It’s really not that complicated

Don’t like spinach? Don’t eat spinach.

Don’t like spiders? Do your best to avoid them.

Don’t like gay marriage? Seems to me nobody’s forcing you to marry someone who happens to be gay.

If chocolate isn’t your thing, I may think that’s pretty weird, but that doesn’t keep me from enjoying what I have.

Just because you’re a cat person, doesn’t diminish how awesome my being a dog person is.

I’ve noticed that when my thoughts start out with “If only you (or they) would…” there’s an excellent chance that I’m not as focused on my own stuff as I need to be.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that trying to “fix” people not only doesn’t work, it just makes me frustrated and sad. And it turns out my “patient” isn’t too thrilled either.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that I’m going to be just fine even if you don’t like me or agree with me. And I’m pretty sure you’ll be fine too.

It’s taken me a long time to learn that the size of the pie isn’t fixed. Love, compassion and support expands it. Hate, fear and anger contracts it.

Everyone, anyone and the cluster of someones

It seems perfectly okay to hope that everyone and anyone would agree that compassion and fairness are essential values to espouse.

Just about everyone and anyone might even be a sensible target market for Amazon or Walmart.

For the rest of us, that way of thinking is certain to drive us into a ditch.

As the mass era gives way to a new era where brands must be more relevant and intensely personal–where share of attention is at a premium–there is no everyone anymore. When we’re grateful for anyone who buys our product or service that merely demonstrates desperation. not clarity of strategy and purpose.

It’s always been a good idea to identify and differentiate the key customer segments we intend to focus upon and to understand the uniqueness of our value proposition. Today, it’s not just sensible, it’s essential.

Clearly articulating “the cluster of someones” for whom we will be powerfully relevant and distinctly remarkable is the new table stakes.

Treating different customers differently must become our mantra.

The drip method of irrelevance

At first, the shift is almost imperceptible.

With quarterly earnings expectations to hit, we tell ourselves we can easily save a few bucks by automating some of our customer service functions. Or perhaps it’s through simplifying our organizational structure or eliminating “non-essential” positions. Better yet, let’s close some “unproductive” stores.

And obviously technology enables us to take away a bit of decision-making from the front-line staff. After all, human beings are notoriously misled by their own intuition. And whoever got fired for praying to the God of Efficiency?

And running all those different marketing campaigns adds a lot of complexity. It would be much easier to boil things down to just the major stuff that we know moves the dial.

And our product line is just too diverse. Sure it’s interesting to have something fresh and innovative, but doesn’t that just increase the risk of slowing down inventory turnover and increasing markdowns? Safe is smart right?

Of course, over time, the top-line stops growing and the only way we know how to drive profits is through cost-cutting.

Over time, we’re proud of our low average talk times, yet customers can’t speak to a human being and our Net Promoter Scores continue their inexorable decline.

Over time, our one-size-fits-all marketing is, at best, indistinguishable from the competition and, at worst, a dim signal amidst all the noise.

Over time, the sad reality is that all we sell is average products for average people and there’s no reason to pick us over the guy with the lowest price.

Sears, RadioShack and a host of others that are on a long inevitable march to the retail graveyard didn’t get trumped by a disruptive competitor that emerged out of nowhere. An oppressive government didn’t regulate them out of business. They weren’t crippled by a series of specious lawsuits or hobbled by natural disasters.

Usually the brands that become irrelevant have made hundreds of seemingly small decisions, over many years, that prioritized the short-term ahead of the long-term, the numbers instead of the customer, mass rather than personal, safe not remarkable.

And once they are gone, once their fate is sealed and their previously storied histories are part of the record, we’ll look back and realize it happened gradually, then suddenly.

But did it get the right laugh?

During the recent Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special, Mike Myers made fun of founder and producer Lorne Michael’s legendary pickiness by evoking his best Dr. Evil inspired impression and saying  “well, it got a laugh, but did it get the right laugh?”

Of course, it’s easy to challenge–or simply ignore–those who lapse into overly theoretical frameworks (guilty) or who can be relentlessly particular about how something should play out (guilty again).

Then again, it’s also to see marketers who obsess about the size of their database, how many folks their emails touch or the sheer number of impressions from a TV ad, when it’s not reach they really want but engagement and impact.

Then again, social media is filled with people who frantically collect friends and followers–and blindly follow-back themselves–when it’s often merely a meaningless quest to grow a number totally devoid of true connection.

Then again, organizations hold on to mass market strategies, throwing money and time at bad prospects, promiscuous shoppers and demonstrably unprofitable relationships, when a more focused strategy that treats different customers differently is what makes far more sense.

Perhaps asking ourselves whether we’re getting the right laugh isn’t such a silly question.

