Category Archives for "Tactical Marketing"

8 Crowdsourcing logo design (Getting literal for little.)

Crowdsourcing is a sore subject in the graphic design community. I could easily write 10,000 words and show 1,crowd sourcing logo designs waste of money000 examples of why crowdsourcing logo design is a bad idea. But I’m just going to focus on two practical reasons that you probably haven’t considered… These two ought to be deal breakers for many people who are trying to save a few bucks on their brand identity:

  1. 1. Managing the crowdsourcing process is a time-consuming pain in the butt. If your time is valuable, it could actually cost you more than just hiring a local designer.

    2. The finished product usually falls flat. Branding firms and graphic designers spend a lot of their time “re-branding” companies that originally crowdsourced the work.

First, let’s address the managerial issues of crowdsourcing.

I recently coordinated a crowd sourcing project for a client. (Against my most adamant advice.) The client believed that his money would be better spent “outsourcing” the design work and using me as the Creative Director/Project Manager.

Fair enough… I’ve played that part in my company for more than 25 years, so it should be easy, right? Wrong. Managing a herd of young, unproven designers from far-away lands is far harder than managing the designers who I know and trust. It was a valuable experiment, and a bit of an eye-opener for me.

My first task was to provide an insightful, tightly-written creative brief that would provide all the inspiration the designers would need. No problem, that’s right in my wheelhouse. Plus, I had already devised a brand platform for that particular client, so the brief was relatively easy for me. In this case, my creative brief even included specific graphic concepts that I wanted the designers to explore.

Too bad nobody read it.Advice on crowdsourcing logo design on the Brand Insight Blog

The first 50 design submissions were obvious throw-aways — A complete waste of time from designers who didn’t take even five minutes to read the creative brief. It was ridiculous. Using the handy “comment” tool on the crowdsourcing platform, I strongly suggested that they start over. “Don’t submit anything until you’ve thoroughly studied the creative brief,” I told them.

The next batch wasn’t any better. The designers were obviously submitting old designs that had been sitting around from past crowdsourcing “contests.” They just changed the name of the company, and voila!

Back to the comment tool: “We will entertain original designs only… no recycled designs please. “

I also loaded up more background material for the designers who actually choose to read. But as more designs rolled in it was painfully clear that many were just derivatives of earlier submissions. That’s one of the worst things about crowdsourcing… the designers see all of the submissions and what the client has “liked.” This system inevitably leads to copy-cat design.

“The client said he likes that font, so I’m going to use that font.”

crowdsourcing logo design “The client liked that purple color, so I’m going to do some purple versions.”

“The client commented favorably about that mark, so I’m going to do something like that.”

At one point a cat fight erupted between two of the designers, with one accusing the other of stealing her designs. Never mind. They were both terrible. I saw more crummy designs in that month than I had in the last 10 years. Back and forth and back and forth we went until we finally selected the “winning” designer.

That’s when the real work started.

After looking at more than 250 designs we finally had one that was, at least, a mediocre solution. Again, I went back to the “comments” tool and began the fine-tuning process. Unfortunately, the winning designer had no experience producing a simple bundle of materials like letterhead, business cards and an email signature, so there was a painful back-and-forth process on the simplest little production details. Stuff than any junior designer should have known.

For accomplished creative teams, every new design assignment is a learning process. The work is driven by insight and spurred on by a thorough understanding of the product or service.

We thrive on the challenge of that and there’s a disciplined process that we follow. We do the research, study the market, live with the products and pour our heart and soul into helping clients succeed. Because that’s how we succeed. We have to learn about the business before we can design anything.

Crowdsourcing logo design eliminates that process. It skips the insight phase and jumps right to execution with no business thinking involved. No listening. No collaboration. It also leaves the client in the unenviable position of  Project Manager and Creative Director…  A tough dual role to play if you’ve never been in the design business.

Professional managers know the danger in this. They don’t choose to manage projects when they have no experience or expertise in the activity they’re managing. So if you have no experience managing freelance designers, don’t choose crowdsourcing. Hire a design firm to manage the process for you.

Now for a discussion about subjective quality…

The finished product of my one crowdsourcing experience was mediocre, at best. Even though I served up ideas on a silver platter, and provided tons of insight on the market and the business model, the designs were weak. Most were just too darn literal.

Advice on crowd sourcing logo designs on the Brand Insight BlogIf you’re in the roofing business you’ll get a drawing of the roof of a house. If you’re in the ice cream business, it’ll be a cartoon ice cream cone. If it’s the veterinary industry, it’s always a dog and a cat together in one logo. Nothing is left to the imagination. And there seems to be an assumption that all prospects are idiots.

Well guess what. If you dumb down your logo design, and pound people over the head with visual clichés and literal redundancies, you will not make the connection you’re hoping for. Your brand will not become iconic.

Imagine if Nike had gone the literal route…  Instead of the Nike swoosh, we’d have a an illustration of a shoe. And Nike might only be a two million dollar company.

If the I.O.C. had chosen the literal, quick-n-dirty design there would be no Olympic rings.

