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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Transactions not conversations

I’m a little down after meeting yesterday with a respected chief marketing officer of a large fast food company. But what I learned was a valuable reminder about what it takes for change.

“I don’t care about the concepts of community and conversations and consumer relationships,” the marketing exec told me.

“What matters to me is transactions. Does a marketing tactic connect directly to sales? If it does, it has value. If it doesn’t, we shouldn’t be doing it.

“The concept of a having a community for our customers is nice. So are more viral, entertaining ads. But I’m not sure the investment is worth it. For one, it would appeal to a limited number of customers. Secondly, I can’t measure its value in terms of sales.”

The exec pointed to some of Burger King's promotions, like the Subservient Chicken, which got a lot of people talking. But, he added, Burger King's chicken sales didn't budge. So the money was really, to him, a waste.

While so many of us see the value of a shift in marketing from “talk at” promotions to "talk with" conversations, we probably need to remember that decision makers are reluctant to change without measurement metrics.

We need more proof.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

U2 Marketing Lessons

David Carr has a great column in today’s New York Times, “Media Business Tips From U2.” Some of the lessons on how to connect with customers are relevant to all businesses today. Here’s an editorialized summary:

Meet the consumers where they live. Know how to “feed the tribe” so they feel part of you. Five years ago U2 replaced it s fanzine Propaganda with a fan site that's constantly updated.

It’s called show business for a reason. Engage fans in the experience.

Seize the moment, but don’t steal it. Adopt new ideas, but know when to kill them.

Aim high. Make your fans think they’re part of something bigger.

Apologize, then move on. When there was a ticket problem this year with customers and scalpers, the band immediately recognized the problem and apologized.

Don’t embarrass your fans. The product needs to be great, not re-hashed product releases – or product extensions to those in the consumer products business. “Don’t embarrass your fans,” Bono said to the N.Y. Times last year. “They’ve given you a good life.”

Embrace technology: U2 didn’t fight downloading, it produced one of the first downloadable boxed sets of its music. Because that’s what fans want.

Be careful how you sell out. The Apple partnership made sense for U2’s brand. Too many other performers sell out for the money.

Embrace politicians, not politics. That’s how to get things done, regardless of the political party label.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Marketing is about conversations. "So what does that mean," people ask me? How do you take the concept and apply it practically to everyday marketing?

Conversations are by their nature friendly -- people listening and chatting with an interest in the other person.

So maybe one pragmatic way to reshape marketing activities and programs is to make them friendlier. Friendly. What a small but big concept.

Here’s how various dictionaries define friendliness:
Approachable and accessible

Friendly people and companies listen because they’re really interested in what people have to say. They make it easy for people to chat with them. They share what they’re hearing about new ideas, what’s happening that might be helpful, what they’re learning. They don’t lecture or promote but converse in the best sense of the word, which comes from Latin con versare – to turn or dance together. They ask questions – and make it easy for others to do the same in a welcoming kind of way. They’re not judgmental, but offer sincere advice if a friend is doing something dumb.

The Wikipedia says that “Value that is found in friendships is often the result of a friend demonstrating on a consistent basis:

-- The tendency to do what is best for you.

-- Mutual understanding

-- Sympathy and empathy

-- Honesty, particuarly in situations where it may difficult for others to speak the truth

What if we reframed our marketing thinking around one simple idea: to be more friendly? Yes, it sounds Pollyanna-ish, but many companies who get the “marketing as conversations concept” exude friendliness. In their people, actions, business practices, and in their style of oral and written marketing communications.

Think about Southwest Airlines or Virgin Atlantic (vs. the unfriendly United, American et al). Zappos shoes vs. the big department stores. Whole Foods vs. Stop & Shop. And all the small local businesses we’re so loyal to because of friendliness.

It’s hard to change, but friendliness seems like an easy way to start. Thoughts?

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

CA: Good intentions but muddled marketing

Computer Associates, now to be called CA, today featured multi-page spreads in newspapers like "The New York Times" announcing the company’s new growth strategy.

