All posts by Kevin

I am a young guy who went to Brown, lives in Hong Kong and enjoys learning.

8 marketing lessons learned from buying a watch

A few days ago, I bought this:

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It’s a Hamilton Day Date Automatic, and I love it. I had been thinking about this purchase for nearly six months, so it was quite a milestone for me. Granted, it’s not an ultra luxury watch, but it’s special to me as it represents the culmination of a few achievements I’ve celebrated recently.

It wasn’t until after I purchased the watch that I started to think about the marketing surrounding the Hamilton brand and how I had moved through an extensive customer journey.  As a marketer, I am normally fairly aware of the tactics being used to target me, but this time around, I was pretty much oblivious to the journey until after the fact.

In retrospect, my purchase raises a number of interesting insights about the watch market and the role of various touch-points in influencing a purchasing decision.

My Journey through the Funnel: An Analysis

Awareness

Capture

That is my Victorinox 241404 Chrono Classic. I bought it before I moved to Hong Kong because I figured I needed a “grown-up” watch to compete in the high-powered world of public relations. I walked into Macy’s and checked out the watches and only saw one or two brands I even recognized. I owned a Swiss Army Knife, so Victorinox was at the top of my consideration set. Then it was a matter of picking one out that I thought looked cool.

Lesson 1: No matter what you sell, sometimes people will just buy whatever they’re familiar with, without research or extended consideration.

Fast forward about four years. My Victorinox has been sitting in my drawer, battery dead, for nearly two years. At some point, I had simply stopped wearing it or anything else on my wrist. This was a typical phenomenon. Young people like myself simply do not buy or wear watches the way generations have in the past.

In 2015, one of my clients launched a smartwatch–one of many new devices on the market designed to redefine wrist-wear. I was tasked with trialing the device for a month to learn more about its features and its role in everyday life. While I ultimately didn’t see the value in wearing a smart device that needed to be charged every two days (I’m not the only one), I did become re-accustomed to wearing something on my wrist. I wanted to make use of my old Victorinox.

I replaced the battery, and started to wear it again, but simply wasn’t happy with it. My sense of style had evolved since my senior year of college. And every time I saw a watch ad or someone wearing a Fitbit, I was reminded of that fact. The less I enjoyed wearing my current watch, the more I started to think about replacing it. Suddenly, it seemed as though watch ads were everywhere.

Lesson 2: Demand generation can come in multiple forms, but once the lever is pulled, marketing communications become immediately more visible to prospects.

One day, I was walking in the MTR (Hong Kong’s wonderful subway system) and noticed an ad for Hamilton, a brand only vaguely familiar to me. I noted three things about this ad:

  1. Its imagery evoked a sense of excitement and wonder by using vintage aviation as its visual focus.
  2. Its tagline, “American Spirit, Swiss Precision”, immediately and clearly positioned the brand as having American style (i.e. martial, simple, clean) with a Swiss movement ticking away inside.
  3. The hero product itself reflected my evolving preferences.

Ultimately, those three elements created a memorable experience at a touch point not typically associated with deep, meaningful engagement.

Lesson 3: OOH advertising for luxury brands need not be complicated, but it needs to be more than a product shot to be successful. It must also represent what it means to be a member of that luxury brand’s exclusive community of buyers.

In Hamilton’s case, its clear brand positioning is an evolution of the brand’s history as an American brand acquired by a Swiss company that would eventually become Swatch Group, the world’s leading watch manufacturer and marketer. Its American origin story differentiates from other European brands through its style, and its brand imagery occupies its own niche. The closest comparison would be Breitling, which focuses on modern aviation, with the addition of celebrity endorsement (John Travolta) and a modern military style.

At this point, I was aware of Hamilton and had a slight affinity towards it. Now to see if it’s any good.

Consideration

I’ve been burned before.

Shinola-Runwell-Watch

Before I started caring about watches again, I was interested in only one other watch brand, Shinola. American-made with a class style, in many ways Shinola is similar to Hamilton for its unique story and aesthetic.

However, when I researched the brand, I found that many people on social media felt that Shinolas were overpriced for their quartz movements and that its Detroit heritage story was all flash and no substance. I still like Shinola, but the divisive opinions about the brand online tempered my excitement. The fact that these are not sold in Hong Kong completely killed my enthusiasm.

Lesson 4: Brand belongs to both the company doing the selling and the person doing the buying. Storytelling is important, but remember your audience will interpret that story based on their own experiences.

For Hamilton, there were a few touch points I engaged with to determine a) whether or not Hamilton is a good brand and b) which model would be best for me. These were my criteria:

  • Automatic movement
  • Simple face with no chronograph
  • Leather or fabric bracelet
  • Face size between 40 and 42 mm
  • Sweeping second hand
  • Very easy to read dial
  • Well regarded brand

Note that this list of criteria is unique and would only make sense in a high consideration market. No one walks into a McDonald’s or buys a stick of deodorant with such an exhaustive list of desired features. Outside of luxury and fashion, we see similar trends in other high-priced, high-consideration industries, especially real estate and technology.

