Marketing, promises, and real products

How creative can (or may) a company get with making marketing promises?

You may have read this article about how a small Chinese smartphone vendor failed in delivering on its marketing promises. The world’s smallest 4G Android smartphone was announced to have a battery life of three days, and to weigh as little as 60 grams. Unfortunately, some of the promising specs turned out to be no more than marketing talk. In a BBC interview, the company’s CEO admitted that the handset’s performance might “fall short of expectations in certain circumstances” and that “heavy use” could reduce the 950mAh (!) battery’s life to three or four hours instead of days. To be noted that the exec’s definition of heavy use includes keeping Wi-Fi and Bluetooth switched on all the time. Say no more. Who of us still bothers about turning off these functions when not in use? The phone’s declared weight was about right – the only detail that the marketing department forgot to mention is that that’s without the battery…

Of course, as I wrote in one of my older poststhere’s no single truth. When it comes to product specifications and performance numbers, however, the variation and interpretation margins are extremely small. The primary aim of any marketing professional is to make a product look attractive and useful, and persuade potential buyers. But persuasion is never about telling lies, cheating or fooling your customers!

Read the original article and the BBC interview:

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Marketing lessons from Sun Tzu

The Art of War” is an ancient Chinese military handbook written during the 5th century BC by Sun Tzu. Probably only few people have read the entire book, but there are plenty of great takeaways in it for business leaders, executives, and strategists.

And though a customer should never be your enemy, and a sales presentation should never be a battle (not even with yourself), Sun Tzu’s enemy may be regarded as a metaphor for a business opportunity to pursue, and the war as the process of conquering your audience’s heart, mind, and wallet.

sun-tzu

Below are a handful of my favorite Art of War quotes (taken from the 1910 English translation by Lionel Giles), and how yours truly interprets and applies them in his daily job as a corporate marketer, business developer, and B2B storyteller.

First, always make sure you know your customers, the environment in which they work or live, and the opportunities and challenges they face prior to addressing them:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” (from chapter 10: Terrain)

As Sun Tzu clarifies at the beginning of his treatise, “Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons,” and “Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” But also, know your own strengths and weaknesses as they may set limits to what you can tell, do, or commit to.

Based upon this knowledge – of both your audience and yourself –  you can then adapt your sales strategy and customer value proposition properly:

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

Preparation is key. It’s all about you being ready to face the market and the customers. Build a message house, define your pitch, craft your presentation, and plan your meeting carefully.

“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” (from chapter 8: Variation in tactics)

Support your presentation with proper visuals and multimedia testimonials (a.k.a. gongs, drums, banners, and flags)

“On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.” (from chapter 7: Maneuvering)

But, always remember – as I have emphasized many times before in my blog posts – look and feel matter! Be direct and indirect. Be creative and consistent. Be subtle and clear.

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

“There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.” (from chapter 5: Energy)

Finally, always choose your battle and don’t waste your (or your customer’s) time if there’s no real opportunity for growing your market or creating new business.

“The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.” (from chapter 3: Attack by Stratagem)

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.” (from chapter 6: Weak Points and Strong)

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” (from chapter 7: The Attack by Fire)

I realize that making connections between ancient warfare and today’s business environment is not straightforward. Still I see Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a timeless and priceless masterpiece that may help marketers and sales people to develop successful strategies, make better decisions, run effective campaigns, deliver powerful presentations, and consequently generate more business.

About folklorists, evangelists and futurists

The past is an experience, the present is an experiment, the future is expectations. Use your experience in your experiment to achieve your expectations! – Anonymous quote

A few weeks ago I read a HBR column titled “Why marketing needs to hire a corporate folklorist”. The key point of the article was that every market-centered company should hire a chief storyteller to manage the collective memory of its brand.

More often than occasionally, the future of an organization is anchored in its past.  Some big companies even actively treasure, celebrate and monetize their historic brand icons:

  • At the 2015 CES show in Las Vegas, Kodak introduced a photography-focused smartphone dubbed the “Instamatic 5“. A clear hint to the company’s family of success products in the 1960s.
  • IBM’s futuristic Artificial Intelligence system, “Watson,” has been named after Big Blue’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson, who lead the company during the first half of the previous century.
  • The current Volkswagen Beetle’s exterior design is heavily inspired by the original 1938 model. The People’s Vehicle that dethroned the Ford T in 1972 as the world’s bestselling car ever.
  • The Coca Cola bottle, one of the most recognized icons in the world, still inherits the contour design of 1915, “which a person could recognize even if they felt it in the dark, and so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.”