There would be no Golden Arches.

If Starbucks had chosen crowdsourcing there would be no mermaid.

There would be no crocodile for Lacoste.

See, logos are supposed to be symbolic. They are symbols of something, or the graphic interpretation of the idea behind your brand. Not literal descriptions of your service or product.

So stop trying so darn hard to get a literal logo. Let a good graphic designer apply a little creative license, and you’ll have a much better chance of becoming an iconic brand.

When it comes to crowdsourcing logo design, it’s a classic case of “you get what you pay for.”

For more on designing a great brand identity, try THIS post.

 

content marketing for small business

Content Marketing – Finding and providing something genuinely worthwhile.

content marketing for small businessWhen The Cluetrain Manifesto was first published on the web back in 1999, Christopher Locke wrote, “the internet has made it possible for genuine human voices to be heard again.”

What do you mean, “again”?

Never has the average Joe been afforded  unrestricted access to an audience any bigger than the crowd in a neighborhood pub. This giant electronic soapbox delivers a world-wide audience. Anyone can pontificate at will, on any subject, and potentially reach billions of people across the globe.

small-business marketing tips on the Brand Insight BlogHow cool is that?

The democratization of online publishing allows anyone, anywhere, the ability to post thoughts, opinions, photos and articles. It has inexorably changed politics and journalism. It’s a game-changing tool for small-business marketing. You could argue that it’s the greatest thing since the invention of the radio broadcast.

On the other hand, it’s also producing a cacophony of epic proportions.

Used to be, you had to have genuine expertise a in a given line of work in order to get “coverage.”  If you wanted to get published  you had to get past the editors in control, and they were brutally picky.  You had to have something unique to say,  and a unique voice with which to say it. It was not a particularly efficient element of small-business marketing plans.

Online publishing is a different story. There are no editors screening the content delivered on the internet. Any dimwit can start WordPress blog. Content farms are selling the same articles over and over and over again for $10 a pop.  Regurgitation and plagiarism is now being touted as “content curation.” And corporations are hiring print and TV journalists to produce marketing content disguised as authentic news.

Probably not what the ClueTrain authors had in mind.

I frequently get solicitations (ok junk mail) offering pre-written “content” for this blog. For me, it’s a business proposition that just doesn’t compute. Most of the time the article offered is off-topic, as if my marketing-minded audience will suddenly be interested in  a piece about overnight skin rejuvenation. Often these unsolicited articles are obvious plugs for a product or a company. They’re never well written, thoroughly researched, or authored by anyone I follow/respect in the business.

Why on earth would I run an article like that? How could that approach to content generation possibly be good for my brand? Or my audience?  Sure, I could probably generate a little bump in short-term traffic, but it’s not going to produce loyal readers. In fact, it’s more likely to drive readers away.

Great brands are built on consistency and quality, not just clicks.

I also get a lot of questions from aspiring bloggers, so here’s a piece of advice… Think about your brand first, and clicks second. If you produce content of value — something you and your audience really care about— then the traffic will come eventually. There is no shortcut to success, and a genuine human voice will always play better than some anonymous article you picked up and reposted, along with a hundred others bloggers.

Also, always remember how much saturation there is. On most subjects it’s too much information from too many questionable sources.

For instance, you could never wade through all the online chatter about social media marketing. “Will it help my small business? Can I build a brand around it? How do social media marketing? Can I generate leads on Twitter? Where’s it all going? What’s it all mean for small business marketing?”

small business marketing advice I don’t know. It’s still evolving.  But I know this: Just because you have a blog and a few thousand friends on Facebook doesn’t make you a social media marketing guru. There are a lot of young wannabes in that field who will gladly charge you for consulting, but few real gurus. It’s too new, too experimental. Guru status comes from wisdom, proven results and the perspective you can only get from years of experience.

So if you’re a brand manager, marketing director or business owner trying to figure out the social media thing, beware. Many of those purported experts or thought leaders are just good salespeople and tech-savvy online self-promoters riding the wave. When you’re scouring the internet for insight, pay close attention to the attributions and read the “about us” section to find out who’s really doing the talking.

Locke preached a sermon of hope for the digital pulpit. He predicted that the internet would forever shift the nature of business communications, and he envisioned a world where the consumer would have a voice and corporations would have to listen.

Pretty good crystal ball, he had.

Many big brands are embracing the online “conversation” and are getting better at communicating on a one-to-one level. They may not be the earliest adopters, but they’re catching on and beginning to respond to consumer wishes. If nothing else, they’re now painfully aware when people start spreading negative word-of-mouth.

But corporations don’t control the bulk of the internet conversation. It’s the small-business marketing experts. It’s the average Joe on his soapbox with a big ego and a pay-per-click budget. It’s the stay-at-home baker who wants to brag about her latest batch of cookies. It’s the teenage entrepreneur cashing in on Youtube.  Those little businesses are popping up faster than you can say, “what happened to Myspace?” And that’s great.

small business marketing tip from the Brand Insight BlogUnfortunately there also are many modern snake oil salesman peddling their wares with content marketing. Despite the advances of social media, (or maybe because of the advances) there’s more phony crap out there than ever before.