As Hamilton was high on my consideration list, I was able to visit http://www.hamiltonwatch.com/ and explore watches that met my criteria. From there, I narrowed down my search to its Khaki Field line, a mid-ranged series of watches inspired by watches given to soldiers.

The more watches I saw, the more I became convinced that I would be happy with Hamilton style. I subscribed to the brand’s Instagram and Facebook pages, and was surprised to discover that Hamilton had been featured prominently in recent Hollywood blockbusters Interstellar and The Martian.

watch-lovers-are-going-crazy-for-the-model-seen-in-interstellar
A scene from Interstellar. Note Matthew McConaughey wearing a Hamilton Day Date Pilot’s watch, similar to the one I ultimately purchased. Business Insider has an interesting article about how Hamilton placed their products into the film and how a major plot point centers around the watch–a notion that should send any marketer drooling!

Lesson 5: Product placement is perhaps less useful as an awareness driver than it is as a consideration driver.

When we’re watching a movie or TV show, we are typically focused on the story. As such, it’s easy to ignore placements, but when we get to the consideration phase, placements help us associate the brand with stories we are already familiar with. Omega’s work with Daniel Craig and the James Bond franchise is an excellent example of this. Rather than just having the placement do its work in the films, traditional advertising featuring Bond wearing an Omega reinforced the brand’s emerging mystique.

For my last criterion, I needed to determine whether or not Hamilton was a brand that would hold its value over the long term. I didn’t want to buy something flimsy or something that carried a negative reputation. And for that, I couldn’t find my answer on Hamilton’s owned properties (e.g. social, web). I had to look at reviews and watch communities.

Lesson 6: Social validation is a critical driver of any luxury product. Encouraging positive conversations about the brand should be a marketing objective for perception-driven luxury brands.

I discovered quickly that Hamilton’s biggest “uncommunicated” message (i.e. the one that isn’t communicated in its billboards or website) is its value. Many watch enthusiasts are vocal about their appreciation for Hamilton’s Jazzmaster and Khaki lines of products, saying that they are the best “bang for the buck” in the mid-range. Beyond this, many watch lovers post fond testimonials for the brand, highlighting its quality and long-term durability.

Both sides of the brand equation satisfied, I committed mentally to buying a Hamilton… when the time was right.

Lesson 7: Purchase isn’t always going to be immediate, particularly with higher cost/consideration items. Then the challenge becomes to present the customer with as many reaffirmations of their commitment as possible.

Purchase

I decided I wanted a Hamilton around December last year, but I had other non-luxury expenses to take care of–getting married being the most critical.

So I waited. And waited. During this time, I continued to be exposed to a number of touch points which carried forward my interest in the brand, subtly reminding me that the product was out there waiting for me:

  • POSM: Point of sale merchandising promoting Hamilton products is distinctive, consisting of orange and black signage with aviation models or equipment. Every time I passed a watch store, I checked for the Hamilton signage so I could look at the products first-hand.
  • Social Media: Instagram and Facebook served as a the primary, regular sources of Hamilton promotional material, but I also explored Pinterest and YouTube. These platforms did nothing to diminish the value of the brand for me–which is a fear some luxury marketers have when they consider using social media.
  • Complementary Retailers: While I waited for the right time to buy a new watch, I decided to enhance my much-scorned Victorinox by purchasing new NATO straps online and subsequently following that retailer on Instagram. The owner of that online storefront posts a new picture every day with different brands using colorful or interesting straps. I learned a lot about different brands through this, but continued to pay special attention to the Hamiltons that would pop up from time to time.

Not all paths lead to purchase however. There were a handful of barriers to purchase for me.

  • Many stores in Hong Kong only sell the higher end range of Hamilton watches, a reflection of the cultural preferences in the city regarding style. Finding a store that sold Khaki Field watches was extremely difficult.
  • While Hamilton has an online store, I did not feel comfortable ordering a watch online, especially one that I had not seen in person. This is a common phenomenon in the luxury industry.
  • Many brick and mortar retailers in Hong Kong are run by sales people whose salaries are commission based. Walking into these stores often feels like being eyed by hungry vultures. Occasionally, I would avoid looking at their offerings because I knew the sales staff would be pushy. This is not Hamilton’s fault as the sales people have no brand preference (outside of wanting to sell you a very expensive watch), but because it is not a high tier luxury brand, they cannot have their own flagship stores the way Omega, IWC and Rolex do.

Eventually, the stars aligned and I decided to pull the trigger on the Hamilton that met all my criteria.

Lesson 8: Barriers to purchase should be actively sought out by the brand, and minimized as much as possible.

Loyalty

Now that I’ve purchased a Hamilton watch, I feel happy about my decision. I even posted about it on watch enthusiast forums and received compliments (and validation).

hamilton-box_large
Hamilton’s “unboxing” experience is simple, but lacks a call to action reinforcing brand loyalty at a critical time.

