Friday, December 12, 2008

There’s Room to Grow in the Global Economy

Wisconsin manufacturers may be lagging the world’s best companies in doing the things they need to do to thrive in the 21st century.

But therein lies opportunity.

Take, for example, expanding overseas operations. That’s one area for improvement cited in the “Next Generation Manufacturing Study,” an extensive new survey released by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

The study shows, as highlighted by The Business Journal of Milwaukee, that many Wiscoinsin companies simply aren’t yet doing much international business. Just 7 percent of the 500-plus firms in the survey reported non-U.S. sales growth of 51 percent or higher. Nearly two-thirds of (63 percent) said that they have no sales or distribution facilities beyond the United States.

So there’s plenty of room to grow globally for Wisconsin manufacturers. “Global engagement” is one of the six key tenets of so-called Next Generation Manufacturing, a set of forward-looking strategies to drive growth and profitability in the 21st century (per the WMEP).

Of course, international business is rife with challenges. Whether from an operations or a marketing communications perspective, success overseas takes a strong commitment to consistency, balanced with flexibility for local customization. You’ve got to make the effort to understand and respond to what customers really want in each market.

That’s a tall task to undertake on a limited budget, but a few good strategic alliances can help. For example, our agency helps ensure consistent, relevant messaging around the world for global clients through IPREX, one of the world’s largest networks of independent public relations agencies. Read more about our relationship with IPREX.

In the meantime, read the full WMEP report for many more fascinating insights on Wisconsin manufacturing. An executive summary and the full report are available for download at WMEP’s website.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Renaming and Redesign Was No Small Decision

We’ve seen an interesting change recently in our local business media market: the former Small Business Times changed its name to BizTimes Milwaukee and redesigned both its weekly print edition and its website.

On the surface, the move seems an obvious choice. Small Business Times has been about a lot more than “small” business for many years; the old name was pigeonholing the paper’s appeal in a way that no longer applied. Meanwhile, its website url,, already reflected the wider net for business news that the operation was casting.

So bringing it all in line under the name BizTimes—for consistency across the mission, actions and communications of the company—made perfect sense.

But that’s not to say the overhaul was an easy thing to do. Brand and name changes take a lot of time, money and guts. The move also put BizTimes into more obvious, direct competition with a much larger counterpart, The Business Journal of Milwaukee.

As times change, smart companies know they must continue to evolve, as must their marketing communications efforts. It’s impressive that the BizTimes team had the vision and will to undergo this transition and celebrate it as a positive step forward for the future.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How to Reduce Costs and Increase Your Flexibility

If you’re thinking about reducing costs right now, you certainly aren’t alone.

Unfortunately, cutting back is a necessity for many companies these days. But blind, blanket spending freezes or reductions aren’t good for business (at least not if you plan to make it out of this downturn in any position to compete).

Maybe it’s time for a more thoughtful analysis, particularly if any of your fixed costs can be converted to flexible expenditures.

In this downer of an economy, fixed costs like overhead really put the squeeze on your cash flow and your bottom line. Cutting these costs can be painful both emotionally and physically, maybe even dangerous. Flexible costs, on the other hand, easily can be turned on or off or in between.

It’s in your best interests right now to have as many costs as possible fall into the latter category. And the quickest way to do that? Outsourcing.

I’m sure you’ve already heard the whole argument for outsourcing non-core competencies, so no need to rehash it here. But at a minimum, I should point out that there’s more to it than simply reducing your overhead (which is pretty good by itself).

With the right outsource partner, you also gain access to broad, deep expertise, experience and perspective (as well as productive capacity) that you’d simply never be able to sustain in house. And you get those benefits without shouldering extra overhead burden.

At Scheibel Halaska, for example, we’re members of IPREX, one of the world’s largest networks of independent public relations agencies. Our IPREX partners provide global cultural knowledge and communications expertise—but only when our clients need it. So we don’t have to employ experts on the Chinese, European or Latin American markets whom we only need for certain programs. You can read more about our IPREX relationship in a previous post.

Your business may be able to unload fixed costs by outsourcing marketing, IT, HR systems or something else. Just make sure you do your homework, of course, to find the right partner. In the short run, it just might help you accomplish your goals while still keeping your CFO happy. And in the long run, it just might become your secret weapon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Don’t wait around for your own bailout

After a long slog of an election cycle, we at last have a new president-elect of the United States. The campaign is behind us, but one huge factor in the outcome will be with us for some time: the current gloomy economic climate.

Late last week, as Barack Obama met with economic advisors to consider the crisis, we got more bad news—this time about rising unemployment and the failing American auto industry.

So, not good, obviously. And it makes sense for Obama’s team to start tackling these issues right away. However, something we’ve said before on this blog bears repeating right now: Don’t leave your company’s future to actions or assistance from Washington.

Rather, survival and success depend on your company’s will, vision and ability to compete. There’s never been a more critical time to carefully examine what you do that customers value and how you can most efficiently provide it. Then, of course, do everything you can to convince people to buy your products and services. In other words, focus not only your operations, but also sales and marketing efforts.

Regardless of what the new national leadership does, it’s your leadership that will determine the future of your company.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Confidence, Compassion and Composure

Why ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Matters More Than Ever

So, how’s morale?

The recent economic turmoil has frayed even the steeliest nerves. And if the ups and downs are haunting you—be honest, now—then they’re probably spooking everyone else in and around your organization.

There’s no better time for a check on your “emotional IQ.” The term, which refers to a person’s ability to identify and manage the emotions of themselves and others, was the timely topic of a program put on last week by Tempo Milwaukee. A panel of executives from a variety of companies explored the most “emotionally intelligent” communications approaches for leaders during the current economic crisis.

