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Fake thrills and false advertising — Another automotive marketing misfire.

BN Branding's iconic brand identityAutomotive advertising, as a category, is notoriously bad. The big brands seldom produce memorable spots, print ads or campaigns. And at the dealer level there’s nothing but obnoxious yell & sell retail ads. Many have been accused of false advertising.

Let’s look at a campaign for the Toyota Camry… This isn’t what I’d call blatantly false advertising. It’s more like delusional, wishful thinking.

You have to start with this fact: The Camry is not an exciting car.

In fact, some automotive writers contend that Toyota’s building nothing but vanilla-flavored toasters these days. Despite that, the Camry has been hugely successful and was the best-selling car in America for almost 20 years.

article on false advertising from BN Branding

Obviously, there’s a huge segment of the American car-buying population that does not care about horsepower, handling, sexiness or style.  They just want reliable, utilitarian, point-A to point-B transportation.

Plain old toasters on wheels.

My father drives one, and he fits the demographic perfectly… white, suburban 80-year old male who only drives a few miles a month. The last thing he’s looking for in a car is a thrill ride.

And yet here comes an ad campaign for the Camry, titled “Thrill Ride.”

What a great concept… a car as a high-speed turbulent thrill ride captured in a reality-TV format.

They built an elaborate, hot-wheels style track and then too people for a rid up and down the hills, around the high-G turns, and into consumer’s hearts.  I want to drive!

I was enamored with the TV commercial at first.

Then I realized it’s a Camry commercial.

 

 

 

This is a classic case of a great advertising idea executed for the wrong brand. Some might even call it false advertising.

Once again, we have an automotive brand trying to be something it’s not. If this campaign was for the Mazda Miata, then yeah. Maybe it would work.

The whole idea is misaligned with the Camry brand. “Thrill Ride” is not the least bit authentic, nor is it relevant to the people who might really be interested in a Camry. (They might have fond memories of ancient, wooden roller coasters, but they don’t want to ride on one.)

And what’s worse, the spot doesn’t even deliver on its ill-advised promise of being thrilling.

The so-called “thrill course”  features one little hill, a banked turn, and a tunnel.  There are relatively young, hip people riding shotgun as the Camry inches its way around the course. It’s a reality TV on Geritol.

I can understand why the Brand Managers at Toyota would want to appeal to a younger audience. And I can even go along with the premise of being a little bit more fun. But why do it in a way that’s utterly fake and out of context?

Why leap all the way to “thrilling?”  Consumers are too smart for that. As one YouTube viewer wrote, “So you’re basically saying that the only way your Camry will be exciting is to drive it on some mock roller coaster course.”

Brand Insight Blog article on false advertising

Why couldn’t they advertise the car’s popularity and reliability and resell value, but in a fun way?

“Among the boring sedans targeting people over 50, the Camry is the MOST FUN!” That, I could buy.

But there’s no way Toyota will every convince people that the Camry is thrilling. They could launch one into space and parachute it back to earth, RedBull style, and it’d still be a boring brand.

But in this case, boring is good. People eat it up!  Why are they trying to be something else? There are plenty of thrilling cars already on the market that don’t sell nearly as well as the Camry.

Bloomberg News reports that in 2014  the era of Camry dominance could run out. There’s a lot of competition in the midsize sedan segment from Kia, Honda, Huyndai and the Ford Fusion. Perhaps the Camry spot was a knee-jerk reaction to the Fusion, with Toyota execs saying, “we gotta be cooler and appeal to a younger target audience like they have.”

Good luck with that.

Assuming you built a thrill course worth its salt, the spot would work brilliantly for BMW’s Mini brand. The Mini is a car that runs on rails, delivers thrills and is genuinely fun in every way. The analogy works.

With the Camry it falls on deaf ears.

At the end of the commercial one of the actors says, “like maybe I’ll look at a Camry differently.”  That sounds like a line stolen right from the creative brief under the header “objective.” I seriously doubt this spot will do it.

False advertising vs. truth in advertising BNBrandingAnd more importantly, why would Toyota want people to look at the Camry  differently???  Seems to me, looking at it as the #1 selling car in the country with outstanding resell value and a super-high reliability rating would be plent

So here’s some advise for brand managers and business owners concerning false advertising or grandiose claims…

If you’re lucky enough to have the best-selling brand in your category, don’t pretend to be something else. Don’t lighten your offering in order to appeal to a seemingly broader audience. Stick to your core. Resist the temptation to leverage your brand it into some other line of work.

Stick with the core truth.

For example, if you’re Guinness Stout you don’t start advertising an American-style lager.

If you’re Harley Davidson you don’t start advertising a new line of lightweight motocross bikes.

If you have the best selling sedan in the country that happens to be a bit vanilla like the Camry, don’t try selling yourself as a spicy hot sporty sedan. You’re wasting your breath. And it’s basically false advertising.

For more on truth in advertising, try THIS post.

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Golf industry branding.

Fear Of Loss in advertising — Another effective angle of attack

brand credibility from branding expertsI have an ongoing debate with a client who says we should never, ever take a negative approach in her advertising. She believes, whole heartedly, that fear of loss — or any hint of trouble — should not be part of her brand narrative.

The debate’s been going on for years, and at this point we just agree to disagree. However, as the Creative Director on her account, it’s my job to always make sure she sees our strongest ideas. So I’ll continue to present a “negative” ad occasionally, even if I know she’s just going to kill it.

Let me be very clear… I’m not referring to trash talking ads that attack her competitors. This isn’t politics, where polling data has proven that negative ads pull better than positive ones.

I’m talking about using the fear of loss in honest, problem-oriented advertising that touches on deep-seated emotions that make people stop, notice and actually click or buy.

So let’s dissect the latest example…

The overall tone of this ad is sweet as pecan pie and perfectly on brand for Oregon’s largest pediatric practice.