Will this be my last watch? Absolutely not. This leads us to our final view of the marketing funnel: loyalty.

I will continue to enjoy my watch for the near term, but when I get a significant promotion or a new job, then I may again decide to purchase another watch. Will I choose a Hamilton or will I choose a different brand?

At the moment, in spite of my current sanctification with Hamilton, I may very well decide to switch to a different brand to diversify my collection. Indeed, Hamilton is best known for its range of products between US$500-2000. If I want to buy something really luxurious, I’ll have to switch away.

But does it have to be that way? Loyalty for luxury can be built by allowing the customer to feel connected to the brand in a way that extends beyond products. Here, loyalty programs should not be about discounts but about exclusivity. Offering Hamilton users access to exclusive communities or content would be an important step for the brand to influence second sales as well as advocacy in an industry that we have already seen is susceptible to that.

A few recommendations for Hamilton

Being a marketer and having gone through the marketing funnel, I noted a few areas that could be improved to enhance the experience.

  • hamiltonwatch.com and shop.hamiltonwatch.com are split into distinct sites with identical styles. For some reason, traveling between these sites is difficult. If you’re exploring hamiltonwatch.com, it should be easy to get to the ecommerce platform, but currently it is not. When you land on a product page, you only get a description, pictures and the user manual. Even if the typical customer doesn’t purchase online, there should still be a more direct way of doing so. This may be a function of my IP address being located in Hong Kong, but even then, the store finder should be more visible to complete the journey.
  • The unboxing experience was adequate but lacks meaningful resolution. There’s nothing effecting advocacy or loyalty. At the very least, there should be some sort of compelling call to action that encourages buyers to provide their email addresses for future brand communication. Hamilton could incentivize with this value-added services such as extended warranty protection.
  • As previously mentioned, post-purchase content reinforcing exclusivity can be employed post-purchase to validate the sale and encourage repeat purchases.
  • I noted in my research that Hamilton’s CEO claims that the brand has achieved over 400 product placements in Hollywood. A chronicle of this would be very interesting content on their website, although it would have to be managed against the way the brand wants to position itself (it would be too easy to make Hamilton a “Hollywood” watch, for better or worse).
  • In terms of products, I was surprised that Hamilton hasn’t stepped into the smartwatch space considering its heritage with electric watches. Hamilton is likely evaluating the staying power of smartwatches as a trend, but the pedigree of the brand lends itself well to experimenting with the space. Given the popularity of aftermarket straps, there may be an interesting space for Hamilton to occupy with smart bands (similar to what Montblanc is doing).

Final thoughts

When I was going through the process of buying a watch, I wasn’t thinking about it as a marketer. This retrospective analysis has uncovered some interesting insights regarding marketing channels and branding in the digital age.

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The final product.

Of course, I can only offer anecdotes supported by my professional experience, but it still a useful analysis that may offer a human layer to the statistics we see everyday in research reports and press releases. Indeed, we are all consumers who should be asking: what can I learn from my most recent customer journey?

 

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A love letter to a direct response print ad

 

The day is January 4, the first workday of 2016. It’s 9:30 am and I’ve mercifully found a seat on Hong Kong’s ever-crowded MTR. It’ll be about 20 minutes to get from Sheung Wan to Quarry Bay so I have some time to kill. I pull out my tablet and open the digitized National Geographic magazine. This month’s issue is about National Parks. Sounds relaxing.

The train gently bounces and grinds along its tracks. People get on and off at the big stops. I ignore them. All I see are short stories about African prison camps and the functions of differently shaped butterfly wings.

And then I stop.

I’m fixed on a long-form, full-page advertisement for a watch. About a third of the page is devoted to the product itself, The Stauer Urban Blue. The rest is text—a full-on sales pitch on the merits of this watch and why I should buy it immediately. I don’t think the watch is particularly attractive, but I admit that it is visually arresting. This clearly isn’t an ad for me, but it has a certain magic that gives me pause.

The ad, in all its glory
The ad, in all its glory

The Generation Y digital native I look at every morning in the mirror screams at me: What garbage! After all, it breaks all the new rules of marketing: It’s long. It’s dense. It’s a hard sell. The headline is corny. It throws every promotional tactic at the reader and then some. It’s the direct response ad to end all direct response ads.

But I love this ad. I love it because there’s a lot to learn from it.

 

In Defense of the Hard Sell

Truth be told, I’ve always had a soft spot for these sorts of ads even before I entered the industry. Unlike the majority of advertisements of the digital age, hard selling ads make no excuses for what they are. One moment you’re reading about endangered whales, and the next you’re reading about why you’d be a fool not to buy this handsome blue wristwatch.

