The tentative language of healthcare marketing

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We are taught over and over throughout our educations that “helping” verbs (auxiliaries) and other crutches weaken and dilute our writing and our message. But then, because of invasive regulatory and legal constraints on making claims about healthcare or medical devices, writing (in marketing) about solutions in these areas becomes virtually meaningless.

“Device X can contribute to helping reduce infections.”

Not a single definitive statement in there, and that’s how it is. Definitively.

Underdog’s key to marketing success

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Reading an older article on Subaru’s marketing strategies, I see exactly the keys that underdogs competing in a much bigger, competitive market need to seize on for success.

  • Focus – do the few things you do better than anyone and make sure you know it, show it and can prove it
  • Make the most of limited resources – memorable marketing that taps into what your customers want
  • (Most importantly!) KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS! – take advantage of that data, the loyalty factor and continue to add depth

“What Subaru has done is to make itself into the first automaker that could be described as “artisanal” — focused, individualistic, and really good at a very few things. With only limited resources, Subaru has made smart bets on features like all-wheel drive, developed memorable marketing and advertising that set it apart from the competition, and learned more about its customers than any other automaker. In appealing to them by geography, lifestyle, and, at times, sexual orientation, it has built the deepest loyalty in the car business. The company understands itself so well that for years its advertising tag line was the self-referential “It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.””

Made Up Make-Up? Innovation and Shifting Trends

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Every place you go today, someone is opening their mouth too much and too enthusiastically about “innovation” and setting an “innovative mindset”. While I am all for shifting the way of doing things to reach unheard-of, unthought-of conclusions, innovation – as those who really work with it know – is the end product – sometime after it is in the market or being used. Usually a person or team does not come up with an innovation by sitting in a workshop talking about what would be innovative. It comes from a lot of different places, angles and factors and can only be called “innovation” – or true innovation – after the fact when its results are known.

I would never have imagined, for example – and this is a point that lies at the heart of “innovation” – something happens that no one imagined, knew was needed or possible that changes the game somehow – either an entire market, a market segment or even whole industries and cultures – that we needed or would see some kind of major innovation in the area of consumer cosmetics and access to them. But the tech-news circuit is abuzz this week with the story of Grace Choi, a Harvard Business School grad, who realized that she could use cutting-edge 3D printing technology to print her own cosmetics.

Recently I started refreshing my basics of marketing knowledge by taking an online course via Coursera/Wharton. One of the cases the professor made was the changing face of consumer interaction with cosmetics. It used to be, if one were not going to the drugstore or big box store (e.g. Wal-mart, Target, etc.), the consumer had to ask for help from a salesperson, all the merchandise was hidden away behind a counter and each brand had its own area/station – meaning that there was not a lot of opportunity for testing and comparing things right next to each other or without having to interact on some meaningful level with another person. This perhaps created a more upscale, customer-oriented experience but for some it was inconvenient and intimidating. And completely out of the customers’ hands. The marketing model and the ways in which the brands were marketed to consumers started to change, though, when online shopping became the mainstream and when the retail experience changed by introducing stores like Sephora. Sephora is an emporium full of all kinds of different cosmetic brands, offering some staff to help out but mostly putting the testing and trying experience into the customers’ hands. To some degree, shopping online changed the process of buying cosmetics as well – but makeup is still such a trial-and-error thing – the expense of it makes one really want to test things out before committing to buying, which led to the very logical but very different retail experience in the form of a Sephora experience.

Now, thanks to some clever innovation, technology and someone simply saying, “Why not?”, we can see the next incarnation of this developing trend of putting the power (whether it is cosmetic creation or something entirely different) in consumers’ hands.

But now with her Mink printer, Choi has used 3D printer technology to remove the middle man (and its often exorbitant mark-up and lack of choice) from the equation, creating a whole new groundbreaking platform to think about. A consumer is at home and can select, print and try just about anything they want in the convenience of their home, the privacy of home, without breaking the bank. This has major implications, of course, for the multibillion dollar global cosmetics industry, especially as this innovation becomes mainstream and is perfected for consumer use. It’s early days – and maybe right now really will only appeal to Choi’s target audience (teen and young-adult women) but like everything that revolutionizes daily life, our purchasing habits – we will start to think about these things in a different way. Today we think about going to Sephora and testing out lots of colors, brands and styles. Yesterday we thought we’d go to the Chanel counter and have to ask for help at the local department store. And tomorrow we can print anything we want.

