Managing Brand Strategy…When Your Name is on the Front Door

selldorf-home-olvrAny business founder / owner whose surname serves as their company’s brand name has a unique challenge. If (s)he’s built a successful business that relies on the efforts of its employees, the founder of an eponymous business eventually will need to address brand transition; particularly if it’s a B2B or professional services firm.

Brand transition involves shifting market perceptions of the firm away from the individual founder(s), and toward an enterprise-based brand positioning. Over time, this means moving brand perceptions away from “Smith & Company: Jack Smith’s business,” and arriving at “Smith & Company: The business that Jack Smith built.” Or better yet, eventually “Smith & Company: Who was Jack Smith, anyway?”

The brand transition strategy goal is to have a company’s stakeholders – including clients, prospects, referral sources, vendors, etc. – understand that its value proposition is based on the collective talents and experience of all the people who work there; not solely or largely on the individual whose name is on the front door.

When it comes time for a founder to sell or step out of their business, a marketplace identity that relies heavily on that individual’s personal credentials, relationships or charisma will serve to erode the brand equity they’ve worked so hard to establish. It can also reduce enterprise valuation, and handicap the near-term effectiveness of the company’s new owners; particularly when those new owners are the marginalized employees who intend to grow the business.

Ideally, and years in advance of considering their exit strategy, founders of eponymous firms will have the foresight to consider the internal and external advantages of building a strong management team and showcasing that group’s intellectual capital. This requires a founder to put the welfare of the company ahead of their desire to promote themselves. And this can often be a tough task for people with strong personalities who’ve leveraged their ego-driven determination to build a successful venture over 20 years or more.

In our experience, many company founders give little or no thought to the task of shifting market perceptions away from themselves, and have not considered the benefits of a more institutional (and scalable) brand presence. Or they will recognize the issue with very little time left in the game, and then seek to apply some quick or simplistic remedy, such as advertising, to change market perceptions.

Other than ignoring the brand transition issue altogether, company founders have two options:

Re-brand to a Generic Name: To wit: “Smith & Company is now SmiTech Consulting Group!” This can be a viable strategy for eponymous firms at any stage of their lifecycle. These initiatives involve lots of planning and moving parts, and include heavy investment in communication tactics over at least a 6-month period to re-educate stakeholders.

Even with careful planning and coordination, a portion of brand equity will be lost in any re-branding effort, because some stakeholders will never remember the connection between the old and new brand names. Over time, however, re-branding to a generic corporate name can be worth the near-term market confusion for eponymous firms.

Go Cold-Turkey: Forget about orderly brand transition. Founders looking to jump-start an initiative to build an enterprise-based brand should consider going cold turkey, simply by disengaging themselves from the marketing & sales process altogether. This can be accomplished in a discrete manner, or in a more dramatic fashion.

One company founder we worked with, for example, called in his senior team and asked them what immediate and longer-term steps they would take, with respect to business development, if he died of a heart attack that morning. (He was the company’s top rainmaker.) After assuring them that he had no medical problems, the management team spent several hours in a white board session that provided the raw material for a very effective brand transition plan that the founder endorsed and implemented with great success.

The tactics generated in that company’s “cold turkey” planning session were neither complex nor sophisticated. Instead, they were straight out of the Marketing Communications 101 playbook, and included:

–      Thought leadership content based primarily on ideas of interest to clients; not related to the accomplishments of individuals at their firm;

–      Sharing the spotlight across the entire organization, involving all types of editorial and public platforms;

–      Reconfiguration of all public facing materials, notably the firm’s website, to reflect the collective strength of their organization;

–      Internal recognition and encouragement for all employees to promote the firm.

Many notable eponymous firms have succeeded in brand transition: McKinsey, Ernst & Young, Skadden Arps, Korn Ferry, etc. The back-stories are unavailable on how those firms accomplished that goal, and whether the change was managed in orderly fashion, or was the lucky result of internal chaos.

Although we’ve not found any research on this topic, we suspect that for every brand transition success story, there are at least 10 examples of firms that have failed; not simply in terms of brand identity, but more importantly, in terms of the company’s survival. Too often, a founder’s unwillingness to acknowledge the contributions of employees ensures that there will be no brand legacy when they leave the business…and sometimes in advance of that.

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Marketing Lesson from Ian McTavish: 7th Generation Scottish Bagpipe Maker

McTavishOn a trip to Scotland in the 1980s, from my rented car on a road outside of Glasgow, I spotted a crude hand-painted sign nailed to a tree that read, “Ian McTavish Bagpipe Maker.” I slammed on the brakes and took a sharp left turn up a narrow, dirt road. I had long wanted to play the bagpipes, and in a heartbeat decided that bringing home an authentic set of Scottish bagpipes might help to cross that item off my bucket list.

At the end of the dirt road there were two simple stucco structures, each one about the size of a detached two-car garage. One structure appeared to be a home, with a front door sandwiched between two small windows, and a raised porch. Although it had no signage, the other building had a single, large dirty window, and appeared more likely to be the bagpipe maker’s showroom. There was no vehicle, no barking dog, or any sign of human life. But the showroom door was wide open.