The self-help industry. The diet programs. The plastic surgeons. The get-rich-quick guys. And my personal favorite, the golf swing gurus. Every Tin Cup wannabe has an instructional DVD or downloadable E-book available on the web. And they’re all “guaranteed to shave strokes off your game.”

Golf Digest wouldn’t publish any of them on a bet. The quality is no better than the corporate spiel that Locke railed against in Cluetrain Manifesto. “The voice is like a third-rate actor in a 4th rate play reciting lines that no one believes in a manner no one respects.”

Yep.

Sometimes I long for the good old days when websites weren’t free and there was some barrier to entry on the internet. But not really. We’ll all put up with some noise in exchange for the freedom of speech that the internet provides.

Now I’m just hoping for a natural weeding out process.

For more on small business marketing and content marketing, try THIS post.. 

For affordable small business marketing help, call me at BNBranding.

 

1 How to sell more stuff online.

Awwwww,  the traditions of autumn… Halloween candy, the first snow in the mountains, and holiday shopping. You’ve heard of Black Friday… the mayhem-loving bargain hunter’s favorite day of the year. And “Cyber Monday,” the online equivalent. They’re coming up quickly.

The Wall Street Journal predicts there will be ninety six million online shoppers. That’s almost one-third of America’s population Googling for bargains. And there are probably nine million shopping sites to choose from.

Every e-commerce site from Amazon to Aunt Matilda’s Potato Mashers will get their fair share of the buying frenzy. But most e-commerce businesses could get a bigger piece of the pie, if only they’d do something — anything — to differentiate themselves from pack.

You can’t just regurgitate the manufacturer’s product spiel. You need to customize your pitch, improve your copy, and mix up the words a bit.

Besides a ridiculously low price, what do online shoppers want? Most are looking for information. If they’re not quite ready to fill their shopping cart, they need facts, reviews, articles or some kind of credible content that helps them narrow their search.

Amazingly few e-commerce brands actually fit the bill when it comes to informative content and sharp, convincing copy.

Take ski shops, for instance. I’m in the market for new ski boots, and I can’t even get enough information to research boots on line, much less purchase them. After hours of work I know a lot more about boot fitting, but I don’t know which models are most likely to fit my feet. In fact, I’ve been to every online ski shop I could find, and only one – REI –  provides anything more than just the manufacturer’s stock product spiel.

My final choice: The Salomon with the custom fitting

If you want to establish a successful on-line brand you have to do more than just copy your competitors. You can’t just cut and paste the same exact blurb, same photo and the same specs and expect more market share than anyone else. You have to differentiate your store. Somehow.

You could offer unique products. (Most niched e-commerce sites offer the exact same products as their competitors. But even if you could find something they don’t have, it’s not a sustainable advantage unless you have an exclusive arrangement with the manufacturer.)

You could offer lower pricing. (Tough if you don’t have the volume of Amazon or Office Depot.)

Or you can have better content presented in your own, unique voice. That, you can do!

I have to admit, I’m not even entertaining the idea of buying ski boots on line. (For me, it’s hard enough buying sneakers online.) But if I were, I’d want a retailer that obviously understands the pain ski boots can inflict:

Toenails blackened and torn. Crippling leg cramps. Wasted $90 lift tickets. Ruined vacations. Endless trips back to the ski shop.

Those are the honest-to-goodness repercussions of getting it wrong. That’s the stuff of compelling sales copy. Not bullets from the manufacturer’s spec sheet. But not a single online ski shop capitalizes on those emotional hooks. They’re all just lined up, offering the same brands at the same prices with the same pitch.

That’s not retailing. That’s virtual warehousing.

Early in my career I wrote copy for the Norm Thompson catalog. Before J. Peterman ever became famous Norm Thompson had a unique voice that resonated with its mature, upscale audience. We wrote long, intelligent copy that told a story and filled in the blanks between technical specs and outstanding photography.

When the product called for a technical approach, we’d get technical… I remember writing a full page spread on the optics of Serengetti Driver sunglasses.

For other products we’d turn on the charm and use prose that harkened back to more romantic times.

Helpful.

Heroic.

Practical.

Luxurious.

Comfortable.

These weren’t just adjectives thrown in to boost our word count. They were themes on which we built compelling, product-driven stories. The narratives explained why the product felt so luxurious. Where the innovation came from. How a feature worked. And most importantly, what it all meant to the Norm Thompson customer.

It was the voice of the brand, and guess what? It worked. The conversion rates and sales-to-page ratios of the Norm Thompson catalog were among the highest in the industry.

It’s tough to find anything remotely close in the on-line world. And unfortunately, Norm Thompson hasn’t maintained that unique voice in the e-commerce arena. (If you know of any brilliantly different online retailers, like Patagonia, please let me know. I’d love to add a positive case study.)

