BrandingWire: The Fail Boat

The Fail Boat
Originally uploaded by Certified

There are thousands of blogs out there that talk about the importance of failure. They claim that it is important to fail … and to fail well. They claim that it is important to learn how to fail because until then you have not pushed your limits. But what happens when you reach those limits? What happens to your brand, your self esteem or your employees?

This month’s BrandingWire challenge asks the question — how do you market a failing business? The nitty-gritty is:

Revenues: $1 million to $25 million
Employees: 150 or fewer
Verticals: High-tech and health care
Location: North America
Challenges: Consumers and other businesses have so many choices, that high-tech businesses as well as their other target audience made up of clinics and hospitals are either showing stagnant growth or they are losing market share.
Client’s Problem: They don’t know how to differentiate themselves from their competition.

Now, having made a few poor decisions myself, the situation presented here reminds me of the great sadness that comes from needing to pullout of a project or business. But the most important thing to remember — is the need to make decisions. When businesses get to the point where it is obvious that they are failing, many choose to carry on as planned … burying their heads in the sand and working harder, longer and heavier. At this point in a business, the answer is not to do more … but to do less, well.
In many ways, this is not about branding and marketing but about business analysis and consulting … and sometimes your marketing folks will be the best asset you still have.
Start with your portfolio
Have your marketing person/team go through your offerings. Start again. Re-assess the strengths of your offerings. Check out your competitors. Choose to play in the top 50% of the market. If you realise that some of your products cannot secure a footprint in the upper echelon of that category, bundle up your clients and products and hold a fire sale. Also, ask your finance team to look at margins and clients — many companies draw >70% of their profits from 30% of their business. These are the clients that you need to delight — the rest should be politely fired. They are costing you too much to play … and you can ill afford them.
Reach out
While the last thing that you want to do is to spend money you don’t have coming in … there is still an absolute need to communicate with your clients. Remind your clients that you are committed to helping them grow their business, but also explain the restructuring that is underway. Ensure that there is a program of follow-up in place and that the sales and account teams actively make the calls and arrange meetings. Find ways of telling the new, value-add, better focus story.
The growth problem
Just as Malcolm Gladwell identified a tipping point for adoption of ideas, products and services, there is a similar point that occurs in the growth of business. When you are small you just need good people. When you grow, you need process and systems. And as you get bigger you need capacity and capability — you need to be able to scale. At each of these inflection points, organisations face potential ruin. It is IMPOSSIBLE to market yourself out of these situations … but you can honestly represent yourself.
Go back into your corporate history, find the genesis story — the reason that you came to being. Re-evaluate it in light of recent history — and ask yourself "how far from this have we come?". Begin to talk about the old times … the things that worked, the projects that were a success — and remind yourself and your teams about what makes your business a great, and important business. Tell your clients and mean it. Forget the powerpoint. Forget the spin. Talk about the difference you can make.
Keep your eyes on the prize
And as you continue to refocus, trim costs, drive profits and reimagine your business, remember to watch your costs. Watch the cash flow. Don’t get caught up in a hype cycle (whether marketing or technology driven) — start and keep delivering outstanding customer experiences … and the rest will look after itself.
Other BrandingWire viewpoints:
But don’t take my word for it … check out the views of the other BrandingWire folks:
Olivier Blanchard
Becky Carroll
Derrick Daye
Kevin Dugan
Lewis Green
Martin Jelsema

Valeria Maltoni
Drew McLellan
Patrick Schaber
Steve Woodruff

BrandingWire: Helping IT Help

Call volume is way down!

This month’s BrandingWire challenge focuses on an IT company whose specialty is the small to medium business (review the full brief here). This is our first project that centres on a REAL company and their REAL challenges. However, the one thing I don’t have is a real name — so for ease of reference, I will call this company "Direct-IT".

Marketing professional services is a challenge, no matter which tier or segment of the market that you are addressing. But the small to medium business segment is particularly challenging … these companies are often in the process of maturing their systems, scaling the successes that helped them grow and finding ways to acquire new (and larger) clients while keeping existing clients more than satisfied. Moreover, these businesses pay very close to cashflow and scrutinise the likely returns before committing to any expense. One of the major challenges facing Direct-IT is finding a way to move from a supplier of IT services into a more strategic role which could be considered "trusted advisor".

To achieve this outcome, Direct-IT need to embark on two parallel initiatives:

  • Breakthrough measurement and reporting
  • Strategic re-positioning

I suggest a revision of performance reporting as the first priority as this can be commenced immediately and will provide a platform for the repositioning and branding efforts that may take some time to kick-in.

