Category Archives for "DAILY POSTS"

2 Branding in a skeptical world — Two Trends For 2012

Magazine editors and TV journalists love year-end lists. And when it’s the end of a decade, there’s even more interest in rehashing the top 10 things in every category from celebrity scandals to the most trusted brands.

I prefer to look forward, and I suspect many of you are with me on that. So here are two — not ten —  branding trends that will help you, right now.

• The crisis of confidence and the consumer’s ultra-sensitive, internal BS meter.

The last two years have not been good for consumer confidence. The banking collapse. Bernie Madoff. AIG bonuses. The automotive bailout. Tiger’s “transgressions.” No wonder people are more jaded than ever.

Consumers are singing a collective tune, and the refrain goes like this: “don’t bullshit me!” (It’s country western.) They’re more savvy than you think. They’re armed with information, and if they catch you trying to pull a fast one, they’ll blast their song to the entire world.

Negative word-of-mouth has never spread so fast, or so far.

Customer reviews on sites such as Yelp, Angies’ List, Amazon, and Citysearch have become so popular, the press is calling this the “reputation economy.”

The big brands are spending millions to monitor and manage the online dialog, but control is squarely in the hands of the consumer.  They now have the power to preempt a major branding effort with a few bad reviews, blog posts or YouTube videos. (Remember Micheal Phelps?)

Entire industries have been buried in bad will. Take, for instance, the mortgage business…

If you’re trying to manage a brand in that turbulent mess, your single most important task right now is rebuilding credibility and regaining the confidence of your constituents.

And it’s not going to happen overnight.

Here’s the good news: When it suddenly crashed, that big wave you were riding wiped out more than half of your competitors. Darwinian capitalism at its best. The bad news is, all those failures tarnished your image too. As a survivor, you have to dig yourself out of a hole filled with bad press, misperceptions and tainted experiences.

It can be done if you focus on making the entire experience better than it ever was. During the boom, no one cared about service. It was just a race to see who could close the most deals. So the bar is very, very low.

Hurdle it by being honest with yourself and with your prospects.

Slow down. You’re in a service business, so focus on building a better process that will deliver an experience that far surpasses their expectations.

Do that, and you’ll have an authentic story to tell. Do that, and you can get past the skepticism and come out of this better than ever.

• The experience is everything.

Branding isn’t just about products and marketing messages. It’s about the real life experiences people have around the product. Directly and indirectly.

So the easiest way to generate authentic, positive word-of-mouth is to provide an experience that far exceeds that of your competitors.

Think of everyone who went to the movies in the last week or two. How hard would it be for Regal Cinemas to make the experience dramatically better for us during the busiest time of year?

Not hard at all.

Imagine if we didn’t have to wait in a long line, out in the freezing cold. Of if we did have to wait, imagine if someone was serving little cups of hot chocolate. That would warm us up to the Regal Brand.

Imagine if we didn’t have to wait in yet another serpentine line for the same old Skittles. Or what if they offered a Christmas special on popcorn and soda that didn’t cost as much as the movie.

Talk about a better experience. Talk about Tweetable differentiation… “No lines at the Regal Cinemas on 5th.”

We would drive out of their way for that. We would tell our friends and post positive reviews. And most of all, we’d remember that experience the next time. Given a choice — same movie, two different theaters — we’d opt for the theater that triggers some little reminder of a positive experience.

That’s great branding.

Here’s another example: Over the holidays I heard a couple raving about their experience with a Lexus dealer. They actually argue over who “gets” to take the car in for repairs. No kidding.

For that particular couple, the experience in the service department of the local dealer means more than more than the driving experience. More than all the luxury features. And way more than any commercial message the company could air.

It’s ironic when you think about what Lexus stands for: Dependable Luxury. Their cars seldom need work, so you wouldn’t think the company would put much emphasis on the repair experience. But they have.

Maybe they saw the market research that pegged “service after the sale” as the biggest problem for other luxury brands. Or maybe they just figured there was so much room for improvement, they couldn’t go wrong.

In any case, by completely reinventing the repair experience, Lexus turned a potential problem area into a branding opportunity. And according to the 2009 J.D. Powers study, it’s working. Lexus, once again, received the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any automotive brand.

So this year, find ways to improve the experience people have with your brand. Even if they’re not  your customers.

And don’t just focus on your best product or service. Look at the weakest part of your operation, and see if you can turn it into a positive customer touch point, like Lexus did.

