Lately, the economic climate is beginning to feel a bit unsatisfactory. We’ve lived through and survived economic downturns before if that’s what this is. Marketing in a downturn is never fun. Budgets get cut and tougher questions get asked. Inadequate answers abound. Suddenly, the marketing wunderkind down the hall has lost the hop in her step.
Solid advertising works, even in a downturn, because it’s built on solid fundamentals, not on style alone. Real practitioners know the difference between insight driven creativity and the sugared-up confections of transactional engagement.
If yours is the only budget getting cut, the first to go, it’s a sure sign that your management has no idea or faith in success of your advertising and marketing. Real success is measurable and the time to start asking the hard questions is when the sun is still shining.
Patience and Fortitude in tough times.
During the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named the lions that sit astride the entrance to the NY Public Library, Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.
Patience and fortitude are two qualities that should be cultivated in every discussion of advertising and marketing. True brand growth takes time and a steady, unwavering commitment to the brand idea. It’s been my experience during tough economic times that not only do budgets get cut, but clients will begin to chase sales through tactics that do not align with the brand. This erodes the brand idea and results in the pursuit of ever more transactional tactics to boost sales.
It’s a race to the bottom.
The most important context of user experience design is consumer mindset.
Before we start pushing pixels around, we should be working hard to understand consumer wants and needs. Gathering insights into their emotional desires is critical to creating an experience, throughout the entire customer journey, that in both subtle and direct ways will reinforce your brand’s ability to help fulfill their desire.
These learnings can inform all design in both form and content to help deliver effective consumer engagement.
Once prototypes are developed, conducting user experience research, including eye tracking, allow refinements to be made that work to optimize the user experience right down to the micro interaction level.
Creators need to find the right balance between being engaging-entertaining while also being honest about the fact that the entire purpose is to facilitate the customers acquisition of the product or service.
User experience can also be thought of as utility.
The utility of the user experience, as a lens through which to view the entire customer journey, offers designers the opportunity to apply their talents to enhance the performance of the entire team.
Understanding and tracking the entire customer journey is essential to a successful engagement. The fractured media environment today demands simple brand ideas that are delivered simply and always in context of consumer desires. When user experience design diverges from the brand idea, it is no longer doing its job well. There are often opportunities to chase trends and implement ideas, methods, and tactics that may create a short-term boost in sales, but at the same time are weakening the brand.
In the long run, a great, well-executed, brand idea will outperform clever transactional tactics. It takes a strong idea and the willpower to resist the temptation of short-term thinking to build a strong and enduring brand.
To connect the dots, the customer experience journey is an obligation to the brand idea and strong brands are anchored in the mindset of consumer desire.
While in New York City, I took the opportunity to visit some old haunts. I hadn’t had the chance to step inside the renovated Hotel Chelsea, so off we went. I’m not claiming I was a denizen of this much celebrated bastion of creativity in residence. I wasn’t. In the late 70’s as an art student in NY, it was one of those places we’d occasionally end up. A very real New York experience. The Chelsea remains a place for creativity, in fact, while my wife and I were visiting, as if on cue, a small film crew was packing up.
The renovation is spectacular in its thoughtfulness and restraint. Honoring its past and fully embracing its future, a ready canvas for new stories. It’s spot-on-brand and reveals its treasures to the curious. See it for yourself if you can. It’s a powerful example of brand stewardship. As an experience brand, pictures alone will do not do it justice. The warm inviting tones of the piano room, for instance, are enough to make you want to book a room, a shoot, an event, dinner at El Quijote or all four. Experience brands grow through word of mouth and the shared positive experience of its users. Here you have it. The piano room inspired this curious portrait of my better half.
By stark contrast, a short distance away is Hudson Yards, a modern spectacle. Cathedrals of glass that skyrocket while playing with light. Monuments to the moment, bold statements of power and daring and, I’ll add, a bit cold. It’s a different city. It could be anywhere in the modern world. It’s difficult to imagine it will gain the legend and lovely patina of the Chelsea.
The Chelsea remains a testament to itself, the perseverance and resurrection at the hands of its new owners deserves a round of applause. The Hotel Chelsea is part of the fabric of old New York. The richness of its character perhaps never more appreciable than after a day of wandering this ever-changing city, to stand at its lovely bar drinking in its history.
One of the challenges that comes with the democratization of camera technology is that anyone who can afford a video camera or smart phone can consider themselves filmmakers. “Do it yourself” starts to feel like an obligation because it seems so achievable.