All about that base?

When politicians start a campaign one of the first questions they ask is how they can appeal to the base. Mainstream candidates lock into the usual suspects for rally turnout and fund-raising. The reformers struggle for voter attention and ways to tap into the key PAC’s and the Koch’s and Soros’ of the world.

Traditional brand marketers usually start here as well. We focus on more and better ways of activating existing consumers where the investment to acquire them is sunk and where we already know that they like us and buy often. It seems like a perfectly logical place to concentrate our efforts.

Except where those cohorts are aging out of maintaining their spending. Think Sears.

Except where their needs have shifted and we are no longer their brand or store of choice. Think Barnes & Noble.

Except where a new disruptive model has come along and is doing things we can’t while gobbling up our core customers’ share of wallet. Think Warby Parker and LensCrafters.

Except where we are not replenishing defectors or downward migrators with enough new profitable customers. Think JC Penney.

Good customer analysis always starts with the base. Better customer analysis is focused on a deep understanding of the leverage and limitations inherent in our core segments and yields the insight required to know where to go next and how urgent and powerful any shifts need to be.

It’s all about that base, until it isn’t.



Digital first retail

Many traditional retailers are already living in a “digital first” world. If your brand isn’t quite there yet, it’s likely only a matter of time–a short time.

Digital first means that even if the customer ultimately buys in a brick & mortar location, their journey starts online.

Digital first means that the primary way prospective customers learn about your brand is through your website, social media or online peer-to-peer reviews.

Digital first means whether the customer comes to your store for a particular transaction or not is determined by how well your online or mobile presence meets their needs in a highly relevant and compelling way.

Digital first means that holding on to the customer relationships that matter is largely determined by how well your digital tools eliminate customer experience friction and are rooted in a treat different customers differently philosophy.

Digital first means that the way your customers activate their passion for your company and become true brand ambassadors is primarily by sharing their remarkable experiences via their smartphones, tablets and other digital devices.

Digital first retail profoundly changes the way we engage customers, the way we deploy technology and the way we re-envision the physical store experience. It causes us to break down our silo-ed thinking and organizations to put the customer at the center of everything we do.

It’s not easy.

It’s not inexpensive.

It’s not without risk.

But frankly we have no other choice but to embrace it and get on with it.

And I’d hurry if I were you.

The right customers, a remarkable experience and a story that must be told

We can make things complicated. I can make things complicated.

And there’s no shortage of frameworks and methodologies you can power through in search of the perfectly crafted strategy and the well-honed marketing plan.

There are the 4 P’s (or is it 5?) and the 7 S’s. There are the classic constructs put forth by Porter and Christensen and the like, not to mention whatever newest bestseller helps you find your strength, lean in or whatever.

There are the people who will tell you it’s all about the product (spoiler alert: they’re wrong).

There are the people who will tell you it’s all about value (sorry, too vague).

There are the people who say it’s all about price (well, that depends. So partial credit for them).

If you are in a business category that is more or less a commodity, where the lowest price defines who gets the sale, then three things are true: you are engaged in a race to the bottom, you had better be sure you can meet or beat whatever price point is likely to clear the market and you must become the low-cost provider. Otherwise, you’re toast. If not today, then soon.

For everyone else–and that’s most of us–there are plenty of things that are table-stakes. Don’t deliver on them and you aren’t in the game.

But the three things that ultimately matter are these:

  • Cultivate the right customers. Customer selection and focus is essential. If you’re complaining that too many of your customers only buy with deep discounts, guess what? That’s your dragon to slay. If your customer base is mis-aligned with your value proposition and how you can make money, it’s time for a shift. If you’re not sure, get to work to understand the needs, desires and lifetime value of each segment. And it’s okay to fire the wrong customers.
  • It’s the experience, stupid. Product is important. It’s not everything. There is a reason that some people pay $1 for a bottle of water and others pay $4 for essentially the same stuff. There is a reason that people stand in line at the Apple store for the newest phone when they can get the same phone more quickly and (some times) more cheaply elsewhere. People pay vast premiums and/or select one competitor over the other for virtually identical stuff all the time. And it’s the total experience that matters. In today’s world of endless choices and relentless downward pressure on prices, it’s up to you to find your secret sauce or purple cow. Otherwise you might be seeing your pink slip.
  • A story that must be told. It’s always been a good idea to encourage word-of-mouth. In the connection economy it’s a must. The art of storytelling must be woven into your DNA and that starts with remembering that people engage with emotion more than reason and that in order to be remarked upon you must be remarkable. Stories that connect emotionally and personally, that demand to be shared, are what matter more and more

Here’s a brand that puts it all together in a funny, on brand (albeit not totally SFW) marketing piece.