Monday, April 28, 2008

Fight the power – Struggling in the Face of Major US Brands

Consider this experience that I had on a recent domestic US flight. You are sitting in your plane and your flight is delayed. You’re sitting in the plane, waiting through yet-another-delay for your flight to take off. Your flight crew is telling you that your experience is the result of understaffing, that airline senior management is tooling you, them, and the world, making fat bonuses while the little guys are struggling and starving -- if you are the airline, at the minimum, you have a branding problem.

On the whole, that might be one snapshot, one data point, one issue in one operating environment -- but my gut tells me that it is worse -- that this is a much broader problem. This isn’t just the problem of one place or one company complaining about an imbalance in salaries, service, or treatment (and everyone knows that the airlines may hold some sort of record for customer insensitivity), but it strikes me that this issue, this sense of inequity, is more pervasive, and that is extends beyond the front-line folks in the airline industry.

What happens to the folks who spent a lifetime in the industry, only to see all of the things -- the company, the pension, the traditional perception of meeting and exceeding customer service expectations -- cut out from under them by the economy, by bankruptcy, by cost-cutting, and by a management strategy that grinds them deeper into the space between the rock and the hard place? What's more, how do you "rebuild" a customer-focused brand in that environment?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Joy of Interviewing

In drafting my recent post about tips, I am reminded of a strange challenge that some marketers face -- the job interview. You'd be surprised how many professional marketers that I have met who are nervous at the prospect of a job interview. On the one hand, it is a perfectly human expression for an awkward situation -- you have to talk about yourself and tell somebody about how great you are, but most of us don't want to be that guy who tells everyone how great he is. On the other hand, the guy who is thinking about hiring you doesn't really want a marketing guy who can't differentiate and develop effective messaging, and if you can't do that about yourself (the product that you've known and worked with all your life), how can he have any confidence in your ability to position and market his products.

Add in one more factor, and you've got a lot of the psychology wrapped into it's own perfect storm -- inherently, we all have some sense of the personal quality of our efforts (if you thought that everything that YOU did sucked, you would probably find not be looking forward to the prospect of doing more unfulfilling work). As a result, the job interview is also a personal evaluation of the mirror -- if the organization that is considering hiring you can't recognize the quality of your work, then you probably not going to want to produce work for them.

And then there is the other aspect of the equation -- if you're interviewing, that means that there is money on the table, and that revenue source has the potential to reshape your livelihood.

So what's a marketer to do?
The advice that I usually give to friends it to treat job interviews like you are pitching your services as a consultant to a prospective client. While they share a lot of common threads, the process and tone of pitching a new client is quite different from a job interview. Pitching services as a consultant always seems to be significantly less intimidating than a job interview.

Differentiation is it's own challenge. Consider:
Q - So, how would you differentiate yourself from the other candidates in our pool?
A1 - Well, I have good ideas and they don't.
A2 - Well, I know what I'm doing and they don't.

From an interview standpoint, this type of question is one designed to elicit conversation, to get the candidate to open up. But look at this from a marketer's standpoint: Differentiation typically involves research and analysis, understanding the market, your competition, their strengths and weaknesses, the audience, their unique requirements -- the whole landscape -- then developing positioning and messaging based on all of that analysis. Even when you're thrown into a brainstorming meeting, you typically have some basic understanding of the topic areas that you are faced with and you can anticipate some variables. But this is an interview and you don't know anything about your competition. You could be in a pool with Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer -- they've got great jobs, but you never know; maybe they've just decided to make a change, explore some options. Of course, it's more likely that the pool of candidates is a handful of people who are a lot like you.

So what is your brand? How do you take you to market? What aspects of your brand have you focused your development on, made into strengths? If your able to communicate your unique brand strengths and your prospective customer/employer isn't able to connect with them, the answer may actually be that they weren't a qualified prospect -- but your demand generation programs are successfully driving traffic.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Preaching and Love the Blog

Whenever I read one of those ubiquitous "7 Tips to Improve Your Fill-in-the-blank" articles, I'm left with a mixed sense of return. On the one hand, I'm glad that they were able to sum up a set of key take-away points for me (even if their topic points are inane); on the other hand, they also tend to oversimplify things in such a way that they can seem idiotic.

But worse than reading them is writing them. It's one thing when you have to write them, bending phrases and messages to fit that structure -- it is, after all, a piece with design and specific intent -- but it usually isn't fun or relaxing. Usually, when I am writing these kinds of pieces, it's hard to write them without feeling preachy -- it's not like somebody asked me for "10 Things to Consider When You're Hiring Your Marketing Staff."

