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The ONE valuable marketing lesson we can learn from Trump

14 Jan Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 12.08.53 AM

In today’s world of fragmented media and divided attention, the best way to get attention is to be interesting. What the current Presidential campaign has shown us is that simply being worthy of conversation will often beat being right or responsible.

To this end, I really have three key lessons that we can learn from the trump campaign (the one key lesson headline seemed more interesting so I led with that). Here are the top three marketing factors that have propelled Trump to his current spot atop the Republican pack:

  • Be interesting: There is a lot of noise out there and media will flock to what gets people talking and tuning in. In today’s media world, nuance is less important than splash. The best way to get media coverage is to be controversial and salacious.  For Trump, the innate ability to turn any sentence into a show has resulted in spectacular media attention. Through the critical early summer campaign months, research shows Trump received twice the coverage of his 16 rivals combined. In fact, Trump received an average of 36 minutes of coverage on the three major network’s nightly news programs (ABC, NBC, CBS) every day. During this period, for example, Marco Rubio received an average of 1 minute and 35 seconds of coverage, Ben Carson received 11 seconds of coverage, and Ted Cruz received an average of 3 seconds of nightly coverage. The same phenomena absolutely applies to brands: today we all know AirBNB which credits much of its current awareness to the observation that media is more likely to cover companies with interesting things to say. Brian Chesky, the founder of AirBNB, stated this clearly in a recent interview: “We found that with press the more absurd the idea — the better story it makes. Being provocative was good because people would tell other people about it.”
  • Be distinctive: In a crowded marketplace, distinctiveness is essential to attracting a loyal following. This is true for political candidates and brands. Trump is a unique character that effectively makes all the other candidates look the same. His ubiquitous media exposure has led a large proportion of voters to think about whether they would vote for him. For many republicans, the first question they ask is whether they will vote for trump. If the answer is no, only then will they consider the other candidates.
  • Let familiarity breed likability: Research shows that repeated exposure to a person (or brand) increases the likelihood of attraction, likability, or favorability. While we like to think otherwise, people really know very little about the brands and candidates that they choose. In reality, we choose from the very small subset of options that are most familiar with. When it comes to presidential politics or brand building, ubiquity provides an enormous advantage.

While being interesting, distinctive, and familiar has provided a big advantage to Trump during this election cycle, there are many examples of strong political and brand narratives rapidly changing. In the same way that new information can change the way we think about Volkswagen or Enron, political candidates rise and fall quickly with the narrative that surrounds them. In particular, the risk of being controversial is that the narrative turns against you as a candidate or brand. Being interesting is a double edged sword that can drive either growth or deterioration. But for those that are good at tapping into ideas and controversies that people want to endlessly discuss, the opportunities are enormous.

 

Public Relations, the “Comma Comma” Effect, and the Health of Your Brand

10 Dec comma_comma

When media covers your brand, they’ll summarize the zeitgeist of your company’s identity with a handful of words that distill what readers or viewers need to know in the most succinct possible form.

For example, a recent article in the New York Times on Volkswagen started with: “Volkswagen, the German automaker, now at the center of a firestorm over its cheating on diesel emissions, . . .” using a sentence between commas to provide context to readers on what Volkswagen does and how they are currently perceived.

For brands regularly covered in the media, the  “comma comma” effect refers to the common descriptor that becomes used across multiple media channels as the shape of a public brand forms.

A major newspaper or media provider’s “comma comma” description of your company can be an important gauge of the health of your brand. No matter what words are used to describe your company in a press release or announcement, good journalists will always choose non-promotional descriptive language that reduces your identity to what people really need to know. This independent, and sometimes brutally honest, description can provide a good read on how a company is perceived.

For example, we can look at the “comma comma” description of Volkswagen over the last 73 years to see exactly how the brand has evolved in the eyes of American journalists. Over this period, the New York Times has continually evolved their description of the company as the Volkswagen brand’s role in the world has shifted.

Here are the last 70 years of “comma comma” descriptions of Volkswagen from the New York Times:

  • Volkswagen, a small german automobile (1942)
  • Volkswagen, a german version of a jeep (1944)
  • Volkswagen, the German people’s car that Adolf Hitler promised to his faithful (1945)
  • Volkswagen, or “people’s car” (1947)
  • Volkswagen, or People’s Automobile (1950)
  • Volkswagen, the biggest European producer of low-cost automobiles (1954)
  • Volkswagen, the biggest single exporter of cars to the United States (1955)
  • Volkswagen, West Germany’s largest exporter (1969)
  • Volkswagen, West Germany’s biggest car maker (1984)
  • Volkswagen, Europe’s largest auto maker (1993)
  • Volkswagen, Europe’s largest car maker (2000)
  • Volkswagen, Europe’s largest car maker (2002)
  • Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest auto maker (2007)
  • Volkswagen, Europe’s largest auto maker (2013)
  • Volkswagen, the German automaker, now at the center of a firestorm over its cheating on diesel emissions (2015)

Every marketer and communications professional has a set of messages and attributes that they hope people will think of when they think of their brand. One of the interesting things is to see how often these messages are pulled through in media descriptions of your company. For Volkswagen, the “comma comma” description often included powerful proof points related to the company’s size and clout. In bad times, it framed the company based on its problems.

