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Advertising’s current sea of sameness: Immense waste of money or awesome opportunity to set your brand apart?

This one is for all of you heads of marketing and advertising- those smart, hard-charging people responsible for the current messaging your brand shares with consumers. The messaging that has as its primary goal to create interest in and desire for whatever product or service you are putting out there.

I ask you all to please switch from your marketing to your consumer hat for the next few days. Become a student of advertising. Watch or listen in earnest to the commercials playing on TV or the radio. Pay close attention to any pre-roll, display ads, or social media marketing posts. If you’re out and about, take in the outdoor boards and transit posters you come across.

Notice anything? Anything at all? How many brands stood out to you? How many messages got your attention or made you think a little differently? How many ads stuck with you?

Chances are not many. There is indeed a rising sea of sameness, a pattern of parity, happening in the ad world at the moment. And while Covid certainly had its effect, this homogenization has been building for quite some time. There isn’t one reason for this. There are several:

  • CMO’s have less time to make an impact.

    According to SpencerStuart’s annual CMO tenure study, the average tenure of a CMO was 41 months in 2019, a number that continues to trend downward for the past five years.

  • The hyper-analysis of certain analytics.

    There is such thing as too much testing, especially when it saps the emotional impact out of the idea. Brands spend weeks if not months making sure their message is right, oftentimes losing sight about making it great.

  • The “Content is not Concept” conundrum.

    Interview footage combined with slo-mo B-roll is not an idea. An anthemic script and powerful music track over stock footage is rarely an idea. Tactics like these have been overdone so much they are all blending into each other.

  • Shrinkage of non-working media spend.

    In an effort to put as much of their budget into paid media as possible, some clients are grinding down the fees they reserve for strategic and creative development: the very resources which could be deployed to fill valuable media space with fresh and impactful messaging that truly resonates with consumers.

So how is all of this manifesting into today’s advertising product? Where there were once Ideas there are now just proof points. Creative inspiration is being replaced with information. You can listen to three minutes of back-to-back radio spots and not know where one message ends and one begins. Too many messages out there look or sound exactly the same. And for marketers who are spending a small fortune every quarter on media, I fear they are wasting big chunks of their money producing flat, formulaic creative that doesn’t resonate with anyone.

Of course there are exceptions. There are brands who still get it, who still push the boundaries across all media to create messages that stand out, make consumers take notice and maximize their brand’s relevance. Progressive, Burger King, Geico, Oatly, Reddit and Crocs are phenomenal at flying in the face of the current status quo.

Many other brands choose not to. And therein lies the opportunity.

Because the bar has never been lower, the opportunity has never been greater for a brand, let’s say your brand, to become one of the exceptions. You don’t need tens of millions of marketing dollars either. You do need, however, to commit to doing things more distinctively than many of those who don’t. There are great agencies out there who would love to help you do it too. Full Contact is just one of those agencies. But it starts with you.

In my thirty-plus years in this business, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with marketing leaders who saw the opportunity and made a commitment to stand out, to be fresher and more disruptive than anyone else in their category. David D’Alessandro of John Hancock was one. Eddie Binder of Dunkin’ Donuts was another. Ari Haseotes, George Fournier and Gwen Forman of Cumberland Farms were too as were Stephanie Shore at Zipcar, Jen Robison and Julie Smith at Atlantic Broadband, Gayle O’Connell and Mary Anne Hailer at Arbella insurance, Katelin Spaulding at Boston Private and Deena McKinley and Jill Grogan at Papa Gino’s/D’Angelo. They each committed to look, sound and feel different from their competitors and they transformed their businesses because of it. They also did it without relying on a mountain of data to inform what they should and shouldn’t say.

This was not a case of the agency pressuring them into doing great and differentiating work. They wanted it just as much as we did for their brand. They saw the immense value of setting themselves apart and they went for it. There was nothing gratuitous about it. It was a smart business move and a far better use of their marketing dollars than coming across like every other brand.

Here’s another way to think about it. From a product development standpoint you are always looking for that Unique Selling Proposition, the distinctive benefit exhibited by a product, service or brand that enables you to stand out from your competitors. Well, your advertising is a product of your brand. Shouldn’t it stand out as much as anything else you put in front of consumers?

Not a rhetorical question. Yes it should.

Marty Donohue is a founding partner of Full Contact advertising in Boston.

marty@gofullcontact.com

How to prepare for an advertising career: Step 1- wait on tables.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for every agency position there is: creatives, account people, strategists, producers, project managers, accountants, and interns. In practically every one of those interviews I’ve gotten around to asking the same question: have you ever waited on tables?

