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10 Lessons from ‘A Christmas Story’ Applied to Marketing

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Even if you don’t do it yourself, you probably know at least one person who sees the word, “fragile” and goes on to loudly pronounce it “fra-gee-LAY.” Such is the ubiquitous influence of the nostalgic 1984 film, A Christmas Story.

So, in the spirit of the season, we thought we’d shoehorn the movie into a newsletter article. Fortunately for our purposes, many scenes from A Christmas Story truly can teach business owners and managers something about effective marketing.

We aren’t going to give you a synopsis because we figure nearly everyone in the U.S. has seen this movie at least 20 times. That’s why we think we’re safe writing this piece. However, for the three people who haven’t seen it—consider yourself spoiler alerted. And to those folks, do yourself a favor: watch the movie. (It really is a funny, warm film). Now, without further ado, here are 10 lessons:

Don’t waste effort on the wrong audience. Young Ralphie wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Most of the movie is centered on him trying to persuade certain people that he should have one. But consider the targets of his messaging: his overly protective mother (remember how she dresses her youngest son for outdoors?); a school teacher who was most concerned that her students keep nice margins; and an overworked department-store Santa. None of these people were going to be a receptive audience to Raphie’s message.

How you express yourself does matter. Sometimes we say, “Fudge!” (only we don’t say “fudge”). When this happens, we can turn customers off or even get a hostile reaction. This is especially true in today’s hypersensitive, PC world. Always carefully craft your marketing communications to accomplish an objective rather than rashly blurting out something counterproductive. Keep in mind that social media can be especially dangerous because of the speed at which communications are spread.

Some brands are recognized as leaving a bad taste in your mouth. If you think brand ID doesn’t carry weight, consider Raphie’s concern about which bar soap his mother would use to wash his mouth out (Palmolive’s “nice piquant” vs. Lifebuoy potentially causing him to go blind). No business can do much if its products and services are used in an improper manner, but you can be vigilant as to how your brand is perceived by the public and do everything possible to protect and enhance its image.

Rethink showing off that “major award.” It’s easy to be distracted about what aspect of your business should be front and center in your marketing communications. If some new development at your company doesn’t support your brand and validate your value proposition, it probably isn’t worth publicizing … and making a big deal of it could cause you to look silly, like the leg lamp does for Ralphie’s father.

Following the crowd can leave you stuck all alone. What your company excels at doing may not be the same thing that your competitors do well. (In fact, it’s better if you’re unique!) Don’t let yourself be “triple-dog-dared” into abandoning your true value proposition because you think you need to be all things to all people. “Me too” is never a compelling message; stick to communicating what you do best or you’ll find yourself abandoned in the cold.

Be true to yourself. Don’t let the expectations of others force you into a ridiculous bunny costume—figuratively speaking … or literally. Remember Ralphie’s bunny costume, a gift from his aunt? He looked and felt ridiculous. If you can’t sell what you’re offering and be yourself doing it, then you should probably be in another business. As a business owner, incorporate your personal style into your brand to help make it special. If you do good work, you’ll find your niche—and you’ll have a lot more fun.branding strategy

Know what you really want. Most business owners know they should do “marketing.” As a result, they may sit down with an agency or their in-house marketing staff to create a campaign. At some point, someone should pose the question as to what the objective is. This requires identifying a promising target audience, setting tangible goals so that success can be measured, and then coming up with a step-by-step plan. Anything less, and you may as well mumble that you want a football. Poor Ralphie had to say something to Santa.

Marketing professionals will usually let you take the creative lead (if you insist). Ralphie had given up hope that he would get that BB gun because no one seemed responsive to his plea. Yet the Old Man comes through at the end. That’s something to keep in mind when making creative suggestions to marketing professionals. They really are listening to your ideas … but may desperately hope to change your mind. Ultimately, however, you’re the boss and your team will want you to be happy (placated). But beware, getting your way could be dangerous because …

You really could “shoot your eye out.” That didn’t quite happen to Ralphie but he did end up with broken glasses. Just think about it. If you’re paying people to market your business—and they presumably know more about marketing than you—why would you ignore their advice? That’s like going to a doctor and then prescribing your own treatment.

Be open to new ideas. Sometimes the neighbor’s dogs eat the Christmas turkey and you must come up with an alternative plan. When such things happen, Plan B may turn out better than you ever expected—like roast duck at a Chinese restaurant. Why wait until a disaster strikes to try something new and innovative? If you’re consistent with your brand, properly target your audience, and can deliver a compelling message, try something different!

We can help you navigate these 10 lessons – just let us know how by dropping a line here.

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!

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