Go beyond your core competencies and see if there’s something you can do to make things easier, better, faster for your customers.

Lexus is in the business of building cars, not automotive repair shops. But they recognized the connection, and the opportunity. They built repair shops that are as good as the cars they make.

In branding terms, they aligned the repair experience with the Lexus brand.

How well does your service and your operation line up with your brand? This is the year to find out.

1 Three ways to hone-in on a better homepage for your website.

These days there are a lot of nice brands that exist only on the internet. They don’t have a presence in the local mall. They don’t advertise in traditional media. And they don’t have a rock star CEO who gets a lot of free press. So they rely on Facebook posts, twitter feeds and maybe email to generate leads.
And where does all that social media marketing lead people? What’s the one tool that absolutely has to convey their brand message and entice people to do business?
The homepage of their website.
Most companies haven’t built elaborate online sales funnels, so the homepage design has to carry the load. The homepage is the modern-day business card, sales pitch, storefront window display and company brochure all wrapped up in one. For the vast majority of companies, it’s the center of the marketing universe.
Unfortunately, many people have adopted a real estate analogy to help explain homepage design and planning. Like a developer working within a tight urban growth boundary, they believe every square inch is “valuable real estate.” Not to be wasted. So they cram as much as they possibly can into that screen. To them, white space is just as useless as a vacant lot.
I’d like to offer a more constructive analogy: Think of your homepage as the cover of a magazine…
bnbranding homepage for your website
That magazine is sitting on the newsstand, next to a hundred others on the same topic. Somehow, it has to stand out.
The cover alone needs to entice people to skip over the competition and take a look. In a nutshell, the magazine cover has to sell magazines.
The same can be said for your website homepage. The homepage has to sell the value of your site and convince people to stick around. At least for a minute or two.
So let’s look at the techniques that magazine editors use to move product off the newsstand shelves. How do they get people to pick up their title and browse through it? Because the browse always preceeds the sale.
That kind of thinking is directly applicable to good homepage design.
Choose one delicious visual.
Photo editors spend weeks getting just the right photo for their next magazine cover. They look for images that tell a story and convey genuine human emotion. They sweat the details because they know that good eye candy on the cover pays off at the newsstand.
Webmasters use whatever they can find on Google images.
Or they load up whatever crappy stock photos they can get for $4.95 apiece. (How many homepages have you seen with a stock photo of a smiling, happy telephone operator, standing by?  It’s ridiculous.)
Or they do the E-bay thing, and snap a quick photo of their product with a cell phone. That’s a fatal error that drives people away from your site, and hurts your brand image.  (Read more on the use of stock photos) 
That’s not how you will be found, or remembered, online.
Narrow the strategic focus.
Magazine editors know their readers, and they choose a cover article that will be relevant and compelling to a large portion of their audience. Not all, but most. Then the art director designs the cover around that article. One idea. One main visual element, with just a couple of teasers regarding other content.
On the other hand, most homepages have all sorts of products and links and windows and specials and banners and photos and videos and nav options. Instead of focusing on one thing that appeals to the bulk of their audience, they try to show it all.
Unfortunately, all that clutter causes confusion and muddies your brand message.
You only have a few seconds to answer a prospect’s most pressing question… “will this website give me what I need.”  “Does it have the content/tools/products I’m looking for?” Trying to sort through a hodgepodge of elements and endless choices doesn’t help answer that. In fact, consumer behavior research shows that when faced with too many choices, people often just disengage.
Limit the number of choices on your home page, and you’ll have better click-through rates.  Besides, people don’t judge your entire operation by the homepage, but they DO judge your website from that. So you better make a good first impression.
Tease. Tease. Tease.
The objective of the homepage isn’t to make the sale, it’s to open the door and lure them in. It should entice people to click in and poke around, just as a good cover entices people to thumb through a magazine.
The art of the tease is about leading people deeper and deeper into your site, until they find just what they’re looking for. You want to build in a sense of discovery and drama, revealing a little more at each level. Far too many websites just lay it all out, right there on the homepage.
Here’s another way to look at it…  Imagine that you have a brick & mortar store in the world’s most popular mall. Your front window display is the equivalent of your homepage. You don’t shove everything you’ve got into that little window, you choose a few really tasty items and tease them for more. Like Victoria’s Secret.
You want shoppers to stop in their tracks, admire your presentation, and then walk in the door. That’s the objective. Same with your homepage.
Get them in. Lead them to what they’re looking for. And make the sale! Just don’t try doing it all on the home page.
For more on effective website design and strategic homepage planning, try this post: 
If you’d like a free assessment of your current site, give us a call. 541-815-0075.

