In the last issue of this newsletter, I shared six questions I explore when I’m asked to evaluate a company’s marketing efforts:

  1. Are your marketing efforts focused on the right results?
  2. Are you clear about what you want customers to do?
  3. Are you clear about the rich story you want customers to understand?
  4. Are your marketing efforts integrated over the entire lifecycle of a customer’s relationship with your company?
  5. Are you focused on internal marketing within the company?
  6. Does management allow its marketing professionals to succeed?
  7. Does your marketing department “get it done?”

In that issue I discussed questions 1 and 2. In this issue, I’d like to explore question 3 and address questions 4, 5 and 6 over the next few issues.

Question 3:
Are you clear about the rich story you want customers to understand?

I get to “look behind the curtain” at many companies, and the best, most successful companies can always tell me, with rich detail, what they want their customers to think about them. I’m sorry to say that these companies are the minority; most companies are unable to articulate a clear, rich brand story that they want customers to believe.

But there’s another problem. Many companies don’t realize that they can’t articulate this story. To explain what their brand story is, they tell me things like, “We have a full range of solutions to help companies be more profitable.” Huh? Or, “We want customers to know we’ve been in business since 1955.” So what? I get this one a lot: “We want customers to think we are trustworthy and have the best products.” Yawn.

We live in a busy, crowded marketplace where we compete for the love and attention of our customers every minute of every day. If your story is not compelling, you have given customers no reason to allocate their rationed mind-space to you.

At Yastrow & Company, we use a full basket of branding tools, and I’d like to share one of those here. It’s a short “litmus test,” which I first wrote about in Brand Harmony. The idea is this: If a customer is going to have a clear, compelling and motivating brand impression of you, that impression needs to satisfy these three criteria:

  1. I get it – The customer clearly understands your story.
  2. I want it – The customer sees how your product is meaningful to him or her.
  3. I can’t get it anywhere else – The customer believes that your product, service or, most importantly, his relationship with you, can’t be duplicated elsewhere.

I get it

Let’s look at one of the examples I gave above: “We have a full range of solutions to help companies be more profitable.”

It’s really hard to understand what this means. Software companies could say this. Financial advisory firms could say this. Operations consultants could say this. And what about the solutions? I have no idea what you can do for me! Can you at least give me enough information to get me past “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?”

In the past twenty years we have seen a plethora of new business models, with companies popping into existence offering a set of services or products that no company has ever offered before. It used to be that you could “get” what a company did just by hearing what it industry it was in. You knew what an accounting firm was, you knew what a grocery store was, you knew what hospital was. But now it’s commonplace for people to come up with very uncommon offerings. I remember in 1994 receiving a cold call from someone who said his company was an “Internet Presence Provider.” My first reaction was, “I’ve never hear that one before.” (Fortunately, I haven’t heard it much since, either.)

Clarity is the essence of “I get it.” Is your story clear? Do you make it easy for your customers to get it?

Look at your marketing efforts. Listen to your sales people talk to prospects. Monitor the telephone calls your inside sales people have with customers. Is your story clear? Could a smart 15-year-old hear it, understand it, and then be able to describe it to a friend? (Don’t worry, for the moment, about whether he would want to tell his friend. Just ask yourself if your story is clear enough that he would be able to do it.) Is your story clear enough that a very busy person (A.K.A. “all of your prospects and customers”) would quickly be able to say, “Oh, I see,” and completely understand what you could do for her?

I want it

Here’s the next example from above: “We want customers to know we’ve been in business since 1955.”

People don’t care about something just because it’s true.

And: People don’t care about something just because you care about it.

For a brand story to be compelling, it needs to encourage a customer to think, “I really want that.” People don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “Wow, I really want to work with a company that has been around for a long time,” unless you help them see how that really matters to them. And, of course, how long a company has been in business is only one of thousands of different things companies say to their customers that are meaningless to the customers.

Companies selling technical products often fall into the trap of promoting things customers don’t really care about, because they are so enamored of their own technology. Your engineers may get a buzz when they talk about the impedance of your KQ-743 high voltage capacitors, but that might have a soporific effect on your customers. Consultants make this mistake often, as they overwhelm prospects with the nuances of their methodologies, making the prospect think, “That sounds expensive.” instead of “I want it.”

