Monday, March 28, 2011

A Sensible Approach to Marketing: DIY vs. Handing It Off

Marketing is a vast subject and the very thought of it can feel overwhelming, whether you want to do it yourself or hire it out. There are many books and web sites around that purport to help you through this quandary.  Some are more useful than others. I have recently looked at Guerilla Marketing, a famous marketing series for small businesses that began in the 80’s and has become a publishing semi-empire for its creator, Jay Conrad Levinson. He has a lot of good tips, but he does the marketing community a disservice by insisting that a layperson can DO IT ALL. Excuse me – I’m a designer and I know that clients do not have the expensive programs required, the knowledge to use them or the training that is needed to create marketing pieces that work. That’s why I have a business that’s operated and grown for 30 years.

There is a reason why I have an accountant – I could theoretically do my taxes myself, but it would take days and I would screw it up. Professional services are well worth it, and as a professional service, naturally I recommend hiring someone to help you. Unless you have a strong background in marketing yourself, you will be pitted against an army of professionals who will eat your lunch. Let those who have a passion for it (like you have a passion for what you do) do what they do best.

However, hiring a professional does not mean that you can sit back passively and let someone else steer your boat. You will need to give direction and keep the goals and vision of your business front and center.  

When you decide it’s time to hire marketing help, make sure you have done your homework, and know what you want for an outcome and what level of resources you can invest. Interview any firm you’re considering thoroughly before committing to anything. Get a detailed proposal and ask a lot of questions. Make sure whoever you work with is reputable and has a track record. You can spend the farm on marketing with no result if you are not careful. But when you partner with a great firm, you will get the best value for the investment of your time, energy and money.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Logo Part of Branding: Why Process is Crucial

A company’s logo is just one part of its brand, but since it conveys the brand visually, relevance and meaning are crucial. I have been guiding clients through logo development for years and when the process is conducted properly, there are three phases:  research, concept development and execution.
Often a client will want to go straight to the concept phase, usually because it is the most easily understood step. Starting there is a really bad idea because research, concept development and execution are like the legs on a three-legged stool. If you remove one of them, the whole thing falls down.
·         If you have great research and great concepts, but the execution is poor, no one will get your great idea or the thought behind it.
·         Similarly, all the thorough research and great execution in the world won’t make up for inferior concepts – it will just make their badness more obvious.
·         And if you have great execution and fantastic concepts, but the research was shallow, sloppy or not done at all, you will miss your mark completely.
During the first phase, the client and the designer conduct research to define the client’s market, competition, client goals and other client-specific issues, to provide a sound conceptual and practical basis for the design direction. This necessarily leads everyone through a review of the organization’s brand positioning and promises. This phase is absolutely key for establishing benchmarks to identify relevant concepts. The end result of phase one is the creative brief, a document that defines the way forward to create the logo.
The second phase is concept development. Using the results of the research phase, a range of concepts are developed in thumbnail form and jointly reviewed by the designer and the client for meaning, impact, creativity and the factors specific to the client’s goals.
The third stage is execution. Choosing from the concepts of phase two, one or more are chosen for further development into a finished state of design. These “comps” are evaluated using the benchmarks developed in the early phase, and a final design is chosen. By this point in the process, all those involved are deeply familiar with the company’s brand, what it stands for, how it needs to be positioned in the mind of its market, and what its messages are.
When a proper process is used, a company’s logo will be a thoughtful and effective symbol of its brand. There really are no shortcuts.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Features & Benefits:

What Are You REALLY Offering to Your Customers?
As the economy (hopefully) continues on its tortuous path to recovery, its progress will be paralleled by an increase in competition. Product/service differentiation is key to holding your own in the marketplace, so it’s time to get crystal clear on what your business really offers.
A useful way to do that is the Features/Benefits Filter. Buying decisions are based far more often on benefits, which are perceived emotionally, than features, which are perceived rationally. Example: I am buying some shoes. Their features: made of brown suede, 3” heels, non-slip soles and they lace up. Benefits: really stylish oxfords that make me feel competent AND attractive. The features (and price) are important, but what’s really selling me are the benefits. Without them, the features don’t move me and I probably won’t buy.
This exercise can be applied to services as well. Example: I need a will, and therefore a lawyer. Features: really up on current estate law, and has a convenient location and a reasonable hourly fee. Benefits: peace of mind knowing that my affairs will be handled per my wishes, and I will not be leaving a big mess for my family. The benefits of doing my will are far more engaging than the mechanics of the process, so I will actually do it.
To sum up:  Features describe the product. Benefits describe what’s in it for the customer. For your marketing to be customer-centric, and therefore effective, benefits need the emphasis. Try applying the filter to your own offering from your customers’ viewpoint – looking at it through their eyes will tell you a lot about how to adjust your marketing and better position your business.
A laundry list of product or service features is a big ho-hum; clarity about the benefits you offer will strike an immediate note. Lead with those and you will reap major benefits for your business.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Let's Play Pretend