You’d be surprised how many people who answer “yes” know exactly why I’m asking the question. They get the parallel worlds that exist between the energizing chaos of agency life and a typical Friday or Saturday night in a restaurant. They also appreciate just how many soft skills they learned from waiting tables that could immediately be transferred into a career in advertising.

And here’s the thing: you have no idea you’re learning all those remarkable skills when you’re in the thick of it.

Between the time I graduated college with a BA in writing (“What the hell are you going to do with that?”, asked Dad) and my first job as a copywriter, I spent over five years working as a waiter. It turned out to be the ideal job at the time. It let me have my days free to work on my creative portfolio and go on interviews (lots and lots of interviews). Little did I know it would also be the ideal job for many other reasons.

Here are just a few things I either learned or learned to appreciate from being a waiter:

  • Extreme multi-tasking: there is nothing like flying around a full station of tables on a Friday night to prepare you for the barrage of wildly assorted requests, responsibilities, and assignments you will face in the agency world. And just like the agency world, the more different the requests that get thrown at you, the better you get at handling them.
  • Reading the room: everyone is feeling something at any given time. This is as true in a restaurant as it is in an ad agency as it is in life. Learning to understand the different moods, wants and needs of your customers and co-workers will go a long way in how well you treat them- and vice versa. It’s called empathy. Having this ability can work wonders for you.
  • Rising above the weeds: so many things are happening at once when a restaurant gets busy. Every order has its own deadline. Each deadline gets compounded by the more tables you have This could make for an extremely pressure packed situation for you and your co-workers, one in which it would be very easy to panic and/or lose your sh*t. It is also a terrific opportunity to prove to yourself that you can keep your head down and motor through those weeds, just like you’ll need to do in advertising.
  • The awesome power of teamwork: you will not get far in advertising without the help of your co-workers. Some of them will have different responsibilities from you, but their roles can be just as critical when it comes to you delivering at a high level. This type of synergetic relationship is remarkably similar to the busboys, bartenders, hosts and hostesses, chefs, line cooks, and food runners you need to constantly rely on to make you look great in the eyes of your customers.
  • Treating every table like a new business pitch (because it is): From the time a customer sits down to the time they leave, you are not just pitching them the menu- you are selling them on you. How much you do to create a positive and memorable impression in the short time you have with them will go a long way in determining the quality of their experience (not to mention the size of your tip). Translated to agency life, the same thing could decide whether or not you get the chance to begin a wonderfully successful client relationship.

The similarities can go on and on, but hopefully you get the point. The restaurant business is an ideal training ground for a career in advertising. And believe me it sticks with you, as does the passion so many of us still have for the whole industry. It may also explain why Full Contact has been fortunate to have so many restaurant clients throughout our history.

Something else I never would have imagined when I waited on my first 4-top all those years (okay decades) ago.

Marty Donohue
Founding Partner
Full Contact Advertising

FREEFALL: Hurtling your way between what was and what’s next.

Many of us have been there. One day your life is happening where and how it’s happening, and then for whatever reason it is not. Sometimes we leap from the situation we were in, sometimes we’re pushed out, and sometimes we simply fall out.

What happens next is what I call Freefall: that wild, unpredictable, challenging and excitifying period that takes place between where you used to be and where you end up next.

Freefall can take place at different times and for different reasons in your life:

  • Leaving home and going out on your own
  • Losing or quitting your job
  • Starting a business
  • Closing a business
  • Moving somewhere completely different
  • Beginning or ending a relationship

And while Freefalling may not feel all that great when you’re in the midst of it, for many people it ends up being the best thing that could have happened to them. In fact, one of their biggest regrets is that they didn’t experience it sooner.

Given all the turmoil and transition going on today, it seems more people than ever are in that space between where they were and where they’re heading:

Nearly 1 in 3 US workers under 40 (and 1 in 5 workers overall) have thought about changing their occupation or field of work since the pandemic began, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 22% of American adults had either moved because of the pandemic or knew someone who did.

In the world of relationships, jewelers are reporting double-digit increases in engagement ring sales, the Washington Post reported

And this from a recent article in the Harvard business Review (HBR.org): “…for perhaps the first time since at least World War II, almost everyone in the world is processing major shifts in their sources of purpose simultaneously.”

