As another holiday season appears in the rearview mirror and companies begin thinking about their marketing, messaging and branding strategies for 2022, I'm hopeful that a visit to 34th Street inspired a few people. The original 1947 film is always on my watch list during the season, but there are three important lessons brands can remember throughout the year.
Lesson 1: Customer Loyalty Was Earned Without a Sale
When kids shared what they wanted for Christmas, Santa was supposed to tell the parents how they could buy specific toys at Macy's. When Santa meets Peter, he tells Santa he wants a fire engine for Christmas, not just any toy fire engine - A fire truck like the big ones only smaller, with a real hose that squirts real water.
His mother tries to tell Santa it's impossible to get because nobody has them. So, when Peter is told he'll get one for Christmas, she's not too happy about it. When Santa tells her she can find those fire engines at Schoenfeld's on Lexington, that all changes.
The head of the toy department hears Santa tell her and others where they can buy toys - outside of Macy's.
Did they hire a Bad Santa?
Did they lose a chunk of revenue as Santa helped parents find the right store and price?
Indeed this madness had to stop, right?
That is until Peter's mom said putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of the commercial was wonderful, and she would now be a regular Macy's customer.
That was an even bigger shock to the manager, but should it have been?
If you took this quote and replaced "kids" with "customer," would you say that's your brand's philosophy? If so, what Santa did was completely logical.
The toy manager thought the only way for Santa to earn revenue and loyalty was to tell them what to buy. It's instant gratification - like knowing what's in a wrapped package before opening it.
Macy's didn't get an instant buy that day, but the purchases Peter's Mom will make as a loyal customer will more than make up for it.
Much of today's marketing and advertising continues to be rooted in a desperate attempt to get that instant gratification despite research that shows consumers don't want sales pitches and don't want to be told to buy on social media.
Lesson 2: The Customer Did Not Expect the Brand to Care
Peter's mom assumed (and rightfully so) that any employee or representative of Macy's would care about their own interests (in this case - sales) over the customer's needs. Remember, for Mr. Kringle to be a "good Santa," he was instructed to suggest overstocked toys to kids.
There is plenty of skepticism about the motivations of brands today. The difference is that in 2021, customers are in a much better position to demand companies act more like Santa and less like the toy manager.
What will you do in 2022 to communicate to customers that you have their best interests at heart?
Lesson 3: The Competition Took Notice
In his book, They Ask, You Answer, Marcus Sheridan talks about how CarMax shook up the car buying industry by saying they would differentiate themselves by addressing the typical customer's complaints about going to the dealership.
The car dealers didn't take them seriously. They knew they were the big dogs that had been around for years.
When people want a car - they go to them.
In their minds, nobody was going to change that - until they did. They changed the rules, and car dealers had to adjust.
Macy's nor Gimbel's would have come up with a holiday shopper strategy without Santa's customer-focused heart because they would assume it would hurt them (a company-focused mindset). However, once Macy's did something new, Gimbel's took notice and had to change their thinking (or hearts).
However, if you're a consumer, how does that look to you?
You have two brands with a lot in common in their industry - including their business, marketing and public relations strategy.
One brand does something TOTALLY DIFFERENT and blows the minds of customers. Suddenly, everyone's talking about it, and it's a game-changer for their company.
Then the other brand suddenly makes a significant effort to say, "Hey! US TOO! We believe in that too!"
Would you still be attached (maybe even more loyal) to the company that did it first?
It's not uncommon for competing brands to watch each other and do what the other one does - especially in marketing, branding and public relations.
The only differentiator is each brand is trying to tell customers that:
What good does that do?
As digital marketing consultant Mark Schaefer will tell you - If you're #2 in your industry, you can't be doing things the way #1 does things.
How will you differentiate yourself from your competition?
Bonus Lesson: Santa is Real
So be good to your prospects and customers.
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When I was a single guy, I remember hearing that women would often judge men based on their relationship with their mothers. This approach included considerations on how they talk about and communicate with their moms. The idea is that they could potentially get a good feel for how someone would treat another woman in a relationship.
Can a similar principle apply to how a company communicates with (or even treats) its audience?
Similarly, how you talk about customers within your own company could impact how that same organization communicates with them publicly.
If someone asked you how people within your company talk about customers or prospects, what would be a fair assessment?