Print ads like this are a rare breed, and they belong to a family of marketing tactics which I admire for their directness (which makes sense considering they’re called “direct response” ads): Promotional eDM’s. Direct Mailers. Infomercials. Advertorials. None of them truly operate under the modern concept of content marketing, nor do they need to. They presume an already interested audience and in doing so, get right to the point. This doesn’t mean they ignore emotion though. Quite the contrary!

The Ronco Rotisserie and BBQ infomercial is a good example of a purposeful piece of marketing that works only because its audience comes to the table with at least a mild willingness to hear a sales pitch. And for his part, Ron Popeil puts on a good show, mixing enthusiasm, product features and an endearingly excited audience into a product that all leads to closing the sales loop.  The lyrical repetition of “set it and forget it!” is enough to keep one up at night.

Comparatively, the Stauer print ad is much simpler, but it manages to do a lot of interesting things on a single page. It’s tempting to view this ad as an amateur marketing manager’s insane attempt to move product; it would clearly give a creative director a heart attack. But I’d argue that this ad is actually well crafted for its purpose and deserves a closer examination.

1. Layout

 

The layout of this ad is its opening gambit, quickly sorting its audience
The layout of this ad is its opening gambit, quickly sorting its audience

 

The layout of this ad is fairly typical for its type. About 40% of the vertical space is devoted to a picture of the product itself (A), which serves as a quick segregation for the audience. As watches are primarily fashion accessories, no amount of salesmanship copy will convince someone who thinks that the watch is ugly to go ahead and buy it.

If the look is appealing however, the audience is immediately drawn to the dense body copy with sales points (B). Even if the audience is on the fence about the product, it is at least visually interesting enough to potentially push people into sales territory. The selection of a blue-faced product on a light brown background creates dramatic contrast. Blue is used elsewhere within the text to highlight key selling points (which we will discuss).

Lastly, because this ad sits in a text-heavy publication, the barrier to entry to read the ad text is relatively low compared to online or OOH mediums. The fact that at first glance it looks like another article certainly helps. This is important because Stauer’s business model is based on delivering at least half the sales pitch in its advertising materials, primarily in magazines. The second half comes with online or telephone conversion.

2. The Story

Perhaps the most interesting component of this ad is its copy direction. Once again, my Gen Y sensibilities want to cut this text to be below 140 characters and maybe include a hashtag for good measure. But good copy doesn’t draw attention to itself for its brevity.  It speaks to the target audience in a way that is persuasive, both logically and emotionally–in exactly as many words as it takes to seal the deal.

Copy

The opening paragraph leverages an emotional argument to engage readers; the following paragraphs provide the key selling points.

The emotional argument revolves around the idea that although watches are useful devices, they are prone to a certain cosmopolitanism that is unappealing and even downright un-American:

  • “Why shell out big money so some foreign company can sponsor another yacht race?” [We don’t like the way things are these days.]
  • “So while we’re busy revolutionizing the watch industry to bring you more real value, you can take your stand against overpriced watches…” [We’re taking back the industry!]
  • “Take a stand against overpriced watches in impeccable style. Call today” [Come with us and make a statement!]

The call to action isn’t “buy this watch.” It’s far more emotional. Buying this watch is a statement to the world that you’re fighting against the tide of a society going in the wrong direction. Sound familiar?

Make America Great Again

No one denies that this is a hollow message for most young people, but it’s a great one for people who remember “the simpler times”:

  • “You need a new watch… the one you are wearing was made when Nixon was in office.” [This ad isn’t for young people]
  • “…[other brands] that add zeros just because of a high falootin’ name are an insult to your logic” [Your generation has brains; also, you can use the word “falootin'” without an ounce of irony.]

The call to action is another sign that the target audience is older and more traditionally inclined. The largest call to action here is a phone number, with the website occupying a much smaller section under the company’s physical address.

Interestingly, there is a bit of copy here which actually dissuades the audience from using the website to make the purchase:

  • “Special price only for customers using the offer code versus the price on Stauer.com without your offer code.” [Make this purchase over the phone… where we can pitch you person-to-person… and maybe up/cross-sell you more stuff]

Granted, this piece of copy is in the form of a disclaimer, but it’s an interesting choice from the company’s perspective. Clearly they believe they will be able to do more with leads generated via phone calls than online, because there is a sales agent on the other end of the line. In addition, if our audience is as old as we think they are, then they are not digital natives. They may not be as comfortable buying products online as they are over the phone.

The rest of the copy deals with specific product benefits and leverages authority figures and testimonials to support its cause:

Despite the copy's conviction that the watch industry is plagued by too much luxury, it is more than willing to draw on industry authority to make the claim that blue is very stylish.
Despite the copy’s conviction that the watch industry is plagued by too much luxury, it is more than willing to draw on industry authority to make the claim that blue is very stylish. This claim may help diminish fears that a non-traditional blue face will be obsolete in a few years.