Given all that, thought it might be helpful as someone who’s experienced the Freefall phenomenon several times to share some practical advice for anyone currently (or soon to be) in it themselves:

  • Know that you will indeed land at some point- there will be weeks, perhaps months, maybe even years that you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. You need to remind yourself constantly that you are indeed on your way and it’s okay not to know when you will land.
  • Own it- as in Blame No One. If you find yourself in a less than favorable situation, the easiest thing ever would be to stew about how you got in this position and who else may be responsible for putting you there. We’ve all been guilty of this at some point, and it may even feel good at first. Here, however, is the absolute truth: complaining, blaming others and/or playing the victim card produces nothing and gets you nowhere. Better instead to use all that energy to…
  • Keep going- the people who get through Freefall the best are the people who put their head down and make things happen for themselves. Conversely, the people who struggle are those waiting for something to happen: never a good strategy when your livelihood/living situation/relationship status/future are hanging in the balance. It is both astounding and rewarding to see what taking the initiative can do for you, even if you’ve never been that kind of person before. No better time to see what you’re capable of than when you’re floating around between life experiences. Those little steps that you make happen will feel great and propel you forward to take bigger steps over time.
  • Use your network- and if you don’t have one, create one. Whether you are in Professional or Personal Freefall, there are people out there who can and will help you get to wherever you are heading. Sometimes it may be by making a referral, an important connection, or just offering a terrific piece of advice. This is also something you need to make happen vs waiting for your network to magically appear.
  • Do NOT settle- in a perfect world the place you land will be way better than the place you left. This is more up to you than you might think. Jumping at the first opportunity that comes along- whether that be a job, a relationship or anything in between-may not be the best course of action. You owe it to yourself to be patient here and yes, a little picky. In fact, you deserve it.

By the way, none of this will be easy. Nothing worth doing ever is. But if you keep these steps in mind and add/revise along the way, you will absolutely get to where you are heading next.

Here’s me hoping you hang on, make the most of the ride, and of course, have a happy landing.

And, if along the way you’d like to chat with someone who’s done this a time or two in his life, well here I am: marty@gofullcontact.com

Marty Donohue
Founding Partner
Full Contact Advertising

Revenge Travel: How far will consumers go in 2022?

Research and Article by Taylor Blowers, Strategist, Full Contact.

 

What’s keeping the travel industry alive? They are listening to their customers and fueling their decisions based on consumer insight.

Here are some realities that the travel sector has had to consider…

  1. Consumers want to get back out there.
    • “Expedia is calling 2022 the year of the GOAT, or the “greatest of all trips.”
    • American travelers are expected to spend 29% more on their average trip in 2022 than they did in 2019.
  2. But they are being careful about their choices.
    • 47% of global travelers cite a COVID-19 related factor as the most influential criteria in choosing a destination and two thirds expect an understanding of the COVID-19 prevention measures in place prior to booking. 70% of travelers confirmed that destinations with lower numbers of Covid-19 cases will factor highly when making decisions on where to travel next.

As we dug into the challenges facing the travel world, we, of course, had to start with exploring the business of cruising.

Cruises have been at the epicenter of COVID-19 concerns since the first outbreak in the United States. In December of 2021, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took no time in issuing an advisement that, “People should avoid traveling on cruise ships, including river cruises worldwide, regardless of vaccination status.” (CDC)

Cruise lines such as Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Virgin Voyages and Disney Cruises had to make a move. Since a portion of the consumer group is ignoring the CDC’s recommendations, the first tactic was to discount tickets. Fortune wrote, “Despite the high-risk travel escalation thanks to Omicron variant’s spread, travel still is happening and travel companies are not planning on slowing down either.” (Fortune) Discounting tickets and promotion through sales events allows loyal customers still willing to ride a reward and hesitant customers an appeal to purchase. Cruise lines also acknowledged the growing skeptical consumer in offering early bird deals. For example, Carnival offered those passengers who aren’t interested in sailing now the option to book ahead and save money in return. (Carnival Cruise) In addition, Royal Caribbean cruises and others have introduced, “Cruise with Confidence” where passengers can feel better about the changing environment and “Cancel up to 48 hours before sailing, for any reason, and get a Future Cruise Credit for the full paid value of your cruise.” Cruise lines, in particular, and the travel industry in general are smart to listen to the consumers who are uncertain about the idea of traveling at this time and address that directly with their marketing and promotions.

Cruising isn’t the only behemoth in the travel industry that has been impacted by the current challenges in the Covid-travel landscape. Entertainment travel has been experiencing similar fluctuations.