I knocked on the open door and called out as I stepped into the main room, which contained a workbench, some tools hanging from hooks, and a pile of wood scraps. I had imagined a display of bagpipes in various stages of completion, but saw nothing resembling the instrument, in whole or part. Just a dirty room with no apparent purpose. I spent a minute looking at the tools and wondering if I had turned down the wrong road, and just as I decided to leave, a gruff voice from a back room barked, “Whadya want?”

As I jumped to attention, a large, bearded man appeared from a back room, wearing a kilt, black tee shirt and work boots. His boots, knees and hands were covered with mud. He repeated his question, louder. Flustered, and still unsure I was in the right place, I asked politely, “Are you the bagpipe maker?” “Whadya want?” he asked again, providing some comfort that I had a reason to be standing uninvited inside this cranky Scotsman’s workshop.

Finally answering his question, I stammered: “I’m interested in buying a set of bagpipes. Do you have any that I can look at?”

“No,” he said.

After a long pause, he added, “I make pipes to order. There’s none to show ye here.”

“OK then,” I said, searching to create a conversation, “How long does it take you to make a set of pipes?”

“It depends…” he growled, growing impatient with my questions.

I persistent, “What does it depend on?”

“It depends on the weather,” he snapped.

Attempting to decipher his answer and to carry the conversation, I asked, “Does the weather affect the aging of the wood that you use for the pipes?”

He gave me a look of disgust and said, “No. If the weather is nice, I’ll be in my garden, and I won’t be in here makin pipes.”

At this point, having groveled sufficiently, I prepared for my exit with one last shot. “My ancestors are from Scotland, Mr. McTavish, and I’m here visiting some of the places where they lived. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the bagpipes, and was hoping you might be able to help me. But I can see that I’ve disturbed you and I apologize for wasting your time. So good day.”

As I turned toward the door, his said, “Hold on, young man.” His voice softened a bit and he took a step toward me. “I’m the 7th generation of bagpipe makers in me clan, and I make the best pipes in Scotland. You Americans come over here and try to buy me bagpipes so that they can hang em as a decoration over their hearth. But I only make me pipes to be played.”

When he paused, I said, “I’m not going to hang them on the wall. I’m going to learn how to play them.”

He moved even closer, and poked me in the chest, “OK then, lad. Here’s what I’ll do fer ye. Go back to America, find yerself a tutor, and learn to play the practice chanter.”

“I can do that,” I said.

“Good,” he continued. “Then when ye learn how to play the chanter, make a tape of yerself so I can hear what ye sound like. Then, if I think ye play the chanter good enough…ye tell me how much money ye want to spend, and I’ll make ye the best set of bagpipes that yer money can buy anywhere.”

“OK,” I agreed. “I’ll do that.”

He scrawled his address on a piece of paper, and handed it to me. We shook hands and I drove off.

Over the years, life got in the way, and I never got around to sending Ian McTavish an audio tape of my skills on the practice chanter, and as a result, I never had the privilege of owning a set of his bagpipes.

But Ian McTavish, the 7th generation Scottish bagpipe maker, taught me an important marketing lesson I’ve never forgotten:

If you create a product or service of high quality, then you’re entitled to set the bar as high as you like, with respect to those seeking to buy it. It’s difficult to be selective about who your customers are…but this “less is more” discipline makes for happier, longer-term relationships between buyers and sellers…and it never hurts to step away from your business to spend time tending your garden.

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Industry Conferences and Seminars: How to Extract their Real Business Value

dog-and-ponyRegardless of industry, conferences and seminars can be a significant waste of time, money and opportunity. But the conference sponsor is typically not at fault for the lack of return on this marketing investment. It’s often the result of poor planning, lack of creativity, outright laziness or unrealistic expectations by the companies that participate in them.

Here are three issues marketers should address, in advance of investing in a conference of any kind:

Do I understand the inherent marketing value of conferences? Before it became a “pay to play” world, there was some brand stature and inherent 3rd party endorsement associated with participation as a keynote speaker or panelist on a conference agenda. Nowadays, however, even if you’re invited to speak, attendees will likely assume that you’ve paid for the privilege, so the brand cachet is diminished.

The real marketing value of participation in any conference agenda is not based on what you say to the 100 attendees during your 15 minutes on the podium. Instead, it’s based on what you do, both before and after the conference, to reach, influence and engage the 1,000+ or 2,000+ decision-makers who were either too busy or too important to attend the event. In many respects, a conference simply provides a legitimate reason to communicate with those individuals who are most important you.

Do I have the internal discipline to make conferences a worthwhile investment? Because conferences are expensive, inefficient, haphazard and often difficult to evaluate, you must establish an internal discipline and specific strategies to harness their marketing value. For starters, you need access to a robust, accurate database of your clients, prospects and referral sources. Possessing a list of conference attendees, either before or after the conference, is helpful, but of lesser importance.

You also need to create a detailed communications strategy – tailored for each event – that addresses how you intend to:

  • Share intellectual capital associated with the event (either generated by you or someone else), and how to…
  • Leverage that intellectual capital to drive engagement with your target audiences either before and / or after the conference.

For example, if you’ve given a conference presentation, you can send highlights of your remarks to your database shortly after the event, and offer to send them your complete remarks or PowerPoint slides. Or you can convert your presentation into a bylined article for publication in an appropriate business or trade journal, and then send target audiences the published piece along with a personalized cover note.

