Marketing Principles in an Evolving, Disruptive Marketplace

The 4Ps of marketing have been around for quite a while, but changing customer expectations, new technology and disruptive businesses demand adapting those principles to reach and persuade today’s consumers

The 4Ps of marketing have been around for quite a while, but changing customer expectations, new technology and disruptive businesses demand adapting those principles to reach and persuade today’s consumers

The 4 Ps have been the axioms of marketing for decades, but are they still relevant in the digital age? Sort of.

Product, price, promotion and place provide a framework for marketing plans – what are you selling, at what price, with what kind of promotion and through what channels. It is hard to get more basic than that.

However, the explosion of communication channels and the erosion of traditional media channels has made marketing these days anything but basic.

Jonathan Bacon, writing for Marketing Week, suggests the 4Ps have become more like guideposts than roadways to marketing success. He quotes one marketer as saying, “Marketing is no longer about what businesses want to tell their customers, it is about businesses listening to their customers and responding in a way that offers a meaningful solution to them.” Customer relationship management doesn’t exactly fit into the 4Ps as “promotion.”

Bacon notes that while “price” continues to play a role in customer decision-making, marketers must demonstrate why a product offers “value.”

Matt Barwell, consumer management officer for a beverage company, tells Bacon he has added two of his own Ps – purpose and penetration. Brands need purpose to exhibit consistency in product quality and their brand promise, which is emerging as a critical differentiator. Penetration is essential to the success of any marketing strategy, which translates into putting marketing messages in channels where intended customers are watching.

Ignoring the 4Ps can be risky, Bacon says, as many brands have discovered by chasing, but not catching fast-moving digital crowds. It’s like driving in a strange land without a roadmap.

The solution lies in adapting the 4Ps to the contours of a specific product’s shape or a brand personality. Offering free samples in a grocery store is different, but not that much different than providing samples to an influential blogger who will write a review. Both are promotions, and both seek to build a relationship.

New technology, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality, will profoundly alter the marketing landscape of the future. And that doesn’t take into account disruptive products and services. Who would have imagined Amazon in the food space or SpaceX in the colonization of Mars business? It will definitely make marketing even more challenging.

The 4Ps represent the established wisdom of marketing. Success these days doesn’t require rejecting 4P-principles. Instead, the 4Ps can be a compass of what to watch for in the marketplace so you don’t convince yourself that a low price, a clever ad or lots of followers on Facebook will take you to the promised land.

Marketing principles still apply. They simply have become a whole lot more complicated to apply.

 

Internet Deserts Text in Favor of Video, Audio and Animation

The internet has swung from text-heavy to video, audio and animation. Have you kept pace or are you becoming a dinosaur when it comes to reaching your audience where they are watching?

The internet has swung from text-heavy to video, audio and animation. Have you kept pace or are you becoming a dinosaur when it comes to reaching your audience where they are watching?

Audio and video content are rapidly overtaking text as the internet converts into a dominantly visual media. Unless you aspire to become a modern dinosaur, take note.

Apps, podcasts and YouTube videos are supplanting web pages and blogs. Mobile devices have morphed into broadcast cameras and digital editing booths. Videos attract the most views on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Online gaming is ubiquitous.

But the trend runs far deeper. Realtors, among others, employ virtual reality to allow homebuyers to scout potential houses. Apple iPhone X recognize your face. Digital assistants obey verbal commands to surround us with our music playlists or uncover long lost recipes.

It shouldn’t be surprising because pictures have always spoken louder than words. Ex-presidential secretary Ron Porter’s record of spousal abuse was known when he was appointed, but didn’t become a disqualification for employment until pictures surfaced showing an ex-wife with a black eye.

A special edition in The New York Times recalled the internet began as a text-heavy communications channel. That was all the bandwidth of the time could handle. “Suddenly the script flipped,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, “Now it’s often easier to communicate through images and sounds than through text.”

Imagery pairs better with shorter attention spans – and with our intrinsic ability to see first. We remember more of what we see than what we hear or read. That’s just how our brains are wired.

Wider availability of audio and video editing tools means more people, especially more young people, are familiar with constructing visual and audio content. That influences and informs audiences to expect information packages with a higher degree of presentational values. Visual communications usually dress up better than text.

What you can’t photograph or capture on video, you can animate. Cartoon characters, special effects, visual origami and out-of-this-world imagery can captivate. Animation tools are increasingly available to ever younger designers. The art of animation also continues to arc closer to the science of computer technology.

Online advertisers are following the crowd, spending more resources on video, audio and visual content. Why not with stats like this: YouTube says viewers in 2017 watched 1 billion hours of videos, averaging two hours per day. About 70 million Americans listen to five hours of podcasts per week. More than 800 million people use Instagram for 30 minutes a day. Netflix plans to invest $8 billion and Apple $1 billion in original content.

The #MeToo movement has shown once again how powerful a social media hashtag campaign can become. President Trump parlayed his often audacious and politically incorrect Twitter feed into an election victory by rallying and activating a base of supporters. 

There are societal casualties. There are rising fears of online addiction. The line between fact and fiction, reality and alt-reality has been blurred, much like George Orwell predicted in his dystopian novel 1984. Images can easily be doctored, challenging viewers to detect whether what they see is real or fake. Virtual “reality” could take false imagery to a whole new level. But those challenges exist in text, too. Think Mein Kampf

All this should be enough to convince you to get busy about video and audio content. Right? Right.

What Do Super Bowl Ads Say About America?

What will Super Bowl ads say about us when cultural anthropologists in the future view them? They will discover we love beer, cars and our digital assistants and don’t like the smell of poop.

What will Super Bowl ads say about us when cultural anthropologists in the future view them? They will discover we love beer, cars and our digital assistants and don’t like the smell of poop.

If future cultural anthropologists only have Super Bowl ads to analyze, they may draw some interesting conclusions about American lifestyles in the 21st Century. They might conclude we’re schmaltzy nut cases addicted to beer, cars and movies who fret over the smell of poop and when our digital assistant goes mum.

The NFL’s Super Bowl, despite concerns over concussions and players kneeling during the National Anthem, has achieved (or assumed) the status of a national gathering, celebrated with chips and salsa and spicy hot wings. Many people curl up on their couch to ensure the game so they can watch the commercials, which have achieved their own legendary status, at an average cost of $5 million per 30 seconds for advertisers.

While sports announcers breathlessly described each play, others were quietly rating the commercials. One team wins the football game. Five advertisers win the Super Bowl of ads.

Fans question officiating that can turn the fortunes of the game in one team’s favor. Judging Super Bowl commercials has some of the same subjectivity. Here is how CBS sports writer Pete Blackburn judged the winners and losers of Sunday’s big ad game:

Amazon may have scored the most game-day views on YouTube AdBlitz with its “Did Alexa Lose Her Voice” spot. CEO Jeff Bezos is confronted with the news Alexa, the uber-digital assistant, has lost her voice and his aides are ready to plug in replacements that range from Cardi B to Anthony Hopkins. It’s pretty funny, but also like a bad dream because Alexa returns by the end of the commercial.

Heartstrings were plucked by ads from Budweiser and Toyota. The “Stand By You” Bud ad starts with a company executive awakened from sleep to head to the brewery where he turns beer production lines into water dispensers to send to areas impacted by hurricanes, floods and wildfires. Budweiser says its Cartersville, Georgia brewery produced 2 million cans of water last year from people in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California.

