Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dennis, They're Trying to Kill Our Airline!

In the 90s, my colleagues and I had the pleasure of working with Dennis Nourse, who was then CEO and principal owner of Kelch Corporation. Kelch was a contract injection molder that primarily manufactured fuel tanks, caps, gauges and other plastic components for leading Lawn & Garden industry OEMs like Briggs & Stratton and John Deere.

Nourse believed that building a strong, clearly differentiated brand was an important part of increasing the value of his enterprise. So he enlisted our company to position Kelch’s brand in a way that captured the essence of what made the company special. He also wasn't afraid to invest in communicating that essence at every opportunity to all audiences, internal and external.

An Unparalleled Experience
A frequent business traveler, Nourse was an enthusiastic customer of a newer airline called Midwest Express. Back then, Midwest Express was a small, regional carrier attempting to gain share by offering direct flights from Milwaukee to a host of cities across the U.S.

The real story was what Midwest did to create an unparalleled customer experience. First-class seating at coach prices. Gourmet food. Free, hot chocolate chip cookies on every flight. And flight crews who actually seemed to enjoy their jobs. Over the years, these attributes have been support points for a masterful brand campaign featuring the tag line “The best care in the air.”

Once, Nourse had to cut a meeting short to catch the first leg in what sounded like a hellish itinerary. When I said as much, he replied “it’s okay—I’m on Midwest Express. And every time I know I’m going to fly that airline, I’m in a great mood about having to travel.”

Please Don't Go!
All of this is a long introduction to a story that’s been playing out in Milwaukee for the last month. People in our city know full well that our hometown airline—now called simply Midwest Airlines—is facing the threat of a hostile takeover from the airline formerly known as Value Jet (sorry...couldn’t resist that one).

I’ve flown AirTran a fair amount. And as the recently departed Lloyd Bentsen might have said, it’s no Midwest Airlines.

As a business traveler, I’m painfully aware of what I’ll lose if AirTran gobbles up Midwest. As a marketing professional, I’m clear that Midwest has done an exemplary job of building a brand. Indeed, Midwest’s focus on its brand has been instrumental in not only helping the airline survive tough times, but in allowing it to command a premium from suitors like AirTran. For proof, see Rich Rovito’s recent piece in The Business Journal, Steve Jagler's guest article at or the glowing references to Midwest's branding efforts in books like Differentiate or Die by branding legend Jack Trout.

In 1999, Dennis Nourse sold Kelch. A few years later, he moved his family to the California desert. Word has it he’s having a ball in his latest pursuits. I have Dennis to thank for some of the most important and enduring lessons I’ve learned in business—not to mention the chance to have a hell of a lot of fun along the way.

So I can’t help but think of Dennis as I think about the prospects of losing the airline that’s somehow managed to make business travel not only tolerable, but actually enjoyable.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Before You Bash B2B...

I know, I know: in the wrong hands, business to business marketing can be about as stimulating as...well, name something that's not at all stimulating. But lest we lose hope in the face of yet another B2B company positioning itself as a "solutions provider," it's heartening to ponder some of the more vapid marketing campaigns and product ideas from our brethern on the consumer side.

No doubt some of these gems have made the cash registers sing like Pavarotti. But that doesn't them hurt any less. To wit:

1) Airborne Cold Remedy - The campaign for this miracle drug was impossible to miss a couple years ago—and impossible to fathom. Tell me again why it's a good thing that this product was invented by a 2nd grade teacher? I know my family doctor—and for that matter, my cardiologist, proctologist and dentist, too—won't prescribe any drug that didn't come to life in Mrs. Crabtree's R&D lab. Who needs Merck and Pfizer anyway?

2) NASCAR Cologne - Mmmm, smell the vapor lock. What woman can resist a man who smells like he's been in a fireproof jumpsuit for two hours in 120 degree heat? So what's next? NASCAR tomatoes? Wait...they already have that. My bad.

3) Kiss Wine - Before you can rock n roll all nite, you must party every day. And nothing gets the party started like something from the casks of America's premier greasepaint-wearing vintners. Wine Spectator gives Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter a 90 for their pyrotechnics and platform shoes, but a mere 34 for their Pinot Grigio. Don't despair, though: the bottle features the image of their classic 1976 LP Destroyer. Hard core stoners will want to check out the Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon wine, while those still feeling randy in the 47-65 demo can sample a glass of Rolling Stones or Madonna.

4) Ask Lesko - It was bad enough having to watch the commercials. Imagine my horror at finding out he's a fellow alum of Marquette University. My personal issues aside, which is worse: the fact that apparently, zillions of government dollars are sitting there waiting for the taking? Or the fact that someone's making a living by publishing a treasure map to take you to the loot? Then again, given Lesko's slobbering enthusiasm, I might just go for the French chef certification, the PhD and the G.E.D!

