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How far can you push transparency in marketing?

Playing the game and breaking the code

Joined-up service

When was the last time an advert stopped you in your tracks?

For me, it was last weekend, when I came across this poster on a bus shelter not far from my house.

Normally, I just walk past these ads without a second thought. They’re funny (that’s a given nowadays) and they’re slick, and they all end up looking pretty much the same. 

Except this one was different. We’ve got sales targets.

I gasped inwardly at the cheek of being so blatant about their motives. Forget being led by benefits, or selling the sizzle not the sausage. This was in-your-face honesty: you want a drink, and we want your money.

It’s not a relationship, it’s a one-night stand, they’re saying – let’s not pretend it’s anything more.

So it’s a bold departure. Can you just imagine how the marketing department at Coca-Cola, who produce Oasis, reacted when their ad agency presented the campaign? I’ll bet they thought long and hard before they gave it the green light.

Further down the road, and around a corner, I passed another bus shelter with another poster winking conspiratorially at me: You need a tasty refreshing Oasis. Trust me, I’m an ad.

Just a few hundred yards along, I spotted yet another: Merry Xmas. First Xmas ad of 2016. Take that, advertising. 

Telling it like it is

There’s nothing new about honesty in marketing.

Avis did it way back in the 1960s when it pushed the benefits of being the second-largest car-hire company (We try harder. When you’re not the biggest, you have to). Southwest Airlines famously has its Transfarency campaign (Low Fares. Nothing to Hide.) that helps customers avoid those ‘pesky fees’.

For 25 years, adverts for Stella Artois beer in the UK boasted that it was reassuringly expensive. And Domino’s Pizza tackled criticism head-on and ‘reinvented our pizza from the ground up’. 

I worked with one tech client who’s completely honest about their dashboards, admitting they aren’t the slickest or the sexiest out there. But they say that pretty barcharts don’t tell the whole story. If you’ve got ‘business intelligence at the speed of light’, who needs whizz-bang graphics?

So honesty in marketing can work very well when deployed intelligently. But this campaign takes things one step further.

So what’s going on here? And why is it getting people talking?

Through the looking glass

Well first, it’s genuinely funny – but it adds a twist to the usual advertising recipe. It’s gently mocking the medium, making other ads seem less genuine – and more like ad-like. It’s honest, but without being naive (they’re not doing a Ratner, which crossed the line into recklessness). 

It’s also getting people involved with their cleverly named #refreshingstuff hashtag, so people are tweeting their advertising and giving them more bang for buck.

But mostly it works because it’s different. And Oasis got there first.

If everybody starts using these self-referential ads, the spell will be broken for good. It’s a bit like an actor who steps out of character and addresses the audience. It works because it’s unexpected, and breaks the norms. If actors routinely did it, the effect would quickly wear off.

So (sun)hats off to Oasis for upending our expectations, and getting us to take a new look at an old formula. It’s a brilliant marketing move, but they know as well as anybody that it has a limited shelf life – a bit like a bottle of their Summer Fruits.

Let’s hope they hit those sales targets before autumn rolls around.

Business buzzwords: the good, the bad and the ugly

How far should you go to avoid a cliché?

[Image courtesy of Tom Newby at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Can’t we use another term instead of best practices?” said a client of mine recently. “Everybody uses it, and I feel like it’s become devalued. What does it actually mean anyway?”

And when you think about it, he’s right: everybody does use best practices all the time. So maybe it was time for change. And guess who was first in the queue to find an alternative?

“You’re the writer,” he said. “What do you suggest?”

So I went into thesaurus mode. Standards? Sounds too much like they’re imposed by a third party, or written down in a list. And they they seem less good than best. Industry-leading approaches? That sounded clunky, and replaced one buzzword with another. Latest ideas? Sounds too theoretical, as if the ideas haven’t been tested, as practices have.

The more I looked for an alternative, the more difficult it became.

I roped in my client, to see if he could help in the search – after all, he was the one who wanted to throw out the buzzword baby. But had the bathwater gone the same way? It was increasingly beginning to look so.

He drew a blank too, so I decided to go back to basics. How are best practices defined?

A procedure or set of procedures that is preferred or considered standard within an organization, industry, said Dictionary.com.

I started to get that sinking feeling. 

The search for original copy

The thing is, these buzzwords have become popular because they’re short, snappy and memorable. They’re instantly recognisable, and everybody knows what they mean – because everybody uses them. They’re common currency in the world of work, so they’re a quick way to get your message across.

But does that mean you need to avoid them? Perhaps.

