Monday, April 15, 2019

Ethical Issues in Marketing



What are some of the ethical issues in marketing? First and foremost, we should not be using marketing to make a product that is clearly harmful more appealing to people—for instance, selling cigarettes by appealing to people at a deep emotional level. This can be achieved by linking the cigarette brand to independence, rebellion, good times, or coming into one’s own power.

Next is getting people to buy stuff that they just don’t need. How many toys does one child actually need? How many pairs of shoes are enough? Or, how many homes are enough? But is it the marketer's role to address this?

Then there is using fear to sell something. As we all know, fear works really well as a motivator; however, constantly using fear to market products and services only serves to create a more fearful society, where people are more motivated to avoid potential problems than to embrace that which is beneficial or uplifting.

How about using sex to sell products? This has been a strategy used successfully across a myriad of product categories for decades. Is there anything wrong with linking sex to an unrelated product or using women as objects of sexual desire? 

Making false claims is both unethical and illegal. I am personally not as concerned about what is generally considered to be puffery; for instance, stating that one’s brand is “the best in the world,” because few people are going to take that statement at face value. However, deliberating misleading the consumer or creating false expectations is wrong. 

Related to this, aren't marketers asked to focus on a brand's advantages and downplay or ignore its flaws. And, in some cases, aren't they asked to recast data to make something bad look good or a disadvantage look like an advantage? Is this selective recasting of data wrong? 

How about when a brand uses actors to create buzz about a brand? For instance, a brand might pay actors to extol the taste of a new alcoholic beverage in bars. And the actors never divulge that they are actors. Is this wrong?

How about assigning negative labels to a competitor's brand to reposition it as something highly undesirable? Is this ethical?

Certainly, an ethical dilemma that most marketing agencies face is whether to do (a) what is in the client’s best interest or (b) what the client wants (if you know that what the client wants is not in its own best interest). In this situation, are you forthright with the client but then ultimately collect your fees for executing what the client desires, or do you walk away from the project or business if what you are being asked to do is not in the client’s best
interest? Is the client always right or is the client sometimes wrong? And are you sure you know better than the client what is in his or her best interests?

How about getting someone to pay a huge price premium for a product because your brand bestows status on that product? Is this just helping people climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or is it getting them stuck on one step in that ladder (at a hefty profit to the brand)? And isn't it the role of brands to decrease price sensitivity and allow for price premiums?

Knowing that brands can sometimes make people feel more appealing, loved, smart, accomplished, or valued, I want to scream to them, “You are already appealing, loved, smart, accomplished, and valued. You don’t need a product or brand to be that.” How can a product really make people feel more of anything, especially in the long-run?

There is also this question: Does the relentless pursuit of more and better products, services, and experiences lead to improved lives with more leisure time and a higher quality of life, or does it just constantly raise the bar for what will satisfy while depleting natural resources and placing more demands on peoples’ lives?

How about those huge purchases that marketers can get people to make— for instance, luxury cars, luxury boats, fine art, and expensive wines? Some people can easily afford these things and very much appreciate even minutely incremental improvements in quality. Others, however, may be stretching their budgets to “keep up with the Joneses.” This second group may experience immediate post-purchase remorse after such a large purchase. Is it ethical to market to these people based on aspiration?

And, related to that, if people experience buyer’s remorse immediately after a purchase, is it a good thing or a bad thing to create a post-purchase touch point that relieves their anxiety and makes them feel better about the purchase?

And what about selling functional substance, a real solution to a problem, vs. good feelings? Many brands (and salespeople for that matter) are masterful at selling good feelings without really delivering much else. I often feel this way about motivational speakers. Is something tangible really more valuable than something completely intangible? Is it better to market to and deliver on a need or a desire? Is one better than another? What if people desire something that is not good for them? Is that the marketer’s problem? Is it another person’s right to judge what is good or bad for you?

Once, a client indicated that he wanted to hire me because he understood that I was a "master of the dark arts." Is this how you want to be perceived? I raise these questions and issues to get you, as a marketer, to think about not only what works but what is ethical. If you are a highly skilled marketer, you have a lot of power to persuade people to make choices in certain ways, to believe certain things, to purchase certain products and to behave in certain ways. Are you using this power responsibly?

So how do I see that marketing can be truly helpful to organizations, brands, and their customers? First and foremost, brands can help organizations focus on how they can best add value in the market, especially in unique ways. A brand’s unique value proposition can become the organization’s internal rallying cry, energizing employees and mobilizing them to deliver on the brand’s promise. Marketing can also highlight a particular brand’s unique advantage over competing brands, helping consumers to make more informed decisions. If businesses include marketing research as a part of marketing (as well they should), there is a huge advantage to understanding what customers actually need and want so that the organization can deliver it to them. Identifying and determining the best ways to meet human needs is a noble endeavor.

Reprinted from Brand Aid, second edition, available here

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Brand Life Cycles


Brands personify organizations, products, services and other entities. In this way, they take on human qualities, human qualities that often lead to shared values and emotional connection. But what types of qualities should a brand take on during different stages of its life cycle?

As you think about this, think about romantic relationships that lead to life-long partnerships. What must a new brand (or acquaintance) do to gain mindshare? It must be exciting, fun, new, different and bigger than life. It is all about the "new" and the publicity and buzz. Think about all of the excitement that occurred when Amazon.com or Tesla were first introduced.

