Book, Book, Book!

I’ve spent last year teaching and coaching about 200 small and medium size business owners in East London. (Do say hello in the comments if you are one of them!) The single most frequent thing I heard? I know I should do my marketing strategy (or social media, or blog) properly, but I just hate it so much!

Now, I think I have an idea why that is.

We hate what we don’t really know

You don’t really hate marketing, you just don’t exactly know where to start. It seems like there is no point getting down to it without having millions to spend or having a team to execute. It is overwhelming how many platforms and possibilities are out there and it’s hard to pick.

We tend to think marketing is dark magic

Marketing and sales are both considered as dirty as glamorous. Understandably so, when for decades, both activities built on deception and ramming stuff down our throat. And understandably, given how many fancy perfume ads and supermodels and Samsung ads with tiny colourful balls we see.

There is very little practical advice out there

If you google marketing strategy there are two kinds of bad content you can find.

One is lofty, it focuses on theory and frameworks that are so complicated, you don’t even finish reading them. Even if the theory or framework is actually useful, it is hard to access and apply without having years of industry experience.

The second mixes up strategy with tactics and talks about how you should invest in 360-degree videos and switch from Facebook to Snapchat this year. The problem here is that it teaches business owners to try to find quick fixes and hope that the next sparkly tech platform will be the answer to all of their problems.

But good marketing is not about deception or how shiny a TV ad you can get. It isn’t about randomly choosing tactics and channels and hoping for the best. It is about selling to people who really want your stuff and reaching out to them in a way that resonates with their needs in the right moment. You don’t need a million pound budget or a masters degree in manipulation to figure those out. All you need is empathy and logic.

So I decided to take what I’ve learned over 11 years in the communication industry and turn it into a book. A series of workbooks to be precise that talk about marketing strategy, human behaviour, buying decisions and psychology in plain English. Books that give you precise steps and exercises. I’ll show you that good marketing is joyful – both to you working on it and to your customers on the receiving end.

The first workbook, Real Target Audiences, is set to launch in August. It is about how to figure out who your actual customer is, why is it important and how to apply this knowledge when making decisions about campaigns. It has a lot of case studies, exercises and step by step instructions. If you complete them, you’ve done the most important part of your marketing strategy, gaining a real advantage amongst your competitors.

Leave your e-mail address in the box below, and I’ll send you a preview with the launch news, as soon as it’s ready.

The Magnificent Geese – idea ping-pong between startups and giant organisations

Very-very rarely, but it does happen that I want to watch something so bad that even 4 advertising block per hour can’t stop me from it. Thanks to my Drag Race addiction and its seventh season not being available on Netflix, I did watch a few ads endlessly.* (On a sidenote, whatever is happening with more sophisticated targeting online? I highly doubt that showing the same ad half a dozen times over 30 minutes gets positive responses.)

Two of these got me thinking. The Magnificent Geese ad by Verizon I have to admit made me smile every time. In my conscientious brain, I’m aware that wildlife does suffer from what we do with the environment. Moreover, after a quick dive into Google you’ll find that their fees seem to be one of the highest on the US market and would you actually want to stream whole movies, you’d end up practically broke. So two black points for lack of reality check.

And two red points as well. The first, building the campaign around one strong claim: “our mobile net is the fastest”. In my now decade of experience this is the hardest to get clients to be comfortable and happy with. There is always one more thing, which is understandable on the human level as well as looking at declining or really small marketing budgets. However, in communication more is almost never better. You can create powerful images and metaphors for one message but will immediately start to crumble and lose attention if you try to cram everything in there. (Or you end up with disasters of taglines like Cheerios’ “what really matters most, the goodness of oats and the people we love”. I mean, really? It’s not only grammatically incorrect, but inevitable to raise eyebrows with suggesting we should love our daily cereal as much as our family members.)

The second red point is deserved for showing that with basically no budget you can get your point across and entertain as well. The ad consists of some stock imagery of geese, clever voice-over and a few great tunes. Nothing that a startup can’t accomplish with a bit of hard work and if they are aware of the one thing they really want to get across to the target audience.

The other advertising that picked my interest is the US Postal Service. They are similarly focused on one goal, getting people trust the post again versus getting clients to sign back into the folds. However instead of drawing lessons that startups may use to their advantage, the interesting aspect of the ad is how startup spirit seemed to have inspired its approach.

“Watch us deliver” is a clever choice of slogan and one that is deeply rooted in the shift around communication, fuelled by the transparency and connectedness that comes with the internet. Delivering on your promises is the most powerful thing to do really, more effective than million dollar advertising budgets or brainstorming clever catchphrases. This is why the first few hundred customers to a startup are so important and why their early adopters and evangelists became paramount to success. A whole generation of entrepreneurs growing up with lean, UX and customer development shifts the culture of entire economies. To me, when the postal service, a major player of nationwide infrastructure adopts a strategy of show and tell and invites its customers to only belive what they see, is a sign of this shift.