Ski boots don’t exactly fit into the category of top on-line sellers. They aren’t impulse items that you need on a weekly basis. They’re heavy to ship. And returns on ski boots must be astronomical.

But on-line retailers could cut down on those returns simply by explaining the single most important thing:

Fit.

Most boots don’t even come close to fitting my feet, so no technical feature is as important as fit. And yet no website that I’ve found provides the simple problem-solving content that says: If you have a D width foot, try this make and model. If you have a high instep, try these. If you have a narrow foot, try these.

It’s not rocket science. It’s just simple salesmanship . The kind you’d get if you walk into any decent ski shop.

And I guess that’s what I’d like to see more of on line. Better salesmanship. At least for the product categories that require more than just a quick glance at the price. Like ski boots.

And one other thing… If you choose to sell like everyone else, at least make your site convenient to use, and functional from a usability standpoint.  I visited one online shop that didn’t even have a working search function. I typed in “Soloman Ski Boots” and got dozens of Soloman products, but not one ski boot. I’ll never go back. Online shoppers often know exactly what they want. Might as well make it easy for them to find it.

7 The corporate head shot vs. good personal branding.

Recently we had a client who didn’t like the photos we had taken for her website.  Said they didn’t look “professional enough.”

In other words, she didn’t like that we did something different than the usual, corporate head shot.

The problem is, in this case, “professional” translates to invisible.  Everyone has a boring “professional” portrait with no personality.  Doing the same thing is the worst thing for your personal branding efforts. Continue reading

7 Yes, when it comes to websites, design matters!

There was a group discussion on LinkedIn recently that started with this statement: “Web design is a waste of money.” It’s nonsense, of course, but that headline provoked quite a debate.

It’s interesting to see graphic designers on one end, and web programmers on the other, arguing their respective positions. One group believes web design should take a back seat to web marketing and functionality. After all, what good is a website if you’re not driving traffic to it. The other believes you should make sure the site is well polished before you drop a dime to drive traffic.

I’m pretty well stuck in the middle.

As a traditionally trained advertising copywriter, I tend to side with the designers.  As “creatives” we’re trained, from birth, to make sure every detail is perfect before we deliver the work to a client.  Because we know details affect conversion rates.  It’s been proven time and time again.

But I also understand the other side of the argument… In the entrepreneurial world, as in software development, “lean” is word of the week. Their mentality is, “just get something up, and we’ll fix it later.”

That’s a tough one for writers and graphic artists who always want to do great work. But as a CEO friend once said, “it’s not great work if it’s not done.”

So what we need is a high-bred approach that combines the craftsmanship of old-school advertising with the rapid “lean development” approach that entrepreneurs favor. We need to get web designs done quickly, AND do them really well. Quick and polished, not quick and dirty.

One comment in that discussion was, “I cannot think of a time when website design affected my decision to keep looking at a site.”That’s ridiculous crazy talk from someone who thinks we go through life making decisions line by line in an orderly, logical fashion.

I guarantee you, that person is affected by design EVERY time.  He just doesn’t know it.

Of course he “can’t think of a time,” because great web design works on subconscious level that computer programmers don’t understand, nor acknowledge. It’s an instantaneous, subconscious judgment that leads to spontaneous click of the mouse.  There’s absolutely nothing logical about.

Before you know you’ve made a decision, you just stay and linger, or you leave. You don’t know why. You just do.

The latest brain research shows that humans can initiate a response to stimuli before the neocortex can even interpret the stimuli. In other words, we act before we think.

So the first impression is critically important, and that hinges on design.

Poor design leads to confusion, and nothing drives people away faster than confusion. If the immediate, split-second impression is that you don’t know what the site’s about or what to do next, you’re outta there. There are plenty of pretty websites out there that don’t convert worth a hoot because of this.

Poor website design leads to all sorts of problems.

On the other hand, good design leads to clarity, and understanding at a glance, which is the litmus test for sticky websites. Instantaneous recognition of relevance.

I think part of the problem with this discussion is a limited definition of “design.” When it comes to websites, design is not just the aesthetic elements, as in traditional graphic design, but also the site planning, messaging, and usability.

It’s a holistic approach to web development that I like to call Conversion Branding.  It’s a well-coordinated team effort between a copywriter who knows conversion architecture, a talented graphic designer, a technically proficient programmer, and a trusting, intelligent client.

Remove any of those people from the equation and the website simply will not come together as you had hoped.

But back to that discussion… Much of the thread was about the importance of “web marketing” vs. “web design.”  In that case, balance is the key…

You don’t want to spend money to drive a lot of traffic to a website that isn’t enticingly relevant and professional.

There’s an old saying in the advertising business: “nothing kills a lousy product faster than great advertising.”  If your website is lousy, driving traffic to it will just increase your bounce rates, which indicate how many people abandon you in favor of some other, more appealing site.

On the other hand, you don’t want to spend too much on design only to be left with no money for “web marketing” that’ll push traffic.

