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There’s No Such Thing as a Brand-less Business

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A new online retailer wants to make a splash in the business world by offering a range of nondescript everyday products for a mere $3. The name of the company is Brandless. (You can read the story here.) It’s an interesting idea, and we wish the entrepreneurs well, but we hope the moniker doesn’t confuse anyone about what a constitutes a brand. Apparently, we’re also not the only ones to cast a skeptical eye at the name of this new enterprise.

Upon reading about the of the new company in the Wall Street Journal, Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics at George Mason University penned a “letter to the editor.” He wrote:

“Regardless of its aspirations, a company called “Brandless” has a brand – namely, “Brandless.”  And the goods sold by that company are not generic; they’re branded.  The company’s targeted consumers, who allegedly are put off by brands, might indeed fancy that by buying products from a company named “Brandless” that they are cleverly escaping crass capitalist plots to overcharge for pointless marketing gimmicks.  But these consumers’ understanding of markets is mistaken.”

Professor Boudreaux also points out that whether people continue to buy the $3 products beyond a first purchase depends on the quality of the product being sold—which in concert with the low price—will quickly establish a brand image for both the products and the retailer. (If you’ve ever been to Dollar Tree or Everything’s A Dollar stores you get the idea.)

As Boudreaux indicates, the founders of Brandless are playing on the false understanding that brand equals promotion. They want you to believe the products they sell are foregoing a huge budget for brand marketing and passing the savings along to Brandless customers. It really never works that way but regardless, all brands exist apart from marketing. Ultimately, a company’s image is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, marketing can communicate information about a brand, and it may try to highlight positive perceptions while minimizing the negative. Yet only individuals coming together can say how a brand is regarded. This helps explain the persuasiveness of word-of-mouth advertising; it’s unfiltered honest brand communication, right from the source.

In any event, we all like brands … so much so that we brand everything. (For example, you may have married one specific “brand” of human being.) Recognizable brands save us time in locating and remembering things we like and helping us stay away from things we’d rather avoid. Without brands, every trip to the supermarket would be like a 50-first-dates of trial and error.

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Strive First to Be the Better Version of Who You’ve Always Been

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If you’re of a certain age, there’s a good chance you remember the Sears Wish Book catalog from childhood, especially if your family celebrated Christmas. Flipping through its pages and choosing items for Santa to bring was a widespread rite of the late fall season. And it wasn’t only children who depended on Sears & Roebuck. For populations in rural areas and small towns, the company’s general merchandise catalog was the household supplier of everything from little girls’ patent leather shoes to their fathers’ power tools. (Please excuse the sexism, we’re going for a nostalgic vibe, here). Though specific product offerings had changed over decades, that was how things had been for about 100 years, starting in the late 19th Century.

Sears stopped publishing its general merchandise catalog in 1993 with the full-sized Wish Book hanging around until 2005. The company was becoming just another department store. In 2004, Sears bought the K-Mart chain to further cement a brick-and-mortar direction in retail. Though still offering a wide variety of products—including such stalwart inhouse brands as Diehard and Kenmore—Sears is far from what it once was. Today, it appears the company may be on its last legs. Revenue losses of $8 billion dollars from 2010 to 2016 prompted the closing of dozens of K-Mart and Sears stores, and things haven’t gotten any better in 2017. Reports are that Sears continues to hemorrhage cash, and many more store closings loom. The Sears in our very own Tyrone Square Mall is being demolished at this very moment.

However, about the time that Sears was turning away the mail-order aspect of its business, another company was starting operation, selling books online for delivery to consumers at their homes. In 1998, this new company expanded its offerings beyond books. Today, it is one of the most powerful brand names in the world, worth approximately $100 billion. Notably, as had previous generations who looked to the Sears & Roebuck catalog, now a huge portion of modern consumers visit Amazon.com to find almost anything.

In 2017, we see the delivery aspect of Amazon’s business including digital products and services, but the basic value proposition has remained consistent. That is, Amazon will make it easy for you to purchase the things you want, and they will get them to you wherever you are. And while Amazon’s “catalog” is online rather than a printed book, the impetus for the company’s growth is not very different from what made Sears an iconic brand for a full century.

In retrospect, perhaps Sears’s executives were thinking of the saying, “evolve or die,” when they changed the company’s business model and diversified. (For a period, Sears’s holdings included investment services with Dean Witter, insurance with All-State and real estate with Coldwell Banker). However, that’s a misunderstanding of beneficial evolutionary mutations. To be successful, the basic form remains the same; there’s just a new feature/aspect/innovation that lets the existing entity explore new horizons. What Sears did was abandon focus on what made the company special—the very core of its brand identity.