Does this mean that all your brand marketing stories have to be echoes of the past? Certainly not. But there’s also nothing wrong with cherishing our collective memory ― while living (and doing business) in the present and preparing for the future.

Here are a few good reasons for doing so:

  • Trust: although past performance has never been (and will never be) a guarantee of future results, a company with a long-standing history of success may be conveying a more trustful image than a little known newcomer.
  • Identity: you cannot wipe out a company’s past. Whether positive or negative, it reflects on its current image, identity and reputation.
  • Story: citing the HBR article, every touch point in the marketing mix – including advertising, executive communication, demand generation, sales enablement, and customer support – benefits from an injection of folklore because stories are a potent vehicle for persuasion.

When I worked as a freelancer for Apple Computer in the late eighties, that company already recognized the role of “evangelists”. Guy Kawasaki, about whom I wrote in my “Four storytellers about storytelling” post was one of them. Kawasaki’s describes evangelistic marketing as “when you convince people to believe in your dream as much as you do.”

About a decade later, I also had a “Marc the Evangelist” photo with a Venetian lion sticking on the door of my office in Alcatel.

pax_tibi

The function of evangelist still exists today. Although it may pop up under different names such as “advocate”, “rainmaker”, “corporate storyteller” or even, ugh, “solution consultant”. In a November 2013 blog post,  I talked about a study by the French ManpowerGroup that identified the Storyteller as one of three emerging job profile for the future.

Here’s why you should appoint or hire one or more company evangelist(s):

  • Brand marketing: to get your customers emotionally engaged with your company and/or your brand. To communicate with them about your core values and differentiators, and position your offer beyond functionality and price.
  • Thought leadership: to listen to your customers, change the conversation and establish a new dialog with them. Evangelists may also help you to identify opportunities and open up doors for new business.
  • Portfolio clarification: to let your audience better understand your products, services and solutions. A well told story will simplify information, make your message more memorable, and (maybe) persuade people when facts can’t.

Things are changing fast in this world, and companies need to watch ahead to learn about what’s coming. This is why also futurists appear (an internal or external resources) in marketing organizations:

  • Identify long term business opportunities: keeping up with market and technology trends is crucial for the continuity of any business. One of the key tasks of a corporate futurist is to research new trends, offer insights and suggest new business opportunities.
  • Inspire company strategy and drive product roadmap: insight in what’s coming may give a competitive edge to a company, allowing to target future markets, with better product functionality and timely roadmaps.
  • Trend watching and trend setting: a good marketer (and even a sales person) should talk about the future and give customers a perspective of the “things to come.” Personally, I believe that providing a 2-5 year vision statement is one of the best methods for selling the products and services that you have available today.

For illustration, here‘s the link to a futurist type presentation I delivered earlier this week at a Fiber to the Home conference.

futurist

As a conclusion and a call to action: in many companies there’s a role to play for folklorists, evangelists and futurists, or – why not – for this one rare bird that can connect the past, the present and the future and deliver the best of all times as a single story.

More reading:

Playing at a theater near you

In this week’s post I’m writing about what was probably the most impactful, but certainly the most fun business presentation I delivered in my whole career. A genuine example of transmedia storytelling, even before the concept and the term were widely used.

In 2005 –in-between the burst of the internet bubble and the demise of Lehman Brothers– when there was still corporate money to spend on single-customer marketing campaigns, my company (at that time pre-merger Alcatel) organized a solutions showcase for a major UK customer. To generate interest and create an upfront hype, we organized it as as a private event near the customer’s London headquarters and promoted it as a Hollywood blockbuster movie: “The Convergence Factor”.

tcf

The Convergence Factor theme was chosen to highlight the effect that the availability of broadband technologies and the convergence of telecom services (fixed and mobile, voice and data, communications and entertainment, …) could have on people’s every day lives. Consequently, the script of the showcase was emphasizing on the business value of these converging technologies, the opportunity to create new applications, and the unprecedented user experience they were enabling – rather than doing a sales pitch on our products or solutions.