But then you’re faced with an even bigger problem than using a cliché – finding an alternative that’s as short, snappy and memorable.

And that’s a big ask. (See what I mean?)

I’m as guilty as anybody else. Probably more, in fact. Because sales and marketing copywriting is chock-full of these buzzwords.

Synergy, solutions, leverage, thinking outside the box, doing more with less, cutting edge, state of the art. End-to-end, top-down/bottom-up and the ever-popular one-stop shop.

These handy little buzzwords are the very nuts and bolts that hold much sales and marketing copy together. Pull them out, and the whole machine falls apart. You’re left with limp prose and woolly words, lacking the bite of the buzzword.

To be or not B2B

It’s worth stating at this point that we’re talking here mostly about B2B. Because when businesses talk to each other, they adopt this buzzword lingo. If you’re talking to real people, it’s best to talk like a real person.

Does that mean you can’t do the same if you’re talking to businesses? After all, it’s one person in that business who’s reading the copy, and surely they like to think they’re a real person too?

It’s a simple question, but the answer is slightly more complicated.

Yes, they’re a real person, but they’re representing an organisation. They’re used to corporate-speak, which is liberally sprinkled with buzzwords, so ironically, if they don’t see them in your copy, they may think you sound less serious or even amateurish.

And if your competitors are throwing buzzwords around with gay abandon, you may not measure up favourably. So the informal, buzzword-free approach is best kept for B2C.

So how did I end up resolving my cliché crisis? Well I helicoptered out, got 360-degree visibility, and decided that the status quo was the way to go.

Because sometimes, best practices are just that. Best.

The elusive art of joined-up service

Online promise, offline reality and the case of the missing parasol…

Joined-up service

The Great British Summer has finally arrived (though if you blink it might disappear again). So last week, I decided it was out with the old and in with the new – and so began the hunt for the perfect garden furniture set. 

I started online, just to get an idea of what was out there. But I knew I’d have to go offline before buying – just like I do with clothes. I’ve had too many baggy jumpers, misshapen jeans and ill-fitting shoes delivered to ever want to buy online again.

Garden furniture is the same. The potential for lumpy cushions, rickety chairs, impractically small tables, and parasols that don’t provide adequate shade from the sol is enough to send me in store to check out the goods.

Which is exactly what I did, with chain A.

The illusion of choice

Of course they’d have less stock in store than online, but that was OK. I was sure to find something I liked, and could carry it off in my car. Instant gratification was just a short ride away.

And I did quickly find something I liked: a lovely mosaic table, wrought-iron chairs, and a generous parasol. I even used the in-store WiFi to have a video chat with a friend to get a second opinion. We were both agreed that this patio set with the seductively Italian name was the one for me. So I headed to the customer services desk. 

Naturally, they didn’t have it in stock.

They couldn’t order it in, they told me, for some complex systems-related reason. But I could order online. 

Now sure of my choice, I headed home, went onto their website and found the mosaic marvel. Delivery within 5 days, it said. Which was OK – at least I was sure of getting exactly what I wanted. 

But as I got to the payment step, the delivery window suddenly widened: delivery within 14 days. And when I confirmed payment, the confirmation email had no delivery date at all. Instead, I’d have to contact customer services.

Which is what I did, and they arranged a delivery within nine days. Not ideal, but I accepted that I’d have to wait. 

Then the very next day, I was browsing another website and up popped a targeted advert from Chain A. Summer’s here! it trilled, and invited me to buy garden furniture. The advert showed a really nice set for £100 less than I’d paid. 

So I went back to their site (without clicking on the sponsored ad, I now regret to say) to look at this cheaper offer. It was really attractive, so I checked stock availability at my local store. None. And the next nearest store? Bingo! I reserved it online, and resolved to drive the 15 miles to pick it up. 

Just one thing to do: cancel my online order, which was straightforward enough. And then I drove to the other store, with my reservation printout nestling in my wallet. 

Needless to say, there was a problem. Systems-related, again.

The garden furniture set isn’t actually a set, so the elements are picked by one of the warehouse staff individually. And though I had a confirmed reservation, the very last parasol had been sold earlier that morning.

The customer services lady said she was very sorry, but there was nothing she could do. Unless I wanted her to order in the parasol from the next store along in the chain, which meant I’d have to make another 30-mile round trip to pick it up.

I took a deep breath, smiled weakly and politely declined.  

Chain reaction

So I headed home, and went online again. Chain B caught my eye, with their stylish patio set, priced the same as the parasol-less one, and with next-day delivery. PayPal payment, instant confirmation, order tracking, email, text messages, two-hour delivery window.

