Thursday, 10 July 2014

Let's outlaw 'quality'

I’m calling for the word ‘quality’ to be banned.  At least in marketing circles.

My reason?  It’s simple really – I’m more than a little fed up with brands telling me they offer a quality service or product.  Only this week, a consistently underperforming Marks & Spencer talked about refocusing on the ‘quality’ of their clothing.  What on earth does this mean to the average customer? Will it last longer? Will it be better styled? Will it make the wearer feel better?

The problem with ‘quality’ is that its meaning is so ill-defined it’s open to misinterpretation and disappointment.  What is ‘quality’ to me may well be ‘bog standard’ to the next man.  It’s relative and subjective.

In some circles ‘quality’ has an exclusive ring to it.  Fine, as long as you understand that ‘exclusive’ means some potential customers may feel ‘excluded’.

And, of course, the ‘quality’ of your product may well be adversely affected by the customer experience you create around it. In fact, the higher perceived ‘quality’ of the product, the higher the expectation of service.

The problem with quality is that it’s in the eye of the beholder.  It’s an emotional reaction.  It’s open to personal interpretation and expectation. 

And it’s seriously overused.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Will the real #WorldCup sponsors please stand up?

It appears that 38% of consumers in the UK, US and Brazil are mistaken in thinking that Mastercard is a World Cup sponsor according to research from GlobalWebIndex.  The genuine sponsor, Visa, scored just a marginally higher recognition at 42%.

The confusion doesn't seem to be restricted to financial products.  Other brands such as Carlsberg, Nike and Pepsi also performed well, although not as highly as the genuine sponsors Budweiser, Adidas and Coca-Cola.

These findings raise some important issues for marketers engaged in sponsorship of major international events.

On one level the confusion is understandable.  Let's face it, we're used to seeing these brands regularly paraded as sponsors.  Equally, many will have launched advertising programmes designed to appeal to soccer fans. Let's call it the 'ripple effect' - we simply assume their involvement because we're accustomed to seeing it or we closely associate them with our enjoyment of the event.

But equally, is sponsorship such a blunt tool, demanding an activation budget as great as the cost of the sponsorship itself, that it's value is diminished?  The question for brands considering sponsorship in their marketing mix is whether their money might be better spent elsewhere.

Friday, 13 June 2014

#WorldCup - where have the all B2B marketers gone?

Am I alone in thinking there’s been a muted response from marketers to the World Cup this time around? Even food retailers have managed to contain themselves to measured promotions of beer and snack foods in the run up to the tournament. And there’s been a small amount of advertising appealing to those who want to follow the action on big screen televisions or on the move.

But, where have all the B2B promotions gone? Where is the endless stream of emails attempting to make some connection, however tenuous, between a business product or service and the competition? Where are the online games?  Where are the mousemats, fixture charts and stress balls?

I can’t say I’m disappointed.  In fact I’m rather pleased that, at last, many B2B marketers have woken up to the fact that a major event like the World Cup doesn’t necessarily demand their attention if their product or service is completely unrelated to what the average customer will be focusing on during the tournament. And many will have realised that achieving standout in the fog of World Cup promotional activity is best left to those with relevant products and deep pockets. About time too.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

'Share of life' - the new marketing metric?

Not a week seems to go by without a piece of research focused on major brands.  The latest is the BrandZ list of the world’s most valuable brands. In a shock move, Google has displaced Apple as the world’s most valuable brand while Ford has re-entered the list after some time in the wilderness.

One of the keys to Google’s success appears to be its ‘share of life’ – its ability to connect with customers by having many stakes in their lives through a proliferation of products and services.

I’m sure the marketing teams at Google are delighted with the result.  Meanwhile, the rest of us are left pondering what on earth this means for our brands and marketing activity.

From my point of view, ‘share of life’ is just a new, catchy way of saying that to be truly valuable brands need to be relevant to their customers - both now and in the future.  Brands need to keep pace with changes in customer needs/wants and behaviours.  And they need to ensure that their messaging resonates with their target audiences.

It’s a case of ‘adapt or die’ as far as I’m concerned.  In fact history is littered with examples of brands that have failed to keep pace with change.  Perhaps the most notable casualty in recent years was Kodak. With its long history, Kodak was synonymous with photography in much the same way as Cadbury is with chocolate, Hoover with vacuuming and Google with web searching. With the advent of digital photography, I would be amazed if the senior team at Kodak didn’t debate what it would mean for their business.  The reality is they either chose not to act, or failed to act quickly enough. The brand’s demise should act as a wake up call to all brands.

Google has spent a lot of time, money and energy in recent years in building its portfolio of products and services.  I dare say there was a major commercial imperative here – to build a revenue stream and commercialise its free search offer.  In doing so, according to the research, Google has managed to touch the lives of many people in many different ways and thereby grow its ‘share of life’. 

Growing a product portfolio is not an option that all brands have. So, let’s not get hung up on ‘share of life’. The key is remaining relevant your audience.  Something that marketers have known for some time.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Big data? It's the little things that count

There's much talk about 'big data' with its potential to better understand customer behaviour and tailor service and offerings appropriately. Great idea, but I can't help thinking that organisations would do well to master the 'small data' they have at present.