I exchanged a couple of surface-level Tweets with thinkspace (thinkspace) (after reTweeting their initial Tweet about the Mink printer) and they posed the question, “Would you buy the printer?” And the truth is, probably not now. With most things, I am not an early adopter – and I am not the target audience for this product in any case. I like to wait for things to be perfected and to offer a few more choices and options before I jump in and buy. But as someone who is always thinking about where innovation is born and how it unfolds in unexpected ways, this struck me as a game changer – even if people don’t start printing their own make-up en masse – it may shift the dynamic in terms of how cosmetics companies reach out to consumers, in the choices they offer – and that is just the beginning.

And it really could not come at a better time. In a 2012 McCann WorldGroup study, women expect brands to do more than they currently do “to help guide the process of discovery, choice, purchase and application of products, as beauty regimes become more complex”. If this is the feedback cosmetics companies are getting and they don’t respond, then I assume it’s about time that some other solution come along and deliver what people are asking for.

When I drink I don’t panic…

Do not play fast and loose with my heart…

Random thoughts: Wunderkind underdog & throwing away talent

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You can start off well, with something like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (“The False Husband”). Set the scene, tone, soundtrack.

I made a deal with myself that I need to be in the habit of writing, so I write in this blog come hell or high water, as the saying goes. I force myself to write every day – usually I have something to say, even if it is largely useless, and can cobble together something that stays thematically cohesive (for example, it might not be important to tell the world, i.e. whatever unlucky soul stumbles into this blog, that I changed my mind about Julie Delpy or that I desperately want to make chicken pho, but these posts at least have a theme and a target – a point.

Today, though, my head is a jumble of random thoughts that I want to spew out in a most random fashion, if for no other reason than to follow through on writing at least one post per day. Rest assured, all the deal-making with myself will hopefully not be for naught. I have specific writing projects I want to tackle at some point but have fallen so far out of the habit of regular, disciplined writing that I am at least trying to create a pattern or a rhythm to start with. The organization comes later. It’s kind of funny because you’d think that writing about things you really want to write about – whatever it is – would come easily. For me, as soon as I sit down, determined to write something with a purpose (other than something academic or a blog post, anyway, which is informal in any case), everything goes out the window. That is, every day in my job and in my freelance work, I research, organize and write all kinds of outlandish things that I never imagined knowing the first thing about. But it’s something that can be ordered – someone says, “I need a white paper about connected TV” or “We need a clinical summary of this paper on manual dexterity when employing double-gloving practice” – I am perfectly able to wrangle all the disparate details, read the studies, gather intel and info and get to work and produce perfectly workable results. Someone else has requested these things, so it’s work.

But when it’s me and my stuff – with a fairly solid outline and a crop of good ideas – I can find every reason to put it off. I don’t know when this happened. As a kid and teenager, I suppose I was less concerned with what other people thought about the outcome and wrote stories every single day. All I did was write and, like a maniac, get months ahead on school homework so I would have more free time to write. I earned this reputation among teachers and adults around me as “a writer” to the point that the reputation preceded me and stifled me and caused me to start feeling insecure and trapped. I stopped writing and buried myself in foreign language textbooks. I distinctly remember making a couple of choices at the pivotal age of 13 or 14. Take creative writing as my English course or enroll in regular English (where my friends were). I opted for the latter. The following year, our courseload was reduced from seven classes per day to six (so we could have even longer classes – ugh!), meaning we had fewer choices/options. I was faced with the choice between taking journalism or French. The journalism teacher (who had taught creative writing the previous year and was disappointed that I did not join) practically begged me to join – I took French. The journalism teacher still let me write articles for the school paper. I did it, but my heart wasn’t in it. By then, I was completely in love with all my irregular verbs and the passé composé.  I spent the rest of my school years studying all the languages the school had to offer – except German, which seems to have hurt the German teacher’s feelings. Writing for pleasure – complete fiction and imagination – stopped.

I still wrote a lot, of course, because I was a very engaged student. I wrote papers and never, ever managed to stick with word limits. I still struggle with this but am getting a little bit better. I became skilled at research and writing what was asked of me – and this continues today in my career and my lifelong engagement as a student (always enrolling in study programs just for the sake of learning).

I am, however, further away from personal writing, really good writing and being able to self-edit my own personal writing. I let all the creative energy slip away. Perhaps it is still there somewhere, but I have no one but myself to blame. As I wrote, all the adults in my life encouraged me to write to an almost daunting degree, but that was also the problem. It was daunting, and I did not think I could live up to their expectations or hopes. I was not sure I wanted to. Deciding to pursue something in life like writing or the arts or photography is undoubtedly a hard road – completely subjective, all about timing, a person needs to develop thick skin and embody perseverance. I was never sure I could endure the subjectivity and fickle nature of perceiving “talent”.