Never mind trying before you buy. Chain B was sending out all the right signals, so I clicked buy now without a moment’s hesitation. 

The very next day, five days ahead of the original schedule, my garden furniture arrived. In a kit – that was actually a kit. In a big box, so there was no missing parasol, or missing anything in fact. And with the clearest, most well-written instructions I’ve ever seen. 

This was self-assembly, but not like I’d ever experienced it. In fact, it was so easy, it almost assembled itself.

And the moral of the story? That good service isn’t any one thing, but all the little things. That you either get it or you don’t. That your people and systems are either aligned, or they’re not. That you value your customer, or you don’t.

That you’re either Chain A or Chain B.

Naturally, now that I have my new garden furniture installed, the sun has gone in. So much for the Great British Summer.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying better weather. 

Are you leaving profit on the table? Here's what you can do about it.

Setting pricing, adding value and following the money

[Image courtesy of AJ Cann at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve been thinking a lot about pricing recently. Not because I’ve been on a spending spree (I’m allergic to shopping) but because I’ve been immersing myself in the subject for a project I’m working on.

This client helps people optimise their pricing across all products, sectors and geographies, so they don’t leave any profit on the table.

You’d be amazed at all the ways that happens.

Salespeople renew the same contract they’ve been using for five years, with pricing that’s little changed. Shipping and freight charges eat into profit margin. Products are undersold in certain countries, when a much higher price could be realised without hitting market share. Organisations focus on low-value, low-margin products at the expense of high-value, high-margin ones.

That last one is crucial, probably because it’s something we all do at one point or another.

Follow the money

I was comparing experiences last weekend with a friend of mine who’s in recruitment.

He told me that a few months ago, he decided to take a closer look at his client list, and decide which ones to focus on. He had an idea of who his best clients were, but wasn’t sure if activity translated into results. 

It didn’t, unsurprisingly.

Those clients he interacted with most tended to have low-value requirements, and a large number of unsuccessful candidates. So although his CV-to-interview ratio was high, the more important interview-to-offer ratio was low.

Combine that with lower salaries (on which his fee is based) and it was a lot of effort for relatively little return. Especially when some clients constantly tried to negotiate him down on price. 

The 80/20 rule may be a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

And when he looked at where he was really making most revenue, it was with a handful of clients who valued quality over price. So he had fewer, but higher-value interactions, and a much better hit rate. And never a mention of negotiation on price.

From commodity-based to value-based 

So identifying the right sort of client is critical to pricing, and to minimising the hidden cost of protracted, difficult sales – which when you factor in your time, is akin to dropping your price.

But also critical is focusing on adding value. And yes, it’s another cliché, much used and abused. But in real terms, what does it mean? 

Let me give you a very practical example, based on my recent research. You’re a plastics manufacturer looking at how much you can charge for your product. What exactly is the optimal price? 

The answer is that it depends entirely on the sector and use. So if your client produces disposable razors or pens, you can’t charge that much. But if they’re a mobile phone manufacturer, then you can charge a premium. The end product sells for more, so you can charge more for the raw materials. 

And it’s not just products – it’s services too.

Take copywriting. If I help people plan their marketing campaign, design a communication strategy or position themselves against the competition (all of which I do, by the way) I’m adding value – for them, and for me.

But if I just churn out words as fast as possible, without much thought for the bigger picture, then I’ve turned those words – and my service – into a commodity.

And in a fiercely competitive market, the very last thing you want is a product or service that’s commoditised.

Know your market

The key to all of this is knowing your market. In my client’s case, they harness the power of big data, deep analytics and sophisticated algorithms to optimise pricing.

They don’t just do a one-time segmentation and run with that. Instead, they do dynamic segmentation, which is regularly refreshed so it’s always up to date for all markets, segments and countries.

If all of this sounds big, that’s because it is. And maybe you don’t need the power and sophistication of such a solution. Neither do I, to be honest. Because in most cases, just like my recruiter friend, the right pricing depends on having the right clients.

In my case, that means finding the sweet spot. If clients are too small, they don’t have the budget. If they’re too large and they’ve already got an agreement in place with an agency who’s on their preferred suppliers list.

So in the middle, there’s lots of scope for work. 

And even at the upper end, with bigger potential earnings, there are ways in – as long as you know the right people. It’s just a case of working out who’s signed them up as a client, and how can you get an introduction.