It definitely passes the 5-second glance test…

The quick take away is “happy child,” and “promises kept.” What brand would NOT want to be associated with those two thoughts?

But there’s that headline… that “negative” angle of attack that touches a nerve with that particular client.

“No child gets turned away. Never ever.”

I don’t believe it’s a problem.

In a very subtle way it poses a relevant idea that the reader has probably never thought of:

At other practices she might get turned away because of her insurance. It’s a true, tangible differentiator for this client.

Here’s a realistic reaction: “Wait, what?…  some pediatricians turn kids away because of their insurance!  I better check on that. I don’t want my baby to get left behind.”

The threat of getting turned down because of a stupid health insurance issue is the emotional hook of the ad.

If you turn it around and look at it through rose-colored glasses, the headline might read: “All children are always welcome. Now and forever.”

Same touching photo. Same body copy. Much weaker ad.

Here’s why:

Too much sugar on top.

The natural reaction to that “nicer” headline is dismissive:  “Of course everyone’s welcome. What kind of doctor would NOT welcome me and my newborn?”

It’s a given. And if the conclusion is a given, people skip right over it, regardless of how sweet it seems.

It’s not going to make people stop and wonder. It doesn’t contain an idea that will stick because it’s nothing but corporate sugar coating.

Sometimes the recipe calls for a touch of salt, instead.

The suggestion of being left behind in the headline (fear of loss) is just enough salt to make our prospect stop and think. And it shows that COPA really cares.

If it’s all pretty pictures and happy-go-lucky outcomes all the time, eventually no one’s going to believe you.

Authenticity is crucial these days. Focusing on the problem occasionally makes you more credible.  It conveys the idea that you understand the prospect’s problem and makes your brand more authentic.

Look at this way: Great ads tell a story. Doesn’t matter if it’s in a 3-minute video format, print ad format, or social media format, it needs to have elements of a good story. And stories always include a villain or a problem.

Without a problem you have no meaningful solution.

Without conflict there’s no resolution.

Without a villain you have no hero.

Without trouble you have no story —  just a pretty picture and a headline with no meat.

Donald Miller, in his best-seller “Building a Brand Story” talks about the challenge companies have when it comes to pointing out the downside of NOT buying a particular product or service.

“Clients don’t want to be fearmongers, but fearmongering is not the problem that 99% of business leaders struggle with. It’s just the opposite… they don’t bring up the negative stakes often enough, and their story ends up falling flat.”

Miller points out that you probably don’t want to build an entire campaign using the negative approach, and I agree with him in this case.

Happy moms with happy babies is the predominant visual tool for pediatric practices everywhere. I’m not saying we should change that, I’m just saying we should leave room for other approaches, such as this:

Every mom can relate to those times when her baby’s not being herself. That’s reality for her, and the reality of any pediatric office.

If you ignore the back door angle of attack you’re missing at least 50% of the possible creative solutions to any ad. So you’ll never know what might have been.

As a writer and advertising creative I was always taught to turn things around and look at problems from a different perspective. That training that has served me well, not just on creative assignments, but in all aspects of business.

As Alex Bogusky says, “First you have to think big. Really, really big. Then you have to sit back and think of all the ways you’re not thinking big enough.”

There are plenty of very successful brands that have done that, and built campaigns from an opposing angle of attack. Just look at the non-profit world… they always sell the problem in order to raise funds.

The World Wildlife Fund paints a clear, creative picture of what climate change might mean to people.

PETA shows nothing but sad looking animals, and they raise millions every year.

St Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

And Allstate Insurance…

The Mayhem Man campaign revolves entirely around the problem — the potential mayhem that might befall us. It’s a brilliant campaign that attacks the boring subject of insurance in a memorable, albeit “negative” fashion. They give the villain a face and paint a dramatic, lighthearted picture of what’s at stake.

It’s way more compelling than any ads showing what a wonderful, rosey life we’ll lead because of our Allstate insurance policy.

Here’s another example of the fear of loss approach from BNBranding’s portfolio of :

When we helped launch the Worx Wedge we talked to a lot of golfers about their use of a sand wedge, their attitudes toward golf industry marketing, and the challenges they face around the greens.

The insight from those discussions came through loud and clear… the average golfer has a completely irrational level of fear when it comes to sand traps.

Golf industry branding by BNBranding. Advertising, marketing and branding services for the golf industry

To them, the potential embarrassment of being stuck in a bunker is much more poignant than any positive message of hope that we might employ. (The golf industry is riddled with hopeful bullshit promises of more distance.)

So instead of promising them roses and lower scores, we attacked the problem head on.

Fear Not.

There’s a story in these simple, two word ads… We acknowledge their fear, show that it is not unfounded, and position the Worx Wedge as the tool they need to conquer it.

fear of loss in advertising brand insight blog

Psychologists and neuroscientists have actually conducted quite a bit of conclusive research on the persuasive power of the loss-aversion pitch. Turns out, the fear of loss is often more powerful than the hope of gain.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University says “Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.”

fear of loss in golf industry advertisingMothers remember, quite vividly, those trips to the doctor with their screaming 6-month old. And they forget all about the positive experiences with their pediatrician.

Golfers never forget the experience of being stuck in a pot bunker during a bucket list trip to St. Andrews.

In advertising there are market realities to consider, as well. Sometimes, when you’re dealing with a me-too product in a crowded category, focusing on what the product is NOT is the better strategy, by far.

Let everyone else tout the generic product category benefits and attempt to position themselves as the hero, while you focus on the problem and let the customer be the hero in the story.

There are really only two possible outcomes for any advertising story…  customers either gains something, or they lose something.  Advertising your product or service as a way to avoid that loss really can work.

You just can’t be afraid of the fear of loss.

 

 

a new approach to website design BNBranding

 

 

 

 

8 visual cliches Brand Insight Blog

How stock photos sabotage your brand image – Beware of visual clichés.

