marketing basics ignored

The marketing basic that most serious execs ignore

Storm Imogen is grabbing headlines in the UK this week, following storm Henry last week and reminding us all of the experiment being run by the UK and Irish Met Office to name storms. It began in September last year and since then we have had eight named storms including Abigail, Desmond and Gertrude. The reason given for the experiment is the belief that the naming helps efficient communication and means ‘the public will be better placed to keep themselves, their property and their businesses safe’. In doing this the two Met Offices are clearly following a system that began in 1953 in the US, and has named all hurricanes since then.

Basic communication tool

Giving memorable and easily identifiable names to something is a basic communication tool which we all use at home when we name our children and pets, give nicknames to our neighbours or name our boats and cars. So why do senior executives, particularly in software, tech and financial services companies wilfully chose not to do this?

Leonard Nimoy Spock 1967

Spock in 1967 StarTrek. Naming a product after a well loved character makes it memorable.

So let’s take a hypothetical example. Imagine we have a new bit of software, aimed at the small business market and called SME Payroll Overpayments Corrector. The name is a mouthful but call it SPOCK (S-P-O-C (k)) instead and suddenly we have something memorable and easy to talk about. It doesn’t have to be an acronym, that is just one easy way of doing it. But you could call this widget Pegasus or Humphrey or Matilda without any justification, or name it after the inventor or the Saints Day of the launch. Whatever is chosen will be more memorable than SME Payroll Overpayments Corrector. 

Too frivolous

The funny thing is, and I have seen this many times, when PR or marketing professionals suggest to serious executives that they deploy this simple trick, the idea is rejected as being ‘too frivolous’ or ‘out of line with the group branding’.

In one dismissive stroke of ‘group think’ one of the most basic marketing tricks of all is dismissed. And sadly it will be these same executives who are likely to later complain that the brilliant new product or widget has not had the recognition, traction or media coverage they would have liked.

Cats and Apple 

Naming blog useable pic

Apple are now naming their operating systems after Californian landmarks

The tech company Apple is much admired as a well-run business. Why do we think they chose to name their operating systems after cats (Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar etc.)? Because it made them memorable and easier to talk about. Of course for the geeks, all these also had numbers such as 10.3 and 10.4 etc. But the cat name was given prominence. Recently Apple ran out of cats and has moved to naming operating systems after well-known Californian locations: Mavericks, Yosemite etc. Here is a fuller explanation from Business Insider.

Brics and Ticks

The naming trick has also been deployed with great effect in economics and investment circles, many, many times. Think of bulls and bears for example.  Jim O’Neill is a British Economist once chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. He is best known for coining the acronym BRICs in the early 2000’s. As all my bankers will know this stands for Brazil, Russia, India and China but the acronym is used in the context of the (once) fastest growing emerging economies. Recently the FT was arguing that BRICs have now been superseded by TICKs – Taiwan, India, China and South Korea, the new darlings of emerging market investors.

And just in case you are still thinking this is all too silly, let’s remember the genius who in 1993, rather late in a crowded market of new mobile phone companies (many of which subsequently fell by the wayside) decided to call his company Orange. Who would have thought that would work!


From marketing material to stories: mistakes to avoid

Who should decide what counts as ‘news’?

An interesting piece in this weekend’s FT highlighted the challenge that ‘corporate news’ now poses to traditional journalism. By which I mean the trend for companies not only to bypass the media by self-publishing PR stories, blogs or video clips, but also to create their own community news portals in which they present their stories as impartial news.

Some examples are given in the FT piece, which I strongly recommend reading.

Now, I am all for companies telling the best possible version of their story but I am squeamish about them sponsoring community websites which mix only positive corporate PR stories in with other kinds of ‘news’ (which presumably is not so positive). It’s clever and I am probably naive. But as someone who is a former journalist and works with a lot of PRs I’m not convinced this kind of approach won’t backfire in the longer term because it seeks to control the terms of the conversation rather than genuinely expanding it. And that runs counter to the supposedly transparent, inclusive principles, which underpin the digital age we now live in.

That said, companies are doing a sensible thing by taking a more journalistic approach to telling their stories, not least because many of them have been their own worst enemy when it comes to humanising what they do and the broader social benefits they bring.

So, if you are going to do more storytelling for your company or client, here are few tips.


