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The art of marketing and the marketing of art

Why perception is reality. Really.

[Image courtesy of Esther Westerveld at Flickr Creative Commons]

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I got into a spirited debate about art with fellow members of my book club.

We’d strayed from a discussion of A Man Called Ove (recommended, by the way) to talk about the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy (I’d recommend it but it’s now finished).

“It was so strange,” said N. “When we stood in front of that Mark Rothko, I didn’t feel anything. But my friend S felt an immediate connection. She said there was a sort of energy coming off it, and it left her moved.”

Which left me moved too – but by disbelief.

Perhaps I’m just too set in my ways, and too conventional, but blank canvases and undifferentiated blocks of colour just leave me scratching my head.

What’s it all supposed to mean? How do you even begin to understand what it is when it doesn’t look like anything? Where’s the skill and mastery in just dripping paint on canvas (Jackson Pollock) or creating rectangles with blurred edges (Rothko)?

I should have kept my thoughts to myself. Having sown the wind of doubt, I reaped the whirlwind of indignation and before I knew it, the Christmas spirit had evaporated.

But we’re a civilised bunch, and it was all very polite. And when H said she was going to catch the show before it closed, I wondered if I should accompany her to confront my prejudices and feel the love.

A couple of weeks later, we headed to Burlington House in Piccadilly to get down and dirty with the Abstract Expressionists.

So what did I learn from my gallery visit? And what can marketers learn from artists?

Plenty, as it turns out – here are my top three takeaways.

1. Storytelling is everything

“It reminds me of music that you can just about hear,” said the young chap to his girlfriend, as they stared at a muddy painting. “The melody is barely discernible above the hum, but it’s there. Those lines in the painting are like faint notes that rise and fall.”

For a moment, I thought she was going to laugh. But no. She was deadly serious as she turned to him and said admiringly, “You know, you’re so right. That’s exactly what it is.”

I moved on, and continued eavesdropping.

And without fail, in front of every work of art, people were talking in similar vein to their gallery companions. Telling each other stories, embroidering detail and building up a picture that they both felt comfortable with.

It was incredible to listen to. Through story after story, I realised they were connecting with the paintings. Most of these stories were inspired by what they already knew of the works, from the catalogue, audio guide and accompanying captions.

So somebody else had framed it for them, but they were doing the rest. 

2. Positioning matters

“What makes that a great work of art?” I said to H. “In fact, what makes it a work of art at all?”

It was a large canvas entirely covered in black paint. I was tempted to say “a five-year-old could have done that”, but thought better of it. I knew that would be a red rag to H.

So instead, I took an oblique swipe.

Would this painting be as good if we unhooked it from the wall of the RA and went outside to Piccadilly and hung it on the exterior wall? Or stuck it on the railings next to the brightly coloured works of the Sunday artists on Bayswater Road?

“That’s not the point,” she said. “It’s here. It’s art. That’s all.”

I held my tongue, and tuned into a conversation between a little French boy and his parents.

“I don’t understand it,” he said frustratedly. His mother looked down at him and smiled.

“There’s nothing to understand,” she said. “Either you like it or you don’t.”

Personally, I was with the kid.

3. Scarcity works

Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, Gorky. What do they all have in common – apart from being Abstract Expressionists?

They’re no longer with us, which means that there’s a finite supply of their works of art on the market. And that means only one thing: soaring prices.

If you caught the fascinating BBC documentary on auction house Christie’s a couple of months ago, you’ll have marvelled, as I did, at the phenomenal prices that are now paid for art.

And it’s all down to artists’ reputation and popularity (which ties back to storytelling, of course) and the number of works on the market. Good old supply and demand. And when reclusive collectors snap up rare works never to be seen again in public again, the price goes even higher.

When they put them back on the market years later, as one eccentric Chelsea collector did in the programme, they make a killing.

Art attack

So was my visit to the gallery a success? Yes, but a qualified one.

There were some works of art I really liked, much to my surprise. I have to admit I’m still struggling to think a Rothko is as good as a Rembrandt, or a Pollock as good as a Pontormo. But as the French mother might have said to her little darling, il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis – only fools don’t change their minds.

And if I learned nothing else, I found out that storytelling, positioning and scarcity work. But then I knew that already.

And so did you. So get to it.

Find out more:

Postcards from the marketing edge

Reconnecting with friends and family, prospects and clients

Connect with a stranger

It’s that time of year again when you get a festive card from Great Aunt Violet and all the other friends and relatives you’ve scarcely heard from since the last card.

Hope all is well with you, they say. Let’s catch up soon!

Sometimes you do, and sometimes you mean to – but before you know it, another 12 months has slipped by, and you send and receive cards with the same promise to get in touch. 