BNBranding logoEvery business needs photos… (Your brand image can’t be built on words alone.)  Unfortunately, most people turn immediately to free stock photo sites. Doesn’t matter if the images are for the website, ads, sales materials, email campaigns, social media posts or powerpoint presentations, they go to the same source every time.

The problem with cheap stock photography, in most cases, is this: It bores people to death. The eyes instantly glaze over because the brain’s saying “I’ve seen this a thousand times. There’s nothing new or interesting here.”

How many times have you heard this cliché on a local radio ad… “our friendly, courteous staff is here to help with all your blah, blah, blah needs.”

Chances are, you changed the channel before they could finish the sentence.

brand image and visual cliches of stock photography - Brand Insight Blog

Crummy stock photos have the same effect as verbal clichés.

Please, dear God, not another fake image of your “friendly, courteous staff.” The image above is the classic, customer service visual cliché, and it’s just as bad for business as the blather you hear on local radio commercials.

Unfortunately, stock images like that have become ubiquitous in the corporate world.  ShutterStock alone has more than 100 million images to choose from, and most of them only cost a few bucks apiece. The internet has made it way too easy to drop-in mediocre images.

Advertising agency art directors work really hard to avoid the milk-toast visuals that are so prominent on low-cost stock photo sites. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time to sift through the stock libraries just to find something that’s sorta close to what’s really needed. Very, very rarely do you find the perfect image for the job.

Sometimes it’s more cost effective to just commission a great photographer to do it right. And it’s always a better creative product.

Unfortunately, clients often balk at the photography line item in proposed budgets. They assume that the perfect photo’s just waiting to be downloaded for ten bucks. At the touch of a button.

 

Mike Houska, commercial photographer and owner of Dogleg Studios, says easy access to so many images is both a blessing and a curse… he’s selling more stock photos (rights-managed) but the assignment work is harder to come by.

“The royalty-free stock images are so cheap and easy to get, it’s pretty much eliminated all the low-end and middle budget work,” Houska said. “Back in the day, buyers had to comb through a bunch of giant stock catalogs, then call the stock company to do a search that may or may not turn up something. It was a hit and miss proposition at best, and the stock shots weren’t cheap. Now you can easily find a hundred images that roughly fit your criteria. They’re not great, but they’re close, and that seems to be close enough for a lot of people.”

“Close-enough” may work out for the photographers selling their stock images online, but it doesn’t work well if you care about your brand image.

“When you’re selling stock images, it’s just a volume game,” Houska said. “Those photographers want their images to be uploaded a thousand times over, so they make them as generic as possible. In that case, a picture’s definitely not worth a thousand words.”

The question is, do you really want to hang your hat on a photo that’s already being used by hundreds of other companies, including your competitors? Or do you want a compelling image that will help differentiate you from everyone else?

“Close enough” means you’ll look just as boring as everyone else.

Let me pose this… does a “close enough” mentality fit with your corporate culture or your personal approach to business?

What would happen if the engineering department just said, “oh well, that’s close enough”? How’s that going to work out for you?

The fact is, your brand image should be just as important to you as the quality of your product.

brand image golf industry photography by BNBranding and Dogleg StudiosI’ve been involved in many photoshoots for country clubs. (Now that’s a cliché just waiting to happen.)

There are thousands of decent stock images of golf we could use. And these days, everyone seems to think that drone footage is the answer. But stock photography or drone fly-overs are a dime a dozen.

There’s nothing that will lead the viewer into the experience or tell the authentic story of a particular club. The vast majority of stock photos won’t offend, but they won’t impress either.

So we don’t use any of them. Mike Houska at Dogleg Studios sets up every shot with the painstaking attention to detail that makes custom photography worth every penny.

This shot is a good example. It exemplifies everything that this club is all about. Sure, it’s a beauty shot of the golf course, but it’s also a story of friendly competition, camaraderie, social life and hope.

I believe that successful brands are built on three things: credibility, relevance and differentiation. Cheesy stock photos can hurt you in all three areas…

If you’re trying to convey a message of quality, your credibility goes right out the window with a cheap stock shot. If the shot’s used by anyone else, differentiation is out of the question. And there’s nothing relevant about an image that’s designed to appeal to a mass market of consumers age 25 to 54.

tips for new logo design by BNBranding

So the next time you’re thinking that another stock photo will help your brand image, stop for a minute and ask yourself this: Will this image add anything to the story I’m trying to tell here? Does it support a specific idea, or is it just beige window dressing.

Or worse yet, is it just another visual cliché, like the good-looking customer service rep with the headset? If it is, dump it.

The bottom line is, stock photos are a fantastic resource, but marketers and designers need to do a better job selecting the images.

The problem with stock photography isn’t the photography, it’s the judgement of the person choosing the image. There are great shots to be found, so either spend a lot more time refining your search, or hire someone to get the right shot for the job to begin with. Your brand image will be better for it in the long run.

Another option is to develop your own, proprietary graphics that actually tie-in to the brand identity. For instance, at BNBranding we use a series of images like this to help drive home our points, without resorting to stock photos that are nothing more than borrowed interest.

I’d like to hear about the worst clichés you’ve ever seen in marketing. Visual or otherwise. Post a comment, or e-mail me personally: johnf@bnbranding.com.

If you want to learn more about brand image, try this post. 

If you want help polishing the brand image of your company, call me: 541-815-0075

Keen branding

5

How to build a brand… First, own an idea.

I think all entrepreneurs should study advertising. Entrepreneurs are full of ideas, and advertising is an industry of ideas… Ideas on how to build a brand. How to build credibility and authenticity for existing brands. How to engage an audience and convert leads into sales.

It’s those big ideas — paired with exceptional execution — that builds iconic brands over time, and vaults ad agencies into the national spotlight.