Turning marketing puff into good stories is not easy

1. Sell the benefits not the product

People working on these stories are frequently only given marketing literature or press releases to draft from. These inevitably focus on what is particularly cool or new about the product rather than emphasising the particular social need it meets. So, for example, if you or your client manufactures a type of handbag that is made from 100% recycled material and still looks good and lasts a long time then you need to tell the bigger story of dwindling resources, saving the planet while looking good etc. Very few people who might read this story will care about the product or its qualities in their own right. But if you appeal to their values, they might.

2. Don’t believe the hype

This also means you need to challenge the cliches which pervade marketing literature but look lazy or over-sold in stories. Usual suspects include ‘innovative’, ‘experience’, ‘unique’, ‘transformative’ and ‘exceptional’. They succeed only in being simultaneously bland yet hyperbolic (and usually unsubstantiated). After all, we are still talking about a cup of coffee or a pair of headphones. Keep your language grounded and make a point of showing (using facts and examples and independent evidence) not telling. If you don’t have enough information, go back to your client or your colleagues and ask for more. This is an iterative process so don’t worry if you think your first effort is a bit thin.

This is a personal gripe but you should also limit your use of compound nouns. Used sparingly they are fine but when I read lots of references to ‘meat-eaters’, ‘coffee-lovers’, ‘tech-aficionados’ etc I can’t help feeling that is a lazy way to try and create a movement around something that doesn’t really exist. Now, I know this is a marketing technique but it doesn’t work for stories, particularly if used too often. I am all for making language interesting but this doesn’t do it.

Here are a couple of traps to avoid. If you have any other suggestions I’d love to hear them.


Telling tales: how to develop a storytelling culture at work

Barely a day goes by without some communications tsar or journalist evangelising the benefits of storytelling for business and politics. And regular readers of this blog and our clients will also know just how much emphasis we place on the value of stories for making arguments concrete and memorable for the media, politicians, voters, customers or other members of the public.

“The manager of a bottling plant in Alsace told me the other day that …” can lead to an illustration of the importance of new labour regulations, environmental controls, human rights legislation, etc, etc.

“I was travelling in Eastern Spain over the Christmas holidays and came across a …” could introduce a killer example to support an immigrant rights campaign, social welfare legislation, drought/flooding alleviation measures, language-teaching subsidies, etc, etc.

That’s fine, in principle. But how do you develop a storytelling culture in organisations or industries whose staff see this kind of approach as purely something for the communications department to focus on?

stories at work

A well crafted story makes messages memorable and sticky

Brussles doesn’t do story-telling well. Here are some tips for beleaguered communications staff to wield with recalcitrant colleagues.

1. Remember the big picture

Unless you are seriously odd, or read the rightwing British press (or both), EU regulation and legislation are not end-goals in their own right. Whether you’re talking to MEPs, journalists or members of your trade association, the particular directive your colleagues are working on is always part of a bigger story, be it about public health, the environment, or data protection. Encourage colleagues to take a step back and recognise the purpose and impact of their work outside Brussels. I accept this is tricky but it’s important.

2. Sort out the messaging

If you don’t have decent messages, work with the public affairs team and policy experts to refashion them into a proper story, which uses the legislative process to supply the detail (and not the narrative).  Less is often more. My heart sinks when I see unambitious and overcomplicated messages that are full of unsubstantiated assertions and meaningless proof points.

3. Know what isn’t a story

Resist the urge to comment on every single micro development that comes out of the Parliament, Commission and Council. There is far too much position paper and press release writing going on in Brussels as it is. I know I am not the only (ex) journalist who would be happy to never read another Brussels missive ‘welcoming’ some Commission announcement or announcing that the European Pencil Sharpener Association (also known as P.O.I.N.T.L.E.S.S.) held a conference. Don’t do it. These things are not interesting and they are not stories. Communications directors must stand their ground on this one.

4. Get your pipeline sorted

You can’t have a storytelling culture without stories and numbers (often known as proof points). If you are in a trade association or NGO coalition you may struggle to get decent material from your members.  But they are like gold dust in Brussels (because they are painful to source). Try to set up relationships with colleagues or wider association members who understand what you need and can help feed your pipeline. Tell them what you are looking for and ask them to give you examples and numbers that are memorable, show a relationship or can be put in context (i.e. which tell a story).

5. Apply this approach to everything

Whether it’s company notepads, posters, presentations, social media output or infographics, make sure all your organisation’s communications reflect its values and impact. If you are a grant-making body, this means putting an end to photos of meetings and handshakes and getting more action shots of children being taught in school, or fishermen using new nets.

Here are five ideas for how to encourage a storytelling approach in your organisation.

Let me know what’s worked for you?