If you’re not on the podium, you’ll need to be more creative. For example, you might send your target audiences a “Sorry I missed you…” communication that provides your insights on the conference’s highlights, or expresses a contrarian viewpoint related to its underlying theme. Or you might even consider hi-jacking the conference agenda, by inviting high-value targets to a roundtable discussion / reception at a very exclusive venue near the event. (Conference sponsors do their best to prevent this type of guerilla marketing.)

In all cases, the strategic goal is to amortize the time and money you’ve invested in the conference, in order to reach a wider and often times more appropriate audience. By using the conference credibility (or its related topic / theme) to showcase your intellectual capital, drive top-of-mind awareness and foster direct engagement, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of yielding a connection between the event and tangible business metrics, including new client engagements and revenue growth.

Are my expectations for this conference realistic? Sometimes lightning actually does strike: you’ll make a connection at a conference that eventually leads to new business. But most of the time, putting your company’s logo on a lanyard, participating in a panel discussion, or sponsoring a mid-morning coffee break will lead to absolutely nothing. If there were a consistent direct connection between conference participation and business growth, there would be a very long waiting list for sponsorships.

If you understand that conferences will always be a low percentage marketing strategy, then you have a clear choice. You can either:

  1. Avoid conferences altogether, by hosting your own private events or programs.
  2. Leverage your participation to showcase intellectual capital with a wider audience.
  3. Simply enjoy the camaraderie, the golf / tennis / beach, and the nightlife…and hope for the best.

In short, conference participation is similar to all other marketing-related tactics. Smart, focused and strategic behavior will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

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First Aid for Media Burn

breaking-news-2Regardless of how well a company communicates with the press, it stands a good chance of being “burned” on occasion. From minor misquote to major hatchet-job, these real and perceived offenses occupy the attention of senior managers and their advisors, whose polite clarifications and outraged denials fill the “Letters to the Editor” section of every business and trade publication.

Unfortunately, no standard methodology exists for redress of grievances with the press. In the business of keeping everyone else honest, the news media is “one of the worst sectors in keeping themselves accountable,” according to American Lawyer editor Steven Brill.

There are, however, several field-tested procedures and certified blunders that can serve as a rudimentary first aid manual for companies. Initial triage for media burn—the decision about whether to act at all—should involve an objective appraisal of the injury’s potential for actual long-term damage, rather than a knee-jerk mission to set the record straight.

Some facts, figures and quotes, although they may be wrong or misleading, are just not worth squawking about in public. First City Bancorporation of Texas’ clarification in Business Week regarding the date of its chairman’s law degree (1956, not 1969) served only to portray that company as a nagging nitpicker. On the other hand, silence can be viewed as tacit approval of what has been reported, and misinformation no longer simply fades away. Electronic data retrieval systems, which store nearly every piece of print or broadcast information, now ensure that a news story, regardless of its accuracy, will have a life of its own.

Most reporters research current story assignments by reviewing what has been previously reported. In a classic case of this media “snowballing,” facts and opinions expressed by a California newspaper regarding Pacific Lumber Company’s tree harvesting practices—which cast the company as an environmental villain—eventually turned up in another Business Week article. Two years later, that same information provided the hook for a Fortune piece, which subsequently spawned a Reader’s Digeststory and “20/20” TV documentary.

Once the decision has been made to correct a misrepresentation in the media, a company should act quickly to document and state its case. Don’t be afraid to make some noise. A letter sent to an appropriate editor, rather than the reporter involved, should present extremely specific objections and clarifications. Very often, says Newsweek senior writer Jonathan Alter, “these letters start out, ‘There are so many errors that I can’t begin to list them…’ Right away my eyes glaze over.”

Pen Is Still Mightier Than Sword

If warranted, an initial complaint letter may be prepared by legal counsel; however, sabre-rattling at this early stage is often counterproductive. This letter should propose a reasonable solution to the problem, ranging from a mention in a corrections column to a full-scale retraction. But unless an error or bias can be proven conclusively, as most never are, an editor will stand by the story and consider the case closed. This is where more sophisticated remedies for media burn may be appropriate.

One very effective means of counteracting negative media exposure is to address the matter in head-on fashion by taking opposing viewpoints directly to target audiences. In response to a Consumer Reports article on home water filters which it considered incorrect and misleading, National Safety Associates distributed to its sales force a copy of its president’s letter to the editor of that publication; thereby helping company reps to handle the negative publicity about their products. If the stakes are high enough, direct communication with employees, shareholders and customers is in order.

Display ads with a message, a common device in proxy battles, can also be used to rebut negative editorial coverage. More often, however, companies withhold or withdraw advertising to punish “unfriendly” media outlets. The best known example involves Mobil Oil and the Wall Street Journal, but the tactic is still used frequently, with far less fanfare than the Mobil incident. Economic blackmail often backfires, however, as editors assume an even tougher reporting edge in order to demonstrate that their opinion cannot be purchased.

Boycotting relationships with the media provides a small measure of short-term gratification, yields no beneficial change, and displays an unhealthy level of arrogance. The traditional “Letter to the Editor” is often the least effective means of expressing an opposing viewpoint. Although this is a well-read section, most letters are boring, overly self-serving, assume that readers remember the original article, and can confuse the matter further. Additionally, publications such as Barron’s and the Harvard Business Review provide journalists with an opportunity to respond in elaborate fashion to the objections of letter writers.