The Gullible View of Audience
Several years ago, a company hired me to help them develop some new copywriting ideas. When I was hired, I was invited to the office to learn more about the business and its messaging challenges.
When they were showing me around, they pointed out the copywriting team.
That threw me off a bit.
“If you have a team of copywriters, what made your hire someone like me?” I asked.
The response was, “We just need some fresh ideas.”
The company offered free online access to a service and wanted customers to pay for additional services via a monthly subscription. They sought to increase paid opt-ins and keep customers on their subscription plans.
Recently, many people would get what they wanted and opt out.
Then I found out what needed “fresh” ideas.
After people filled out the form for the free service, they were asked for credit card information.
I sat in on a meeting where an entire creative team discussed how a new website with photos of friendly-looking people would make users more comfortable with the last-minute credit card request.
Because the website looked nice and the photos looked like credible people - duh!
I was stunned by this.
It reminded me of My Cousin Vinny when Vinny asked his fiancé what pants he should wear to go deer hunting. She asked him if he was a deer, and some guy showed up and blew him away – would he care about what kind of pants the shooter was wearing?
I asked a similar question in the meeting.
“If any of you were told you’re getting something free, and you filled out a form to get the free service…but you were then asked for credit card information…would you really care how nice people looked on the website?”
As Ralphie Parker once said – They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.
This company viewed its audience as gullible people, and their external communications proved it.
The Explain Everything View
I’ve attended trade shows and seen vendors with backdrops that are so loaded with information that the text extends from top to bottom. Many people wouldn’t stop to read it all, and those who did would stop and confusingly ask, “What do you all do?”
Having the internal belief that your customers and prospects need everything explained can put strains on your business. These days, customers know their problems and understand what they want out of a solution.
Too much explaining on a website, email or other materials can:
A Mutually Beneficial View
Dr. James E. Grunig (public relations theorist and Professor Emeritus, Communication at the University of Maryland) developed the "excellence theory" in public relations. The development of this concept was pretty wide-ranging, to say the least:
Excellence theory takes what’s known as a symmetrical two-way communication approach. Now, what does that mean, and how can it apply to culture, communication and audience?
Let’s first look at other examples of communication and see how they could be applied to examples already discussed.
One-way communication – Think of this as an approach that an agent or publicist might take. The communication is focused on one side. Messaging will always be constructed or spun in ways that make the best possible impression on the audience for the subject's benefit.
Two-way communication – This is about considering the audience in the messaging. However, if it's asymmetrical, the benefit is still focused on the messenger because there is a layer of “scientific persuasion” used in communicating with the audience. In other words, they may listen to what the audience has to say about something, but the result will still be to persuade them for the sender’s benefit.
A two-way symmetrical approach like excellence theory is focused more on mutual benefits for the sender and the audience.
Applying a Communication Culture of Excellence
One of the big mistakes marketers make in their strategies is they think like marketers (and not consumers). Grunig believes public relations has to be more than just external marketing and PR communications by:
A key takeaway: If organizations already have a genuine interest in communicating in a mutually beneficial way, that can translate well into how that same company communicates and views its audience.
This approach can work for everything from businesses to academic institutions.
Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), a 1,200-employee industry-funded company, wanted to convey not only environmental responsibility, but also a high standard of ethics and integrity in their public reputation.
In a 2016 evaluation of the effectiveness of excellence theory within the organization, AER achieved one of its highest scores in ethics and integrity. Public Affairs contributed to the organization's success (and public opinion) through communication and professionalism messaging and response.
A 2019 study focused on web, social and internal communications of universities around the world. It concluded that "Research on public relations activities at public universities in the era of public information disclosure has found that public relations activities have well supported public services in accordance with the principles of good governance."
Excellent communication doesn’t have to be academic. While excellence theory provides a good example of the advantages of a consistent internal and external communication approach, do we need to study to understand why that makes sense?
If a company culture has internal communication challenges, is it tough to see how that could impact how the organization communicates externally?
If a company culture is primarily focused on how great they are and how the world needs to listen to them, do you think that could create challenges in how it creates external communications?
If marketing strategies are rooted in ways to overexplain, trick or lecture their audience, what does that say about a culture’s view of their most valuable assets?
