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Why a simple story trumps a complicated one

Popular votes, hanging chads and Caesar salads

[Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Trump!” harrumphed my friend over her Caesar salad. She almost made it sound like a swear word, and waited for me to commiserate. 

I pointed out that whatever people thought, he was still democratically elected. So the more interesting question to ask was… but I never got the chance to finish my sentence. 

“He didn’t win the popular vote!” she hissed, brandishing her serrated knife menacingly.

The thing is, you don’t need to.

In fact, the first president elected without winning the popular vote was John Quincy Adams, way back in 1824. So the flaw in the electoral-college system – if indeed it is one – has been known about for over 200 years.

I was going to point out to my friend that if Americans had a problem with the loophole, they would have long since closed it. As recently as 2000, George W Bush was elected that way, amid the endless political soap-opera of the ‘hanging chads’, so it’s not as if we didn’t have a precedent in recent history.

But with her knife still hovering in mid-air, I thought it best to keep that thought to myself.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas Washington anymore

In the interests of full disclosure, I should just say that I’m not American, or a member of the Democratic or Republican parties. Or a supporter of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Or anybody else who fought for the nomination in the primaries.

I’m just somebody who’s fascinated by the fact that the most unpopular president in US history (and after just a month, that’s quite a record) actually got elected in the first place.

Viewed as a brand, he was borderline toxic late last year, especially after the off-the-record comments that surfaced just a month before the election.

Then again, nobody was surprised, as it was consistent with his track record. As the Huffington Post put it, They Never Cringed (though reading that article may cause you to, so exercise caution before clicking). 

So how did we get here? More to the point, how did he get there?

I don’t think there’s any great mystery about it. He just went back to first principles.

Politics meets marketing

He told a simple story: make America great again. It may be have been simplistic rather than simple, but it struck a chord.

If you’re one of the long-term unemployed in the Rust Belt, the idea of repatriating jobs is music to your ears. If you’re barely surviving on a low income (because all those illegal immigrants are pushing down wages) or living in a crime-ridden area (those immigrants again) then why would you not think the wall or mass deportations were a good idea? 

They always say that you should act fast, and use up any goodwill – such as it is, in this case – to get things done in the first 100 days. But the speed with which Donald Trump has acted has taken everybody by surprise.

But the measures shouldn’t: after all, he’s just doing what he said he would. The wall, the travel ban, the TPP withdrawal, targeting the Affordable Care Act, pulling funding from aid groups supporting abortion. You name it, he was upfront about it.

He also differentiated himself: he was a businessman who wasn’t part of the Beltway set or any political clan. He was the anti-politician who wanted to challenge the politicians.

He funded his campaign from his vast personal wealth, and so felt indebted to no one – least of all the Republican Party. And that independence gave him the ability to speak freely and tell it like it is (or at least, how he thought it was). 

It’s easy to level charges of sexism, racism and bigotry at him, but then what does that say about half the electorate (OK, a smidgen less than half) who voted for him? That they’re also guilty on all counts? Or that they were duped, and simply didn’t understand what they were voting for?

Here’s another possibility: maybe in a world where politicians hedge their bets and duck and dive, where they’re more spun than candy floss at a funfair, straight talking gets you noticed.

And even if people disagree with you, maybe they admire you for saying what you really think.

Though many marketers would recoil in horror if you said that there was a parallel between Donald Trump’s approach and theirs, I think it’s worth pointing out that he obeys some of the basic rules of the marketing game (or maybe Kellyanne Conway keeps him on track – and I wouldn’t want to mess with her): 

  • Tell a story
  • Be consistent.
  • Be different. 
  • Do what you say you’ll do. 
  • Don’t try to appeal to everybody.
  • Be authentic (even if, to some people, you’re saying unpalatable or unacceptable things).

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next four years. My knife-wielding friend scarcely knows how she’s going to make it through to 2020, and wonders if the nightmare will be prolonged with the call for ‘four more years’.

Personally, I think brand fatigue will have kicked in by then, and the GOP will have lined up a reserve candidate. And prepared an escape hatch for Donald and Melania.

But then what do I know? I got the 2015 UK election, Brexit and the US election wrong. One thing is for certain: I’m no Nate Silver. But then, that’s probably for the best.

Because I like surprises too much.

