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. 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. 

    Friday, March 8, 2019

    Think Like The Customer

    I was meeting with the marketing committee of a not-for-profit organization on whose board I sit earlier today. We were discussing a major report that we intend to release to the community. The report is on a rather technical subject - river quality - and we talked about crafting frequency asked questions (FAQ) to accompany the report and press release.

    This made me think of something that all skilled marketers are able to do. That is, put themselves in the customer's shoes and think and act like the customer. This includes knowing what concerns are on the customers' minds, how they are likely to view and process different topics, where they go to get their information, what their preconceived notions are, who they are inclined to believe and what is most important to them.

    So taking the FAQ document that would accompany a river quality report card as an example, here are some of the questions that I would imagine might be asked:

    • Does this mean we can swim in the river without worrying?
    • What impact will this have on beach openings?
    • Can we eat fish that we caught from the river?
    • Should we worry if we get a mouth full of water?
    • Is the water potable, that is, is it ok for drinking?
    • When did you measure the water quality?
    • How often do you intend to measure it going forward? How often will we see updated report cards?
    • What exactly are you measuring? 
    • What are you not measuring that we should worry about?
    • What is the biggest source of pollution?
    • Who is the biggest polluter?
    • Is there anything I can do to help clean up the river?
    • How long will it be before the river is completely clean again?

    I am not going to include the complete list of potential questions. But my point is that a marketer must always try to think like the customer. What is on his or her mind? What is he or she worried about? How will he or she react to this? If you were a water quality engineer or scientist you might have come up with a different set of FAQs, but would they have addressed the community's actual questions and concerns or would they have missed the mark?

    I have noticed a similar thing in survey construction. A survey is not constructed with the respondent in mind if the most frequent answer to a list of possible responses is "other (please specify)." It means that the person who supplied the answer options really doesn't understand what is most important to the respondent. Sometimes the person who constructs the survey is so clueless that the list of options does not include anything that the respondent would choose. That becomes problematic because then the respondent has to pick something that he or she would not normally pick just to move ahead in the survey. 

    As a marketer, you must understand your customer well enough to ask the right questions, create compelling messaging, place the marketing messages in the right media and get the customer to make an actual purchase. 

    So, the bottom line is that you must think like the customer if you are to be successful as a marketer. And, while you may not be the target customer yourself, you must have done enough research and have enough empathy and insight to be able to walk in the customer's shoes anyway.

    Thursday, March 7, 2019

    Brand Reputation Management

    How should organizations measure and manage their brands' reputations? While many people suggest using something as simple as Net Promoter Score, which is a very popular measure of attitudinal loyalty, reputation metrics must include much more than that. 

    Each brand has multiple audiences, each with its own expectations for the brand, so reputation metrics need to capture how each audience perceives the brand. The audiences include not just the different customer segments, but also shareholders, employees, vendors, business partners, the communities in which they operate and the general public.

    So, the key question is, "What reputational elements are the most important for each of those groups?" Awareness is often a metric, as is preference. But perceptions of relevance, trustworthiness, quality, innovation, accessibility, responsiveness and value may also be important, as may customer service and technical support ratings. Being a good partner, collaborative, environmentally sensitive and a good corporate citizen are also possible metrics. 

    So, the first step is to understand what matters most to each audience. The next step is to translate these into specific metrics. Then you must set up a system or systems to measure each of these on a regular or even rolling basis for all of the key audiences. 

    You can also monitor social media sites, product/service rating sites and even your own customer and business partner forums to capture perceptions of the brand and especially against the chosen metrics.  And you can use online tools to monitor and analyze brand mentions. 

    Further, you can add periodic questions to your brand/business pages on Facebook and in other websites. Each question would be designed to gather data on one or more metrics. 

    I had already mentioned business partner forums. Businesses can convene specific forums to share information with customers and other business partners and can use those forums to collect brand perceptions. 

    Focus groups, surveys and other traditional research techniques, online and offline, can also be useful sources of information on reputation. Qualitative research such as focus groups, mini-groups and one-on-one depth interviews can help you probe deeply on the areas of most interest or greatest concern. Topics for in-depth exploration might include areas of vulnerability and potential threats.

    All of this information needs to be gathered by a responsible party, who aggregates, sorts, formats and reports on the findings in the form of a dashboard or scorecard. And then action should be taken based on the findings. The findings should result in objectives, goals, strategies, tactics and action plans. 

    All of this needs to be supported at the top of the organization. There needs to be real commitment to the process. 

    It is my strong recommendation that you develop brand reputation metrics that are tailored to your brand and company. The process of managing against those metrics should also be tailored to your organization's specific requirements. I wish you great success in developing a robust system of brand reputation metrics and management.