The same can be said for start-ups. Entrepreneurs who start with a big idea, and then stick to it, are the ones who end up building iconic brands. They own an idea, like Zappos did for shoes or Patagonia for adventure gear, or Tesla for electric luxury cars.

how to build a brand - by BN BrandingHere’s a good example from the archives of advertising history: Maytag owns the idea of worry-free appliances. For more than 30 years their advertising has brilliantly communicated the idea of dependability with the lonely Maytag repairman who never has anything to do.
Now he even has an apprentice. The Leo Burnett Agency introduced a strapping new version of Maytag repairman… a side-kick who can talk about technological advancements and appeal to younger women.
The Maytag repairman character is so iconic Chevy actually used him in a television spot touting the Impala’s reliability.
Maytag owns the idea. Chevy’s just borrowing it.
Maytag’s core brand idea helps segment the market and differentiate them from the competition. Nobody else in that category will try to claim the idea of “reliability.” Won’t work because everyone knows that Maytag = dependability.

Google knows how to build a brand. They own the idea of online search. So much so, it’s become a verb. “Google it.” It’s the world at your fingertips.

Campbell’s owns the idea of “comfort food.” That brand is not about flavor, it’s about the rainy day when your kids are home for lunch and you sit down for a bowl of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Campbell’s warms, comforts, nourishes, takes you back in time and puts a smile on your face.

For only about one dollar.

Volvo owns the idea of safety. That’s their clearly perceived position in the automotive market.

own an idea BNBrandingEven though driving an automobile is inherently risky, people believe they are safe in a Volvo. And that belief feeds the folklore that sustains that idea and Volvo’s brand image.

Even though Volvo models have all the glamorous features of a luxury brand, they’ll never be seen as luxury cars. Just safe cars.

Funny story about Volvo shopping… Some years ago I seriously considered buying a Volvo SUV for my family. I did the research and went to the local lot for a test drive. But the salesman blew it. He was so adamant about the brand’s safety record, he tried to convince me that Volvo actually used Swedish convicts as live test dummies. True story, he claimed. That’s how Volvo developed such a safe car… by crashing them with convicts at the wheel.

Needless to say, Volvo’s reputation for safety and the car’s luxurious ride couldn’t trump the salesman’s idiocy. I bought an Audi.

Who owns the idea of “fast food?”

McDonald’s, of course. But when people began to realize that fast food wasn’t so good nutritionally, Subway had their own idea… “Healthy Fast Food.”  It was healthier than McDonalds, and Jerod proved it by losing like a thousand pounds while eating Subway Sandwiches.

That simple idea has propelled Subway to #1 in the fast food category. There are 44,800 subway Subway stores to 36,500 McDonald’s stores.

Jimmy Johns owns the idea of fast sandwich deliveryNow Jimmy John’s owns the idea of FAST sandwiches. Not fast food, or sandwiches like Subway, but sandwiches delivered quickly, wherever you may be.

That’s a good strategy of differentiation, especially because their sandwiches aren’t all that great. If they stick with the idea, and execute the idea religiously by actually delivering every sandwich faster than anyone expects, they’ll have a winning business formula.

It’s a core brand concept that’s easily demonstrable in advertising.

And that’s particularly important when it’s a category of parity.  The sandwiches at Quiznos, Tomo’s, Jimmy John’s and Subway are all pretty much the same, so the advertising idea becomes even more important.

Insurance in another such category. It’s a fairly even playing field in a low-involvement category. (Let’s face it, dealing with insurance is about as much fun as going to the dentist.)

Allstate owns the idea of mayhem. In their current advertising campaign the agency  put a face on mayhem, and gave him a smart-ass personality. Everybody knows somebody like that, you just hope your daughter doesn’t date the guy

State Farm has a long-running slogan, “like a good neighbor.”  Unfortunately, neither the advertising nor the customer service support that idea.

Geico saturates the airwaves with humorous advertising and outspends everyone in the insurance category. Thanks to an annual budget of $500 million a year the Geico Gecko and the cavemen have become fixtures in American pop culture. But the message is all over the place. There’s no core brand idea that anyone can grasp.

Guess who owns the idea of sparkling white teeth?  It’s not Colgate. Not Crest. Not a toothpaste, at all.  It’s Orbit chewing gum, a fairly new brand from the master marketers at Wrigleys.

The Orbit girl “cleaning up dirty mouths” campaign helped them capture the #1 spot in the chewing gum market.

(I think Orbit copied the Progressive Insurance advertising. Progressive is the sparkling white insurance brand, for whatever that’s worth.)

Coming up with a core brand concept is hard work. You really have to dig. And think. And explore.

Most of the good ideas have already been done, or can’t be owned authentically. That’s the trick… finding a conceptual framework that honestly fits with your product or service offering.  (BNBranding can help you with that.)

Many big brands don’t own an idea at all.

JCPenny, or JCP as they’d like us to say, doesn’t own an idea. They’re trying desperately to be younger, cooler and more hip than they used to be, but the name change and the slick new execution of their print advertising doesn’t make up for the lack of a relevant idea. They’re closing stores by the hundreds, and are destined to become yet another retail dinosaur.

Whether you’re selling insurance or chewing gum, building a brand begins with a simple idea.

Anybody can borrow some money, hang up a shingle and start their own business. But the companies that last — the ones that become iconic brands — almost always start with a clearly defined, highly demonstrable idea that goes beyond just the product or service.

Do you need ideas? Need help with your brand messaging? Get started right away. Click here. 

Want to learn more about how to build a brand? Try this post.

 

how to build a brand by BN Branding

2 how to differentiate your company - BNBranding

How to differentiate your company (Disruption as a branding discipline)

BNBranding logoThe word for the day is Disruption, with a capital D. That’s the easiest way to differentiate your company from the competition.

Be Disruptive!

