But first you have to believe

I’m all for market studies. And consumer research. And fact-based analysis. I’ve rarely met a 2 x 2 matrix I didn’t like.

I’m all for laying out reasonable hypotheses and putting together a sound testing plan. If I’m honest, I’m pretty solidly in the  “in God we trust, all others must bring data” camp.

But for me there’s no getting around this pesky little slice of reality. More times than not, the truly innovative, the remarkable, the profoundly game-changing, emerges not from an abundance of analysis and left-brain thinking, but from an intuitive commitment to a bold new idea.

More than a decade ago the folks at Nordstrom didn’t have an iron-clad, ROI supported business case when they made the big leap into investing behind channel integration. They believed that putting the customer at the center of what you do is ultimately going to work out.

Steve Jobs eschewed logic and conventional wisdom to pursue Apple’s strategy of “insanely great” products. He believed that leading with design and focusing on ease of use creates breakthrough innovation and customer utility.

Just about every successful entrepreneur adopts a strong and abiding belief in her product or service in the face of facts and history that suggest that, at best, they are wasting their time and money and, at worst, they are simply nuts.

On the other side–with clients and in organizations where I’ve been a leader–a lack of belief that getting closer to the customer is generally a good idea or that it’s okay to fail has resulted in an unwillingness to invest in innovation. Any meaningful action was predicated on a tight business case and, when that was lacking, it was easier to do nothing than to take a chance. All these brands are now struggling to catch up.

Obviously commitment to a belief is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Execution always matters. And there are certainly plenty of strongly held beliefs that are wildly misguided or morally reprehensible.

Yet, when I embrace the notion that just about every great idea starts with a belief not a compelling set of facts–or that often some people see things way before my logical brain can-the field of possibilities expands.

And I believe that sounds like a pretty good thing.

 

 

No customer wants to be average

It’s only when our experience is terrible that we’d settle for average treatment. But what customer truly wants to be average?

average person

Most of the time, we hope brands know us, show us they know us and show us they value us.

And to do that, companies need to break out of a one-size-fits-all paradigm.

It’s not easy. Which is why so many stores are still filled with average products for average people and our mailboxes–virtual and otherwise–are chock-a-bloc with largely irrelevant pitches and promotions.

It also feels safe, even though it’s anything but. Relying on newspaper circulars and big TV ad campaigns and “Super Saturdays” and the same promotional calendar we ran last year, may bathe us in the warm water of familiarity, but more and more mass marketing strategies are delivering less and less.

Getting closer to the customer–making the choice to treat different customers differently–needs to be more than a slogan. It means busting the silos that get in the way of a unified and seamless experience. It means investing in deeper customer insight and the tools and techniques to deliver progressively more personalized interactions. It means embracing a test and learn mentality.

Mostly, it means radical acceptance of the reality that, for most brands, the only way to grow faster than average is to eschew the average.

 

Unified. Personalized. Amplified.

More and more, the customer is in charge. More and more, your best hope for superior growth–much less staying in business–requires stealing share from the other guys.

Unless you compete primarily on price–and your cost position allows you to win the inevitable race to the bottom–I suggest focusing on three guiding principles if you want to win in an ever noisier, omni-channel world.

Unified.

The lines between shopping (and media) channels grow more blurry by the day. The growth in mobile is making the demarcation between e-commerce and brick & mortar a distinction without a difference. Increasingly, the blended channel is the only channel.

For companies that hope to thrive, this means taking a sledgehammer to silos. Customer data silos. Inventory silos. Organizational silos. This requires eliminating the friction that exists throughout the consumer’s decision and purchasing journey. It necessitates an intense focus on integrating the way the customer interacts with your brand and connecting all the dots on the back-end.

Ultimately, you may tell yourself you have many channels, but from the customer’s perspective there needs to be one brand and a completely unified experience.

Personalized.

One-size-fits-all marketing strategies are becoming less and less effective. An explosion of choices means the battle for share of attention grows ever more intense. For many brands, it’s the end of mass and the beginning of us.

Understanding us–and consistently delivering remarkably relevant experiences and offers to us–puts a premium on deep customer insight. It requires developing ways to address us uniquely and in context. It requires a commitment to experimentation.

The notion of 1to1 marketing has been with us for some time now. At last, the tools to deliver on the promise are becoming readily available at scale. More importantly, the customer expects us to know them, show them we know them and show them we value them as individuals. Ultimately, he who gets closest to the customer wins.

Amplified.

In many industries there is a pervasive sea of sameness. Similar products and services. Nearly indistinguishable (and relentless) sales and promotions. Undifferentiated branding campaigns. Look-alike designs.

It’s always been a solid strategy to have a unique selling proposition. For a long time we’ve known that word-of-mouth is a brand’s most effective advertising. But in today’s world it’s harder and harder to separate the signal from the noise. Without the remarkable–without your purple cow–at best you’ll tread water. At worst, you are out of business.

Without something meaningful and relevant to amplify about your business it’s hard to imagine why anyone will pay attention for very long.  And without a remarkable story to share, it’s hard to imagine how your customers will help amplify your message.

 

Valued or a value?

Most executives will tell you that, regardless of the price point of their product or service, their customer considers what they offer a good value.

At one level, that’s obvious. Both the Dollar Store shopper and the Ferrari buyer must believe that the sum total of the benefits they are receiving exceeds the total cost they are incurring–or why else would they each part with their time and money?

While this sort of left brain thinking is important, powerful, enduring brands deliver something more. Brands that offer a deeper, emotional connection are able to transcend the occasional misstep. They are able to drive their business without layering on endless discounts. Their loyalty is earned not bought. Their customers’ testimony is their best advertising.