Toyota’s “Good Odds” ad celebrated the perseverance of Canadian alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft, an eight-time Paralympic gold medalist, who was born without legs below her knees and only a partial left arm. No Toyota vehicles appeared in the ad, which instead leveraged the car company’s sponsorship of the upcoming Winter Olympics. “Stand By You” received the tenth most views during the game. “Good Odds” wasn’t in the top 10.

The other “winners” declared by Blackburn were Tide’s “It’s a Tide Ad” featuring David Harbour and the NFL’s “Touchdowns to Come” that starred Eli Manning and Odell Beckham. Neither of those ads made the top 10 viewership list.

Blackburn ranked movie trailer ads separately, and they were four of the most viewed. They included HBO’s “Westworld Season 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Infinity War” and Prime Video’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.”

Topping the loser list was the Ram Truck ad “Built to Serve” that used a voiceover from a Martin Luther King speech about the value of service. Even though the MLK Estate approved the use, critics said the ad was in poor taste and, ironically, exhibited the kind of “deceptive tactics by advertisers” that King warned of in the same speech.

The Bud Knight” was judged a jousting dud, with too little of Bud Light’s new “Dilly Dilly” slogan and an underwhelming amount of humor that has become the hallmark of its previous ads. Based on the comic reputation of earlier ads, “The Bud Knight” was the fourth most watched ad of the night.

Hyundai’s “Hope Detector” centered on bringing together car buyers and cancer survivors in what Blackburn panned as faux sentimentality. While Hyundai didn’t picture any of its vehicles, Blackburn said the well-intentioned ad turned people into props.

Febreze’s “The Only Man Whose Bleep Don’t Stink” ad, according to Blackburn, actually did stink. It could be Blackburn just disapproves of bathroom humor.

He also panned another car ad, Kia’s “Feel Something Again,” which shows Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler driving and aging in reverse, so when he exits the car he is greeted by an adoring groupie. Blackburn said the ad was creepy and promoted a lot of online questions on Google about how old Tyler actually is.

Other “insights” shared by Blackburn:

  • YouTube viewership of Super Bowl ads increased 16 percent over last year, but “viewership in the living room” popped up by 52 percent.
  • Justin Timberlake’s half-time music on YouTube peaked at more than 500,000 views per hour during the game. Timberlake also was the subject of many online questions, including about his age and marital status.

 

TSA Uses Visuals to Convey a ‘Necessary Nuisance’

The Transportation Security Administration uses a range of information and impish visual communications to explain the necessary nuisance of searching bags, confiscating disallowed goods such as fireworks and patting down passengers to ensure commercial airline safety.

The Transportation Security Administration uses a range of information and impish visual communications to explain the necessary nuisance of searching bags, confiscating disallowed goods such as fireworks and patting down passengers to ensure commercial airline safety.

If people who check your identity, scan your carry-ons, seize your water bottles and pat you down can generate smiles on Instagram, so can you.

TSA is the ultimate purveyor of user-generated content – from loaded guns and lethal knives to angelic kids and lovable dogs. What TSA sees and sometimes confiscates is eye-popping fun, which the federal agency shares on its popular Instagram account.

Hard to imagine a federal agency, especially one often under siege from air travelers and politicians, could have such an infectious sense of humor. But it is easy to recognize TSA uses quirky pictures on its Instagram account as part of its overall visual communications strategy.

FEMA has developed an infographic that provides useful, easy-to-grasp ways to prepare your home for a major earthquake. It is another example of a visually appealing way to help people deal with a necessary nuisance.

FEMA has developed an infographic that provides useful, easy-to-grasp ways to prepare your home for a major earthquake. It is another example of a visually appealing way to help people deal with a necessary nuisance.

David Johnston is TSA’s social media strategist who helps travelers literally “get the picture” of what they can and cannot take aboard a commercial airliner at a US airport. Pictures are the best means to convey a lot of information quickly to people who speak different languages and have varying degrees of experience on air travel. Pictures also can be a powerfully passive way to explain controversial or sensitive regulations and avoid ugly confrontations.

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TSA’s visual communications strategy could be a case study for organizations and communicators that need to “speak” in the digital age. Infographics and videos show what can be taken on board in carry-ons and provide excellent shareable content for social media. Informative, well-illustrated blog posts provide timely information, such as how to pack presents for Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa.

Instagram posts aim to reach younger eyeballs and poke light-hearted fun at some of the stuff TSA confiscates, like fireworks and smartphones with built-in knives.

For an agency whose purpose is to be intrusive in the name of safety, visual communications are icebreakers. They subtly and successfully make TSA seem helpful – and friendly, even as TSA personnel check out your liquid containers and scrutinize your iPad for explosives.

TSA rarely has “good” news to tell or a two-for-one sale to promote. All it can do is strive to make airport security checks less of a necessary nuisance. This should be a light-bulb moment for companies, nonprofits and other public agencies that are in the necessary nuisance business. Visual aids can help.

Visual communications can deliver basic information quickly and often complex information simply. They can cut across cultural, language and age barriers. They can replace bulky text and substitute for lengthy verbal explanations. They can inform with some style and a lighter touch.

Protecting the safety of airline passengers is serious business and, for travelers, a frustration. TSA shows some moxie by relying heavily on visual communications to balance the two while proactively communicating with people who it will check, scan and pat down.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

Influencer Marketing Through Earning Influence

Influence marketing goes beyond sending your product to a blogger and includes testimonials, third-party recognition, turning critics into advocates, thought leadership blogs, storytelling and authentic acts that build a reputation

Influence marketing goes beyond sending your product to a blogger and includes testimonials, third-party recognition, turning critics into advocates, thought leadership blogs, storytelling and authentic acts that build a reputation

Influencer marketing is popular, largely because it works. However, influencer marketing involves more than just pay-to-play engagement with bloggers.

Sending products to influential bloggers to try out and then promoting their positive reviews is a successful tactic. But it isn’t the only successful tactic. There is a more organic form of leveraging influential people.

One of the most tried-and-tried forms of earned influence is the testimonial. The consumer or client giving the testimonial doesn’t have to be a so-called influential person. They have credibility because they consumed your product or retained your service.

Another form of earned influence is recognition by a third party. This could be an interview, product review or op-ed. The content is fair game to promote, which is what Chevrolet does in its ads about J.D. Power customer satisfaction ratings.

An unsuspecting form of earned influence can come from turning a critic on social media into a brand advocate. What better way to demonstrate brand value than tracking the journey of someone upset at product quality or service who is impressed by a quick reaction and fair resolution of the problem. You couldn’t pay for this conversion – or duplicate it in a pay-for-play context.

Thought leadership is a powerful, but under-utilized form of earned influence. You can turn your expertise or special knowledge into influential currency if you share it. That’s the point of thought leadership blogs or asking for opportunities to submit guest blogs.

Reputation may be the most underrated form of earned influence. A solid reputation isn’t something that can be invented, minted or inherited. Reputation, by its very nature, is something that’s earned. The arc of a reputation can take years, but it also can accrete more quickly – and regardless of age – through innovation or a principled act.

Influence is not something you can proclaim. However, you can nudge along the process of gaining influence through storytelling. The stories about your brand or you that you share – or arrange to be shared – can influence key audiences and burnish your reputation.

There isn’t a formula to achieve earned influence. Thank goodness. That gives people a lot of latitude in pursuing paths to attract interest, build trust and earn influence, whether in the marketplace or on Twitter.

