Availability is Everything

One of the best books I’ve read about marketing is called How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp.

Sharp distills the most important aspects of marketing and challenges some of the common perceptions clients and agency-folk have about what actually drives sales of a product.

The entire book is worth a read, but if there’s one key message that stood out for me, it’s this: ultimately, marketing is making something available to your audience.

When we look at Wikipedia, we see a verbose, multi-faceted definition of marketing that includes advertising, branding, customer segmentation and a litany of related concepts. But this definition is troublesome as a heuristic device. In other words, these kinds of definitions are so long and so all-encompassing that we often miss the forest for the trees.

So how can we simplify the definition?


  • After all, what is advertising, PR, brand management and communications strategy if not some way of getting our customers to remember our product or service? When a need arises, aren’t we trying to ensure that our brand is readily available on the mental agenda? Indeed, people are less likely to buy a product they’ve never heard of.
  • And what about eCommerce, retail service or SEM? Isn’t distribution just giving people the opportunity to purchase wherever they happen to be? People will never buy a product they don’t have access to.
  • And customer research, analytics and  segmentation? Shouldn’t these serve the previous two points? If  you understand your customer, you’re better placed to reach them.

Marketing exists to facilitate the mental and physical availability of a product or service. It sits at the core of every customer journey and is the rational reason for marketing’s very existence.

Now, this is obvious, right?

This shouldn’t be a revelation to any marketer, but it should be held as a central idea behind all of our work. It must sit as a binary test: does this activity make our product more available to a customer? Yes or no?

Here we can see an important device for judging the quality of an advertisement or social post. Is this ad likely to stand out? Is this post likely to capture the attention of our audience? Is this media placement likely to reach our target audience? Is the message clear enough to be recalled quickly? And are we providing a way to actually complete the audience journey?

If we view marketing through an “availability lens”, we have made an important step in contextualizing even the most complex of marketing schemes. And it should help those who live primarily outside of the sphere of marketing what we’re talking about and why it’s valuable.

Lastly, it keeps us honest.

Because failure to advance availability is a failure in the fullest sense of the word.


Another Marketing Article about the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is every marketer’s wet dream. Viral. Social. Low cost. Massive awareness. It’s no surprise then that the challenge has been copied by brands and written about ad nauseam by “social media ninjas” and “PR pros”.

Let’s establish something first. The Ice Bucket challenge was hugely successful. And marketers should learn from the phenomenon.

  1. It leveraged social pressure in the form of nominations to spread the activity.
  2. It leveraged social media by demanding that the nomination process and challenge itself be filmed, uploaded online and actively tagged.
  3. It (mostly) got around the “slacktivism” problem by encouraging participants to actually donate rather than just go through with the challenge.
  4. The activity itself lent itself to embarrassing failures which only increased awareness.
  5. The activity was not difficult (low barrier to entry, unless you lived in a place suffering from droughts) and instantly entertaining.

In the coming months, I suspect we’ll see marketers trying to copy the campaign phenomenon for their own ends, but most of these will fail. Why?

6.  The Ice Bucket Challenge was in service of a good cause.

Here’s a list of things that will never catch on:

  • Instagram a picture of your lunch to fight crappy lunches (brought to you by Lunchables)
  • Vine your buddy who needs a makeover (brought to you by Old Navy)
  • Tweet your best pick-up line to help fight geekiness worldwide (brought to you by Axe)

Ultimately, any brand that tries to leverage a “challenge your friend to challenge their friends” campaign concept will be a second-mover (or third, or fourth…). It won’t be successful because things like body odor, wrinkles and hunger for snacks simply don’t command social authority in the way a debilitating disease does.

The burden on agencies and marketers is this: build campaigns that leverage social pressure, but do so in a way that offers value to your customers. Give them something. Because there’s no reason for them to give you something for free.

A final thought: having your CEO dump water on his head does not suddenly make your brand relevant nor does it make your company socially responsible.

Bad Interns have Four Fatal Flaws

I love interns. They’re hopeful and untested. They bring raw energy into an organization. They’re eager to learn. And sometimes they can be really useful. But not always.