 

Testimonials provide social proof that the product quality is guaranteed. They are the old school equivalent of Amazon ads. By themselves, they are not particularly effective (after all, they could be cherry-picked statements from customers), but as part of the total package, testimonials reinforce the main argument.
Testimonials provide social proof that the product quality is guaranteed. They are the old school equivalent of Amazon reviews. By themselves, they are not particularly effective (after all, they could be cherry-picked statements from customers), but as part of the total package, testimonials reinforce the main message.

 

The final interesting feature of the copy is its repetition. Not only are the key selling points clearly reiterated in bullet-point form at the bottom of the ad (perhaps employed to catch a casual reader’s eye who may have ignored the key visual at the top), but the copy’s key message is also repeated relentlessly over its few paragraphs. “Take a stand” is the key message and that’s what the author wants the audience to take away.

For better or worse, the copy tells a compelling story to a specific audience and gives them the best possible way of completing the sales cycle.

Not everything is perfect though. If there’s one thing this ad gets wrong, it’s the headline:

Headline

There’s a strange disparity between the visual, the headline and the body copy. The visual and the headline match in terms of the “blue” and “face” puns, but there are two problems:

  1. Being blue in the face is not a good thing unless you love being choked (hey, I’m not here to judge)
  2. The headline does not match the copy at all.

The second point is critical because the entire sales pitch is predicated on a very clear argument: you don’t have to buy an over-priced (foreign) watch to get style and quality. The headline is probably referring to other over-priced watches, but headlines should generally address whatever the key visual is. There’s too much confusion.

The headline is a misstep considering the repetition of “take a stand” throughout the body. While it appears in the sub-headline, it’s not obvious enough. Then again, when I first read this ad, I actually skipped the headline entirely. The product picture was enough to push me into the body copy where all the interesting product features are.

3. The Tactics

Sprinkled throughout this ad are clever tactics that reinforce concepts such as incentives, exclusivity and authority.

The incentive here, a free pair of sunglasses, is here to help “sweeten the pot” and potentially help drive purchase from gift-buyers. It’s not hard to imagine Ms. Gretchen Bund thinking about what to buy her husband for his 65th birthday. She thinks he might like the watch, but knows he needs a pair of sunglasses. The inclusion of the sunglasses helps mitigate buyer risk, especially if there are questions about suitability or quality.

For $49 (plus shipping and processing) I get a watch that sticks it to foreigners and a free pair of sunglasses? Sign me up!

 

incentive

Cynics need not apply however, as more discriminating consumers should fairly ask how Stauer could possibly make any money by selling a $300 combo at a 83% discount. It seems likely that the total package is actually worth far less than that, but… it’s such a good deal! What do I have to lose?

Exclusivity is another psychological trigger that often pops up in direct, hard-sale marketing techniques. In Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence he presents compelling evidence that persuasion can be dramatically more effective if the thing you’re trying to sell is exclusive and–here’s the important part–limited.

Note the example below:

exclusive

What’s limited to the first 1900 responders? The ad never says, but clearly this deal could go away any moment. Creating urgency among an audience is often enough to push people off the fence. Of course this won’t work on people who aren’t very interested because they may (rightly) see this as a trick. But for those who are interested, this tactic can create satisfaction after the sale is complete. I am one of the lucky ones to have gotten this deal!

insider

Similarly, the insider offer code creates an air of exclusivity. This isn’t just an ad; it’s an inside deal. Because you read National Geographic, you are part of a special club.

What’s most interesting about the offer code is that it potentially creates a barrier to entry for the customer. But that barrier is clearly outweighed by the sense of exclusivity, likely because it reassures customers that this isn’t a scam. By using a code, the customer really thinks that their deal is unique, when in fact I’m quite sure the sales people wouldn’t care if the customer actually lost that code–which more than anything else is designed to help their marketing department track leads for A/B testing.

Finally, just in case customers are worried that a direct response company might not be 100% wholesome, Stauer provides a pair of blue seals of approval (contrasting with the brown background) from the Best Business Bureau and Consumer Affairs.

safe

Neither of these accreditations are particularly impressive, but again, they are the subtle nudge a customer might need to place their call to order.

 

Final Thoughts

I think any marketer can appreciate the multiple layers this ad operates on and why even though direct marketing is considered by many to be an outmoded marketing format, it still has a lot of lessons to share. We get so caught up in elegant digital and creative solutions to marketing problems, that we leverage those solutions on platforms where they are not as effective. Sometimes sales information is exactly what the customer wants. At that point, branded nonsense is harmful.

For instance, there are brand websites that look more like billboards than information hubs. There are print ads with no words and no meaningful information for the customer. There are point of sale merchandising products that do little to support purchase. The point of marketing is to make products and services more available to customers. At an awareness level, a creative core message is paramount. At a consideration level, there’s an argument to be had: this is why my product suits your needs.

There’s a good reason why I’ve devoted over 2000 words to the Stauer print ad.

It’s

  1. the right message
  2. for the right product
  3. in the right format
  4. for the right audience.

The marketing industry as a whole needs to examine work like this in addition to the Cannes winners because ultimately we’re in the business of making stuff more available to customers–wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. Good work doesn’t always call attention to itself.