I’ve been thinking over the Christmas period about reconnecting with people who’ve disappeared off the radar, or become a faint glow when once they shone bright. It’s such a great opportunity to rekindle friendships and even acquaintances that it’s a shame to let it pass by.

And with the new year just around the corner, and resolutions about to be made (and no doubt broken) I’ve also been thinking about how Christmas cards might provide some ideas about how we can – and why we should – reconnect with clients.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: 

  • Find a hook. Christmas is the perfect excuse to contact people you’ve lost touch with, since you’re almost expected to send a card. At other times of year, it may be harder to find a reason, but you should, as it’ll provide a conversation starter. So maybe it’s a year since the last order, or you have a special offer that’s exactly right for your prospect or client, or it’s Easter or Valentine’s Day, or there’s a story in the news that ties in with your product or service. Find the hook and you’ll find a way in. 
  • Make the first move. If you’ve lost touch with a client, it’s easy to think they’ve gone elsewhere and don’t want to deal with you anymore. Much in the same way as you think a friend no longer likes you. But personally and professionally, it’s often the same story: you’re waiting for them to get in touch, and they’re waiting for you. So make the first move. What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Make it personal. The Christmas cards I appreciated most this year were the ones with a few handwritten lines of news or content specific to me. The ones I appreciated least were probably the corporate printed ones with not even a squiggled signature. The ones with an enclosed mailshot newsletter (Here’s what I’ve been up to in 2016…) were somewhere in the middle. Personal is more effort, but it always pays off. 
  • Keep it simple. A couple of days after Christmas, I had a text message from a reflexologist I visited last year. The timing was perfect (new year, new you, and all that) and it couldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes to compose. She hoped that 2017 would be another ‘beautiful adventure’. And so it will be, starting with a series of blissful foot massages which I’ve now set up. (And yes –  sometimes, simple beats personal.)
  • Do it because you want to. If you send out a Christmas card, it’s best not to expect to get one back – because sometimes you don’t. People are busy, or they’ve left it too late, or they think physical cards are so yesterday. But that shouldn’t stop you sending one, any more than you should hesitate before contacting clients past and present. Sometimes, you don’t hear back immediately – much like I didn’t last year until March from somebody I’d sent a card to. So do it because you want to. Plant the seed and let it grow. ‘Expect nothing and appreciate everything’, as a yoga teacher said to me, and karma will get you there in the end. 
  • Stand out from the crowd.  Each year, I get a card that’s handmade – beautifully crafted, elegantly written, and usually folded slightly skew. That gets pride of place on the mantelpiece, together with odd-shaped, oversized and undersized cards. Early cards get pole position, and even late cards linger longer, as I can’t bring myself to throw them out as soon as I’ve put them up. The message is simple: do something different and get yourself noticed. Whether it’s card or a marketing email, a new year SMS or a newsletter, make it stand out.

Connecting means putting people first, and seeing the trees, not the wood. Meeting them on their own ground, and making them feel like you’re sincere. And sometimes, all it takes is a couple of words to break the ice and start a conversation. 

Which is exactly what I did with the Romanian waitress who served me turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas Day.

Crăciun Fericit (pronounced cra-choon ferri-chit) is my phrase of the week, and may well make it into my card next year when I reconnect with Great Aunt Violet. ‘Merry Christmas’ in Romanian could just earn me pride of place on her mantelpiece.

Happy New Year. 

8 tips for finding your brand voice

It’s in there somewhere – you just have to coax it out. Here’s how. 

[Image courtesy of Howard Lake at Flickr Creative Commons]

‘Tis almost the season to be jolly, and you’re probably up to your eyeballs in wrapping paper and ribbons, so I’ll get straight to the point.

What if Santa Claus brought you something this year that could transform how others see you? Something that could make you feel different about yourself – more confident, self-assured and natural?

And no, I’m not talking about yet another diamond golf sweater or distinctive bottle of scent. I’m thinking something more intangible, but which affects each and every interaction we have with others. And especially with clients. 

It’s your brand tone of voice – or if you’re a one-man band like me, then your tone of voice.

It may be something you’ve never given much thought to, because it’s evolved naturally and seems like second nature.  Maybe you don’t think you don’t have a tone of voice – but that’s a bit like thinking you don’t have an accent.

Everybody has one, whether they know it or not. 

Voice recognition made easy

So what’s yours? And is it doing a good job of communicating with your target audience? If it’s not, how do you fix it?