4 Putting Amazon In Perspective

How could my 79-year-old mother possibly be a poster child for Amazon.com? When it comes to technology, she’s utterly hopeless… She’s never written or received an e-mail in her life. She’s never  Googled anything, or referred to Wikipedia. And to her, a twitter is something finches do.

And yet here she is, contently reading yet another novel on her Amazon Kindle.

 

The new  Kindle.

The new Kindle.

 

About a year ago my mom had a “micro stroke” that affected the optical nerve in her right eye. Made it almost impossible to read for any length of time, and typical, 12-point type is almost impossible to decipher. To make matters worse, the little library in her town can’t afford many large print books. So she was stuck.

Enter the Kindle.  Critics have panned it for being technologically archaic, and like Sony’s book reader, “bound to go nowhere.” Some say it’s just another pet project of Jeff Bezos, like his exploits in the commercial space race. And Wall Street analysts say it’s such a tiny piece of Amazon’s model, it’s too small to even consider.

But it’s a big deal to my mom. And to me, it’s symbolic of everything good about the Amazon brand.

In the 4th quarter of 2008, when the rest of the retail world was sucking wind, Amazon reported its best holiday season ever. Net sales increased 18% to $6.70 billion, compared to $5.6 billion in fourth quarter 2007. For the year, net sales increased 29% to $19.17 billion, and net income was up 36%.

As Fortune Magazine put it, “By virtually any measure — market share, revenue, profit, stock price, customer satisfaction, international reach  — Amazon Inc. is thriving.”

But why?  Why did Amazon survive the dot-com crash when so many brands fizzled into oblivion? Why did Amazon become the world’s largest on-line retailer? Why does the Amazon brand rank so well on virtually every brand loyalty index?

Because they treat all their customers like my mom.

Bezos started out during the dot-com boom with a plan to sell a lot of books on the internet. And he certainly accomplished that. Amazon went public in record time. All his investors, including his parents, made a fortune. He was even voted Time Magazine’s man of the year in 1999.

But unlike many of the CEOs of the day, Bezos was thinking long-term. From the very beginning he understood that the success of his brand hinged on one thing:  An unrelenting focus on the customer.

That’s the brand mantra of Amazon. To this day, Bezos continually sells Amazon as the most customer-centric company on earth. When he has a tough decision to make, he always defaults in favor of the customer. Often at the expense of short-term profits.

When Amazon added the customer review function many people thought they were crazy. The assumption was that bad reviews would hurt sales. In fact, the transparency boosted sales and help solidify a truly interactive brand relationship with millions of people. Now customer-generated reviews are standard procedure in the e-commerce world.

Amazon’s short-lived TV campaign is another example of how Amazon stays true to its brand. “We did a 15-month-long test of TV advertising in two markets – Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis – to see how much it drove our sales,” Bezos said in a 1997 interiview. “And it worked, but not as much as the kind of price elasticity we knew we could get from taking those ad dollars and giving them back to consumers. So we put all that money into lower product prices and free shipping. That has significantly accelerated the growth of our business.”

They haven’t run a mass media campaign since, and yet the Amazon brand has grown even stronger. Suppose, maybe, it’s the customer’s experience that cements long-term brand relationships, not advertising?

Bezos believes their focus on the customer has also helped Amazon launch innovative new products and services over the years, like Amazon Prime pre-paid shipping and a host of services for small e-commerce companies.

“We wanted to have a customer-focused culture. We consciously tried to get that. If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.”

Which brings us back to my mom’s Kindle. 

The scalable type is plenty big enough for her to read. There are 230,000 titles to choose from.  It’s simple to use, (with some assistance  from my dad on the downloads.) There’s no annual contract and no monthly bill. And the new, second generation Kindle will even read outloud to her. 

It’s everything she would have ever asked for, if she could have dreamed of such a thing.

To my mom, the Kindle isn’t an electronic gadget. It’s not about the sophisticated wireless connection or any other technological leap. It’s just a tool that enables her to do what she’s always done… curl up with a good book. And for that, we’re genuinely grateful to Bezos and his team. 