Unfortunately, in our society there’s a stigma against all things deemed disruptive.How to differentiate your business - BNBranding

When I was in elementary school I learned to not be disruptive in class. Or else! Sit still in church and don’t disrupt the service. By the 6th grade it was “don’t cause a scene or call attention to yourself.”

Don’t be different. Be the same.

Write like everyone else. Dress like everyone else. Behave like everyone else and you’ll get along just fine. That’s the message we got, and it’s the message our kids are getting.

Loud and clear.

 

 

Maybe that’s why so many business owners and executives flee from the idea of disruption like a fox from a forest fire. It’s ingrained in our society. Most business owners are deathly afraid that some new competitor with “distruptive technology” is going to come along and threaten their turf.

And yet, if you’re trying to differentiate your business it’s disruption that separates the iconic brands from the ho-hum ones.  Disruptive advertising. Disruptive product ideas. Disruptive marketing messages. Disruptive cultures. And even disruptive social media posts.

Jean Marie Dru, Chairman of the advertising conglomerate TBWA, has written two outstanding books about Disruption, but it’s still a hard sell. To most executives disruption is bad. Convention is good. And the results of this mentality are everywhere.

Brand differentiation is hard to come by.

As management guru Tom Peters says, “we live in a sea of similarity.” Social convention and human nature lead us into a trap of conformity where all websites have the same basic layout. All sedans look the same. All airlines feel the same. All travel ads sound the same.

And it works to some degree, because there’s comfort in conformity. (Vanilla still outsells all other flavors of ice cream.)

But in the long run, conformity is the kiss of death for a brand.

Great brands do things that are disruptive. Rather than shying away from the word, the executives embrace the idea of disruption and they make it a part of their everyday operation. They are constantly looking for ways to differentiate their companies, and every new idea is considered productive change that stimulates progress.

But even when they succeed with disruptive products, disruptive technology and disruptive marketing campaigns, it’s tough to sustain.

When Chrysler first launched the Plymouth Voyager the Minivan was a groundbreaking idea that threw the auto industry into total disruption. It was a whole new category, and everyone scrambled to copy the market leader. Within five years, minivans were — you guessed it —  all the same.

There used to be a Television network that was radically disruptive. MTV launched hundreds of music careers and shaped an entire generation, and now where is it? Lost in a sea of mediocre sameness.

When they first burst onto the scene in the 80’s, the idea of a micro brewery was very disruptive. Now, in Oregon, there’s one in every neighborhood and they’re all pretty much the same. Good, but IPAs are everywhere.

Successfully disruptive ideas don’t last because its human nature to copy what works. This process of imitation homogenizes the disruptive idea to the point where it’s no longer different. No longer disruptive.

how to differentiate your company - BNBrandingSo if you want to sustain a competitive advantage and continue to differentiate your company from new upstarts, you have to keep coming up with disruptive ideas. Not just incremental improvement on what’s always worked, but honest-to-goodness newness all the time.

Avatar is a disruptive movie that spawned numerous knock-offs.

The name “Fuzzy Yellow Balls” is brilliantly disruptive in the on-line tennis market.

brand differentiation on the brand insight blogThe American Family Life Assurance Company was utterly forgettable until they changed their name to AFLAC and launched a campaign featuring a quacking duck.

In the insurance business, that’s disruptive!

According to an interview in the Harvard Business Review, AFLAC’s CEO Daniel Amos risked a million dollars on that silly duck campaign.

Amos could have gone with an idea that tested incrementally better than the average insurance commercial, but he didn’t. He took a chance and went with that obnoxious duck. He chose to differentiate his company. He chose disruption over convention, and everyone said he was nuts.

But it turned out to be a radically successful example of brand differentiation.

The first day the duck aired AFLAC had more visits to their website than they had in the entire previous year. Name recognition improved 67% the first year. And most importantly, sales jumped 29%. After three years, sales had doubled.

AFLAC’s success was based on disruption in advertising and naming. But for many companies, there’s also an opportunity to stand out with disruptive strategy. In fact, Dru contends that breakthrough tactics are not enough, and that the strategic stage also demands imagination.

Here’s another good example of how to differentiate your company…

When Apple introduced the iPod, the strategy wasn’t just about superior product design. It was about disrupting the conventions of the music business. It was about introducing the Apple brand to a whole new category of non-users and establishing Apple as the preferred platform for all your personal electronic needs.ipod branding on the brand insight blog

 

Of course Apple also has brilliant, disruptive advertising.

You can get away with mediocre tactics if your strategy is disruptive enough. And vice-versa…  If your advertising execution is disruptive, you can get by with a me-too strategy. But if you want to hit a real home run like Apple did with the ipod, start with a brilliantly disruptive strategy and build on it with a disruptive product and disruptive marketing execution.

It’s kind of ironic… In business, no one wants to cause a disruption, and yet they’re clamoring for good ideas. And good ideas ARE disruptive. They disrupt the way the synapses in the brain work. They break down our stereotypes and disrupt the business-as-usual mentality.

That’s precisely why we remember them.

How to differentiate your company - BNBrandingRichard Branson said, “Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there.”

Steinbeck once said, “It is the nature of man, as he grows old, to protect himself against change, particularly change for the better.”

Ask yourself this: What are you protecting yourself from? What are the conventions of your industry?  Why are are you maintaining the stats quo? What are the habits that are holding you back? Are you copying what’s good, or doing what’s new?

What are you doing to be disruptive?  What are doing to differentiate your company on a dialy basis? Are you really willing to settle for vanilla or are you really committed to brand differentiation?

For more on disruption and how to differentiate your company, try THIS post.

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hire the right marketing person

How to hire the right marketing person — the first time.

hire the right marketing person from a branding agency in bend, oregonBNBranding logoMost business owners have no idea how to hire the right marketing person. I’ve seen many good, stable companies churn through dozens of people before they find a match.