And for me, that means agencies who have the size, clout and reach to get to the big companies. I land business I never could on my own, and the agency gets a resource that’s outsourced and flexible.

And it works for everybody involved.

So when it comes to not leaving profit on the table, the rules are pretty straightforward. Find the right clients. Focus on high-value products and services. Add value to justify a premium. And carry out regular reviews to make sure what you’re doing still makes sense.

Simple, easy and effective. And not an algorithm in sight.

10 lessons that marketers can learn from Brexit

Managing the message, making assumptions and telling a story

What a rollercoaster week it’s been. For the second time in as many years, the pollsters have been proved wrong, and we’re now headed into uncharted territory.

It’ll take months or years for the full enormity of the Brexit referendum decision to sink in. But in the meantime, it’s instructive to look back at the campaigns for Leave and Remain and try to understand what lessons we can learn from them.

So what has the biggest political shock in decades taught us? Here’s what I’ve been thinking: 

  1. You don’t always get the result what you want. But when it happens, you have to be realistic, and whether it’s a marketing campaign or a political one, it’s best to accept that you are where you are and deal with it. 
  2. Be careful what you say, because it might just come back to haunt you. Already there’s been some backtracking on the £350m that was supposed to go to the NHS, and Nigel Farage probably regrets saying that a 52-48 Remain/Leave wouldn’t really be a victory. Immigration figures might not fall, says Daniel Hannan, despite claims to the contrary. Whether it’s political promises or marketing promises, it’s best to keep them realistic.
  3. It’s very dangerous to make assumptions, whether you’re talking about a prospect or a voter. Just as dissatisfied customers don’t generally tell you why they’re unhappy, so disillusioned voters don’t always put posters in the window or answer truthfully when the pollsters call to ask where they’ll put their X.
  4. The message is everything, and you need to keep it simple and understandable, because that’s when it’s most effective. Your marketing can’t just hit people with every last detail, and expect them to sort out what’s important from what’s not. Because at the end of the day, just like a referendum, they’re faced with a stark choice: buy/don’t buy.
  5. Don’t demonize the opposition, whether that’s a political movement or commercial competitor. It can make you look defensive or even aggressive, and negativity never plays well. What’s more, you may need to work with them down the line – in a political arrangement or a commercial venture – so it’s best to maintain a level head. 
  6. Emotions are powerful, whether it’s love or hate, pride or shame. We’re safer, stronger and better in the EU, said the Remain campaign. Let’s be open, welcoming and connected. The Leave campaign urged people to feel pride in being truly British again. To take back control, and move towards a brighter, freer, more independent future. These emotional benefits are far more immediate and appealing than the dull features of tax harmonisation, directives and trade deals. 
  7. You get the answers to the questions you ask, so make sure you’re asking the right ones. If you prompt people with predefined answers, you force them to think the way you do, with your priorities and agenda. Whether it’s customer satisfaction or political issues, it’s always best to do a little less talking and a little more listening. 
  8. You can’t appeal to everybody (but you can learn from them). However good the message, it will fail to appeal to some people – either because it’s irrelevant or too complicated. The truly surprising thing isn’t that 72% of people turned out to vote – more than double the 2014 European elections figure of 35%. It’s that 28% of people didn’t bother. And they’re the ones we really need to talk to, just like customers who didn’t buy from you. Because only then will you understand where you went wrong. 
  9. Decisions are hard, often with too many unrelated elements to weigh up. Financial meltdown vs. undemocratic rule by a distant bureaucracy? Freedom to holiday anywhere vs. creeping benefit fraud? Crowded doctors’ surgeries vs. tariff-free Italian chardonnay? Apples or oranges? In the end, voters and customers often make a snap decision. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve spoken to who were 50/50 until June 23, but were then forced to vote one way or the other. Or didn’t vote at all, as a 24-year-old told me, confessing it was all too complicated. 
  10. Storytelling is highly effective, whether it’s about Jacek the Polish web designer at Silicon Roundabout in London, or your client Katie whose life was transformed when she signed up to your service. Suddenly, dry facts and features fall away, and your story comes alive as readers see the real people behind the words. They connect with another person, and their view is transformed. Which makes it easier to pick up that pencil and make your mark, or pick up that telephone and place your order. 

Somehow, I think that Brexit is going to provide a rich vein of material for marketers across the globe for several years to come.

And in case you’re wondering if that’s my ballot paper in the photo, the answer is yes. But wasn’t photography banned in polling stations? I hear you ask.

Indeed it was. I’m expecting the European arrest warrant any day now. Or maybe not – stay tuned.