Seasoned politicians appreciate the futility of debating anyone who controls the microphone; most rebuttal letter writers learn that lesson the hard way. A more effective use of the “Letter to the Editor” platform is to request support from a friendly, credible third party. This technique was applied by Safeway Stores Inc. following negative front-page coverage in a national newspaper. By no coincidence, the rebuttal from it s CEO was accompanied by supportive letters from company suppliers such as Sunkist Growers Inc. and Kellogg Co., an employee, a competitor, and even the chairman of the National Easter Seal Society, who confirmed Safeway’s generosity. In most cases a single letter should do the trick.

As a rule, companies prone to media burn display a chronic reluctance to announce bad news, and refuse to admit error. Chrysler Corporation’s guilt in a car odometer resetting scandal was defused effectively by chairman Iaccoca’s immediate apology and personal assurance that the mistake would not be repeated.

Que Sera, Sera

First aid for media burn calls for gracious acceptance of two important facts of business life: That an unflattering or dead wrong portrayal in the press should be viewed as an ongoing and acceptable risk when running a company; and second, that for better or worse, your firm’s long-term reputation with reporters, editors, and other important audiences is influenced by how well you manage the trauma of media burn, not simply by how adept you are at avoiding it.

[Editor’s Note: If you’ve read this far, you know the examples and sources cited in this piece are sorely outdated. This article was originally published in 1994, in the Journal of Business Strategy. Notwithstanding 20+ years and huge shifts in the media landscape, I stand by the relevance of the “media burn” guidance it offers.]

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How to Sell to Companies that are Out of Your League

jim-carreyThe most enduring injustice in the world of B2B marketing is that, very often, a firm with strong brand perceptions will be selected over a more qualified, but lesser-known firm. The old adage, “No one was ever fired for hiring IBM,” still rings true in every industry. And firms that understand this market dynamic, and work to build a marketing strategy to address the underlying human issues, can gain market acceptance and compete effectively against larger and better-known competitors.

The central, unspoken issue embedded within the selection process for any type of B2B firm is easy to understand. All decision-makers require a certain level of comfort and confidence necessary for them: 1. To propose a relatively unknown candidate to their “boss” (however that’s defined), and more importantly, 2. To rationalize their selection of that unknown candidate; and worst case, to defend their decision should their selected provider fail. Avoiding responsibility for a bad decision is always the top priority.

By taking either of these two steps, decision-makers put skin in the game. Their personal welfare – notably, keeping their job – will always be far more important to them than selecting the most qualified firm. So regardless of your firm’s size or brand stature, this inherent “career risk” is the key obstacle that must always be overcome.

Here are three ways your firm can achieve that goal through marketing:

Don’t Exclude Your Firm from Consideration

Small firms can exclude themselves from consideration by large prospects in two ways. They either focus exclusively on quantitative characteristics of their firm (and refuse to acknowledge the human side of decision-making)…or they never attempt to solicit companies considered to be “out of their league” (either for lack of inertia, or for fear of failure.)

Although it would be reckless to devote all or most of your firm’s marketing efforts to “low probability” prospects, excluding them altogether represents an opportunity loss. Solely from the standpoint of marketing skills development, and regardless of the outcome, pitching your firm to tougher prospects will increase its effectiveness in those leagues where it is “entitled” to play. Most high handicap (struggling) golfers will attest that they perform on a much higher level when paired with better players. That same performance dynamic holds true in marketing your firm.

The opportunity loss in not hunting for larger game is that you can never know a prospect’s current situation, mindset or future plans. They may be unhappy with their current provider and are seeking a change, or their new strategy may involve hiring a smaller firm that can provide a more personalized level of service. It’s always better to lose (and to learn from your losses), than it is to not enter the game at all.

Think and Act Like a “Safe Choice”

If your small firm is prepared to acknowledge that market perceptions are at least as important as its credentials (an enormous hurdle for many firms), then it’s half-way toward the goal of competing effectively against better known brands. The other half of your quest to be considered a “safe choice” by prospects involves thinking and acting exactly like your most successful competitors, in terms of marketing communications.

Here are the five marketing assets applied by successful firms:

– A well-articulated value proposition: Until you have a clear understanding of why and how your company is of value to clients, and are able to express that in a clear, concise manner, don’t invest in any marketing tools or tactics.

– An effective website: As the mother ship of your brand, and the most important public-facing expression of your firm’s value proposition, your website needs to go beyond “what we do” and “who we are.” It must also provide insights into “what we believe,” “how we think,” “how we operate” and address “who validates our credibility.”

– Bona fide thought leadership: This self-generated content showcases your firm’s intellectual capital, which builds confidence in its potential to succeed. Bona fide thought leadership does not promote your firm, or attempt to sell its products or services.

– Inherent third-party endorsements: These credibility tools can take many forms, ranging from published articles in respected publications, to speaking engagements at industry conferences. The quality of these types of indirect endorsements are more important than frequency.

– Top-of-mind awareness: To maintain familiarity with your brand in the marketplace, your firm will need to pro-actively reach out to its current and prospective clients and referral sources, ideally on a quarterly basis. The information you send to those target audiences must be relevant and of interest to them.

