Saturday, July 12, 2008

An amazing study in subjective thinking

Marketing activity should always be driven by objectives. Otherwise, your marketing program will be based in personal whim. Here's an actual email exchange that occurred the other day in my organization. It has to do with a proposed redesign of a particular page on our Web site. All names have been changed to protect the hopelessly subjective:

-----Original Message-----
From: Amy Smith, IT Department
Sent: Thursday, July 10, 2008 4:25 PM
To: Bill Stevens, IT Department
Subject: Email login page

What do you think of this login page?

-----Original Message-----
From: Bill Stevens, IT Department
Sent: Thursday, July 10, 2008 4:55 PM
To: Amy Smith, IT Department
Subject: Re: Email login page

That's cute! It makes me want to go on vacation though :-)

-----Original Message-----
From: Amy Smith, IT Department
Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 8:07 AM
To: Bill Stevens, IT Department
Subject: Re: Email login page

So, could we redesign our email login page to look something like that?


-----Original Message-----

From: Bill Stevens, IT Department
Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 8:15 AM
To: Amy Smith, IT Department
Subject: Re: Email login page

Yes, it could be done. I believe Allen Michaels in our Web Marketing Department made it look the way it does now. He’s in charge of the design and content of the web site.


-----Original Message-----
From: Amy Smith, IT Department
Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 8:15 AM
To: Allen Michaels, Marketing Department
Subject: FW: Email login page


Would it be possible to dress up our student email login page to look something like this?:

-----Original Message-----
From: Allen Michaels, Marketing Department
Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 9:33 AM
To: Amy Smith, IT Department
Subject: RE: Email login page

Yes, our software would allow us to change the design of that page.


-----Original Message-----
From: Amy Smith, IT Department
Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 1:10 PM
To: Allen Michaels, Marketing Department
Subject: RE: Email login page

Does that mean we can get someone to redesign the page?


-----Original Message-----
From: Allen Michaels, Marketing Department
Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 2:44 PM
To: Amy Smith, IT Department
Subject: RE: Email login page


Let's get together and make sure there are reasons for remaking that page:
Is there something about the current page that isn't working? Are the objectives changed for that page? Is there a problem we're trying to solve, or did this design just catch someone's eye?

If there's a good, objective reason for changing that page from the standard university Web design format, let's talk about it and come up with a strong solution.


-----Original Message-----
From: Amy Smith, IT Department
Sent: Friday, July 11, 2008 2:52 PM
To: Allen Michaels, Marketing Department
Subject: RE: Email login page

The other page just looks really cool. There's no particular reason why the page needs to be updated, I just think the Hawaii example is eye-catching.

Just something to think about.


Lesson: Never cave in to allowing marketing work to be driven by someone's particular notion of what is "cute" or "cool"!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Silo thinking

I've worked with lots of organizations that are built around a set of distinctive "silos" -- those little, quasi-autonomous kingdoms that exist within organizations.

Silo rhetoric was really popular in the '90s, not so much so now in 2008. Why? I think it's largely because we all got tired of the chatter and the fact that we couldn't seem to do much about silos. In one organization I worked for, management actually told me I couldn't use the "s" word anymore. (Interestingly, they've lived through this period of denial and have now taken huge steps to bust up the silos. Unfortunately, I didn't stay long enough to witness it.)

From what I've experienced over the years, silos tend to be the bane of clear, comprehensive brand identities. For example, here in my own institution, silos are built around the six colleges that make up the university. Frequently I hear college leaders say, "We need to be distinctive from everybody else in the university." That usually represents a strike against the university's brand.

But I've softened on my attitude toward silos. Silos are important in most organizations because they tend to focus specific expertise on products or services that require such specialization. Silos only become dangerous when they set their sites beyond operations and start focusing on the market. They almost always miss the big picture.

Years ago I started explaining it this way: When you spend all your time in the bottom of a silo, you see just a little circle of blue sky. Mostly what you see is silo. The task of branding an organization is to help everybody -- from staff and management to customers and prospects -- see the sky from horizon to horizon. That requires an ability to see beyond your particular silo, to understand the view of the whole farm.

