Brand Journalists Ask Hard Questions; This Is Good for Everyone

Journalists seek the truth. They don’t always find it and the truth doesn’t always find its way into the published story, but the pursuit remains. In marketing communications, as in journalism, the need to challenge and to question is equally important.

These are the core questions that a dedicated brand builder must continually ask:

  1. Why should anyone care about our messages or our products?
  2. Have we walked a mile in the customer’s shoes?
  3. Are we merely talking to ourselves?
  4. What is the company’s true point of difference in the marketplace?
  5. Where do the customer’s interests intersect with the brand’s?

Discovery is fundamental to the communications profession.

These core questions—when left unanswered—will hang on the air like late-summer humidity in Houston. They’re also capable of making people sweat.

Asking tough questions (whether or not trust has been established) may put the person with the purse in a defensive position, and that’s risky business. Yet, there’s no point in going forward until the fundamentals of the marketing proposition are properly aired. A client may want to believe that his product is the only basis for a conversation that the company needs. But it’s rarely the case because people don’t want to be pitched. A brand’s true task is to meet people on common ground.

Mediums Change, People Persist

Customers are not abstractions. Customers are not personas. Customers are not uniform. Customers are people and people are complex individuals.

I advise clients to push past personas and get to know the real people who buy and who consider buying from them. It’s not helpful to appeal to a false composite named “Jane” or “John”. There are real people on the other side of the communications. What do they need to hear? What will move them to care?

My role as a content strategist is to develop and hone the voice of the brand. My role as a copywriter and creative director is to execute on the agreed-upon direction, so the brand voice is consistent and compelling.

To perform my duties, I need to dig in, in order to gain greater understanding. I need to put on my brand journalist’s hat and find the truth inherent in the product, and the truths embedded in the customer community, or it’s just more marketing noise and there’s zero value in that.

Bill Bernbach’s “unchanging man” is obsessed with survival, with admiration, love, and family. Can your product or service rub up against these things? If “yes,” you’ve got a strong starting place on the way to creating customer-centric marketing that meets people on their terms.

Successful marketers know how to connect with the audience on the audience’s terms. I understand that it can be hard for some clients to see it this way because they have something to say and the money to say it. Helping them flip the script and see things as the customer does is one of the most valuable services that we provide.

Dependency Theory and Client Service

Scholars in the 1970s developed a media dependency theory to help explain and understand the effects of mass media on audiences and of the interactions between media, audiences, and social systems. The main focus of the theory is the relationship between media and audiences. I don’t know if any advertising industry scholars have ever examined or considered a client service dependency theory. I can see how the argument might go.

The ad industry has always been dependent. Our first dependency was on media, newspapers in particular. This media dependency is alive and unwell today. One might assume that digital disruption broke this bond, but it did not. Now, we’re playing the platforms game instead of pursuing the “every company is a media company” high road. When Facebook falls from its perch, as companies sometimes do, what then? Then your agency’s media dependency, which is unwisely shared with your clients, is a stinky egg mess on your otherwise attractive face.

Agency operators have media dependencies on one hand, and client dependencies on the other. By holding on to clients for a long duration, it may lessen the need for a perfected new business process, although an agency is always on the hunt for new business, whatever the guiding philosophy of the founders.

Agencies want to earn trust and spend many years servicing the account. It sounds reasonable enough, but what do clients want? Do they also seek to establish the kind of trust that opens the door to breakthrough work and extended multi-year contracts? That’s wishful thinking. Clients almost always look past the agency to their true desire, which is more and better customers spending more money on their products as soon as possible.

The right agency is the vehicle that can deliver them to said promised land, and for that, we get a grateful nod and a wad of cash at the end of the ride. And there’s nothing wrong with this math. What’s wrong is failing to see it for what it is.

By acknowledging what clients truly want, we are better able to deliver it. Clients don’t want a long term relationship with us, they want a non-bumpy ride to the promised land, or in our angler’s vernacular, they want to hire a captain and crew to expeditiously deliver them to the hungriest fish in the sea.

You can hire Bonehook right now to:

  • Provide strategic planning and discovery that will dramatically improve your brand messaging
  • Make your brand come alive via design and writing
  • Deliver live skill-building workshops

You can hire us to provide all of the above.

Whichever form future projects take, we will help you navigate stormy waters and help you understand your brand from your customer’s point of view. This process is called “thinking like a fish,” and it’s been proven to work by many an old man in the sea.

Client Showcase: Rio Grande Valley Rapid Response Network

Right now, there are twelve hundred men, women, and children stuck in Matamoros, on the Mexican side of the international border. The people have no food, no water, no work, and no home. Faced with these conditions, they await an asylum hearing in the U.S., which is typically scheduled many months from the time of their arrival at the border.

The good news is there is a coalition of local activists in Brownsville and throughout the Rio Grande Valley delivering humanitarian relief daily. American citizens cross the border with food and water, clothes, diapers, and tents. Also, volunteers provide legal aid, medical aid, transportation, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Last July, I went looking for a way to contribute to these relief efforts. Thankfully, I found Rio Grande Valley Rapid Response Network, a newly formed coalition of local activist groups in Brownsville. The more I learn about the people on the ground in Brownsville doing this heavy lifting, the more impressed I am. This team is made of intelligent, compassionate professionals who have graciously welcomed Bonehook’s support. Now, I ask for yours.

I am driven to use my talents and connections to let the rest of Texas and the world know what’s going on, and how to get involved in providing humanitarian solutions. While politics caused this mess, this is not a political response. This is good people helping other people in dire need.

Today, after months of preparation and coordination with the team, we launch the organization’s new website. Please visit to learn more about the incredible work being done at the border and how you can contribute much-needed money, supplies, and volunteer hours.

For the latest updates, follow @RapidRGV on Twitter and Facebook.