Running around swinging a camera, pointing-it here, there, and everywhere without the benefit of intentional lighting is a disease of the digital age.
Just because one can record an image does not automatically make it good. What is good? Good is an image in service of a relevant story. Good is an image crafted to evoke the appropriate intention and mood of the scene. Good is a frame, designed to create the visual tension necessary to hold the gaze of the audience, to keep them in the story.
Modern cameras and lenses have incredible capability to capture images in low light, some can practically see in the dark, but this does not forgive the need to understand how to light a scene. It is not simply about achieving exposure.
Even without a proper light kit, the ability to utilize sunlight and practical sources in conjunction with modern camera technology will deliver impressive results. It just takes some knowledge of the principles and the forethought to put them to work.
Great production is made with great preparation.
There are countless on-line tutorials, so there are few excuses other than time and the will to do better. For many businesses who do not prioritize their content, the task often falls to younger staff that do not automatically show up with the full range of required skills. Taking this on internally seems efficient but it is anything but.
The perceived need to keep up a steady stream of content takes precedent over quality. This is a significant misjudgment. The damage inflicted on a brand that churns out subpar content is like repeated exposure to radiation, you may not feel the effects right away, but eventually, it is going to kill you.
The opportunity cost is real and often realized too late.
Investing in quality content is not money wasted, it is an investment in the future of your business. Make your work stand out by making it better. Do not let it stand out because of its shoddy workmanship.
There was a time when almost all media was inclusive. The old analogue days of 13 TV Channels, rooftop antennae, a handful of news programing and perhaps a few dozen major newspapers and magazines. There were some specialized publications, and radio stations were somewhat local, but they were the exceptions. Media was broadly casted by a limited number of producers, reaching millions of people.
Today almost all media is exclusive. Everyone is a specialist, if not due to content, then due to targeting. Even the national and international outlets cater to regional influence, and why not? Effective targeting is also about giving your audience what they want. Or what they think they want. Or what you think they want. Or what the AI predictive models think they want. It’s enough to make us toss our hands into the air and just default to something that feels safe for our brand. Something with hopefully broad appeal that we can run anywhere, hoping our audience will self-identify.
Our segmentation modeling is so divided, it’s become segmentation meddling. Exclusivity in media is a problematic reality if we stick to outdated norms of thinking. Let’s put aside the fact that it has created a platform for every nutjob with a computer and look at what it means for brands. A world of distractions in a distracted world.
Across the paid, owned and earned media landscape, there is now endless fractionalization of your audience which diminishes the reach of your brand. Not because the media is not reaching the target, but because the targets are polarized by the fragmentation.
This polarization is a buzzkill for what might otherwise be a campaign that would jump the chasm into popular culture.
What is popular culture when culture is now unpopular?
Cultural fragmentation may not impact too negatively on major legacy brands, assuming they stay out of harms way. But for newer, smaller brands, success means obsessively focusing on a minimal viable audience. Connecting with this audience and delivering real value to these customers will motivate them as culture ambassadors for your brand. These ambassadors will help the brand bridge to additional culture communities as they share their experience.
Bridging is the major action of digital media. It amplifies the power of word-of-mouth, of shared positive brand experience and helps drive brand growth.
Specificity should be a core part of your strategic and creative development. Create for one specific group of potential customers and build from the core.
In truth, this thinking is nothing new. Perhaps it’s been forgotten. Some brands have not forgotten. Patagonia is one example of a brand that has always been entirely specific in its audience goals and campaign platform. It puts its values of honoring and protecting nature into all it does and communicates. Its current market value is $3 Billion and recently the founder, Yvon Chouinard determined to give it all away to help save our planet.
Patagonia’s specificity of purpose, planning, action, and communication recently arrived in my mailbox in the form of a Patagonia publication, a magazine celebrating people and nature. This is no catalogue of merchandise but a catalog of beliefs and values, and it’s printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. It’s a home run in my opinion. I’m a nature fan boy and have, over the years, purchased Patagonia clothing. I still have most of it. It wears like iron. Built to last, not to be discarded. The user experience of the product aligns completely with the mission and values of the company.
This alignment includes Patagonia’s use of media: specific, focused, and effective. You may point out that they use the mail channel to reach me. Why not? It’s a great tactic when used correctly. The publication has value, will be passed on and then recycled. But there is a bit more to it. Within the pub, there are URL’s that lead us deeper into the stories. This publication is a well-integrated driver of brand engagement.