I've been a member of a well-known airline's frequent flyer programme for many years. In theory, they know a great deal about me and continue to gather data based upon my travel patterns, locations and preferences. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how they continue to get it wrong:

  • I flew to Glasgow on business earlier this week.  En route to the airport, I received a text asking me to rate the service I had received at the airport that morning - some two hours before my flight.
  • On the same day, my return flight was delayed by over an hour. I knew this in advance because I took the trouble to check. Did I receive a text alerting me? No.
  • I receive at least one promotional email a week encouraging me to book my next flight or take advantage of a time-limited sale.  Often the offers are for flights that I cannot possibly take.  Why? Because I already have a flight booked during the relevant period. Don't they know this?
  • One such email encouraged me to take advantage of a discount on flights to the US. This was just a few days after I had booked a flight to the US at the full price. Ouch!
  • They have made of point of asking for and recording my seat preference - window or aisle - yet consistently allocate the wrong seat on check-in
It's often the small things that count in customer service. These small irritations are missed opportunities to impress.  It's a pity that with all the data this organisation has, it consistently fails to think things through effectively.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Political parties need to learn lessons from successful brands

In twelve months' time the UK goes to the polls in a general election. Over the next year we can expect to see a fair amount of posturing and positioning by political parties in an attempt to win votes. Party political broadcasts, advertising campaigns and PR stunts will be the order of  the day.

Politicians of all colours will go all out to persuade a cynical British public that they are fair and reasonable people who put the interests of the country and its constituent parts first.  We can expect to see a caring approach, an emphasis on family and the average worker and, inevitably, pronouncements on the importance of education and the health service.  It happens every time.

Unfortunately, for many voters these attempts to garner support wear thinly.  Why?  Because political parties consistently fail to recognise that they are to all intents and purposes brands.  And like all brands, if there is a failure to deliver against promises or those promises are so blatantly out of sync with the product or service, the consumer sees through them.

Successful brands understand that their reputations are made and sustained by a continued, consistent focus on a combination of three main elements:
  1. Identity: a clear understanding of what the brand stands for or believes in, reinforced by a consistently expressed personality.
  2. Behaviour: how the brand 'acts' or 'behaves'.  In other words, the relationship it builds with its customers and the experience they have of interacting with the brand, its products, services and people.
  3. Performance: how well the brand delivers against its promise and the value it delivers.
The key message for politicians has to be that no matter how hard you work at defining what you stand for, if you fail to then behave in an appropriate way or fail to deliver against your promises, your reputation will suffer. It's something that great brands have understood for some time.  Isn't it time political parties took note?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Beware: infographics are not the be-all and end-all of great communication

I’m a big fan of infographics: those nifty visual ways of presenting often complex information quickly and clearly. Done well they help make the patterns or trends in data highly visible. Perhaps the best, and most long-standing, being the London Tube map.

And if a cursory glance at Facebook or LinkedIn is anything to go by, the rest of the world is a fan as well.

Yet, I’m also worried by the proliferation of infographics, often to the exclusion of well-crafted copy. 

I happen to be someone who responds well to visual interpretations. My thought process is often aided greatly by the use of mind mapping techniques – in fact my articles on this blog start with a mind map.  Yet I’m also painfully aware that there are many people for whom the visual representation of data, facts or information leaves them cold and unengaged.  For them, the written or spoken word carries much more weight.

There can be no substitute for a well-argued piece of prose or a clever strapline. Why? Well, the written or spoken word can often engender something that visual representation may not:  an emotional reaction in the reader. That’s why novels have survived the advent of the movies and television.  Why speech radio continues to attract a sizeable audience.

By all means use infographics to enhance or simplify your messaging.  But please don’t assume it is a full substitute for copy if you want to engage all audiences fully.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Time for PR to adapt or die: 4 key actions

Public relations has had a chequered history.  Often seen as the fluffy poor relation to advertising or direct marketing, PR has often been one of the first areas to be scaled back in troubled times.

As markets pick up and business confidence grows, PR faces yet another challenge: how to reposition itself as a valuable channel in the marketing mix. 

Traditional PR, characterised by press releases, press launches, journalist relations and PR stunts, has to adapt to the modern marketing landscape or risk being sidelined to ‘nice to have’ status. Or, worse still, disappear altogether.

To survive, PR professionals, whether agency or in-house, need to address four key issues:

Integrate with the wider strategy: it never ceases to amaze me that many organisations see PR as almost stand-alone.  Separate PR teams with their own strategies seems to have been an acceptable approach.  If PR is to survive, it needs to be fully integrated in the wider marketing strategy and team, in the same way that digital has, at least in many forward-thinking organisations. 

Embrace digital and recognise your audience has changed: PR needs to move on from its traditional focus on print and broadcast media and fully embrace digital channels.  For example, failing to include blogger outreach activity when promoting a news story or launching a product means a significant and influential audience is excluded.

Recognise that PR is part of a wider content strategy: content strategies and plans are not just for digital teams.  PR professionals need to consider how they can align with digital activity, reinforce the messaging and repurpose content to achieve an integrated approach to brand, product or corporate messaging.