Breakthrough measurement and reporting

In order to move from the role of "provider" to the role of "partner", Direct-IT need to provide ALL clients with a new level of measurement and reporting. Rather than focusing on the tactical achievements of the responsiveness of the Direct-IT teams, the measurement should extrapolate the impact of these interventions in terms that address the client’s business challenges. In particular, these metrics should focus on the strategic imperatives of any business:

  • Top line revenue growth
  • Reduction in costs
  • Improvements in productivity

The focus of the measurement has to be on the VALUE delivered to the client (not just the tactical tick-in-the-box SLAs). Unfortunately, this is hard to quantify, but Direct-IT have no choice other than to invest in developing some form of metric that rings true with their client base. As a first step, this metric should be run against past performance information to provide the sales executives with a ready source of information that can be used as "proof points" in their discussions with current clients. These reports should be presented as value added services — and be provided in a format that allows their sponsors to easily push "up the chain".

In addition, and indicative of the wider shifts in work and productivity, Direct-IT need to demonstrate how the innovation and changes that they bring to their clients has a positive impact on the production of knowledge, reduction in the time and process required to make decisions and to reduce risk around the decisions that are made within the business.

With all this actionable business knowledge available, Direct-IT should use their IT know-how to create a reporting widget. This widget would provide a dashboard of the realtime impact that their work is having on their client’s business (taking helpdesk RSS feeds etc and summarising it). The widget would be available to each of the clients and would track all the tactical work that Direct-IT is known for, but also have an Executive view which translates these savings into actual dollar amounts and improvements to the client’s bottom line.

Strategic re-positioning

Direct-IT need to embark on a thorough revision of their brand and organisational positioning. This should include a deep focus on what has been successful … after all, there is a successful business already in operation — and it is essential that this success continues. Part of this revision should address what the company considers its "core competence". From this core competence, Direct-IT should build a communications architecture complete with key themes and messages. Particular attention should be paid to profiling client acquisition targets and the key decision makers and stakeholders within these organisations.

IF the core competence and series of messages that are developed don’t correspond to a unique market offering, then Direct-IT would do better to build market share rather than attempt to enter a new market. Rather than go head-to-head with existing mid-tier service providers, Direct-IT need to determine an alternative route-to-market with solutions/services that correspond to the strategic pain points of the potential clients in that market. While this sounds like common sense, failure to make such a decision can prove fatal.

A thorough communications/marketing plan should then be developed with a focus on one-to-one messaging — directly targeting the most influential segments. A blog, for example, is a great way of demonstrating both mastery of technology as well as communicating and delivering thought leadership pieces. Remember with all communications — all business owners are busy. Concise messaging and high value content is essential.

While all this may not make IT "sexy", it will certainly make it more attractive to those business decision makers who know that every dollar of expense comes out of their own pockets. It may even open the door to the much desired "partner" status.


This month the BrandingWire posse is joined by some special guests. Check out all the other responses to this brief at the following sites:

Olivier Blanchard
Becky Carroll
Derrick Daye
Kevin Dugan
Lewis Green
Drew McLellan
Martin Jelsema
Valeria Maltoni
Drew McLellan
Patrick Schaber
Steve Woodruff


Matt Dickman
Chris Brown
Cam Beck

BrandingWire: Estes Park

This month we are looking at Estes Park … and as this is an entirely new destination for me, I want to look at some of the challenges that face small towns with small budgets seeking an overseas audience.

Now, I want to make it clear, from the beginning of this ramble, that not all tourist destinations want or need international tourists — for international tourists bring a whole level of complexity to a localised economy. There are the language/cultural needs, the challenges of cuisine and even safety/signage concerns (something that seems somewhat relevant to Estes Park). However, the single largest challenge is awareness.

There is a whole world out there … and much of this is driven by the blockbuster icon. Generally what cuts through our tourism radar is natural beauty combined with a man-made structure. Think Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Think New York and the Statue of Liberty. Think Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Think Cairo and the Pyramids.

It strikes me that Estes Park has a unique quality in this respect. Estes Park is the gateway to the Colorado National Park — and it consists mainly of two streets running along a ridge. The town is landlocked but home to an eclectic range of shops, locals and spectacular views. The potential is to draw out the history and "present moment" of the town. And who, exactly, would be interested?