Professional assistance can help in the process of influence-development. But PR pros can’t counterfeit authentic influence that flows from expertise, innovation or principled action.

If you developed the best-tasting, heart-healthy donut, by all means put it in the hands of donut bloggers and circulate their mouth-watering reviews on your social media channels. Just don’t forget there are other avenues for influence marketing, many of which have longer lasting impacts and contribute to deeper consumer loyalties.

 

The Avoidable Dangers of Racial Insensitivity

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H&M entered the retailer hall of shame this week with a racially insensitive advertisement that featured an African-American youngster wearing a hoodie with the words, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”

H&M apologized, pulled the product from its website and blamed its procedures for the misstep. That didn’t prevent a barrage of high-profile tongue-lashing from LeBron James, Questlove and Abel Tesfaye, a Grammy award-winning artist whose The Weeknd has collaborated with the Swedish-owned apparel retailer.

There also has been a call for a boycott and cynical social media posts like this one:

“I’m sure the apologies are a coming. And the ads will be pulled. I’m certain there will be media fixers and whatnot and maybe a grand gesture like a donation to some charity (donations under these circumstances are the corporate version #SomeOfMyBestFriendsAre move if there ever was one) all this tells me about @HM is that the seats in the boardroom lack something...wanna take a guess?”

Other apparel retailers have stumbled into equally thick quagmires, which should serve as a reminder to conduct a sniff test before unveiling a consumer-facing product or service to ensure it entices, not offends.

Some may dismiss dust-ups like the one enveloping H&M as “politically correct” controversies. A better analysis would be H&M’s product displayed a stunning tone-deafness. It seems inconceivable that a team of people – of almost any makeup, age and ancestry – couldn’t spot trouble on that boy’s chest, even in the so-called fast-fashion industry.

A quick Google search underscores why African-Americans are sensitive to any simian allusions, and not just because of some ancient, ante-bellum cartoons depicting blacks as apes. NBA star Michael Jordan, President Barack Obama  and First Lady Michelle Obama have been portrayed as monkeys. An anti-Obama campaign button in 2008 featured a monkey and a banana. The anger these allusions whip up is real, not manufactured. And the anger isn’t restricted to African-Americans.

Ethnic and religious stereotypes extend beyond African-Americans and can be equally ugly and insensitive. Brands, restaurants and service providers that dare dabble in this realm should beware. You may have no idea of where you step. What you think is a compliment could actually be an insult.

Ask around before you offer up products that are even borderline questionable. Consult friends. Show it to your spouse. Meet with those who might take offense. Run it by your investors or sponsors. You will reduce the odds of a “surprise” reaction by shopping your bright idea before you put it under the bright lights.

Better yet, avoid getting too close to the border of insensitivity. Think of something just as creative and less likely to ricochet off the wall and hit you in the foot.

Finally, ditch excuses such as “I never thought,” “that’s what we always used to say” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.” Those who are offended don’t buy it, and most of your customers won’t either.

You can be full-throated about your product without being foolhardy in how you present it. If you don’t know what’s offensive, get some street smarts. If you harbor ill will toward any group, keep it to yourself or get some help. Don’t enshrine it on a hoodie.

Brand Stories: Pets with Cancer, Shoes from a Waffle Iron

A beloved pet’s bouts with cancer inspired one family to start a pet food company using high-quality ingredients. Blue’s story is at the heart of Blue Buffalo’s brand story that compels consumer interest and builds brand loyalty.

A beloved pet’s bouts with cancer inspired one family to start a pet food company using high-quality ingredients. Blue’s story is at the heart of Blue Buffalo’s brand story that compels consumer interest and builds brand loyalty.

Consumers are bombarded by brands, but most remain faceless without a compelling brand story. For companies with a story, it is an opportunity missed to build brand interest and loyalty.

I was reminded of this over the holiday break when I saw a TV ad for Blue Buffalo pet food. The ad was mostly about Blue, a large-breed Airedale that battled cancer and inspired its owners and pals to pursue a pet food company using quality, natural ingredients. A longer version of Blue’s story is on the company’s website.

Blue Buffalo is a now a publicly traded company. The young boy who fell in love with Blue as a puppy is the CEO. The company markets its higher-end dog and cat food around the BLUE Life Protection Formula®.  Dogs are everywhere at corporate headquarters and are treated like family, which led to the company’s trademarked cutline, “Love them like family. Feed them like family.” There is a Blue Buffalo foundation to raise awareness of pet cancer.

The Blue brand story has authenticity, even if the brand has faced a couple of accidents on the rug in its history. Purina sued Blue Buffalo, claiming its ingredients didn’t live up to its brand promise (Blue Buffalo blamed the lapse on some of its suppliers). Some pet owners say the food gave their dogs diarrhea, forcing them to switch to another brand. Despite these blemishes, the Blue brand story continues to attract consumer interest.

Brand storytelling has been used by many other consumer-facing companies, including Nike, which traces its birth to Bill Bowerman’s waffle iron used to mold shoe soles and continues with Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog. Along the way, Nike has employed stories to make its brand more than just about running shoes. Equality is one of its recent brand stories and new apparel lines, which “celebrates differences and inspires change through the power of sport.”

One of the most iconic brand stories comes from Burt’s Bees, whose founders (an artist and a beekeeper) met through a hitchhiking encounter. Burt’s Bees sells natural care products with a side of activism, including efforts to restore areas where bees forage. Its videos underscore the company’s philosophy of treating our skins and our planet with care.

Minnetonka, which makes comfortable and affordable footwear, touts itself as a fourth-generation family-run business dedicated to hand craftsmanship and sustainable employment practices. Part of its brand storytelling is interspersing pictures of stars like Cameron Diaz and Kate Moss with user-supplied pictures of everyday people wearing their moccasins, sandals and boots. Content on its websitedescribes when and how some of its famous moccasins originated

Digital marketer Sujan Patel wrote a recent blog describing seven brands that he says are “killing it with brand-driven storytelling,” including Nike, Burt’s Bees and Minnetonka.

“Telling your story is a critical part of building your brand,” Patel writes. “It helps to shape how people view you and enables consumers to begin forging a connection with you and your company.”

The trick, he adds, is making sure the stories authentic, not fabricated. “Consumers aren’t stupid. If they think you’re fabricating stories and falsifying your brand they will find out. At some point, the truth will come out and the ‘brand’ you built will be in need of some serious damage control if it’s to survive.”

As Blue pet food demonstrates, you need to do more than tell your story. You need to walk your talk and keep faith with your brand story.

Do you have an untold brand story? Do you need help telling or showing your brand story? Share your brand story with us. Maybe we can help. In any case, we would love to hear your story.

Meeting and Marketing to Your Buyer Personas

Effective marketing isn’t about talking louder. It involves sharing smarter. Creating and interacting with buyer personas can help you put a face to your consumer, understand their pain points and follow their journey to your doorstep.

Effective marketing isn’t about talking louder. It involves sharing smarter. Creating and interacting with buyer personas can help you put a face to your consumer, understand their pain points and follow their journey to your doorstep.

In marketing, telling your audience what you want them to hear should take a back seat to sharing what they want to hear from you. It is a distinction with a definite difference. It is the fundamental meaning of the customer comes first.

Marketers aim to deliver a key message regarding their product, service or idea. That, after all, is the point of marketing. However, pushing a message is only part of marketing.