5) Snuggle Bear - Admittedly, I was never the target audience for this one. And Unilever's no doubt been too busy laughing all the way to the bank the last 20+ years to give a rip what I think.

6) Earl Scheib - Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons meets Mickey the trainer from the Rocky movies. If this sounds to you like a formula for TV spot gold, head immediately to the front of your advertising class! If you didn't know any better, you would have thought Earl was just another local businessman who decided he wanted to be a local TV star, too. Gravelly voice. Frightening, manic demeanor. And a buzzcut like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. But this was no podunk pitchman: Earl Scheib was nationwide, baby! He would paint any car for $99.95 and then $109.95 and then $139.95 and so on, as time passed.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Yikes! I’ve Been WOMM’ed (or Have I)?

Yes, even executives of marketing firms can be the unsuspecting “victims” of novel marketing communication initiatives.

If you Google “word of mouth marketing”, you’ll get almost 1.3 million items selected. I was surprised to find out that there actually is a Word of Mouth Marketing professional trade association that I can join called WOMMA, that there are numerous articles being written about this "powerful" tactic (including the Washington Post), and that I can start practicing it tomorrow after I learn about the “five easy steps” of this practice, thanks to the article posted at

Maybe its me, or the combination of too many years and too little non-gray hair left on my head, but my skeptical-brain alarm always starts beeping whenever I am advised about something that someone claims is so revolutionary that over one million “Google hits” already exist about the concept. It’s probably a little of both.

In situations like these, I like to do a little more research and reflecting.

First, what actually is “word of mouth marketing”? When I went to Wikipedia, I found that on Monday, December 18, 2006, at approximately 3:30 PM CST, the "definition of word of mouth, aka Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM)” is:

the passing of information by verbal means, especially recommendations, but also general information, in an informal, person-to-person manner, rather than by mass media advertising, organized publication, or traditional marketing. Word of mouth is typically considered a spoken communication, although web dialogue, such as blogs, message boards and emails are often now included in the definition.

There is some overlap in meaning between word of mouth and the following: rumour, gossip, innuendo, and hearsay; however the negative connotations of these words are not included in the meaning of word of mouth.

Hmmmm, very interesting!

I work for a professional services firm, and we have several professional services firms as clients. Professional services organizations are notorious for leveraging the recognition of the high quality of their services and their people into their networking efforts, thereby increasing their capacity to obtain referrals for new clients from others who are already impressed with/satisfied by the services provided by their firms. This has been a standard marketing practice for these types of firms for decades.

Back in the early 1990’s, when “Total Quality Management (TQM)” was all the rage, I remember being advised that satisfied clients, on average, tell four others that they are satisfied, dissatisfied clients, on average, tell seven others that they are dissatisfied, and clients who are dissatisfied, but who have their problems resolved by you in a proactive manner, speak your virtues to, on average, nine others. Moral of the statistics: create a way for your satisfied clients to acknowledge their satisfaction, proactively identify which of your clients are dissatisfied, find out why they're dissatisfied, and fix it quickly.

Eighteen months ago, I began looking for an organization that could help me be a better CEO of a company. A mentor of mine referred me to an organization called TEC - The Executive Committee. I met with one of their chairs, sat in on one of their meetings, and spoke with another business leader (and TEC member) whose opinion I respect. The end result was I immediately joined a TEC group; I highly recommend TEC to whoever is reading this posting (hopefully more than four people!).

It now appears to me that there is the distinct possibility that WOMM is actually the early-21st century version of TQMM (Total Quality Marketing Management), with a pinch of referral-based marketing thrown in. On the other hand, I just might be the early-21st century incarnation of the former leader of the United States Patent Office who, in the late-1800’s, recommended that that organization be disbanded because anything that could be invented had been invented already.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Babes in B2B Land

Last month, a colleague of mine returned from an industrial show in the Midwest and reported seeing ample evidence that the “booth babe” concept is alive and well. For at least one exhibitor at this show, the acronym "B2B" clearly meant bikini-to-business.

Alas, this circa 1962 approach to marketing isn’t just a phenomenon of trade shows. Some B2B print advertisers still find the lure of hot babeage impossible to resist. Consider the following ads, all plucked from recent issues of trade publications.

Do ads like these work? A few of the ads shown here have been running for a while. So my guess is, they must do a fair job of generating leads, or the advertisers would pull them and do something else. The middle ad featuring the Heather Locklear-lookalike scored highest in the latest readership survey for one book in which it ran.

But if you owned one of these companies, or worked there, would you be proud to show these ads to someone you know? I know I wouldn’t.

More important, I have a hard time imagining a top executive or engineer seeing one of these ads and thinking, “now THAT’s the kind of company I want to work for!” With recruitment and retention of top people quickly becoming priority 1 for growing businesses, the last thing you need is for prospective employees to get the wrong message about your company.