Once upon a time, I wrote an article for my former employer on their blog about how to succeed in a PR internship. The advice there isn’t wrong per se, but it’s not as useful as it could be to new interns. Advice like “go beyond” and “seek feedback” is vague at best and forgettable at worst.

But this isn’t a corporate blog. I’ve heard many stories about intern disasters from friends and colleagues, and they all have common characteristics. Rather than tell interns how to succeed, let’s focus on the four fatal flaws that can ruin an internship. What do I mean by ruin? If the person who hired you doesn’t remember your name three months after you leave, you have failed. If the person who hired you remembers your name three months after you leave because you were awful, you have failed in an even grander way.

  1. Arrogance – Having a 4.0 GPA and being president of seven different clubs means you are an excellent student. You should be proud of your academic and extracurricular achievements. But remember that your first priority in doing an internship is to learn. Your employer expects this. What they do not expect is for you to assume a leadership position and order other staff around. At the end of the day, an intern is just an intern. There’s no such thing as a Senior Intern.
    • Biggest Sin: Ordering admin or junior staff around like a mini dictator; you’re not their boss and nothing will infuriate their your boss more than an arrogant intern. Also, don’t show up late and don’t be a diva.
    • How to Fix: Your past achievements are not erased when you enter the professional world. They are indications of your potential, but the professional world really is different from the academic world. Do what you did in school: learn from those around you. Never assume that you are smarter or better than anyone else. Then, with time, your potential will turn into real advancement.
  2. Stupidity Ignorance is expected; stupidity is inexcusable. Interns aren’t expected to know a lot. What good employers look for in an intern is potential–things like positive personalities and a history of curiosity and other positive traits. That’s why ignorance–the lack of knowledge–is ok. Failure to learn from mistakes and use common sense is not ok.
    • Biggest SinNot questioning the context of a task and doing exactly as you’re told. If you could be replaced by a high functioning robot, then you aren’t contributing much to the company. What’s worse, if you’re not actively scanning for errors, big mistakes can slide past you.
    • How to Fix: Just think about what you are doing. Is there a way to do what you’re doing more quickly and with fewer errors? Why are you doing the task? Just knowing the answer to that question is enough to ensure that you are actually paying attention and getting more out of the internship than a wasted eight week journey.
  3. Meekness – This is a tough one. Not everyone is sociable. Sometimes, especially within some cultures, meekness is viewed as a virtue, not a flaw. But in an increasingly competitive business environment, meek people are all too easily ignored. This means that great minds and great workers can slip through the cracks. An internship can be as much about selling yourself as it can be about learning, especially if you’re seeking a full time role at the end of your trial period.
    • Biggest Sin: Coming to work, doing your work and leaving without saying much of anything to anyone (chatting with other interns doesn’t count).
    • How to Fix: “Hi, I’m XXXX. I’m going to be interning here for XXX weeks. I’m wondering if you have any work I can help you with?Or maybe I can sit down with you sometime and learn more about your role?” Actively make yourself useful to everyone in the office. An internship resulting in only three people knowing your name should be considered a failure. Would an ad that three people see in a newspaper be considered successful? Of course not! At the very least, you should make an effort to learn more about what other people in the office do. People like talking about themselves. Leverage that trait.
  4. Naivete –  I was once an intern. I was once hopelessly naive about the realities of the business world. So to a certain extent, this flaw is not the most serious one because one thing all interns learn is that the business world is different from the world they came from. It’s different from Mad Men or Suits.
    • Biggest Sin: Being shocked that business politics is a regular part of working in the professional world. Being shocked that promotions don’t happen over night. Being shocked that not everyone wants the corner office and is happy enough to float along until retirement.
    • How to Fix: Be realistic about the world around you. The best skill you can develop at an early stage in your career is empathy. If you can understand what motivates people, you can better interact with people. The faster you understand basic human behavior and appreciate the fact that people don’t necessarily think or approach problems the way you do, the faster you will shed your intern persona and become a respected professional.

Interns are as valuable as they want to be. A great intern can become a hot prospect for a company and a bad one can be gossiped about at the company Christmas party for years and years. If you want to be a good intern, be realistic about what you aim to accomplish and what the sponsoring organization expects out of you. Arrogance, stupidity, meekness and naivete will not serve you well. Avoid these fatal flaws, and you might just succeed in the business world.