The other, equally important part is crafting a message that an audience will notice, care about, remember and act on. This part of marketing requires research and insight into what your audience is interested in, where it looks for information and who audience members trust.

Few products, services or ideas appeal to everyone, so one of the roles of market research is to pinpoint the target audience whose members would value, need and be willing to pay for what you offer.

Target audiences usually aren’t monolithic, which is why marketers develop (or should develop) buyer personas. These sketches – which can include fictional names, illustrations, hobbies, favorite brands, habits, motivations and pain points – turn a target audience into a series of human faces instead of rows of statistics.

Buyer personas also serve as a flight plan for messaging by tracing the consumer journey, so marketers know where to focus their energy, time and resources to connect with their intended audience – and how to close a sale. Walking in a consumer’s shoes makes it easier to identify and empathize with that consumer.

Developing buyer personas can be hard work, but it also can be fun. It certainly is useful. When you visualize your audience as people – even generalized types of people – you are more likely to think about what they want to hear, not just what you want to tell them. And that can make all the difference in whether a key message hits its mark or veers off into the vapors.

Many non-marketers (and perhaps even some professional marketers) may be unfamiliar with buyer personas. They don’t follow a particular formula. The best ones have a creative bent. The most useful ones derive from actual contact with consumers.

There isn’t a formula to follow to create buyer personas. The only criteria that matters is your fictional buyers fairly represent your actual consumers.

There isn’t a formula to follow to create buyer personas. The only criteria that matters is your fictional buyers fairly represent your actual consumers.

Alexa posted a blog with 10 examples of buyer personas from a range of sectors, adhering to a wide variety of styles and formats. In some cases, consumer pain points were conveyed as consumer frustrations, but the variations prove the point that how you compose buyer personas may be less significant than whether you create them.

Unlike statistics that are spewed from an algorithm, buyer personas can be easily modified as experience dictates. You may get it wrong the first time. But the good news is you are focused on the right end of the marketing megaphone.

You are assessing and responding to where people are at and how to reach them. You have evolved from sending a message to sharing one. It’s a big difference, and an even bigger deal.

Humor as Your Brand Signature

Duluth Trading capitalized on the intrinsic humor of men’s ill-fitting underwear to create a brand signature that is memorable and touching. Don’t laugh off humor as a way to give your brand a defining signature.

Duluth Trading capitalized on the intrinsic humor of men’s ill-fitting underwear to create a brand signature that is memorable and touching. Don’t laugh off humor as a way to give your brand a defining signature.

Duluth Trading makes men’s underwear and women’s tank tops funny. Its owners are laughing all the way to the bank because it turns out humor sells.

Buck Naked Underwear, Free Swingin’ Flannel, Uncramp Your Crouch Khakis and Warm Your Chestnuts Fleece Work Pants are marketed with what you might call cheeky humor. Never too offensive, but clearly and lightheartedly delivering the point. Appropriate because, for some reason, men’s underwear is funny.

The company’s brand personality has connected with male and female consumers. Net annual sales have risen from around $150 million in 2013 to an expected $450 million this year. Year-over-year sales growth has reached as high as 40 percent and should exceed 20 percent in 2017.

Duluth Trading has bucked the retail trend by increasing the percentage of its sales in-store as opposed to online and expanding the number of brick-and-mortar outlets every year.

Other brands use humor, too, to turn a buck. The Dollar Shave Club runs ads implying a conspiracy or incompetence at retail stores to prevent selling shaving gear to would-be customers. In one ad, a man who grabs a razor is shot in the neck with a poison dart by a store clerk. The Club’s launch video in 2012 showed the company CEO riding a pitchfork around a warehouse and cracking jokes. It became a social media favorite.

Allstate Insurance, whose tagline is the “Good Hands” people, used sick humor to underscore its brand value. Through a character called Mayhem, played by actor Dean Winters, Allstate reminds people that “stuff happens” – an accidental portable grill explosion, changing a tire in a downpour and being captive at a dull family gathering because of a dead car battery.

Winters has portrayed a hungry raccoon, a pooping pigeon and fog in Seattle. During a football bowl game, he played a nerd burglar who broke into an actual couple’s home who announced on social media they were going on vacation and sold their belongings online. It was a social media hit and helped Mayhem become as recognizable as Geico’s Gecko and Progressive’s Flo, who not so coincidentally is a comedian.

Infusing humor into your marketing rests on a few basic principles. What you are infusing must be humorous. And it can’t cause offense. Both parts of the equation can be tricky.

In the case of a brand, humor is in the eye of the consumer – that is, the buyer. Discomfort in the crotch may make a man grumpy, but it makes a wife an eager buyer. The Buck Naked underwear ads make women beam and reach for their smartphones.

Offending with humor is as easy as spilling mustard from a hot dog on your shirt. Making people appear like klutzes isn’t flattering, but if you can humorously show that animals, inanimate objects and weather fronts can conspire against you, your audience may laugh as they check out their insurance coverage.

With men growing out beards every day, shaving is a bother, only made worse by the hassle of getting the right razor and shaving cream. Turning this frustration into a cartoon while being offered a chance to have shaving gear shipped to your door would make any man with stubble smile.

Injecting humor into your brand doesn’t have to result in guffaws and belly laughs. All you need to do is earn a chuckle and a little space in a consumer memory. The humor doesn’t need to rival Jerry Seinfeld, just come off as clever, maybe a little offbeat and eye-catching.

Humor can be especially welcome at a time when the news is dour and people are polarized. Laughter is one of the few things that can cut through anger and angst. As long as it doesn’t feed the anger and angst.

Brands should consider humor, but not jump online until the humor has been tested from as many angles as relevant. Know the risks. Adjust accordingly. Keep it straight if in doubt.

However, don’t underestimate a gut feeling. An experienced PR team strongly advised against adding “Killer” to “Dave’s Bread.” Adding “killer” wasn’t necessarily funny, but it became the offbeat defining signature for the brand.

The punchline: Don’t laugh off the use of humor as your defining brand signature.

A Good Nonprofit Name Makes a Mission Memorable

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but may not provide a clue to a nonprofit’s mission. A good name can make a mission clear and memorable.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but may not provide a clue to a nonprofit’s mission. A good name can make a mission clear and memorable.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ but is the same true for a brand? Maybe not. A good name is an important clue, sweet or otherwise.

Companies, as well as nonprofits, go to considerable lengths to pick names for their organizations, products and services that attract consumers and donors. They want a name that conveys their brand personality, if not describing what the brand is all about. Think “Jet Ski” or “Salvation Army.”

Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet suggests the separation between a name and its essence is illusory. A rose is a rose, after all, no matter what you call it. The contemporary dilemma is to select a name that is unmistakably linked to what it is.

Lots of brands and products have names with no apparent intrinsic meaning. All of those drug names you see in commercials come to mind. To the extent that you attach a thought to the drug name, it may be on the list of its possible side effects.

The lesson to draw from ubiquitous drug commercials is that their meaning is conveyed by visual imagery – someone suffering from rheumatoid arthritis being able to play with her grandchildren or someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease being able to go on a hike.

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Brands have logos to go with their name. In the case of high-profile brands with million-dollar advertising budgets and loads of product placements, logos can become everyday familiar – Nike’s Swoosh is a perfect example. Some companies (Intel, American Family Insurance) associate their name and logo with an earworm jingle. Others (Jack in the Box) have characters. Some nonprofits (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital) command national attention because of their size and the connections of their founders.