Associate with Established / Trusted Brands

If your company has little or no brand stature, one of the quickest and most effective ways to change that dynamic is to directly associate your brand with specific firms or individuals who already possess the market credibility and respect that you’re seeking. There are a number of tactics you can apply to benefit from this brand-related “halo effect.”

For example, your quarterly outreach to target audiences (referenced above) might feature interviews with respected industry leaders, or with well-known subject matter experts. Or your firm might host a series of by-invitation-only webinars, or in-person roundtable discussions, featuring recognized authorities in a particular profession or industry.

Regardless of the specific halo effect tactic(s) you apply, the underlying strategy remains the same: to create an editorial product or host an event that enables your firm’s brand reputation to be positioned – in the minds of others – as being in the same league as the well-established third-party brand(s) that you are promoting.

Many firms possess some of the marketing assets outlined here, and fewer firms possess all of them. An extremely small number of companies are able to apply these tactics in a consistent manner, or view marketing as an ongoing business discipline, rather than a list of items to be checked off.

If your company understands the human dynamics of decision-making, and applies an appropriate marketing strategy to build its brand stature, it will be capable of competing at any level, and is unlikely to remain small or unknown for very long.

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Your Marketing Content: Is it Fake News?

fake-newsThe marketing profession has a reputation for sometimes using less than reliable market research to promote a point of view. And this marketer has been guilty of that sin.

Years ago, our insurance company client was introducing a new Directors & Officers liability insurance policy, and asked us to raise market awareness. With good intentions, but given no budget or time to perform proper market research, we interviewed a total of 6 corporate CEOs and board members to provide some validation to the underlying premise of our press release. The headline read: “Most Corporate Directors & Officers Believe They Are Not Adequately Protected from Legal Risk.”

With very little expectation that such shoddy market research would qualify for exposure in the financial press, and dreading inquiries from journalists asking about our research methodology, the press release went out. To our great surprise, we received no calls from reporters checking our facts, and the story was immediately picked up by two major wire services, and appeared as a news squib on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, followed by coverage in several business insurance trade publications.

Our client was overjoyed with the media exposure, but we felt less than honorable, and resolved that we would never use market research to promote a client’s product or service unless we believed the supporting methodology had sufficient rigor. And over the years we’ve lost client work as a result of that position.

Research integrity was an issue long before the internet became the platform for content marketing. Most often, your research-based news items would not be covered by respected media sources unless you successfully endured their credibility gauntlet. Editors demanded your research methods and data, and had to be convinced that your study was objective and legitimate. Our very thin D&O insurance liability research was a rare and risky exception…and perhaps a sign of things to come.

For well understood reasons, the “legitimate press” now has neither the manpower nor the time to dig deeply for validation of market research that supports content generated by organizations. The loss of this important filter, coupled with the explosion of online content, has created a marketing world in which sloppy, incomplete (and sometimes blatantly false) research generates news items that can go viral and become accepted wisdom. Pumping out content in volume has become far more important than creating high quality content that could ever withstand the scrutiny of a hard-nosed editor.

What this new world of content marketing means for individuals is simple: Assume that all “research-based” information requires close scrutiny. Believe nothing at face value, regardless of the source. If it’s important to your business strategy, or you intend to adopt the research to support your own point of view (or an upcoming PowerPoint presentation), then you’ll need to become that hard-nosed editor who scrutinizes the original source; who looks at the sample size, respondents, questions asked, etc.; and who determines whether the research results legitimately support the conclusions.

What this new world of content integrity means to companies is more complex: Assume that the “research-based” content that you produce is a reflection of your brand’s integrity. For the Marketing Department, this involves educating the corner office regarding the rigor, time and costs involved in market studies, surveys, research necessary to yield content worthy of customer-facing applications. For the corner office, this involves calculating whether the intended marketplace outcome is worth the necessary investment. It also involves avoiding shortcuts.

Without the 4th Estate as the content gatekeeper, there is now far greater opportunity for companies to benefit from content marketing. But by failing to adopt the market research integrity standards that journalists long upheld, there are far more ways for companies to damage their brand through application of the tactic.

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The Power of Unsolicited Pitch Letters

bigstockphoto_youth_pitcher_and_baseball_1941527-s600x600Over the past 20 years, most of my firm’s new business has been generated by unsolicited pitch letters sent to targeted prospects. These brief, tailored messages – sent either by email or snail mail – have not only enabled us to maintain a consistent pipeline of clients; but more importantly, we’ve built a practice consisting of high-value companies and people that we wanted to work for. And we’ve never resorted to advertising, sponsorships or other expensive, low-yielding tactics to promote our brand or services.

The simple truth is that properly researched, well-crafted pitch letters are probably the most effective way for any type of professional services firm to build its client base and grow revenue. Unsolicited pitch letters, when they succeed, can also be an extremely effective way for your firm to avoid the RFP process…by anticipating their needs, you enable the targeted company to skip the beauty contest altogether.

Here are 5 of the many lessons that we’ve learned about how to use this powerful marketing tactic properly:

The Secret Sauce is NOT the Pitch Letter. For every pitch letter we send out, my firm invests at least an hour or two researching the target company. We review all of the target’ s public facing information to understand its value proposition, competitive landscape, leadership, reputation, marketing & sales sophistication and apparent resources. Our research goal is to identify either a specific problem or an opportunity where think we can add value. Lacking this insight, you have no tangible basis for an effective pitch letter.