To the “evolve” maxim, legendary football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, may have offered the perfect rejoinder: “You dance with the one whut brung you.” It seems that the date Sears walked out on, is the one that Amazon took home.

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Could You Develop a Cult-like Following for Your Brand?

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Star Trek vs. science fiction. Green Bay Packers vs. the NFL. Macs vs. personal computers. In each pairing, the former is an example of the latter, yet fans of a specific “brand” may have little emotional attachment to the broad category. They may even be dismissive or hostile to other entities of the type. These brand enthusiasts know what they like and no substitution will do. They also expect to be customers for life.

Wouldn’t you like to have such partisans supporting your business; customers who will ignore your competitors’ promotions and who can be counted upon to defend your brand against all skeptics? It might be possible.

However, you’ll never attract intensely committed customers if you yourself don’t sincerely feel your offerings are special in some very important way. After all, you are the first evangelist for your business and if you’re not a believer, how can you expect to attract any followers?

Once you have the necessary mindset—and quality offerings—the necessary steps to developing a cult-like following will then require fostering an “us vs. them” mentality among your customers. If that sounds a little creepy, understand that you’re simply respecting your customers’ superior ability to understand and appreciate the exceptionality of your work. So, whether they realize or not, they are truly special. You’re only helping them accept their unique group identity. Here’s how you can start:

  • This may sound counter-intuitive, but you should create a slight barrier to someone becoming a customer. The obstacle shouldn’t be too hard to overcome, but significant enough to cause a little inconvenience or minor discomfort (such as registering, or paying a little more). It’s the same principle as hazing a prospective fraternity member. By requiring a special “commitment,” customers will be less inclined to walk away after they’ve “joined” an especially dedicated group. (Example: Chick-fil-A’s premium prices and being closed on Sundays.)
  • Within reason, develop a unique vernacular to associate with your products and services. This will serve three purposes: it will increase the distinctiveness of your company; it will create a “common language” among your customers and your business; in time, it will make competing products and services sound alien. (Example: The “Genius Bar” instead of “service desk” at the Apple Stores.)
  • Provide for direct customer engagement and communication, not only between you and your clients, but also among the customers themselves so that they can more easily function as the unique community you want them to be. Social media is a great place to start, and you may also want to establish dialogues on your website. (Example: Customer product ratings at Amazon.)
  • Reward customer loyalty with exclusive offers and opportunities to heighten their sense of belonging to a special group, as well as providing an ongoing incentive for remaining a customer. You might establish levels of “achievement” for your customers—statuses such as “gold, silver … etc.—creating a competition among faithful members. (For many years, Phillip Morris encouraged Marlboro smokers to save and redeem Marlboro Miles for branded merchandise.)
  • Make your brand prominent, its imagery attractive and easily accessible. Think of it like a flag that your customers can wave with pride, or wearing a team jersey. As part of this effort, you might want to give your customers opportunities to possess things like clothing and other knick-knacks emblazoned with your logo. (Harley Davison does this very well!)
  • Seek feedback and creative input from your customers. People who use your products or services will have the best insights as to how to make them better. Plus, such involvement will help transform a typical client-business relationship into a feeling of ownership on the part of your customers. (While more of a monopoly than a cult, Microsoft demonstrated this when it promoted features of Windows 7 as coming from customer suggestions.)

As you see, it requires extra effort to convert typical customers into walking, talking (and buying!) brand advocates. And your value proposition may not be one that easily lends itself to cult-like devotion (example: super convenient store hours). But if you get the feeling that your business may be one that naturally attracts a distinct market—one that’s open to a personal connection with a trusted brand—you may find a lot of profit in cultivating an intensely loyal customer base.

Good Marketing Never Forgets the ‘Old Year’

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The New Year is upon us, and with it comes a sense of a “fresh start” — especially if the past 365 days haven’t been particularly good. However, before we can measure progress, we must have an idea of how far we’ve come. Therefore, it’s essential to record the results of past marketing initiatives and reference them from one year to the next.

Understand that every advertising campaign or customer/prospect outreach effort is very much like an experiment. Not only are you interested in results, you’ve got to control for variables.

