Opting out(side)

rei-optoutsideIt’s no secret that the mere thought of Black Friday sends shudders down my spine. It’s also no secret that I love good marketing–which, thronging hordes of turkey-belching people aside, is a big part of my aversion to this crazy day. (Read why HERE.) I stoically refuse to join the masses and stay home. Every. Single. Year.

Yesterday I came across an organized alternative to the shopping frenzy, and I rejoiced. In fact, I’m still rejoicing.

The surprising part is that the alternative comes from a retailer. Instead of discounting to the masses, REI has decided to close all 143 of its stores and encourage employees (and customers!) to go outside. If you aren’t impressed, remember that Black Friday is the biggest retail shopping day of the year.

Still not impressed? The company will pay its 12,000 employees anyway.

No revenue + paying employees = an expensive proposition.

That’s taking a stand for your brand.

And that’s why I love this idea so much. Who better to promote outdoorsy-ness than REI, a seller of outdoor gear and clothing, a company which professes that “for 76 years our passion has been to bring you great gear to get you out, too”?

Sure, giving up a (big) day of sales is a gamble for a retailer, but oh, how very authentic its brand just became for me. The company believes so much in its mission (“we are dedicated to inspiring, educating and outfitting its members and the community for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship”) that it intends to make the mission a reality–not just a sales gimmick.

And that’s the brilliant part of branding: walking the talk.

It’s what makes people seek you out. It’s what keep them coming back. It’s what builds your tribe.

When people believe what you say about yourself because they see you doing it, they trust you. With that trust, you start building loyalty. If you’re an individual, that’s how you make friends. If you’re a company, that’s how you grow your customer base.

Sure, REI is taking a risk with this move. It may prove too expensive for them to be able to ever do again, but I’m betting it will pay off in the long run. After all, when you focus on fulfilling the mission and not the sale, you usually end up succeeding at both. I really, truly believe that.

While I wait to see how it turns out, I’m joining the movement; I’m going to #OptOutside. Kudos, REI, for the on-point brand lesson.

Read the Forbes article about #OptOutside HERE.

Check out the REI Opt Outside website HERE.

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Pain points

IMG_5806There’s a new kind of salesmanship in town, and I think I like it. When I can find it, that is.

Not long ago, I received an assignment to write about a new company that offers sales training. Pretty standard stuff, I thought, so I scheduled the interview and went on about business.

My discussion with the owner was interesting. I won’t go into the full spiel, but the crux of the philosophy is to find the customer’s pain points and solve those problems. If your product/service doesn’t intersect, be honest about it. Don’t sell, solve problems. Don’t conduct the conversation to your benefit; conduct it to his benefit.

What this boils down to is that the salesperson has to get to know his customer. For the most part, that requires ingenuity and intuitiveness–that is, asking the right questions and making the right connections.

I thought all of this was fairly intuitive, but apparently not. You see, I bought a new car this weekend. I hadn’t exactly planned to do it, but I wouldn’t consider it a whim, either. I did a little homework to prepare myself and set off to my dealership of choice.

To be fair to the sales guy, he seemed to listen to me and did everything I asked. When I told him my parameters, he didn’t try to push me in a different direction. He just kept trying to find a solution that fit.

Unfortunately, his manager wasn’t of the same mind. (Why anyone still follows that high pressure, old-school process of hand-off/hand-up is beyond me, but that’s another blog post.) Although the manager had spent precisely ZERO time with me and couldn’t have understood my personality or motivation, he jumped into the conversation and took off, leaving me behind. He started throwing payment scenarios at me and wouldn’t shut up long enough to see what I, the CUSTOMER, was after. The resulting conversation was stilted and mutated, far from the equal exchange it should have been.

After all, he didn’t understand my pain, my motivators.

I wanted a new car, but I didn’t NEED one.

There’s a new driver in my household.

I have a dog whose coat doesn’t match the interior of the car I was considering.

I didn’t have a trade-in because I wanted to keep the old car, too.

I haven’t had a car payment in four years.

I want to be treated like an intelligent human being.

The numbers were important to me, but I needed to verify them for myself. This is a big purchase; I’m not going to take someone else’s word for rates, surcharges, etc.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t even catch my name.

This guy just swooped in, gave most of his attention to my dad, who was merely there as my ride so he could take my other car home if I decided to drive one off the lot. He wanted me to make a decision from estimated calculations, not actual fully disclosed worksheets. He didn’t have a clue as to why I wanted a new car or the factors that influenced my decision. In fact, he still doesn’t.

He never gave any indication that he cared about me or whatever issue I was trying to solve. And he didn’t know when to shut up.

In spite of that sales manager, I bought the car. The salesman and the finance guy–and the service department that has done right by me for years–tipped the balance. But if my decision had hinged solely upon the sales manager, I would have saved myself four hours (and a bunch of money), gone home, and sent the guy a link to that sales trainer.

In fact, I just might send that link anyway.

Easter eggs

Easter-EggsSomething popped up on my Facebook feed the other day that I can’t get out of my head, and not in a good way.

XX days till Easter! Have you ordered your FREE tickets yet?

A church pimping tickets for its Easter service?! They did the same thing at Christmastime, too.

In the interest of full disclosure, the church makes it clear that the tickets are free, and a couple of friends have told me that the tickets are just for number-planning purposes. I’ve been assured they won’t turn anyone away.

