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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.

5 The ultimate, feel-good retail experience – Why Powell’s has the sweetest franchise branding around

My annual Christmas shopping excursion always leads me to one place: Powell’s Sweet Shop. To me, it’s the ultimate example of successful franchise branding.

lovable franchise brandsMacy’s still holds some appeal during the holidays, and Ben & Jerry’s in the summertime. But Powell’s resonates with me on a completely different level.

To me, it’s a mood-altering drug.

It’s virtually impossible to leave Powell’s without feeling warmer, younger at heart, and at least a little giddy. It’s more fun per square foot than any store I’ve ever seen.

Franchise Industry consultants call Powell’s Sweets “an involving retail experience that taps into deep-seated emotional connections with long-forgotten childhood brands.”

They are banking on the power of nostalgia to sell everything from collectable lunch boxes and pez dispensers to gelato and old-fashioned candy. They have all the brands you haven’t seen since childhood, and all the flavors that linger in the palette of your memory.

Powell’s is a store full of  stories. And vivid, authentic stories are the main ingredients of success for franchise branding.

As I browse through Powell’s, or even just peer in the window, the stories come flooding back… My little sister, hair in braids, eating Fun Dip in the back of the station wagon. My older sister hording her tube of Flicks. The penny candy selection at Jack’s Country Store.  The red, black and purple licorice I loved so much at summer camp.

That stuff sticks with you.

Powell’s always has Willy Wonka playing on the TV in the back of the store.

But Powell’s triggers more than just memories. It also triggers the imagination. It ignites the senses and conjures a latent, childlike creativity in us that gets beaten down by the demands of modern society.

Maybe that’s why go back every year. Maybe that’s why I want to linger so long. It’s not just satisfying my sweet tooth, it’s filling a need for creative inspiration and optimism. I can feed off the energy of the kids and the delight of the parents. There’s laughter and smiles and buzz you just don’t find at the Starbucks next door.

There aren’t many brands that can honestly say that.

Unfortunately, the Powell’s website doesn’t capture any of that laughter and buzz that I’m raving about. Their site is a boring, disconnected piece of corporate communications that wouldn’t move anyone to do anything. (I hope they’re working on a refresh!)

So what can you learn from a little candy store in downtown Bend, Oregon?

You want customers to tell stories about you. You want products and service that create lasting memories. You want positive word-of-mouth that’s more powerful than anything you can say yourself.

Here are a few, random reviews of Powell’s from Yelp.com:

“Move over Disneyland – this is the happiest place on earth.  I feel like I step into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory every time I come here.”

“This candy store rocks. It has everything you want especially if you’re looking for some candy that will blast you right back to your childhood.”

“The best candy shop. Period.”

Web Design matters BNBranding“I want to hug the person who came up with the concept of this store…they are pure genius and manage to put a huge smile on my face the minute I walk through the door!”

Interestingly, the nostalgic theme of every Powell’s store seems to work equally well on children. Because the appeal of it is timeless. The candy that we thought was so cool, still is. The element of surprise and the sense of discovery works just as well now as it did 30 years ago.

That’s why brick and mortar retail stores will never go away… they can deliver a sensory experience that can never be duplicated on the screen of your phone or computer. It’s the cumulative effect of the smells, the sights, the colors, the selection, the sounds and the flavors that trigger that flood of fondness.

So if you’re trying to build an unforgettable retail shopping experience, I’d suggest a visit to Powell’s Sweet Shoppe. Just soak it all in, eat some sweets, and see what happens.

For more on ecommerce, try this post.

marketing strategy BNBranding

 

 

38 State Farm is Where??? A customer service disaster.

By John Furgurson

A couple years ago, when my kids were just 9 and ll years old, the subject of insurance came up at the dinner table. God only knows why.

My kids could recite — and often sing — the slogans of every major insurance company in the country. They had been exposed to so many commercials, they knew ‘em all…

“Nationwide is on your side.”

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”

“You’re in good hands, with Allstate.”

Prudential. “ Like a rock.”

As a parent, I was aghast. As a branding professional, I was amused, and a bit curious. Why would the insurance companies spend millions advertising on the Disney Channel and on ABC Family? At first glance, it seemed like a lot of wasted exposure.

Then I think about my own experience, and it sort of makes sense.

My parents were insured by State Farm. My wife had a State Farm agent when we got married. It never occurred to me to look anywhere else, and we’ve never had a compelling reason to change.

Insurance is one of those low-interest, out-of-sight-out-of-mind service categories that no one really wants to think about. I’d rather have a root canal than deal with insurance of any kind. And that’s why those early branding efforts are so important… once they have ya, they have ya.

We’ve stayed with the same insurance company for almost 20 years not because State Farm has good service or great rates. Not because we’re loyal to our agent, who lives 120 miles away and never speaks to us. It’s because we absolutely hate the thought of switching.

It’s like brand loyalty by default. Life, auto, home, boat, cabin… We’re all in, and the hassle factor of changing insurance carriers is just too much to even contemplate.

But that was before we ever filed a major claim. Before our little winter disaster.

It always snows a lot in the Oregon Cascades, but January 2008 was crazy. The garage/shop at our mountain cabin eventually collapsed under the weight of 10 feet of heavy, wind-packed snow. It was a total loss, to the tune of about $60,000.

Naturally, we called our agent. Her assistant put us in touch in contact with a claims adjuster, and for the first time, we realize that State Farm is like two separate companies. The independent agents who set up the policies and collect the money have nothing to do with the claims adjusters who pay money out.

For 80 years, State Farm has branded itself as a neighborly, down-home sort of company that would be there for us, if we really needed ‘em. That’s the perception they’ve spent millions to maintain.

The reality, however, is quite different indeed.

The lady who’s supposed to be handling our claim definitely didn’t get the memo about being a good neighbor. In fact, any goodwill that State Farm has built up with us over the years went right out the window with just one claim.

It’s been seven months, and they haven’t even finished cleaning up the disaster area. Our neighbors are not happy. State Farm is going to cover the loss, eventually, but the process has been painful at best. When we called our devoted agent to complain, we got nothing but excuses and second guessing.

I can’t even imagine what the Hurricane Katrina victims must have gone through. The State of Mississippi finally had to sue State Farm to get them to pay the claims due.

Talk about a PR debacle. Instead of looking like a good neighbor, State Farm came out of that storm looking like an evil, corporate giant that could care less about the little people. I’d love to know how much market share they’ve lost since then.

There are two important morals to this saga:

1. When it comes to branding, actions speak louder than words. You have to be very, very careful about promising something in a slogan or ad campaign that you can’t deliver day in and day out. Fifty years ago, State Farm probably could deliver on their promise. But not anymore. Today, State Farm is country’s largest home insurer and in the top 30 on the Fortune 500 list, It’s too big to be a good neighbor.

2. Branding is not just a function of the marketing department. It’s also an operational issue.

State Farm’s operation is totally out of alignment with their brand. The sales side and the claims side are not operating from the same playbook, and State Farm can’t fix their problem by changing their tried and true slogan. They have to change the way their claims division works in order to live up to that slogan. They need to align the experience with the brand promise.

A tall order, no doubt.

Brands have always been about trust, and promises kept. For me, State Farm betrayed that trust. The behavior of one claims adjuster was so “off brand,” I’m ready to start the long and painful process of changing insurance companies.

I think.

If anyone knows of an insurance company that doesn’t operate like two separate entities, let me know. And if there’s anyone out there who works for State Farm and would like to expand on this, please do!)