Re-Building the Empire’s Brand Image in Star Wars

I’m a huge geek—a fact those of you who have seen my other site will already know. I’ve been a fan of Star Wars ever since I was a kid. Back then, I practically burned holes into my VHS tapes of the films. Even today, in the months leading up to Episode 7, I am excited to see that fantasy universe once again on the big screen.

In anticipation of Episode 7, I got to thinking about the brand challenge the Empire must have faced after the second Death Star was destroyed. Consider this: a galactic empire whose largest military base has been destroyed by a handful of rebels (and Ewok teddy bears), and whose most important civil and military leaders have been killed.

Yikes. So much for the indomitable might of the Empire.

With the trailers for Episode 7, it’s clear that the Empire hasn’t died quite yet and that the Rebels are still struggling to gain ground. But the events on and around Endor cannot be ignored. After all, the Rebels would surely use their victory as a key focal point of their propaganda campaign, wouldn’t they?

The Brief:

Congratulations, you are now the Empire’s Lead Brand Strategist. Plucked from a small agency on Corresant, you have been given the mandate to improve the Empire’s brand image and ensure that any Rebel gains in public perception are mitigated or reversed. You have the Empire’s resources at your disposal. Oh, and failure will result in summary execution. Good luck!

Some Disclaimers:

  • I neither support nor endorse the Empire in real life, especially their penchant for planet-destroying, torture, etc. They DO have cool uniforms though, so they’ve got that going for them.
  • I like Star Wars, but I’m a casual fan. The assumptions I make here are primarily based on the six canonical movies. In other words, I guarantee you that I’ll miss nuance and piss off hardcore fans in the process.
The Empire's early marketing efforts were well-intentioned, but misguided efforts.
The Empire’s early marketing efforts were well-intentioned, but misguided.

Key Challenges:

The Empire is facing a number of challenges after Return of the Jedi. Here are some of the important ones:

  • Assuming that the destruction of the Death Star was validated by independent sources, the incident would have left the Empire in a perception crisis: leaderless, weakened and embarrassed
  • On the other side, the Rebels will be riding a wave of support after their miraculous victory
  • The Empire now lacks a key figurehead around whom loyalists can rally
  • At the end of the day, the Empire has done some really bad stuff (see: the destruction of an entire planet). People may be sympathetic towards the Rebellion at this point. The destruction of the second Death Star could be a tipping point for popular support

Key Opportunities:

It’s not all bad news for the Empire though. There are some opportunities they could use to retain the hearts and minds of the people:

  • People will be afraid and uncertain about the fate of the galaxy in the event of a massive shift of power. If the Empire is good at one thing, it’s promoting stability. In other words, “better the devil you know.”
  • The destruction of the second Death Star and the massacre on Endor could be spun as acts of terrorism
  • No one except Luke knew firsthand that Vader repented before the end. If the Rebels try to own this narrative, they’ll face an uphill battle considering Vader’s reputation and how unlikely it would be for him to switch sides and kill the Emperor
  • People will (or should) be asking these questions:
    • Can the Rebellion establish stability in a power vacuum?
    • Could this breed more civil conflicts?
    • Will this hurt the galactic economy?
    • Aren’t key Rebellion leaders known criminals? (e.g. Han, Lando)
    • And most importantly: are the Rebels terrorists?
This performed well in focus testing, particularly among aggrieved tauntauns.
This performed well in focus testing, particularly among aggrieved tauntauns.

What Won’t Work:

Before we find our central strategy, let’s look at what won’t work:

  • Offensive Strategy: Vocally Painting the Rebels as Villains
    • This should be an indirect tactic, not a primary part of the Empire’s overt messaging strategy.
    • If directly addressed, it creates two additional problems for the Empire:
      • One, it validates the Rebellion as a real threat
      • Two, it might introduce knowledge of the Rebellion to areas where it had previously not been a problem
    • In other words, by directly attacking the opposition, the Empire inadvertently elevates it to a competitive status. No matter the specifics of the messaging, publicly attacking the Rebellion puts them on equal footing with the Empire—and suggests that people have a choice in the matter.
  • Figurehead Strategy: Rallying the Empire around a Central Figure
    • I’m pretty sure this is what is going to happen in Episode 7 and it’s a good strategy for the long-term, but for this brief, we’re talking about the immediate aftermath of a major military setback. That central figure has not yet emerged so we can’t develop a strategy around such an unknown.
  • Non-engagement Strategy: Continue business as usual without publicly acknowledging the problem
    • Once again, we have to assume that news of the Death Star’s destruction will be disseminated throughout the galaxy by trusted sources. We have evidence of this from the celebrations on Cloud City, Naboo, Corresant and Tatooine in the new version of Return of the Jedi.
    • Even if this evidence did not exist, we would assume that if the Emperor disappeared one day, his absence would be noticed.
    • In any event, there would be enough information out there to create doubt—doubt that could turn into a dangerous cascade of popular support for the Rebellion. Suddenly the “stability” provided by the Empire seems rather oppressive… and dare I say, unnecessary!
"Also, I'm not seeing the logo here. I'm going to need to see the logo before I give feedback."
“Also, I’m not seeing the logo here. I’m going to need to see the logo before I give feedback.”

