Monthly Archive: May 2012

It’s 2012, Don’t Be Afraid To Invite Scrutiny And Comparison Shopping

Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman are managing directors at Harvard Business Review. Spenner and Freeman came up with something they call the “decision simplicity index,” which measures how easy it is for consumers to gather and understand information about a brand, how much they can trust the information they find, and how readily they can weigh their options. The easier a brand makes the purchase-decision journey, the higher its decision-simplicity score and the more likely it is to be purchased, repurchased and recommended to others.

The authors argue that their findings indicate the need for a profound shift from marketers. If simplifying the purchase-decision journey is the goal, it means brands need to do more than convey product attributes. The order of the day is to also provide specs on competitive products. It may seem counterintuitive, but the prospective buyer is going to seek out that information, with or without the aid of the brand under consideration. By providing an honest assessment of the competition, a brand says to its prospects, “we are not afraid of the facts, and we’re here to help you make the best decision, regardless.”

Clearly this approach will scare many brand managers off, but Spenner and Freeman do provide examples of companies on the edge of the new frontier in radical transparency. They don’t point to any brands doing the kind of comparison shopping online that Progressive Insurance is known for, but they highlight companies where customers share tips and insights with one another. J.C. Penney and American Eagle, for instance, have capitalized on the “haul video” phenomenon by hosting unbiased haulers on their sites and in their digital communications. Neither retailer requires that the haulers show only brands purchased at its store, and the haulers are transparent about their links to the companies (Penney, for instance, gives its star haulers gift cards).

I’m slightly freaked out by the haul video concept, but I’m not a digital native, nor a teen girl. Clearly, making video confessionals is common today, and young ladies want to discuss their purchases. So, who am I to judge?

What about the world of advertising agencies? How can business-to-business buyers of marketing and communications services get the scoop on the agencies being considered for a project, or for AOR status? As far as I know there is no place to get this kind of online peer evaluation for agencies and design shops. I guess Chief Marketing Officers still do it the old-fashioned wat — they call their business school buddies and attempt to get a read on a shop’s reputation and capabilities. Should there be an Angie’s List for professional services like advertising and design? Probably. I did check to see if Yelp had any local returns under “Advertising” and it turns out Yelp does. Both Wieden + Kennedy and Leopold Ketel & Partners are listed, and both have at least one review on their Yelp page.

I can’t imagine agencies working to easy the purchase-decision journey for prospective clients by hosting community dialogue on their sites, where current and former clients (and possibly staff) would be encouraged to talk, and perhaps break down what’s right and what’s wrong with the place. Agencies, like all companies, want to protect their image and they don’t want to invite comparison shopping. But it might be time to consider a new way of doing things, because it is impossible to deny that the comparison shopping will go on, particularly for high dollar items. Of course, it is a bit scary to consider, but I believe good things can come from embracing and facilitating the journey prospects actually take.

PR Wants To Muscle In (I Can Respect That)

In my hunt for work, I have visited over 100 different agencies over the years. Last month I paid my first ever visit to a PR shop — Fleishman Hillard in San Francisco. I’ve also been trying to get a meeting with the content team at Waggener Edstrom in Portland and/or Seattle for months, to no avail. Why? Because I’m a specialist in content marketing and many ad agencies have little clue about the practice. I’m not convinced PR agencies are much better, but I want to see for myself before making that call.

With this in mind, Timothy Kane’s guest piece in Ad Age is interesting to me. Kane works for Makovsky & Company, a PR shop in New York City. He makes some bold claims about PR’s reach, but let’s go with it for the moment.

Instead of trying to encapsulate your brand in a strategic statement, try writing a narrative for your brand. That’s what public relations does.

…They’re not your customers; they’re your constituents. It’s been said often, but it bears repeating: People don’t buy brands. They join them. So modern brands must function like political parties, identifying issues, expressing a coherent world view, staging debates and structuring dialogues.

I like his passion, but the fact is we all deal in brand narrative. How we tell our clients’ stories is what distinguishes one agency from another, and one marketing communications practice from another.

Kane suggests that Apple’s success is a win for PR, not advertising. He also notes that Nike is spending a lot less money on advertising these days. I think it’s pretty evident that Apple’s success is the result of superior product, supported by unrivaled branding. Nike’s success, on the other hand, is all about how their brand story plays out on TV. Maybe they don’t need to spend as much on TV as they once did, but that’s partly due to the rock solid foundation they created for the brand on TV.

I know PR shops, like every other type of agency under the sun, are desperate to tell brand stories on the Web today. There’s a lot of money on the line, and we must convey our expertise to clients so they’ll trust us with their most important tasks. And I’m not here to diminish PR, as I said above I want to learn more about the field. But help me understand, if you will, how firms that traditionally influence journalists are better prepared to reach customers and prospects? Ad agencies speak directly to customers and prospects. Granted, the vehicles they use to do so are a bit rusty, but the fact remains ad pros know how to persuade people to buy things.

I’ll conclude by saying that I spent several years working in so-called marketing services agencies. At the time, I may not have appreciated what a solid grounding in MarCom I was treated to in these environments. Now I see. The bottom line is our ability to establish interest over the long term. The interest is created by brand stories and the stories must be told in a variety of ways — in store, at branded events, online, on TV and radio, in the press and so on. Call it what you will, but to my mind “Relationship Marketing” is the roof over all our heads.