Finally, if a company culture believes there is mutual benefit to be gained with the public (gaining insights, providing value, building relationships, being transparent, etc.), how can that hurt the organization?
If my mom asked me what type of communication I believe in, I wouldn't want to throw out terms like two-way symmetrical communication, but I'm sure she would be pleased to hear "mutually beneficial."
My wife (who is also in marketing) would be pleased as well.
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What makes a good relationship between marketer and their target audience has changed. This has been true for several years, but many marketers have been unable to adapt.
Two ways marketers can ruin a relationship with their target audience are:
1. They approach conversations with a "sell first" attitude
2. They cling to outdated marketing strategies
As Judy Ungar Franks, author and clinical assistant professor in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University, says - when you apply old-school media thinking to a new media world...nothing happens!
What changed in the relationship?
In simplest terms, the catalyst of change in the relationship between marketer and audience is the internet. Trends in social media posts, influencer blogs, customer reviews and instant communications gave the consumer more control in the relationship. Marketers had a lot more power when the relationship was more linear. Back then, they made sales pitches to captive audiences through TV, newspaper or radio.
Then, the world of media and communication began to change.
Suddenly, people could skip commercials and turn to the internet for entertainment. So, marketers followed them and tried to communicate the same way they would on traditional broadcast media.
They found out the results were not the same:
As Dr. Franks points out in her book, Media: From Chaos to Clarity: Five Global Truths That Make Sense of a Messy Media World:
Old school marketing was about four Ps: Product, place, price and promotion
There was certainty in every medium, limited selection and media was product
Now it's about the four Cs of social: Content, connecting, community and curating
Media are strikingly similar (it's all on screen)
Today, people flock to all kinds of media for a comprehensive, engaging experience, and consumers are the distributors and accelerants of the marketer's content.
What Do Consumers Want in a Realtionship?
If the "sell" or "pitch" is the end goal, you can't spend all your time focused on that part of the conversation.
Recognizing the change in the relationship is only half the problem. The second half deals with a crowded room of people trying to woo the same consumer. If everyone is talking the same way, it's harder for brands to make their case.
One of the best ways to optimize communication in a personal relationship is remembering to put yourself in the other person's shoes. This relationship is no different. You have to think like a marketer and a consumer.
When marketers are not thinking like marketers, they can find similarities in how both parties respond to online content.
Think about that. When you're not at work (or wherever you spend time on marketing strategy), how do you answer those questions?
Remembering your consumer habits can help you develop better marketer habits. At that point, your focus goes deeper than just selling to the other person and puts the relationship on a better path.
Whether it's Terminator 2 or the AMC series Humans, people have always had that worry in the back of their mind about "the machines" taking over. My question is - why don't we have the same concern in marketing?
After all, you can do something about it before it can start to damage your business. Before you get visuals of your office computers growing legs and saying, "Must destroy the company - resistance is futile," let me explain what I mean.
We've seen this story before
Whether it's Humans or Westworld, the story always starts the same - we develop robots to make our lives easier, and then everything goes to crap. In the realm of social media or content marketing, we're seeing an overreliance on making things easier through automation and analytics while forgetting to be human.
Unlike the apocalyptical machine stories, I'm not suggesting it's something you shouldn't be doing in the first place. However, like a recent Forbes article pointed out - automation still has to have a human touch. This is especially true on social media, especially since it's called social media.
You'll find plenty of brands of all sizes that are doing nothing but automating the content on their feed. They'll post content all of the time, hoping that it will gain them the benefit of your engagement, and that's where the effort ends. You never see them start a conversation, or start one with wanting all the replies to come from you, but they don't feel they have to add anything more.
This is actually a pet peeve of mine. I've been known to unfollow social media feeds that feature easy automation but not human interaction. It tells me they don't care that much about my involvement in their online presence. On the brand side, lack of a human element can cost you engagements, shares, reputation and advocacy.
Unfortunately, I also see an overreliance on automation and a lack of human effort from many content marketing and social thought leaders. To me, promoting yourself as a thought leader in social media and then never engaging with people on a platform is like an ad agency touting their social media strategy tutelage while showcasing terrible following numbers on their platforms.