My feelings about it are still mixed. Creativity and imagination when we’re young are vibrant and unbridled forces – unfettered by the real life we later experience, which dampens the spark we may have to explore ideas that are fictional and illogical. Yet writing, fictional or otherwise, informed by life experience can have so much depth and meaning, touched as it is by reality, which requires time, insight and experience. My feelings on the subject are similar to how I feel about therapists. In addition to wanting to write, I always thought – and still think – I would like to be a therapist. I love listening to other people’s problems and thoughts more than almost anything, but it occurred to me early on that it seems, no matter how mature and insightful you are when you’re young, that you don’t really have enough insight, gravitas or authority to be a good therapist until you’re about 40. Rough rule of thumb, really. I am sure there are gifted therapists of all ages, but for me, and in my view, I never seriously considered going back to school to become a therapist until the last few years. I only feel fully prepared to do that right now.

Then again, if I am being honest (and random), there are a lot of things that I only feel prepared to do (or think about doing) right now. I only think of things like having serious relationships or rearing children now. It seemed totally improbable and unappealing in my 20s. More power to the people who did pursue those things when they were young and potentially had more – or at least less complicated – choices. I still think there are plenty of choices but I tend to think fairly broadly. The whole world is my workshop (my personal motto and seemingly also the motto of American foreign and military policy! Reminds me, totally off topic, that my brother described the end of the last US government shutdown thusly: “the dick show is over”). I don’t feel limited by location, language or any other constraints.

Things can expand into all kinds of crazy territory if you let them. For example, you can start out with a marketing idea of just giving your customers some cake and somehow end up with seven local, interactive microsites to capitalize on their brand loyalty. You can start off buying green beans from Kenya and end up with a wife from there! Sounds like a good case study, doesn’t it? “Kenya: From green beans to a new wife” – it certainly piques some curiosity and raised eyebrows. “What could this possibly be about?”

But then you can end badly. Toto will do it for you with “Africa”. Don’t get me started on the whole “generalizing Africa” topic.

Bad Cover Version – Peeking in on the Underdog

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I spent a long time working at Opera Software, maker of the cross-platform Opera browser. What’s that you say? Never heard of it? Yeah, that was sort of the uphill battle of working in marketing at Opera. Where do you start with marketing and building buzz about something that no one has heard of and that is the quintessential underdog in a world of giants (Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari). In some niche markets, Opera was kind of like a household name – and in the developing world, Opera was not necessarily the underdog – but it made a mobile browser that would work underdog phones (low-end, Java-enabled feature phones). It was kind of the “browser for the people” – for those who heard of it. Especially prone to underdog status – the desktop browser… up against insurmountable odds and an engineering culture behind it that had no belief in marketing (i.e. the old “if you have a great product people will find it”).

But Opera had its fingers in a lot of pies, so plenty of people were using different variants of the Opera browser on different devices without realizing they were using Opera (on various mobile phones and on televisions). And perhaps that is how underdogs survive and sometimes thrive. Embracing the fact that you are never going to be the market leader is the first step – and then you have to decide how you deal with that. What niche can you dominate? Where can you find loyal fans and partners? How can you mutually exploit those partnerships?

You don’t have to be a cheap knock-off just because you’re the underdog.

I have been thinking a lot about this with regard to streaming audio services. Ignoring for the moment the arguments against streaming leveled by music artists themselves, and taking into account the growth of streaming and downward slide of downloading, cross-device streaming is happening. Spotify might not have been the first such service out of the gate. But it is probably the best known globally. That said, there are plenty of other services – some geographically restricted, some not. Perhaps even more so than with the Opera experience, forming partnerships is key to making these services work. But the really important thing is to make the user experience immersive. Users turn to what they know – again and again – because it is familiar. Not necessarily because the feature set offers the most or because the service is user friendly. Not taking into the account the aforementioned geographical restrictions.

With streaming music, I instinctively turn to Spotify. But why? Is it because I think it has the biggest available music catalog (without having any evidence to support that)? Is it because I find it the most useful, engaging, immersive? User friendly? In truth, I think it is a matter of what I saw first (and what was available). When I have tried to convert people to Spotify in the past, they resisted if they had already become dedicated users of some other service. I found this was particularly true with French users of Deezer and US users of Rhapsody.

What converts users? With Opera there was a lot of repeating and reinforcing incentives – that is, looking at popular use (what sites were people visiting) and forming partnerships with mobile operators to promote use of the popular sites (free use of those pages for a month, if using the Opera browser). This could contribute to subscription sales for the operator, and they would, I assume, pay some kind of fee to Opera based on traffic.