I agree that having something up and online is better than nothing at all. But be careful… If you’re Microsoft, you can get away with it.  The brand allows something that’s far from perfect. But if you’re not very well known, people are pretty unforgiving. One lousy experience and it’s bye-bye. They won’t return for your website 2.0.

There are two things you need in order to get a good site up fast: a well crafted brand strategy which provides context and perspective, and a detailed website plan that spells out specific objectives, target audiences, paths to conversion and other critical elements of your site.

If you leave your web site production to the computer nerds, you won’t get the brand strategy, the site plan, or the great design.  HTML programmers simply follow directions and program the site as it’s presented to them, in the fewest keystrokes possible.

And guess what… designers aren’t very good at that strategy stuff either. I’ve seen designers obsess over the tiniest minutia and then miss the fact that the main headline of the home page is completely unrelated to the business at hand.

It’s a mess.

So we’re back to that idea of balance and a four-person team. Design absolutely matters. But so does Functionality. Messaging. Conversion. Authenticity. SEO. Photography. And copywriting, don’t forget that.

For some reason, most business owners seem to think they can write web copy, even though they’d never dream of writing their own print ads. Or video script. Or TV spot. But that’s a topic for another post.

Suffice it to say, most business owners don’t have the skills they need to produce a good website. Unfortunately, neither do programmers. Neither do designers. You need the whole team.

Together you might just find a great design that also produces results.

 

3 BNBranding brand insight blog example of incongruity in copywriting

How to make your copy more compelling: Mix up the words for better results.

Sometimes, when it comes to copywriting, one word can be the difference between a marketing home run and a dribbling bunt.

Use a boring, expected word, and you’ll get boring results. Introduce incongruity into the word choice, and you’ll hit it out of the park.

Here’s an example:

how-to tips on copywriting by BNBranding bend oregonI was doing a campaign for a commercial real estate concern, and the client was completely fixated on one word in a headline: “Precious.”

“I don’t like it. Babies are precious, not parking places,” she argued.

“Yes, that’s precisely why it works,” I countered. “Besides, diamonds are also precious. And what’s more valuable than diamonds?”

By using that one word I exaggerated the value of “free parking” and elevated a mundane product feature to an entirely different realm.

It was an effective use of incongruity in advertising copy, and she just couldn’t get her head around it. Just as most people can’t get their heads around the idea of disruption in advertising.

So I showed her some alternative adjectives that I knew would not work…

“Popular” just didn’t have the same effect. “Convenient” didn’t have the alliteration I was looking for. “Valuable” just sucks.

The more options I showed her, the better the word “precious” seemed. The incongruity of it was perfect for that context and purpose. Eventually the client relented, and the ad ran, quite successfully.

Incongruity in advertising is a mismatch between an element in the ad and an existing frame of reference. (Elements being product photo, brand name, endorser, music selection, word choice, etc.)

Academic research on the subject has shown that “incongruity causes disturbances in one’s cognitive system”…

That’s precisely what advertising people are going for: a disturbance in your thinking that causes you to pause, consider or reflect on the brand. That’s what good copywriting is all about. That’s what iconic brands are built on.

“Empirical evidence suggests that individuals presented with INcongruity are more likely to engage in detailed processing than they are with congruity, and may even respond positively to the incongruity.”

On the other hand, ads, tweets, presentations and websites that contain nothing new or different will not be processed at all.

Here’s an example of bad copywriting from a Bed & Breakfast website:

“Welcome to our home! We invite you to look around our website and consider a stay with us on your next visit to or through Lexington. When we open our door to you, we consider you as welcome guests, but want you to feel as comfortable here as you do in your own home. Our mission is to provide you with lodging, rest and meals that are memorably special, to do so with the kind of Southern hospitality you expect and deserve, in tasteful household surroundings that carry the tradition of Old South charm. You will find something “extra” everywhere you turn during your stay, from the bedding, room amenities, complimentary toiletries, and more…Each area has its own entertainment system, open WiFi access, and, for each room, individual climate controls. We believe you will enjoy your stay with us so much that you will regret having to leave, but depart looking forward to another visit. We hope to see you soon.

No one’s going to stick with this copy beyond the first four words. And “Complimentary toiletries”… Really? I sure hope so.

Copy like that is, what I’d call, boringly congruent. It’s so expected and chock full of cliche’s no one’s going to hear it. Our brains are wired to weed out the mundane, like a triple speed fast-forward button on the TV remote.

In marketing, the opposite of incongruity is not congruity. It’s invisibility.

BNBranding brand insight blog example of incongruity in copywriting

When all the elements line up in the same, old, expected way the message becomes completely invisible. Without some degree of incongruity, the copywriting fails.

But effective incongruity hinges on proper, relevant context.

examples of copywriting from BNBrandingExample: I recently used some nonsensical words in a campaign directed toward restaurant owners.

They know what babaganoush is. And Paninis.

The context made the incongruity of the words effective. If the target had been the general public, it’d be a different story.

If an element is totally out of context AND incongruent, it seldom works.