Your Pitch Letter Must be About Them, Not You. Your targeted decision-makers receive scores of pitch letters and phone solicitations from your competitors. Nearly all of those firms will mistakenly talk about themselves, and what they’ve done for their clients. But the only thing that’s of interest to prospects is what you can do for them. So you need to first let prospects know that you understand their problem / opportunity (because you’ve done proper research), and then offer to share your ideas on that topic. (Yes…you’ll need to have some ideas to offer.)

Grabbing Their Attention is Goal #1. Using email, your pitch letter will not be read unless you incent the target to open it. This is no easy task, given the volume of email most decision-makers receive every day. Your subject line should be serious, rather than cute or clever, and should generate some curiosity. Also try to mention the name of the target company in your subject line, so that it’s not discounted as a canned letter or mass mailing. You should also consider mailing a hard copy pitch letter, in addition to, or in lieu of an email pitch. These days, a hard copy letter is more likely to be noticed than an email.

Stop Selling and Start Listening. The only goal of your pitch letter is to start a conversation, ideally face-to-face. This is your opportunity to discuss the target’s issues and your ideas. Sometimes you’ll miss the mark, sometimes you will nail it, and sometimes they’ll have a need or problem that’s unrelated to the one you’ve identified. If you ask smart questions, take notes, and focus on understanding their business and personal circumstances (instead of seeking to walk out with a signed contract), you’ll establish the foundation for a relationship that might lead to revenue at some point.

View Selling as a Numbers Game. Timing is every in life, including business development. You can research a great target, identify their problem or opportunity, and be in a position to add value, but for 100 different reasons (unrelated to you or your pitch), the prospect is not willing, able or ready to engage you. So the only way you can address the random nature of sales is to increase the number of doors that you knock on. If you’re serious about leveraging the power of pitch letters, you’ll need to send them out on a consistent, disciplined basis. Think of your program simply as a long-term seed-sewing process, and shoot to send out 3-5 pitch letters every week. Over time, you’ll see tangible results.

There are many more tactical aspects involved in the art of pitch letters – what content to include and avoid, which individual to solicit, what attachments to include, how to monitor and follow-up, etc. – to cover in a single blog post. But simply getting started, and establishing a pitch letter routine are the two most critical steps.

What’s presented here, combined with overcoming a fear of failure, is all you’ll need to get started on the path to building your business through pitch letters. Happy hunting.

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3.5 Reasons to Skip Industry Awards

awardFor certain industries, such as financial services, that aggregate performance-related data – for example, in annual “league tables” ranking investment banks by the number or size of M&A transactions they’ve underwritten – there is some logic, as well as an objective basis, on which firms can claim to have outperformed their competitors.

But for most industries – lacking any quantitative basis or objective means on which to base relative performance of its individual companies – there are several reasons why participation in industry award competitions intended to recognize superiority or “excellence” can be a waste of resources, as well as a brand liability.

With the understanding that industry awards represent a substantial worldwide economic enterprise…here are 3.5 reasons why your ___________ (law, graphic design, accounting, management consulting, public relations, engineering, financial planning, advertising, technology, healthcare, beauty, payroll, etc.) firm should not participate in award competitions:

Reason #1: Your Awards Won’t Have Significant Influence on Prospective Clients

Fundamentally, awards are a form of extrinsic selling, and demonstrate your firm’s ability to do good work. But prospective clients are always more interested in what you can do for them, not in what you’ve done for others. Awards require prospects to make a leap a faith; to believe that your work for them will match or exceed your work for your other clients. And for some prospects, that’s a leap too large to take.

Most prospects also know that award competitions are not accurate barometers of the quality or consistency of the work you will provide. At best, awards may address the personal needs of some decision-makers who are more concerned with protecting their job (should your firm fail to deliver), rather than selecting the most qualified service provider.

Reason #2: Your Award Creates Another Content Beast that Must Be Fed

Because most award competitions are annual (and recurring sources of revenue for the sponsoring organizations), they have a very limited shelf life, in terms of your firm’s ability to promote the recognition. Most award winners proudly post the award icon on the home page of their website. But your “2016 Most Innovative IT Firm Award” begins to loose its luster around the month of July in 2017, as clients and prospects begin to wonder why your IT firm isn’t the winner of the 2017 award. If your firm has lost some of its magic, perhaps they should be looking at this year’s most innovative IT firm.

Like all other types of content designed to position your firm’s brand, industry awards are beasts that must be constantly fed. If your firm is unwilling or unable to make the commitment to pursue a particular award every year (and to risk losing, which is a strong possibility), then either pass on the competition altogether, or take down any award icons from your website that are more than a year old. Otherwise, your firm will be perceived as the 24 year-old who still wears his high school jacket with the varsity football patch. Living in the past.

Reason #3: Your Time is Better Spent Servicing Clients and Soliciting Prospects

Entering any industry award competition, if your firm is serious about winning, takes time and resources. For some firms with strong competitive instincts, this often becomes a lengthy, arduous process involving strategy sessions, dedicated teams, and even outside consultants who specialize in award submissions. (Yes, they do exist.) For large firms with deep pockets and low levels of marketing ROI accountability, award competitions can provide some level of validation for those executives looking to impress their CEO. But for small and medium-sized firms, where every marketing dollar is expected to yield tangible business results, award competitions make very little sense.

