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Brand image should be grounded in brand origin.

By that I mean, the foundation or “genealogy” from which a brand draws its image and differentiation.

This thought came to mind as a colleague and I sketched on a white board possible solutions to a client’s marketing challenge. Marketers at this company believe their brand owns a premium position in a crowded category. Their advertising is all about clothing their products in that premium image.

But when we talk with people who know the category well, they tell us buyers and specifiers regard the brand’s products as “pretty good.” Better than average, but by no means best in class.

If that’s true, then one of the brand’s challenges, it seemed to us, is that its image is not converting into audience influence. And we think we figured out why:

The brand has neglected to articulate its origin.

Brand Origin: Underpinnings to an Image

We tested the half-baked thought with a few examples.

Pick a German auto brand. Say Audi, or Mercedes-Benz. In the minds of consumers, it might seek to own “precision” as a brand image. The origin of that image? It wouldn’t be shocking if the brand’s marketers pointed to “German engineering.”

Now, I don’t know if German engineering qualifies as legendary. But based on bits and pieces from history and present-day global business, I have a general perception (accurate or not, I’ll confess) that Germans as a society and economy do a pretty solid job manufacturing, running government, and building and driving the Autobahn.  So, to some degree, there’s a “back-story” on which the auto brand’s image is based.

How about IBM? Computers and consulting services. IBM is telling me with its marketing that it’s about empowering a “smarter planet.” Behind that, at a more fundamental level, I have this sense that IBM has spent, and continues to spend, a fair amount of time and energy pondering the intersections of human and machine intelligence. Let’s consider that the origin of its “smarter” positioning. So I might be inclined to go along with the idea that if IBM is making it and selling it, it’s probably a fairly smart solution.

One more: Apple. Personal computing, communication and media devices. In our white board exercise we had to choose a word that Apple wants to own as its brand image. We chose “usability.” Apple products are renowned for being so easy to use, a user manual is superfluous. We’ve all heard stories of precocious toddlers quickly learning to operate an iPhone or iPad.

The origin of all that usability? Steve Jobs.

Uh oh.

For all the great achievements of Jobs and Apple, were they ever able to establish that the origin of their brand’s image and products was something other than Jobs’ brilliant vision?

We’re not sure they did. And with that, we had two takeaways from our little white board exercise around branding and positioning.

One: If you want to own a brand image in the minds of your target audience, it has to be based on something other than: “Believe it because our advertising shows and tells you it’s so.” Your position and image must be grounded in something more fundamental. Something original.

Two: If the origin of your brand resides in a single human being, even a brilliant founder, that might not be enough to sustain your brand image when those underpinnings pass away. ___

Does this simple “origin” thought model resonate for your brand? Have you pondered your brand’s origin? Is your content marketing strategy informed by that origin? Comments and discussion welcome.

___

This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing

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Content marketing and advertising are sometimes presented as either-or.

Creating your own value-adding content and “channels,” some people argue, means you don’t need to “rent” others’ media to reach your target audience.

In other words, you can reduce or eliminate the need to advertise.

If you’ve taken that approach, you might have discovered that audience development is no easy task. One of the reasons marketers advertise, it turns out, is that there are a bunch of smart media companies already in the business of publishing great content. Very possibly, one or more of those media firms has already developed the audience you, as a corporate marketer, wish to reach and engage.

In other words, advertising can be an effective way to make a target audience aware of your content.

Publisher’s Online Platform + Sponsored Content = Native Advertising

If that idea makes some sense to you, then as you look for ways to jump-start a new content strategy, or to extend the reach of an existing content program, be sure you check with the media companies that serve the audiences you wish to reach. It could be they are making it easier and more attractive than ever for you to reach their audience with your content.

Some marketers are attaching a relatively new label to this idea: Native advertising.

Depending on the publisher, a native ad program might include the ability to “own” your own content microsite or stream within the publisher’s broader online editorial platform. To contribute sponsored posts to the publisher’s blogs. To benefit from a program of display advertising within their websites and e-newsletters. Maybe even to participate in the social media conversations they are creating with and among the audience.

One of the highest-profile native ad programs is Forbes’ BrandVoice, where the publisher is reported to be charging marketers a minimum annual fee of $1 million to showcase their content within Forbes’ broader online editorial environment.

Hanley Wood, parent company of Hanley Wood Marketing, serves multiple construction industry audiences with first-rate B2B trade magazines, trade shows and websites. One of those sites, architectmagazine.com, offers marketers the opportunity to sponsor an “Industry Center” and populate that microsite with content on a particular industry topic or solution category.

