I am the captain now 

For a long time brands had the upper hand.

The purchase funnel was relatively straight-forward. Media channels were few and generally well controlled. The consumer’s access to product and pricing information was limited. Distribution channels were highly disciplined. Communication was largely one-way. Marketing plans were often drawn up just once year and any changes required substantial lead times. Mass marketing ruled the day.

Today? Well not so much.

The shift of power away from brands to consumers has been swift and profound. The advent of search unleashed a tsunami of information access that tipped the balance of power irretrievably. The rise of social networks allowed for tribes to connect more easily to share ideas, reviews and instantly understand that people like us do stuff like this. The rapid adoption of smart devices has meant that most consumers now have access to just about anything they want, anytime, anywhere, anyway. We no longer go online, we live online.

Yet still some brands remain seemingly unconscious and horribly stuck.

They continue peddling average products for average people, when no customer wants to be average. With nothing new and interesting to say, they simply shout it louder and more often. Many retail brands continue to rely on one-size-fits-all strategies when those programs rarely get noticed, must less drive any profitable business. In today’s attention economy these efforts remain merely a dim signal amidst the noise.

The power shift away from the brand to the individual consumer and the power of the tribe is upon us. Retail has a new immediacy. Retail is now much more ME-tail and WE-tail than some holistic top down strategy cooked up in a conference room. Don’t kid yourself–you’ve never been less in control than right this very minute. And that’s not changing.

The individual is the captain. The collective “we” increasingly rules the roost. And unlike in Captain Phillips, no one is coming to save us. We can only accept this reality, let go of the past and work with a new set of rules and tools.

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I see dead marketers

I see dead marketers. Walking around like regular people. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.

Marketers who behave as if customers care about channels.

Marketers who continue to push average products for average people.

Marketers who value efficiency over effectiveness.

Marketers who think they can price cut their way to prosperity.

Marketers who don’t get that today’s battle is for share of attention.

Marketers who believe that the same irrelevant and unremarkable promotions will work if they just shout them louder and more often.

Marketers who relentlessly flog one-size-fits-all programs instead of embracing a treat different customers differently strategy.

Marketers who believe they are ultimately in control.

Mass marketing is dying, as are its stubborn adherents.

It’s the end of mass and the beginning of us.

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Dating the wrong customers 

In most industries, the smart marketer wants to cultivate long-term, enduring relationships with her customers. For most of us, the end-game, best case scenario is to create customers for life–or for at least a very long time.

Imagine if, however, in our personal lives, we had a strong desire to get married, but we only went out with people who made it clear that they had no interest in a long-term relationship.

Imagine if the person we were romantically captivated by insisted that we bribe them each time just to go grab coffee, see a movie or have dinner with us.

Imagine if their decision to go on a date with us any given Saturday night was determined by how well our offer stacked up against the competing bribes they were getting from other suitors.

Now faced with this intensely competitive and highly promotional dating market you might determine that you should go on a lot more dates to increase the odds of finding just the right guy or gal. Or you could choose to make your bribes larger. Or you could decide that, in addition to your bribes increasing, you’d add some perks or value-added features to make your dating game more unique and competitive.

By now, hopefully it’s pretty obvious that the best answer is not to endlessly spin to win the hearts of a person who fundamentally does not meet our needs, nor is there any gain in fighting a battle we can never win.

So why is it so hard to see that, all too often, we are dating the wrong customers?

Send in the clones

How’s this for an idea?

Let’s sell products that are pretty much identical to everything else that’s already out there in the market.

And then let’s employ advertising that is virtually indistinguishable from our competition.

Every week we’ll have big sales–and if you’re really crafty, you can use our coupons to save even more!

Sign-up to be on our email list and we’ll give you 10% off your next purchase. And then, just about every day, we’ll send you an email highlighting some of our me-too products while also reminding you how much you can save.

Be a good customer and we’ll throw in free shipping. Oh, you hardly ever buy from us? No worries, you get free shipping too!

We’re all omni-channel and what not, so of course we’ll have e-commerce. And our site will look like every other site. We want you to feel comfortable.

Oh, you didn’t buy just now when you were on our website? That’s cool, we’ll just keep serving up ads on Facebook and everywhere else you go on the internet. Hope you don’t mind the little interruption.

And, after we do all this and we don’t get the sales we want, we’ll just launch a “loyalty” program that–wait for it–rewards you with gift cards so you save even more!

As silly as this sounds, it’s the play book for many retailers. They continue to swim in a sea of sameness. Most often, their default mode is to compete on price because, faced with a paucity of actual difference, it’s the only thing that seems to drive sales.

Unfortunately, the fact is most categories aren’t growing faster than the rate of inflation. The fact is most consumers have more choices than they can possibly sort through and make sense of. The fact is share of attention is the new battleground. The fact is almost all price wars end badly. The fact is any real growth needs to come from stealing share.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. And it may seem safe.

Yet the fact is it is just the opposite.

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Who’s it for? How are they persuaded?

I sometimes get asked why marketing is so complicated these days?

At one level, I agree with question’s premise. The world is noisier all the time and the distracted consumer is the norm. In virtually every category competition is intense and the number of ways to reach consumers is seemingly infinite. Acquisition costs are rising. ROI is often hard to measure. And on and on.

Then I reflect on the major mistakes I see most brands actually make.