Rather than seeking brand credibility through what is a relatively weak 3rd party endorsement tactic (compared with earned media exposure, public platforms and direct client endorsements, for example) companies of all sizes are better served by re-directing award-related resources to strategies that foster referrals and increase the effectiveness of their direct solicitation process. Instead of hoping that your prospects will be impressed by your industry awards (if they happen to visit your website), build awareness and brand equity among target audiences with content that consistently showcases your firm’s intellectual capital in a non-self-serving manner.

Reason #3.5: The Award Selection System is Stacked Against You

Although the selection process for awards competitions varies greatly, all awards are subject to human bias and political / financial factors that are beyond your control, and that will always influence the outcomes. Even in “blind” competitions, if the basis of an award is subjective, relies on the opinion of a “blue ribbon panel,” or involves any type of voting / scoring system, most competitors will end up wondering why the designated winners were any more innovative, effective, attractive, or otherwise superior to them. Judging is always highly subjective, and never an accurate reflection of the best idea or solution.

For a host of reasons that are rarely discussed (such as the advantage of entrants who are advertisers in award competitions sponsored by industry publications), the award selection system is stacked against most competitors.

Their inherent weaknesses notwithstanding, and despite this particular rant, industry awards are not in any danger of losing momentum, and will remain as one component in the marketing tool kit. But the easiest tactics, like award recognitions, are not always the most effective or enduring ways to help your business grow. Think of industry awards as a car radio: they make noise, and can be nice to have…but it doesn’t help you reach your destination.

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Skip the Marketing Plan. Try this “Easy-Bake” Recipe Instead.

betty-crockerThe first question we ask prospective clients is, “Do you have a Marketing Plan?”

Most prospects sheepishly acknowledge that they don’t have a formal Marketing Plan. This group earns big points with us for honesty.

Some less forthright prospects will claim they do have a Marketing Plan, but when asked to show it to us, this group responds with, “Our plan isn’t written down,” or “It’s being updated,” which really means that they don’t have a plan.

There are several good and bad reasons why companies (of all sizes) don’t create a Marketing Plan. Those spoken and unspoken reasons include:

·     It’s too much work to create and maintain a Marketing Plan.

·     We had a Marketing Plan once, and it just sat in a 3-ring binder on the shelf.

·     Senior management doesn’t understand marketing. Why confuse them more?

·     It’s easier to just keep trying different marketing tactics, to see what works.

After decades of watching companies either earnestly struggle to create a Marketing Plan, or strenuously avoid creating one, we recently had an epiphany. We realized that most companies should SKIP the Marketing Plan altogether.

Here’s why: The ratio of companies without (versus with) a Marketing Plan will never change. So rather than badgering and shaming the “No Marketing Plan” companies, we should help them focus exclusively on the critical components of marketing that will help them succeed. We call this process the “Easy-Bake Marketing Cake Recipe.”

In Betty Crocker fashion, here are step-by-step directions for creating an Easy-Bake Marketing Cake for your company…completely devoid of all marketing jargon:

The Strategic Ingredients

Step 1: Determine why customers should buy your product / service. This seemingly simple goal – to understand what’s special about your company – is the most essential element of marketing strategy. Many companies either don’t have a clue, or have an unfounded / unrealistic viewpoint on why people should do business with them. You need to nail this step.

Step 2: Learn why customers are buying from your competitors. To gain a reliable answer to the Step 1 question, you need to possess a thorough understanding of the competitive landscape. The most successful marketers know everything about (and closely monitor) current competitors, to gain insight into why customers buy from them. They also work to anticipate new competitors, and explore potential customer solutions that could disrupt the entire category.

Step 3: Learn what your customers want and don’t want. If you’re not having a continuous, two-way conversation with current, prospective and former customers, then you are flying by the seat of your pants, marketing-wise. And you can’t rely exclusively on surveys to gain that market intelligence. Pick up the phone and talk to decision-makers at least once a quarter to really understand what they think and what they need.

The Practical Ingredients

Step 1: Define what your marketing resources are. Marketing requires money and people. Work backwards to build a marketing strategy. First decide what resources are available to invest, and then determine what strategies / tactics you can afford to apply properly and consistently. Having an “open budget” for marketing makes you a target for the latest gimmick, and is a sure way to waste a boatload of money.

Step 2: Put your sales process under the microscope. Marketing is not a religion. To justify its existence as a corporate function, marketing must help produce tangible business outcomes. Most marketing activity should be related to sales…and the sales function requires close scrutiny in advance of any marketing investment. If your sales process is broken (or non-existent), then your marketing will likely yield nothing of value.

           Step 3: Define exactly what you want your marketing to achieve. Your marketing goals should be directly or indirectly connected to activity that drives revenue. If that revenue connection is fuzzy, or based largely on wishful thinking, then either refine or eliminate the weak strategies and tactics. Be ruthless in your evaluation of all marketing activity at all times.

The Tactical Ingredients

Step 1: Select one effective direct marketing tactic. Most email solicitations go unread, with good reason: they are self-serving, poorly written and lack a compelling rationale for people to respond. But because the email marketing bar is so low, there is plenty of opportunity to stand out from the crowd. There’s also a big opportunity to leverage traditional snail mail, largely because marketers have abandoned that channel in lemming-like fashion.

