Four Marketing Lessons I Learned on Summer Vacation

August 31, 2009

As some of you may know, I had the luxury of taking a vacation a few weeks ago.  My vacations are very rarely of the relaxing kind.  I am someone who has a hard time sitting still, and so my vacations are generally full of activities.  This vacation was no exception as I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York state.

While on my trip, I had the opportunity to hear some very inspiring speakers including Daniel Pink, Anna Deavere Smith, and George Kembel talk about their perspectives on creativity and innovation.  I heard several ideas during the week that made me think that if only I had learned these things when I was still working in marketing for larger organizations, I would have done things differently, and perhaps would have generated far better, more creative work.  Because I think that these ideas have important implications for marketing, and business in general, I thought I would highlight a few for you — just in case you didn’t get a chance to take your own summer vacation.

What I learned on summer vacation:

  1. Rewards don’t work well when creativity is required.  This idea was championed by Daniel Pink who cited study after study that showed that contingent motivators (if you do this, I’ll give you that) do not spawn greater creativity.  Contingent motivators do work well for processes or routines, but they actually limit creative thinking.  Therefore, organizations that try to motivate their employees to develop new products or innovations through things like bonuses or promotions, are not going to get the best creative thinking out of their people.  The rewards change the focus to achieving a goal and become a distraction. 
  2. Self direction leads to engagement (which in turn leads to creative thinking).  If  contingent rewards don’t work to generate creative thinking, what does?  According to Daniel Pink, as long as people are compensated adequately and fairly, one successful motivator is  autonomy or self direction.  Giving individuals the ability to direct how, where, when, and what they work on leads to higher overall engagement and therefore more creative thinking.  I can speak to this first hand.  Since I have begun to run my own business, I have noticed a real increase in my passion for my work.   Now that I choose when, where, and what I work on, my productivity and creativity are higher than they were when I did not have this autonomy.  I realize that it isn’t realistic for companies to allow employees to only work on what the employees want to work on all of the time, but why not some of the time?  Why not start with setting aside one day where everyone gets to work on anything they want for the whole day, with the understanding that at the end of the day, everyone has to show what he did.  Why not see what ideas are uncovered?  FedEx does this once a month.  Why not at least give it a try?
  3. Empathy gives meaning to your work, which is motivating.  Most people who have taken a marketing class know that understanding a customer’s needs is critical to successfully marketing a product.  However, it fascinates me how many people skip over the step that they need to follow to really understand their customer’s needs.  There are a lot of organizations that consider research to be a ‘nice to have’, and most of them don’t think that they have the time or resources to invest in understanding their customer, so they decide to work off of a hunch.  While I understand why they do this, this approach is flawed.  As George Kembel explained, research gives marketers the opportunity to truly empathize with their customer and really understand their customer’s needs.  If they can walk in their customer’s shoes, they more acutely ‘feel their customer’s pain’ so to speak, and therefore have a greater motivation to think creatively to resolve the ‘pain’ or need.
  4. The power of the words ‘thank you’ should be leveraged more often.  Okay.  This idea was not one I picked up from the speakers.  This was one that struck me on my flight to my vacation destination.  I was sincerely thanked twice by the flight attendants at Continental Airlines for switching my seat by two rows on the plane so that a family could sit together.  The action took very little for me to do, but I felt like a rockstar as far as the flight attendants were concerned because they were so grateful.  This experience got me to thinking about how organizations really miss the opportunity to make their customers feel very special (and increase their loyalty), just by authentically thanking them for giving their business.  It doesn’t take much as long as it is sincere and personal.  Do you have a process or program for thanking your customers?  What about the ones who not only give you business, but who help build your brand for you (i.e. by positive word of mouth, referrals, feedback, etc.)?  If not, perhaps it is something you should consider.

So those were my big ‘a-ha’s from my vacation.  What about you?  Do these spur any additional thoughts or ideas?  Or did your own vacation generate some ideas you’d like to share?  I’d love to hear from you.

Blogging for IndyFringe 2009: Starter Opera

August 22, 2009


This blog post is very different from any other that I have put on this site to date.  I try to keep all of my posts focused on the topics of branding and marketing.  This one is different.  It’s ‘for fun’ and has been categorized as such.  I am including this post to help drive some awareness and interest for a local arts event in Indianapolis:  Indianapolis Theater Fringe Festival.  I had the honor of participating as a guest blogger for the event, and so I am including my blog posting here (this post can also be found on Smaller Indiana). 

