Rather than just tell you the top six mistakes that can lead to failure in marketing, which would be like Paula Deen telling you why you shouldn't cook with margarine, I'm going to instead give you the questions every marketer should ask themselves to avoid future failure. Often, marketers forget the most fundamental questions, yet these are questions that every great brand has nailed.
Fail No. 1: Focusing on message over purpose
Never stop asking yourself: What does your company really do for people?
Every successful company starts with a purpose: an idea of something new to bring to the world or something to improve, however small. Imbedded in this quest was the drive for something bigger, better, or more meaningful. Yet many companies lose their guiding light as they grow. Often companies begin chasing messages and catchy lines, versus continuing to deliver on their guiding purpose.
Simon Sinek and Jim Stengel both make compelling cases for the power of purpose. Compare their work with the strikingly low levels of satisfaction in large institutions, and it's no wonder why more and more people are aligning themselves with companies that share their core values and have a clear purpose.
Fail No. 2: Lacking a compelling story
Imagine yourself at a party. What's the most compelling story you can tell about your brand? What about your brand would make people interested enough to listen and stick around? What brand story would get others to join your conversation?
In today's attention-saturated marketplace, what consumers respond to are better stories, not better messages. Stories are a fundamental building block of memory and social structures. They're remembered over facts. They're how social norms are shared and shaped, and how social hierarchy is signaled.
Yet, despite all of the understanding of the importance of stories, many brands and marketers fail to put the rigor into defining their personal brand story. I don't mean a brand history lesson. Rather the values, shaping experiences, and choices that make your brand what it is today and signal to potential customers what it will remain at its core tomorrow. Brand stories done well borrow from human triumphs and struggles, and allow an audience to become captivated, moved, and even stirred to take action. Some brands wrongly co-opt their strategy for their story, which we see a lot in modern-day advertisements. We've all seen plenty of examples of this now infamous critique: "Your strategy's showing."
Just like a master chef who coaxes all of the wonderful flavors out of food, a great brand storyteller is able to make something better and more memorable out of the individual brand ingredients. A great story is a springboard into people's memories and for many more creative opportunities.
Fail No. 3: Looking to fit the category versus the culture
Think about your brand and your consumer. What part of culture do you occupy? Perhaps your brand culture is based on provenance, a mindset, a subculture, or emerging belief system?
This one tends to stump most marketers because it's much easier to figure out where you fit in your category versus your competitors, and much harder (unless of course you're Harley Davidson or Levi's) to figure out where your brand plays a part in culture. But culture goes beyond the Warhol-inspired world of pop culture.
Think of skate culture, men's culture, grunge culture, the culture of the green movement, or even food culture -- each of these represents a smaller cut of society guided by a different belief system with distinct codes and badges.
Brands that figure out where they fit within culture have an advantage over their competitors, as cultural positions are much harder to replicate than product/service emulation. For those who saw the finale of "Mad Men" (spoiler alert), Don Draper was credited with ushering in the most iconic of all cultural plays when he hijacked the counter-culture movement to promote Coca-Cola.
Fail No. 4: Being afraid to upset, anyone
Marketers should ask themselves: Who's going to be offended by our point of view? Is there something about their objection we can leverage or create a dialogue over?
Fear is the death of creativity. And in today's marketing environment, many marketers are afraid to take an honest stand for something -- standing for something at a deep human level that speaks to revered values such as the betterment of employees, human potential, American-made quality, or women's self-confidence. It can make the difference between sounding like a stiff corporation versus being "in it" with your customers.
Without even mentioning the brands they belong with, each of the above represent some of the most powerful marketing of the past decade. Look at one notable example: Dove and its stand for women's self-confidence. There were likely some who didn't want to peek behind the curtain and see full-figured women plastered in their news feeds. Not because they were prudes, but because they're either part of the machine or deep down inside they'd bought into the machine. But here's a tip: Listening to the first person who threw a complaint in Dove's direction offered a unique learning opportunity. By merely digging into what consumers are upset about, one can unlock a treasure trove of ideas that keep the narrative going.
Fail No. 5: Interruptive versus attractive communications
Move from emphasizing interruptive messaging to building attractive and engaging content. Why would someone want to follow you? What is the most attractive aspect of this brand? How can we leverage content to gain more brand value?
Recently I was asked, "Why would someone want to follow your brand (in one or two sentences)?" This was one of the simplest yet most valuable questions I've heard in a long time. It's a pointed question about what value you offer a potential customer. Do you make their lives easier in some way? Do you entertain them? Or maybe you turn them on to new things.
So much of today's marketing is interruptive and assumes people are just waiting to hear from you. Message after message is put out, in a one-way dialogue without listening to what people really want or care about. Think about reversing the priority of your messages, and put more emphasis on the attractive elements of your brand. It could be a personality, providing useful tips or information; heck, even entertainment is a proven model of attraction. When you start here, you realize that the standard your brand has to put on content shifts from persuasion being first and foremost to engagement being paramount. With all of the content out there competing for your customer's attention, it's a sure way to elevate your marketing efforts.
Fail No. 6: Under-valuing the power of creativity
Ask yourself: If we were building our business from the ground up, what solutions would our customers want? How might they want to experience our product or service? Who in (or outside) our competitive set has the opportunity to move into our turf with a better proposition and offer?
Creativity is the new "X factor." We hear it in business, education, and even in political rhetoric. But despite its recent fame in TED Talks and broader culture, it seems that marketers today aren't placing the highest value on it. Think about how many game-changing marketing ideas you've heard recently -- customer programs like Hyundai's Assurance Program, product partnerships like Doritos Locos Tacos, or even Amazon Prime. These were entirely new ideas reigniting or amplifying existing businesses.
The problem with today's marketing is the real creativity is happening in startup culture and in places that aren't hampered by existing business models and business structures. The death knell is most apparent in the retail world, with examples like Dollar Shave Club's subscription model jockeying for a big piece of the men's razor market.
Every industry is susceptible -- that is unless you innovate faster than the disrupters nipping at your heels and make creativity a central part of the entire marketing process, not just your advertising.
In summary, ask more of the basic questions, make sure you're able to answer them clearly and succinctly, and lead your teams, your brand, and your marketing to success when others fail.
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"confused young man cover his head" image via iStock.