But darned if I can figure out what they’re talking about, which is too bad because CEO John Swainson seems so passionate about cleaning up CA and making the company matter again to its corporate customers. I’m rooting for him to succeed, but there are a few things in marketing that he’s going to have to change to win me over – and his customers. (Newsday interviewed some of CA’s customers following John’s speech in Las Vegas, and they too are a little befuddled.)

Here’s what CA needs to do differently:

Readjust your assumptions and tap into what’s really going on with your customers. The ad headlines are “Remember when technology had the power to inspire you? Believe again.” Technology has been extremely inspiring in so many ways to so many of us. We never lost the belief. CA may have lost its inspiration along the way, which accounts for so little company innovation and growth. We don’t need to be told in ads to “believe again” in technology. What we do need, however, is to be told why we should believe again in CA and its technology and services.

Explain what you mean: Which brings me to point two. What the heck is your big new vision, Enterprise IT Management (EITM)? Your communications talk about how it “unifies and simplifies complex IT environments across the enterprise.” The press release headline says, "Unified Management of End-to-End Infrastructure Enables IT Organizationsto Overcome Complexity and Ensure Performance Of Business Services." But hello, what exactly is it? I really know technology, yet I can’t figure out what the big aha is here. More context, examples, maybe some helpful metaphors, and just plain speak would really help.

Rid yourself of the trite lines and tired talk. I’ve heard John talk and he’s engaging and direct. So why is your letter, advertising and Web site so full of empty corporate speak, which, by the by, uses phrases that date back to what other tech companies used in the 90s? Phrases like “transforming business,” “unifying and simplifying complex IT environments,” “reach a higher order of IT,” “simplify the complex,” “deliver fully against your business goals,” "align IT to reach business goals," are empty, boring, and tired.

Talk about something fresh, in your own words – not a copywriter’s: CA must have some points-of-view on enterprise technology that are contrarian, counter-intuitive, unusual, insightful, or surprising. How else can you innovate, as you say you have, if you weren't turned on by some big insights? What customer insight triggered the passion of your developers? What do you know that you can do better than any of your competitors? Talk about those ideas. In the real words of real people. In today’s business world, a new logo and name change don’t matter all that much. People want a reason to believe in you. They want fresh ideas. And they want to connect with the company and its people -- not with a new acronym.

I love the technology industry and hope that there is great thinking and innovation going on at CA. Maybe the marketing approach just needs to revamped.

When many of us see this old style marketing, with to much hoo-ha around logos and category acronyms and not enough clear explanations of what is new and valuable, we often think that there is no new strategy. Just a great shade of new lipstick that is likely to quickly fade.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Where is Chirac? The deliverer is the message.

In times of crisis, the job of leaders is to be visible -- to step up and absorb people's fears, reassure them about what's being done, and put the events within a forward looking perspective. People want to be led, especially during times of upheaval.

So where oh where is France's President Jacques Chirac this week? I don't live in France and I'm scared about what's going on with the unrest and riots in the country's slums during the past two weeks. Imagine being a French citizen?

Rather than going on TV or the radio to declare a national state of emergency, Chicrac and his administrators had a government spokesperson read a statement to journalists on Tuesday after a Cabinet meeting. Unbelievable.

The job of communications is an executive's job. Just ask Rudy Giuliani, Jack Welch, or Tony Blair. In times of crisis, communications cannot be shunned or delegated without serious ramifications.

The medium is not the message. The deliverer is the message.

For France, this means the government may have much graver problems than any of us realize.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Red Sox & Wal-Mart: PR or Leadership Problems

People are talking this week about “PR problems” at the Boston Red Sox and Wal-Mart's new War Room media strategy when the real problems are leadership problems.

At a press conference yesterday Theo Epstein talked to the media for 30 minutes about his resignation as General Manager of the Boston Red Sox. He never expalined the real reason for resigning, and the rumors about a the nature of the falling out between Epstein and Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino went suprsonic. Especially since Lucchino didn’t attend the press conference. (All the other Sox execs were there, including owners John Henry and Tom Werner.)