Arguably the entire Super Bowl event can be seen as an example of the return to live sports and entertainment-based tourism. Super Bowl weekend showcased tourism recovery efforts as Visit California invested $22.1 million dollars into their campaign before and during the LVI game at SoFi Stadium in Golden State’s own Los Angeles. (Adforum.com) Unlike in 2021 where advertisers and companies were less willing to buy spots due to less impressions and smaller budgets.

Theme parks also understood this need to invest in the conversation around the realities of the Covid world and address consumer concerns as they visited their parks. Disney has used words like, “[We] cannot guarantee you will not be exposed during your visit,” because there is an “inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19…in any public place where people are present.” (Discover Disney World) (Universal Orlando Resort). Theme parks like cruises and Disney, have offered discount promotions and “no block out dates” to increase flexibility in booking to help accommodate and show appreciation for consumer needs. However, there is another tactic that utilizes the “go big or go home” 2022 prediction, with new attractions that  have been created in an attempt to garner attention and avoid the “ghost town vibes” (Inside the Magic).

Where have the traveling consumers gone?

As travelers look for less crowds and authentic vacations, personal lodging companies such as AirBnb and Vrbo leaned into the wants and needs of consumers through targeted campaigns. AirBnb has expertly shown viewers what to expect in our very unpredictable world when using their hosting/guest services through strategic storytelling of intimate vacations in a series called, “Made possible by Hosts”. My personal favorite is the “Bonnie and Clyde” montage of an adorable older couple who wanted a romantic getaway with a sound over of a Jay-Z song. Another fun montage in the series was the “Back in the Day” spot featuring a group of young friends who stayed at a retro house listening to vinyl and feeling like time travelers. This specific ad capitalized on how TikTok has influenced the travel perception. There is also a TikTok hashtag called “#houseswap” which has “generated approximately 10 million views and viral videos of users swapping houses on the social app.” (Fortune) Thanks to the trend “more than 40% of Gen Z employees plan to take a “workcation”” and the need for a hybrid home away was recognized quickly by Airbnb and others. (Fortune)

 

And speaking of social media…

In terms of booking trips, travelers looking on travel websites are likely to be influenced prior to even reaching the site by none other than social media. Social media may seem like a place to brag about a vacation, but that brag is also helping viewers discover where they should vacation next. Social Toaster reported that “84% of millennials say that they are likely to plan their own vacation based on someone else’s social posts.” (Social Toaster) Having an influencer or friend take a trip first allows for an in-depth review of the experience before they themselves take that trip. Not to mention, “86 percent of people (and 92 percent of Gen Z) said they’ve become interested in a specific location after seeing user-generated content” regarding that location. (Stackla) Travel messaging on social media is not new, however utilizing this insight seemed untapped until now. TikTok alone currently has ten or more travel video formats common to couples and friends traveling to take along their journey. There are also “travel hacks” on TikTok that show users potentially effective ways to travel more comfortably and affordably. (TravelPulse) National Geographic even has a multiple page article on how TikToK is changing the travel scene by acting like a travel agent for viewers. Social media is the social sphere keeping travel flowing by word of mouth, or better yet pictures. “The easiest way to start travel planning with TikTok is to follow a hashtag, such as #Mexico or #rollercoasters,” and the algorithm on the “For You” page does the rest to get you interested in a destination or travel experience. (National Geographic) The social landscape thanks to COVD-19 has want-to-be travelers excited than ever and thus as shown for marketers, it is a peak time to utilize social influencing tools.

According to Travel and Leisure, “travel is anticipated to generate nearly $2 trillion of the U.S. economy in 2022.” (Travel + Leisure) To ensure travel services get a piece of that revenue after the initial devastating impacts of COVID-19 travel companies worked smart by creating a strategic plan. Through smart targeting, reinvestment in impression driven opportunities, crafted messaging, and insightful listening is proving to be the best solution that turns a difficult time back into a successful future.

Generation Alpha, now in beta.

Research and Article by Taylor Blowers, Strategist, Full Contact.

You may have heard of the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y (aka Millennials) and Gen Z before but the newest generational group has just found its label. According to an Australian consulting agency generational researcher and TEDx speaker, Mark McCrindle, it was time to label these newcomers. As is the case with other generational group labels, there was debate and some confusion over when the generation should start and end. However, the consensus is that babies born from 2010 to present-day make up the Alpha generation.  McCrindle’s research also observed that, “2.5 million members of Generation Alpha are born every week around the world” and by “2050 the Generation Alpha population is predicted to reach 35 million.”(Forbes)

Read more

Exploring Consumer Desire for Real-World Product Demonstrations

Exploring Consumer Desire for Real-World Product Demonstrations

Consumers want real-world product demonstrations. Whether they are looking to find themselves represented in the product experience, they want to see causes that are important to them highlighted or are they just looking to see everyday solutions in action, consumers appreciate ads that are truthful, real, and relatable in presenting their products. To better understand this “show and tell” trend, Full Contact intern, Taylor Blowers decided to investigate. Read more

How Brands Are Utilizing TikTok

Full Contact’s Social Media Intern, Ariana Revelas, took a dive into the world of TikTok and made it all make sense.