What ABBA can teach us about marketing

Money, money, money – that’s the name of the game

Abba marketing

A few weeks back, I got itchy feet and decided to take a last-minute break. For once I didn’t over-plan, or spend ages getting every last detail right (because sometimes – no, always – 80% is good enough).

So I spun the wheel of fortune and resolved to be guided by the cheapest flights available. 

But Poznan, Lodz and Warsaw didn’t really float my boat. Pisa’s nice in summer, but I wasn’t sure about winter. And then, it hit me – Stockholm. Surely that would be fun even in chilly January?

And it was, when I eventually got there from Stockholm Västerås airport, which, as you might expect, is actually in Västerås, not Stockholm.

100km later, the coach pulled into the Swedish capital. And from there, I negotiated Friday rush-hour (don’t try this at home) to take the tunnelbana, or metro, to my destination.

If you haven’t been to Stockholm, add it to your list.

Even with temperatures barely hovering above zero, it was a treat. From the Royal Palace to the cathedral, from the Modern Art Museum (following my recent Damascene conversion, a visit was in order) to the Vasa Museum (you’ll be amazed) I explored the city from every angle on my long weekend.

(If you do go, make sure you get a 72-hour travelcard, which also includes the ferry to Djurgården.)

Snap, crackle and pop

But forget high culture. For me, the cherry on the cake was decidedly lowbrow.

How could I visit Sweden and not go to the ABBA museum? I couldn’t. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that Stockholm beat Salzburg and Sofia when I made my choice.

From June to August, the woman at the ticket desk told me, you really need to book online to avoid the long, snaking queues. But on a cold Sunday in late January, you can just turn up and walk straight in. 

And my verdict? It was fun, fabulous and kitsch as a row of sequins. And boy, where there sequins. Together with satin, wedge heels and more flares than you could shake a stick at.

I didn’t jump on stage to experience being the ‘fifth band member’, next to amazingly lifelike holograms of the masters of the Eurovision. I was tempted to try my hand at karaoke, but then I heard an improbably tall French chap singing out of tune (with headphones on, so blissfully unaware) while his family looked on and laughed uncontrollably, and I thought better of it.

Forget the Louvre and the Uffizi, the Getty and the Prado. If you haven’t been the ABBA Museum, you’ve missed a trick.

Scandi style

So what is the secret of their enduring fame, more than 40 years after sweeping the boards at the The Dome in Brighton? (“What’s that she’s got on her face?” said my grandmother on that memorable evening. “It’s glitter, isn’t it? And will you look at those boots!”)

Here’s my guide to ABBA marketing 101: 

  • Stick to a simple, repeatable formula. ABBA didn’t fall for the dubious charms of the emerging punk-rock movement, with its in-your-face lyrics and discordant tones. Instead, they wrote catchy tunes that people could sing, dance and hum to. And then they did more of it. And more.
  • Customise your content. It wasn’t until I walked past the semi-circular, glassed-in display of ABBA’s singles and albums that I realised they’d recorded in so many languages. ¡Dame! ¡Dame! ¡Dame! (Amor Esta Noche) doesn’t ring any bells? That’s because you probably know it as know Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (a man after midnight). Although their greatest hits were in English, they found a way into fans’ hearts by speaking – and singing – their language. 
  • Get out there and do your stuff. From the very beginning, the fab four hit the road and delighted fans. They were everywhere, culminating the famous 1979 tour of Europe and North America. In just six months, they performed 52 shows across 40 cities in 13 countries.
  • Tell stories that resonate. Pick pretty much any ABBA song and it’s about love, loss or longing. Sometimes the songs are happy (Dancing Queen), and sometimes sad (Fernando), but they all revolve around relationships. And that’s something we can all relate to.
  • Reuse content. Abba officially disbanded way back in 1982, but their presence still dominates. Mamma Mia! the stage musical opened in London in 1999 and has so far brought in over $2 billion worldwide. The film spinoff in 2008 was the highest-grossing musical ever, raking in an incredible $500 million. 35 years on, those catchy tunes are as popular as ever.
  • Don’t be afraid to jump on the bandwagon. ABBA hit the mother lode with their distinctive style, but they didn’t redefine music. They were very influenced by schlager music (albeit with a Scandinavian twist) which had been around since after the war. Their genius was taking that established style and making it all their own. 