What’s your company doing to weather the storm? What new pressures does this put on the team to perform? These are the kinds of questions on the minds of employees and customers alike. Company leaders can rise to this communications challenge by deploying emotional intelligence in understanding, acknowledging and addressing these concerns.

It’s about more than just telling people things will be OK. After all, empty reassurances and blind cheerleading won’t overcome the worries. And left unchecked, low-key fretting can turn to full-scale panic, which can wind up dictating the (wrong) direction of your company.

Leaders must be in tune with these cultural mood swings. And they must address them without reflexive emotional responses. Verbal diatribes, email flame wars and the like only escalate the negativity.

Instead, you’ve got to step back, take a deep breath and then confront the issues head on in a thoughtful manner. Project confidence, compassion and composure, and do it continuously—in all employee communications, customer newsletters, press interviews, etc.

Such emotionally intelligent leadership can help keep companies strong for when the outlook inevitably turns brighter in the months ahead.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Expanding Your Reach through Strategic Alliances

Is it better to have actual facilities in far-flung places, or just friends there?

For many companies, there’s no debate. Owning bricks and mortar in foreign lands just isn’t feasible. That’s probably never been truer than in this tenuous economy and tight credit market. Nevertheless, for more and more businesses, having a global presence is still essential.

The good news is that there’s a way to expand your reach without taking huge risks in terms of capital and credit: through well-crafted strategic alliances. That’s what many of our international clients have done. And it’s what we’re doing, too.

Last week, I attended the annual conference (in Boston, Mass.) of IPREX, one of the world’s largest networks of independent public relations agencies. IPREX puts us in a valuable partnership with reliable, accountable PR teams on the ground all over the world. So we have immediate access to cultural knowledge and communications expertise—whenever and wherever our international clients are doing business.

We not only support each other’s communications programs. We stretch our thinking, we provide each other access to both geographic and market-specific competencies, and we share best practices with a diverse group of professionals. It’s a far cry from the “not invented here” mentality or partisan politics that too often put individual success and the greater good at odds.

So perhaps it’s time to think differently about your competitors. Beneath the surface, you might just find a strategic ally and a company whose market and niche expertise may actually complement yours.

In an increasingly sophisticated, volatile and interconnected global marketplace, you might say that’s the best of one world.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Walking the Talk of Brand Evolution

We talked a couple of weeks ago about the importance of evolving your brand. But if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Well, it’s like home maintenance. Better to reinforce the roof before it caves in. Or think of it like a romance: You’ve got to keep it fresh.

Never get too comfortable with your brand, because the marketplace in which your brand lives is always changing—and besides, there’s always room for improvement. We aren’t just saying that. Right now, we’re launching a new Scheibel Halaska website, with an updated, refocused brand message.

We took some time to look deeper into what our clients care about and what we do that accelerates their success. That gave rise to a new tagline and a complete redesign of

The new site was a long time coming … but it won’t be long before you see more changes. That’s because we’re determined to keep our public face lively and up to date, just as we’re working every day to keep our services relevant and valuable to our clients. After all, it’s what we tell our clients (and blog readers) to do all the time.

Friday, September 5, 2008

McCain vs. Obama: 3 Lessons in Online Marketing

It’s shaping up to be a fascinating home stretch in this U.S. presidential election cycle. More interesting to us as BtoB marketers, however, is how the candidates are using online technology to share their message.

Some obvious contrasts:

Barack Obama’s campaign has long been recognized for taking advantage of web 2.0 interactive capabilities, including customizable home pages for supporters. That’s two-way communication, a conversation with the audience.

John McCain’s approach has been more traditional, using the web as a broadcast medium and airing the latest campaign commercial on the home page. That’s one-way communication, talking to the audience.

But the biggest difference is probably that Obama appears to have a more comprehensive, integrated online strategy. For example, the initial announcement of his VP running mate pick via text message.

These are generalizations, and the McCain team has been catching up in many ways. That’s what’s so great about online: you can keep improving as you go along.

So, without further ado, three lessons for marketers from observing the candidates online:

Exploit interactivity. The web is ideal for reaching more targets than ever—and understanding what they’re thinking. So seek every opportunity to engage your audiences. Calls to action, polls, comments threads are perfect ways to start the conversation.

Pursue an integrated strategy. The most advanced, innovative uses of online technologies aren’t worth much if they aren’t means to an end.

Continuously improve. Your website, like the technologies that support it, can and should constantly evolve. Shouldn’t be a problem, because the marketplace is always changing, so you should already be in a continuous improvement frame of mind. Simply extend this mindset to the web.

Friday, August 29, 2008

How Will the Harley Brand Rumble on?

Right now in our hometown of Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson is throwing itself a multiday party for its 105th anniversary. Hog lovers from around the world are rumbling into town for a full weekend of, well, let’s just say “fun.”

Good for Harley to put on a show for its loyal customers, even in a slow economy when sales are down. However, those declining numbers are no doubt a concern to Harley’s leadership—as are the numbers regarding its aging customer demographics.

As we look around, it’s easy to see that Harley’s base is dominated by older generations. And that has us wondering aloud about how this iconic brand can re-energize itself in the 21st century. How do you update a brand without forsaking its storied tradition? Here’s a look at some of the ways Harley is trying to strike that balance.

This historic company is far from being history. But while Harley searches for the path forward, let it be a reminder to you—no matter what game you’re in—that the marketplace is always changing. And brands that aren’t advancing with it can quickly find themselves left behind. Now more than ever, brands must continue evolving to survive.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Li Ning Marketing Coup: Classic Brains over Brawn

Via the Olympics, here’s a great case study into how a company with a much smaller marketing budget can upstage a rival.

Li Ning, a former Olympic medalist who owns the sportswear company that bears his name, did so to Adidas in the opening ceremonies last week in Beijing. Maybe you saw it: Li was the guy who “ran” around the top edge of the stadium and lit the torch.

Some are calling it the ultimate ambush marketing. Adidas paid the big money to be the sole sportswear sponsor, and then Li snuck in and grabbed the spotlight basically for free.

The prospect of taking on competitors the world over can seem pretty overwhelming for smaller to midsize companies. You have to work hard to be more creative. More consistent. More cost-effective. More with less.

But the Li story just goes to show that, even if you don’t have the marketing muscle of the competition, brains can beat brawn on the world stage.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Brett’s Brand: Too Favre Gone?

So, Brett Favre caught his Jet out of Green Bay. This chapter of the Favre soap opera is closed. He’ll be back in action next month, albeit in a new town and a new uniform.

Oh, and another thing that’ll never be the same: the Brett Favre brand.

Plenty of professional-sports pundits are speculating about what the move to New York will mean to Favre’s legacy in the game. But as marketers, we’re more interested in how it will affect his reputation off the field.

As good as No. 4’s career numbers have been in some respects, Favre owes as much of his popularity to the public perception (with a big tip of the cap to mainstream media) that he’s a hard-working everyman with a flair for drama. Just not the kind of drama he created by deciding to “unretire” last month.

Significant damage has already been done to his legend, according to this Wisconsin poll. After all, a real regular guy could never get away with the presumptuous behavior he’s exhibited over the past few weeks.

Granted, Favre isn’t likely losing any sleep over his brand’s declining value. But as we counsel our clients, he really should be concerned about his rep. He’s got a brand, whether he wants one or not. If he doesn’t shape it, it’ll be shaped for him. For example, I’m sure there are plenty more (and more critical) blogs about this saga.

Time will tell if the down-home hero persona he worked so many years to establish will still hold water, now that he’s taken his ball and fled east.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Employee Retention: It’s about Much More than Money

Want to keep your best employees? Keep them happy.

First, of course, that means offering a competitive salary and benefits. But there’s another, equally critical factor: the work environment. You must recognize and encourage the vital contributions employees make by creating a place they enjoy coming to every workday.

It’s simple, really. Employees who feel appreciated produce more and higher quality work, which leads to more satisfied customers.

We like to think we know a little something about this, and it seems others think we do, too. Next month, Scheibel Halaska will be recognized as a Top Milwaukee Workplace by The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee.

The winning companies have demonstrated a commitment to fostering an exceptional work environment, promoting a positive work/life balance, providing comprehensive benefits and supporting professional development opportunities for their employees.

A few ways you can follow suit:

1. Allow a flexible work schedule. Accommodate the occasional need to work from home or attend medical appointments without repercussions. When employees know their families are taken care of, they can focus on their work without worrying about the family.

2. Organize fun, team-building events. Poker tournaments, tailgating and a ballgame, a boat trip on the water, an afternoon at a restaurant. These events help rejuvenate employees and show them they’re valued, while strengthening relationships among co-workers.

3. Consider more than the typical benefits. Benefits packages shouldn’t stop with the norm—medical, dental and vision coverage, as well as a 401(k). Examples of enhanced benefits include flexible spending accounts, maternity and paternity leave, employee stock options, profit sharing and personal time off (PTO).

Be creative, and do what suits your people. They’ll notice the effort, and they’re a lot more likely to stick around.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Facebook as a Reference Check? Be Wary.

Social media are increasingly on companies’ radar screens, and rightfully so. Opportunities abound to connect with customers and understand what’s on their minds. You should be exploring the possibilities.

But what about this trend toward visiting social networking sites in reference checks?

On the surface, it might seem to be a good idea. Cultural fit is a critical factor in the success of a new hire, and a Facebook page may shed some light on whether someone would be compatible. Or so the thinking goes.

However, do the personal details, opinions, pictures and jovial nonsense you might find online about a job candidate really represent who that person is—let alone have any bearing on his or her job qualifications?

Say you’re considering hiring a recent college graduate, the kind of recruit you’ll need to replace retiring baby boomers. Then you find some drinking-party photos posted by the candidate. Pretty typical stuff for the demographic. Nevertheless, based on the photos, you decide that person isn’t company material.

You may have just discounted a talented, reliable worker. And you may also have put your company at risk of privacy and discrimination claims.

OK, maybe not privacy. It’s called social networking, after all. However, if there’s any way it might appear that you eliminated the candidate based on the way he or she looked (i.e., skin color) or what he or she believes as you learned online, then you’re on shaky legal ground.

Given the rising impact of online social networks, you’ll be reading a lot more in this space about social media issues and approaches. For now, however, with respect to reference checks on social networking sites: proceed with caution.

Friday, July 11, 2008

How to Approach the Google-Eyed Audience

Last week, we talked about how tech gadgets and constant connectivity are stifling creativity. What if we take that idea a little further, and assert that all the time we spend online is just plain making us dumber?

That’s the crux of the argument Nicholas Carr is making in a new article in Atlantic Magazine, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

You may know Carr from such books as “Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage.” He’s no stranger to sweeping statements that challenge conventional thinking about technology. But the new Google piece may prove to be less controversial—because few people disagree that we’re approaching information quite differently in the Internet age.

Google’s instant-gratification search fits in so well with our “multitasking” culture. Its fast-acting algorithm makes it easy for us to jump from info nugget to nugget, taking little nibbles along the way. In an everyday context, this process has replaced the traditional, more painstaking approach to research: scouring the card catalog, poring over a textbook, listening to a lecture—activities that require full engagement over long periods.

But does that really mean we’re getting stupider? Or just losing the ability to concentrate on a full novel? In actuality, the latter seems to be what Carr’s getting at in his article. We may no longer be capable of delving into broad issues, but other skills are becoming more important.

The most marketable skills now include quick comprehension, deductive reasoning (sometimes to fill in the gaps that used to be filled in by reading in greater depth) and, most importantly, clear, concise communication skills.

It’s a different kind of intelligence, for sure, and marketers need to be able to roll with it. The longwinded whitepaper has been fading for a while now. To grab today’s audience, it’s more important than ever to hammer away at a single, focused idea.

Maybe we need to approach the challenge like the Professional Bull Riders (that other “PBR”): Keep the audience along for the ride for at least eight seconds, and you’ve got a winner.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Multitasking: The Enemy of Ideas

Why are you reading this? Couldn’t or shouldn’t you be doing something else?

If you’re like many of us, you may already be doing something else right now, in addition to reading this post. Responding to emails, perusing networking sites, firing off a text message, twittering, talking fast on your mobile.

A good column in the current BtoB Online calls attention to this issue. We euphemistically call it multitasking, but it’s often more like “going through the motions.” All this connectivity is putting us into a weird trance.

It’s not only unproductive; it’s uncreative. For anyone in the business of ideas—and aren’t we all?—this is something to be concerned about. Think of the old saying, “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” Try to do too much at once, and you end up doing nothing of value.

Communications technologies tempt and distract at every turn. But they aren’t going away. Although it’s odd for a blogger to tell readers to tune out the Internet for a while, it’s still good advice. (Next week, we’ll explore how that might even raise your IQ and reading comprehension skills.)

When was the last time at the office that you shut your door—if you have one—and, more importantly, shut down your computer and various handheld tech gadgets for any length of time? These days, to get creative, to really get into it, we probably have to put it on the calendar and set a reminder. Commit to an hour or two per week, maybe, to start.

Go ahead. Just for a few minutes. Put down the mouse, back away slowly, and let the ideas flow.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Factory shooting underscores importance of solid crisis communications planning

Yesterday’s tragic shooting spree at the Atlantis Plastics plant in Henderson, Ky., serves as an unfortunate reminder that disaster can strike at any time.

Fires, explosions, natural disasters, chemical spills, manufacturing accidents, labor strikes—every crisis threatens a company’s stability, its reputation and, in the worst case, its survivability.

That’s why, when a crisis occurs, your response must be swift and effective. And the secret to taking quick control of a crisis? A sound crisis communications plan. It’s a strategic roadmap to get you through a situation, while minimizing potential damage.

Here’s a primer for developing your plan.

Getting started

  • Set your crisis management team. Include the CEO, department managers, public relations team members, legal representatives, security and human resources personnel.

  • Outline your protocol. Work with your internal or external communications team. Get the necessary resources aligned. Work through the possible contingencies and conduct a crisis audit.

  • Determine your communications process. Identify your audiences and how you’ll communicate with them—face-to-face, telephone, e-mail, etc. Prompt, proactive communication is essential.

  • Anticipate common questions. Prepare responses that can then be modified based on the nature of the crisis.

  • In the moment of crisis

  • Never provide a "no comment" response. Such evasion is often interpreted as though you have something to hide.

  • If you’re still gathering information, say so. Share what you know and pledge to provide additional information as soon as possible. You’ll show that you’re actively working to stabilize the situation.

  • Never lie or speculate. Stick to the facts that you can speak to with certainty.

  • Exude calm. Your demeanor can directly affect public perception of the situation and your company overall.

  • And here’s the best tip we can give you, by far: If you don’t already have a crisis management plan, start developing it right now.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    Sustainability Efforts Must Come before Marketing Hype

    The current issue of Advertising Age has an interesting feature about the rise of sustainability officers and their relationship to marketing.

    “So goes the evolving dance between sustainability and marketing, as chief sustainability officers become as prevalent as chief marketing officers in Fortune 500 companies. Although more marketers are striving to act and look green, their sustainability officers seldom come up from the marketing side.”

    And why don’t they come from the marketing side? Because the more successful eco-friendly efforts start from the grass roots. They fully integrate the spirit of sustainability into the rest of a business.

    To illustrate this point, the AdAge piece goes on to highlight the sustainability initiatives of Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and other big players. These companies don’t have massive “sustainability departments,” just leaders in charge of making things greener across their companies.

    If your organization isn’t big enough to justify hiring a sustainability officer, a commitment to sustainability can still be carried through. But either way, green should not be a figment of marketing imagination.

    That’s especially true for companies taking environmentally focused products to market (like several of our clients). As we pointed out back around Earth Day, the marketplace of green claims is getting pretty noisy. Audiences are starting to tune it all out. So if you’re selling green, you have to walk that talk.

    Besides, there may be an even better reason for going greener throughout your company. Potential business benefits such as increased energy efficiency will likely have a far more positive impact on the Earth and your bottom line than any green marketing claim ever will.

    Friday, June 13, 2008

    Do You Have a “Web site” or a “Website”? Get with the Times.

    “Web site” or “website”?

    If it were up to us, the great Web debate would have been settled by now. But the Associated Press Stylebook still clings to the stodgy ol’ “Web site.” Therefore, for press releases and bylined articles, PR professionals have little choice but to use “Web site” or risk the scorn of AP-loyal editors.

    True, “Web site” may be an accurate reflection of the term’s roots as a location on the World Wide Web. But that matters little because “website” has become the familiar compound word of choice for nearly everyone outside AP-alachia.

    Technology, information and the related terminology are evolving fast in the Internet age—much faster, it would seem, than an old-media organization such as the AP is prepared to handle. (See also our post from February about media coverage of the Favre retirement, when organizations well versed in new media were much quicker to spread the story.)

    So, what about your organization? Are you staying ahead of the interactive technology curve, or at least with it?

    If you’re still insisting on calling your portal a “Web site,” you may have fallen behind on other advances. A few additional red flags that show that an organization is out of touch:

    -- A “news” page where the “latest news” consists of releases from two years ago.
    -- An information dump that amounts to little more than a stagnant adaptation of the company literature—known as “brochureware.”
    -- Anything that shows up on the Web Pages That Suck blog.

    OK, so maybe you’re hip to buzz-worthy initiatives such as search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). But even so, if the site you’re driving traffic to is burdened by any of the flaws mentioned above, you’ll look silly to your new visitors—and they won’t come back.

    Our recommendation is first to modernize design and content to make it clean, current and easy to use. Of course, you might start by calling it a website.

    Friday, May 30, 2008

    Even CPAs Agree: Marketing Investments Still Make Good Business Sense

    CPAs can be very stingy people—even more so when the economic seas are churning, as they are now.

    But even some of the most conservative accountants recognize that now isn’t the time to shut down marketing efforts. Here’s an article from a firm called Vrakas/Blum suggesting that this is a critical time to invest in your future through marketing.

    Why? For the same reason it’s good to invest in quality stocks when the market is down: The bull will be back, and you’ll be able to take advantage. Right now, while many of your competitors are cutting back on marketing, it’s a great opportunity for you to gain an edge. When the economy picks up again, you’ll be better positioned to pounce on new business.

    Now, we don’t recommend throwing more money around indiscriminately (although we’d sure benefit from that, if you insist). You should invest as wisely as possible. The Vrakas/Blum article offers four tips to approach marketing in a tough economy. (Never mind that the author actually promises six suggestions.)

    For further reading, you can review a similarly helpful post we offered back in February with five tips on marketing during the downturn.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008

    Ramp up Your Customer Retention Efforts

    Is customer service dead? You’d better hope not.

    Customer service is, of course, the key to satisfied customers. Scratch that—not just satisfied, but loyal customers.

    Even in bullish economic times, customer retention costs a lot less than customer acquisition. And in the current iffy economy, retention is even more important.

    But many B2B marketers remain more focused on attracting new customers, according to a new report.

    The Chief Marketing Officer Council’s study, highlighted in BtoB Magazine, found that only one-third of global marketers have strategies in place to win back dormant or lost customers, and only half have strategies to further profit from key account relationships.

    That’s too bad, because a host of new media and technologies offer us all kinds of fresh opportunities to understand, inform and interact with customers. For example, Scheibel Halaska works with several clients on email newsletters aimed at keeping customers in the loop.

    Current customers, after all, are your most crucial target audience. Sure, you’ve got to be out there selling. But it’s a whole lot easier to sell to the folks who are already sold on your company.

    Friday, May 2, 2008

    The Labor Shortage Is a Perception Problem

    Manufacturers, Trade Groups, Schools Must Work Together
    A staff editorial in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls attention to a pressing issue for manufacturers and other B2B companies: the skilled labor shortage.

    It’s a topic we’ve discussed here before—and one that, right now, several of our clients are taking a leadership role in addressing. They’re collaborating with technical schools and colleges, offering scholarships and internships, sponsoring recruitment fairs and more. In the interest of your company’s future, you may want to follow suit.

    The baby boomers’ retirement is often cited as one of the leading causes of the intensifying skilled labor shortage. And rightfully so. But the real problem isn’t necessarily that there aren’t enough workers out there to replace them; no, for manufacturers in particular, the challenge is that potential workers are avoiding manufacturing careers.

    Why? Because hey don’t think it’s a sophisticated path. Their parents have told them the jobs don’t pay well. And they’ve heard that all the manufacturing jobs are moving overseas.

    These are all misperceptions. The truth is that manufacturing positions today often are at the forefront of innovation.

    Clearly, manufacturers face a significant public relations challenge that must be solved promptly. Fortunately, two upcoming events in Milwaukee may help dispel some of the myths. ANTEC and the Plastics Encounter, set for May 4-6, will showcase the latest developments in high-tech manufacturing, helping advance current workers skills and improve recruitment of new workers.

    We agree with the JS editorial: Manufacturers, educational institutions and trade organizations must work together more to help attract and retain workers. ANTEC and Plastics Encounter are two fine examples of such initiatives. Now it’s time for your company to join the cause.

    Tuesday, April 22, 2008

    For Marketers, the Earth Day Bandwagon May Be Full

    In the thick of Earth Day media coverage, it may be time to ask: Is “green” on its way to being as undifferentiating a term as, say, “solutions provider”?

    An interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal takes a look at that question. And clearly, in some sectors—particularly in the consumer space—the answer is yes.

    Quick take in B2B: Environmental claims may not yet be devalued. But there’s certainly no shortage of green pretenders out there. Trade media are being flooded with green product stories … some have merit; many don’t. As a result, many audiences are becoming desensitized to claims about corporate environmentalism and social responsibility.

    So it’s more critical than ever that substantive, defensible claims be the backbone of any green messaging. That’s most likely a good thing, because it may encourage more companies to pursue environmental initiatives the right way—with actual green impact.

    Monday, April 14, 2008

    Who Cares What the Competition’s Doing?

    You shouldn’t—or not much, anyway.

    Last week, we touched on business strategies and hedgehogs and such. To follow up, here’s a column from BtoB magazine that’s a window on the strategies of leading companies.

    Author Wes Ball gives us a snapshot of what his firm’s research uncovered about “alpha companies,” as he calls them.

    Here’s the big idea:
    Nonalpha thinking: Focus on staying ahead of competition.

    Alpha thinking: Focus on what your b-to-b customers want to buy.
    Of course, it’s important to keep an eye on what other companies in your market are doing and saying—but maybe only to make sure you aren’t doing and saying the same things.

    After all, what’s good for another company isn’t necessarily good for yours. Instead, what’s best for your company is whatever you do best—and that customers value.

    In the B2B game, your customers’ success drives your success. So we counsel our clients to pursue a customer-centered strategy, and make that the foundation of everything they communicate.

    In other words, move the way alpha companies do. They don’t get mired in keeping up with the competition; they’re too busy focusing on their customers’ needs. So take a page from their playbook: Stay out of the “me, too” fray, and you’ll stay ahead of the competition.

    Friday, April 4, 2008

    Your Strategy (or Lack Thereof) Makes a Statement: Employees Need a Clear Strategy Statement to Follow

    The other day, a colleague and I were discussing a formerly family-owned manufacturing company that was recently sold to a private equity firm. With such a big change, there was a real challenge for the new leadership to come in and smooth out the transition with employees. The key? First, articulate a strategy for success in 35 words or less.

    That’s one of the top jobs of a company leader. And yet, many CEOs can’t readily identify their strategy, according to an excellent piece in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?” (you’ll need to agree to the terms and conditions to read it).

    If the chief can’t say what the strategy is, then how likely is it that anyone else down the line will understand it, either? And how will they be able to work in ways that support it?

    This represents a major missed opportunity in internal communications. But the HBR article details a few strong examples of companies with unique strategies that are well defined and well followed. Consider, for example, Edward Jones, and its successful against-the-grain approach of one very hands-on financial advisor per office—often in a rural location overlooked by other firms.

    So how can you embark on a similarly successful path? The HBR piece also offers a good primer on the basic tool of marketing communications that starts it all: a powerful, succinct strategy statement.

    A note on that strategy: It should be based not on what your competitors are doing (that tired “me, too” philosophy), but on what’s best for your company to do. The HBR calls it your “sweet spot,” the intersection of your company’s capabilities with your customers’ needs. At Scheibel Halaska, we usually refer to this approach as being a “hedgehog”—as in the ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For the uninitiated, this term was popularized by Jim Collins in his best-selling book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t.”

    If you’re a CEO or in any other leadership position, the HBR article (and Collins’ book, while you’re at it) should be required reading. Hope the leader of that manufacturing company we were talking about gets a chance to read it, too.

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008

    Advertising and the Internet: Time to Rethink the Relationship?

    As a follow-up to our two recent posts on the obsession with ROI and the way information moves on the Internet, a new Advertising Age column dovetails nicely: Matthew Creamer’s “Think Different: Maybe the Web's Not a Place to Stick Your Ads” (subscription needed).

    For marketers and agencies, says Creamer, big changes are happening in the way we do business—or at least they should be happening. He quotes Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Schematic, the interactive agency recently purchased by WPP Group:

    "It's easy for clients and agencies to think about banners and email because buying banners is like buying outdoor and email is like direct. That is very different than nurturing the community of your customers, providing great content or executing transactions."

    Lessons to mull over:

    • We can’t simply jump into the digital game with a traditional-media approach that isn’t suited for the social dynamics of the digital environment. Banners can work well on niche websites, but don’t overlook the countless other opportunities to connect with customers in new ways.
    • We shouldn’t obsess over tactical metrics like click-through rates that track how many people we’re reaching instead of how well we’re getting through to them.

    The biggest lesson, however, is that we have many lessons to learn. The digital media landscape is rapidly maturing, and there’s a real need for serious reflection on what we’re doing there.

    Meanwhile, many marketers and advertisers haven’t even gotten past the “brochureware” stage of Internet content—literature conceived for print, converted to digital. So it seems that we’ve got a lot of thinking to do …

    Saturday, March 15, 2008

    Why ROI isn’t everything (but it still matters a lot)

    In an interesting take on the current obsession with ROI in marketing, blogger Justin Cooper laments that the phrase “ROI” was the top marketing buzz phrase of 2007:

    For a marketing executive to say "This sounds great, but what's the ROI?" demonstrates that they are missing the point. The person that asks this question is caught up in the evaluation of their tactics and not thinking about the content of their customer's experience. It's like focusing on the buttons of the phone, rather than the conversation.

    Now, for us marketers, this is a hairy argument—especially in B2B, and especially especially in uncertain economic times. Clients pay for our services, so we need ways we can demonstrate the impact of what we do. We even recommended using ROI-measurable tactics in a recent post.

    But true marketing ROI can’t be determined by the handy numbers you can claim from an assortment of tactics. It’s got to be part of a larger strategy aimed at meeting big-picture goals like entering new markets, gaining market share, etc.

    As Cooper points out, customers must be involved in shaping that strategy. They’re the ones whose interests will make or break your company’s success. So ask yourself: Are your customers full collaborators in your marketing conversation? If not, you’re just talking at them, not with them. And they probably aren’t listening much.

    That’s why, absent a marketing strategy based on what customers actually want, reader impressions or basic response levels don’t count for much. But integrated with a comprehensive strategy to advance business goals, ROI-measurable tactics can still help you understand how well you’re supporting the cause.

    Friday, March 7, 2008

    Favre retirement frenzy highlights the new-media era

    Hey, did you know Brett Favre retired?

    Of course you did. I’d link to a story, but I wouldn’t know which of the hundreds of thousands of articles and blogs to choose. Besides, the news is so three days ago.

    Few events could have better demonstrated how the media cycle has accelerated, and the landscape changed, than Tuesday’s leak of the “Favre-gone conclusion,” if you will. And B2B marketers need to adapt.

    Some of us in this office first learned of the Favre bombshell via a Blackberry news alert from the Small Business Times, just minutes after the story broke (on The SBT isn’t the source you’d think of first for breaking sports stories; rather, it’s a relatively new, niche publication that covers—you guessed it—small business.

    But this is Wisconsin; most news outlets would have bumped the moon landing for No. 4’s farewell. That’s partly why it made sense that the SBT was out in front on this story.

    It also made sense because of how news spreads today. The cycle is dramatically different from the way stories moved in the heyday of big-city papers and other MSM. Today’s media landscape is populated more by the likes of smaller, nimbler organizations built from scratch to communicate through electronic means—email, Internet, text.

    Of course, in B2B, we don’t often have a story with the earth-shattering magnitude of the Favre announcement. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the changes in the media dynamic. There’s now an online community for every niche interest imaginable, including whatever widget business you’re in. These communities seize upon relevant stories with great zeal, albeit on a much smaller scale.

    That’s why, as B2B marketers, we also must embrace new media. It’s a great challenge and, as the Favre saga showed, also a great opportunity to spread messages to more people more quickly than ever before.

    Friday, February 29, 2008

    Better Latte than Never: Starbucks Strives to Reclaim the Old Brand Magic

    So, Starbucks shut its doors for three hours on Tuesday. Oh, the tragedy for its loyal customers!

    What loyal customers, you say? Well, that’s the problem for Starbucks. The gourmet coffee giant has lost customers over the last several years, with an overextended brand that’s taken the company too far away from its roots. Which, ostensibly, is why Starbucks shut down across the land Tuesday afternoon: to give its “baristas” a refresher course on how to do justice to the Mermaid brand.

    CEO Howard Schultz has been leading a back-to-gourmet-basics effort since he returned to Starbucks last year. For one, he 86ed the hot breakfasts, whose watery, eggy aromas were stifling the more valuable scent of Starbucks’ daily roasts. More boldly, Schultz also closed hundreds of stores—we’re guessing in those areas where Starbuckses (?) were literally across the street from each other.

    How much can the baristas really have learned in Tuesday’s three-hour, one-off training session? That’s not really the point. Now, it may have instilled a little extra pride in employees’ work. And doing it during normal work hours couldn’t have hurt. But the biggest victories in the Starbucks shutdown lie in all the related publicity and the underlying message about refocusing on its coffee and its core customers.

    Of course, competitors like Dunkin Donuts took advantage of the opportunity to spin the story their way. Touché!

    But if Starbucks is successful in reclaiming the differentiating brand that caffeinated its original success, the company should be able to fend off Dunkin just fine. B2B companies tend to emulate what B2C companies do right. In this case, however, we should learn from what Starbucks did wrong. Stay committed to what sets you apart, and you’ll maintain your competitive edge.

    Friday, February 22, 2008

    The AMA’s New Definition of Marketing Misses the Mark

    What is marketing?

    Now, there’s a can of worms. And here comes the American Marketing Association to further confuse the issue with its new definition:

    Marketing is the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large.

    Sounds more like the definition of overkill. Around the office, we had to pass this around and read it 20 times before it made any sense to anyone. First off, isn’t an “offering” something you do at church? …

    OK, so maybe this is an academic definition. But really, that’s no excuse. Marketing is a professional service, paid for by clients. We have to be able to explain ourselves in a way that makes sense to “customers, clients, partners and society.” In an era of tight budgets and fierce international competition, clients demand—and deserve—to know exactly what’s in it for them.

    Instead, we get the AMA’s new spew of verbiage, and it’s just the sort of toothless, garbled communication-by-committee we warn clients against all the time.

    As a BtoB Magazine story points out, we aren’t alone in furrowing our brows. Marketing blogger Mike Smock has been one of the most vocal critics of the new definition. Here’s his version: Marketing is ideas and actions that generate increasingly profitable market share.

    Not sure if Smock’s new take is perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it. It’s clear, it’s concise and it takes a stand—like today’s best marketing communications writing. And it also emphasizes an indispensable element of marketing that gets lost in the AMA definition: business results.

    When the dust clears on this debate, whatever way we end up defining the activities and audiences of marketing, the focus must be on helping clients achieve their business goals.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    The Next President Won’t Make You More Competitive

    This isn’t a political blog. But with Wisconsin’s presidential primary coming up Feb. 19, plenty of people—b2b types included—are paying some attention to the issues. And the candidates are, for once, paying some attention to us.

    So what’s the top issue from the B2B perspective? This editorial from Saturday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is a decent overview of major concerns from across the state, and it just so happens that “Manufacturing and Trade” gets the first nod. “The jobs have been bleeding away for a while, jobs that pay an average annual wage of $46,000, with benefits. The culprit, depending on whom you're talking to, is global economics, new trade deals and our own inflexibility. The solution is to become more competitive. So how will you help us do that?”

    Never mind the passage’s pessimistic tone about the state of manufacturing (that’s fodder for another post). Instead, let’s home in on those last two sentences. We agree that the solution to challenges in the manufacturing sector is to become more competitive. But you’d better not wait to find out how the next president is going to assist you.

    Instead, you’ve got to look in the mirror. And look closely. What sets your company apart? A market specialization? Advanced engineering? Strong supply chain partnerships? Now more than ever, you’ve got to identify your competitive advantage and communicate it throughout your target markets. By doing so, you’ll exploit your competitive edge for all it’s worth. And it’s worth a lot—certainly more than any presidential candidate can promise, let alone deliver.

    Friday, February 1, 2008

    Open Up: Time for Better Internal Communications

    Share your strategy and even your numbers

    Last week, we offered a few tips for marcomm planning in light of an uncertain economic outlook for 2008.

    Upon review, let's add consistent internal communications to that list. Here's why.

    Even during a boom, a strong internal communications program is vital to a positive, productive workforce. Then consider the current cloudy climate, when people start to worry about the economy—and about their jobs.

    Absent clear communication from leadership, people fill the void with rumors and gossip. So it's more important than ever to be open with your employees.

    Such regular communication instills confidence in your workers that your company is making strategic moves that ultimately benefit them and instill confidence that they know how to help the company cause. You've got to be straight with them about your company's goals, strategies and even financials.

    Some companies may balk at the idea of sharing financials. But our market intelligence tells us that many firms learned some lessons from the last downturn, at the end of the tech bubble and after Sept. 11, 2001. They're likely better prepared today for a possible bumpy road than they were back in the days of irrational exuberance.

    If your company is one of those wiser ones, you probably have some reassuring financial data to share. As part of a comprehensive, consistent internal communications program, opening your books can head off negative speculation, boost morale and strengthen the bond between company and employees.

    In times of uncertainty, those are just the kinds of reinforcements you need.

    Friday, January 25, 2008

    5 Ways to Fight Back during the Downturn

    We don’t have to tell you that there’s concern about the economy right now—both in Scheibel Halaska’s hometown and across the country.

    But maybe we do have to tell you this: Strategic communications are important to the future of your business in both good times and bad.

    So if the economy is on a downtown, the vast array of marketing channels makes it easier than ever before to maximize the value of your marketing spending. The current economic uncertainty may be the impetus you need to think and execute creatively.

    Without further ado, here are five marketing communications tips for 2008:

    1. Blend tactics. Don’t be afraid to make marketing investments. But like any smart investor, you should diversify your portfolio—in this case with print and online ads, email marketing, pr, targeted direct mail and more.

    2. Try more ROI-measurable programs, such as email campaigns. You can keep a closer eye on the value you’re getting from your hard-to-come-by marketing dollars.

    3. Pursue a key customer strategy. Focus on your best, most profitable accounts—because when the economy is slow, the strength of your relationships will determine your success. In addition, profile your most successful customers and use that to build your prospect database.

    4. Emphasize PR. If there isn’t enough room to do as much advertising as you’d like, public relations is a way to get your message out more efficiently. Plus, you can turn every media win into a winning streak by sharing the coverage in other vehicles, such as your website, email marketing and more.

    5. Plant seeds for ‘09 and beyond. Potential clients may balk at spending at the moment, but start the conversation now with targeted direct marketing to build leads for the future. Use marketing rather than feet on the street to more cost efficiently stay in front of your targets.

    Monday, January 21, 2008

    Getting Noticed with Niche Focus

    During difficult times for many North American manufacturers, some companies are still thriving. How? By having the courage to focus aggressively on a niche, and by exploiting and emphasizing that niche expertise in every way possible.

    Our client Donnelly Custom Manufacturing LLC, a finalist for the Plastics News Processor of the Year Award, is a great example.

    Donnelly specializes in short-run injection molding, which involves lower volumes of more complex parts. The company’s customer-intimacy business model—fewer, more involved relationships—dovetails with the advanced engineering and sweat-the-details service that short run often requires.

    But it’s not enough to have a competitive advantage; you have to exploit that edge by constantly reminding audiences about it. That’s another thing the Alexandria, Minn.-based Donnelly does well, through public relations efforts, an online newsletter and, to a lesser extent, going after an award like Processor of the Year.

    Donnelly seizes every opportunity to reinforce its position: that it’s the standard-bearer for How Short-Run Is Done. We’re proud to be part of that effort, and we think Donnelly’s unity of purpose can and should serve as an example for manufacturers across the country.

    Good luck, Donnelly, as you strive for the top Processor of the Year prize, to be announced March 11.

    Friday, January 11, 2008

    Why You Need to ‘Talk It Out’ in Market Research -- Surveys Alone Don’t Tell the Full Story

    We don’t know Torsten Ringberg personally, but we like his style.

    Ringberg, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, talked in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the importance of putting research subjects “on the couch.”

    In other words, qualitative over quantitative, he says. Longer interviews with fewer people can yield better information than a slew of surveys can. Why? In the longer format, people get a chance to really consider how they feel about a topic. Broader themes emerge—including ideas that a multiple-choice survey alone would have ignored.

    Ringberg’s focus is on the consumer realm. But we believe these ideas apply just as well—if not better—to b2b. That’s why we’ve made extensive qualitative interview research the starting point in our branding and positioning methodology, which we call TrueCenterTM.

    These initial, probing interviews reveal a lot more about how our clients’ audiences actually feel. Then the higher-volume, multiple-choice questionnaires try to find how widespread those ideas are.

    Online surveys are increasingly popular, and they’re a key element of effective, accurate research. But there’s no substitute for the insights you get from sitting down and talking to people, one on one. We’re just glad to hear leading marketing thinkers acknowledging that.