Step 2: Select one smart content marketing tactic. The objective is to showcase your company’s intellectual capital (which is very different from a sales pitch), either through respected print / electronic media sources or social media, primarily to gain online visibility for that content. The 2016 marketing reality is this: If potential clients can’t find you by searching online, then you are not in the game. If you prefer to stick with the “We’re a relationship business, and don’t need an online brand presence.” marketing approach, then please let me know. I would like to short your stock.

Step 3: Select one consistent tactic to keep in touch with clients, prospects and referral sources. With so much media noise and competition, and because you can never know when people will be ready to engage, it’s important to remind decision-makers that your company is ready to help them. Quarterly communication is sufficient, and will avoid being viewed as a pest. Standard “all about us” newsletters are boring, so provide content that’s meaningful and of interest to your readers.

This overly simplistic, 9-step planning process is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the American Marketing Association. But for the vast majority of businesses who don’t have the time or interest to create a bona fide Marketing Plan, this “Easy-Bake Marketing Cake Recipe” should more than suffice.

Compared with some of the overly ambitious, non-productive Marketing Plans that we’ve seen over the years, it’s also likely to produce a much tastier outcome. Bon appetit.

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7 Signs that You’re NOT a Thought Leader

wise-man-guru-mountain-top-photo

Thought Leadership is perhaps the most widely used and consistently abused strategy in professional services marketing. There’s diverse opinion regarding what it is, and fuzzy expectations with respect to its benefits.

Our simple definition is that Thought Leadership is a content marketing strategy designed to leverage intellectual capital as a means to engage target audiences. The practical benefits of Thought Leadership are delivered through the power of “intrinsic selling.”

Without getting overly theoretical, here’s what we mean by that:

“Extrinsic selling” occurs when a seller’s credibility relies heavily on work they’ve performed for other customers. This requires the prospective customer to make a leap of faith; to believe the service provider can match or exceed what’s been done for others. It’s a “trust me” sales approach.

Conversely, intrinsic selling does not require a prospective client to base their selection on work done for others. Instead, it engages the prospective client based on ideas, opinions and advice that enables them to make their own objective decision regarding the seller’s potential to add value. Because no leap of faith is required, it’s a more powerful sales methodology.

The intellectual capital embodied within Thought Leadership is what provides you with credibility, and gives potential buyers the confidence to do business with you. It also serves as a sophisticated sales hook designed to grab their attention.

It’s easier to understand what Thought Leadership is by examining the behaviors that are contrary to its fundamental principles.

So here are 7 signs that you’re not cut out to be a Thought Leader:

  1. You call yourself a Thought Leader. Worse yet, you call yourself a “visionary.” Thought Leadership is not a mantle that can be claimed. It’s a market perception that’s earned over time, and an unofficial stature that’s assigned to you by others.
  2. Your editorial content is self-serving. If you’re unwilling to provide insights, information and recommendations without making yourself the hero, or without directly plugging your firm’s products / services, then you’re not really practicing Thought Leadership.
  3. You lack original or interesting ideas. Repurposing “archived” content (a/k/a other people’s thinking), or providing summaries or news reports of information that’s available elsewhere, will likely position you as an industry parrot, rather than a Thought Leader.
  4. You’re not a true student of your craft. Bona fide Thought Leaders are constantly focused on the current state and future direction of their professional discipline. They appreciate that a rising tide floats all boats, and unselfishly share what they know and think.
  5. You think Thought Leadership has a goal line. If you’re looking for instant gratification, and don’t completely believe, at the outset, in the long-term value of Thought Leadership as an ongoing marketing strategy, then simply scratch it off your to-do list.
  6. You refuse to share the spotlight. The most effective Thought Leaders seek to manage, rather than control, the conversation. Rather than pushing their own viewpoint, they define and promote topics and identify people worth paying attention to.
  7. You’re unwilling to work hard. Consistency is the most significant hurdle in the quest for Thought Leadership. To establish a level of top-of-mind awareness required for your target audiences to form and sustain a positive opinion, you need to generate relevant content on a quarterly basis. And that requires personal (or enterprise) discipline.

Just to be clear…the most effective Thought Leaders are not in the game for altruistic reasons. They expect a tangible return on their investment, in terms of market engagement.

Toward that end, a Thought Leadership strategy must ensure that your intellectual capital – whether it’s initially presented in a public platform (such as a seminar), through earned media (publicity), or owned media (social) channels – is also delivered directly to all relevant target audiences in a manner that’s not self-serving, and that fosters two-way conversations.

For example, rather than publicly touting that you’ve been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, you should leverage that media exposure in a more nuanced, sophisticated manner. You can expand on the underlying topic in a direct communication to clients, prospects and referral sources, soliciting their thoughts, and referencing the Wall Street Journal article (rather than your specific quote in it) as a catalyst for the discussion.

This long-winded perspective is not intended to dissuade you from seeking Thought Leadership status. To get started, you should identify a relevant, respected Thought Leader, study how they’ve earned that status, and then simply jump into the pool. Once you’re comfortable in the water, there will be ongoing opportunities to tailor an effective Thought Leadership strategy.

In true Thought Leadership fashion, please share your opinions, experiences and frustrations involving this battle-worn marketing strategy.

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