Since the strength of a brand is also related to the consistency of perception, it can be interesting to look at the way that a brand is described across multiple media channels. If different publications and media providers describe your brand differently, or have trouble understanding what you really do, it’s probably sign of the broader perception challenges your brand is facing.

 

 

 

 

Tesla Model S: The Disruptive Marketing of an Electric Car

20 Jan

The most interesting thing about Tesla — the niche luxury electric car maker — is the role of marketing in selling electric cars that cost $100,000 or more. Many people have tried to change the auto industry over the last 40 years and none have succeeded. The process of buying a car is essentially the same as it was a generation ago. And the process has remained unpopular for decades: the typical car dealer receives just 2 or 3 stars on Yelp.

Tesla Model S and Tesla Roadster: Tesla has figured out how to market an electric car

Tesla is creatively using marketing to upend the auto industry business model:

  • There are no Tesla dealers
  • There are no commissioned sales people
  • Tesla cars are marketed and not aggressively sold
  • Tesla transactions are conducted online
  • The price is the price: no negotiation
  • There is no inventory: the Tesla Model S is built to order
  • You can’t test drive a Tesla unless you put down a $5,000 deposit
  • In many parts of the country, you can’t see or drive the car before you buy even if you place a deposit
  • You have to wait in line for months or years to get a car

And the marketing challenges are incredibly difficult:

  • They are building a new luxury brand from scratch
  • They are evangelizing a new type of vehicle: an electric car
  • They are selling a $60,000 – $100,000+ car that can’t go on a road trip
  • They must sell an entirely new model of buying and owning a car

While Tesla is starting with expensive vehicles, they clearly have mainstream ambitions. They are investing to build a big car company.  How hard is it to build and sell cars in the USA? Look at it this way: Tesla is the second oldest publicly traded  auto company in the United States behind Ford. GM went bankrupt and went public four months after Tesla. Chrysler remains private following its own reorganization.

While Tesla has a long way to go to be profitable, producing cars in volume, and moving towards the mainstream, their first home-built product — the Model S — is a success. They have 10,000 – 20,000 orders and have swept the auto industry awards, winning the most recent round of Motor Trend, Automobile, and Yahoo Autos awards for car of the year. Tesla is the first startup car company, and the Model S is the first electric car, to win these awards.

So what can we learn from Tesla marketing?

(1) Start with a great product – Tesla would be dead today if they didn’t build the best car available today. There are too many obstacles — range, lack of road trips, and buyer confusion to name a few. Tesla used electric technology to build a car that can’t be reproduced with a combustion engine. It’s as fast as a Porsche and gets the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. It has very few moving parts. It is the most aerodynamic car made and has the most cargo space of any car in its class. It’s a sports car that seats seven.

(2) Start high and work your way down — It’s a lot easier to build a lust-inducing $100,000 car than a cheaper model. Tesla started with the $100K plus roadster built on a modified Lotus platform. With the Model S, they started with production of $100K vehicles and are working their way towards the $60K entry-luxury models. By starting high, Tesla is letting early adopters fund technology development. As volume increases, prices are coming down. The early super cars are media darlings endlessly discussed in waves of free Tesla publicity.

(3) Turn auto industry strengths into weaknesses — Historically, luxury cars have been sold and justified based on the quality of their engineering. Most luxury automobile companies tout “performance through engineering” as the one thing that makes them special and desirable. Tesla marketing focuses on performance through technology while touting the simplicity of the platform. The Tesla Model S pitch reframes the auto industry strength as a weakness. Through the highly-effective Tesla marketing lens, traditional gas cars are dirty, complex, unreliable, and difficult to maintain. In a bold marketing move, Tesla service centers are designed with white floors to reinforce that electric cars don’t have oil and other dirty fluids that leak on the floor.