Somewhere in the midst of thinking about the constructions for "Tips" posts, I decided that I am not going to write that kind of post -- unless I am responding to a specific comment or question. After all, the "tips" articles should be driven by an objective, and I have "no specific plan in mind" -- that's Marketing to Me.

Marketing Quackery - Let's Generate Sales With This Special Cream

If there's a science to marketing, why are we always being sold such quackery? Quacks in marketing -- say it ain't so! From Wikipedia:
Quackery is a derogatory term used to describe unscientific medical practices. Random House Dictionary describes a "quack" as a "fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill" or "a person who pretends, professionally or publicly, to have skill, knowledge, or qualifications he or she does not possess; a charlatan."
With marketing quackery, I'm not talking about straightforward lies (some folks that think that marketing guy is a synonym for liar), I'm talking about those "great ideas" that are really cool, but somehow seem to fall a bit short when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of how Action A really takes you to Action B. Whether its outright scams like those SEO offers to get you to the top ranking on Google or those guys you work with who say, "we need some of those cool musical bouncy-balls with the blinky lights inside and our logo on the outside," the hopes and dreams of revenue growth and new market penetration are often built on foundations of disconnected logic and ignorance.

Consider the web as an example topic point. Some of this quackery comes from deliberate obfuscations -- attempting to exploit the mysteries of web 2.0 or how page rank works, then applying some mysterious gris gris to the problem and (fill in your appropriate magic words here) we're swimming in sales. More often it comes from not understanding the mechanisms and the goals, like how web analytics work, how search engine marketing is connected with demand generation, or what is the purpose of exhibiting at a tradeshow.

But rather than go through an extensive list now, I've decided to use this as a topic theme for future posts. In future posts, I hope to explore specific examples of marketing quackery and see how the topic category evolves.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Lessons from Start-ups: Vision, Focus and Burn-rate

"If everything keeps going like it is right now, we have enough money to last through the end of the year." This came from the CEO during a company-wide lunch meeting in my early days with one start-up. For some people, the uncertainty of this kind of situation would have them scrambling to update their resume, but for everyone in the room on that day (early spring), it was good news. People who are comfortable in the start-up environment are different.

In some of the more established organizations that I have been involved with, people sometimes question how start-up companies are able to do some of the things that they do -- how they can move quickly, get so much efficiency out of their workers, and inspire such loyalty and commitment. Using this story as an example, consider; in presenting the financial situation openly, everyone in the company was made equally aware of the challenges ahead and the importance of success. Everyone was left with an equal sense of desperation. Everyone was provided with the overriding framework to be used to guide their decisions going forward. There is no standing still -- unless we are going up, we're sinking, and if it wasn't going to provide lift before December, it wasn't going to help. 

Brand Autopsy - Cool insights into marketing issues

If you're involved in marketing -- or you're just looking for amusing business-related stuff to read on the web -- you should check out John Moore's blog, Brand Autopsy.

I came across his blog about a year ago while I was wandering through some thoughts on branding, and I haven't stopped reading it since. If you haven't seen it, John used to do marketing for Starbucks and Whole Foods markets, and he's always posting cool insights on marketing topics.

When I crawling through a host of blogs on brand and marketing, all too often I found many that were simply shells for selling marketing consulting and services. Even if it helps support is speaking business, this isn't yet another one of those "I created this blog to promote my services" blogs. Whether it's snapshots and analysis from marketing books, brand analysis, or explorations into what it means to make unique connections with customers, his blog really is TRULY worth a read.

Kicking It Off

I didn't start out in marketing. I didn't start out with the idea of going into the business world. In fact, after seeing some of my friends join the business world, I was pretty sure that I didn't want to go there.

I worked in rock and roll. I was a writer. Not only was I not like the world of the business suit, the whole idea of having to bend to that culture was abhorrent to me -- and to many of friends; the artists, the writers, the musicians, the dancers -- the creative people.

So what happened?

In some ways, marketing is a disease. It builds and shifts and changes over time. It infects your thoughts. It changes the language you use. Marketing infects art and creativity. It changes the focus from me to them.

Marketing is all about those questions that come up -- even as I write this -- the questions that ask should I be writing this, what will my prospective audience think, what is the purpose of this post, or is this good or bad based not on some inherent quality, but instead on how well it achieves it's desired results.

Fortunately, this is about Marketing to Me.