Nerve Collective
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Thoughts & Musings

To Be a Great Content Marketer, Choose a Medium and Own It

Content marketing was supposed to be easier than this. The plan was to dispose of the stodgy old model where advertisers hitch their wagons to content created by other people — cable TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines — and switch to the state-of-the-art new model where advertisers create their own content: blogs, tweets, Vine and Snapchat accounts. Engaging consumers was going to be quick, cheap and do-it-yourself.

Only now, after it's become clear how difficult it is to create compelling original content and spread it across the internet, are the holes in that plan becoming clear. Content-creation specialists like cable TV channels do an awful lot of work on behalf of their advertisers. Not only do they think up, write, produce and edit hour upon hour of content, they distribute and promote that content too. If advertisers want exposure all they need to do is produce 30 seconds of their own content, then pay a fee to briefly rent the infrastructure and broadcast to a ready-made audience.

It's a great argument for going back to traditional advertising. The trouble of course is that a lot of your customers aren't part of those ready-made audiences anymore. Instead of watching TV and paging through Popular Science they're online reading blogs and chuckling at viral videos.

So what's a marketer with a limited budget to do? How can an average company maintain a consistent, engaging presence across all these various media — on sharing sites, social networks, blogs, microblogs, forums and whatever else might be out there? It's a question that has more than a few marketing managers breathing heavily into brown paper bags.

The answer of course is that you can't be everywhere and you wouldn't want to be. One of the great advantages of the internet is that it allows you to target your audiences in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. Thus any good content marketing campaign should start by figuring out who your audiences are and where you're likely to find them.

Make your audience the vertical in your crosshairs and your brand the horizontal and you'll rapidly begin to zero in on the content vehicles that make sense for you. Want to chat with males about a new software product you're developing? Google+ makes a lot of sense. Want to show educated females your new professional clothing line? Pinterest. Turn younger consumers on to your new music streaming service? Look into Tumblr.

What if you're a B2B company? If you're selling a product that's complex or has a long sales cycle, a blog is a great way build relationships and position yourself as a thought leader. Email marketing is another solid way to go (especially email newsletters which, believe it or not, still enjoy wide and enthusiastic readership).

But whatever you decide to do — and you saw this coming in the headline — do it well. Focus on one or two media where you'll really shine. Anything you do well in one medium can be easily recycled to others (there are a lot of social media automation tools out there that are great for this). You'll be surprised how far some good content, if in fact it is fairly good, can stretch.

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The Key to Successful Brands? Focus.

Staying focused is probably the biggest challenge brand managers have. It’s gotten harder lately, what with the stop-and-start economy and all the business gurus out there shouting “innovate or die!" from the hilltops. Funny things start happening under all that pressure. Unlikely brand extensions suddenly start to look attractive. Business owners begin to have fantasies about acquiring competitors or vendors. Maybe we should just close the office and turn the whole business into an app, what do you think?

The best thing any brand manager can do at a time like that is take a deep breath and remember the number one rule of successful brand management: focus. Do the opportunities in front of you sharpen and clarify your brand, or do they muddy and confuse? If it’s the latter, your job is to just say no. Channel the energy you were putting into your new venture back into your core mission: finding out what your customers actually want and then delivering it.

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What Did a Strong Brand
Ever Do For Anyone?

Let’s quickly define the term "brand". It's not your logo. It's not your company's story or personality. Rather it's a feeling. A feeling your customers — indeed all the people who are even aware of you — have about you. If that's a little vague, let's do a mental exercise. Think about Kobe Bryant. What are your immediate impressions? That’s his brand. Now think about Pope Francis. That’s his.

A brand has value. You might not think a collection of feelings about your company has value, but it does. And the stronger those feelings get (provided they're positive of course) the more they're worth. Because feelings manifest themselves in concrete ways.

For example, profit margin. Not far from where I'm sitting is a Panera Bread. Down the street is an independent bakery the name of which, I confess, I don't even know. Both have cinnamon rolls, but the ones at Panera cost over twice as much. Are they twice as good? Nope. But the brand is stronger which means consumers are willing to pay more for them.

Repeat business is another way strong brands translate to real-world profit. McDonald’s is the classic example here despite their recent troubles. Yes they have sky-high visibility, but that visibility wouldn't count for much without their laser-like focus on their core brand promises: product consistency, kid friendliness, safety and cleanliness.