Reconsider the traditional metrics:  ‘advertising value equivalent’ is a blunt tool to measure PR effectiveness borne out of the need to justify value in the face of the threat from advertising. Instead, PR professionals need to focus on learning from their digital colleagues and start talking about relevant reach and engagement.

Whether PR survives as a stand-alone discipline remains to be seen.  What’s clear is that it needs to adapt to survive by embracing the modern digital world.

Monday, 31 March 2014

How to make brands portable across borders

Expanding into new geographical markets can be a minefield for brands.  History is littered with stories of successful brands that have failed miserably to convert their brand promise to different markets. Tesco’s recent foray into the USA being a case in point.

So, can brands be ‘portable’ across borders? The answer has to be a qualified ‘yes’. 

News reports today would indicate that fashion brand New Look has successfully broken into the mammoth Chinese market, following on the heels of Zara, H&M and Marks & Spencer. It’s done so by applying some basic, yet fundamental, marketing principles:
  • Know your target market inside out:  New Look has did extensive research into what Chinese consumers expect to find on the high street before opening its first stores.
  • Adapt your offering to meet local needs and cultural differences: armed with the research, New Look has adapted its range to suit Chinese tastes and requirements.  This has meant a focus on bright colours and clothes that cover shoulders, for example.
  • Do not lose sight of your heritage: New Look has focused on its fashion-conscious, design-led approach but stressed its British heritage through the tagline “Designed in London, styled for China”.
  • Stick to what you know and do best: in New Look’s case this is fashionable clothes at reasonable prices.  And for the time being it’s sticking to ladies wear, reflecting the strength of this sector for the brand in its home market.
There’s no rocket science here – it’s about applying a common sense approach to each market, while not losing sight of the core brand proposition.  It’s something that brands like McDonald’s, with its subtle cultural differences in menu, have known about for a long time.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Open source branding - 5 ways to manage the process

We're living in the age of "open source branding".  Gone are the days when brand managers could focus on well-crafted advertisements to build and protect brand reputations. Today, the health and wealth of your brand is determined by what your customers are saying in social media. Customers are defining brands now, not marketers.

While the dynamics may have changed, it doesn't mean that your brand has to be thrown to the mercy of vociferous commentators on social media. Here are 5 ways in which you can support and enhance your brand reputation online:

  1. Understand that social media is a conversation.  Too many organisations see social media as the opportunity to disseminate brand messages and fail to understand the need to engage in a dialogue with their customers online. Great brands engage in the conversation, pose questions and respond to feedback.
  2. Encourage brand communities. Recognise that your brand advocates may want to sing your praises in their own forums or communities and support them when they do so. While building your own brand communities may be the optimum approach, recognise that attempting to control other communities can damage brand reputations.
  3. Listen to and respond quickly to complaints. Monitoring customer sentiment online is essential but achieves little if you're not prepared to react. Respond quickly to both positive and negative comments, encouraging your critics to engage outside social media to get to the root of the problem and then ask them to return to social media when you've resolved their issue to express their satisfaction.
  4. Avoid corporate speak and know when to step back. The well-crafted corporate response to criticism or complaints can stand out a mile if you're normally chatty and engaging when dealing with positive feedback. Maintain your tone of voice throughout. And recognise that repeating the same message in the face of a barrage of criticism may simply fan the flames and shows you're not really listening or understanding. 
  5. Continually check that your service or product is aligned with your brand messages. Use the feedback you get through social media to identify and address issues in service delivery, product quality or customer service. This means being the voice of the customer internally - something marketing professionals should aspire to as a matter of course.
Whether we like it or not, social media presents customers with the opportunity to comment quickly on brand experiences. Protecting a brand means adopting similar behaviours and engaging in the debate.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Four simple rules to build a following on social media

Every day, including weekends, I receive unsolicited requests to connect on LinkedIn. "Since you are a person I trust" they say, "I'd like you to join my professional network".  Really?  We've never met.  And besides, I strongly suspect you're trying to sell me something.  Or, worse still, one of your key metrics is the number of connections you have on LinkedIn.

What's even more surprising is that many of these new 'friends' profess to be marketing, digital or social media experts.  Yet their very actions in seeking to connect with me in this way show the degree of their expertise: diddly squat.

Of course all individuals and organisations are interested in building effective networks.  That's where sales are made, recommendations offered and ongoing engagement ensured.  But please, please, please if you want to connect with me - and I suspect any other potential customer - follow these simple rules:

  1. Make it a no-brainer to connect with you.  Share something with me; show me you know something I should know or might find useful; give me a compelling reason to invest in networking with you.
  2. Be transparent.  Tell me who you are, what you do and why you'd like to connect. What's in it for me?
  3. Show you understand something about me.  Even if it's that I'm in marketing.  Even better, show you've read my blog or LinkedIn updates.
  4. Ask about me.  What am I really interested in?  What's my view on content marketing? Have I used marketing automation?
Hang on a minute, aren't these some of the very basic rules of effective marcoms and sales? Knowing your audience, tailoring your message and listening. Shame on you so-called marketing, digital or social media "experts" who think it's fine to simply try and connect.

