones that work best for you. In part you can do this by fixating on which vehicle might be most effective in conveying your message to an interested audience. You may choose to test some selective advertising that leads people to your website. Perhaps you’ll concentrate on directly contacting qualified leads. You might start a frequent customer program. Giving away a new product to loyal customers could work well. Alternately, it might make sense to start an online advice forum centered on your area of expertise. Or, you could do several of these things. It all comes down to your company and what gets the word out best for you.

And then you refine

By doing all of the above, the inverted pyramid is formed. In a way You could look at this as map of sorts. Occasionally you might deviate from it or try another route. That’s OK—it doesn’t matter that you’ll sometimes change course. The point is the destination remains consistent. Meanwhile, you have a method of getting “there,” even if there’s a little drifting along the way.

You’ll want to come back to the plan you’ve established here repeatedly as you move ahead. Some things won’t resonate, requiring you to augment your approach. Others may be hugely successful revealing new avenues worth exploring. All of these things involve some unknowns. You need to be responsive to information as it unfolds itself to you. The nice part is that by knowing your direction you can make tweaks as necessary. For example: an advertisement doesn’t result in traffic? Try a different venue. People can’t find something in the shop? Move it. No one reads your blog posts? Test some different ones and see which resonate. Better yet: ask some people why they don’t find them engaging.


It’s easy to confuse marketing for fun. Many people get wrapped up in working with interesting creative folks, thinking that they’ll be able to, “push the envelope.” They look at every marketing exercise as an opportunity to “play” and say things like “this is going to be fun” or “let’s do something out of the box!” Conversely, I say by following the plans you’ve made earlier, such comments should occur less frequently. Actually, doing all of this might make some of the process surrounding your marketing and associated design work seem almost boring. Try to remind yourself this isn’t about making art or having fun. You simply need to do what’s in line with your organization.

Recently, a client came to us. They were struggling terribly with their marketing and were quite frustrated. When we spoke (early in the process) they had all kinds of ideas for things to try, but they didn’t have a way to gauge which made the most sense. They were rather lost, but certainly not ready to give in. At one point they asked, “Should we do something funny to get some attention?” My response was simply, “Are you a funny company?” Well, they weren’t, and with that query I was able to make a point. By getting the right plan in place for an organization and aligning all of the pieces, such a question wouldn’t have been asked in the first place.

At around the same time, we were working with a more long-standing client of ours. They needed us to create the design for their trade show booth. We crafted no creative briefs or lengthy concept documents; there wasn’t even much back-and-forth or discussion. We spoke briefly and gathered the specifications; then we built something that fit with their brand. The associated questions were limited because there were only so many ways to design this piece. They signed off on the artwork and it ran without a single revision. Knowing where you’re going makes the path easier.


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Next chapter: Finding and Enabling Great Partners



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