Brand building is essentially the practice of making the whole sky more visible for everybody, both inside and out of an organization.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Overcoming Kansas

The cover story in the May 15, 2008 issue of Marketing News is about tourism marketing in Kansas. Writer Jeff Borden opens the article: "It's not like the State of Kansas doesn't face enough of an uphill fight luring tourists to attractions such as the World's Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City (population 521), the boyhood home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Abilene and, of course, the Wizard of Oz museum in Wamego." And so it goes for a state that has been so maligned for so many years that its own citizens suffer a collective sense of shame about the place.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. I serve a university in Kansas' largest city, Wichita. But don't tell that to people who live in the Kansas suburbs of Kansas City. They don't get it and they don't even believe it. We attempted some marketing work last year in the northeast part of the state aimed at recruiting students. It didn't work. Then we conducted research, only to find that people in northeast Kansas thought Wichita was a small cow town too far out in the boonies. We quickly discovered that our task wasn't to market the university -- we had to focus on marketing Wichita to fellow Kansans who were so geocentric that they simply didn't know any better!

Another example: My wife works in a local hospital that has been trying to recruit a new medical director for several years. They've had a few candidates, some of whom have bolted after the first visit when they realize that central Kansas is flat and is 800 miles from Chicago's Magnificent Mile. (If you're interviewing for a new job, shouldn't you at least do a Google search to learn a little bit about the place?!) It's understandable why a lot of Kansans have a complex about this kind of attitude.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, except to suggest a couple things. First, that marketing relationships are frequently dependent upon one another. My university's brand identity is dependent upon that of Wichita's, which is dependent on that of Kansas.

Second, it comes back to targeting. Kansans are a funny lot. Most know the world makes fun of their location as flat and uninteresting. At the same time, we love what this place offers: no congestion, no pollution, vivid sunsets, genuinely friendly people, that big, blue sky -- the list goes on. Key to marketing such a place is finding those people who value those attributes.

What makes Kansas so great, in fact, is that not everyone wants to be here. If they did, we'd lose the very thing that attracted us in the first place.

Monday, April 21, 2008


The toughest part of marketing, apart from setting good objectives, is targeting. Good targeting is a matter of prioritizing. It's determining who you are -- and aren't -- trying to reach. Elisabeth A. Sullivan calls this "demarketing" in her article, "Just Say No" in the April 15, 2008, edition of Marketing News.

Sullivan quotes marketing consultant Phil Marsosudiro: "If you think of marketing as exercise and reaching towards good foods, demarketing is when you slap yourself on the wrist when reaching for that second ├ęclair."

Targeting is hard work because clients generally want to reach anybody who can fog a mirror.

At my previous employer, a financial services company, we once developed a big push to sell universal life insurance. Using demographic data, marketing conducted an analysis and was able to determine with great certainty the most likely prospects to buy the product. But our agents hated being told who to focus on. They simply wanted to reach anybody who they could get to listen to them. Even though their approach was unproductive, those agents simply couldn't bring themselves to consider that certain prospects were better prospects for that product.

When I arrived at the university I currently work for, the Web site was a mish-mosh of odds and ends. Links and text were stuck in every nook and cranny of the home page. Why? It seems that anytime anybody on the faculty and staff asked for something to be placed on the home page, marketing would do it! So a couple years ago we overhauled the entire site, agreeing to only target prospective undergraduate students. Nearly everyone admits the new Web site is a huge improvement over the old one, but faculty and staff still react with pain when they ask to put their favorite, novel idea on the homepage and we tell them "no."

Demarketing is more about discipline than it is strategy. It's discipline aimed at improving the effectiveness of marketing resources.

When you’re working on a marketing or communication project, think about the audiences your work is not designed to reach. Doing so will help you stay targeted and is bound to improve your results.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On logos and what they mean

For most organizations, their logos are so central to their brands the two are inseparable. And so it should be. Logos function a bit like flags planted on the top of a mountain peak, claiming the territory as "ours."

But for too many organizations, logos can take on roles that are far too large. Instead of symbols, they can virtually becomes entire communication strategies.