 

You’ve heard the name. You know family, friends, or co-workers are all over it, learning dances or obsessing over cute dogs and babies but you’re sitting there saying “What is TikTok?”

 

TikTok is the newest social platform to take the world by storm. It is a video-based platform with the 6th largest global social network, with over 1 billion users. Why did it grow so big so fast? A lot of that success comes straight from the algorithm which directly impacts how content is served up to the TikTokers of the world.

 

The algorithm pulls content into a user’s “For You” page and is based on user interactions, video information, and device settings. When a video is posted it is first shown to the account’s followers and people most likely interested in the video details (Video details are what help new profiles gain visibility). From there on, user interactions decide the content’s next route of distribution in new subsets of user feeds (Positive user response to a video tells the algorithm to show the video to more consumers).

 

Essentially, TikTok wants to show you content that you are interested in and that’s what the “For You” page is all about. User interests could be anything from cute dogs and babies to very specific niche interests like The Avengers movies or pool cleaning videos.

 

Here is a video of what the platform looks like and how it is used:

Now that you know what TikTok looks like and have somewhat of an idea of how it works, here is what you need to know if your brand is looking to utilize this platform:

 

Is your target audience on TikTok?

Gen Z popularized the app but in the past year the demographics have expanded. Currently the U.S. user age breakdown is as follows:

Ages 10-19: 32.5%

Ages 20-29: 29.5%

Ages 30-39: 13.9%

Ages 40-49: 13.9%

Ages 50+: 7.1%

Data via Comscore.

 

How does a brand get started on TikTok?

TikTok holds some of the weirdest content on the internet, currently, so I would say that most things, go. However, it is important to do some initial research to see if other competitors in your industry are utilizing TikTok. For example, TikTok is home to a plethora of food content so a brand like Papa Gino’s would excel on the platform with local New England pizza content.

 

Only dive into the TikTok space if you have the time and resources to create content. Although TikTok may be the hottest new platform to jump on, make sure you understand how TikTok will give you an edge and support your brand’s goals and objectives.

 

Find out what your target audience likes, wants, and doesn’t like. Think about your competitors – what kind of content are they posting? Search for keywords and hashtags so you can stay on top of trends around your brand, products, or industry. Proactive listening and joining conversations about your brand is a great start.

 

What makes a brand successful on TikTok?

TikTok is an innovative, creative platform that is all about fun. Take inspiration from trends and memes, understand how creators native to the platform create trending content, and leverage TikTok’s ability to engage with sound and music. 

 

What should a brand avoid on TikTok?

Don’t plug your own brand and product from the get-go. Many brands excel on TikTok while avoiding marketing their products altogether. Remember, users are not on TikTok to see ads so you have to create content that is engaging and trend-based.

 

Don’t repurpose content originally meant to be shared on other platforms. TikTok is a beast of its own so some content that can be transferrable between Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, may not work for TikTok.

 

Lastly, stay away from looking too sleek and polished. Your first instinct for posting social content for your brand is to have the best-looking products out there for your consumers to see, but TikTok content flourishes when it is more spontaneous and less “produced.”

 

 

Some of our favorite brands on TikTok:

 

Gymshark

Gymshark has built a community on TikTok by working with popular creators, sharing user generated content, and utilizes the platform as another channel for customer service.

 

Ryanair

Ryanair focuses on entertaining their followers by participating in relevant trends, and using the platform to connect with people versus using it as a marketing tactic.

 

NFL

The NFL utilizes trending sounds and mic’ed up player audio to make their players more approachable and relatable. They do this through Q&As, interviews, dances, and bloopers.

 

 

So, what’s next for you and your brand? The best thing you could do, right now, is to download TikTok, explore, and see what connects with and inspires you. Next, think about how this new medium may, or may not, fit into your overall messaging and communication strategy. You never know what will go viral until you step outside your comfort zone and look at TikTok as a new platform for your brand to shine.

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Advertising’s current sea of sameness: Immense waste of money or awesome opportunity to set your brand apart?