The revolving door gets costly.

The companies I work with rely on small, efficient teams of people for all their marketing needs, and without good leadership the marketing efforts can go completely astray.

So sometimes, the best marketing advice I can offer is how to hire the right marketing person.

It’s not easy, and the answer varies dramatically, depending on the skills and interests of the CEO or owner. But one thing’s for sure… If you have a fledgling start-up, you better think carefully about the type of person you hire to spearhead your marketing efforts.

 

The most common mistake is hiring a specialist to do it all… someone who’s deep into SEO, or social media, or web development, or graphic design. Whatever.

Those “doers” are all important team players in your marketing mix, but what you need is a thinker/doer to lead the way. Unless you’re a marketing generalist yourself, you’ll need an idea person who can wear many different hats.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “top marketing talent must be able to combine skills that don’t often go together, and might even seem contradictory…  Analytical + Creative. Innovation + Execution. Storytelling + sales skills.”  You won’t find that combination of skill sets in a specialist.

Brand Insight Blog by BNBrandingIn this age of marketing specialization, you need a generalist… someone who can take the podium and speak for you one minute, and then jump in and get work done the next.

Here are three good tips on how to hire the right marketing person:

1.  Broad experience means better perspective.

The marketing game is changing quickly these days, and there are a lot of moving parts. You need someone with enough perspective and experience to understand the entire playing field and keep all the balls in the air.

If you hire a specialist you’ll get a myopic view of marketing and branding. If she only has experience in social media, she’ll assess your entire branding effort and come up with many creative ways to use social channels.

It’s like the old saying… if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Recently I sat in on a presentation by a young man pitching his social media expertise to a non-profit organization. With no research, no understanding of the brand or the business model, and no experience to speak of, he was absolutely convinced that the organization ­­should replace every other marketing tactic with social media advertising.

That’s not the kind of thinking that will take your business to the next level.

3. Specialists don’t know strategy. 

Specialists often talk “strategy.” One will offer an email marketing strategy, another candidate will bring a social media strategy, a digital strategy, a direct response strategy, a Facebook strategy, an SEO strategy and even a SnapChat strategy.

hiring the right marketing person Brand Insight BlogIf you’re not careful you’ll be swimming in “strategies.”

Don’t be fooled. There’s only one strategy. Everything else is just a to-do list.

British adman Simon Pont puts it quite well: “One strategy, one collective intent; many expressions and executions, all with moving parts and all aligned. It’s all about linking into that one given strategy and expressing it through many specialties.”

You can always hire outside help on a project-by-project basis to execute specific tactics and get through that tactical to-do list. What you can’t find so easily is someone who can think strategically and come up with ideas that actually do qualify as a true marketing strategy.

“A strategy is an idea… a conceptualization of how a goal could be achieved.”

Emphasis on IDEA! Successful marketing strategies are rooted in big ideas. Not punch lists.

For a big idea you need someone with creative skills, uncommon business sense and a good working knowledge of all the different marketing specialties.

In a perfect world you’d find an experienced, well-rounded marketing pro who brings advertising planning experience as well as creative skills to the table… a one man marketing machine who could to analyze market research data one day, extrapolate that one little nugget of consumer insight you need, and write a brilliant ad the next.

That’s a rare breed. If you find someone like that, pay him or her handsomely. Give them tons of freedom and let them in on every crucial management decision. I guarantee you, your company will be better off for it. If you can’t find that person, call me.

3. Effective managers know something about what they’re managing.

If you hire a manager who knows nothing about computer programming, he’s going to have a very hard time managing a team of computer programmers. Some fundamental knowledge of the material is necessary.

Same holds true in marketing.

Most specialists simply don’t have the fundamental knowledge of the material they need to manage the whole effort efficiently.

For example… If you hire a social media specialist to drive your entire marketing effort, she’s going to struggle when it comes to managing traditional advertising, content marketing, direct response TV, or any other tactics.

Don’t expect that person to suddenly be capable of doing anything beyond her specialty. That’s just not realistic. Marketing is important, and you could lose a lot of money waiting for your marketing leader to “grow into the position.”

Instead, hire a generalist who’s already there. Then hire a specialist to do her specialty thing under the leadership of the savvy generalist. Don’t hire a specialist to manage other specialists. It doesn’t work.

Look, hiring right is very hard. I know that. (That’s why I’m a firm believer in hiring HR specialists to handle the initial screening and recruitment and help with the interviewing.)

Hopefully this piece will help you avoid costly trial and error when hiring a marketing person. And maybe a great, well-rounded marketing generalist will find the perfect position that will lead to fame and fortune. In either case, it helps to have a strategic branding company on your side, as well.

BNBranding's Brand Insight Blog

 

 

 

About the author…

John Furgurson is one of those valuable generalists. He cut his teeth in the direct response advertising and has done corporate film, advertising of all kinds, content marketing, PR, social media and just about every other specialty under the big branding umbrella. So if you’re still wondering how to hire the right marketing person, hire him to lead your marketing team, and then just add a couple specialists in supporting roles. 

1 BNBranding brand insight blog example of incongruity in copywriting

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

BNBranding logoSometimes, 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:

I 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. “The inconguity of it. 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.

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

“Popular parking places” 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.

 

 

tips for new logo design by BNBrandingIncongruity 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.

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2 Keen brand strategy on the brand insight blog BNBranding

Keen Footwear is a great branding case study. If the shoe fits.

Keen brand strategy on the brand insight blog BNBrandingApparently, I have peasant feet.  At least that’s what the nice sales person at REI told me as I was buying a pair of Keens.  That comment inspired me to use that brand as a good branding case study.

Here’s how the story goes…

Back in medieval Europe, peasant’s feet were short and stubby, with toes that were all close to the same length.

Noblemen, on the other hand, had narrow, pointy feet, with toes that tapered off like an Egyptian profile.