While on the subject of LinkedIn, has anyone noticed how the curse of the cute kitten photo has managed to spread from Facebook to LinkedIn? Does this mark the dumbing down of the network? Or should I learn to relax more on a Friday afternoon?

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Great brands instil emotional connections

Research out recently ranks UK brands on happiness and how they instil an emotional connection with their customers.

According to the study by advertising agency Isobel and Cog Research, the happiest brands are Cadbury, Andrex, Google, Fairy, Nivea, You Tube, Amazon, Mars, Walkers and Heinz. Brands were rated on five core characteristics: whether they were playful, happy, trustworthy, generous or optimistic. Amongst those in the bottom of the rankings were most of the red top newspapers, Ryanair, the three main political parties and, perhaps unsurprisingly, several retail banks.

While the research was undoubtedly designed as a PR exercise for Isobel, it does emphasise the importance of building a brand around an emotional connection with customers.  A well crafted visual identity, snappy straplines or flashy advertising simply isn't enough to win customers' hearts, minds and share of wallet. The brands that did well in the research came out as more 'human', were consistent in their delivery and offered value for money.

So, what should the average business take from the research?

The key message has to be that if you want your brand to achieve standout and resonate with customers, you need to be clear about the emotional reaction you want to instil in them.  It's about being clear what benefits you deliver, how you want your customers to feel and the value you offer. And then ensuring that your product/service, promotional activity, customer experience and people are fully aligned.

This isn't just an FMCG issue. In fact, most service brands have failed to understand the importance of emotional engagement, preferring instead to focus on functional and rational attributes. This is why so many of them are indistinguishable from each other or, in extreme cases such as recruitment, estate agency and banking, seen as 'necessary evils'. Not an emotional reaction to aspire to.

More information on the research can be found here:

Monday, 3 March 2014

Why not all brand extensions make sense

The Social Market Foundation (SMF), a cross party think tank, has called upon Transport for London to apply for a banking licence for its highly successful Oyster card.

SMF argues that the trusted pre-paid Oyster card, used to pay for rail, underground and bus journeys throughout London could become a real competitor to the retail banks.

Transport for London (TfL) has given the proposal a chilly reception, arguing that while Oyster is a tremendous success, its focus is on ‘making the journeys of our customers better’.

TfL is ruling out a significant brand extension for its Oyster card and cutting off a potential source of revenue by declining to seek a banking licence.  On this occasion I think TfL has got it right.

TfL’s primary purpose is to facilitate the travel of its nine million customers across the capital.  And, let’s face it, it has some way to go before it can rightly claim to have solved all the issues commuters face.  To seek to extend the Oyster brand might well look attractive on paper, but TfL has rightly concluded that it should ‘stick to the knitting’.

While Osyter might well be a convenient way for commuters to travel easily across London, TfL must be well aware of both the limitations of its own reputation and, perhaps more importantly, the reputation minefield that getting into retail banking entails.

Some brand extensions – where brands seek to leverage their reputations to move into new categories - make great sense.  The Virgin brand has successfully embraced air travel, financial services and health.  While Nescafe has used its strong heritage in the coffee market to move into coffee makers.  But both brands have a strong core reputations and values and have a loyal customer following.

In this case, TfL is right to draw the line

Monday, 24 February 2014

Time to take action against #cyberbullying - 4 things social media owners should do

A joint post with +Fabian Marrone

Cyber bullies are cowards.  They hide behind their screens to cause untold distress and heartache to the most vulnerable in our society.  In extreme cases their actions have led young people to take their own lives.

As a society and a marketing community are we prepared to allow this to continue?  Isn’t it time that those working in the marketing and digital professions and the managers of social networks worked together to begin the process of stamping out cyber bullying?

Here are four things that should be considered as a starting point:
  1. Amend all terms and conditions to make it crystal clear that any form of online bullying will not be tolerated and be explicit about the penalties. Get all users to explicitly agree to these new conditions.  Those who are reported or suspected of cyber bullying should have their accounts frozen and, if there is sufficient evidence, blocked from using the vehicle of their venom.
  2. Subject to local laws, details of those blocked should be shared amongst the main social media sites to ensure all outlets are restricted.
  3. Social media owners should establish a form of neighbourhood watch, encouraging the online community to identify and report incidents of cyber bullying quickly.
  4. Provide support and assistance to those who are victims of bullies online.

This is merely a starting point but it is clear that action needs to be taken by the digital community now.  

What other ideas do you have for tackling this important issue in our society?

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Will the Co-op's #HaveYourSay campaign provide the clarity it so sorely needs?

Ok, I’ll admit it.  I have a soft spot for the Co-op, or The Co-operative Group as it is now known.  Both my parents worked there. In fact my father spent 40 years with the organisation, rising through the ranks from the shop floor to a senior management position.

In recent years the Co-op’s reputation has taken a battering, primarily driven by the poor performance of its banking business and a distinct confusion as to what its purpose and business really is.  Bank? Supermarket? Convenience store? Funeral director? Travel agent? Ethical business?