When I've helped organizations develop new logos, there's a common question that always comes up: What does the logo mean? Somehow, people feel like they need a detailed description of the symbolism behind a logo, as if it needs to literally convey every detail of the organization's mission and vision.

Consider the Nike Swoosh. What does the Swoosh mean? Speed? Athleticism? Agility? Actually it means none of those things. It means, simply, Nike. That's what it's supposed to mean. For any organization, their logo is a visual symbol meaning their organization and their brand. Plain and simple.

A company I used to work for had developed a logo many years ago. With the logo came a little booklet -- a manual describing what each element of the logo meant. I kid you not! Of course, the logo was awful. It was obviously developed by a committee employing the "spaghetti sauce theory": It's in there! They completely missed the point of logos.

A logo is meant to mean the organization and the brand it is there to represent. Nothing more.

Of course, it takes time to develop a close association in people's minds between a logo and the organization it represents. But that's exactly what branding does.

When I consult with an organization about branding, I rarely encourage a change in their logo unless (a) the symbol is simply out of touch with the company's mission or (b) the company has done something to seriously besmirch its reputation. Logo changes are expensive, and I can generally attach meaning to just about any symbol (and slogan). There's got to be a good reason to make a change in something as mission-critical as a logo.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

When non-marketing types try to do marketing

Remember when desktop publishing first showed up on the scene back in the mid 1980s? Suddenly every secretary and administrative assistant, now armed with clip art and 100 type fonts, was a graphic designer. Things haven't improved much in 20-plus years.

I just got a copy of a brochure from my university's library created by people who shouldn't be doing this work. They have apparently invented a new slogan for the university (at least they've placed it under the university logo): "Explore...Enlighten...Empower." Now, I don't have a quarrel with these words. The problem is that the university's slogan is "Thinkers, Doers, Movers & Shockers." What they are doing, unwittingly, is screwing up the university's brand, plain and simple. They're costing us money and minds.

What's the big difference between professional marketers and amateur-marketer-wannabes trying to do the same work? Professional marketers work from objectives; amateurs work from their own personal tastes and whims. It's stupid, but it happens all the time.

Somebody once said -- and I can't remember who this was, but the line has stuck with me: "There's nothing more expensive than cheap communication."

'Nuf said.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

It's what's below the waterline that counts

Why do so many branding efforts go bad? They lack alignment. They didn't pay attention to what's below the waterline.

Most brand officers know that advertising and logos don't make brands. A brand is something that constituents feel in their hearts. It's truth, not hype. Yet when many organizations decide they need to pay attention to their brand, they focus on advertising, develop a new logo, and craft a new slogan. What they've actually done is dumbed down the whole branding enterprise by training their constituents that brand equals hype.

When I speak about brand I often use the image of an iceberg. You know how icebergs work: There's that chunk of ice visible above the waterline, but below the surface is a much bigger chunk of ice that you can't see that keeps the whole thing afloat.

Brands are like that. Above the waterline are the sexy things marketers love to mess with: logos, slogans, ads, gorilla strategies, PR, and promotion. But below the waterline are those things that really MAKE brands happen, that most organizations ignore in their branding efforts: customer experience, making employees ambassadors for the brand, products, pricing, and so forth.

Without the big chunk of ice below the waterline, all you've got is communication making promises you can't keep. It's unaligned with reality. But when the organization actually behaves like the brand you're promising, you're in alignment. That's when the magic happens.

If you think about brands you know, you can easily think of the ones that are aligned. United/Fly the Friendly Skies -- not aligned. Starbucks -- aligned (right down to the smells in the stores).

From my experience, organizations that launch a branding effort should spend the first 1-3 years (yes, YEARS) working on internal branding before ever launching into advertising, logos, and sales promotion. Get things aligned internally before trying to make promises to your constituents. In many cases, you only get one chance to do it right.

(Photo c. idrutu, image from

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Deep branding

William Durden is the dynamic president of Dickinson College. I heard him speak at an American Marketing Association event in San Diego last year.