I am thinking that the desire to balance local needs with increase in high yield tourism indicates a focus on high net worth tourists. This means targeting a demographic we call "grey nomads". This baby boomer generation has plenty of spending power and a taste for adventure … and there are a couple of immediate steps that could be taken:

  • Package offers: Work with a string of similar destinations across the USA to build seasonal short stay tours. This could include self-drive and full-service elements. Build the offers and then think about how to activate them.
  • Association marketing: With a focus on self-drive tourism, marketing through motoring association newsletters makes sense and would be highly effective
  • Sister-community marketing: Estes Park should find and activate a sister-city style relationship with similar towns in other countries. This could be done through organisations such as Rotary
  • Web: I am sure that some of my BrandingWire colleagues will address "web strategy" … but there is obviously a range of work that needs to be done from SEO through to presence, community and storytelling points of view
  • Closed loop feedback: Finally, one of the most powerful opportunities for those targeting this lucrative group of travellers is feedback. By finding ways of closing the loop — allowing good experiences to be discussed, furthered and broadcast, and by bringing the voice of the town into this discussion (whether through on or offline comms), Estes Park will be able to turn the destination into a "talking point".

Get more high-voltage ideas at

Other members of the BrandingWire team include: Becky Carroll, Olivier Blanchard,  Derrick Daye, Lewis Green, Ann Handley, Martin Jelsema, Valeria Maltoni, Drew McLellan, Patrick Schaber, Kevin Dugan and Steve Woodruff.

BrandingWire: Estes Park

Estes Park sign
Originally uploaded by OneofThem

Tomorrow, the BrandingWire team will be investigating yet another marketing and branding challenge — this time it is Estes Park in Colorado, USA.

As usual, each of us will take our own direction on this, but work from a central brief.

By way of a sneak peak (sorry, couldn’t resist), I will be looking at what can be done to reach a global audience — right back to the basics. This is relatively easy as I had never heard of Estes Park before …

But, my new favourite fact about Estes Park is that the Stanley Hotel was the place where Stephen King found the inspiration for The Shining. Hmmm … ghost tours …

Stay tuned tomorrow (Monday) for BrandingWire’s July festival!

BrandingWire: Coffee and a Story on the Boil

Bw_logo_no_tagmedIn this first BrandingWire post we are each looking at a fictitious marketing challenge — a family owned coffee company that is looking to grow. They have a good product but a poor brand — our challenge is to help the stakeholders ask the right questions about growing the business.

My view is that we need to start with the story (of course). What I will propose is not the development of a full marketing plan or a brand strategy, but an engagement strategy based on understanding those customers who have thus far fuelled the company’s growth. I want to understand the business (and brand’s) stakeholders — and to map the who, what, why and how of the business’ story.

Any family business that has been running for more than a couple of years is going to have a wealth of brand and personal stories available. What needs to happen is to begin delving into some of these stories in order to find their essence — the thing that rings true to the business, the family, the customers and the employees.

People and the brand (the WHO of your story): The important thing to do here is to talk and to listen. Talk to the people in the business, ask them what they think, what works and what doesn’t. Get them to speak from their heart. Talk to the oldest employees and the newest. Include the family. But also include a broader mix across the business — including suppliers and delivery drivers. Find out what is common and where the gaps are. Listen to the WAY that phase their words. Listen for the poetry. Be alert to the emotional resonances. Do the same for the customers — not in focus groups, but in the stores. Hang out. Eavesdrop. Ask.

Key themes and messages (the WHAT of your story): Now what have you learned? Can you distill all this down? Can you plot it on a graph? What is repeated and what is left out? Once you have some of these key themes and messages, you need to start to map these against the business strategy … make sure that you are spending your marketing dollars communicating with those who are most likely to buy from you. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? To be successful here you need to baseline, measure and test. You do so by assessing commitment.

Stakeholder commitment (the WHY of your story): We all work through various stages of commitment to things — brands, people, places and so on. At the heart of this is a decision — at some point we make a decision to commit. Now, this decision can be implicit or explicit, it can be conscious or unconscious … but it remains a decision nonetheless. By working through a series of commitment points for a given persona set, we can determine what kind of communications should be initiated and when.

Channels (the HOW of your story): Now of course you need to consider how best to reach all these idealised personas and the people behind them. This means that there are questions around media choice — and that means MONEY. Of course, one of the most cost effective channels is online and/or social media. But as I explained here, not all brands will benefit from a social media strategy. However, in this instance, there are obvious benefits — especially because there is a depth of lifestyle-oriented content that can quickly be developed and put into the marketplace.

Finally, the important thing is to START. Start small and do it fast — before you can frighten yourself. Measure the impact of each effort against your initial expectations. If you don’t succeed, change the plan. Tweak. Modify. Learn from the mistakes. Marketing is not an endgame — it is a way of initiating, enabling, extending and maintaining the relationships that allow a brand to thrive.