When a brand is intrinsically valued by the consumer, the entire relationship operates on a different plane.

Alternatively, if the customer fundamentally sees your brand as “a value” you had better have the sharpest price or the most compelling promotion. You also better be the low-cost competitor. Otherwise,  the inevitable race to the bottom is likely to end badly.

Oh, and if you’re having a hard time figuring out which you are, that’s an even bigger problem.

 

 

 

A-Always, B-Be, C-Connecting

Perhaps you know this scene from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (NSFW).

It’s a classic, not only for Alec Baldwin’s genius performance, but because of what it reveals about our own truth and experience with being sold and marketed to.

By now, we should realize that the pressure tactics revealed in the play and the movie rarely work. And they certainly don’t lead to building trusted long-term relationships.

Yet, many sales people, particularly those on commission, engage in this sort of hunt and kill mentality all the time.

Yet, non-profits relentlessly pitch donations way before we’ve gotten to understand the cause, the work and the lasting impact.

Yet, brand marketers bludgeon us with mass price promotions with little regard to understanding the unique needs and wants of their audiences.

Most people think it’s crazy to talk about getting married on the first date. But many of us engage in similar behavior through our jobs all the time.

Brands, whether they are focused on changing the world or maximizing shareholder value, become powerful when they establish and grow trust through mutually beneficial interactions over time.

If your focus is on closing, it’s easy to erode or destroy any trust that might have been established. If your focus is on engaging, learning, connecting, the opportunity to build something relevant,remarkable and powerful begins to emerge.

Always. Be. Connecting.

 

The end of scarcity

For a long, long time, scarcity propped up and protected a lot of brands.

Scarcity of information. If I wanted to learn about your product or service I had to go to your store, meet with your salesperson or see what a neighbor or friend had to say. Other sources simply didn’t exist or required an unreasonable amount of time and effort on my part.

Scarcity of trust agents. If I needed objective data on product performance, customer service or whether your price was fair, there was Consumer Reports–which came out in print monthly–and not a whole lot more.

Scarcity of access. With consumer brands, the product was either carried in a store near me or it wasn’t. When it came to retail options, there was either a store convenient to me or not. And one could only buy things during “regular business hours.” Mail order catalogs mitigated some of this, but were never large factors in most categories.

Scarcity of competition for attention. Marketing messages were delivered mostly through a fairly limited set of broadcast media, print and direct marketing channels. And the brand got to control the composition, breadth and frequency of communication. The signal to noise ratio was favorable.

Scarcity of substitutes. Launching and growing a new product typically meant investing in large marketing budgets along with huge cash commitments to inventory and to build out physical locations. Few competitors could afford to play this game.

And so on.

Today, the sources for product and pricing information are nearly endless.

Today, hundreds, if not thousands, of digital sites provide virtually real-time data on brand performance and the best pricing.

Today, e-commerce has enabled an explosion of choice and, often,  the ability to access products around the world, 24/7. Products and services that can be delivered digitally have made physical access and store hours completely irrelevant.

Today, there is an overwhelming amount of competition for our time and attention. Share of attention is becoming the scarce commodity.

Today, many brands can be launched with minimal investment in marketing and/or physical capital, which has led to many flavors and varieties of alternative choices for consumers to choose from.

As scarcity has ebbed, the vulnerabilities of many brands have been exposed. And for some it has already ended badly.

When the scarcity that protected your brand goes away, you can no longer get away with selling average products for average people.

The only sensible choice is to build something truly relevant and remarkable.

I’d hurry if I were you.

 

And then a miracle happened….

During my undergraduate days I remember watching one of my professors work through a mathematical proof on our lecture hall’s chalkboard. This particular proof involved quite a few steps. At one point, as he scribbled the formulas and described his process, several of us noticed that he had made a mistake, thereby rendering it logically impossible to derive the correct result of his efforts.

As he neared the hoped for outcome, the professor paused, apparently realizing that he had somehow gone astray. He looked back at his earlier work. And then back again at where he had left himself. The seconds creeped by as we all waited and wondered how he was going to own up to and undue his error. After a few more awkward moments he finally exclaimed: “and then a miracle happened.” And then, without further explanation, he skipped the last steps and wrote the desired final answer on the board.

Over the years, I’ve noticed twisted versions of this scenario play out in many forms, in ways big and small.

The company that says they are committed to growth and innovation, yet has no real process or meaningful budget to support this goal.

The friend who constantly laments their life situation, yet keeps doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome.

The sales forecast that’s based on faith, not science.

The talking head who meets resistance to his ideas and simply repeats himself, just more loudly.

The marketer who promotes average products for average people–and promulgates tired one-size-fits-all approaches–and waits for remarkable results.

The political leaders who think we can bomb people into loving and respecting us.

All of them have made fundamental mistakes along the way. All of them can’t own up to and address their errors. If they are honest, all of them are counting on a miracle.

Sure, there is a chance that lottery ticket will pay off. Maybe, just maybe, repeating the same unsuccessful tactics will finally yield a breakthrough. And perhaps there IS a divine force who–after they’ve picked the winner of this week’s SEC showdown and chosen among the Shias and the Sunnis–will turn His/Her/Its attention to whatever it is you are working on and fundamentally alter your course.

Perhaps.

Errant steps, periodic lapses in logic, flat-out mistakes and the occasional embarrassing failure are all normal parts of the human experience. And there’s no good reason to fight our humanity. But there are lots of reasons to examine our beliefs and challenge our default tendencies. There are plenty of reasons to get rigorously honest with ourselves.

From time to time, in some way shape or form, consciously or unconsciously, we are all hoping for a miracle to happen. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with hope.

But hope isn’t a strategy. And expecting a miracle to happen doesn’t really count as one either.