Did you know that strong brands have lower costs of sales? They do. That's because they have more leverage over suppliers, who always want to hitch their wagons to rising stars. Not only that, their promotion and customer-acquisition costs are lower because customers are willing to spread the word about them, free of charge.

You've probably surmised by now that strong brands are also more resistant to competition, and that's true too. Once a company stakes out its brand turf it’s tough for competitors to make inroads. Would you like to go head-to-head against Nike as a startup sportswear producer? Even if your shirts were cheaper, most consumers would still be willing to pay more for the one with the swoosh.

Lastly, strong brands attract better employees. A great brand is like a charismatic person. People just naturally want to be associated with it. And if you were thinking that strong brands have higher employee retention for this reason, you’d be correct.

One last thing I’ll say about brand — and it’s more than a little disturbing — is that you don’t own yours. Not completely anyway. Mostly, your brand is public property, which means it's not what you say it is, it’s what other people say it is. Which means it’s one thing to develop identities, positionings and mission statements. It’s another to actually live them.

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Mastering the Art of
the “Pre-Mortem”

There are a lot of great techniques out there for project troubleshooting, but my personal favorite continues to be the “pre-mortem.” Though entrepreneurs (especially very enthusiastic ones) find it morbid and deflating, it’s awfully useful for identifying flaws in an action plan.

The process is simple. You sit down with your project team and imagine you're living six months in the future. Your plan — whatever it is, a new company, a campaign, a product launch — has crashed and burned utterly. Your time and money have been wasted, your stakeholders are disillusioned and angry. How did it come to this? What on Earth happened?

You can see why a lot of people hate this. It's not exactly a positive visualization technique. But there’s a point. Once the happy, overly-optimistic smiles have been wiped off everybody's faces, people start to think clearly about risks. Explanations for the disaster are typically honest and frequently profound. “We didn’t do enough research.” “We didn’t do diligence on our suppliers.” “We did what was best for us instead of what was best for our customers.”

These “pre-failures” make great project checklists. Make a habit of the pre-mortem and you’ll be amazed at how much smarter you’ll be the next time you go to market.

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Do “Re-Brands” Really Exist?

Every so often you hear that this-or-that company is working on a “re-brand”. But what is a re-brand, exactly? Most people use the term to describe a logo change, but a true re-brand entails a lot more than that. It requires changing some of the fundamentals of who you are. That’s no small job. No wonder so many smart marketers insist that “re-branding” is an illusory concept.

“If brand is the essence of you, the one thing you can never, ever change, then it’s nonsense to think a company can re-brand,” a friend said to me recently. But a brand isn’t an essence. It’s an idea — a feeling other people have about your company or your product. And feelings can change. No, they probably can’t change by Thursday of next week, but change they can, and often do.

Apple is a great high-profile example. This is a brand that has traveled over the years from creative upstart to hopeless cause to genius mega-corporation. If companies had fixed, unchangeable essences this sort of evolution wouldn’t be possible. The truth is that brands, being products of the human mind, are in constant flux. Car brands are stodgy one year and hip the next. Clothing lines are “in” in the spring “out” in the fall. Sports teams go from winner to loser and back again.

Ah, you might say, but most of these brand shifts are brought about by changes in business performance. Exactly. And a performance change is precisely what it takes to shift a consumer perception.

Imagine for a second that you’re planning to go to your college reunion. An old classmate remembers you as a listless, partying slob. You show up with a new tie on, but otherwise looking and acting the same as you always did. You walk up to your old acquaintance. “Hi, I’m different,” you say. His reply is quite understandably “Yeah, right.”

Now imagine you show up at the same reunion, only this time you not only have a new suit of clothes on and a new attitude, you back it up by stripping down to your shorts and running a four minute mile. This time your old acquaintance comes up to you and says “Wow, you’re really different!”

So yes, rebrands absolutely are possible, but they can’t occur solely in the realm of marketing or advertising. A company that attempts a “re-brand” by changing a logo and launching a marketing campaign — yet does nothing to change its behavior at the business level — is doomed to fail. I speculate this is why so many marketers believe that rebranding is impossible: because even genius marketing backed by Herculean execution can’t change a brand by itself. It takes the will of the entire enterprise.

This is why successful rebrands are tough and don’t happen every day.

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