Necessarily, there will be a “best guess” component to your experimentation based on experience, industry knowledge and instinct. Additionally, some variables will be beyond your control while others are completely invisible to you. But every campaign requires standard, basic decisions. To avoid repeating the same mistakes and to steadily improve results, pay attention to:

  • Audience demographics – Age, gender, ethnicity, income, location … you should have a profile of your target audience before your campaign begins. Say, for instance, 75% of your target audience is male but 50% of the leads generated are female. Such over-performance with women might suggest untapped demand. Yet you’ll never know unless you record who received your messages in the first place.
  • Campaign timing – From “back-to-school” sales for children’s clothing stores, to tax season for CPAs, every industry has a time of year that’s expected to bring in more business. But is it better to advertise a month before the event or just a few days in advance? And the days of the week that you advertise could make a difference in response as well. Will your Monday email blast get lost in the clutter from the weekend? Make identifiable changes from one campaign to the next, and compare results.
  • Types of communications (email, direct mail, radio, social media … etc.?) – The tricky part about comparative analysis of media is that results can be radically different from one to another, yet actual effectiveness could be almost equal. Take for example, the email blast that costs next to nothing per contact, but also brings in very few qualified leads, versus a creative (and expensive) direct mail campaign that nets a much higher percentage of actual sales. It’s only when you try different approaches over time that you can determine which has the greater positive impact on your bottom line.
  • Frequency of contact – One thing we hear commonly hear from clients is that they tried a certain type of advertising and got no response. This often means they mailed a postcard or sent out an email blast—one time and out of the blue—and no one noticed. But people get bombarded by thousands of messages every day. To make an impression, you usually must repeat yourself. However, there is a sweet spot—before diminishing returns on your advertising investment—that you won’t find until there’s a documented history to examine.
  • Tone of the communication – Did your advertising seek to get a chuckle, tug at someone’s heart strings or imply that life as we know it rested on the prospect’s buying decision? Most business owners think they know their customers—and they usually do—but it’s risky to make blanket assumptions about the mindset of others. Certainly, you want to stay within the boundaries of your brand image, but occasionally changing the tenor of your messages may provide valuable marketing insight.

As you go from one campaign to the next, isolate a specific aspect of the communication to change.  You don’t want to change too much. Otherwise, if results are greatly impacted, you won’t know which factor was at work. Plus, if you’ve been getting reasonable ROI from your marketing budget, you don’t want to risk a disastrous result by suddenly changing too much. Your expectation should be incremental improvement. Sure, you might discover an advertising formula that exceeds your wildest hopes, but in the meantime, plan on adjusting and analyzing your marketing plans as long as you’re in business.

 

Ready to kick off your 2017 marketing? We are!

Top Pinstripe Blog Posts of 2016

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We have enjoyed a tremendous year at Pinstripe! One thing we really enjoy is sharing information about creating great marketing and communications to grow your business. Throughout 2016, we have written hundreds of articles, and it’s always interesting to see what pieces you like most. Our most popular posts are always our client spotlights – you really like to learn about some of our favorite people! Features about Pinstripe projects and case studies also generate a lot of readership. But the ones that prove most valuable are the ‘how to’ articles – so in case you missed one, or just want a refresher, here are the top 15 articles of 2016!

 

15. Logo Design and Corporate Identity Manuals

The history of graphic design is extensive and can be traced back hundreds of years. For the sake of this article, we are going to focus on graphic design as it was forming during the industrial era, and how the appearance and growth of corporations affected one aspect of graphic design in particular – logos.

 

14. Do You Have Your Elevator Speech Ready?

You and a stranger are standing in a hotel lobby waiting for an elevator. He has the appearance of a fine, upstanding chap and you’re in an affable mood so you comment on what a nice day it is. He’s welcoming of conversation. Additional pleasantries ensue, followed by introductions and the customary handshake. The elevator finally arrives and just as you and your new friend step inside, he asks about your business.

It’s time for the ‘elevator speech.’

 

13. Trade Shows: To Participate or Not … That’s the Last Question

At some point, you may hear of a trade show for your industry and entertain the notion of attending. The immediate question is whether such an excursion would be a worthwhile investment of time, effort and money.  Reaching that determination will require carefully considered answers to several other questions, first.

 

12.The Physics of Marketing

People may tell you that marketing is “more art than science.” And at first blush, this assertion seems valid. Consider the stimulating imagery and compelling prose that accompanies a typical advertising campaign. However, when it comes to attracting and keeping customers, we should take instruction from Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion.

