Why Sustainable Businesses Have a Brand-Building Advantage

Can you get gullible customers to buy increasingly craptastic products based purely on a fantastic brand? The answer just in: No, according to Absolute Value, a new book by Stanford marketing professor Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen. As New Yorker finance writer James Surowiecki puts it: “Brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.”

While it’s always gratifying to see more support for our longtime obsession with credibility, what really strikes me about Surowiecki’s column is the case this makes for sustainable business. If your business—including your marketing—is operating on the principles of transparency, accountability, community benefit and environmental care, that’s good not only for the wider world but also for long-term revenues.

It’s not that sustainable operations guarantee quality products or services (though the need to consider issues like waste and social value certainly helps), but that adhering to principles like transparency and accountability means you can’t resort to smearing lipstick on pigs. If you’re a sustainable business, you won’t claim that fat customers are the cause of yoga pants that stretch to transparency (to cite the New Yorker piece’s primary example).

Sustainable business principles pretty much demand what has always been the hallmark of durably strong brands: they’re built from the inside out. That is, the brand’s image and marketing messages express a compelling combination of personality, values and mission that’s lived within company walls. If you’re not walking the talk, no brand strategy can hide that forever.

Get Messaging Out of the Marketing Ghetto

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but people often focus too much on the creative side of new messaging projects. By too much, I mean exclusively.

Yes, the messaging has to be compelling, flexible, and spot-on for the target audience. But all that development work is wasted if you don’t have a plan for making your messaging live beyond the first website revisions and a carefully crafted guidebook that no one reads. For messaging to succeed, everyone (not just the marketing team) needs to use it—in conversation, emails, presentations, wherever. Based on our experience working with a variety of clients on messaging projects, these are the keys to successful implementation:

Enthusiastic leadership. Driving adoption is not as simple as having the grand pooh-bah say “do it.” Leadership needs to embrace it, use it, model it—internally as well as to external audiences. Otherwise, messaging will be seen as optional.

Communicating the benefits. Good messaging solves problems. It provides easily grasped explanations of difficult concepts, clarifies key goals and values throughout the organization, and provides ready answers (even cut-and-paste options) to common questions. Let people know how the new messaging will help them talk about their work more comfortably, effectively, and consistently.

Training. Walking people through practical exercises for using the messaging in real-life situations is essential. This is especially true for sales teams and customer-facing staff: they’re primary message carriers and they need to feel comfortable with their approach. Facilitated role-playing sessions are ideal. It’s also a good idea to provide a refresher a few months down road.

Using new messaging will feel uncomfortable at first—even if it hits the authenticity mark and rings true to everyone throughout the organization—simply because it’s unfamiliar. Without ample reinforcement, people will revert to the words they’ve always used, even if those words inspire reactions like “Huh?” or “Excuse me, I have to go get another drink now.” Then your messaging platform breaks down—and I hate to see good creative go to waste.

Email: Still Here, Still Works—Just Keep It Fresh

Remember the time before Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest?

There was email.

There still is. For many companies—especially B2B firms—email rightfully remains a primary way to communicate with customers, prospects, partners, and other interested parties. But with the bright, shiny object of social media dangling before our eyes, it’s easy to lose focus on what makes boring old email effective. (Tip #1: don’t be boring.)

Much of getting email right involves getting the basics right, and it’s worth reviewing the following aspects of your email program on a regular basis to be sure you’re hitting the mark.

Sometimes clichés are true:  content really is king

If you don’t consistently give people something they find useful, funny or provocative, and that speaks to the reason they wanted to hear from you in the first place, they will tune out. In a heartbeat. And it has to be engagingly presented, in language your audience understands.

Nobody loves you that much: send selectively

Not even your mother wants to hear about everything you’re doing. (And do you want to tell her?) Segmentation is key to an active, effective email program. We’ve heard the argument that “people want to keep up with what we’re doing,” but it won’t wash. People want to keep up with what you’re doing only if it’s what they’re into. Chances are you’re into a number of things, and they appeal to different audiences. Send too many segment-specific messages to your entire list, and you’ll see people check out.

Garbage in, garbage out: manage your mailing list

It’s a drag. But if you don’t keep your list up-to-date and accurately segmented by target audience, your results will suffer, and it will be hard to figure out why. You won’t be reaching everyone who wants to hear from you, and the percentage of unresponsive addresses will increase. In these circumstances, a clickthrough rate may not tell you much about how effective your content is—a low rate could mean that no one’s interested in your latest missive, or that there’s so much deadwood on your list it only looks like no one’s interested, or that the people who are interested aren’t on your list.

Take a hard, honest look at your email program at regular intervals. This affordable workhorse can continue to serve you well, but only if you keep it fresh.

Good Messaging Is Worth 1,000 Pictures

Thinkshift recently completed messaging work for several clients, which got me thinking about what good messaging is all about.

Good messaging is credible and exact. It handles the communications task at hand, whether it’s a pithy quote from the CEO in a press release, a boilerplate description of the company, or the brand voice and framework for a report, presentation or website. A messaging document should provide messages that are as close to plug-and-play as possible, with examples for as many contexts as makes sense.

Good messaging gets used. Reporters use it when writing about the company. Partner organizations use it when they describe you on their website. Employees use it, not just in presentations and formal communications, but also on their LinkedIn and Facebook pages and when they talk about their work with friends. For one client, the test came with the release of significant company news requiring media outreach and a new partnership. It was extremely gratifying to see the messaging work take hold and appear in newspaper articles, customer blog posts and on the partner website. Meanwhile, employees used it on their LinkedIn pages and elsewhere.

This doesn’t just happen naturally. We don’t just create messages, toss the client a guide and expect them to get it right away. Introducing the messaging, explaining how to use it and when, showing examples and providing training for written and spoken use are key.

Good messaging is flexible. Messaging should be used consistently, but shouldn’t be rigid. It should grow and change with the organization, and be adaptable to the person using it, the communications vehicle, audience or a other factors.

The key test—and I find this especially satisfying—is whether people genuinely like the messages. They won’t unless the messages are written in natural, ordinary language, so that people are comfortable using them without rewriting. When that happens, employees and others become advocates. They are able to provide the right message and information succinctly.

And that kind of communication brings an organization to life. You can’t do that with jargon, corporatespeak or vague and imprecise phrases.

CNGVC Newsletter Earns Marketing Kudos

The e-newsletter Thinkshift produces for the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition made the Q2 2010 Vertical Response 500 list, at number 264.

The quarterly e-mail marketing award recognizes top-performing Vertical Response customers. To qualify, customers must send four or more e-mails and achieve average open rates above 20 percent and click rates above 4 percent. The newsletter typically gets open rates in the mid to high 20 percent range, and clickthrough rates in the mid 20 percent to high 30 percent range. The exception: the July 12 issue had an incredible 85.25 percent clickthrough rate.

I wish I knew how to repeat that. What I do know is that the consistently high open and click rates for this newsletter are driven by rigorously targeting content (including original reporting) to audience interests.