The streaming music model is more complicated, considering the geographic and licensing limitations and restrictions. I am interested, though, in how services like WiMP can take on the giants like Spotify – find their niche rather than becoming like a bad cover version.

Social media fanatic?

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I don’t consider myself to be a social media fanatic, but when I compare my level of activity to that of everyone else, I guess I am pretty active.

But it was almost comical when my colleague sent me an email asking if I made the top-three list of marketers on LinkedIn (within Sweden) for 2013. He asked whether it’s the baking that elevated me there (did he mean that I post baking-related stuff on LinkedIn or that I bribed people with cake? Haha).

Not a Salesman

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I have never been a big fan of the concept of sales or salesmen – my first clear memories of how I perceive most career salespeople can be summed up in the character of Herb Tarlek on the TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Inept, laying it on way too thick to mask insecurity and total lack of competence. My experience with salespeople ever since has only reinforced these ideas.

(about 1:20 in)

Metric – “On a Slow Night” “Tell me what did that salesman do to you?”

Of course, it’s one thing when you’re buying a milkshake from a teenager at Baskin-Robbins. It is entirely another thing when dealing with corporate hucksters and peddlers. I once went to the aforementioned Baskin-Robbins with a friend, and one of us ordered a peach smoothie or something similar, and the boy working there chuckled and said something about, “You know what too much fruit can do to you?” implying something about the laxative properties of fiber-rich fruits. He may even have gone to the extreme of spelling it out for us. I don’t remember. Either way, he was a high school kid slinging ice cream – and it did not require a whole lot of salesmanship since his customers were already in the door. (He would have done well, though, to refrain from discussion of bodily functions and excretions.) Same applies to the small-town restaurant where the waiter discouraged my friend from ordering panna cotta because it was, in his words, “an old-person dessert”. I don’t know – if I may borrow a crass page from the Baskin-Robbins ice cream boy – verbal diarrhea does not help your cause if you want to sell. You cannot sell if you are prone to saying every random thought that comes to mind.

All this is well and good – I don’t expect the pinnacle of polish, presentation and salesmanship from high school kids and those who may not even have finished high school. What I do expect is that when someone becomes a professional salesman, they ought to have mastered what to say and not to say in any number of situations. Years ago, my mom went to a Subaru dealership, and was looking at a Forester. The salesman told her she would not want that because “it’s a lesbian car”?!

He had no way of knowing whether my mom was a lesbian or not. What better way to put your foot in your mouth and ensure that you will not get a sale! He had no idea who he was talking to. A lesbian? Someone who is offended by any discussion of sexual orientation (because it has no place in the sale of a car!)? Someone who would be horrified by the idea of being perceived as a lesbian? No matter how you slice it, the guy neutered himself because there was no way that what he said was appropriate or lending itself to a sale or sales lead. My mom was offended that he made any assumptions and decided to discuss inappropriate things with a complete stranger on the sales floor. She never went back. A few years later when she was looking to buy a new car, she went to another dealership (not Subaru) and the same salesman was working there – she decided against buying a car there first and foremost because of his presence.

I won’t even start talking about the professional salespeople I had to work with in a previous job. Maybe there was nothing explicitly wrong with most of them, but I definitely dreaded the annual sales seminar I was forced to attend. Nothing could bring me down faster than that dog and pony show.

And me – I live and work on the periphery of sales in marketing and try to stay on the less shady side of marketing. I remember when I used to meet people and they would tell me they worked in marketing, it set off alarm bells and waved red flags. A guy saying, “I work in marketing” just sounds like a neat way to legitimately say, “I deal in bullshit”. And now, professionally, I am right in the thick of it.

Mistrust

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I cannot trust the weather. I dress for the mess rather than dress for success.

I also think some barriers must be built and caution exerted any time someone announces (verbatim) that he is “not an asshole” and is “not insensitive”. If you’ve got to explicitly announce it, could it possibly have much meaning?

Thirdly, I propose that we all mistrust anything called an “email blast”. Generally these email blast marketing campaigns are … well, a specific kind of activity – but who announces that it is a “blast” externally? I received an email that was literally titled “Monthly Job Blast” or something similar, and by “blast”, we can be sure they were not referring to an explosion or a party. I don’t even like it when the dubious “email blast” is referred to in the workplace when we’re planning such a thing – so why on earth would I want people trying to market to me to do so?

Baked ambition: Random thoughts while planning cupcakes

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