*Disclaimer: I am from, live and work in Europe and therefore I am judging from a very different cultural context, had no personal experience with either brand and looking at the ads with an objective eye, analysing goals, messaging and delivery. 

The Barista is Naked!

A couple of days ago when I first came across the new Nestlé Bliss creamer campaign my first reaction was giggles and delight. I mean sex is still part of advertising’s holy trinity and it’s unlikely you will ever fail to grab some attention with a few perfectly shaped boobs and butts. Plus points for employing both male and female actors, too. (and no, we are not discussing sexism today)

Then I started to think. It is one thing that the idea is not exactly new, Carr’s got naked butlers to hand out free crackers with nothing but an apron in 2010 and a Dallas restaurant is about to launch the male version of Hooters just now. Channeling Bliss’ only natural ingredients certainly makes more sense from conceptual point of view, than merely trying to grab attention with well toned backsides.

My issues start with the need of putting sugar and natural flavour into an au naturel creamer. Sure, both ingredients are found in the nature but there are countless non-healthy, however natural ingredients one might pick. (You probably don’t want to add flavour – and cholesterol – with lard or poisonous mushrooms to get a little more extreme.)

So first of all, can we stop fooling customers with overusing the word natural and try to find something more meaningful, or heaven forbid focus on producing healthy food instead?

Secondly, campaigning to show just how natural Nestlé products are might very well backfire in the light of all the activities they don’t exactly approach in mother nature’s best interest. In reality, the #NoNestlé hashtag is still alive throughout Twitter and activist will be fast to recite the list that gets them angry.

Focusing on the value peaceful co-existence between humans and nature, several stands out.
In the 1970’s huge waves arose around their mother’s milk substitute and the aftermath is still ongoing. Marketing their product as a natural start in one of the fuels for modern day boycotters. The palm oil scandal, a bitter fight between GreenPeace and Nestlé on their use of the ingredient whose production is the primary cause for deforestation was the loudest in 20120. Nestlé has committed to using only “certified sustainable palm oil” by 2015 and while they deserve the benefit of the doubt – and I haven’t done a lot of research to find out what is the state of their supply chain today – there is no thorough, third party monitoring in place to determine whether they’ve succeeded. The most current negative PR Nestlé received is the consequence of the California draught. Refusing to stop producing bottled water that they pump from already dry and endangered areas, not to mention getting around regulations by draining springs in reservation areas, that are not obligated to supply any statistics of the actual amount of water being processed.

Is the new Bliss campaign fun? Sure, it did make me smile. Is promoting how natural a product is, when natural doesn’t necessarily mean healthier (sugar, heavy cream, etc., etc…) uncool? Undoubtedly, even if it’s hardly an unusual thing as of today. Should you build a campaign around being 100% natural when the company’s actions are everything but pro-nature? With a bit of integrity, absolutely not. Human beings as consumers are becoming smarter and more responsible. Even if we are still not the utopian world where everyone only buys products they have zero ethical problem with, it is approaching fast. Build a brand where you make even grand statements and own values with a crystal clear conscience. That, or get used to the thought of perishing slowly.


How to Build a Startup Brand from Scratch

On the 9th of October I was giving a talk at itnig, the hacker accelerator of Barcelona. The first talk after a couple of workshops on the same topic, it was exciting and frightening in the same time to see so many people interested. Of course teaching requires a lot of practice and learning, just like everything, but I am happy to have been given positive feedback on this first occasion already.

Already thinking about how to make it better, more relevant for a startup and useful for small organisations, I am very happy to get more feedback. The slides are on SlideShare, so if you happen to give them a look and have any constructive criticism, feel free to comment! Thanks in advance!

Branding for Startups – Can trust become competitive advantage against big brands?

When I wrote about the advantages of building your startup with a brand focus from the beginning I got the question: isn’t a brand something that requires years and a long-term approach to build? It does, to stay alive and relevant for a long time. But we shouldn’t give into the belief that a brand, an image is a constant, an unshakable quality that will never evolve. 

It can be downright challenging for big brands to stay relevant and recognize the time to let go of a heritage that is meaningful no longer. Though some luxury and heritage brands will always stay on demand – as Burberry became chic again only after they cut off the franchises, returned to domestic production and focused on the traditional product line and quality – others will thrive to disrupt themselves to stay exciting and fresh for younger customers.

if brands would disappear

And only exciting is not enough. A maturer, more demanding kind of consumer generation is growing up, already requiring to be able to trust the brands they buy from. They look at businesses as responsible members of the society and decisions are increasingly made based on the transparency of said businesses. 

Not to mention it is easier to maintain trust then gaining it back again. Do you trust big corporations? Is it easy to believe that they are up to no mischief? In our era privacy finally becomes a real concern for the average customer – and is definitely already super important for your early adopter – so as sustainable solutions, local products and the actions and beliefs of CEOs. 

Thanks to almost unlimited information we are quick to boycott Firefox – otherwise a big favorite for their development principals and privacy policy – because of a comment denouncing gay marriage. In effect similarly, Abercombie&Fitch suffered 17% drop in sales since they declared how they are only for the cool AND slim kids out there.

