Saturday, September 4, 2010

Caveman Marketing

Ever had a client go caveman on you?

As human beings, it is our nature to become reactive when the speed of our world begins to rise. Way back in cave man times - this was a great thing to have - the ability, when faced with danger to make decisions quickly, saving our energies for the things that mattered most to our survival, and ultimately allowing us to retain our high station at the top of the food chain.

Fast forward 10000 years and this once vital survival tactic becomes a mostly vestigial part of our make up. This instinctual, fight-or-flight side of our nature is rarely required for us to get through the average twenty-first century day. Injected into our modern professional world, it can even be dangerous to our survival - our professional survival.

Certainly, in today's business world, there are still those instances where the "dog-eat-dog" mentality can be supremely beneficial. Wall Street comes to mind. Marketing and Advertising does not (at least not once the account is won). That is why we, as marketing professionals should do everything in our power to avoid what I call Caveman Marketing. Whether we like it or not, the politics of swaying, steering, and justifying are every bit as important to our survival as the work itself. Behind the mask of creativity, most of us understand that it is an unsaid part of our job description to keep the project team focused on the original goals. We are obligated, by our own desire to do effective work if nothing else to, when necessary remind our clients of those goals and what, at every stage will work best to get them there.

Marketing is one of the most deliberate, process-driven, and heavily calculating regions of the professional landscape, and it can be difficult for us, as reactive human beings to settle there. Staying on top in the marketing environment requires an almost obsessive attention to detail. It demands a keen eye for what's going on around us, and a religious adherence to process – and it requires this every time. Inconsistencies, missed opportunities, or slipped standards can find us tumbling down the food chain toward the undesirable level of herd animals.

Having spent many years on the OEM side of the retail marketing equation, I have had the opportunity to observe the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of our reactive nature as it applies to product marketing. Certainly, understanding the landscape and being quick to the table as new trends or technologies develop is vital – that's where the caveman excels and is necessary. He should politely be escorted from the room thereafter.

From the OEM perspective, new product launch/marketing is the road that leads to all others. Without appropriate positioning, strategic planning, and brand consistency applied to each new idea, product line, or piece of hardware, that road can quickly become a dead end – putting an end to a products journey before it has truly begun.

As design and marketing professionals we are called on to create the image of a product – developing support materials, advising on sales strategies, and solidifying the personality of each new offering. All too often, I have found myself bumping over-sized cranial cavities with a client's inner caveman. Of course I understand that it is my responsibility to do all I can to maintain focus, integrity, and effectiveness as the work progresses, but as we all know, in the end, the client is always right – caveman or no. This leaves us to do the best we can with the rope we're given.

There is an endless list of factors that awaken this prehistoric saboteur, from waning sales and budget figures, to focus group reactions, to simply being overworked. The worst part is that once he takes over, things have a tendency to snowball. One panicked decision leading to another, inevitably leaving the ultimate goals of a project unfocused and unrealized.

Here are a few suggestions for struggling creatives out there that might help to avoid the appearance of cavemen at your next presentation or strategy session.

1. Set the stage early.
From the beginning the conversation must be about expanding and further focusing the already existing brand direction. Prior to your initial project meeting, make sure to request all of the relevant information relating to the client's brand. Style guides, brand guidelines, logo standards, and any related samples if they are available to you. You should also formulate a list of questions to ask at these initial meetings. Use these questions to fill in any blanks left by the available brand materials. Pick your contacts' brains for any queues as to past directions that were either applauded or lauded by the company. This groundwork will better equip you to justify your creative and strategic decision-making as you expand and stretch the brand into the new areas you've been tasked to fill.

2. Become the brand police.
Without scolding or being condescending, you should become your client's brand police. Make yourself an expert on their brand intent so that you can reason with them from that position as projects progress. Whenever possible justify your actions, words, work with their own brand language. Using their own words and language to justify your decisions, redirection, or concept elimination will not only make you right – it will help your client to see you as a logical team player with their brand interest in mind - rather than a prima donna who simply thinks his way is better. Always make sure you come from a place of reason - this practice will go further than any I've used to solidify and grow the client relationship.

3. Keep the competition close.
When you're developing anything related to the retail environment – do your research. Spend time in the stores. Visit websites. Ask sales associates how products are moving (they typically won't bite or escort you to the exit). Look at the competition closely. Buy examples if possible. Select a couple of key competitors within your category who seem to have created a good overall line look while staying true to their consumer brand. Make these competitors your counterpoint when you need to. Don't let your work emulate them, but learn from them just the same. Identify and discuss what makes them effective. Point out the importance of consistency, which will certainly be evident in a successful product line. Discuss the use of color, design elements, brand identification, and copy. Going through this in detail will be a valuable experience for all involved and will give all members of the team additional leverage when trying to keep things in focus moving forward. Visit the stores often, and make this a repeat process as the landscape shifts.

4. Review and assess your own work
Talk to your client about having review meetings. Schedule a half-day in the conference room every quarter or so (depending on your volume and market need) to put everything you've produced on the table and - well, tear it apart. The goal of these project review meetings shouldn't be to minimize or find fault in past work, but to look at it objectively and identify opportunities to improve future work. Use the discussion to create a bullet list of things that might be done better or differently in an effort to improve the work. Write down every point, every idea, every suggestion thrown out, then focus this list to ten (or so) bullet points that matter most and are most attainable. Make this list your mandate going forward. Too often we (creatives and clients) get so close to our work that we forget to see it in its broader context. This "blinder" effect is unavoidable given the pace of most of today's project work. It happens to all of us. If we don't consciously allow ourselves to step back from our computers and look at what we're doing from a distance, we're bound to continue in the same direction. That means the work gets stale, and that's bad for everyone.

5. If all else fails...
We've all been in situations where the client wants something done their way and flexibility isn't on the table. This isn't tragic when your client understands marketing and respects the importance of brand integrity. However, when this isn't the case, and the client is redirecting purely out of aesthetic preference or their own idea of what the brand should be (both can be symptoms of reactive Caveman Marketing) it can make for difficult discussion and awkward presentations. As the hired help, all we can really do at this point is try to keep the boat heading in the right general direction. At the very least we should make it our goal to eliminate any violations of the brand guidelines; keeping color, typestyle, and measurement standards as close to accurate as possible.

I hope this helps you avoid some of the battles I've had to fight over the years. Doing it right every time can be a tough sell, but isn't that our job?