The Core Strategy: Objectives

We have several objectives we’ll need to meet in order to call our brand campaign successful:

  1. Reassure the galaxy that the Empire is still strong and capable (or failing that, still powerful enough to crush dissent).
  2. Convey message around benefits of Imperial rule
  3. Sow doubt that “the alternative” (i.e. the Rebels) would be disastrous for galactic stability

On the surface, this seems like a conservative approach that will not hold water against the predestined moral fortitude of the Rebel Alliance, but there are real world precedents for this strategy. Whenever there’s to be a revolution, a tipping point has to be surpassed after which the risk of supporting a dramatic shift in power is outweighed by the perceived gain. We must elevate the risk and minimize the gain of revolution. Support for the Empire will not be led by Imperial loyalists, but by families and citizens who don’t want to risk everything in the name of faraway politics.

Most of us live our day-to-day lives blissfully unaware of what “could be” in the absence of a strong civil authority. We pay our rent or mortgages content in the knowledge that rule of law protects our rights. We go to work in exchange for our paychecks and we generally don’t fear for our lives when we walk out the door. But what if the rule of law fell apart? Riots. Famine. Unemployment. Civil unrest.

Wouldn’t those consequences be enough for you to resist revolution, or at the very least, tacitly support the status quo?

Remember folks, we’re the Evil Empire. We should be the beneficiaries of the sentiment: evil wins when good men do nothing.

What an evil KPI. I think we’re on the right track.

Messaging Strategy:

Remember, we’re not trying to elevate the Rebellion into a position of parity. As far as we’re concerned, they’re thugs and terrorists, not political rivals. Does that mean we ignore the Rebels? No. It means we’re segmenting our messaging into different channels: public, broadcast style messages for propaganda and private, influencer-led messages for creating a ground-swell among trusted independent sources. The distinctly unsubtle tact of general Imperial strategy suggests that the Empire is accustomed to to the former approach. Interestingly, I think this means that the Empire favors paid media while the Rebellion leans towards an earned media strategy. I know who media agencies will be routing for in Episode 7!

Message Layer One: What the Empire Says Out Loud

I don’t really have a good idea how news and information is conveyed to a mass audience in the Star Wars universe, so I’m just going to assume:

  • The media structure basically mirrors our own in terms of general format, but more science fiction-y (e.g. holographic OOH advertising)
  • This structure is consistent across the Galaxy

Our key messaging challenge is to humanize the Empire, make people realize what value it provides in their lives, and implicitly ask the question whether the Rebellion is even capable of providing the same level of service. We need to make this message personal and surprising. Did you know the Empire protects you from pirates? Did you know the Empire is colonizing new worlds for its people? Did you know that serving the Empire gives you upward mobility and an education? People might be able to rattle off a list of complaints, but do they ever stop to think that without the Empire, they’d have an even longer list of problems and no one to go to for help?

The message then is designed to create passive gratitude for the service the Empire provides: “The Empire serves you always.”

Huh?!

What an incredibly humble and modest statement, right? Is this right for the Empire?

First, we need to pass the litmus test of whether or not this is a meaningful strategy or a hollow vision statement: Would the inverse of this statement be a viable strategy?

Inverse: You serve the Empire always. 

Now THAT sounds like the Empire we all know and love. But in this case, such an authoritative message doesn’t do anything to reinforce the value the Empire provides. If anything, it drives more sympathy for the Rebellion and its freedom-loving ways.

“The Empire serves you always” is a statement that contains warmth and humanity that is lost behind the white face plate of Stormtroopers. From this simple message, we can remind the galaxy that the Empire doesn’t exist to dominate, but to serve–and that service is the thin line that separates chaos from order.

Sample Tactics:

  • Broadcast advertisements that show the Empire doing unexpected things ranging from patrolling the Outer Rim to helping the elderly cross the street. By putting Stormtroopers and other Imperial representatives into unexpected and positive scenarios, we put forward a memorable message that the Rebellion will have to put more energy into countering.
  • Commemorate the fallen soldiers at Endor. Rather than let the Rebellion own Endor as a complete victory, paint the battle as a heroic struggle between valiant soldiers and terrorists. Show the barbarism of the Ewoks and terrorist forces. Show the world that the Empire exists to prevent that kind of violence. Finally, say that the Empire will always put itself on the line for the good of the people, no matter how much its armies must bleed to do so. To make this even more personal, commemorate individuals who fell in battle or in the second Death Star explosion.
  • Events such as military parades can be presented as public outreach activities, but there is also a not-so-subtle reminder of the Empire’s power when an AT-AT is parked in the middle of a city for all to see. The trick is to convince people that the Rebels are not worth support while showing everyone that the Empire is still the undisputed champion when it comes to shows of force.
"Oh, and we're outsourcing production to a local shop. Wookies, mostly. I know, I know, they're not as open to feedback, but they're much cheaper so we have to take what we can get."
“Oh, and we’re outsourcing production to a local shop. Wookies, mostly. I know, I know, they’re not as open to feedback, but they’re much cheaper so we have to take what we can get.”