I recently saw a TV spot for a local realtor that was so wildly out of context and incongruent, it didn’t work at all. All you see are tattooed arms putting a puzzle together while the voice-over talks about “the real estate market is tearing families apart.”

Creepy.

If you’re a client who purchases advertising, try to embrace incongruity in the right context.  It could be one word in a headline that seems not quite right, or one image or graphic. Chances are, if it seems just a little outta place it’s going to work well. It’ll stop people in their tracks and engage the creative side of their brain.

So next time you’re working on an email campaign, a powerpoint presentation, or anything… take time to throw in at least one unexpected word that will break through all the “babaganoushit.”

It makes all the difference.

For more on making your advertising messages more memorable, try THIS post.

18 Brand authenticity (Keeping it real, honest, genuine and true)

I hate buzzwords. Every time a new marketing term shows up on the cover of a book I find myself having to translate the jargon into something meaningful for ordinary, busy business people.

brand authenticityLately, it’s “Brand Authenticity.” Seems “keeping it real” has become a household term. And a branding imperative.

In The New Marketing Manifesto John Grant says “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged.”

If that’s the case, we better have a damn good definition of what we’re talking about.

“Authentic” is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means “original.” But just being an original doesn’t mean your brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney.

Most definitions used in branding circles also include the words “genuine” and or “trustworthy.” In The Authentic Brand, brand authenticity is defined this way: “Worthy of belief and trust, and neither false nor unoriginal — in short, genuine and original.”

I think it’s also useful to look at the philosophical definition of the word… “being faithful to internal rather than external ideas.”

In Philosophy of Art “authenticity” describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist’s self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or commercial worth.

The same holds true for brands.

The authentic ones are faithful to something other than just profits. They have a higher purpose, and they don’t compromise their core values in order to turn a quick buck.  They are the exception to the corporate rule.

The Brand Authenticity Index says, “At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach; being totally clear about who you are and what you do best.” When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with customers’ actual experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.”

brand authenticityI think the general public believes that marketing — by definition— is not authentic. We are born skeptics.

Guilty until proven innocent!

And if someone sniffs even a hint of corporate BS they’ll blog about it, post negative reviews and announce it to all their Facebook friends, Twitter followers and Instagram fans.

Ouch.

In a Fast Company article, Bill Breen said “Consumers believe, until they’re shown otherwise, that every brand is governed by an ulterior motive: to sell something. But if a brand can convincingly argue that its profit-making is only a by-product of a larger purpose, authenticity sets in.”

Nobody ever starts a company with the goal of becoming an authentic brand. Think back to when Amazon, Starbucks, Nike and Apple were just startups.  They were all authentic in the beginning. Each had a core group of genuinely passionate people dead-set on changing the world in some little way. And that esprit de core set the tone for the brand to be.

Patrick Ohlin, on the Chief Marketer Blog, says “Brand authenticity is itself an outcome—the result of continuous, clear, and consistent efforts to deliver truth in every touch point.”

It’s a by-product of doing things well. Treating people right. Staying focused. And not getting too greedy.

“Companies are under pressure to prove that what they stand for is something more than better, faster, newer, more,” said Lisa Tischler in Fast Company. “A company that can demonstrate it’s doing good — think Ben & Jerry’s, or Aveda — will find its brand image enhanced. But consumers must sense that the actions are sincere and not a PR stunt.”

Add the word “sincerity” to the definition. Sincerely try to do something that proves you’re not just another greedy, Goldman Sax.

In the age of corporate scandals and government bailouts, not all authentic brands are honest. If your brand values revolve around one thing — getting rich — it’s pretty tough build a genuinely trustworthy brand in the eyes of the world.

Amway is now known for brand authenticityAmway, for instance.

Amway has an army of “independent sales associates” out there luring people to meetings under pretense and spreading a message that says, essentially, “Who cares if you have no friends left. If you’re rich enough it won’t matter. We’ll be your friends.”

The front-line MLM culture seems to revolve around wealth at any cost. Then there’s the corporate office trying to put a positive spin on the brand by running fluffy, product-oriented, slice-of-life commercials.

It’s a disconnect of epic proportions. The antithesis of brand authenticity.

But I digress.

Let’s assume you have a brand with a pretty good reputation for authenticity. How can you manage to maintain that reputation even when you’re growing at an astronomical rate?

Be clear about what you stand for. Communicate!

Your brand values need to be spelled out, on paper. After all, your employees are your best brand champions and you can’t expect them to stay true to something they don’t even understand.

That’s one of the key services at my firm… we research and write the book on your brand. We craft the message and then help you communicate it internally, so all your managers, front-line employees and business partners are on the same page. Literally. It’s a tremendously helpful tool.trust and brand authenticity

Underpromise and overdeliver.

Now here’s a concept CEOs can get a handle on. If you consistently exceed expectations, consumers will believe that you’re sincere and will be more likely to trust your brand. It’s a fundamental tenet of brand authenticity. If you’re constantly disappointing people, it’s going to be tough.

Don’t try to be something you’re not.

