December 30, 2007

All I Want For Christmas

As I wrote in my most recent post, this down-time over Christmas is proving hugely productive in terms of some of the ideas it's prompting for work on my return to the office in early January.

(I know I should be switching off completely but it's extraordinary the thoughts that come unbidden to my head when I'm settling down to tackle the second layer in the chocolate box).

Watching the response of my children to Santa's presents in particular has sharply reminded me of the crucial difference between 'need' and 'want'. As marketers, we're often tempted to ask what our customer needs in much the same way as the conscientious parent wants what's best for the child. The child (and the customer) are quick to recognise how this lofty attitude leaves everyone feeling beyond reproach and it's not uncommon for the child to tell us what they 'need' (when they're really describing what they 'want'): 'I need those expensive trainers so that I can play well for the team'.

U2's Bono nails it when he sings: You say you'll give me a treasure just to look upon it...a river in a time of dryness...when all I want is you.

Meanwhile, there's a clever Bank of Ireland ad that suggests that the bank knows how to play this game too with students looking for a loan.

It's terribly important, of course, that we make offer to others with a keen eye on what they need but we mustn't forget that the market makes its choices based on what it wants rather than on what it needs. Naturally, when both 'want' and 'need' stand happily together, we have the makings of a marriage made in a blessed space but when the two fall out, it's 'want' that usually comes out ahead in any post-nuptial settlement.

As both marketers and parents, our first instinct is to go to the more rational place occupied by 'need' and this can only be a good thing in a world where 'want' is more inclined to the one-night stand than it is to the long-term relationship. But we'll find ourselves jilted fairly sharply if we don't ensure that 'want' is catered for too.

It's not only the parent knows the loneliness of the hollow victory that's achieved when 'need' wins out over 'want'.

December 27, 2007

Busman's Holiday

Since I pulled on my brand-coloured glasses some years ago, there's a danger that this time of year is something of a busman's holiday for me. This really is the season when brand is king and as gifts are exchanged and unwrapped, it's rare to see one emerge from under the tree without a famous label of one kind or another attached.

In some ways, this proliferation of brands makes choosing easier rather than more difficult. My own children are able to construct a list for Santa that's frightening in its detail (my own childhood bulletins seem hopelessly vague by comparison) and it's now possible to do all the shopping for Christmas astride a search-engine with credit-card in hand.

One thing that hasn't changed though is the importance of the 'thoughtful' gift. My eldest was in tears yesterday because Santa hadn't brought him all that he'd asked for (in fact, Santa and Mrs. Claus had exercised considerable discretion in choosing what they thought were more suitable presents for a boy of his age) and he agonised whether his own behaviour hadn't been up to scratch in the lead-up to the holidays.

Over the years, many of the family tiffs I've witnessed (or been a party to) have revolved around someone (not always a child) reproaching the bearer of gifts for choosing something unsuitable. There's even a seasonal ad that plays on the trials of choosing well for someone else.

Those of us on the receiving end seem to place extraordinary store on the capacity of the giver to choose something for us that matches our expectations and heaven help the one offering a gift that somehow misses the target. On the other hand, when we get it right we seem to prompt a gratitude that seems just as out of proportion.

Sometimes, it's clearly not just the thought that counts.

December 16, 2007

Standing Out In The Crowd

I'm just back from a visit to Milan, which truly is a city where brand is king. Although I could never be accused of being a fashionista, I was amazed at how many labels I recognised on the streets around the Quadrilatero D'Oro (the Golden Quad); from Italian giants such as Gucci, Armani, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana to Chanel, Yves St. Laurent and Ralph Lauren and even relatively minor names like Penny Black, Camper and Mandarina Duck.

What's even more remarkable is how easily I distinguished between one label and the next. The only brand I own from those I've listed is Camper; I'm not sure I've even been inside a shop belonging to any of the others. Yet, despite my relative ignorance, I find myself almost on first-name terms with each of these fashion blue-bloods.

I'd struggle to say which of these brands is 'best' but I don't think I'd have much difficulty in telling you which brands I like and which I don't. This always strikes me as one of the most useful features of the brand, this ability to stand apart from rivals that have so much in common when it comes down to traditional features and benefits. The brand allows the customer to home in on something other than a list of distinguishing characteristics and make a choice that's based on a much more complex set of ingredients.

As business-owners, we're challenged to move our own offer beyond a simple list of 'reasons to do business' and on to something much more engaging for our customers. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves lost in the dazzling array of the high street where personality and attitude count for so much more than earnest application.

December 08, 2007

The Spoonful Of Medicine

So, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? Not always in my experience. I have a colleague who typically prefers to leave a bitter-sweet taste in the mouth.

Recently, he loudly upbraided me for some minor detail I'd overlooked before slipping in some sweet praise for the job I'd just completed. No sugar-coating for this patient. Instead, the castor-oil of complaint was deemed a more palatable taste than the more syrupy praise it masked. At the same time, there was no doubting the sincerity of his appreciation. I just had to work my way past the dose of bad-tasting medicine he administered first.

It's funny. You'd think this wouldn't be to my taste. But I find that I much prefer this over the more saccharine flavour of other exchanges in business which leave me doubting the sincerity of what I've just been told. Or worse, they leave me wondering if there's some distasteful truth being kept back that's going to upset me further down the line.

I think it's much the same for others. Too many brands spend their time sweet-talking customers when our preference is for a more honest, if sometimes unpalatable, exchange.

It's no good to us if the sugary treat proves over time to be the more bitter pill to swallow.

December 02, 2007

The Jury's Out

So what happens when you put the cat in amongst the pigeons?

There's been much talk here in Dublin amongst property-watchers, hoteliers and mainstream business punters about what's happening at two of the city's most prestigious addresses. A year or two back, a local property-magnate pounced on two hotels, Jury's Ballsbridge and the neighbouring Berkeley Court, which sit on some of Dublin's prime real estate, and announced his plans to build towering commercial and residential complexes on the new site.

Whilst the city briefly mourned the imminent passing of two of its venerable old dears, the news was generally received with the coolness of a populace that has grown well-used to the march of progress and shows a growing reluctance to step into its path. Attention soon moved elsewhere.

However, just recently following the closure of the two hotels and the selling off of their goods and chattels, planning permission for the proposed redevelopment plans was refused. Our hero promptly sent his planners scuttling off to revise his scheme and then announced his plans to briefly re-open the two hotels as 'bed-factories' with all of the services outsourced.

This prompted real consternation amongst hoteliers who naturally wondered what impact this sudden and unexpected glut of hotel rooms at cut-prices might have on the market. It doesn't help that these rooms are on offer at two addresses which formerly enjoyed five-star ratings.

This confusion really challenges the strength of the other brands in the market. A significant reference point for both seller and buyer has shifted into an unfamiliar position and the market doesn't quite know what to make of it.

It's likely that those brands that took their bearings from the bigger players will struggle most to make sense of the new status quo. It's equally likely that those who set their own standards and pitched to the market on their own merits will adjust quickly to the new scenario.

Times of uncertainty offer a whole new challenge to both the market and the individual players who do business there. It seems to me that there's a lesson in there for all of us.