The good news is, this dinosaur may finally be nearing extinction. Before posting this, I thumbed through dozens of B2B print publications in a variety of industries and found only a handful of similar bimbo eruptions. And that includes publications in industries that would probably be considered the usual suspects for the hot babes in print approach: trucking, construction, maintenance, etc.

And therein lies the quandary: stopping power is fundamental to effective print advertising. So the relative absence of hot babes in a B2B book admittedly creates an opening for an advertiser to use Baywatchesque imagery to get the reader’s attention—more so, say, than would be the case in Maxim or GQ or some other vehicle where titillating ads are SOP.

But does stopping power always trump other business concerns? If you’re National Lampoon and it’s 1973, stopping power has you laughing all the way to the bank.

If you’re a B2B company in 2007, my hope is, you'll choose a more dignified path to print advertising ROI.

Friday, December 8, 2006

B2B Branding Gets All Scholarly Journal-like

Just read something frighteningly close to how me and my firm think about nearly every facet of business-to-business branding. And I must admit, I'm torn between the ecstasy of someone else validating our thinking via a case study in a top scholarly journal, and the agony of thinking "damn, why didn't we write and submit a paper like this sooner?"

Professional envy aside, I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in B2B branding to read Ariel Goldfarb's bang-up article in the just-out Journal of Intergrated Marketing Communications (from Northwestern's Medill School). In "Making Brand Happen: Branding in the B2B Marketplace," Goldfarb does a nice job articulating a number of the market drivers, fundamentals and foibles of B2B branding. He also provides a host of do's and don'ts that my experience tells me are right on the money.

While the case study is long on summary and less so on details (perhaps due to the proprietary nature of the client's information), the piece still packs a wealth of insights into a mere 5+ pages.

Tasty nuggets abound. There's this one, which flies in the face of those who believe that the only legitimate function of a marketing department is to promote product:

Commoditization is forcing companies to shift their value propositions and basis for competitive differentiation away from product towawrd other aspects of the brand-customer relationship such as support, partnership, process, trust and alignment of values.

As for the role of employees in B2B branding:

Because of the degree of interaction between customers and different employees in B2B firms, successful implementation of a brand strategy will rely heavily on aligning individuals' behaviors, which is much more difficult than, say, chaning a logo.

And then there's this beauty on the importance of saying "no":

In a sales-driven culture that is common to many B2B categories, sometimes the hardest thing to do is say no. Companies build strong brands by focusing on a set of customer needs that they can serve better than anyone else. Customer segmentation, target audience definition, and customer filtering and measurement processes improve marketing efficiencies and effectiveness by focusing business development efforts on high-value opportunities and avoiding opportunistic behavior.

Good stuff, available for free via PDF download at JIMC's web site.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Wilson, Carroll and Other New Members of My Spamily

Someone allegedly named Wilson Becker, with an email ID of PattoniSalvatoreketchup, sent me a nice note the other day (FW: Hi!). The opening line:

“When he saw us, he started to cry,” he said, and finally added: “He kept calling me David.”

Mr. Becker/ketchup’s salvo was intriguing. And so was the email I got that same day from “Carroll Floyd”—email ID GuerreroABryantflatulent. Her prose had something to do with a “child’s drawing of rock walls.”

I didn’t know either of these people, so I ultimately determined that the messages were spam. But can somebody tell me: What’s the deal with spam these days?

Used to be all the spam I got had a pretty clear-cut purpose. They’d try to sell me porn or cheap loans, and they’d let me know right in the subject line with a series of big XXXs and whatnot. Or sometimes someone of Nigerian royal lineage needed my help ...

But now, much of the spam—or rather, “unsolicited commercial email” (UCEs) —is meandering and nonsensical. I understand that today’s audiences are savvy and cynical, and one has to approach them surreptitiously. But a bunch of words strung together in a crazy rant, followed by NO CALL TO ACTION?

I don’t see the point. But maybe that is the point—to confuse. Turns out there are these gangs out there hijacking everyone’s computers (note to Wilson and Carroll: run Norton now!) and using them to send out spam. The messages tend to get by spam filters because the sender addresses are often legit. The e-thugs get the addresses for free, so they can afford to send as many emails as they wish. One hit in a million equals success.

In further trickery, the spam gangs are imbedding their scammy pitches about weight-loss pills or knockoff watches in image files attached to the emails, where the red-flag words are harder for filters to find. On a second glance, I realized that Wilson and Carroll had attached images to their messages, as well. But I never opened the pictures to find out more (a small victory over the spam syndicate).

With UCEs back, big time, people everywhere are treating just about every email they get with great suspicion. That’s why, for those of us trying to engage in legitimate email marketing, it’s best to be on the level: Build databases of people who are actually interested in what you have to offer and be clear when you’re contacting them about who you are and what it is you’re offering.

Otherwise, they’ll send your more earnest marketing email to the spam folder just the same.