And finally, realise that nothing lasts forever. When the Swedish popsters released The Singles: The First Ten Years back in 1982, the end was already nigh and they probably knew there wouldn’t be a second 10 years. And so did we (I’ve still got the album).

But that didn’t stop them going on to be one of the most successful groups of all time, to date selling close on 400 million albums and singles worldwide.

Back at the museum, I eavesdropped on some Germans chatting to a French couple. At first, I couldn’t believe my ears, so I moved closer. But I hadn’t misheard: they were talking in hushed tones about an ABBA reunion concert in 2018.

And it looks like it’s happening, apparently involving some clever virtual-reality technology. It’s still under wraps, but if it goes ahead, I’m there. No need to spin the wheel of fortune, and I don’t care what it costs. 

Gimme, gimme, gimme.

5 simple reasons to get back in touch with a client

Find the hook and make your move. It’s easier than you think…

[Image courtesy of Jasleen Kaur at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you ever thought of contacting and old friend you’ve lost touch with?

You feel a bit embarrassed that you haven’t spoken for such a long time. You wonder if they’ll think your approach inappropriate or unwelcome. Or maybe they won’t even remember who you are.

And when you finally do pluck up the courage and take the plunge, the result is never as bad as you feared. Of course they remember you. No, no, it’s their fault as much as yours. In fact, guess what? They’d been meaning to get in touch for a long time themselves, but wondered if you would remember them.

And suddenly, you’re the best of friends again. 

It’s funny how those old reflexes also kick in when we think about clients who’ve disappeared off the radar. If we get in touch, will they think we’re opportunists? Or worse, stalkers? And will it ruin any personal connection our company has with them if we rekindle the acquaintance just to pitch a new product or service?

As with friends, so with clients. So take a deep breath, then make the first move.

The result is often the same: they’re almost invariably pleased to hear from you, and wonder where you’ve been.

But you should still have a ‘hook’ – a reason to contact them. Just as you wouldn’t contact a long-lost friend simply to say hello and disappear again, so you shouldn’t contact a client without some idea of what you’re going to do next. 

So what’s the hook? Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  1. Anniversary. Your company is 10 years old, and you’re throwing a big virtual party that they’re invited to – with bargains galore, a whole new membership scheme and a brand-new birthday range. Or maybe it’s five years since they placed their first order with you, or a year since you last heard from them. Any timeline will do. It’s just a starting point to get the conversation going again. 
  2. Special offer. Yes, this is a teensy bit opportunist, but it’s also a chance to show an inactive client how much you value them. You could even let them know ahead of time, so they don’t miss out. It’s a bit like being let in the side door of a department store an hour before the bargain hunters stream through the main door for the Boxing Day sales. Make them feel special and they’ll repay the favour. 
  3. Topical tie-in. Whether it’s Brexit or Trump, the Olympics or Wimbledon, there’s always something in the news that you can refer to. If you’re on Ryanair’s mailing list, you’ll know that there’s no item of news too insignificant to latch onto so they can sell more flights to Poznan or Pisa. They usually leaven the mix with a little humour (often dodgy) which is yet another way to fly under the radar. 
  4. Relaunch. Got a new website with snazzy new features? Talk about it. New service? Get the word out. New pricing? Ditto. Whatever you’re relaunching, repackaging or reworking, you’ve got the perfect excuse to get in touch. Just like your special offer, you could say that you wanted people to know about it early so they could take full advantage of it.
  5. How to... Everybody wants to get the inside track, or save time, or get ahead of the pack. So tell them something they don’t know. It could he how to grab a bargain, or get the most out of your product or services, or ‘10 things you didn’t know you could do with…’ – or anything that delivers value fast.

Once you start casting your mind around to think of reasons to get in touch, you’ll be surprised just how many there are. But make sure that you’re delivering knowledge or value, not just doing a sales pitch.

And like a Christmas or birthday card with a handwritten note, try to make it feel personal.

We live in an era of big data and super-advanced CRMs that slice and dice customer information, preferences and habits in just about any way you want. You can tailor not just salutations, but special offers, information and even anniversaries.

Just like your long-lost friend, your long-lost customer will be happy to hear from you. So go on: make that call, send that email, or fire off that text.

You’ll be glad you did. And so will they.

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.