Here are my top tips for moving a step closer to the perfect voice: 

  1. You must feel comfortable with it. Whatever voice you choose, it should be one that feels natural for you or your company. If you’re trying too hard, or adopting language that’s outside your comfort zone, it’ll show – like a middle-aged parent using the latest slang with their kids’ friends.
  2. Listen to your audience. How do your customers and prospects speak? Remember the last time you met one in person or spoke to them on the phone. Or the last email you had from them. One of the cornerstones of NLP is something called ‘mirroring’ to create a rapport with your audience. You can use the same technique to make sure your voice matches your target market. 
  3. Who are you/your company? And yes, before you ask, this is the infamous ‘If your company was a person, who would it be?’ Clichéd it may be, but it’s an invaluable question to ask in finding your voice. Amazon is friendly and efficient, Ryanair is cheeky and irreverent, PlusNet is solid and reliable.
  4. What do you sound like now? Gather a representative sample of your marketing materials and take a long, hard look. You don’t have to be brutal – just be honest with yourself. If it’s too difficult to be objective (and very often it is) then get somebody else to give them the once over. Knowing where you are now gives you a starting point – so you can get where you want to be.
  5.  How does the competition sound? Though we all want to be different and distinctive, we still have to operate within certain parameters. And part of that is simply convention. How would you expect a bank to talk? Or a car-sharing site, a tech startup, or an investment fund manager? Readers have certain expectations, so you can’t buck the trend too much. But you can be distinctive without being too different. It’s just a question of degree.
  6. Are you B2B or B2C? There’s no doubt about it: talking to businesses is not the same as talking to individuals. So it’s less of the personal and more of the professional; more about capabilities and less about personalities. But do remember that even if you’re a business talking to a business, it’s still one person talking to another. So don’t swing too much the other way and lapse into corporate business-speak. 
  7. Think about follow-through. If you’re the brand supremo within your organisation, can you get your colleagues to fall into line? Deciding on a brand voice is all very well, but implementing it can be harder than you think. And if you’re thinking about a style guide or a long brand document, think again. In our attention-challenged times, short beats long. So think two-minute videos, interactive guides and at-a-glance cheat sheets. Water-cooler not workshops.
  8. Make sure it works everywhere. What’s right for your website may be wrong for social media, and what works in a blog post may not in a customer email. To create a wraparound brand experience, choose a voice that works in all channels. This is one area where one size should fit all (unlike those diamond golf sweaters). 

Remember that whatever brand voice you choose, it’s always a work in progress.

Buzzwords fade and slang falls out of favour. Memes spread like wildfire, then disappear without a trace. Companies change direction and focus on new clients and sectors, products and services. Competitors come and go, shaking up the market in their wake.

And brand invisibility is an ever-present threat, so you may want to reinvent your voice to make sure it gets heard – so mix it up from time to time.

Much like you do with the scent and the sweaters each year. Now back to wrapping.

Merry Christmas. 

The big power of a little nudge

How to use behavioural science to improve your marketing

[Image courtesy of Mark Smith at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Too late – I took it to the bank,” said a friend of mine the other day on a WhatsApp chat.

I’d made what I thought was an ironic comment, but he’d taken it literally.

You know what they say about giving a thing and taking it back. By the time I tried to rope in my backhanded compliment, he was already basking in the warm glow of praise, unwilling to let it go.

We all ‘take it to the bank’ from time to time, often without realising it. We hear what we want to hear, project our thoughts and feelings onto the words of others, and often overrate our own abilities. It’s all part of being human – which is what makes us all endlessly fascinating.

Nudging your way to success

I was thinking again recently about why we do what we do when I revisited Nudge for a project I’m working on.

This was the book that took the world by storm back in 2008, becoming one of The Economist’s must-reads of the year. It was so influential that the British government set up its own ‘nudge unit’, otherwise known as the Behavioural Insights Team, and Barack Obama appointed one of the authors, Cass Sunstein, as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

The idea is pretty simple: you can make small changes that have big consequences. You don’t need to spend billions or deploy an army of civil servants. You simply need to understand what ‘nudges’ people to behave differently.

‘Psychological interventions’ – in other words, nudges – are incredibly powerful, because they hit the sweet spot and spur people into action. Here are some examples: 

  • Asking voters about their motivations for voting the day before the election increases turnout by 11%. By contrast, $4bn in TV advertising in the recent US presidential election increased turnout by just 10%.
  • Writing to doctors at the beginning of the flu season telling them they’re high prescribers (among the top 20%) can reduce prescriptions by as much as 3.5%.
  • Telling taxpayers most people have already paid boosts tax take. Going one step further and saying most people in their neighbourhood have done so yields even more impressive results. 

To err is human

All of these nudges rely on the cognitive biases that most of us have.

Conformity bias is what’s driving the doctors and taxpayers: while everybody says they want to be different and individual, in practice they really just want to be like everybody else (which explains the irresistible pull of Facebook and other social media). 