As I write this, it occurs to me that this is marketing related — in a way.  I am using this post to market IndyFringe 2009 and the opera of The Cask of Amontillado.  Here is a first-hand example of word of mouth marketing……

Starter Opera

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending my very first opera.  Prior to last night, I think I have always been a little intimidated by the idea of going to an opera.  I had the notion that since all of the dialogue is sung, operas are long, slow to develop, and perhaps difficult to understand.  However, I knew that I really should attend one at some point so that I could have the experience.  With this mindset, I was excited to see in the line up of performances at IndyFringe 2009 that there was a one act opera – The Cask of Amontillado.  I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to try out the opera.  A one act performance felt like a small commitment, and if I didn’t like it, at least I wasn’t going to suffer for very long.

 Much to my surprise, my first experience with opera was a good one, and in fact I wish the opera had been longer.  The performance was only about 45 minutes, and I had hoped that the story would go on with more interesting and dramatic turns.  I suppose that Edgar Allan Poe is to blame for the brevity of the opera, as it is based on his classic story.

 While the plot of The Cask of Amontillado is an intriguing and dark one that quickly captured my attention, it was the environment and the action on the stage that kept me highly engaged.  The venue of the Theater on the Square was perfect for this performance.  It is a very intimate theater which allows you to really see the facial expressions of the actors and to clearly understand the lyrics.  Because you are so close to the actors, you feel like you are really part of the action, especially when the actors suddenly whip carnival beads into the audience – at that point, you know you are in the thick of things.  Additionally, the costumes are highly colorful and eye-catching, and the actors are singing right to the audience (instead of each other).  All of these factors keep you really focused.  Admittedly, the voices probably were not of the caliber you might expect if going to a big opera production, but I found the music and lyrics in the opera to be catchy and amusing enough to make up for it.

 All in all, I found my first opera – my starter opera – to be enjoyable.  I am definitely looking forward to giving another one a try.  Next time, I am willing to take a chance on one that is more than an act long.  If you are a bit unsure about opera, I would recommend coming to IndyFringe 2009 and checking out The Cask of Amontillado.  At the very least, you’ll be supporting the arts in Indianapolis, and you just might be pleasantly surprised.

What’s your story?

August 18, 2009

This past week, while on my summer vacation, I had the chance to watch the morning news, and I saw a piece that really excited me.  It was about a small business in Chicago that had managed to create a compelling and differentiated brand for a seemingly undifferentiated product, because it had an interesting story.  The story explained why the business came into being, and how it operationalized its values to differentiate its product.  This was the story of Felony Franks.

Felony Franks is a local hot dog business in Chicago that makes and sells ‘food so good, it’s criminal’ according to its tagline.  Now I don’t know that the hot dogs themselves are all that different from other hot dogs, but they have a different story.  Felony Franks opened to give ex-offenders a chance at their first job as they try to re-assimilate into society after serving time in jail.  Because of its unique hiring practice and its focus on assisting ex-offenders get back on their feet, Felony Franks isn’t just another hot dog vendor.  It has a story, and it is using it to create an interesting and memorable brand to set its hot dogs apart from the rest.

While I do find the mission of Felony Franks to be appealing, there are two reasons why I found this news piece to be exciting:

  1. It highlights a business that understands that a strong brand helps it be more successful.  Felony Franks knows it needs to differentiate itself, and this differentiation is contributing to its success to date. 
  2. It is a great example of how even a small business can establish a strong brand.  The brand is so strong because its values are embedded in the organization.  The business used its inherent story to create the brand.  It didn’t just choose an cute name or unique decor to try to create a brand.  It leveraged the core of its business and its culture to create its brand.

Over the last few years, I have encountered quite a few organizations that do not understand how a brand can really make a difference to their business, and therefore do not choose to invest in it (instead focusing on the product/service features or price).  I have also come across organizations that don’t know where to start if they try to build a brand or believe that a name and a logo is sufficient.  I hope that this example of Felony Franks illuminates some new possibilities.

For those leaders who are wondering if it really is worth investing in a brand for their product or service, I hope that this example persuades you to more seriously consider it.  Product and service differentiators and price advantages often slip away over time, leaving you with an undifferentiated product (like just another hot dog from a local hot dog vendor).  Your brand, if it is a strong one, will ultimately be the defining factor when customers are making their choices.

For those leaders who want to build a brand, but aren’t sure how to begin, I encourage you to think about your story.  Why was your organization established?  How does your organization’s mission live in the organization?  How does this story resonate with your target customer?  What does your organization stand for?  The answers to these questions are part of the building blocks to creating a differentiated, ownable, and integrated brand for your organization.

To sum it up simply, the story of Felony Franks illustrates the point that your organization’s story sets it apart and defines what it stands for.  No other organization has the exact same story.  Using this story to build a strong brand could differentiate and elevate your product or service in the mind of your customer.  This unique position may eventually make all of the difference for your business.