Apple isn’t Apple anymore

Apple recently released its newest ad promoting the iPhone 5s. Take a look.

Chirpy, feel-good indie music accompanies people doing incredible things with their iPhones. Painting murals, plotting courses, administering medical aid to impoverished people. The possibilities are truly endless.

And that really is the message of this ad. With an iPhone 5s, you are empowered to do amazing things–things you might not have realized possible.

It’s a pretty ad. But it’s terrible.

Who needs a soul when you have product features?

The thought process behind this ad is not hard to see. People view iPhones as lifestyle devices. It’s popular and ubiquitous, but market research probably showed that most people don’t know what their phones are capable of.  I certainly didn’t know that I could take a horse’s pulse with a phone.

This led to a well-meaning marketing head at Apple requesting that the agency create an ad focusing on product features, in order to educate consumers. This led TBWA to create an ad focusing on the specific and surprising capabilities of the iPhone 5s.

So what’s the problem?

Replace the iPhone in that advertisement with a Samsung Galaxy. Or an LG G3. Or a Sony Xperia. Would the advertisement still make sense? The answer is yes. This is the mark of a troubled advertisement.

The message “your phone empowers you to do amazing things” can be applied to the majority of the smartphones on the market–certainly those competing with Apple. If anything, Android phones already have a better reputation for amazing capabilities due to their customization and the fact that for the past couple years, Android manufacturers have led the way with new features (e.g. waterproofing, smart watches, etc.).

This ad is a clear departure from what made the iPhone so popular in the first place: accessible technology through Apple’s sleek and easy-to-use UI, all in a styling form factor. Other brands caught up to Apple, but Apple, rather than innovating to stay ahead of the competition, began to chase competitive features.

If Apple continues along this path, then it will suffer in the face of Android’s dramatic increase in market share.

Iconic Apple

Smart phones have changed the world as we know it. It has given us the power to communicate easily with the world at-large. But recently, smart phones have increasingly become commoditized with fewer features to distinguish them. This means that branding will become more and more important (See: Selling the Neighborhood). If Apple focuses on product features and less on the brand qualities that makes Apple iconic, then it’s easy to see where Android competition can eat away at Apple’s position in the market. In the absence of a clear differentiator, brand takes precedent.

So what is the solution?

Apple should return to its roots in order to convey a clear message to potential customers: the Apple design philosophy is about simplicity and style–not a million features you will never use.

Here’s to the good old days.


There’s something incredibly arrogant about this OOH ad. It’s like Apple isn’t even trying. Never mind the fact that the ad itself blends into the building. It’s just a side view of the phone. You know what? I’m sold. Where is the nearest Apple store?



Selling the Neighborhood: Quick Thoughts on Branding

Around this time last year, I was assigned a theoretical brief to promote LG in the Hong Kong mobile market. LG sits behind major competitors such as Apple and Samsung, and its marketing at the time focused heavily on new product features, such as curved screens (“Thrilling!” said no customers).

I spent a lot of time thinking about this brief, because it was given to me as part of the hiring process for my current employer (Spoiler: I got the job).  Around the same time, I was thinking about moving after my lease expired, which was about six months away. Starting the process, I spent most of my time thinking about which neighborhoods I would like to live in.

I realized then that mobile phones and apartments are very similar in terms of buying behavior. Not everyone is in the market for an apartment, but that doesn’t stop people from “shopping” different neighborhoods.

  • “I want some place quiet, but I have a limited budget.”
  • “I need to be at the center of things.”
  • “I want to be near public transportation and have a view of a nearby park.”

Mobile phone customers are the same way. If someone buys a mobile phone every two or three years, then the majority of product-specific advertising they see will be completely irrelevant, no matter how interesting it is. Most customers realize that the product will be out of date by the time they are in the market for a new phone.

This is why branding for companies selling high involvement, low frequency products is so important. Customers are frequently shopping for neighborhoods (i.e. brands) rather than for specific apartments (i.e. products). The next time I buy a phone, it might be an Apple 6, 7 or 300s, but since I have no way of knowing what that product will be, I first settle for the neighborhood (Apple) and then when I’m ready to buy, I do so based on existing brand preference.