This one is for all of you heads of marketing and advertising- those smart, hard-charging people responsible for the current messaging your brand shares with consumers. The messaging that has as its primary goal to create interest in and desire for whatever product or service you are putting out there.

I ask you all to please switch from your marketing to your consumer hat for the next few days. Become a student of advertising. Watch or listen in earnest to the commercials playing on TV or the radio. Pay close attention to any pre-roll, display ads, or social media marketing posts. If you’re out and about, take in the outdoor boards and transit posters you come across.

Notice anything? Anything at all? How many brands stood out to you? How many messages got your attention or made you think a little differently? How many ads stuck with you?

Chances are not many. There is indeed a rising sea of sameness, a pattern of parity, happening in the ad world at the moment. And while Covid certainly had its effect, this homogenization has been building for quite some time. There isn’t one reason for this. There are several:

  • CMO’s have less time to make an impact.

    According to SpencerStuart’s annual CMO tenure study, the average tenure of a CMO was 41 months in 2019, a number that continues to trend downward for the past five years.

  • The hyper-analysis of certain analytics.

    There is such thing as too much testing, especially when it saps the emotional impact out of the idea. Brands spend weeks if not months making sure their message is right, oftentimes losing sight about making it great.

  • The “Content is not Concept” conundrum.

    Interview footage combined with slo-mo B-roll is not an idea. An anthemic script and powerful music track over stock footage is rarely an idea. Tactics like these have been overdone so much they are all blending into each other.

  • Shrinkage of non-working media spend.

    In an effort to put as much of their budget into paid media as possible, some clients are grinding down the fees they reserve for strategic and creative development: the very resources which could be deployed to fill valuable media space with fresh and impactful messaging that truly resonates with consumers.

So how is all of this manifesting into today’s advertising product? Where there were once Ideas there are now just proof points. Creative inspiration is being replaced with information. You can listen to three minutes of back-to-back radio spots and not know where one message ends and one begins. Too many messages out there look or sound exactly the same. And for marketers who are spending a small fortune every quarter on media, I fear they are wasting big chunks of their money producing flat, formulaic creative that doesn’t resonate with anyone.

Of course there are exceptions. There are brands who still get it, who still push the boundaries across all media to create messages that stand out, make consumers take notice and maximize their brand’s relevance. Progressive, Burger King, Geico, Oatly, Reddit and Crocs are phenomenal at flying in the face of the current status quo.

Many other brands choose not to. And therein lies the opportunity.

Because the bar has never been lower, the opportunity has never been greater for a brand, let’s say your brand, to become one of the exceptions. You don’t need tens of millions of marketing dollars either. You do need, however, to commit to doing things more distinctively than many of those who don’t. There are great agencies out there who would love to help you do it too. Full Contact is just one of those agencies. But it starts with you.

In my thirty-plus years in this business, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with marketing leaders who saw the opportunity and made a commitment to stand out, to be fresher and more disruptive than anyone else in their category. David D’Alessandro of John Hancock was one. Eddie Binder of Dunkin’ Donuts was another. Ari Haseotes, George Fournier and Gwen Forman of Cumberland Farms were too as were Stephanie Shore at Zipcar, Jen Robison and Julie Smith at Atlantic Broadband, Gayle O’Connell and Mary Anne Hailer at Arbella insurance, Katelin Spaulding at Boston Private and Deena McKinley and Jill Grogan at Papa Gino’s/D’Angelo. They each committed to look, sound and feel different from their competitors and they transformed their businesses because of it. They also did it without relying on a mountain of data to inform what they should and shouldn’t say.

This was not a case of the agency pressuring them into doing great and differentiating work. They wanted it just as much as we did for their brand. They saw the immense value of setting themselves apart and they went for it. There was nothing gratuitous about it. It was a smart business move and a far better use of their marketing dollars than coming across like every other brand.

Here’s another way to think about it. From a product development standpoint you are always looking for that Unique Selling Proposition, the distinctive benefit exhibited by a product, service or brand that enables you to stand out from your competitors. Well, your advertising is a product of your brand. Shouldn’t it stand out as much as anything else you put in front of consumers?

Not a rhetorical question. Yes it should.

Marty Donohue is a founding partner of Full Contact advertising in Boston.

marty@gofullcontact.com

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The biggest brand opportunity in 2021? Ask questions, listen and observe.

Hello New Year.

I don’t know about you, but I have to imagine you are entering 2021 with a great deal of questions.

Questions about all the changes we have personally experienced.

Questions about all the changes we have professionally experienced.

Just plain boatloads of questions.