Being authentic means staying focused and saying no once in a while. The more you diversify, extend your product line or tackle new target audiences, the better chance you have of alienating people.

It’s always tempting for successful small businesses to branch out. You take on projects that are beyond your core competencies, because you can. People trust you. Then if things go south you lose some credibility. And without credibility there can be little authenticity.

Align your marketing messages with your brand.

You sacrifice authenticity when your marketing messages are not true to the company, its mission, culture and purpose.  You can’t be saying one thing, and doing something else.

Alignment starts with understanding. Understanding starts with communication. So figure out your core brand values, and then hammer those continuously with your marketing team. Every time they trot out a new slogan or campaign you can hold up that brand strategy document and ask, is this in line with our brand?

Be consistent.

Another way you lose that sense of brand integrity or authenticity is when you change directions too frequently. I’ve seen this in start-ups that have new technology, but no clear path to market. The company just blows with the wind, changing directions with every new investor who’s dumb enough to put up capital. There’s no brand there at all, much less an authentic one.

Lead by example. 

One of the best CEO clients I ever had was a master of management-by-walking-around. His authentic, soft-spoken demeanor worked wonders with his people. He was out there everyday, rallying the troops and reinforcing the brand values of the company.

So if you’re in charge, stay connected with your teams and don’t ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. When sales, or  marketing or R & D starts working in a vacuum, you often end up with an authenticity drain.

Hire good PR people. 

Like it or not, the public’s sense of your brand authenticity often comes from what the press says. For instance, BMW’s claim of being “the ultimate driving machine” is constantly reinforced by the automotive press in head-to-head comparisons with Audi and Mercedes. According to those authoritative sources, it’s not a bullshit line.

Which really is the bottom line on brand authenticity. Don’t BS people.

For more about brand authenticity, try THIS post. 

1 Better survey questions — Avoiding the common pitfalls of market research.

I’m a big proponent of market research.

I’ve seen, first hand, how it can be integrated seamlessly into the operations of a rapidly-growing start-up. (They tracked customer satisfaction every week, in every new store, and grew into a billion-dollar brand.)

I’ve seen how research insight leads some brands in profitable new directions, and others back to their roots. And I know that some of the greatest ad campaigns of all time were built on tidbits of information from surveys and focus groups. Can you say, “Got Milk?” Continue reading

1 A bad idea for brands: The logo contest.

Sometimes the most powerful case studies fall into the “what NOT to do” category. Take, for instance, a new branding initiative from the Australian Ministry of Tourism.

It’s a big deal down under.

This isn’t some neighborhood non-proft looking for a new logo for their newsletter. This is a multi-national marketing effort for a nation of 21 million people that consistently ranks as one of the world’s most popular nation-brands.

They’re going to spend 20 million dollars next year promoting their new brand to the rest of the world.  And they’re launching the effort with a logo contest. Grand prize: $2500.

What’s wrong with that picture? How much great branding work do you suppose they’ll get in exchange for a slim chance at $2500?

The problem with contests is they attract the youngest, hungriest designers with the skinniest portfolios around. Serious pros won’t touch it because it’s not enough money and the odds of success are too slim.

The Austrailian government received 362 entries and have now culled the uruly collection down to only 200 or so. (to see some entries click here: )

http://www.designbay.com/brand-australia-contest/

Beyond Kangaroos... Australia's new brand

But I’m not even going to address the subjective, artistic side of this. (I think the samples say it all.)  Instead, let’s look at the steps in the branding process that are always ignored in a contest environment. Like brand strategy and a clearly defined creative brief.

Here’s what the brief says for the Australian assignment:

“Designers and contest participants should submit ideas for a contemporary Australia brand that captures the essence of the nation and presents Australia as a great place for living, holidaying, education, business, manufacturing, agriculture and investment. Submissions should articulate as clearly as possible Australia’s brand position in the context of the global marketplace and help the Government capture “the vibrancy, energy and creative talents of Australia”.

What brand position? How can they possibly “capture the essence of a nation” when there’s nothing on the website or on any links that even hints at a brand strategy document? The young art school grads are left to figure out the strategy on their own…

“Designers and contest participants may choose to spend time researching Australia and its current brand.”

“May choose to???  Any good branding firm would insist on it.

Research is the foundation of any truly professional branding effort. But the graphic designers who enter contests are not the people doing the research and the strategic thinking. It’s not in their DNA. They’re involved later in the artistic, execution phase. But if you skip the strategic piece, the designers have no direction. They’re just throwing darts, hoping something will stick.

Taglines are always a good reflection of the strategy. If the lines are random, like the list below, the strategy is clearly missing.

Australia  “The heart of many nations.”

Australia “Lighting up the world.”

Australia “Make it real.”

Australia  “Live it up down under.”

Australia “It’s real noice.”

Australia “The inside story”

Australia “It all happens here.”

Which is it?  Without a thorough brand strategy document it’s virtually impossible to judge the 362 taglines in any objective way.

And here’s where it gets really messed up. The public gets to vote! With no strategy, no experience and no information whatsoever, the average Joe gets a say in the branding of a nation.