In my experience, struggling marketers get lost in the data, the budgets, the media channel choices. They get overwhelmed by stuff, instead of focusing on the essence. Often, instead of diving into changing the logo or tagline, before blindly chasing Facebook ‘likes’ or pushing ‘send’ on a batch, blast and hope email campaign, their time would be far better spent nailing the answers to these two fundamental questions:

Who’s it for?

Whether you have a product or service, whether you run a corporation or a non-profit, you need a deep and nuanced understanding of your target audiences. You have to accept that it can’t be everyone, but is, instead, multiple clusters of someones, who will need to be treated differently. And if your segment descriptions sound something like “affluent baby boomers” you need to dig deeper. Demographic segmentation has the benefit of being straight-forward, but the shortcoming of being almost entirely useless.

Answering the “who’s it for?” question requires you to delve into customers’ desires, wants, attitudes, behaviors, how they wish to be seen by their friends or peers–and anything else that is helpful in precisely understanding why customers might choose you over all the other competition. It needs to paint a clear picture of their specific needs that you can address in a remarkable way.

How are they persuaded?

One of the key jobs of marketing (the good kind) is to persuade the people we care about to believe something relevant about our brand and take action on that belief. This requires us to get specific on two dimensions of how that mechanism of persuasion will work.

First, for each customer type we focus upon we need to understand how we might shift a set of beliefs they have about our organization and our brand proposition. It’s one thing to understand what a set of consumers might believe about brand and what we’d like to them to ultimately come to think and feel. It’s another to understand what story we need to tell to affect that change.

For some, it will be largely fact-based, for others a heart-felt story. Some need to have their fear of switching taken head on. Others need a discount to give us a try. In all cases, there will be some form of objection, some set of thoughts and/or feelings that poses a story-telling challenge. Our job is to understand the specific barriers to persuasion and customize ways to address them. And when in doubt, lead with emotion and follow with logic.

The second aspect of how persuasion works concerns the vehicles of persuasion. Here too we need to understand the nuances in detail and be committed to treating different customers differently. At one level. this is about media channel choice and the type of campaigns that get run. Yet,there are two core realities of persuasion. It rarely happens quickly and different people are influenced by different things depending on the type of purchase.

Inpatient marketers make the mistake of thinking one or two marketing interactions gets the job done. Well if you have a me-too product and are just pitching the lowest price, it just might. That’s not a winning long-term strategy. Persuasion–the kind that is powerful and enduring, builds over time, and is likely supported by multiple sources.

Lazy marketers don’t take the time or care to delve more deeply into the nuances of persuasion. They don’t invest in really understanding current and potential customers at a truly useful level. They don’t segment customers precisely enough. They aren’t willing to move beyond easy to execute one-size-fits-all campaigns to more customized marketing programs. They overuse certain vehicles because they are cheap, not realizing they are often highly ineffective.

At some level, the reality of the world we live in makes just about any marketing complex. But it becomes unmanageably complex if we don’t revert to first principles and drive all subsequent action from that principled understanding.

If you can’t answer the “who is it for and how are they persuaded?” questions, there is a good chance you are stuck in a lot of activity without much impact.

The ecosystem of connection

We probably all realize that we are going through a connection revolution.

For many of us, scarcity of information, choice and access has given way to an abundance of stuff. The connection economy means we live in an era where we are literally one or two clicks away from nearly everything and everyone almost anytime we want. Relationships–with people, brands, causes, ideas–that were impossible just a few years ago are increasingly taken for granted.

As consumers, movements and things become more connected, many organizations that exist in their service aren’t keeping pace. Sure, plenty of brands have strong social media presence. Of course, monitoring online consumer sentiment is helpful. And yes, making it easy to share among peer-to-peer networks is a good idea.

Yet, far too many organizations remain internally disconnected in their data, information systems, marketing campaigns, processes, metrics and on and on. As Kevin points out, many brands still measure the success of customer contacts in isolation, not as part of a diet of interactions. But of course, it goes way beyond merely calculating marketing ROI.

Meaningful connection happens within an ecosystem. Seemingly disparate pieces weave together to become whole. Inter-relationships collide in both predictable and unanticipated ways. Relationships and trust build through cumulative effect.

As the pace of change accelerates, as consumers try to make sense of it all in an ever noisier world, brands that don’t line up their messages and capabilities to sync with the ecosystem of connection are falling further and further behind.

And once disconnected, once the customer sees your brand as a disjointed mess of disparate pieces, any hope for relevance is gone, perhaps never to be regained.

Confusing the facts with the story

Perhaps you believe that people are rational and that when faced with compelling data, logically presented, they will inevitably move toward your way of thinking.

Perhaps you think that facts are all that should matter, that facts magically rise above mere opinion or prevailing sentiment, that facts are morally superior to emotion.

Perhaps when your argument isn’t carrying the day, when your marketing isn’t getting the traction you want, your default is to pile on more data and shout it a bit louder–and, ideally, PowerPoint would be involved.

But as noted marketing strategist David Byrne reminds us

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to.

Of course it’s important to have facts, logic and integrity on our side.

But as long as we’re trying to persuade actual human beings, it’s the story that gets our attention, that trumps the details.

Ultimately, it’s the story that we remember, that evokes our feelings, that connects us and moves us toward action.