Demystifying Marketing or What Makes it Work?

By John Graham, president of Graham Communications, Quincy, Mass. June 15, 2006

A company is lucky if there’s someone around who’s not afraid to poke holes in its “latest and greatest” ideas and initiatives. Of course, most organizations either sideline or dismiss these bothersome skeptics as lousy “team players” who don’t fit into the corporate culture.

Bruce McLain was one of these people. At public relations planning meetings, everyone waited for Bruce to weigh in with his often clever and always incisive comments. Bruce’s most memorable contributions always came toward the end of a meeting, when he brought everyone crashing down from the lofty heights of enthusiasm with his question, “Who’s going to make the coffee?”

Bruce knew that success is in the details, not in the grandiose ideas. If it isn’t clear who’s going to do what to whom and when, all the talk is irrelevant and the program will fail. It isn’t necessary to look very far for examples:

%%POINT%%A major-market TV station scheduled a free event for fans to meet one of the actors in a national TV show aimed at teenagers. Even with great PR, only a handful of people showed up. No one thought that holding the promo in a bar might not be an appropriate place for kids.

%%POINT%%Then there’s the Solstice, the sleek, two-seater sports car from Pontiac that weighs in at $20k. Both the design and the price get rave reviews, but experts question whether it will make the hearts of the young and the would-be young go pitter-pat. “Like the other GM sports cars, it comes to market a tad underpowered,” writes one auto reviewer. “It feels rather tepid under normal driving….” With the Miata from Mazda as the model, why wouldn’t GM give it their all? Just the words “underpowered” and “tepid” are enough to drive would be Solstice admirers to a Miata.

These marketing missteps could have been avoided by having a Bruce McLain, who would have asked, “Who’s going to make the coffee? Have we asked all of the right questions or are we thinking more about ourselves than we are of our customers?”

For some in the field, keeping marketing mysterious may be deliberately self-serving, particularly when it comes to control.

At the same time, demystifying marketing and recognizing what works and what doesn’t is rather easy if you follow six basic principles

1. Always make it a program. Simply put, nothing should be done that isn’t a part of a program. The moment someone says that the company needs to run an ad, send out a postal card, hold an event or exhibit at a trade show, ask why.

Marketing activities generally fail because they are not integrated into a tapestry of activities. A good example is a prospecting program. “What’s the plan?” is the key question. Perhaps it includes a series of direct mail pieces, a periodic newsletter, invitations to seminars or a demonstration event, the right advertising and carefully planned follow-up contacts. There is no mystery why marketing works, but it takes a plan and a program.

Isolated activities are frequently ineffective, but when there is a program with several related elements, the chances of making a significant impact increase dramatically.

2. Focus on the customer. It shouldn’t be necessary to mention the need to let the customer direct a company’s marketing. Nevertheless, most ads, brochures, TV spots, radio commercials, direct mail campaigns and press releases are painfully self-serving. What a company wants to say or sell takes precedence over what the customer wants to know.

It’s easy for companies to fall victim to the “Beagle Syndrome.” They are so focused on what interests them; they dash forward with their noses to the ground without regard to oncoming cars.

For example, businesses often make offers that fail to motivate customers. Online marketers quickly learned the value of offering “free shipping.” That was a tipping point for customers. If the price was right, free shipping helped get the order. The same is true of Internet service; whether at a coffee shop, an airport or a hotel, why pay for it when somewhere it’s available free?

After years of piling on “cash incentives,” auto manufacturers called a halt when they lowered sticker prices. But when gasoline hit $3 a gallon, they hauled out a new round of bigger-than-ever discounts. At the same time, Toyota drew upon its perceived value and quality strategy to attract buyers, a good example of a customer-focused approach, rather than one that’s nothing more than an inventory reduction tactic.

3. Make consistency the mission. The red flag in marketing programs is a lack of consistency. There’s always great enthusiasm for publishing a newsletter, holding seminars, developing a prospect database, advertising campaigns, direct mail and all the rest, but there’s no follow through; no one is around to make the coffee.

When you get to the core of marketing, the objective is to raise a company’s visibility in ways that produce a positive emotional response from customers and prospects.

If you recall how many times you tell your kids to clean up their rooms, to put on their coats when they go out to play and to be sure to be home on time, you understand the marketing task. It’s all about telling the same story over and over again in new and different ways to get attention.

Although Oscar Wilde held that “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” it’s not true for marketers. One company president asked a marketing executive when they could stop marketing. “About six months before you close the doors,” came the reply. Consistency is the key that dispels the mystery of marketing.

4. Align with customer values. Most businesses try to figure how to get customers to buy their products or services. While that seems logical is, of course, totally irrational. Just ask Barry and Eliot Tatelman of the remarkably successful Jordan’s Furniture stores in Massachusetts. They sell more furniture per square foot of space than anyone else in the nation. Investor Warren Buffet was so impressed he bought their company.

While Barry and Eliot are the “stars” of their own advertising, they devote much of their promotion to aligning themselves with customer values. For example, they have a longstanding relationship the state’s youth services division. When they heard about girls in foster care not having money to buy prom dresses, they dropped everything and bought radio time on eight Boston radio stations to urge listeners to donate dresses for these young women. On the way to record the radio spots, they contacted Anton’s Cleaners, the region’s largest drycleaner, to see if they would take the dresses, clean them and then distribute them through their Bell of the Ball program.

And the dresses poured in! Barry and Eliot’s message resonated with the public. That’s an effective way to differentiate their business from all the other furniture dealers in Eastern Massachusetts. Instead of telling listeners why they should go to Jordan’s, they reached out and captured customers with a worthy idea. That’s marketing demystified.

5. Raise the quality bar. A mailing arrived from what is touted as one of the outstanding new golf courses in the nation with breathtaking views of Boston. But what came out of the envelope was anything but impressive. It was a “homemade” flyer produced on a poor quality printer regarding the venue’s new restaurant and meeting rooms.

Evidently, the management didn’t feel it was important to produce a first-class promotional piece that could properly reflect the quality of the facility. By trying to cut corners, they sent the wrong message. If you say you’re first-class then act first-class in the way you communicate with your constituency.

Marketing is about making the appropriate impression.

6. Tell stories. Music videos sell as much for the excitement as they do the music. They grab attention and so do stories. Take business letters for example. How often do you hear someone say, “Keep letters short; no more than one page”? Don’t believe it. The length of a letter is irrelevant. A dull short letter isn’t any more effective than a dull long letter.

Stories get attention, whether in a letter, a newsletter or in a speech because they capture interest and create excitement. Why don’t insurance people talk about how the disability income policy that helped a single mother provide for her children when she was dying of cancer? Why don’t bankers forget about everything else and tell about how a modest loan to a small business owner opened the way for increasing sales?

What draws so many of us back Disney World so many times? It’s what we talk about it so much when we get home. We come back with wonderful stories.

Every business has wonderful, exciting stories, too. Unfortunately, they often get buried underneath stacks of meaningless, uninteresting and dull words. The solution is to let the stories out.

The real mystery of marketing is why it’s a mystery at all. Sticking with a few basic principles is all it takes to let it flourish.