In a move to re-vitalise the brand, the Co-op is now taking the bold step of finding out from the public what it should stand for through its mammoth Have Your Say campaign (#HaveYourSay).  A key part of the campaign is an online questionnaire seeking views of members, customers and potential customers on a variety of areas such as fairtrade, pricing and community involvement.

This is a bold move.  While it certainly reinforces the mutual’s historic roots of being owned and directed by its local customers, I can’t help think that it also smacks of desperation.  It sings: “we’ve given this a lot of thought but we couldn’t come up with any real ideas.  So we thought we’d ask you”.

The reality is that the Co-op has lost its way.  While its origins are in local mutual societies, a succession of mergers and acquisitions has created a behemoth that has become divorced from its membership and lost its original purpose.  And a successful ethical positioning in recent years has been eroded by its banking fiasco.

I’m all for asking customers what they think, but the Co-op’s survey looks too much like a clumsy exercise in reputation management.  I’m not sure what testing has been undertaken or whether focus groups were engaged to react to a series of propositions, but I have to say the questionnaire itself doesn’t imply there has been much preparatory work done.  It’s fairly long – about 20 minutes online – and a seemingly disjointed series of questions.  There’s no real attempt to explain the Co-op’s history or founding philosophy and there’s an assumption that everyone will understand it’s a mutual and what that really means. And there are no draft proposition areas to unpick or react to.

I really hope the Co-op finds its way soon but I’m not convinced that running this campaign will help it find the clarity it needs.  It would have been far better for its management to consult on a series of recommendations on what it believes its customer and community obligations should be and to be seen to listen to the feedback.

Why not take the survey and see for yourself:

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Does free coffee in the supermarket foster loyalty?

Supermarket chain Waitrose has described the traditional points-based loyalty schemes of rivals such as Tesco as ‘meaningless’.  Customers, they say, derive little value from collecting points over time.

Instead, Waitrose claim they’re all about affinity and creating a social hub for the local community.  Under their My Waitrose scheme customers are eligible to collect a free cup of tea or coffee every day and, if they spend more than £5, a free newspaper.  The result is that Waitrose now brews around one million cups of free coffee a week.

According to Mark Price, Waitrose MD, speaking to Marketing Week : “We want to say to our customers ‘welcome to our shop, have a cup of coffee, read a newspaper, we’ll look after you’”.

If my local Waitrose is anything to go by, the offer is mostly taken up by individuals who pop in to claim their free coffee, buy some ciggies and pick up a free newspaper before decamping to their local Aldi.  Whereas the target yummy mummies seem to be too preoccupied dealing with little Hugo and Jemima, wrestling with a trolley and/or buggy to want to hold a Styrofoam cup of hot coffee as well.

Waitrose say they have no problem with this.  I’m not so sure.  I admire their distinctive approach in stepping aside from the competition and their desire to create a better shopping experience (I’ve argued for this recently in my piece on short-term sales growth v loyalty).  But I do wonder whether they have missed something in the execution.

Would it not have been wise to set a spend threshold for membership of the scheme? Membership is currently unrelated to spend, hence the free coffee brigade. Setting a qualifying £5 or £10 initial spend for membership would seem to be a more commercial approach to rewarding genuine customers and creating affinity. Rather than attracting visitors who have no intention of grabbing a basket and conducting a weekly shop.

Footfall in Waitrose may be on the up and its traditional ‘posh’, and possibly inaccessible, reputation may be under question, but I wonder whether Waitrose can reasonably argue that they are fostering greater levels of affinity and brand loyalty with their target audience?

But then Waitrose might be happy being the UK’s largest purveyor of coffee. At their own expense. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Word of mouth is not dead - it's digital

Word of mouth has long been the cornerstone of many marketing strategies, based upon the understanding that anything between 20 and 50 percent of purchasing decisions are influenced by recommendations of other customers.

But with the rise of internet usage generally, and social media in particular, the challenge now has to be how do we make word of mouth digital?

The challenge is a real one: having a great website and a social media presence is simply not enough:
  • There are currently around 1 billion websites globally and this is expected to double in the next two years.
  • Research would indicate that around 80% of website visits are a result of searches, not recommendation or advertising.
  • Social media is generally seen as a trusted source of sharing and accessing product and service recommendations, with Facebook popular with consumers and LinkedIn with commercial decision makers.

It’s no surprise therefore that marketers are increasing diverting spend into SEO and social media. However, there are three things that marketers need to understand in order to achieve high levels of digital word of mouth:
  1. It’s quality, not quantity when it comes to content. If we understand that most websites are visited as a result of a search and that increasingly searches are being done in the form of a question - how do I?  where can I? what is? - then it makes sense that your content strategy must reflect this. Helpful, instructional/educational and unbiased content that answers the questions asked by target customers is essential.
  2. Customers inhabit ‘networks’ online. It’s simple really: there are so many sources of information online that customers are increasingly seeking out like-minded others and sharing news, views and opinions within a series of networks or groups. The key for marketers is to understand the networks inhabited by their target audiences and to join them there. Or, even better, build networks that audiences want to join.
  3. Build engagement and promote sharing.  Focus on recruiting online brand advocates and understand what motivates your target audience to share content/make recommendations.  Consider incentives for sharing in the short term, but ensure that your content remains aligned to your customers’ interests and is worth sharing - not just by the reader but for your brand. Pictures of cats are highly shareable but not necessarily the right association for your brand. Look into crowd-sourcing and online customer panels/testing as a way of showing that you listen as well as preach.
The message is simple: marketers have traditionally prided themselves on understanding their customers; creating digital word of mouth is no different.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The marketer’s dilemma: short term sales growth or loyalty?