Message Layer Two: What the Empire Whispers to Trend Setters

At this level, we’re no longer slapping posters on transportation hubs or broadcasting advertisements. We’re carefully selecting and approaching key personalities who can influence critical demographics. Which ones? The ones who, when combined, create resistance to the ambition of the Rebellion. In other words, the ones who stand to lose the most if the Empire weakens its grip on the galaxy. These include:

  • Business owners (economy driven)
  • Parents (family driven)
  • The Elderly (tradition and morality driven)
  • Nationalists (patriotism driven)

By spreading doubt about the capabilities of the Rebellion among these groups, the Empire appears positively rosey in comparison. The undeclared message of the Empire is therefore, “The Empire isn’t perfect, but the alternative is much worse.”

We’re not necessarily seeking rabid support with this message. In some cases, especially among loyalists, we might receive that kind of response, but for people who don’t have much at stake in politics, we need to generate hesitation and a slight preference for the status quo. For instance:

  • Business owners: “I don’t love the Empire, but I can’t afford to lose galactic trade for my business. The Hutts would just take right over!”
  • Parents: “I don’t support the Empire, but can the Rebels guarantee security? I’ve got a family to raise.”
  • The Elderly: “The Empire promotes order. The Rebellion are full of hot shots and renegades who don’t care about the real problems people face. They’re only in it for fortune or glory.”
  • Nationalists: “The Empire has to stay strong or there will be centuries of fighting and darkness! We must honor the fallen at Endor.”

The intended outcome is to create in-fighting among family, friends and professional units. Rebellion is easy when everyone is on board, but not so easy when your family opposes rocking the boat. People should be asking: are things really that bad?

Sample Tactics:

  • Smear campaign against rebel leaders, especially Han, Lando and Chewbacca. These guys are smugglers and criminals. Serving the Rebellion doesn’t absolve them; it simply makes them opportunistic and ultimately emblematic of greater problems within the Rebellion.
  • PR seeding across independent publications questioning the consequences of the Rebellion assuming more power. The messaging needs to rightfully point to the Rebellion’s lack of resources to govern and protect effectively. A few X-Wings will not suffice.
  • Meme generation. The Rebellion likely has its rallying calls, but nothing stifles a movement quite like mockery. On public forums, create a rallying cry that consistently points out the ineptitude of the Rebel forces. When the enemy has obese pilots at the controls of their elite fighters, the jokes write themselves.

Conclusion:

I feel gross, but this exercise taught me something important about brand marketing and ethics.

Strategy work in branding can feel very clinical and detached to the point that you can easily lose track of what exactly you’re recommending. Let’s get real for a sec: the Empire is evil and there’s nothing to suggest that the Empire stopped being evil once the Emperor died. This strategy helps an evil organization retain its hold on power, and that’s an evil thing in and of itself.

Good marketing strategy touches upon human emotion, gives the brand a role in peoples’ lives and generates a desired outcome. Note that process does not judge or evaluate the moral or ethical merits of the objectives, strategy, tactics or outcome.

This is why so many in the advertising industry are distrusted. There’s little if anything in our process that asks, “Is what we’re doing good for the world?”

This project has been in good fun, but the insight is important: evil is as benign as you want it to be. Good strategy isn’t necessarily good strategy.

Parting Thoughts for the Rebellion:

Because I feel so dirty, here are some strategic thoughts for the Rebellion’s marketing manager (who comes from Tatooine, no doubt):

  • Expose Imperial crimes and tear down the image of the Empire being the lesser of many evils
  • Build up your leadership and acknowledge that much of their experience comes from within the Imperial government structure such as the Senate; in a sense, we want to reassure the galaxy that new leadership have useful experience and will preserve security
  • Never bring up Jar Jar Binks
  • Build popular support among volatile elements of society, particularly young men with little to lose and much to gain from being early adopters (see: the gender and age profile of pretty much all X-Wing pilots); from there, expand into key special interest groups
  • Consolidate gains after the destruction of the second Death Star
  • Don’t bother telling the world the Darth Vader conversion story; stay focused on a singular narrative that promises a strong, secure and equality-driven future for all
  • Consider opening your arms to the enemy by offering amnesty to defectors and profiling their decision to leave the Empire; this places the Rebellion in stark relief as a benevolent and collaborative government

That’s it for this Thought Starters piece. Hope you enjoyed it.

May the Force be with you,

Kevin

 

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?

Availability.

  • 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.