These cognitive biases are so pervasive we hardly even notice them any more. See if you recognise any of them (as I certainly do): 

  • The path of least resistance, which you’ve probably experienced when you’re faced with endless choice on a shopping trip. You go for the easiest, most hassle-free one. If you’re planning any sort of campaign, sale or offer, remember that. Easy is good. 
  • Availability bias, where things that are top of mind tend to be the ones you reach for. This is a particular trap you should try to avoid if you’re carrying out a survey: you get the answers to the questions you ask, so make sure you’re not leading the witness. 
  • Loss aversion: if somebody tells you you’re going to lose £100 it’s twice as powerful as if they say you’re going to save £100. So choose your words carefully when you wave those numbers around. The same figure can yield different results depending on how you use it. 
  • Anchoring: where you start dictates where you end up, whether you’re negotiating a fee or buying an LBD (was £500 – now only £250!). All value is relative, so your perception of that value is inevitably linked to something else: a previous purchase/sale, a mental price tag, how many cups of coffee it would buy instead. 

These mental flaws that we all have are not only fascinating to behavioural scientists. They’re also a way for marketers to connect with clients and prospects.

The more you understand human nature, the more you can craft a message that’s relevant, targeted and successful. One in which what you say is what they hear, whether it’s a marketing campaign or a WhatsApp chat.

And maybe this time, you can take it to the bank. 

Find out more: 

Forget the how and focus instead on the why

It always pays to start big, then think small

[Image courtesy of Anna Vignet at Flickr Creative Commons]

I was chatting not so long ago with a salesperson who was frustrated.

He was trying to engage senior decision makers by talking in a language they understood. But the marketing folks back at base weren’t supplying him with materials that pressed the right buttons.

“It’s not the how I need – it’s the why. That’s what will get them sitting up and listening,” he said with a sigh.

His company produces an enterprise software solution that deploys clever algorithms to analyse and optimise…

Hmm. Let me start that again.

His company helps their clients cut costs, eliminate wastage, prosper in a tight market with global economic uncertainty, and streak ahead of the competition. 

Now that’s a better story, but it’s still not the why.

Every company wants to do all of those things. And every B2B solution provider claims they do those things, so the story ends up being more compelling, but still quite generic.

So we need to take it one level higher.

What issues are his clients facing? What’s the cost of not taking action? Why should they turn to his company for a solution? What are their competitors doing? Where is the marketing going? What are the latest trends? Are they going to be left behind if they don’t act? Where are the hidden threats?

Or put another way, why should they care?

Simple is as simple does

There’s always a temptation when you talk to – or write for – clients to dive into the detail. After all, that’s what will differentiate you from the competition, right?

You’ve got such a great story to tell, and you’ve spent the last six months living, eating and breathing the detail of your product or service. Why would you not want to put it all out there? 

The answer is simple: people don’t do detail. You don’t, I don’t, nobody does. We start at the top and work down – but only if we’re interested and engaged, and need detail to justify our choice. 

For the second time in six months, a simple message has triumphed over the complex detail. Donald Trump has swept to power, sending shockwaves across the US and the world, just as Brexit did back in June.

‘Make America great again’ was the why, as simple and effective as ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ was in the summer.

The how may be somewhat more complicated after January in the US, and March in the UK (if Article 50 is triggered), but the why made people sit up and care.

And go out and vote.

Swipe right

But let’s leave the heady world of politics behind for the moment, and return to our salesperson.

Clearly the clever algorithms and whizz-bang analytics aren’t setting his target audience on fire. Cutting costs, increasing efficiency and all those good things would get him a bit more facetime with prospects, but he needed to pull back and find a better way in.

“Pretend you’re speed-dating the prospect,” I said. “The buzzer is going to sound very soon, and you need to get them to want to see you at the end of the night. Tell me how you’d hook them.”

Ever one to take up a challenge, the salesperson was happy to play along. And one by one, the killer arguments just kept on coming. 

Clients in this sector are short on working capital, so they have no manoeuvring room if there are new competitive threats or an economic downturn. They’re having to cut back their R&D, so they have no new products coming down the line. They don’t know in detail which clients or sectors are the most profitable, so their efforts aren’t targeted. They’re in a precarious financial position, and often go for short-term gain that might cause long-term pain.

“I can fix all of these things,” he said with a big smile. “But isn’t that the buzzer?”

I almost asked him for his number. But instead, I gave him the list I’d been writing down while he was in full flow.

He’s now given it to his marketing department, who are finally on board with the idea that it sometimes pays to start big, then think small. They’re drafting top-level thought pieces that show clients they ‘get’ them and their world.

Now they know the why, they can leave the how for later, when the relationship is a little further down the line. 

This could be the start of something big. Next time I see the salesperson, I’ll ask him if his clients are swiping right

Somehow I think they just might be.