This perceived access to all information works in favour of startups. First, conscientiously building on transparency to communicate our genuine good intentions is also easier when you are just starting out. Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles is a good example: I salute their aim to eliminate the use of down plucked from geese still alive or force-fed for foie gras. However, if you are building a clothing company right now, you can choose your supplier with this requirement in mind and look better from the start.

You also don’t need to turn around a whole organisation and convince a board of directors either. Imagine how much work it was for Auchan to make their complete sustainability report available for every customer!

consumer trust

Secondly, many projects would never be able to spring to life without this trust. Running a successful Kickstarter campaign based on a promise wouldn’t be possible without people willing to try out new things and early adopters couldn’t inspire mainstream usage either.

In terms of communication, the biggest challenge for established brands comes exactly from this: clean slate brands, startups often embody contemporary customer values better. The values our users seek are our owns and communicating them honestly trumps any clever strategy. It’s easier to be sustainable, ethical and accessible from the beginning, than changing already existing perceptions and building up a new image. 

Yes, if you want to build a strong brand, you are in for the long haul. But whatever you do, will contribute to how consumers perceive you as a company and as a brand, even if marketing is nowhere on your mind. Better to be mindful about it, and use all the advantage you happen to got. 

Anything You Want – why understanding how branding works matters for startups

Why do you run your own business? My not so risky assumption is that because you want to shape things your own way. Understanding the processes behind forming strong longterm marketing strategies will enable you to do just this: shape your business into anything you imagine it to be.

When I talk to people about my new projects and working on methods to make branding accessible for startups, the reaction is almost always along the lines of great, we have just started to think about it, the product is out there, we have some funding, now it’s time to work on our brand. This is of course lovely news for me, but also highlights how we tend to regard marketing and branding only as a package, a neatly painted picture to sell and not the real thing.

While this thinking is not necessarily harmful it’s definitely oldschool. It’s common knowledge how interesting things are happening in the world today. Tools and trends are changing so fast, that you can pretty easily catch up with people having decades of experience in advertising and have a working knowledge that you can use to your advantage from the very beginning of your business. There are functioning channels to gather information right from the source, sidestepping edited news and PR, so internet users are less and less willing to be fooled by glossy images and press conferences. Why would they, since they can talk to companies directly any time they wish, right? Consequently, they are constructing their opinion based on their own experiences and what you actually do, instead of what you say.

All this means that we can’t regard branding and marketing only as the wrapping on our product or services. It’s not enough to get your colours right, the headline catchy, the design flat. (or whatever the next visual trend is going to be) You have to look for consistency  all through your organisation, every element of your toolbox have to transmit the same feel and message. This is not a super revolutionary idea, after all you’d hear about the 4 or 7 Ps of marketing during the first class of Introduction to Marketing 1.0.1. Somehow our model of marketing is still narrowed down to promotion – all activity we consider as marketing communication – which is only a single one of all those Ps.

Now, why does this matter? Well, for one, it will definitely improve your pitch if you never again include the statement and we are not even doing any marketing yet. (common reactions being why the hell not? and what does that even mean?)  You also have to realise that every little product decision, the way you prioritize features, talk to customers or ship the product counts. As soon as you understand this and learn to regard little pieces as part of the bigger picture your brand  is going to look like, you will be able to use the available tools to colour that picture however you want.

At first, this probably sounds overwhelming rather then a reassuring. So many elements to pay attention to, so many decisions to make. Good news is that being able to think in context, you will also have clear next steps and a logical order to follow. If you are able to set a goal* and then reverse-engineer it, the majority of the decisions become clearer and easier. Do you know who your exact target group is? You know how to find them and which feedback worth listening to while others need to be ignored. What expertise and credibility do you want to built? If you have the answer, you have the topics for your content marketing ready. Did you find that one unique selling point, one important message? Great, design briefings are going to be way more effective and easy.
On the other hand, if you are not aware of what is that you actually want to express, the possible choices seem endless, priorities are blurred and you end up doing and saying way too many unrelated things. You are unable to differentiate yourself which is a pretty reliable way to kill your business.

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike some rights reserved by EricMagnuson

Ideally your startup does something you care for**. Good branding is first of all about articulating this goal and making other people care about it too. But it also serves as a compass for your true north,  a way to apply conscientiousness in your business decisions. Do yourself a favour and spend some time on thinking about yours.


*Nothing too rigid mind you, the goals are there to help you keep an eye on the horizon, not to limit or aggravate you.

**Don’t cheat! If you are in your business because, well, it is a good way to make money, don’t start inventing a baroque justification. Rather, find something within your company you are really, truly enthusiastic for and build on it. It can be the great tech or passion to serve your customers well. Also, quite often the best insights come from your first users. Start a conversion with them and find out why do they care. Positive feedback helps you to feel good about your product and find the angle you need to become it’s biggest advocate.