It probably won’t come as a surprise to most switched-on marketers that the modern customer is highly promiscuous.  Shopping around has become a national pastime, particularly as easy access to the internet has allowed many customers to explore the range of offers available in the comfort of their homes without resorting to wearing out shoe leather on the High Street.

This promiscuity is perhaps no more marked than in the highly competitive world of supermarket shopping.  The modern British shopper has, it seems, become adept at taking advantage of price promotions to divide their share of food spend between rival operators as opposed to remaining loyal to one supermarket brand.  Chasing savings has become more important than the convenience of making one trip to one supermarket chain.

This creates a dilemma for marketers:  do you enter the fray and compete almost entirely on price to drive short term sales growth; or do you focus on building a loyal customer base and reap the benefits of lifetime value?  Immediate commercial concerns may well dictate the former.

The answer lies somewhere between the two in my opinion. 

Yes, price promotion may well be necessary in order to drive customers to your business.  But this has to be seen as a short term measure or you may find yourself in the position of continuingly competing on price.

The challenge is to create a shopping experience that is distinctive and gives customers what they want, over and above the attraction of a good deal.  This means making the purchasing process as simple and quick as possible – we know, for example, that a proportion of shoppers abandon their baskets because of queues at the checkout.  It could mean better trained staff with greater product knowledge.  And it could mean additional services and product ranges that make the attraction of shopping in one outlet greater than another.

Marketers outside the food sector would do well to take on board the lessons being learned by the large supermarket chains:  differentiation by price alone will not generate loyal customers.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Thomson's Simon the Ogre - offensive to the disabled or just poor advertising?

Thomson Holidays has come under fire recently for its “Simon the Ogre” advertising campaign.  The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has received a number of complaints that the ad is offensive to people with facial and physical disfigurements, and that it trivialises disability.

The ad features a husband/father figure who has turned into an ogre and in need of a holiday.  The character is shown as oversized, hunchbacked with horns and teeth sticking out of his mouth.  During the course of his holiday he is transformed, losing his distinctive features.

The ASA has yet to decide whether the complaints merit further investigation.  Thomson has said that the ad was designed to show the revitalizing powers of a good holiday and no offence was intended.

Having seen the ad several times (I know, I do need to get out more), the potential to offend those with disabilities passed me by.  Indeed, I can’t help wondering whether this is yet another case of political correctness gone mad.  This is a fairytale style character that no more trivializes disability or facial disfigurement than the much-loved Shrek character does.

What’s more disturbing for me is what Thomson is seeking to achieve by the ad itself.  Yes, I understand it’s about getting people to identify with the benefits of a good holiday.  But I’d argue that the message is already well understood by the average customer and evidenced by the billions spent on holidays every year.  What the ad singularly fails to do is to associate those benefits with Thomson specifically, rather than holidays generically.  And it also fails to advocate the benefits of the package holiday over the growing trend for independent travel fuelled by the ease of online booking of flights and accommodation.

In my book, Simon the Ogre is a triumph of storytelling, prosthetics and lavish budgets over the core principle of convincing the average holidaymaker to buy a Thomson holiday.

Here's the ad for you to make your own mind up:

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Crisis? What crisis?

Five lessons from the recent customer crisis at banking giant TSB.

On Sunday an IT problem at Lloyds Banking Group left thousands of customers unable to withdraw cash from ATMs or pay for goods with debit cards.  As the ‘new kid on the block’, TSB was singled out by the media for most of the criticism. It was the latest in a growing trend for banks in the UK to suffer IT issues.

Most organisations will have a crisis management plan in place for such eventualities.  The plan will cover the nuts and bolts of who should do what in the event that something should go wrong.  A key element will undoubtedly be communications management with clear responsibilities for handling customer and media enquiries.  But far too often the plans are focused on the mechanics of what needs to happen and not the philosophy or values that should underpin that activity.

So, what should organisations be thinking about and what should be the lessons for TSB moving forward? 

Recognise and reflect what your customers are feeing, not simply what has happened.  Most organisations know that the starting point is to recognise there is an issue and to apologise for it.  TSB did this, but talked in terms of ’inconvenience’ when the social media networks were full of people expressing their extreme ‘embarrassment’ at having cards refused at checkouts across the country.  Use your customers’ language to show you’ve listened and have really understood what it means for them.

Use everyday language to explain the problem.  TSB talked about ‘server failure’ when pinpointing the issue.  This may well be accurate but how many of their customers actually understood (or cared) what that means?  Also, the preferred internal term might well be 'ATM', but recognise that many Britons use the term 'cashpoint'.