Here are four recent posts that provide informative looks into native advertising:

  • Eric Wittlake’s post, “The Intersection of Content Marketing and Advertising”
  • Digiday’s post on Forbes’ BrandVoice program, and another on what Zynga is doing in the realm of native advertising.
  • AdAge’s recent post in which Buzzfeed’s native ad program gets a closer look

Evolving How We Think About and Use Advertising

Some of us never believed content marketing and advertising are mutually exclusive. Instead, content marketing lets us evolve how we think about and use advertising.

Rather than “rent” media to deliver purely promotional messages at an audience, we can leverage those channels to invite the audience to consume content we’ve created for them.

Native advertising isn’t a panacea. But if you’re a content marketer, it doesn’t hurt to see if the media companies serving your most important audience offer “native” opportunities to grow awareness and reach for your content.

And if they don’t?

Maybe you can partner with them to invent one.

___

This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

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Do you avoid the word “sales” in your marketing communications?

I don’t mean “sales” the noun, as in “Sales were up 12 percent year over year.”

I mean “sales” the adjective, as in “sales representative.”

When you publish your 800 number and invite prospects to call, who do you say is standing by to take their calls? Customer service agents? Or sales associates?

Have you decided, at some basic level, that labelling the people who call on your prospects and customers “sales reps,” and the work they do “sales,” carries a negative connotation?

The Age-Old Debate: Is Sales a Dirty Word?

If it’s true that sales is the world’s second oldest profession — and maybe even the oldest, come to think of it — then the debate about whether to call a spade a spade, and a sales rep a sales rep, has probably been going on for eons.

On one side, there are the con arguments. Where at some level it seems smarter, maybe cleaner, not to remind customers and potential customers that you are out to sell them something. Better, instead, to call members of your selling force “consultants,” “business developers,” “relationship managers,” “account directors” — anything but sales reps, for heaven’s sake, on their business cards.

Then there’s the pro perspective. Where nothing happens until somebody sells something. And where, let’s face it, nobody’s fooling anyone with touchy-feely euphemisms. After all, sales is an honorable profession. Done well, it has little to do with fast talking and high-pressure tactics. Instead, it’s all about attentive listening, adding value and solving problems.

As I said, this is not a new argument. And if you Google around the topic of “does sales have negative connotations,” you’ll find any number of interesting and entertaining perspectives, including this article by Roger Bostdorff, titled Why Customers Hate Sales People, and this post by Andrew Rudin, headlined: Stop Selling! Trendy Idea but Bad Strategy.

One Rep’s Take

So where do I come down? It so happens this very question jumped out at me today, on my way to catch the afternoon bus.

Strolling past a downtown hotel, I noticed a sign touting the hotel’s banquet and meeting services. The sign offered a phone number, with a call to action which said I could speak to one of the hotel’s “sales representatives.”

It was as though the word “sales” was suddenly presented as a Rorschach test.

And in that split second, as my mind went searching for the essence of the word, along with any emotional or intellectual attachments, what flashed to mind — right or wrong — was the image of “sales” as a mostly one-dimensional, uni-directional value exchange. Value moving from the person buying the service or product (me, need-to-plan-a-meeting guy), to the person pitching the service or product (hotel sales guy or gal).

So I reflected a little more on that visceral reaction (because, after all, you’ve got time for such weighty matters while sitting on the bus).

Were I to call a hotel, looking to plan my next meeting or banquet, would I look forward to speaking with a sales rep? Or would I feel more motivated and optimistic at the prospect of speaking to an “event manager”? A “meeting specialist”? Maybe even a “certified meeting planner”?

I have to admit, despite being a sales professional myself, I think I’d prefer talking with someone who’s title seems to promise that they will help me solve my problem first (value coming my way), knowing full well they will eventually want my money (value going their way).

Maybe that’s why, some years ago, I asked that my supervisor allow me to use the self-fashioned title “VP, Solutions Development,” as opposed to “VP, Sales.”

Granted, it might sound a bit high-falutin’, even egg-headish. And most definitely it’s a bit namby pamby, judging by red-meat, there’s-nothing-wrong-with-the-word-sales standards.

But what I hope the title signals, to people I meet on behalf of my organization, is that they can expect me to focus, first and foremost, on seeking to understand and be of value to them and their business…before I try and sell them on mine.

So I guess that puts me in the anti “sales” camp, at least when it comes to using the word as an adjective in a job title.

But again, Boss, if you’re reading this: I’ve got absolutely nothing against the noun. Just the adjective. Just the adjective.

___

Where do you and your organization come down on the word “sales”: Negative connotations, or a non-event?

___

This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

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