Exclusive media means exclusive opportunities to Head For The Heart.
Saratoga Springs NY; A vibrant cultural scene and a main street so nice that it was emulated by Disney as one of its resorts; Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa.
Disney avoided one part that’s impossible to miss. They left out the trucks. They skipped over the volcanic 18 wheelers that rattle Broadway.
The sound of trucks on Broadway becomes so deafening that it’s impossible to hear a person sitting directly across from you while alfresco dining. It’s a steady and reliable disruption often punctuated by other loud machines. Early in the season, I witnessed a concrete saw being fired up just a few feet from diners on Broadway.
As a popular destination for summer guests the world over, Saratoga Springs is a wonderful destination brand. A tourism-based economy, the envy of many.
Broadway or Route 9, as it’s also known, is a NYS truck route, so if you’re a trucker, you’re simply doing your job. My grandfather drove a truck and I harbor no ill will. We need our trucks and our truckers. That said, the disruption is a problem. Just ask anyone on Broadway, if they can hear you.
The noise pollution caused by loud machines, is at odds with the image Saratoga Springs projects to the world. It’s no fun for guests to be sitting outside trying to enjoy this beautiful town with the deafening roar. Disney skipped this part for a reason.
As a community, we go to great lengths to welcome our guests. Sports, art and music on the streets, flowers, museums, the wonders of SPAC, shuttle service…you name it. We spare no expense to curate the Saratoga brand experience. We stopped short of dealing with trucks. The noise does not support a positive brand experience for our guests.
According to the National Academies, the average decibel of a tractor trailer is 88 dBA at speeds less than 35 MPH, higher at highway speeds. Not surprisingly, the EPA, suggests this is an acceptable level. Now, exactly how loud is the noise on Broadway? How loud is a concrete saw? A leaf blower? A barely muffled motorcycle? A truck? How about all at once?
The increase in trucking is being felt all over the country and Saratoga Springs is not alone. A solution being considered in other locales is to limit center city access to smaller, quieter, more nimble box trucks. How about a fleet of electric box trucks? More jobs for more truckers. As for the 18 wheelers that are simply passing through; the Northway is also a truck route.
Managing any brand is hard work. Experience brands, such as Saratoga Springs, are different from other brands. Experience brands thrive through word of mouth and the positive shared experience of users. We must stop turning a deaf ear to the challenge. As a community of brand stewards, we should not take the noise tolerance of our guests for granted. Saratoga can do better in the curation of the downtown experience.
The sustainability of Saratoga Springs as a popular destination brand is not a guarantee, it’s an obligation.
When I put the camera on my shoulder and the brief is in my head, I’m looking for the truth. The deeper story, the stuff beyond mere words and pictures, the stuff that reaches the heart. Truth in performance; the essence of the idea to be communicated. The process starts again in editing, to polish the delivery of the idea, the emotion.
The brief is the framework, it establishes the context of creation. It impacts everything downstream; concept development, script, directing, photography, casting, location, tonality, mood, lighting, the entire production design…the works.
The brief is the springboard for ideas to take flight. A great brief is also anchored in the truth of the brand. The brief is a contract with the creative. The brief is also a contract with the truth. Not “truthiness.” The truth.
Occasionally, attempts are made to exploit “truthiness.” Savvy marketers know that great ideas communicate beyond the execution. They know the right ideas generate emotions that cannot be measured through any single ingredient that goes into execution. Truthiness can be tempting.
You can imagine the dismay when the client says, “The idea will not work because we cannot actually communicate that.” Discussion ensues.
It’s a mistake for anyone to use the brief as an opportunity to manipulate the creative work to communicate something that’s not entirely true. Creativity is a powerful tool and can certainly be made to imply things that are not the truth. Clever creative work, not anchored in truth, may achieve a temporary spike in sales but it’s a short money game. Disappointed customers, misled by “truthiness” will flee. Nothing sticks to a brand like the voices of unhappy customers. Truthiness does not build better brands.
Try making a better product.
Brands such as Spectrum are, for all intents and purposes, monopolies. Their monopolistic stature affords them the illusion that they do not need to be the best in total quality.
I finally cut the cable cord and will just go forward with Spectrum internet service. The value proposition of cable TV evaporated long ago. I’m old enough to remember the promise that cable TV would be ad free with great quality programming, and it was… for a brief time. Advertising on Netflix? Stay tuned.