Understand that people have access to the web and social media wherever they are.  Twitter was buzzing with disgruntled customers on Sunday and TSB did well in attempting to manage the comments and to reassure people.  However, TSB seems to have overlooked the fact that many go to the website for information and failed to carry the same messaging there which in turn drove more people to vent their frustration on Twitter.

Be clear about when to use the big guns.  The aptly named TSB chief executive, Peter Pester, set a good example by taking to Twitter to deal with customer tweets and to apologise, sometimes addressing individuals directly.  Good work TSB in avoiding the faceless approach many organisations adopt.

Keep the messaging going post incident and make it easy for customers to continue to contact you.  It may be human nature to breathe a sigh of relief when the immediate crisis has been dealt with but don’t forget that customers have memories.  The TSB website ( has a link to an apology on the homepage but it’s badly signposted and somewhat lost in a ‘busy’ design.   Once through to the message, customers are encouraged to ‘get in touch’ if they have been ‘impacted’.  Commendable stuff, despite the use of ‘impacted’. But click on the ‘get in touch’ link and you’re taken to the normal ‘contact us’ page with no less than 12 options, not one of them relating to the incident.  If you really want your customers to ‘get in touch’ with you about this TSB, make it easy by providing a dedicated email address and telephone number.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Marketers: stop "spray and pray" in favour of quality

Research out this week claims that 70% of marketers fail to deliver real benefits to their organisation in terms of increased sales or market share. 

The reason?  Too many forget that “New Media, Marketing Automation, Omnichannel, Big Data and the likes are only Tools (the “Form”) used to best deliver, analyse and/or optimise the messages (CVPs)”. 

In other words, we’ve been seduced by the potential of new channels without doing our homework in developing CVPs (customer value propositions) that are both attractive and relevant to our audiences.  Many, it seems, have forgotten the basics of our profession.

If 2013 was all about “content is king”, the mantra for 2014 has to be “quality over quantity”.  As customers we are all inundated with content on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.  Much of what I receive is indiscriminate, ill-timed or downright irrelevant. 

To give an example, a few months ago I was looking at hotel accommodation in Sydney, Australia.  At the time many of the websites I had visited were retargeting me online with offers and suggestions.  Fair enough.  But why am I still receiving such messages some three months later?

Everyday I receive emails from organisations seeking to do business with me.  Emails that clearly show they have no idea what I do or what my potential interests are.  I shudder to think what their response rate is.

“Spray and pray” is alive and well it seems at a time when greater focus is needed to achieve stand out.  It’s time that marketers got back to basics: well crafted, engaging, targeted messaging that ultimately supports the sales function.

More information on the research can be found here:

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Forget your USP, it probably isn't 'unique'

Ever been asked what your USP is?  Difficult isn’t it?  You may well have one but can you honestly say it’s something that you genuinely believe in, deliver against and is compelling for your audiences?

Far too often sales teams latch onto what they think is a USP without really thinking it through.  Several years ago I joined a sales-led business as marketing director and made the point of asking everyone I met what the USP was.  There were several responses but the most common was “we were founded in 1980”.  It was a clumsy attempt to show that the business had critical mass, a good track record, some really valuable know-how and was a much safer bet than many of the one-man bands that had been established in the sector.  But unfortunately it hadn’t been thought through and no one seemed able to answer my follow up question:  “that’s great, but I see that one of your immediate competitors was founded in 1948.  Does that make them twice as good as you?”.

The problem with USPs is that nothing is really ‘unique’ in business, at least for long.  Yes there is first mover advantage but what is potentially ‘unique’ today is more than likely to be copied tomorrow.  The net result?  You and your competitors suddenly start looking very familiar.

Instead of spending time agonising over your USP, focus instead on your ‘brand value proposition or promise’ (BVP) and ‘brand story’.  Ask yourself and colleagues some searching questions:
  • What is it that we do particularly well (beyond the purely functional)?
  • What do we stand for and believe in?
  • What is our culture?
  • What tangible and intangible benefits do we deliver to our customers?
  • How do we make our customers feel?

Out of this process will come the core of a BVP and brand story – a clear statement of what your business is all about, how you deliver real value and what your customers feel about doing business with you.

And then of course comes the real work:  making sure that your interactions with customers and prospects really bring your BVP to life.  Oh, and of course, convincing your sales teams that they really don’t need a USP.

More on BVPs and how to develop yours coming soon.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Up close and personal - 4 simple things an airline did to impress

I recently had the opportunity to travel long haul in business class with Singapore Airlines.  The experience was one of the best I have encountered in many years of flying.

Here are the four things they did to impress me:
  1. I was taken to my seat when I boarded rather than sent off on a mission to track it down alone. 
  2. All the cabin crew I encountered seemed to know my name without looking at the manifest.  Spooky at first, but also reassuring. 
  3. When refilling my wine glass, the crew knew the wine I had selected first time around, irrespective of whether the individual had served me or not. 
  4. On my return flight I was greeted like an old friend with a genuine ‘welcome back’. 

These four very simple actions show that personalisation doesn’t have to be complicated or stunningly innovative.  A simple recognition that I’m an individual passenger, not a number, and a willingness to remember my preferences made it a memorable experience and so very different to the 'conveyor belt' approach of many others.