Keen shoes seem to be tailor-made for peasants.

I’ve purchased two pairs of Keens for work, one pair of sandals, and two pairs of light hikers because they fit my feet perfectly. But I’ve never heard anything from Keen about fit. ( Or about catering to peasants, for that matter.)

Instead, the Keen brand strategy revolves around the theme of the “hybrid life.” Where did that come from, you might ask.

 

 

Like most great brands, Keen was launched with one simple idea. Their entire brand strategy focused on sandals with toe protection. It’s yet another branding case study that proves the power of singular focus.

Designer Michael Keen’s ah-ha moment derived from his experience as a competitive sailor.  At the time, serious sailors never wore sandals. Too many stubbed toes! So Keen came up with the Newport Sandal and dubbed it a hybrid — somewhere between a shoe and a sandal with visible reinforcement in the toes.

Stylish? Not really. But they sure are functional.

Sailors soon started moving away from Top Siders and embracing the protection provided by Keen’s distinctive toe design. There’s even a Keen model that looks like a deck shoe.

Keen shoes brand strategy on the Brand Insight BlogBut sailing is a preppy, upper crust activity, and Keen’s brand personality is definitely not preppy. That’s where this branding case study gets interesting.

You won’t see any sailing in Keen’s marketing materials, and I doubt they’ll be sponsoring an America’s Cup boat any time soon.

You’re more likely to see Keens on a dirt bag vagabond than an ivy league yachtsman.

Keen shoes are not high fashion, but they’re highly functional and amazingly comfortable. They appeal to river rafters, hikers, beachcombers, bicyclists, campers, fishermen and just about anyone who loves to play outdoors. Every model they make shows Keen’s original benefit… toe protection.

Needless to say, the brand plays well in the workboot category. But more than that, it’s also popular among urban hipsters in places like Portland, Seattle, Boston and Austin, Texas.

For branding purposes, the company latched onto Michael Keen’s term and expanded it into the “hybrid life.”

Unfortunately, most people don’t know what that means. It’s a conjured-up lifestyle thing that only makes sense to a tiny sliver of the peasant market. Like those of us lucky enough to live in Bend, Oregon.

Bend Oregon Advertising Agency Keen branding case studyWhen it comes to brand affiliations, Bend is the perfect town for Keen.

We get it. Recreation’s the name of the game here, and locals are very good at getting outside and having fun… Paddling  or fishing the Deschutes River, mountain biking, skiing, hiking, running the river trail.

The hybrid life is what we’re all doing here. Or at least aspiring to do.

But the folks at Keen like to say “hybrid life” is deeper than just what you do in your spare time. It’s “a call to create, play and care.”  That’s the heart of the Keen brand, and the company has demonstrated authenticity on all three fronts.

It’s one of those companies that’s genuinely trying to do good things. And that commitment is built into their brand strategy.

When it comes to caring, Keen walks the talk. When the tsunami hit Thailand and Indonesia in 2004, Keen donated its entire marketing budget for the year, almost $1 million, to tsunami recovery efforts.

Since then Keen has donated over $5 million to non-profits that share “a philosophy of caring, conscience and sustainability.”

On the sustainability scale, Keen CEO James Curleigh considers Keen an “accidental environmentalist”.

They launched a line of bags and wallets using scrap polyester and nylon. So now the company is heralded as “green” and eco-friendly. But to hear Curleigh tell it, the move had more to do with material costs and smart business decisions than environmentalism.

The Portland-based company encourages its employees to volunteer in the community, offering up to 36 hours of paid time each year to participate in volunteer activities. Appropriately, on Earth Day nearly 40 of the company’s employeeKeen shoes brand strategy on the Brand Insight Blogs helped with trail maintenance in Portland’s Forest Park.

And one of Keen’s recent advertising campaigns encouraged people to rekindle one of the favorite parts of their childhood and incorporate Recess into their adult lives.

Sounds good to me. Peasants deserve a break. We work hard.

The campaign is an improvement over Keen’s past advertising efforts where the hybrid life was sort of shoved down our throats. “Designed for your hybred life” was actually one of the headlines. (A classic case where the brand strategy statement made an unfortunate appearance as an ad headline.) The message has also lacked consistency over the years…

“Shoes with adrenalin.”

“Bear tested, Bear approved” with Bear Grylls from Man vs. Wild.

“Live Outwardly.”

Keen’s agency is obviously trying to make “Recess” more inclusive. They’re working to expand the definition of  “outdoor recreation” and include a broader range of audiences.

Maybe they’re trying a little too hard.

The ads feels a little forced. The photography has a stock look, and doesn’t sKeen advertisingeem authentic to me.  Compare it to the photography that Patagonia consistently produces… it’s no contest.

In the Keen ads there are no peasants, no grungy hipsters, no bearded mountain men. They’re all models — cleaned, pressed and ready to trek from one photo shoot to the next. I’ll bet most of them even have noble, pointy feet.

Which brings me back to Michael Keen’s original design.

Keen said he considered all kinds of feet before deciding on a last that fits 90 percent of the population. But there aren’t that many of us with peasant feet.

The fact is, the lucky people with noble, Egyptian feet can fit into just about any shoe, including Keens. But not vice-versa.

Try shoving a stubby, peasant foot into the typical golf shoe. It’s impossible. Just look how pointy they all are. It’s almost as-if the powers that be in the golf industry want to perpetuate that image of noble exclusivity.

Golf shoes just don’t fit peasant feet.

They won’t even make shoes for the working class, much less golf courses!

So here’s what I hope:  I hope Keen gets into the golf shoe business.

If they choose to make deck shoes and biking shoes, why not golf shoes? The toe construction of a Keen is absolutely perfect for the demands of the golf swing, and no other golf shoe accommodates the common foot.

And when they do move into that market, I hope I can do the ads. Because nobody knows peasant golf like I do.