For many brands and most nonprofits, more cost-conscious tactics are necessary. One of the most cost-effective tactics is a good name combined with a logo, tagline and iconography that provide a visual explanation and leave a memorable impression.

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While the Pittsburgh Zoo is a self-explanatory name, its black-and-white iconography underscores a sense of playful discovery. The logo for the Bronx Zoo features animals, too, and uses the elongated legs of giraffes to give it a sense of place near Manhattan. The Tour de France uses a unique script that forms a logo and emphasizes its Frenchness.

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Finding a name that conveys meaning and has the potential to become familiar is the core challenge of building an identity. Names such as World Wide Fund for Nature, Doctors Without Borders, Feeding America, Stand up to Cancer, Save the Whales and Teach for America are evocative and instructive. You have a pretty good idea what these nonprofits do. While they all have excellent logos, their names are the pack mules of meaning.

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One of the secrets of these names is they incorporate each nonprofit’s mission. They use short, concrete and powerful words. They roll off the tongue. Some of the best nonprofit names (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers – MADD) form easy-to-remember acronyms.

There is no fixed formula to devise a brand or nonprofit name. But a good place to start is exploring simplified ways to express a mission and turn them into inspirational names, taglines and images. Then test the names and imagery with staff, stakeholders and donors. It is an iterative process, but not rocket science.

The effort is worth it. A solid name can create a second “first” impression, pump up morale, increase financial support, perk interest on social media and redouble commitment to the mission. That would be a sweet-smelling rose.

Confronting the Reality of Fake Reviews

Online consumer reviews are here to stay, so businesses are wise to pay attention to them and respond proactively when a negative comment appears or risk having a reputation distorted and possibly even smeared.

Online consumer reviews are here to stay, so businesses are wise to pay attention to them and respond proactively when a negative comment appears or risk having a reputation distorted and possibly even smeared.

Almost all consumers say they consult online reviews, but eight in 10 admit they can’t always spot fake reviews, according to a new survey. That should serve as a warning to businesses to police their online profiles and respond proactively to negative comments.

Taking down reviews poses its own perception issues, as Trip Advisor can attest after a public outcry over hotels, resorts and restaurants scrubbing negative reviews from their profiles.

The annual Bright Local consumer survey, which began in 2010, has shown continued growth in consumer use of online reviews. The most recent survey indicated 97 percent of consumer respondents said they looked at one or more online reviews in the past year. Growing reliance on online reviews raises the stakes on fake reviews.

Fake reviews can either be paid compliments or unfairly harsh criticism. In both cases, they can distort a reputation. Nearly 80 percent of consumers responding to the survey say they read a fake review during 2017. Twenty-five percent said they had seen a lot of fake reviews.

“Whether they’re paid-for-reviews making a business look better than deserved or damaging reviews written by people intending to cause harm, these fake reviews could have dramatic ramifications on the fortunes of local businesses,” Bright Local said. “And with more people than ever expecting high star ratings, even one rogue review could cause businesses to drop out of favor.”

It isn’t just businesses that should be concerned. People who rent condos and apartments on their vacations receive reviews by unit owners, which can affect future ability of renters to book desirable places at the best prices and with lower or no security fees.

Clearly, businesses cannot ignore their online reviews or take a meat cleaver to posts that are unflattering. The best approach is to encourage consumers with positive experiences to write reviews. Many consumers will respect an honest appeal for a review from a business owner who acknowledges the importance of online reviews.

Businesses can gain some cred by responding to negative reviews, by owning the cause of the bad experience, offering to make it right with the reviewer and describing steps to avoid a recurrence. In many cases, negative reviews can be avoided by immediately addressing consumer complaints, whether fully warranted or not, in the spirit of “the customer is always right.”

ReviewTrackers has found that more than 50 percent of consumers expect to hear from a brand after they post a negative online comment or review. The most demanding consumers look for a response with 24 hours and, if a response isn’t forthcoming, may post more negative comments.

Another approach, practiced locally by the Landmark Ford dealership, is to promote its positive online reviews, inviting consumers to read them. When a negative post occurs, the dealership apologizes and offers to take the issue offline and resolve the matter. Survey findings indicate that a quick response can persuade a disgruntled consumer that the business cares, even if it has screwed up.

There are companies that specialize in burying or buffing off critical comments. Be wary of approaches that consumer can and will view as inauthentic. Nobody likes critical comments. But a critic who is heard and satisfied can become brand zealot. You never have enough of those and the best way to earn one is by turning criticism into compliments

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Newsjacking Not for Thin-Crust Competitors

The founder of Papa John’s Pizza blamed declining sales on slipping NFL viewership because of players kneeling during the National Anthem. Joining the cultural chorus on kneeling players opened up Papa John’s to online snark from its pizza competitors.

The founder of Papa John’s Pizza blamed declining sales on slipping NFL viewership because of players kneeling during the National Anthem. Joining the cultural chorus on kneeling players opened up Papa John’s to online snark from its pizza competitors.

Newsjacking can be an effective, inexpensive marketing PR strategy. It also can backfire, as Papa John’s discovered last week.

Papa John’s founder John Schnatter joined the cultural chorus of deploring NFL players who kneel in protest during the National Anthem before games. In an earnings call, he blamed the protests on his chain’s declining pizza sales. Rivals didn’t hesitate newsjacking Schnatter’s newsjacking.

Domino’s said its pizza sales were up, not down. Pizza Hut said NFL protests had no impact on its sales. DiGiorno Pizza went to the mattresses on Twitter, mocking Papa John’s faltering stock price and claiming in one tweet: “Better Pizza. Better Sales.”

Hopping aboard a trending story, known as newsjacking, is a tried-and-true way to gain attention on the cheap. Schnatter got attention all right, but paved the way for competitors to newsjack at his expense. Good reminder that newsjacking is a lot like chess. You have to think seven moves ahead, not just where to move your pawn.

Newsjackers need to prepare for blowback, a lot like confronting the school bully. If you aren’t up to fighting back, maybe you shouldn’t start the fight, even unintentionally.

DiGiorno newsjacked Papa John’s comment about declining sales to promote its own brand value, triggering a snarky exchange that DiGiorno seemed better prepared to wage than Papa John’s.Write here...

DiGiorno newsjacked Papa John’s comment about declining sales to promote its own brand value, triggering a snarky exchange that DiGiorno seemed better prepared to wage than Papa John’s.Write here...

DiGiorno has an online reputation for being chippy. When Papa John’s responded to DiGiorno by tweeting: "Frozen pizza = the pizza equivalent of a participation trophy," DiGiorno went for the throat, pointing out previous Papa John’s high-profile delivery gaffes and repeating claims it plagiarized DiGiorno.

One observer noted that if you lack the stomach for a “snarky social media” exchange, you should think twice about getting into one.

In this case, the problem started when Schnatter tied his personal views with his brand’s personality. Whining about a sales drop and blaming it on kneeling NFL players was a neon invitation for a social media bitch slap. Even when you are the official pizza of the NFL, complaining about fan drop-off is like serving jam to ants at a picnic. In addition to swipes by competitors, Papa John’s is fighting off a neo-Nazi website that declared it the official pizza pie of the alt-right.