As a brand strategist (and consumer) I can’t help but to filter this idea of the power and possibility of questions through the lens of what they can help our clients learn as they charge ahead into the next, exciting chapter.

Don’t get me wrong. I know we can’t keep our rose-colored glasses on too squarely. We can all agree that no matter the client category, all have been impacted by the events of 2020, but two that I have been reading about in recent months are the broad worlds of retail and restaurants.

Let’s talk about retail for a minute.

We know from our client experience and never-ending conversations on the topic that retailers continue to be challenged not only by the pandemic but the changes to the overall categorical landscape.

The challenges faced by brick-and-mortar retailers have accelerated at staggering speed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis. The latest data from McKinsey shows that consumers are likely to keep the behaviors they’ve adopted amid stay-at-home orders. Retailers can’t afford to be in a wait-and-see mode. They need to reimagine their baseline requirements and then turn their attention to taking their customer experience to the next level.

(source: https://hbr.org/2020/07/the-pandemic-is-rewriting-the-rules-of-retail)

There are many great minds coming up with hypotheses about how all this will play out as we begin again in 2021. In fact, we could read articles on the topic from day until night, but what is more important is asking questions, observing and listening to the customers you have today. Why are they still coming through your doors (virtual or otherwise)? What can you do to make them want to stay connected and dedicated to you and your brand? Why are you losing customers? What are they really looking for from you right now?

I would like to share an example or two of retail experiences that have shown great listening and not so great listening in recent months. Example #1: Upon seeing that I was shopping with two children during the end of the busy holiday season, a clothing retailer offered my kids a seat in the back of the store where the (now closed) but pristinely clean dressing rooms were so that my kids could relax and do what they really wanted to do (which was play a game on their phones). The lovely woman in the store even gave my girls a free sample of “unicorn” hand sanitizer. Why did that matter so much to me? I didn’t have to worry whether or not my kids were keeping their masks up, I didn’t have to watch them like a hawk to make sure they weren’t standing too close to other people, and, most importantly, I felt understood. She didn’t actually even ask me a question; she just was smart enough to OBSERVE the opportunity to make a potentially stressful experience more enjoyable. And you better believe I will be back.

Example #2: This one was online, where I acknowledge it can be harder to make a connection, but there is certainly enough opportunity to ask questions and gather data via the online platform. In this case, I ordered two care packages for people that had been quite ill.  I found a new online retailer that offered more than the flowers-and-balloons-type options and decided to give them a try. After 5 weeks of waiting for the packages (that I paid to have delivered in 3 days) they still had not arrived and I had not received as much as a note from the retailer to explain the issue. I understand that there are challenges with the delivery process these days, but a simple email would have gone a long way to making me feel better about the expensive purchases I made. I sent the retailer questions, I never received responses. At the end of the day, the packages were delivered but without the retailer ever asking about my purchase experience or acknowledging my complaints.

You can understand without my explaining the difference in these two experiences and I don’t think it has anything to do with the medium I chose to use when purchasing from their stores.  The difference was, one observed and listened and one did not. You can guess who will be getting my business going forward.

Switching gears, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about restaurants right now. It’s a category we, as an agency, work with and think about all the time.

I used to love to cook. Every weekend I would spend hours prepping, shopping and preparing for the week’s meals. It brought me joy. But I also loved going to restaurants and taking a break from the cycle of cooking and cleaning at home. Now. After preparing three meals a day for my family (that’s 21 a week and 84 a month for those of you keeping score at home) cooking has lost all of its previous joy. Anyone else feel this way? Even though most are back to being able to go to restaurants in some capacity, it’s similar to the in-store retail experience. It often involves more anxiety than relaxation. As a mom, in the back of my mind I wonder, should I be here with my kids right now? Am I putting us at risk? But then, I also think about how much I love my local restaurants. I want to see them survive through this crisis and I want to support them. Is anyone else feeling this torn?

When I think about everything that restaurants have done during this time to question, listen and observe and as a result pivot, pivot again, and pivot one more time I am utterly blown away. So many (especially local establishments) have done such a good job trying to find ways to continue to serve customers like me and my family. But I also think it’s important to remind all of the amazing survivors in the restaurant industry to keep doing what they are doing, even when this all ends.

“I think restaurateurs are going to have to think increasingly more systemically about if food in the home is going to become much more the norm,” said Oliver Wright, global lead of Accenture’s consumer goods and services practice. “In terms of what we eat and where we eat, it’s probably going to be the biggest shakeout we’ve seen in our adult lifetimes.”