Frequently CMO’s must meet certain objectives for individual product launches, so they are hesitant to engage in any meaningful branding at the expense of product-specific campaigns, which are only relevant to a particular audience, and are quickly forgotten by everyone else. It’s a common problem, but one that will certainly not go away as phones become increasingly commoditized. Customers only care about processor speed or screen size up to a certain point. When the market becomes saturated with such features, all that is left is branding. The Apples and Samsungs of the world are left in a good position. But what about the LGs and HTCs?

Would you buy a great apartment in a bad neighborhood?

Hong Kong Agencies: Go Big or Go Small?

From a business perspective, Hong Kong sits in a unique spot in Asia. Traditionally where East meets West, Hong Kong continues to serve as an important regional hub for international companies working across Asia-Pacific . At the same time, Hong Kong itself is a wealthy, cosmopolitan city with ample opportunities for profitable local projects. Marketing agencies in Hong Kong increasingly face a choice: do we cater our offerings to local clients or do we try to build a more regional team?

As we shall see, it’s difficult to staff for both:

The Local Route

  • Lower budget, higher volume work stream focusing on local Hong Kong or limited regional responsibilities (e.g. Hong Kong + Greater China)
  • Higher volume allows for larger employee base, able to absorb work as it cycles in from projects or retainers
  • Clients less willing to pay for strategy, so focus turns to production
  • Agency functions more or less independently, without need of international resources (if the agency is a part of a global agency network)
  • New business can still flow from network hubs (e.g. New York, London) if a local partner is required in Hong Kong
  • Cantonese becomes the dominant office language, which is often helpful for office morale if staff aren’t as comfortable with English
  • Lower budgets and bigger teams typically mean smaller salaries, which is unattractive to Hong Kong’s more ambitious talent
  • Production-oriented service offerings hurt the agency’s ability to build distinctiveness in the market; this can lead to commoditization of services
  • Health of business depends almost entirely on Hong Kong’s economic climate
  • Due to volume, loss of a single account has less of an impact on the overall health of the agency

The Regional Route

  • Higher budget, lower volume work stream focusing on regional or international responsibilities
  • Lower volume typically leads to a lean team structure with higher overall seniority
  • Focus on strategy rather than production
  • Agency usually functions as a hub for global offerings, which means it can receive new business from other global hubs and also distribute production responsibilities to smaller regional offices
  • English becomes office language, which obviously satisfies expat staff, but makes positions less attractive to a significant portion of local talent
  • Big budgets mean higher salaries and potentially the best talent
  • Regional scope allows for flexibility and breadth of offerings; if one market (e.g. Southeast Asia) is performing better than another (e.g. Greater China), business can shift accordingly
  • Loss of a large account can be painful from a revenue perspective

The Right Way Forward?

Put simply, the only wrong way forward is taking both routes at the same time. Given the team compositions local and regional clients require, it is difficult to take on both types of clients at the same time without risking idle or unsatisfied staff. There is merit to both routes, so long as the agencies fully lean into their proposed strategy. Having it “both ways” is a sure path to reducing an agency’s overall effectiveness.

So why not have separate teams? One for local business and one for regional? Here we must think from the staff’s perspective. If you have a regional team that is securing bigger budgets, how is the local team supposed to react? While its own business may very well be important, there is a psychological factor at play when some parts of the agency are working on large accounts, while others are cycling through lower paying accounts. Generally speaking, it is better for any organization to be pursuing the same types of work, and not have a split between high/low volume/budget work.

In order for an agency to reach its potential, it must clearly establish its strategy, and ensure that all relevant internal stakeholders actually follow it. It’s too easy for upper management to state its regional business strategy only to have a business development executive target local opportunities–thus creating a gap between how management envisions staffing the company and where the revenue is actually coming from.

For more information on how to approach strategy (not empty mission statements), I highly recommend reading at least the first half of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. It serves as a good overview of why good strategy is effective and why bad strategy isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Viral. Maybe.