If there were maxims on social media, one would be that there aren’t any rules. If you jump into the pool, you can’t complain about snakes in the water. Wrestling with reptiles may not be fun, but it can be healthy for a brand if you hold your own. DiGiorno has a chip on its brand shoulder and uses a combative online personality to fend off snark about frozen pizza. Schnatter knows his competitive circle and shouldn’t have been surprised by his rivals teeing off on him.

The bottom line is that newsjacking isn’t a spectator sport. Don’t bring a pizza cutter to a knife fight. If you have a thin crust, maybe you should stick with traditional advertising.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Rise and Fall of Power Posing

Amy Cuddy inspired with her power-pose promises to boost confidence and testosterone, but faltered when critics pointed out her research was flawed, serving as a cautionary tale about how to respond when your great idea turns into post-midnight pumpkin.

Amy Cuddy inspired with her power-pose promises to boost confidence and testosterone, but faltered when critics pointed out her research was flawed, serving as a cautionary tale about how to respond when your great idea turns into post-midnight pumpkin.

A 2010 study co-authored by social psychologist Amy Cuddy generated widespread enthusiasm for power posing to give speakers enhanced confidence and an actual metabolic lift. In the years to follow, efforts to replicate Cuddy’s research failed, her co-author distanced herself from the original findings and Cuddy has been subjected to harsh ridicule, especially on social media.

It is a cautionary tale about how an idea can go from godsend to garbage in the virtual blink of an eye, as well as the obligations of propagators of new ideas to talk candidly when the ideas don’t prove out.

The New York Times Magazine published a long article October 18 about Cuddy, her TED talk on power posing that popularized the technique and the acrimonious aftermath following searing criticism from fellow psychologists over her research methodology. The article is long, but well worth reading.

Cuddy became famous for asserting that power poses strengthened confidence and resulted in physiological changes by boosting testosterone levels and lowering stress-related cortisol levels. Many communications consultants, including CFM, added references to power posing into their training sessions. We urged speakers-in-training to amp up by making a “V” with their outstretched arms or plopping their feet on a desk. Trainees, even ones who seemed skeptical, avowed the technique boosted their confidence before speaking.

While “feelings of power” may result, subsequent research using larger samples and more rigorous evaluation didn’t confirm power poses produced any measurable physiological benefits. When critiques of power posing hit social media, Cuddy and her work were savaged. She became the poster child for shoddy science in social psychology.

Cuddy wasn’t alone in being criticized for her research techniques, but her high profile as a speaker and writer made her a convenient pin cushion for the criticism. How Cuddy responded – or, more precisely, didn’t respond – to the criticism is the lesson for others who have a great idea that turns into a post-midnight pumpkin.

When the criticism splashed onto social media, Cuddy mildly defended her research and findings, then more or less stopped talking about power posing. She continues to speak, has written a book and is working on a new one. Her career isn’t over, but she hasn’t cleaned up the messy picture in the background of power posing.

Admitting errors isn’t easy for anyone. In Cuddy’s case, she hasn’t admitted her conclusions were based on what has been shown to be faulty research. After a few power poses, she should.

Even if power poses don’t give speakers a testosterone rush, they do seem to bolster confidence before and during a speech – not a small thing for people with a deathly fear of speaking in front of a crowd. Owning up to this reality would clear the air and encourage speech coaches to keep recommending power poses for timorous speakers. (In our media training, we have and continue to pitch power poses as a confidence-builder, not a metabolic miracle.)

False or misleading claims, whether based on research or not, are common. Too many appear to be intentional. For those claims that are well-intentioned, but wind up with inadequate on inaccurate validation, setting the record straight is the way to go to preserve integrity – for a brand, an organization or an individual.

Power poses don’t harm anyone. They just aren’t the elixir Cuddy extolled. Many false or misleading claims can cause harm and the public should be informed. Whether or not there is any harm to users, failure to admit claims were false or misleading can cause lasting harm to a reputation. A reputation can withstand and even be enhanced by honest admissions, especially when expressed in the larger public interest.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Corporate Social Responsibility in the Public Interest

After loads of stories and lots of handwringing about opioid addiction, a major retail pharmacy chain is stepping up to restrict the size of opioid prescriptions to protect patients, spur public dialogue  and galvanize a broader response to a national epidemic.

After loads of stories and lots of handwringing about opioid addiction, a major retail pharmacy chain is stepping up to restrict the size of opioid prescriptions to protect patients, spur public dialogue  and galvanize a broader response to a national epidemic.

CVS has gone from battling tobacco use by youth to joining the fight against opioid addiction. In the process, it is providing a textbook example of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that is relevant, instructive and counter to its self-interest.

When CVS stopped selling cigarettes in 2014, it gave up a $2 billion per year business. Now the pharmacy chain will restrict the size of opioid prescriptions, which also could mean lost sales and profits. The restriction, which will go into effect February 1, will limit opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin to a seven-day supply. The average opioid pill supply prescribed by US doctors has climbed from 13 days in 2006 to 18 days in 2015.

Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy, says CVS tries to balance profit and purpose. The company’s CSR strategy is called “Prescription for a Better World” and focuses on “building healthier communities, protecting the planet and creating economic opportunities.”

What sets the company’s CSR program apart is its willingness to buck self-interest. No question, the decisions to stop selling tobacco products and restrict the size of opioid prescriptions are intended to build goodwill. But they are not happy-foot contributions to popular causes. They are actions intended to galvanize broader movements to address significant social challenges.

There have been a lot of stories about the woes created by opioid addiction and plenty of handwringing about what to do about it. The CVS decision is a tangible step to reduce the amount of pills in circulation, collect and dispose of unused pills and educate patients about the risks of the long-term use of opioids. It is the first national retail chain to restrict opioid prescriptions.

“We are strengthening our commitment to help providers and patients balance the need for these powerful medications with the risk of abuse and misuse,” says CVS Health President and CEO Larry J. Merlo. CVS claims to manage 90 million patient prescriptions through 9,700 retail pharmacies.

CSR activities are good business, but no often enough bad for business. CVS demonstrates a more compelling form of CSR by taking actions in the public interest, not its self-interest.

 

Seeing Business Opportunities in Marketplace Gaps

Would you be happy if someone came to your door with a warm, late-night cookie? A Portland couple thought so, which is why they created After Dark Cookies (and Bryce the cookieman) to fill a cookie-craving gap.

Would you be happy if someone came to your door with a warm, late-night cookie? A Portland couple thought so, which is why they created After Dark Cookies (and Bryce the cookieman) to fill a cookie-craving gap.

One of the best new business strategies is filling a gap – real or perceived.

Portlanders who develop a late-night craving for something sweet can now call After Dark Cookies to order made-from-scratch cookies delivered to their door. That beats slipping on jeans over your pajamas and driving to the nearest convenience store.

Drivers who want to make sure they get good insurance at the best price can go to EverQuote™ and compare prices and discounts online. This avoids hopping from one auto insurance company website to another and entering your information over and over again.

Some of the best gaps are often discovered by people frustrated by the service they receive – or wish they could receive. The founders of After Dark Cookies dreamed up their business idea by wishing they could have a warm cookie late at night. The EverQuote entrepreneurs took to heart complaints from motorists annoyed at the difficulty of comparison shopping for car insurance.

A useful trait in spotting gaps is listening to friends, associates and even strangers talk about day-to-day life irritations – what marketers call “pain points.” You need to probe beyond mere griping to explore the depth of the irritation and whether there is any service or product in the marketplace that addresses it. Once you nail down the nature and frequency of the irritation, you can research cures for their itch that can turn into businesses.