A tagline “Life Held Them Prisoner, Until Convergence Set Them Free” complemented the title to suggest drama, and intrigue and engage our target audience. All campaign elements such as direct mails, teaser trailer, web portal, event signage and give-away gadgets were also branded with the Convergence Factor identity.

The presentation itself was delivered as a transmedia mix of three distinctive, on-stage narratives with live demos, interspersed by tailor-made Hollywood-style movie trailers produced by Twist & Shout, a UK-based communications agency.

Instead of doing one single performance in front of a plenary audience, we decided to present intimately to groups of 5 to 10 people, who could freely register for a session depending on their availability.  As such, my colleague and I gave 15 presentations over a period of 5 days, and reached out to an audience of almost 150 customer executives.

Have a look at the trailer and the movies, and try to imagine what the presentation might have been like. I’m sure our customer still remembers…

Profession: storyteller

“The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often.” — Hugh MacLeod in “How to be Creative

The quote above, also known as Hugh MacLeod’s Sex and Cash theory, says it clearly: you need a job to earn your living, and “being creative” is not always on top of the list of an employer’s expectations. The ideal occupation, of course, is when you can follow your passion, leave your mark on the world and at the same time make money. But, there’s some good news for the creative among us…

A study carried out by the French ManpowerGroup has identified three emerging job profiles for the future: the Protector, the Optimizer and the Storyteller.

The latter one, the Storyteller, is described as  a “craftsman of engagement”. He or she gives meaning to (or renews) the company’s engagement in times of crisis and communicates with all stakeholders through dialog and social media. In today’s organizations we often find these creative people in marketing and communications functions such as “Content Marketer”, “Digital Brand Manager” or “Community Manager” and in business supporting roles, including “Innovation Valorization Managers”, “Business Evangelists” and “Cultural Engineering Consultants”.

storyteller_bizcard

Although I have met only very few people with “Corporate Storyteller” on their business card (some companies have seen the light, and e.g. SAP hired “Chief Storyteller” Julie Roehm about 20 months ago), storytelling is becoming the new gospel of business. And those creatives who can create compelling stories, get their message across, and inspire audiences’ passion will stand out in the new era of content and meaning.

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading:

The perceived value of value

As I discussed in former blog posts about “five lessons from B2C” and “the good life”, there’s a lot that business presenters can learn from consumer marketing. A key lesson is that there is no universal standard that defines value.

I have worked in high-tech companies for many years now, and although me and most of my fellow marketers proudly call ourselves “customer centric”, we tend to assume that we always need to impress our audience with the latest ‘n’ greatest technology and with the best in class performance. And we use to call this “value”.

But lately I presented to an industrial customer who didn’t get impressed by the Mbps, GHz or PPI figures, the complex system architectures and the tons of product features he was bombarded with, but kept asking for a simple, stable and field proven solution. To this specific prospect, “value” just meant that the product would flawlessly do what it was supposed to do – nothing more, but also nothing less. And at a reasonable (which is not the same as the lowest possible) cost.

This is exactly what is happening in B2C too. Starbucks is offering good coffee at a “bearable” price (but not cheap at all). Their value offering is in the quality and the choice of their products, combined with a few extra differentiators (or benefit experiences) such as e.g. free Wi-Fi.

starbucks

McDonald’s is a similar case. Why would you spend big money to take your young children to a three-star restaurant if there’s Happy Meal® box and a PlayPlace at walking distance?

And there is also the story of Harvey’s: a half-a-century old hardware store in Massachusetts that sells commodity goods like nuts and bolts, but manages to obtain a revenue per square meter that is almost four times higher than its large-scale competitors  – by pricing products based on the (perceived) value of the benefit experiences they provide to their customers.

Sometimes good is good enough. No thrills, but also no surprises. With a few extras. No need to compete with players in a different league. So, hard value doesn’t exist. Value is in the perception of the beholder. It is a subjective concept that lies squarely in the minds of your customers and it’s always related to the context of their business, working or living environments.

So, as a B2B presenter, you’d better adapt your content and adopt your tone to the needs and expectations of your audience. And give them value for listening to you.

Other articles about the companies mentioned in this post: