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.