For more on Brand Strategy, check out THIS post: 

Interested in buying some Keens? Check them out at GoodPairOfShoes.com

 

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.

Marketing lessons from the not-so-surprising failure of Sears

Marketing lessons from Sears on the Brand Insight Blog from BNBrandingbrand credibility from branding expertsThe recent demise of Sears, once the country’s largest retailer, is replete with valuable marketing lessons for business owners, entrepreneurs, marketing execs and brand managers.

It’s a classic American entrepreneurial tale.

When the Sears store in my hometown closed its doors. a 60 year presence in the market I was not exactly distraught.

I bought a few tools there, once upon a time. And an appliance or two, but I certainly wouldn’t say I had any fond memories of the place, much less brand allegiance.

Sears dates all the way back to 1886 when Richard Sears started selling watches to his coworkers at the railroad. Alvah Roebuck was his watchmaker, and in 1893 the name Sears Roebuck & Co. was incorporated.

 

 

marketing lessons from Sears and BNBranding in Bend OregonSears grew rapidly by selling all sorts of merchandise through the mail at a price that undercut the local mercantile. The product offerings were broad — everything from violins to patent medicines and do-it-yourself houses — but the target market was narrowly defined: small towns where the general mercantile was the only real competition.

It was wildly successful niche marketing for more than100years.marketing lessons from sears on the Brand Insight Blog by John Furgurson

Sears went public in 1901 and in 1925 the first Sears store opened, in Chicago.Mr. Sears got ridiculously rich. Industrialist, oil baron rich.

By 1933 they had 300 stores and the mail order business began to take a back seat to the retail business.

Over the next 50 years Sears became a multi-national retail empire, with 2200 stores and the world’s tallest building as its corporate headquarters. The company obviously did a lot of things right over the years.

For instance, Forbes Magazine reported that “Sears successfully developed some of the strongest and most famous private-label brands in history.  Those brands include Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, Diehard batteries, Weatherbeater paint, and Roadhandler tires.

Marketing lessons from Craftsman on the brand insight blog

One of many successful brands that Sears built.

Those are great names, and the success of those product lines is textbook branding. Someone at Sears was well advised to resist the line extension trap and NOT put the Sears name on a car battery or a paint can.

Some Wall Street insiders believe it’s those proprietary brands that could save Sears from its current “slow motion liquidation.” In fact, there have been rumors that Sears will begin selling some of those brands through other retailers, including Costco. Maybe there’s a future for Sears as a wholesaler???

Sears is a good example of how success often leads to temptation and complacency. Temptation to expand and diversify into other businesses and complacency when it comes to the core of the brand. (I’m not sure anyone in the last 30 years could even define the core of the Sears brand. They were all over the place!)

Sears got into the insurance business with AllState, the financial services business by buying Dean Witter Reynolds, the real estate business with the purchase of Coldwell Banker and even the credit card business, with the launch of the Discover Card.

In the meantime, they missed an opportunity to dominate the direct marketing business, they neglected their retail stores, failed to convert their catalog into a successful ecommerce business, and let their wildly popular private label brands languish.

So much for a clearly defined Sears niche.

For 20 years Sears has been trying to re-position itself as a competitor to Macy’s, JCPenny, Kohl’s and Target. Remember the slogan, “The softer side of Sears?” That was an ill-fated attempt to sell clothing. Now they have the Kardashian Collection. Yikes!

Marketing lessons from The Kardashian Collection. Does this look like Sears to you?

The Kardashian Collection. Does this look like Sears to you?

Forbes magazine reported: “Sears is relying mainly on inauthentic celebrity exclusives (does anyone really believe that Kim Kardashian would actually shop at Sears?) to attract younger, fashion-conscious consumers, and it is clear that Sears has lost its way.”

As Laura Ries put it, “When faced with a broadening of its category, Sears should have narrowed its focus and become a specialist. Instead of shifting to the “softer side of Sears,” the retailer should have further embraced its harder side.”

The department store niche is not the answer to Sears’ problems. Walmart has taken both the price and one-stop shopping advantage.

Target is positioned as the trendy, aspirational choice for millennial girls.

Home Depot is the place to go for home improvement.

has the online convenience advantage. Best Buy dominates in electronics. Lowes is succeeding with appliances. There’s just no room for a general purpose department store that’s trying to be all things to all people.

Even if there wasn’t all that competition, you’d still never convince people that Sears is a good place to buy clothing. That was never going to fly!

Sears Brand car battery

Not sure what can jump start Sears at this point.

It will be very interesting to see what becomes of the company now that it’s merged with Kmart and owned by infamous hedge fund manager Eddie Lampbert. The stock has lost half its value. They’re closing 120 stores this year. And there doesn’t seem to be a plan in place to revive it.

The company’s latest hail-mary strategy  is “a free social shopping destination and loyalty rewards program called “Shop Your Way.” (Note to management: A loyalty program’s probably not going to work too well in all these towns where the stores have been shuttered.)

Even the most beloved retail chains have a hard time with loyalty programs. A recent study by McKinsey & Co. found that despite their general growth and popularity, loyalty programs actually erode margins and destroy value for their owners. Companies with them grew no faster than — and sometimes slower than — those without loyalty programs.

The latest update on the Sears saga has Lampbert borrowing a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, blaming irresponsible media coverage for Sears’ troubles.

According to the Business News, Sears has not shown a profit in the last six years. And talk about spin… Lampbert went so far as to liken that performance to Amazon’s early years.

That’s delusional leadership.

Crain’s Chicago Business summed it up the best:  “If the hedge-fund mogul knew how to fix Sears, he’d have done it by now.”

There are only two things the company has going for it: massive real estate holdings, and some great brands NOT named Sears.

For more marketing lessons and insight on marketing leadership, try this post.

a new approach to website design BNBranding