Pick up the signals before your prospective customers do.
“It’s hard to read the label when you’re stuck inside the jar.”
That’s one of my favorite lines, and it’s a go-to analogy when I’m speaking to executives about the power of their brand. But for many commercial AV brands out there, the flip of the calendar is all too often met with the same boring and ineffective marketing and brand strategies utilized in the previous year. Let’s let 2021, of all years, be when we break the cycle.
As Tony Robbins said, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” This is absolutely true in marketing. Last year’s strategy (among other things) has to stay in 2020. A brand refresh that you undertook five years ago is now five years old. We can all but guarantee that the audience has changed; the communication tactics you have to utilize to reach them have evolved.
Yet, when someone proposes making an investment in the branding-and-marketing engine that keeps the business moving forward—the engine that keeps customers coming back, offering repeat business—that proposed expenditure is often met with the rolling of eyes. This is especially troubling because the moment you decide on a strategic shakeup of branding or marketing is often six to nine months after your customers and audience have noticed rifts in your brand cohesion.
So, what are the early warning signs? What are the rifts that can cause so much brand confusion?
1. You’re embarrassed by your website, business card, blog or email signature. We’ve all been in this position before. You meet a prospective client, give a business card to him or her, and then curse yourself because you know you’ve just unwittingly sabotaged your own brand perception. How? You’ve handed over a business card that’s old and stodgy…perhaps even worn, as though it’s been sitting in your wallet for too long. Worse, you’ve directed the prospective client to a website that is a tangled mess of spec sheets, garbled content and tone-deaf messaging. This is a recipe for monumental brand failure (and a lost sale).
What could have been a great opportunity to gain a new, long-term client has just blown up in your face. Even though you might be offering the best solution, you’re giving off a subpar and inconsistent brand perception that sabotages your efforts.
Remember that branding isn’t what you say it is—it’s what they say it is.
2. You have no idea who you really are. Another telltale sign your brand needs some love can come from the answers you get when you ask C-suite executives why the organization exists. This question often yields answers such as, “We exist to make money,” or perhaps, “We exist to meet shareholders’ expectations.” This is far from the truth. More often than not, this thinking drives the business into a tailspin, ping-ponging it from one shiny object to another in an attempt to solve large problems with small solutions, all in the name of chasing profit.
The true answer to why the brand exists reveals its purpose or ethos. There is a reason the brand exists, beyond just making money. What is it? Simon Sinek, the famed author of Start With Why and Find Your Why, talks about how every organization on the planet knows what they do, but very few know why. The brands that know why they do what they do are the inspired ones…the ones that live in customers’ and fans’ hearts and minds.
Perhaps understanding your “why” is even more important in the business-to-business (B2B) space, given that so much of what we do is transactional. We’re here to sell products and move units; however, by getting into buyers’ and customers’ psyche, we can create brand relevance and foster loyalty. We can create charismatic brands that know what they stand for and that are truly focused on living out their purpose in every interaction.
3. Your customers have changed, but you haven’t. If your business hasn’t pivoted since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) appeared, I have to ask what you’ve been doing. COVID-19 has illuminated the growing shift in all audience segments, but especially in the B2B space. Decision-makers are ever younger, content-consumption habits have shifted tremendously and, let’s face it, what worked last March will not work this March!
Too many brands have either been tone-deaf during the pandemic, expecting their customers to purchase the same way they always have, or been overly lukewarm, revealing their lack of brand strategy by failing to lead in positioning and expertise. Either way, it’s time to reevaluate the situation. Take a step back and stop trying to shove a square peg into a round hole; instead, let’s sidestep and strategize.
Roger Starkweather, Founder of NewReach, a digital design agency, said, “AV brands should be proactively rethinking their brand strategies/positioning in the wake of COVID-19.” Citing an eight-percent drop in North American sales, he went on to say, “AV companies need to reshape and forge into 2021 with a refreshed, simplified approach to branding and customer acquisition.” The simplified approach to which Starkweather referred is what’s going to allow brands to be nimble enough to adapt in the face of adversity, while, simultaneously, creating a marketing engine to nurture and convert their audience.
As we said earlier, branding isn’t what you say it is—it’s what they say it is. And to understand who they are, it’s necessary to course-correct and level-set constantly.
4. Disconnect between marketing/sales/in-field staff. The running joke is that marketers think the sales team is full of a bunch of prima donnas, always wanting a new deck, more sales slicks, and better campaigns; meanwhile, the sales team thinks the marketers are always playing arts and crafts. Those perceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Both groups must work in harmony to achieve business goals. Alignment, at the very core, is essential to building resilient teams, great company culture, and an environment focused on winning and achieving goals. This can’t be done without a strategy and everyone’s buy-in.
You can also think about alignment this way: Branding is the road, whereas marketing is the car. The car will have an extremely hard time driving without the road, as the road guides the car to its destination. The car, absent the road, is liable to go in any direction, with no true goal in sight.
We’re destined for frustration, failure, and a whole lot of finger-pointing if we don’t come to understand the importance of organizational alignment. We must strategize to align and optimize our teams and our organization, ensuring we always have a full tank of gas and our location mapped.
Here’s the truth: It’s complicated. Much like my relationship status on MySpace in years past, navigating the world of branding and marketing is “complicated.” It takes a special recipe of leadership, strategy, creativity, and intelligence to have a brand-and-marketing engine that is proactive to client needs, adaptive to customer requests, and supportive of internal culture.
Now is when the next question, which is usually the first question brands ask me, comes back around. They ask, “How do we determine which marketing activities to invest in?” What an amazing, yet loaded, question!
In my previous column (December 2020), I wrote about the marketing activities I’m placing bets on this year. The grand realization is that the only way to have a predictable payout—and to earn a lifetime winning percentage—is to weaponize the brand. You have to know which levers to pull, which buttons to push and, more importantly, when to pull and push them. This is how you create an effective, return-on-investment (ROI)-focused marketing engine.
Are you ready to pull the right levers this year?
[Originally published February 2021 Sound & Communications Magazine]