4 Truth & Transparency — How one ski area is managing customer’s expectations.

By John Furgurson

Ski area managers live and die by the whims of Mother Nature. Already this winter high winds and heavy ice have toppled trees and wrecked havoc at Mt. Bachelor. Flooded roads cut access to Crystal Mountain. A lift tower at Whistler snapped. A landslide took out a lift at Snoqualmie Pass. And some poor guy at Vail found himself hanging upside down and naked from a chairlift. 

So how do you keep your customers happy through all the drama and mayhem? How do you handle those days that don’t qualify for the chamber of commerce brochure? As Mt. Bachelor has discovered, it’s a matter of managing expectations by educating skiers about mountain operations and reporting the truth in a timely, credible manner. A significant departure from the industry norm.

Ten years ago they could get away with little white lies on the morning ski report. But now cell phones make it hard to pull one over on anyone. The lift ride is plenty of time for skiers to Twitter or send simple, pointed text messages to their friends down in town that either confirm or deny the morning report.

“Is sucks, stay home.”  “It’s Epic. Get up here.” “Fogged in. Can’t see two feet.” With minute-by-minute updates like that, sugar-coated reports from the marketing department just don’t cut it any more.

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Last season Mt. Bachelor suffered a string of PR problems… Unexplained lift closures, safety violations and some questionable policy decisions by the new parent company caused a lot of grumbling in the skiing community. And quite frankly, the Mt. Bachelor brand took a hit. For the first season in 30 years, it slipped to # 2 among Oregon’s ski areas.

So this year a new management team is working hard to improve the overall experience, and that starts by managing expectations.

From what I’ve seen so far, they’re using their website pretty effectively to paint a realistic picture of what it takes to operate a modern ski area on a 9,000-foot Pacific Northwest Volcano. And it’s a lot harder than I ever imagined.

Since the latest storm, they’ve been uploading videos that show what the lift crews are faced with. It’s harder to complain about a lift not opening promptly on time when you’ve seen the manual labor required to do the job… Time lapse photography of an employee climbing up a 40-foot lift tower, tentatively chipping away at ice two feet thick.  Loggers and snow-cat drivers working together to clear 60-foot fir trees from the middle of a run. That’s powerful stuff that I haven’t seen on any other web site or in any other industry.

 

www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlYZUlHzby4

The daily conditions report has also improved dramatically. It’s now updated several times every morning, and it’s written in a first-person, man-on-the-slopes tone. Not only that,  it’s refreshingly truthful. Last week, in the midst of the worst ice storm in 30 years, the author said, “I walked around the base area, and it’s not the kind of day you don’t want to set foot outside. It’s raining hard and it’s below freezing.”

And I love this one from a day in early December when everyone was still praying for the season’s first big dump: “We had nine inches overnight, with high winds. It’s deep in some places, and other spots look just like they did two days ago.”

Now that’s authentic!

The amusement park industry should take note. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a park, with your kids all jacked-up and ready for the latest, greatest roller coaster, only to find the ride closed for some unknown reason.

The golf industry would also benefit from such frank assessments. A detailed superintendant’s report would be tremendously useful in a country club environment where guys have been known to complain about the fairways being TOO perfect. If you show members all the work that goes into keeping all 18 greens rolling at 11 on the stimpmeter, they might not complain as much about miniscule variations in the height of the rough.

But honesty isn’t about shutting up your biggest critics. It’s about cementing a relationship with your best customers and maintaining the goodwill of your brand. Because every time you leave out important information, fudge a bit in a press release, or overstate a marketing claim, you’re chipping away at your credibility. Like ice on a lift tower, eventually it’ll all come crashing down on your head.

 

Curiousity got the best of you? See the unlikely lift ride here: 

www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/06/vail-chairlift-accident-l_n_155578.html

 

 

 

 

7 Marketing lessons from GM — Will a $30 billion bailout buy them some focus?

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The top guns of the American auto industry parked their private jets, piled into their big, luxury hybreds, and headed back to Washington last week. The goal: 50 billion dollars in loans, credit and other forms of bailout money. The second installment of what one reporter called, “a long term payment plan in $35 billion installments.”

There’s no doubt GM’s failure would a terrible economic blow. Those jobs would be sorely missed, but would anyone miss the mediocre brands that GM’s been consistently producing for the last 35 years?

I don’t think so. Other than some loyal Chevy truck fans, consumers won’t miss a beat.

GM’s business problems are far reaching and complex. The Wall Street Journal says “it’s a bloated organization with too many dealers and too many factories producing too many cars for the marketplace.” (GM has 7000 dealers in the U.S. Toyota outsells them with just 1500.) The company is burning through cash faster than a Suburban sucks gas — $75 million a day, according to one account. Turning that land yacht around is is going to be much harder than anyone’s predicting. As one consultant said… “Even with a generous series of government loans, GM is likely to go bankrupt within the next two years.”

Let’s face it. GM has been losing ground slowly but surely since muscle cars were killed by the oil embargo of the 1970’s. If congress looks at the situation from a marketing standpoint, they wouldn’t cough up a dime.

According to Automobile magazine, “it’s been 50 years since GM built a car that was the standard of the industry in any category.” Overall, GM products have been poor in all respects, from design and driveability to safety and fuel efficiency.

I believe that GM’s quality issues and their current financial crisis is a direct reflection Alfred P. Sloan’s famous, flawed strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose.” Sorry, but quantity over quality just doesn’t work in the modern automotive industry.

GM’s business model for the past 30 years has been built around the assumption that they can keep making money off products that are unremarkable, at best. But even when you’re as big as GM, you can’t be all things to all people. Over time, that lack of focus is going to kill you.

Look at GM’s track record in the small-car market. First they had the Chevette and the notorious Vega, a car reknown for being the first aluminum block engine ever produced… (not exactly the type of innovation that propels a company into a new era.)

While Honda, Toyota and Nissan were dominating that market in the 80’s, GM introduced The X-cars… the Citation, Omega, Phoenix and Skylark. Yikes! Those weren’t economy cars, they were just awful, underpowered sedans.

GM fumbled around for 20 years trying to build a small car under the wrong brand: Cadillac. Remember the Cimmeron? It’s on Time Magazine’s list of the worst cars ever built. And the Catera, “the caddy that zigs.” The advertising was unbelievable and the product, unbelievably bad. For consumers, a small, sporty Cadillac just doesn’t compute.

Then there was Saturn, GM’s great hope of 1990. Nothing in the history of GM could match the enormity of this brand’s launch. They built a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Springhill Tennessee. They opened a new dealer network and adopted innovative new marketing and customer service programs, including a policy of “no haggle pricing.” To their credit, they did everything differently in order to compete with the Japanese.

Despite the plastic body panels, Saturn succeeded for a while. The cars were affordable, and they even won some industry accolades in the subcompact category. Unfortunately, GM starved that division of cash, kept them from launching new products for 10 years, and now is contemplating a shutdown of that brand.

So they can’t compete in the small car market. But what about GM’s bread and butter categories, like vanilla-flavored sedans? Unfortunately, they’ve even been losing on that front as well. The Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in the country for years, followed by the domestically produced Toyota Camry. In the meantime, The Oldsmobile brand limped along for years before GM execs finally pulled the plug in 1999. They tried all sorts of marketing ploys to save it, including more than a dozen different slogans for the brand over a 15 year period. They did everything BUT build a car that appealed to anyone.

GM missed the boat entirely on the minivan craze, and they were slow to market with their SUVs. (But no one will deny the success of the Suburban.) GM actually had the lead in green technology in the late 90’s with the EV1 electric car, but they pulled the plug on that for short-term financial reasons. Now, while the Toyota Prius flies out of showrooms, GM’s playing catch-up yet again with the Chevy Volt. The volt is not a hybred. It’s actually an electric car, leaps ahead of Toyota in the green car game. It plugs in and it looks racy too, but it might be too late to the starting line.

Clearly, GM has been all over the place strategically. Now it looks like the bailout will force them to focus their efforts a bit. There’s already talk of paring the product line-up, and in the recent Senate hearings GM execs said their new strategy is “to focus available resources and growth strategies on the companies profitable operations.”

I guess that means four core brands… Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. And potentially four more marketing failures: Pontiac, Saab, Saturn and the king of them all, Hummer. (Don’t even get me started on that.)

Even with the forced focus on just four brands, GM will have a difficult time turning a profit. According to Automobile Magazine, the Cadillac CTS is actually one of GM’s small glimmers of hope for something better down the road. “It’s not relevant at $60k, but it’s a reminder that GM knows how to build a very special automobile. It’s the pride of Lansing Michigan and proof positive that GM has a lively pulse.”

Hmmmm. How can a car be “not relevant” in the market, but hopeful? And why does the mainstream press assume that GM will suddenly “start building fuel efficient cars that people want to buy” as soon as this bailout comes through? They haven’t done it yet. And no marketing blitz or government bailout can turn a lousy product into a branding success.

There’s an old saying in advertising circles… “great advertising just kills a bad product faster.” Sadly, GM’s history is littered with products that died fast, deserving deaths.

15 Four secret ingredients of all successful brands.

PLEASE refer to the updated version of this post. Thanks.

 

(What you can learn from a healthy bowl of cereal and a four-buck burrito.)

Branding is a popular topic in the business press these days. Unfortunately, coverage of Coca-Cola, Nike and Virgin, make it sound as if Branding is a discipline reserved for the Fortune 500 companies and globe-trotting billionaires.

Let me set the record straight on that: It’s entirely possible to build a successful brand without a million-dollar marketing budget or a cadre of high-paid consultants. Many small-business owners do it intuitively. They build a successful business, step by step, and over time a great brand develops.

It does not happen the other way around.

You can’t just come up with a nice name a great logo and expect the brand to suddenly succeed. Without a good, solid business operation, you can’t have a great brand.

If you look, you can find plenty of inspiring brands in everyday places. Like the breakfast table and the local Mexican restaurant. Because the fact is, branding is not exclusive to big business.

In addition to the multi-national brands that have become household names, there are successful regional brands and millions of small but prosperous local brands. Conversely, many big, international companies don’t adhere to any principles of Branding. It can go both ways.

This isn’t the Harvard Business Review, but if you deconstruct it, you’ll see that all successful brands share four important things:

Relevance.

Credibility.

Differentiation.

Consistency.

Forget about Proctor & Gamble for a minute and consider the small businesses in your town that have a loyal following. What makes them successful? What have the owners done that turned their typical small business into a successful local brand?

In Bend, Oregon there’s a tremendously popular restaurant named, simply, “Taco Stand.”It’s the best Mexican food in town, and it costs next to nothing. It’s so cheap it’s almost embarrassing. Taco Stand’s in a terrible location next to a laundry mat. It’s not open for dinner. They have no web presence or advertising budget. And yet, it’s a successful little brand, doing much better than many high-end restaurants downtown.

Taco Stand has all four ingredients of a tasty brand, with a bit of Tabasco thrown in for good measure. It has always been relevant to young people living the ski bum life who can’t afford fifteen bucks for lunch. It appeals to the masses.

For Taco Stand, differentiation and credibility stem from the genuine quality of the food and the loyal, locals-only reputation.If there were an insider’s guide to Bend dining, Taco Stand would be top of the list. And consistency… you’re never going to walk into Taco Stand and find they’ve changed the menu on you. They do simple Mexican fare, and that’s that.

But, you say, “my business is a lot more complex than that. We have a sales force and a supply chain to deal with.”

It doesn’t matter. You still need the same four ingredients. Leave one out and you can have a successful business, but not an enduring brand.

Differentiation and credibility used to be easy for big corporations. They could launch a new brand with a massive tv campaign, effectively differentiating their product on nothing but advertising creativity and pretty packaging. And the television presence alone equaled credibility.

Smart Start brand case study on brandingKellog’s tried this with a new brand of cereal called Smart Start. Great name. Great-tasting product. And an old-school, Fortune-500 style marketing effort. Lots of full page, full color ads in smart magazines like Shape and Parenting.

My kids like Smart Start, but they’re not the target market. It’s an adult cereal, promoted on its nutritional virtues. Too bad. As it turns out, Smart Start isn’t as nutritious as it’s cracked up to be.It’s loaded with sugar… 14 grams of high fructose corn syrup. That’s more than Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs or Cap’n Crunch.

I’ll bet Smart Start doesn’t have the staying power of Cap’nCrunch — my childhood favorite. Because in this day and age, consumers are too smart for Smart Start. When the word gets out, the brand’s going to have a substantial credibility issue on their hands.

Kellog’s will probably fight it with the old line-extension strategy trick. Rather than addressing the underlying weakness of the product, they’ll just keep launching new flavors of Smart Start and new spin-offs. (They already have several variations.) But in the process, the brand will lose another key ingredient… consistency.

So Smart Start’s credibility is questionable. The brand’s consistency is debatable with all the line extensions. And relevance is dwindling as more people find out about its nutritional shortcomings.

I predict the brand will eventually die out because it doesn’t live up to the promises of its marketing. But even if it dies, Kellogs might consider Smart Start a branding success. Maybe it’s done well enough. Maybe Kellogs can chalk up a good profit with new brands that have short life cycles. It’s a big company, with big resources. They can just move on and do it all again.