Durden, who isn't a professional marketer, probably understands how marketing works as well as anyone I know. He espouses the notion of "deep branding" -- getting every aspect of the organization aligned to express the brand.

He cited an example. Durden wears bow ties and is widely known on his campus for this practice. It's part of the culture of Dickinson at this point. So how to deep brand this aspect of the culture? Instead of the traditional Web site video of the college president waxing philosophical about the institution's lofty mission, do this:

Kill newsletters

When I was at my former company, MMA, our marketing department had developed a pretty standard response whenever someone walked in seeking help in developing a new newsletter: "Go away!" In fact, we actually kept score of the newsletters we had killed much the way the EPA must count how many polluters they shut down.

Paper newsletters are almost always a really bad idea. The same holds true for many of the e-newsletters I've seen. Why? Most newsletters have way too narrow an audience -- they're aimed generally at only one person, and that's the person creating the newsletter. The rest of us are merely victims.

I now work in an academic institution where learned people like to see their writing in ink printed on paper. Newsletters grow here like dandelions in an unkempt lawn. And yep, it's the same old M.O.:

"Why do you want to start a newsletter?"
"I have things to communicate."

"Who's your audience?"
"Uh, donors, alumni, students, friends of my department -- you know, everybody."

"What's your objective?"
"To communicate to these folks."

"How will you measure success?"
"If I send them all my newsletter."

And so it goes.

When I arrived in my present job, I started getting all sorts of newsletters from a variety of places across the university. There were big ones and small ones, glossy ones and photocopied ones, colorful ones and black and white ones. I started throwing them into a file labeled "Things I've got to change someday." But I've outgrown the file folder and now I just pitch the stuff.

All these newsletters have one thing in common: Nobody, and I mean NOBODY but the person writing each newsletter, cares at all about this dreck.

There's another characteristic I've learned about newsletters that are launched because of someone's personal whim rather than sound business objectives: The first issue is fun and exciting to create. The second one starts to be a real chore. The third one usually doesn't happen because the author has discovered that it's more work than it's worth.

I've often said that starting a newsletter is like getting married. The infatuation WILL wear off and one day you'll realize this is a long-term commitment and that long-term commitments take real work.

So if you're thinking about starting a newsletter, develop a solid business plan first. If you do, odds are the newsletter idea will be dropped for a more effective communication strategy. And if you run a marketing communication department, DO NOT under any circumstances accept an assignment from another department to "help them with their newsletter." If you do, I guarantee you by the third issue you'll be creating this thing on your own!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is advertising really dead?

It's fashionable these days to point to interactive marketing as proof positive that traditional advertising no longer works. One of my own colleagues, in fact, is highly critical of our organization continuing to advertise in traditional media. Popular authors like David Meerman Scott (whose writing I admire, by the way) have locked onto interactive media, claiming that all the old communication forms are being eclipsed.

Not so fast, you guys!

I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 80s. It was a heady time -- Frederick Williams was on the faculty and "new technology" was all the rage. In those days, new technology meant cable TV, satellite delivery and a newfangled experimental thing call high definition television. The people developing this stuff, and the critics who were watching them, loved to claim this all spelled the end of beloved institutions like movie theaters. Man were they wrong.

Traditional advertising isn't dead and won't be in the foreseeable future. Sure, social networking is cool and provides an entirely new approach to connecting with people. Even this blog -- the fact that I'm writing it and the fact that you're reading it -- is a signal of pretty significant change in the way we communicate. But some people still sit at the breakfast table and read the morning paper. Some people still plop down in their recliners, remotes in hand, and watch TV. Some people still flip on the radio on the drive to work.

Marketers who claim traditional advertising is dead are not good marketers. They've forgotten that the point of their work is getting and keeping customers, not simply glomming onto the latest, greatest gizmo that's been invented. It's not about advertising at all -- it's about reaching people. And there are times and audiences that require using traditional media in order to be most effective.

The good news here is that the old ways aren't being replaced. Instead, we're benefiting from an expansion of channels and connection points that gives us more opportunities to effectively do what we're supposed to do best.