Assess the promises your company makes, and ask yourself if they are worth caring about. Are the promises you make promises that really mean something to customers? Do you really propose to make a difference in their lives? Are you truly presenting yourself as something worth caring about, especially in the option-laden land-of-plenty in which you compete?

Set the “I want it” bar high. Ignore your own infatuation with what you sell. Think purely from the point of view of the customer, focusing only on what the customer would find meaningful. And, most importantly, look beyond what you (or your CEO) think is important.

I can’t get it anywhere else

People will only value your brand story if they believe that you give them something they can’t get anywhere else. Companies frequently make the mistake of making claims that their competitors could also make. For example, when a company says, “We want customers to think we are trustworthy and have the best products,” most customers won’t think this company is any different from the competition.

Trustworthiness and good products are examples of features that can’t differentiate you in this marketplace. Even if you are better than your competitors, your customers may not be able to see (or care about) a discernible difference.

In most cases, I encourage clients not to try to differentiate themselves by being “better” than the competition. I’ll never forget one question on a research survey I administered shortly after I became vice-president of resort marketing for Hyatt Hotels in late 1991. Shortly after I arrived on the job, I asked many Hyatt executives what made our resorts so special, and most of them said, “Because our resorts are better than our competitors. We have higher level of quality.” Sure enough, we scored very high on quality in my customer research: A top two-box score of 96% (i.e., on a five point scale, 96% of people rated us a 4 or a 5). That’s a great score, except Westin also scored 96% on resort quality, Four Seasons scored 97% and Sheraton Resorts scored 94%. As far as our customers were concerned, we all had great quality. It was not a parameter on which any of us could differentiate ourselves.

Notice another fact: Hyatt scored 96% and Sheraton Resorts scored 94%. If I had asked 100 Hyatt executives, back at the time of this study, if we had higher quality resorts than Sheraton, how many do you think would have said, “Yes?” 100? I’m sure. But note that only 2 out of 100 consumers thought we were better. Even if you are better, your customers may not be able to tell.

This reminds me of a quote Tom Peters related to me. When asked about the early strategy of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia said, “We didn’t want to be the best at what we did, we wanted to be the only ones who did what we did.” If you want your customers to think, “I can’t get it anywhere else,” don’t claim to be better. Show your customers that you are different.

As you assess your marketing and sales efforts, ask yourself if you really are promising something that customers “can’t get anywhere else.” Are you confusing “I want it” with “I can’t get it anywhere else,” i.e., focusing on something that is meaningful to customers but readily available from your competitors? Are you using your own yardstick to determine if you are better than the competition, without realizing that the customer has a much less discerning yardstick?

You compete in a very tough marketplace, against some very formidable competition. Don’t just focus on mundane differentiating factors, such as being trustworthy, having integrity or selling good products, or it will be too easy for your customers to see you as “just another one of those companies.” And don’t try to prove you are better, or you will give your customers another reason to see you as one of many adequate choices. (Remember, even if you are better, your customers may not give you credit for it.)

The “So What?” Reality Check

“I get it, I want it and I can’t get it anywhere else” is a tried and true litmus test of a motivating brand impression. Anything less will not inspire your customers to act as powerfully on behalf of your product.

Look at the overall story you are communicating to prospects and customers, and assess whether you are creating a rich, compelling, inspiring story. Do you cross all three hurdles: “I get it, I want it, I can’t get it anywhere else?”

Here’s an easy way to tell if you do: Imagine you are a customer and you ask yourself, “So what?” What would the answer be?

Or, as writer Sally Hogshead would ask, “Is your message fascinating?” Mere attention to your message isn’t enough.

Aim high. Be self-critical. Don’t cut yourself any slack. Your customers won’t.

In the next issue, on December 29th, I’ll explore Question 4, “Are your marketing efforts integrated over the entire lifecycle of a customer’s relationship with your company?” In the meantime, please have a look at Questions 1 and 2 from my last issue: Are your marketing efforts focused on the right results? Are you clear about what you want customers to do? Then, spend some time pondering the questions I’ve posed for you today. If you do, you’ll be well on the way to determine if your company is doing good marketing, and also be closer to ensuring that you do.

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