But, after a while, the newness and novelty wear off. For a brand (or a romantic partner) to have longevity, it (or he or she) must prove to be trustworthy, reliable, consistent, responsive and service oriented. This requires outstanding listening and empathy skills. Consider the brands (and people) that you have relied on throughout your life.

While these qualities will extend the life of a brand (or a relationship) well beyond the brief courting stage, they may not be enough to create a lasting emotional bond. For that, being likable counts for a lot. This includes being friendly, affable and maybe even charming and witty. That is, the brand (or the individual) is fun to be around. GEICO's gecko and its general sense of humor in its advertising is a good example of this.

Finally, no matter how strong the emotional bond is, sometimes relationships get old and stale. This is why lifelong learning, staying interesting, occasionally doing the unexpected, reinventing the self and remaining innovative are very important to extending the brand's (or relationship's) life indefinitely. So far, Apple has done this.

I share this to have you think about where your brand is in its life cycle and what it must weave into its attitudes, personality and behaviors to extend its relationship with its customers and its life.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Differentiating on the Unexpected



Opaque is an all in the dark restaurant. With the help of a giant crane, Dinner in the Sky serves just that, dinner in the sky. Southwest Airlines differentiated itself based on a sense of humor. Build-A-Bear Workshop decided to involve the customer in the creation of the product. Von Maur department stores feature live pianists. And the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN features a duck march in its lobby every day. Having conducted hundreds of focus groups, I can say with almost certainty that no customer ever recommenced those unique brand differentiators. And those differentiators would not rate well vis-vis more expected benefits in quantitative studies either. They were the result of out-of-the-box thinking and organizational risk taking.

Any brand can do this, but few do.

Let's see just how crazy we can get. Consider a financial institution brand. Let's just envision what we could do with the brand at its bank branch locations.

Simple, closer-in ideas:

  • Serve coffee
  • Provide free snacks
  • Provide a wide variety of magazines
  • Provide self-serve coin counting machines
  • Add public rest rooms

A little further out:

  • Add massage chairs
  • Feature fish aquariums in the lobby area
  • Include a fountain in the lobby area
  • Have televisions streaming the latest news and stock reports
  • Co-locate with a coffee house
  • Co-locate with a post office branch
  • Add passport services
  • Add legal services
  • Feature live music on Friday afternoons and evenings

    Really crazy ideas:

    • Sell convenience store items
    • Wash people's cars while they are inside the branch
    • Polish people's shoes while they wait
    • Produce a light show at noon each day

    Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. But it gives you an idea of what a brand could do. These are not things a bank or other financial institution would typically think about or seriously consider. And yet, one or more crazy, out-of-the-box signature items might be just what it takes to thrust the brand ahead of competing brands. And the competitors would not have seen it coming.

    While I used financial institutions as an example, this could apply to any brand in any product or service category. Consider exploring this approach for your brand. If nothing else, if will likely prove to be a fun exercise. But, at best, it might actually transform your brand into something new and extraordinary that no one had previously conceived. 



    Thursday, March 28, 2019

    Competitive Strategy 101


    One of the concepts that I recall from my Competitive Strategy course at Harvard Business School (based on Michael Porter's Competitive Strategy book) is that to win in the marketplace, you need to pursue one of the following three competitive strategies - value, focus or differentiation. That is as true today as it has ever been.

    In some categories, on some occasions and for some consumers, value is all that matters. When a purchase is not that important to us and we want to save money, we seek out value. There are many brands that deliver a good value these days. Amazon.com delivers value as do many other Internet brands. Ikea is all about value. H&M focuses on value, as does Walmart. Kia and Hyundai also focus on value. ALDI is known for delivering on value. And there are many no frills, low cost airlines that also focus on value. Increasingly, people shop Marshalls, Stein Mart, Tuesday Morning and T.J. Maxx for good value on name brands. 

    And then there is focus. Bass Pro Shops focus on outdoorsmen, and especially fishermen. Orvis focuses on fly fishermen. Lane Bryant focuses on plus sized women and Big & Tall focuses on men's big and tall clothing. Pilot Flying J focuses on the needs of truckers. The Aspen Skiing Company focuses on skiing, as does Vail Resorts. Varsity Spirit Corp. focuses on cheerleading and dance. 

    Finally, there is differentiation. Christian Louboutin shoes are differentiated as are Vilebriquin bathing trunks, Robert Graham shirts and Loudmouth apparel. MINI Coopers are differentiated as are Tesla automobiles. Opaque restaurants are differentiated as are Bojangles' Restaurants, Cracker Barrel restaurants and CoreLife Eateries. 

    The trick is to know when to differentiate and in what ways and for which consumers. American markets are continuing to bifurcate. That is, most of these markets are tending to go upscale or downscale with fewer options in between. That is because the middle class is shrinking at the same time that more people are becoming increasingly affluent while others are struggling more and more financially.

    Differentiation is most important in upscale markets. It is also important in categories through which consumers are making personal statements such as automobiles, home decor and clothing. 

    But the need to differentiate (versus seeking out value) can be highly situational. For instance, I may be looking for value when purchasing a pair of khaki casual pants. Whereas, I might want to make a statement with a shirt that I would wear at a party or out on the town. In the latter instance, I am looking for something highly differentiated and am willing to pay extra for that differentiation. 

    As a marketer, it is important to know what competitive strategy or strategies will work best for your brand and in what situations and with which consumers.