Dealing with Spectrum requires dogged determination. I called and spoke to an account representative and reduced my service to internet only. I could have likely completed this on the website, but it was not entirely clear to me how to accomplish the task. The phone seemed the only option. Now I know why. The call involved nearly 40 minutes in various stages of hold patterns and over 30 minutes of actual conversation. Finally, my cable service was gone, leaving internet only and netting me nearly $100 a month in my pocket. The agent instructed me to simply unplug the DVR and return it to a Spectrum store. There’s one nearby and I could just drop it off.
So, I went to “just drop it off.” I was not advised that I should call the store and make an appointment. I was number 12 in line and most people did not have an appointment. Twenty minutes later I was still number 12. At approximately 40 minutes, somehow, I had dropped down to number 13. I was listening to a podcast and the episode, at 43 minutes in length, seemed like it should get me to the service desk. No so.
The staff are exceedingly nice. Well trained to keep smiling, try to solve problems and sell, sell, sell. Most of my conversation on the phone was about various ways to lower my bill and keep me as a cable customer. When I finally reached the bottom of the sales ladder and I remained uninterested, the agent jumped to offering mobile service. At the Spectrum store, I was not getting out of there without the same mobile pitch.
As nice as the people truly are, the user experience stinks. I’m certain I would have been at the store much longer than 1 hour and 45 minutes were it not for the fact that a great number of the people (appointments or not) simply gave up and left. Customer retention through attrition.
Customer experience design is brand engagement. All the shiny, happy service agents in the world will not make up for a poorly designed brand experience. Why would I buy mobile service from a brand that demonstrates such little regard for my time?
A brand is more than a name or logo, a brand is an exchange in value.
Naming is one of the most important things you can do for your brand. A great name is memorable, easy to say, relatively short, and helps to position your brand in the hearts and minds of the consumer. A descriptive name can also evoke the brand promise. In other words, what problem does the brand solve in the lives of the consumer.
The Fresh Market is a great brand name. It checks all the boxes, and the instore experience largely lives up to the suggested promise.
What happens when the strawberries are moldy? The promise is broken. As a consumer who do I blame, the producer or the purveyor?
The strawberries certainly looked good in the store. Red, ripe, and juicy. Turns out this was just the top layer of berries. Almost every other berry in the box were moldy. Do the berries on the bottom always mold up faster than the ones on the top? Were the moldy ones intentionally placed lower down in the container?
As a consumer my choices are limited. Drive back to the store and demand a refund or toss them in the garbage, which is ultimately what I did. It’s a hassle and time consuming to make another trip to the market and with the cost of gas these days I’m consolidating my errands.
The Fresh Market is a promise to customers. When a brand does not live up to its promise, it breaks a bond with the customer, opening the door to competition.
A brand is a living, organic experience and allowing it to get moldy is not good stewardship.
A brand is a problem solved. It’s as simple and as vexing as that. The obstacle for the customer is the obstacle for the brand.
The vexing part comes in creating a differentiating idea that clearly positions the brand as the most appealing solution to the customer problem. In highly competitive markets, the challenge is even greater, especially if the market is a category that is already over-served, such as beverage. (Excuse the pun.)
Carving out a competitive and meaningful brand proposition for a beverage brand requires insight that resonates with the emotional needs of your audience.
All brands must satisfy an emotional thirst.
Of course, if it is a beverage, it must taste good, ideally with a singular flavor profile different from the competition. Additionally, it will benefit from some unique graphic design and packaging to help drive consumer understanding of its unique qualities. A great campaign that breaks through and tells the idea remains essential. But these aspects are table stakes in the land of brand creation and differentiation.
The consumer mindset is the single most important context in the lived experience of the brand. In meetings about branding, discussion of customer feelings often generate less attention and hand-wringing than the typography and color palette. These things are easier to talk about because they are tangible, while consumer feelings can remain an enigma.
Feelings are messy things. Often not entirely clear and variable as they are, they present an obstacle to assurity.
All clients want assurance, which is one reason we now have scads of market research. The digitization of quantitative methods has achieved unfathomable scale and mirrors the scale of robotic ad placement. Like the proverbial Gordian Knot, it’s just too much of a good thing. Offering little in the way of deep emotional insight, this data does offer assurance. Or at least the appearance of assurance. It has always been a wonderful backstop to qualitative insight, but alone, it avoids the obstacle.
The obstacle is the path to big ideas that stick.