I’ve often seen the results of these contests fail completely. The client pays the prize money but ends up with nothing useable. Then it’s back to the drawing board with a firm that actually knows what they’re doing.

Developing a brand strategy is not easy. It takes discipline, creativity and thorough research. But it’s a required element for success. Contest or no contest.

3 On-line shopping — The best thing ever for MANkind.

Twenty five years ago I couldn’t imagine getting all my Christmas shopping done from the comfort of the man den. The idea of a world without malls was pure fantasy, right up there with that scene from Flashdance where Jennifer Beals dances in place until she’s raining sweat.

But today, it’s reality. Men really do have an alternative to the drudgery of shopping. It’s called e-commerce.caveman

For men, shopping harkens back to cro-Magnon days when we’d hunt down the things we NEEDED to survive. Men shop alone, in order to be more stealthy and less visible to people who might recognize us. We know what we want and we go out and get it… Essentials like tools, sporting goods and electronic gadgets. It’s a focused, goal-oriented, testosterone-producing activity. But only after the prize is in the bag.

Women go out in groups and gather things they might need someday, during an unusually hard winter. Frivolous stuff like bed skirts and duvet covers. It’s part of their natural, nesting instincts. They can happily browse for hours without buying anything, because shopping fulfills a physical need for women. Recent brain research is conclusive on this… An afternoon at the mall with friends produces oxytocin —  a chemical in the brain known as the cuddling hormone.

Googling “bargain jeans” just isn’t the same.

On-line shopping doesn’t offer the same psychological, sociological and even anthropological benefits that women get from traditional shopping trips. Let’s face it,  websites are more logical than they are intuitive. The whole on-line thing is more geared to the male brain than the female brain. It’s the nature of the beast.

Few on-line retailers establish the emotional connection women really need. Nancy F. Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies retailing and consumer habits, said that online shopping is more a chore than an escape. “It’s not like you think: ‘I’m a little depressed. I’ll go onto Amazon.com and get transported.”

Koehn said that while traditional retailers have made the in-person buying experience more pleasurable, online stores have continued to give shoppers a blasé experience.  Well guess what… Men don’t care! They’re not looking for an “experience,” they’re looking for a trophy on the wall.

The last thing men need is a true shopping “experience.” That’s what we’ve been trying to avoid all these years. That’s what we know as sitting outside the outlet mall waiting for the women to return after an hour and a half in the Dress Barn.

In better retail environments, lighting, store layout, background music, graphics and good customer service all work together to make shopping a pleasant, sensory experience that appeals to the emotional center of a women’s brain. It’s a real art.

Unfortunately, most on-line stores are slapped together about as well as a Mexican convenience store. If it weren’t for men, half of those sites would be out of business entirely.

According to Forrester Research, men spend more and take less time than women to make on-line purchases. And once a sale is made, men return only 10% of apparel purchases, while women return more than 20%. As to spending, another market research group found that men dropped an average of $2,400 online compared to women who spent closer to $1,500 in the same, three-month span.

Don’t quibble over price, just locate the target and make the kill. Get in get out.

Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time with sites that present a thousand random choices, right off the bat. Too many choices slows the decision-making process and leads to frustration for men. It’s like standing in the beer isle in an Oregon grocery store … there are so many choices of micro-brews it’s almost ridiculous. Ales, IPAs, Hefes, Lagers, Pilsners, Stouts, Browns and Ambers in a crazy array of packages from all over the world. It’s too much information.

That’s one reason men love brand name products, brand name stores, brand name sites and brand-name beer: We trust the brand to narrow the choices for us and provide some degree of quality control. (Anything from Deschutes Brewery is good.)

When I shop at REI, online or offline, I know I don’t have to wade through a bunch of crap before I find the quality products. It’s all good, because it’s REI. In the brick & mortar world, the choices are limited by the physical floor space. An REI shoe buyer has room for only so many different styles and prices points, so that’s all you get to choose from. There’s no such limitations in the on-line world.

Zappos claims to have 1,095 brands, 165,722 styles, 906,874 UPCs and 2,957,471 products. That might work for women who make shoe shopping a pseudo-profession, but guys want those choices narrowed down.

Forrester Research reports that 70 percent of online consumers research their purchases on-line, then buy off-line. This so-called “clicks-and-bricks” hybrid model is classic male behavior. But it’s not really shopping, it’s research.

So where’s it all going?

Less than four percent of all retail sales are currently made on-line — a reassuring stat for traditional retail businesses. If you have an e-commerce company, look at it this way… you’ve hardly scratched the surface.

If your product line and/or brand appeals to women you have to work hard to establish an emotional connection and emulate the mall experience as close as possible. But realize, e-commerce will never replace the real thing.

If your on-line store is more male-oriented your job’s a little easier. Keep your product selection focused — don’t try to be all things to all men. Offer brand name products and establish your own brand as a name to trust.

And give guys a way to avoid the mall altogether… they’ll reward you for it in the end.