Smaller companies don’t have that luxury. You can’t afford to launch a new brand under false pretenses of any kind. Credibility too hard to come by, under the best of circumstances.

What do you suppose would happen to Taco Stand if they suddenly started marketing “healthy” burritos without changing the way they cook. It’d be a recipe for branding disaster. Relevance and credibility would be the first to go, followed shortly by consistency. After that, no amount of differentiation would help. It would end up like so many other restaurants that just come and go, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

 

1 Absolutely better brand differentiation.

What you can learn from a good, strong shot of Vodka.

The first rule of advertising is this: Never take the same approach as your closest competitors. If you want to differentiate your brand, you have to think “different.”  Contrarian even.

”Here’s how:

• Even if you’re selling the same thing, don’t make the same claim. There are hundreds of different ways to sell the benefits of your product or service, so find one that’s different than your competitors. That often comes down to one thing: Listening. The better you are at listening to consumers, the easier it’ll be to differentiate your brand.

• Don’t let your ads look or sound anything like competing ads. Use a different layout, different type style, different size and different idea. The last thing you want to do is run an ad that can be mistaken, at a glance, for a competitor’s ad. If all the companies in your category take a humorous approach to advertising, do something more serious. Find a hook that’s based on a real need of your target audience, and speak to that. Zig when the competition is zagging.

• If you’re on the radio, don’t use the same voice talent or similar sounding music. Find someone different to do the voice work, rather than a DJ who does a dozen new spots a week for other companies in your market. Same thing for tv spots. (This is an easy trap to fall into if you live and work in a small market… there’s not enough “talent” to go around.)

Unfortunately, every industry seems to have its own unwritten rules that contradict the rules of advertising.

These industry conventions aren’t based on any sort of market research or strategic insight. They’re not even common sense. Everyone just goes along because “that’s how it’s always been done.”

The problem is, if that’s how it has always been done, that’s also how everyone else is doing it. In fact, some of these industry conventions are so overused they’ve become cultural cliches.

The rule in the pizza business says you have to use the “pull shot:” A slow-motion close-up of a slice of pizza being pulled off the pie, with cheese oozing off it. In the automotive industry, conventional thinking says you have to show your car on a scenic, winding road. Or off the scenic winding road if it’s an SUV. In the beer business, it’s a slow motion close up of a glass of beer being poured.

These are the images that everyone expects. They are the path of least resistance for marketing managers. But if you go down that road, and follow your industry conventions, your advertising will never perform as well as you’d like. In fact, history has proven you have to break the rules in order to succeed.

Just one execution in the long-running Absolut campaign.

Absolute Vodka is a perfect example. In 1980 it was a brand without a future. All the market research pointed to a complete failure. The bottle was weird looking. It was hard to pour. It was Scandinavian, not Russian. It was way too expensive. It was a me-too product in the premium vodka category.

But the owner of Carillon Imports didn’t care. He believed his product was just different enough… That all he needed was the right ad campaign.

So he threw out all the old conventions of his business and committed to a campaign that was completely different than anything else in his industry. And he didn’t just test the water, he came out with all his guns blazing.

Needless to say, it worked. The “Absolute Perfection” campaign — which is still running today — gave a tasteless, odorless drink a distinctively hip personality and transformed a commodity product into a cultural icon. In a decade where alcohol consumption dropped, Absolute sales went from 12,000 cases a year to 2.7 million. And it’s still the leading brand of Vodka in the country.

The moral of the story is this: When you choose to follow convention, you choose invisibility. To gain attention disrupt convention.

Instead of worrying about what everyone else has done, focus on what you could be doing Take the self-imposed rule book and throw it away. Do something different. Anything! This is especially important for service companies that are difficult to differentiate from the competition.

Take real estate agents for example. Realtors are, in essence, me-too products. In Bend, Oregon they’re a commodity. Even if a realtor has a specialty there are at least 100 other people who could do the same thing. For the same fee. That’s the bad news.

The good news is, even though there’s no difference in price and no discernable difference in service, you could still create a major difference in perception. If you’re willing to think different.

Like Absolute Vodka, a unique approach to your advertising is the one thing that can set you apart from every other competitor. Advertising is the most powerful weapon you have, simply because no one else is doing it. At least not very well.