Sportswriter Bill Reynolds wrote in this morning’s Providence Journal:

You would think he (Lucchino) would have been there for no other reason than
he’s the public face of this franchise, its CEO. You think he would have been there to send out the message he wishes things could have been resolved, that he wishes Theo well, blah, blah, blah, the new spin. You would think he would have begun the first day of damage control, both to his image and the perception that the Red Sox are going to be fine, that the organization is strong enough to withstand the loss of anyone, Epstein ncluded.

Lucchino’s absence and the way the Epstein contract negotiations were handled tell you there are bigger leadership problems.

A front page story in Tuesday’s New York Times,A New Weapon for Wal-Mart: A War Room/Retailer Tries Political Tactics to Help Image,” talked about how the retailer is taking a page from the political playbook to try to sell a better image to the public.

No PR tactic – or even the best political strategists – can help a company with weak leadership. And Wal-Mart is flip flopping all over the place.

Last week The New York Times also reported on a leaked Wal-Mart memo discussing the company’s strategy for selling its new employee healthcare plans to the public. The memo said the company is testing the plan’s proposed changes “to determine whether these investments would effectively ‘move the needle’ on Wal-Mart’s public reputation.”

Here’s what Wal-Mart should do to move the needle:

  1. Get with the most innovative health care reformers in the country and develop a plan that’s good for employees and doesn’t break the company’s back (as is GM’s employee/retiree health benefits).
  2. Take its huge PR budget and at least half of its advertising budget and use that to fund employee healthcare.

    Poor management begets poor reputation. PR has nothing to do with it.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Wind, Nick Hornby & Context

Knowing how to frame ideas into the right context seems to be a common stumbling block in marketing and communications. I don't know whether it's because understanding context is diffcult or putting things in context is difficult.

Here are two examples I came across last week that may help you think about context.

Wind power. On Friday two architecture professors, Charlie Cannon of Rhode Island School of Design and Leftheri Pavlides of Roger Williams University, walked me through a presentation about why wind turbines are good for communities. The deck, written eight months ago before energy prices went bonkers and Exxon Mobil declared a $9 billion net quarterly profit, was packed with economic, environmental and health data and benefits.

“So, what do you think,” they asked. "Is it persuasive and convincing?"

Not quite. My advice was that they talk about wind in the context of the out-of-control energy prices, and the impact of those prices on poor and working class folks who are just trying to make it. (Flash back to images of Hurricane Katrina and the poor and working class with no safety net.)

Of course, the environmental and health benefits are solid, but what moves people in the current context is that wind is something we can approve locally to help local people. I can’t do anything about the big oil companies or utilities. But I can approve wind turbines for my local community, which will help some people who are on the brink of financial disaster. Wind is a simple thing we can do that can have a profound effect.

A Long Way Down. Another example of context comes from Nick Hornby’s new novel, A Long Way Down about four really different people who meet by chance on a rooftop on New Year's Eve with the intent of committing suicide. (Almost but not quite as good as High Fidelity and About A Boy.)

This excerpt is from JJ, one of the loser characters who is on vacation in the Canary Islands with his new New Year's Eve friends, and is going out to “jumpstart my libido.”

“I went back to the room to get dressed. I’m not a bare-chested kind of guy. I’m like a hundred and thirty pounds, skinny as f**k, white as a ghost, and you can’t walk around next to guys with tans and six-packs when you look like that. Even if you found a chick who dug the skinny ghost look, she wouldn’t remember that she dug you in this context, right? If you were into Dolly Parton and they played a blast of her album during a hip-hop show, she just wouldn’t sound good. In fact, you wouldn’t even be able to f******g hear her. So putting on my faded black jeans and my old Drive-By Truckers T-shirt was my way of being heard by the right people.”

JJ dressed for the context and did indeed jumpstart his libido. I'd like to share more about the other characters and bigger context ideas but that might ruin the book for you. It's worth the read.

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