Putting Yourself in Your Customer’s Shoes
Let’s Play Pretend is an exercise I ask my clients to do when we are in the process of creating marketing tools. Yes, it sounds like “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” but it’s really eye-opening.  Any organization, large or small, needs to understand its value to its customers from the customer’s point of view.  One simple way to figure that out is to pretend you are your own customer and experience your business from that viewpoint.
An example:  All too often, when you read the brochure or web site of a business you’re considering, the messages are all about them and how great they are, and not about how they can serve you and solve your problem. We’ve all had the experience of going to a web site to find answers to a particular dilemma, only to be confronted by a wall of text that must be slogged through to find any answers.
It’s as if you went to a fitness center and asked the front desk receptionist about available programs, and the receptionist said, “In a minute, BUT FIRST you have to read our mission statement, all our staff bios, our company history, our membership policies, how we bill and what happens if you pay late. And then I’ll tell you about our programs unless it’s time for my break.” A sane person would turn around and leave. And that’s what people do at web site landing pages when the page is all about the business and not about how it can help them.
If you’re in retail, here's another example. Stand in front of your store pretending you're a customer and see what strikes you. Are you excited to go in? Or do you notice a tired window display, trash on the sidewalk or an illegible sign? Once you’ve entered, are you happy to be there? Or do you see a confusing layout, sloppy employees or poorly lit displays? Hmmm . . .  
It is hard to bring these issues into awareness when you’re immersed in the day-to-day minutiae of running a business. In customer mode, you'll see both the good and the bad more clearly. Playing pretend helps you fix the problems and build on the strengths.
For those of us who offer professional services, service quality, delivery and satisfaction must constantly be monitored. We survive on word of mouth, so understanding how our clients experience our services is a matter of business life or death. Since we tend to become blind to what’s constantly around us, the trick is to cultivate fresh eyes and ears, and this is how playing pretend will help you. It’s a free source of good information, and it serves to remind us of who should be front and center in our business consciousness: our customer.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Buying Local?

Recently I have noticed a heightened interest in Buy Local programs. Certainly during economic recessions, low-hanging fruit merits a close look.  As a professional service in a small market area, I appreciate being considered when there are projects to bid on. But creating a “buy local” campaign has other aspects that need some thought.
The virtues of buying local are many: local dollars have a direct and immediate effect on the health of the local economy, benefiting everyone in it. The multiplier effects of money spent locally are well-known. Local businesses are far more likely to support community charitable and improvement efforts.  What’s not to love?
What often gets overlooked is that no one OWES anyone else their business. The main downside I have noticed about such campaigns is that they tend to sound whiney. “You should hire me because I’m your neighbor.” Well, not really. I make purchasing decisions based primarily on my own self-interest. If it turns out I can get my needs met locally, great. But it’s not the main criterion. And I know that when a client is considering me for a job, the fact that I’m close by is nice, but not the main determinant.
What matters the most is how a business’s value is perceived. Put another way, we have to earn the business we get, regardless of where it comes from. No one should think they should get business based on their address. A thoughtful Buy Local program doesn’t ask for that – instead, it asks for a level playing field: “Give me a shot before you assume that you have to go out of town to get what you want. And here’s why you’ll be glad you did.”
The online world has made national and global competition a daily reality for everyone. We have to be able to compete on merit with Achmed in Morocco, Da Liu in Atlanta and Bridget in New Caledonia, and make a compelling business case no matter where we’re marketing. So I will happily pitch a company in Omaha, but I can also expect to bid against a firm from there for a project here. Expecting to get preferential treatment from your buddy at your kid’s soccer game is not realistic. Making sure he knows that you offer great value respects both his prerogatives and your professionalism.
So it’s really about CHOOSE Local and making your case to the local market with the same effort you would make to any prospect. Nobody owes us anything but a fair shot.