~ https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/29/coronavirus-pandemic-forces-a-reckoning-for-restaurants-with-capacity-limits.html

Attitudes are and will continue to change about the food experience and we can’t truly predict how it will all play out, but I have tremendous faith in the category and think that no matter how terribly challenging it has been, the ability to ask, observe and listen will ensure, not only survival, but exponential future successes.

2021 is a year that has left all of us as marketers, business owners and consumers with a lot of questions. So, let’s make sure that we are asking our clients, customers and ourselves what they really need from us to succeed. I think this year is the most important year for any brand to listen. Even though we have all been looking forward to the end of 2020, I think looking to our collective new beginnings in 2021 is where the real opportunity lies.

Finding The Strategic Opportunity

Well, here we are, somewhere in the midst of a global Pandemic.

I, for one, didn’t see this coming, and even if you did see this new world on the horizon, it would have been hard to predict the real ramifications for your life, your job, your business. And with regard to this post, your brand.

As a country, we have dealt with many challenges over the last few decades and one of the lessons the past has taught is that challenging times can also afford amazing opportunities. While it is tempting to get caught in the weeds of the daily business-related fire drills caused by the Pandemic, I would challenge you to try to find space in your psyche (and your calendar!) to think about the once in a lifetime opportunity you now have to really make a meaningful connection with your customers.

Now this may sound self-serving coming from a brand strategist, but I truly believe that there has never been a better time to take a step back and evaluate your overall brand strategy.

Just think about all the potential questions about your brand and business that you must have for your customers at this time. Things like:

  • Is what we are saying still relevant today?
  • How are our customers feeling? How is this impacting them?
  • How have their behaviors changed?
  • How are they feeling about you vs. competitors at this time?

I can think of 100 more, and I am sure you can too.

And if you don’t believe brand strategy is critically important right now, like any good strategist, I have done my research on the topic, here is just a sampling of the conversation:

 

“COVID-19 will change all of us. The key is to understand and analyze the human insight behind the changes, and which of them will stick.”

~ Ipsos, The Role of Research and Insights in COVID-19 Times, 4/29/20 

 

In the PwC CFO survey, nearly 71% of business leaders from companies with more than $1 billion in revenue said they view this crisis as an opportunity to emerge stronger — particularly related to product and service innovations.

As businesses and brand builders, we are all (I’m going to say it) going through this together. Sorting through the madness, Zooming until you can’t Zoom anymore and trying to solve the near-term problems that are very likely filling your collective plates. But successful brand strategy is about really challenging yourselves to take a step back and not only think big picture but be open to doing things differently, if you need to.

The world around us, the world around your customers has and will continue to evolve and the importance of staying connected, of considering where you are strategically has quite literally never been as important.

But don’t panic. With the right strategic thinking and the right partners, your business’ next winning streak could be right around the corner.

In the meantime, here are three things we would suggest you do now to get ahead of this opportunity. These are steps we take all the time when we are creating, or in this case, re-optimizing, the brand foundations of our clients:

Keep it authentic:

Talk to the internal people at your company, not just the senior leaders but a mix of new members of the company as well as the more seasoned employees from a mix of disciplines. Ensure that as the pandemic has taken hold, that they still feel the same about the brand foundations. If they don’t, it’s time to consider two things: Do you need to shift your tone or strategy, or do you need to ensure that they understand how your brand really works in this new version of our world? We have worked with clients to develop solutions to address each of these needs but what is most important to keep in mind is that if the people that make your company run don’t believe in your foundations, it will never feel authentic to your customers.

Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions:

It has never been more important to talk to and listen your customers. At Full Contact we have clients that are doing better than they have ever done before and we have others that are still navigating their way through these tough waters. BOTH of these kinds of companies need to ask their customers or their customer-facing employees the tough questions about why and how their behaviors have shifted during this time. Monitoring and tracking customer input will help you pivot quickly, make those that are loyal to you feel heard and appreciated, and most importantly help you pave your path forward.

Closely monitor the competitive landscape:

Believe me, I know it is hard enough to stay on top of the day-to-day list of to-do’s right now, but keeping a close look at the competitive landscape is critical. Many of the brands you have watched in the past may be completely changing their story. They could be trying to ride on your business’ successes and claim to offer the same as you; they could be talking about a new innovation or option that you could consider for your own brand, or they quite simply could have dropped out of the conversation all together – giving you the opportunity to steal share.

Above are just three of the many things we think are important when thinking about the best way to strategically navigate through these world-changing, business-changing and life-changing events.

Hang in there.

“Often out of periods of losing come the greatest strivings toward a new winning streak.”

~ Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers)

 

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