Robots make mistakes that hurt you more than them
If you've spent quality time on social media over the last few years, you've probably witnessed or experience an automated response fail. For example, there was the time Dominos apologized for a customer's great pizza. I've also seen automation offer a positive response to a post about a negative experience or situation. In this case, the "machine" isn't intelligent enough to respond, but people definitely know the difference.
Another example of an automation challenge that does more harm than good is utilizing a powerful social listening software that doesn't have the right data incorporated into its processes. For example, if Chevrolet told its social listening engine to track people talking about "Chevrolet," they would overlook the audience that refers to them online as "Chevy" or "bowtie."
View your humanity as an advantage
Bots and automation aren't the only things that provide a critical pros/cons dynamic to your marketing efforts. Humans are also capable of taking data, analytics and code and jumping to the wrong conclusions:
Andrew makes the same point - Could you pitch an idea featuring someone riding a skateboard on an actual highway with one hand guzzling a branded drink and lip-syncing? If your automatic response is no, you may have some good reasons why:
It doesn't directly sell the product (where's the CTA)?
It doesn't fit the brand (but what brand would this fit)?
Then again, you would've never tested it and seen the amazing results. In Ocean's Spray's case- skyrocketing sales and doublimg their stock. Some people think it's nothing more than one of those lucky viral video stories. Mark Schaefer says it's a prime example of the power of creating "human" commercials.
"The video is real, raw, human, and vulnerable. Generally speaking, everything ads are not," he said.
If I was new to the planet and asked you how humans feel about the car buying experience, what would you tell them? I assume you wouldn't describe it the same way you would a Caribbean cruise. However, there are too many people that don't mind infusing the annoyances of car buying to their LinkedIn marketing strategy.
When you walk onto a car lot, you know you're going to have someone approach you and talk to you about buying a car, but why is that so bad? Marcus Sheridan points out:
"Imagine you walk onto a car dealership lot and a salesman comes striding out. Do you expect that salesman to have your best interests at heart, or are you anticipating the whole 'Have I got the perfect car for you' routine?"
In other words, you feel like the conversation is going to be driven (no pun intended) by what benefits them - not you.
How are people getting a similar experience on LinkedIn? You can find plenty of promotion-filled sales lots filled with robotic salespeople communicating through canned and repeatable rhetoric.
There are Lots of Waving Tube Men
Many LinkedIn profiles are full of brands talking about themselves and their perfect things for the audience. Their pages are the equivalent of having a bunch of wacky waving inflatable arm men in a used car lot, and both are about equally as effective in inspiring someone to buy.
You'll notice that when LinkedIn announces their best page announcement winners, it's all about the ways brands are providing value and building trust. For example:
The Staff Follows a Script
Poor Bert Healy. He just wanted his script to sound like a natural conversation, but it's more than evident that Mr. Warbucks is reading a prepared set of sentences. It didn't help matters when Warbucks closed with, "Did I just do a commercial?"
However, Bert had a good excuse. It was the 1930s, radio was big, and he had a captive audience. Yet today, people are willing to follow a similar formula using LinkedIn messages, and it's not as funny as this scene. In fact, it's annoying, lazy, unprofessional and sad.
Like a stereotypical used car salesman, they may greet you in a way that seems like it's an attempt to get to know you, but once you respond, it's all about their benefit.
It starts with a disingenuous connection request
Disingenuous reasons for wanting to connect generally include an interest in "expanding a personal network and wanting to connect with like-minded people." Or the more amusing invitations to connect are the ones where they tell you upfront that they think you're stupid.
For example, they tell you your recent "great blog or post" that "showed up on their feed," drew them to you. Granted, they aren't going to tell you specifically which post it is because this is a cut and paste script that goes to several people. It's the car lot greeting before things go into sales mode. Once you connect, you'll get more cut and paste messages that signal no real interest in connection, conversation, value or trust.
Because it's not about you. If it was, things would sound a lot less scripted and the conversation could be very different. As Marcus said in his blog, your content (or communication) could say:
“Why HubSpot is right for you.”
“Is HubSpot the right fit for you?”
One shows bias, one does not.
Creating value, starting a conversation or building trust means avoiding what Chris Brogan would call treating people like purses and wallets. One of the simplest pieces of advice I've ever gotten about social media marketing is - You have to give to get.
Prove them wrong. It will benefit you both.