 

11. Proposals – Advice from the Selection Committee

Recently, Pinstripe Marketing attended a webinar hosted by the Society of Marketing Professionals (SMPS) Tampa Bay called “Secrets of the Selection Process,” by Gary Coover. The course was designed to enlighten us about creating a proposal as well as presenting the proposal to the selection committee, and we came away with a few great tips that we thought we would share.

 

10. How to Leave an Effective Voicemail Message

When trying to reach someone, having to leave a voicemail (VM) message can be very frustrating. The exercise is especially tiresome if you’re in sales—leaving message after message with little hope of a callback. Pessimistically you go through the motions; repeating words you’ve said countless times before.

 

9. Social Media Superhero: Tips for Curating Social Content

Social media accounts for businesses are now the norm rather than the exception, so keeping up-to-date with your posts is something that must be done on a regular basis. We understand that this is time-consuming and is yet another item to add to your to-do list, but below are some tips for streamlining the process and keeping your content interesting and fresh.

 

8. Online Marketing: 5 Things That Most Smart People Don’t Know

Online marketing is one of those things that’s easy to start, but difficult to do correctly. That’s because the internet makes it easy for people with little or no experience to present themselves as experts and give lots of bad advice. It’s bad enough when this bad advice doesn’t produce results, but in many cases, it can even harm your business for the long term. Just like with medical and legal decisions, it’s not what you know about marketing that gets you in trouble—it’s what you don’t know. These tips will help you avoid making some of the common marketing mistakes that a lot of smart people make simply because they followed bad advice from someone who presented themselves as an expert.

 

7. Copy vs. Graphics: Bickering Spouses of Advertising?

In this age of social media, viral videos and search engine optimization (SEO), the role of imagery and copy in marketing is like ever-present background noise. And yet from billboards to websites, the healthy marriage of copy and graphics is almost always a critical component in the successful execution of promotional efforts.

 

6. The Importance of a Trademark Search

A trademark is a name, word or logo used to indicate the source of a product or service. While a “trademark” technically refers to a brand used on goods and products (e.g., coffee, sneakers, jewelry), a “service mark” refers to a brand used in connection with services (e.g., restaurant services, insurance services, accounting services). Almost every company imaginable has a trademark or service mark – either the name of the company advertised to the public or the name of its product.

 

5. Writing a Compelling Biography

If it hasn’t already happened—don’t be surprised one day to have someone ask you for your bio (e.g. short biography). Employers often want them for the “About Us” or “Our Professionals” sections of their web sites. Bios may be needed for a press release announcing an important new hire. Meeting planners ask for bios of important guests or speakers at conventions and conferences. If you have your vital information on hand and ready to go at a moment’s notice, you’ll earn the sincere appreciation of a lot of people … and may save yourself some embarrassment.

 

4. Tips for Hiring a Professional Photographer

At some point in our lives, we all need a professional photographer. Whether you need a photo for your web site, LinkedIn profile, Facebook page, product shots for your business or photos for your wedding, there are some things that are best left to the pros. Here are some tips for hiring the right photographer for your business needs.

 

3. How to Sell a White Elephant

From time to time, we’ll find it necessary to sell something that might lead one to question the sanity of anyone who buys it. This could be a product, a service, or even an investment opportunity that’s missing readily apparent value. While a challenge, successfully unloading (or rather, locating a buyer), is often just a matter of looking at the offering a bit differently ourselves, and then getting a prospective customer to see it the same way.

 

2. Utilizing Nostalgia and Vernacular in Graphic Design

Graphic design as a promotional tool dates back to the 19th century, when the earliest form of graphic design relied solely on typography to make a point. During these early days, text, font style, and font size were the main vehicles of emphasis; you can see how designers started playing with different typefaces and boldness to draw attention to certain information. Over the years, as graphic design became more prominent, methods and styles evolved. People in the advertising industry began to experiment with different techniques to attract attention to products, as well as instill confidence in them and the companies that sold them.

 

And the most popular article of 2016 is…

1. What Makes a Business Card “Cool”?

If you’re someone whose work puts in you in contact with new people on a regular basis, you probably have a substantial supply of business cards. Doubtlessly, you also have a nice collection of business cards from the professionals you meet. Perhaps you’ve encountered one or two that caused you to pause and examine it more closely, thinking “Wow, that’s a cool card!”

 

Based on this list, it appears you’re just as nerdy as we are. 🙂

 

If you’d like to receive our articles right to your inbox, you can sign up here AND receive a complimentary copy of our Guide to Public Relations.

 

THANK YOU for giving us the opportunity to be a small part of your marketing initiatives. We wish you the very best for a healthy and prosperous 2017!

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