If there is a downside, it’s that the personalisation ended with the flight.  No follow up communication to get my feedback.  In fact, radio silence.  

What a wasted opportunity to keep a memorable brand experience alive.

Friday, 17 January 2014

'Passionate' about your sector? Prove it.

Google ‘passionate about property’ and be prepared for the long list of estate agents who claim to be so.  In fact, you’ll find businesses everywhere proclaiming their ‘passion’ for what they do.  How lucky these people are to work in a field they’re passionate about.

I’m all for brands being clear about what they stand for but I’m also clear that any such assertions need to be explained and then demonstrated through consistent action and behaviour.  I read such assertions and have one response: prove it.

If you’re making such assertions in your business and you’re serious about keeping the statement, ask yourself the following:

  • What does this mean?  Make a point of asking people inside and outside the business what they understand the meaning of your statement to be.  You may be surprised to find an array of different interpretations, not all of them what you intended.
  • Who says we are? Of course you do, but does anyone else?  What third party recommendations/commentary do you have to prove your passion?  What are the results of your customer satisfaction programme?  What do customers say – not just the last time you asked them, but now.
  • What’s in it for our customers?  Ask yourself what this means for the average customer and make sure you explain it to them.  In the case of the estate agent, does it mean that you know all the properties in your catchment area incredibly well?  Does it mean you’re able to advise on what makes a property saleable to a particular type of buyer?
  • How can we demonstrate our passion every day?  It seems to me that people who are ‘passionate’ about something live and breathe it.  They never cease talking enthusiastically about their favourite subject.  They’re borderline obsessive.  So, if our estate agent is passionate, I’d expect to see them talking regularly in the local media about property and their website should have lots of really useful information about the subject, for example.
  • How do we get all of our people passionate?  This is probably the most important question but may be the most difficult to answer.  Consider appointing role models to champion the cause.  Revisit your reward/commission structures and ask yourself whether they encourage different or counter behaviours.  Look at training options.  Consider how you communicate and behave internally – are you continually talking about the subject and providing your people with the necessary data, tools and know-how to build their own passion?

The key is, whatever you say about your business will be meaningless unless you’re able to bring it to life in a meaningful way for your customers and prospects. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Thought leadership - the clue's in the name

Thought leadership has been something of a buzz term in professional services marketing for a number of years.  Many organisations or individuals aspire to be recognised as thought leaders.  In fact, it’s often seen as the holy grail amongst marketing professionals.

But here’s the rub:  few manage to achieve the status.  Why?  Well, simply put, the clue’s in the name. It’s about leadership, not following.

True thought leadership is attained when the organisation or individual is able to demonstrate three key attributes:

  1.  A deep understanding of the topic area.  Not just a working knowledge, but detailed understanding based upon expertise and experience. Backed up by concrete examples/case studies
  2. A relevant opinion, not just the ability to regurgitate what others have said, however eloquently or concisely.
  3. Something new to say, taking the debate to a new level.  This is probably the most important attribute but sadly the one that is often most noticeable by its absence.  It’s one thing to contribute to a debate but quite another to step ahead and lead.
True thought leadership should cause the audience to stop in its tracks.  To stop, think and question.  It should engender fresh debate by introducing a new perspective.

There’s nothing wrong with taking part in a debate about current issues.  If you’re a professional services organization, it can certainly help convey your understanding of your markets, customers and the issues they face.  It might help cement a reputation for expertise, provided you’re consistent in joining in the debate.

But if your contribution is not original or doesn’t take the debate to a new level, please don’t assume you’re a thought leader. You’re probably not.

Let's ditch copycat marketing

Everyday £millions is spent on marketing activity by businesses, institutions and charities. Their aim is to get us, the consumer, to engage with their brand, to subscribe to their service or to buy their products.

Well, at least that's what you might imagine the aim to be.  Far too often the purpose is lost on the average customer.  It's lost in a sea of self-indulgent and often grandiose advertising campaigns where the production values seem to take precedence over the core message.  Where fantasy takes over from reality.  And, sometimes satisfying an internal audience seems to be more important than engaging the external customer.  

And then there's the copycat or "me too" approach.  Imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can be confusing and damaging to your brand also.  Why, oh why, have many High Street retailers decided it's wise to try and emulate the success of John Lewis' advertising in such a blatant way? John Lewis was an early pioneer of using a simple story to convey brand messages and to evoke a strong emotional response from customers.   The production values were high, yes, but they also reflected the reality of great service and quality products.  Competitors may well have looked on with envy at the success of the campaigns.  But, that's no reason to jump on the "me too" bandwagon.  Surely, the recent Xmas trading performance of Marks & Spencer's non-food business shows being a copycat is not a guarantee for success?

Brands need to have their own identity, values and tone of voice.  They need to speak directly to their target audience, be clear about what they stand for and be true to their offering.  It's not rocket science, it's basic textbook.  And it's about time that marketers, their agencies and their leadership realised and acted on that.

In this blog I'll be casting a critical eye over what businesses are up to in the field of marketing, advertising, online and more.  I'll be looking at what I think works really well and not holding back on the criticism, when appropriate.  

By putting marketing under the microscope I'm challenging marketers to up their game.