After Dark Cookies landed on a rather obvious solution – homemade cookies delivered to your doorstep. Other problems can be more challenging, so it might help to think about solutions and the problems they could solve. Drone technology is a great example. Building owners and contractors use drones to inspect skyscrapers. News organizations use them to capture on-the-scene footage, as they did dramatically in the hurricane surges in Texas and Florida. What else could drones do or do better than what’s available today? It’s a high-fying way to search for on-the-ground problems to solve.

Another gap-filling technique is to discover a bright new service or product that is available someplace else and then copy or franchise the idea for your local market. Creative copying fills a gap before the originator of the idea has the time and money to fill it.

Governmental actions create gaps. New regulations usually mean new compliance procedures. Many companies subject to the new regulations would welcome a streamlined way to comply without a lot of additional paperwork. Governmental opportunities also can create gaps. A Portland company markets its signature-gathering services to nonprofits that don’t have the manpower to collect 1,000 signatures to qualify for Oregon’s Charitable Checkoff Donations list.

Sometimes the gap is just the distance between two services that no one has thought to connect. Netflix went from mail delivery of your favorite films to live streaming them. Shopping malls have added solar arrays to generate electricity for electric vehicle recharging stations and to sell back to utilities.

Gap searching may not be as easy as laying on your couch yearning for a cookie, but it doesn’t require rocket research either (unless the gap you want to fill is in outer space). Don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel to become an entrepreneur. Just look for the gap between the wheel and the road.

Your next brilliant business idea may be right in front of your eyes – in what you don’t see on the market.

Mouth-Watering Marketing for All Seasons

Pappardelle’s pasta shop in Seattle tempts taste buds with recipes and visually appealing pictures of orzo and other fall dishes.

Pappardelle’s pasta shop in Seattle tempts taste buds with recipes and visually appealing pictures of orzo and other fall dishes.

Changing seasons offers a mouth-watering opportunity to tantalize customers with familiar favorites.

My wife and I love pasta and always make a point to stop at Pappardelle’s pasteria in Pike Place Market when we are in Seattle. We received our fall invitation to return with a visually tempting email from Pappardelle’s that featured stone-ground coarse mustard penne mixed with beer-braised brats. It made me want to lick my computer screen.

Seasonal favorites are a great way to remind customers, even loyal ones, that they should return for more. For food purveyors, it is a no-brainer. But almost any business can conjure up a seasonal connection.

CPAs, for example, can point to the calendar, noting there are only a few months left to identify and execute some tax planning to reduce the bite next spring.

Garden shops and hardware stores can predict the coming rains and encourage customers to fertilize the lawn one last time this year and check out the downspouts.

Auto dealers can invite customers to a wine tasting to look over the remaining crop of last year’s model cars, for sale at a discount.

Appeals can speak subtly by their color palettes, and even more demonstrably with good imagery. Pappardelle’s email led with a fetching image of fallen leaves on a green lawn with a backdrop of trees with orange and golden canopies. Message delivered. What’s for dinner?

Once you grab a viewer’s attention, you need to keep feeding their appetite. Pappardelle’s included a recipe for its penne brat concoction, noted the return of its savory blends of orzo and promoted its monthly winner of a 4-pack of olive oils and balsamic vinegars. There also was a link for a coupon to receive free shipping. Where do I click?

This kind of marketing is very much customer-centric. You could let customers know what you have for sale or what services you offer, but that might fall flat if customers just glanced on by. Summoning succulent memories with a captivating picture of your product draws in customers and extends the time they spend looking at what you offer. I immediately entered this month’s contest.

“We have our Autumn Harvest orzo, a beautiful savory blend of pumpkin, sage and chestnut,” tempted the Pappardelle’s email. “Make sure you get a pound or two for this October and November because it’s sure to perfectly compliment whatever meals you’ll be preparing this fall.”

Just as important, the email noted, “It’s only September, but don’t procrastinate or it will be next year before you know it and you will have forgotten all about the pasta you wanted to buy.” Make your marketing mouth-watering enough so customers don’t forget or procrastinate.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Turning Customer Feedback into a Labor Day Message

The CEO of Marriott International turned positive customer feedback into a Labor Day message to Congress.

The CEO of Marriott International turned positive customer feedback into a Labor Day message to Congress.

Customer feedback is a ready, often fulsome source of content. The CEO of Marriott International turned some positive feedback into a brand-embellishing blog that also delivered a powerful message on Labor Day.

Arne Sorenson reviews lots of customer feedback, much of it critical. “I’m fine with that,” he writes. “An important part of our culture is believing that success is never final, so we learn from customer feedback.” It turns out there also are lessons to learn from positive customer feedback.

Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International, turned a customer feedback email into a powerful message about immigration.

Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International, turned a customer feedback email into a powerful message about immigration.

When Sorenson opened one email, what he read was a heap of praise for one of his employees named Ismeta. He says the email wasn’t the first one he received praising Ismeta, who has worked at Marriott properties in the Chicago area.

The email said, “She truly is a lovely, lovely person with a rare quality for being able to connect with people in such a way that brings out the best in all of us and making you feel so welcome.” Sorenson said she was previously praised for “her cheerful attitude” and “demonstrating Marriott’s spirit to serve.” One fan suggested Marriott should feature Ismeta in a “training video on how to treat guests.”

Good stuff and a smart move by Sorenson to share customer kudos for Ismeta. But he did more.

“At a time when the debate in Washington is focused on building walls and reducing legal immigration, my thoughts turn to Ismeta,” Sorenson reflected. “Our economy and our society benefit from immigration done right.”

Ismeta left Bosnia almost 20 years ago after losing family members in a brutal war, Sorenson said. “Picking up the pieces, she made her way to Germany and then to Chicago.”

He continued, “Ismeta’s life is now an American story, an expression of this country’s ability provide opportunity to those willing to embrace it. She is making the experiences of our guests better, she is making Marriott better and she is making our country better. And I can’t think of better feedback than that.”

Sorenson sent his message to Washington, DC. “The conversation on immigration seems to be one of extremes,” he wrote. “We need to make sure our borders are secured as well as our airports, but we also must recognize that immigration is essential to numerous industries – including hospitality – and that so many immigrants are contributing to the greater good of our country, just as millions of immigrants have before them, my family and like yours included.”

Not bad for email with the subject line: Customer Feedback. Read your customer feedback and contemplate what it tells you, and what you can share about it with others. You may discover a surprising source of uplifting content.

The Not-So-Secret to Starbucks Addiction

Starbucks has cultivated a lot of loyal customers who find its coffee shops inviting, the service friendly and the branding subtle. They also appreciate the friction-free ways they can buy their morning cup of joe.

Starbucks has cultivated a lot of loyal customers who find its coffee shops inviting, the service friendly and the branding subtle. They also appreciate the friction-free ways they can buy their morning cup of joe.

I am addicted to Starbucks – and I don’t drink coffee. I’m not alone.

Starbucks does a lot of things right. Clean, inviting coffee shop atmospheres – usually equipped with electric plugs to charge laptops or smartphones. Constantly evolving menus of drinks and snacks (and here and there wine). Friendly baristas who wish you a good day even when you don’t tip.

