Monday, December 15, 2008

Inspiration in seat 1B

I shared a flight yesterday with Alan Simon, the Chairman and CEO of Omaha Steaks. What an inspiring guy.

Omaha Steak is a nearly 180 year old family business. How many companies can claim that? Although Alan has since turned over day to day management to his 52 year old son, he still makes the commute from Orange County to Omaha twice a month because he loves the business so much. He finds the time to give back to the community by being on the boards of two universities. And he seems to know more about media technologies than most people half his age -- including me!

But the biggest delight was sensing I was meeting a man with the mischievous humor of a teenager.

It made having to fly on a Sunday afternoon worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Marketing in a recession: Message from the front lines

A few weeks ago I conducted a marketing survey of senior executives across a range of businesses such as automotive, pharmaceuticals, toys, home remodeling, consumer electronics and retail.

I wanted to learn if there were common themes in the way a diverse group marketers was navigating the current recession (depression?).

Not surprisingly, all marketers are hurting and nearly every segment of their business is down. Lack of credit is affecting consumers and businesses alike. High priced premium segments, which seemed unaffected at first, have caved. Consumers are saving money by trading down to a lesser alternative or waiting for deep discounts on the products they desire. B2B purchases are drying up as companies cut CapEx budgets. There is a “slash and burn” mentality to marketing budgets.

But there are some bright spots as well.

Products and services that appeal to the consumer’s “cocooning” instinct – e.g., entertain at home, family games – are showing some resiliency.

Toys receiving heavy TV support seem to be holding up because parents may not want to scrimp on giving their kids what they want for Christmas.

Brands that feature a broad price range -- e..g, high/medium/low tiers, value bundles, etc. -- seem to be holding customers in the brand franchise.

Several executives reported that they are counting on their recent investments in new innovations to help weather the storm. “New” still attracts interest and curiosity.

However, if there is one single theme that is consistent across these marketers it is this: Get closer to your best customers.

Companies such as Allergan and Kohler, which sell through intermediaries, are investing in service and training to maintain loyalty among the people who recommend their products to end-users. For example, Allergan runs outreach programs designed to train physicians be better business people and run a more profitable medical practice.

Best Buy and Volvo are appealing to their best customers with more 1:1 marketing, private shopping events and loyalty incentives.

Land Rover and Sony are turning to smarter database marketing efforts.

Mattel is using street teams to put its electronic games into the hands of its priority customers.

Navistar is evaluating using more outbound telemarketing to better qualify and prioritize sales prospects.

I recently heard a quote that said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” This captures the mood of theses marketers. The intensity of this recession is compelling many companies to reassess all aspects of their marketing plans.

Done right, many of the tactics they are using to survive today may continue to frame their strategies when the economy picks up again in the future. (And it will pick up again.)

Focus on your best customers. Do not take them for granted. Lavish them with appreciation and respect during the good times as well.

Focus your media spending. Digital media is the new branding medium, not just a tactical and transactional medium. Use a mobile call to action to transform all offline advertising into opt-in, interactive media.

Focus on the products in your portfolio that truly matter. Don’t get too broad and scattered. If a product isn’t delivering profitable growth, loyalty or a strategic halo for the brand, don’t waste precious resources even in good times.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Creating heroic brand narratives

I am intrigued by the art of storytelling in helping marketers create more meaningful and lasting brand identities.

Stories help us understand. They convey meaning. And in an increasingly overwhelming and fast-moving world, meaning trumps information.

If we step into the way-back machine and return to our English Lit classes, we might remember that stories are built on several essential elements, including archetypal characters, the hero's journey and resolution of conflict.

Archetypes are the universal characters that form what Carl Jung called our collective unconscious. Over the millennia, we became hardwired to instantly recognize the meaning of archetypes like the outlaw, hero, ruler, jester, temptress, innocent and the everyman. Defining and expressing brands as archetypes may be more powerful than the traditional brand personality statement in creating a deep connection with consumers.

The "hero's journey" was first defined in Joseph Campbell's book on comparative mythology, "The Hero With A Thousand Faces." Campbell isolated the hero stories that recur in ancient fables, the Bible and Hollywood films. In short: a person ventures forth from the common world...confronts obstacles and adversaries...wins a decisive victory...and returns with the power to help their fellow man.
We see the Hero's Journey in Hollywood:

An innocent young prince tries to run away from his troubles and instead discovers the redeeming power of friendship and truth.

A farm boy leaves his family and unites with rebels and outlaws in an epic battle of good vs evil to save the world from the corrupt and villainous empire.

We see it in politics:

A common man rises above racial barriers to inspire a nation to defy the divisiveness of red states and blue states and reclaim the promise of the United States.

We see it in brands:

A free thinker liberating the world from beige conformity.

An advocate of women's self-esteem battling against the falsehood of media-defined beauty.

An authority-defying rebel uniting a community in a crusade against fear.

Great brands tell great stories. The best among these find a way to be the hero in an ever-unfolding narrative. Like our favorite literary protagonists, heroic brands have a clear sense of true north that shapes their beliefs and behaviors.

True to Campbell's concept of the hero's journey, heroic brands make clear what it is they stand for by being equally clear about what they oppose. Classic brand positioning leads us to define what a brand stands for. The heroic brand model compels us to go further -- define the antagonist. After all, the most passionate causes tend to be in pursuit of both – a noble ideal that inspires us and a status quo that must be vanquished. It is the tension between these opposing forces that trumpets a call to arms.

The moral of this story? We need to stop thinking like advertisers and begin thinking like storytellers.