But putting your picture in an ad won’t do it. That’s the conventional approach.

Remember rule number one and run advertising that says something. Find a message that demonstrates how well you understand your customers or the market. Run a campaign that conveys your individual identity without showing the clichéd, 20 year old head shot. Do what the owner of Absolut did. Find an approach that is uniquely yours, and stick with it no matter what everyone in your industry says. Over the long haul, the awareness you’ve generated will translate into sales. Next thing you know everyone else will be scrambling to copy what you’re doing.

Eventually your campaign just might become a new industry convention.

Just say “NO.” How to build your business by bowing out gracefully.

Saying no is one of the most difficult, yet liberating things any business owner can do. You might want to practice at home, with your kids.

The most effective managers and executives say no a lot. For instance, they politely decline to pursue business that doesn’t fit their strategic objectives. They say no to employees who try to hijack their time. They don’t tolerate overblown financial projections and long, drawn-out presentations. They say no to new initiatives that doesn’t fit the brand personality or the corporate culture.

They even say no to their bosses and to their best clients sometimes.

The typical small business owner on the other hand, says yes, yes, yes to anything that comes along. In an effort to grow the business they make a habit of appeasing people. 

Just say no to being a yes-man.

“Sure, we can do that.”  Yes, we can do that too.”  I admit, I’m guilty of that. In professional service firms, it’s a common problem, because after all, it IS a service.

Unfortunately, this overly agreeable approach is often symptomatic of two glaring managerial shortcomings: A lack of courage, little or no strategic thinking and a brand that’s not very focused.

Strategy is all about choosing a specialty, setting goals, and turning away business that doesn’t fit with your core brand values.  The clarity that comes from a well-defined, well written brand strategy makes it much easier to say no when the time comes.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 the company was, in his own words, “in deep shit.” They had at least 13 new initiatives and product ideas but no direction. No strategic focus. No “gravitational pull,” as he put it.

Jobs killed all but two of the initiatives. One was the iMac and the other was the G4.

By saying no, he set the company in a specific, definable direction that’s still paying off today.

“Companies sometimes forget who they are.” Jobs once said.  “Fortunately, we woke up. And now we’re on a really good track. It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” *

Best-selling author Ken Blanchard, (The One-Minute Manager, Gung Ho) says without clear goals you will quickly be a victim of too many commitments. “You will have no framework in which to make decisions about where you should or shouldn’t focus your energy.”

Peter Drucker believes the only people who truly get anything done are monomaniacs – people who are intensely focused on one thing at a time. “The more you take on, the greater chance you will lose effectiveness in all aspects of your life.”

So I guess modern day multi-tasking isn’t the shortest route to success.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”

As a Creative Director I say no a lot. Clients often make impossible requests at the 11th hour or float their own “creative” ideas in early strategy meetings. Sometimes, I swear, they’re just trying to get a rise outta me.

Here are some good things that come from saying no:

• You have more opportunities to say yes to the right customers.

• You have more time to focus on more important tasks, like long-term planning, strategic thinking and branding.

• Your operation will become more streamlined and efficient.

• You’ll have a better sense of balance in life — between work, home and play.

• Saying “no” expresses how you really feel. You’re not hiding anything, and you’re taking responsibility for your own feelings.

• Saying no actually increases your value in the market niche you’ve choosen.

At BNBranding one of the goals of our new business development effort is to say no more often. And not just to accounts that are too small, but also to businesses owners, marketing managers and entrepreneurs who might pay well, but don’t share our core values.

As the old saying goes, “values mean nothing in business until they cost you money.”

Fast Company magazine recently ran a great article about Jim Wier, the CEO who said no to Walmart. Wier gave up tens of millions of dollars in annual sales with one visit to Arkansas. But he was adamant that selling Snapper mowers through Walmart stores was incompatible with their strategy and their brand.

Now that’s courage. And focus.

Most large companies with a well-respected brand like Snapper would be tempted to launch a line extension strategy to accommodate Walmart. Just produce a cheaper mower oversees and slap the Snapper name on it. But Wier knew that would just dilute the brand and confuse people.

Like when Subway recently announced they’d be test marketing pizzas. How does that fit with their “eat fresh” healthy fast food strategy? Can you see Jared, the Subway spokesperson, losing 60 pounds while eating pizza?  I don’t think so.

Someone should have stepped up and said no to that idea.

* The Steve Jobs story is from “The Perfect Pitcth” by Jon Steele.