The Tesla powertrain is marketed as simple, reliable, and effective

The Tesla powertrain is marketed as simple, reliable, and effective

Traditional luxury auto makers focus on "engineering" -- Through the Tesla marketing lens, educated viewers see complexity, maintenance, and antiquated technology

Traditional luxury auto makers focus on “engineering” — Through the Tesla marketing lens, educated viewers see complexity, maintenance, and antiquated technology

Tesla Service centers have impractical white floors to highlight that the cars run clean without messy oil and fluids

Tesla Service centers have impractical white floors to highlight that the cars run clean without messy oil and fluids

(4) Create a new multi-channel model: Tesla decided not to build a traditional car dealer network. Nobody likes car dealers: even buying and servicing a high-end car like a Porsche is a dreadful experience. Tesla looked at the car buying process and optimized its sales model to fit the way people buy cars today. Since people start online, Tesla designed their process around online information, commerce, and community. Their site is unusually clear, clean, and effective. For people who want to see the car, they are building kiosk stores in malls with Tesla experts who can’t sell cars and who aren’t commissioned. When a buyer is ready, they place a refundable deposit online. If they want to drive a car, they can arrange a test drive after they’ve placed a deposit. Essentially, Tesla is selling cars the same way Apple sells the iPhone.

(5) Build the community & focus on the experience: From the beginning, Tesla has made user forums and user community a key part of the online experience. Tesla marketing highlights the unique Tesla buying and ownership experience and encourages owners to interact with the company and each other in full public view on the Tesla site. This provides a rich base of content — and owner passion — on view for prospective buyers.

(6) Leverage the media and traditional press: While much is new about the Tesla Model S and the accompanying sales and marketing model, one thing is not: the dependence on traditional media. Tesla has been a master at driving press coverage, reviews, and awards for its cars. It’s clear that the company has worked hard to position the brand with the media and to make sure the right messages come through. The company’s #1 message is that they are trying to build the best car ever made and not just the best electric car. This message is frequently repeated by the press.

Tesla Marketing: Likely more lessons to come

While it’s early and many many risks remain, Tesla is the first company to have the potential to become the Apple computer of the car industry. Like Apple, they are selling a product that is very different than what has come before. Both companies focus on great products and innovation. They are both building their own ecosystem (Tesla’s super charger network is akin to Apple’s build-out of iTunes and the Apple Store) and both are challenging traditional sales models with their own direct distribution system. In fact, Tesla hired Apple’s previous retail chief to build out the new distribution model.

Whatever does happen with Tesla, the marketing lessons to come are certain to fascinate.

Do Great Consumer Products Market Themselves?

18 Jul

Spotify. Dropbox. Foursquare. Instagram. Facebook. Flipboard. Pinterest. Twitter.

Everyone knows these insanely popular companies even though they’ve invested almost nothing in advertising. In each case, they built a strong brand by building a great product or service and letting their customers spread the word.

With their success, a new generation of entrepreneurs are rethinking their approach to marketing. It’s increasingly common to hear luminaries talk about marketing as a weakness: the notion that only weak products require marketing.

So, is it true? Do great consumer products market themselves?

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Marketing isn’t advertising: Too often, I hear smart people talk about marketing as if it is only advertising. Advertising is just one way to build a business. There is so much more to marketing: product management, design of referral programs, visual identity, messaging, competitive analysis, collection of customer feedback and ideas, choosing new markets and segments to target, picking company / product / service names, building awareness through savvy PR and promotion, etc. While companies with great products may not need advertising, marketing often plays an important role in the rapid growth of product awareness and usage.
  • Very few products sell themselves: What almost all of the companies featured at the beginning of this post have in common is that they are free Internet services that appeal to a mass market population. While it takes real work to get people to try a free site, application, or service, the barriers to broad adoption are much lower. Products that almost never sell themselves include things that cost money, enterprise products of all types, and niche products that require more work to find first-time buyers and where it is harder to build the powerful cyclone of hype that benefitted almost all of the companies listed above.
  • Media attention matters: There are many companies that have built great products and still remained obscure. What makes the companies featured here special is that they have benefitted enormously from media attention. They all drove frenzied levels of media hype before they even had revenue. While some of this stems from great products and strong growth, much of it comes from thoughtful media strategy, direct press engagement, and charismatic founders who are trained to tell a powerful story.

 

So, if you have the right kind of great free product, what can marketing do to drive such insane levels of adoption?

Here are a few general principles for marketing a great consumer product:

  • Make sure the consumer experience is awesome: Create mechanisms to understand the user experience, to get constant feedback, and to solicit ideas so that the product keeps getting better and better.
  • Make sure your message is clear: Make sure that the messages about your company, your product or service, the problems that you solve, and the experience of being a customer are clear, consistent, and compelling. Make sure that everyone in your company can tell the same great story.
  • Keep customers coming back for more: Create the right experience for every customer to drive engagement, up sell to paid versions (if that is your model), and minimize churn and abandonment. Measure all of these things and look at the impact of every change on the metrics that matter.

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