Some of the smart stuff Starbucks does is subtle. Like coffee cup sleeves that deliver brand messages. The current sleeve touts Starbucks’ commitment to hire veterans and military spouses (“10,000 and counting”) and was designed by the daughter of a Navy SEAL. The previous sleeve contained short testimonials of Starbucks employees enrolled in company-paid online college classes offered by Arizona State University (my daughter is enrolled). The sleeves reflect major corporate commitments that align well with its consumer base.

However, Robbie Kellman Baxter, who wrote The Membership Economy, says the smartest thing Starbucks does is reduce the friction in buying a cup of coffee. The Starbucks loyalty program, she explains, is tied with ease of purchase.

“Unlike punch cards of old, Starbucks cards usually start as gift cards, which the member connects digitally to a personal account from the Starbucks website,” Baxter says. “The member can add money to the card, either electronically or at the register. Why is this important? Because it removes a layer of friction, in that members only need their Starbucks card and not two cards or a card plus cash.”

Starbucks has taken its loyalty program even deeper with an app that allows coffee consumers to pay with their smartphones instead of pulling out a physical card of fumbling with cash. The app also allows consumers in a hurry to place mobile orders, so they can bypass any line or the cash register to retrieve their drink.

An inviting atmosphere, non-intrusive branding and frictionless purchases account for why Starbucks remains so popular. What is hard to fathom is why more consumer-facing companies haven’t emulated some of the Starbucks savvy.

The Shane Company has gotten the message. Instead of repetitious ads that tout buying diamonds in Antwerp, the jewelry company has bedecked its exterior with signs that say, “What are you waiting for?” and “Ask her now.” The jeweler offers a comfortable, non-threatening sales floor. Customers are quickly greeted and hooked up with a sales person. You can get your ring cleaned and checked without a second thought. It invites customer to show off their rings on Shane’s Instagram and Twitter feeds.

Back to Starbucks, loyal customers invariably return, even though serious coffee drinkers think places like Stumptown serve better coffee, because it just feels right. The Starbucks secret to loyalty is not really a secret.

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Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

User-Generated Content Extends Your Marketing Bench

If the quest for fresh content for your content marketing efforts exhaust you, ask for help. You can ask for user-generated submissions you can share or for user participation in project partnerships that create new content.

If the quest for fresh content for your content marketing efforts exhaust you, ask for help. You can ask for user-generated submissions you can share or for user participation in project partnerships that create new content.

The constant quest for new content can exhaust brand managers. Sometimes the answer is to ask for help.

Here are two imaginative examples of how help in content creation can be found:

Making songs out of interviews

The manager of the Blind Boys of Alabama, a Grammy-winning singing group that made its debut album, 70 years ago, decided to look for new lyrics in the reflective words of the group’s founding members. He arranged for interviews of Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain, then sent transcripts of their interviews to some songwriters.

He got back 50 submissions, which became the foundation for the musical group’s latest album, Almost Home. One of the songs Carter performs on the album, Let My Mother Live, contains lyrics that were direct quotes from his interview – “Let my mother live ‘til I get grown.”

The inspiration for the interviews and the outreach to songwriters had a simple origin – Carter and Fountain had long, colorful lives. “The arc of their lives,” explained executive producer Charles Driebe, “mirrors the arc of some very important and sweeping changes in American and the American South.”

Driebe added, “They have a unique experience with those changes, and the things that they’ve lived through, which are very good fodder for songs.” The new album is proof. The songs are fresh, while the lyrics are authentic.

Hope Is Project

Sarah Takako Skinner, who goes by Takako, is a photographer who has made her mark with something called editorial portraiture. She seeks to blend emotional and artistic risk to produce pictures that expose risk, fear or passion. Takako’s work is visually challenging.

Now she is applying her photographic technique on a project to help people “photograph hope.” Takako arms subjects with a camera to capture pictures that express how they feel.

One project participant tracked his daily ups and downs of being transgender. After initial reticence, the man warmed up to a camera perpetually in hand and began capturing candid and revealing photographs, some pedestrian, others swirling with emotion.

“The Hope Is project is a project of change and impact focused on the discovery and harnessing of the power of hope – via an inspiring photographic process,” according to the project’s website. The ultimate goal is a “global conversation about hope” based on a “partnership between art and purpose.”

Both examples are imaginative forms of seeking user-generated content. You don’t have to produce an album or a multinational photo exhibit to recognize the value of asking for help to power up your content.

The ask could be as simple as inviting customers to suggest brand-related topics they would like to learn more about, share their experience with a brand or tell a personal story that connects with the brand.

Our firm proposed and helped stage Mac and Cheese contests that invited Tillamook Cheese consumers to show off their cheesy creations. Well known chefs judged the entries. The contest created buzz and provided grist and human-interest stories for earned media and social media that centered on the Tillamook brand.

Jimmy Fallon asks his followers to provide tweet-sized stories in response to weekly “hashtags” such as #MomQuotes, #HowIGotFired and #MyFamilyIsWeird. The submissions Fallon airs are hilarious, with strange stories even deranged comedy writers couldn’t come up with. Many of the tweets are posted on Fallon’s website.

Another approach is to invite others to partner with you on a project, much like in the two examples. Writing music to go with the words of singers or shooting photographs that express personal emotions are content creations in their own right.

When asking for user contributions or partners, make sure to go all-out in publicizing your request. Asking for user-generated content is part of the new wave of content you get when you ask for help.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Effective Teams and Collective Intelligence

Effective teams require more than brainpower. They need emotional intelligence and collective intelligence that allows each team member feel safe to express thoughts and ideas, even if they are disruptive – and perhaps because they are disruptive.

Effective teams require more than brainpower. They need emotional intelligence and collective intelligence that allows each team member feel safe to express thoughts and ideas, even if they are disruptive – and perhaps because they are disruptive.

Working in teams is a new norm in business, but all teams aren’t created equal. Google has conducted research to find out what makes the best teams click. One of the attributes is a bit surprising.

Google has identified five forms of collective intelligence that enhance team success. The most important, Google says, is providing a safe-zone for team members to say what’s on their mind and share ideas.

Google has identified five forms of collective intelligence that enhance team success. The most important, Google says, is providing a safe-zone for team members to say what’s on their mind and share ideas.

Project Aristotle was started by Google to study the effectiveness of teams. The research found two key characteristics – everyone contributes to the conversation and team members have an above-average ability to read other people’s emotions.

If emotional intelligence is a key factor in determining team success, how do you go about forming effective teams? The first instinct is to bring in the brightest lights in the categories relevant to the team’s work. You can ask everyone to bone up on emotional intelligence – and get some mentoring if they are deficient.

But Google kept digging and discovered other factors are important to team success. Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, realized that smarts and emotional intelligence weren’t enough to ensure success. How the team functioned and group norms were critical factors – “traditions, behavioral standards
and unwritten rules.” You might call it the collective intelligence of the team.

As Rozovsky told Inc., the five top factors include:

  1. Dependability – team members fulfilling assignments on time and meeting expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity – teams have clear goals and team members well-defined roles.
  3. Meaning – work holds personal significance to team members.
  4. Impact – team members buy into the team’s purpose and foresee positive impacts.
  5. Psychological safety – security to say what you think and take risks.

The last factor is the most interesting, and evidently the most significant factor, because taking risks can mean disrupting a team. But Google’s research found creating a judgment-free zone at team meetings unleashed ideas and opinions that otherwise might not have been expressed, enhancing chances of overall team success.

The finding reinforces the old saying, “Two heads are better than one,” but takes it a step further by underlining the importance of respecting all the brains in a room.