It still doesn’t feel right to me.

From a marketing perspective, I get it. Issuing tickets combines implications of limited time and limited supply to create a sense of urgency. It can be an effective tool to make people want to jump in and commit right away.

But this is church. Church.

And while I’ll be the first to admit that my faith is pretty lapsed right now, this isn’t right. The mission of the (Christian) church is to save the lost. Tickets are for people who already want to be there, not those who may be inclined to slip in unnoticed to see what they can find to help with their struggles. Or people with questions they don’t know how to ask. Or people looking to make some kind of change. Generally those people are much more tentative, and tickets make it a BIG DEAL.

I’m told that this church won’t turn anyone away who doesn’t have a ticket, but I’ll wager that people who are not in-the-know will assume otherwise. If you were driving by a church that had “Call 555-1212 to get tickets to our Easter service!” what would you think? And if you decided on Easter Sunday to find a service–as many people do–I’ll bet you don’t land at that church. You’ll probably assume it’s too late because you didn’t call ahead. I know I would.

What about the argument that issuing tickets is for number-planning purposes only? My response has four letters: WWJD? For those of you familiar with the New Testament–the foundation of the Christian church, like the one I’m addressing here–think of the loaves and fishes story. There’s a clear answer to WWJD: he’d preach away and let the crowd gather, the bigger the better. Everything else eventually took care of itself.

You can tell me all you want that the come-as-you-are approach is not realistic, but remember, the church embraces the NT as fact. It is supposed to base its teachings AND actions on it.

I’m not inviting religious debate here. I’ll have whatever discussion you want in private, but not here. My point, as always, is that WORDS MATTER. The words “get your tickets” are a communications snafu for a church.

Sure, they create a sense of urgency to commit to the Easter service, but only for those already planning to attend. For everyone else, they create a barrier. They’re off-putting.

Believe it or not, I think more churches should apply marketing principles to their outreach efforts; there are so many ways to generate interest. But the right tactic has to be selected for each effort, whether you run a church, a business, a school, a club, or anything else.

Unfortunately, that church laid an egg on this one.

Dirty laundry

DirtyLaundry2-LaundryBasketI hate to do laundry. I’ve always hated to do laundry. In fact, when I was in college, I once made it a record six weeks without venturing to that dreaded room in my dorm basement. My secret? Underwear, lots of underwear. After all, who really cares how many times you rotate sweatpants and jeans when you’re 18 and trudging around the campus anti-world? Underwear is a different story, though. One-and-done is my motto, so the key is to have A LOT of it.

My aversion to the washing machine took on a new dimension in those college years. When I ran dangerously low on unmentionables, I bought a couple of pairs at a boutique near campus. You can imagine how that price tag impacted my poor-student budget, so I knew I had to find a more sustainable approach.

Laundry time? Nope. I needed Target.

The problem was that with campus nestled in a residential area and the mall in the next town over–and me having no car–I needed transportation. None of my friends had cars either, so desperation led me to the city bus.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the bus, and as I have cruised through adulthood exploring different cities around the world, I think public transportation is one of the greatest inventions ever. But as an eighteen-year-old from the Midwest, I had no idea how to use it. It intimidated me.

In fact, buses still intimidate me. Trains are pretty simple to figure out; there’s always a map nearby to offer the big picture, and whole system is generally well-mapped visually. It’s easy to see how many stops, how many changes, where to switch, etc.

Not so with buses.

Without a station structure to house maps and posters–and with less oversight to deter vandalism–bus huts have neither the space nor the maintenance routine to provide much information. In fact, there’s often just a sign marking the location of the stop sitting atop an abbreviated schedule that looks something like this–if you’re lucky:

bus-sched-1

So say I know I’m standing at Tunnel & Thayer. I can see all the times the bus will arrive to whisk me away. I can even intuit to which stops it will take me, but what then? How do I know where to transfer? What’s available to transfer TO at those stops? Where are they in relation to anything? And how much does this even cost? Is bus riding some elite club for people who grew up in the city, a conspiracy to make the rest of us feel like country cousins?

Today I’d pull up the Transit Authority’s website on my phone and try to figure it out, but in 1987, there was no internet, let alone smartphones. Heck, car-mounted cell phones were just starting to come out, and they were super expensive. But, I digress.

My point is that this is a communications disaster. It’s not intuitive and there’s no real way to get information when you need it. Good communications principles don’t just apply to marketing efforts, meetings, and manners. They should be ubiquitous. They apply to everything, even bus schedules.

When you’re trying to give people information, remember this:

  • Don’t leave out important information.
  • Make it easy.
  • Use visuals when possible.
  • Spread the word.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just do my laundry more often.

Just desserts

Holy_Cannoli!My daughter’s social studies teacher hosted a cultural fair last spring where the kids could present their year-end country projects. The kids had worked in groups to create elaborate displays, learn facts and anecdotes, and even whip up samples of local cuisines. The teacher expected the cafetorium to be packed, so she asked parents to sign up to bring a variety of international dishes to feed the masses, potluck style. I volunteered to make cannoli.

Okay, stop right there. Before I go any further, let’s all agree to ignore the notion that I shouldn’t have waited till the last day to get things done. This story won’t be any good if you won’t at least give me that much. Deal?

On the day of the fair, I assembled my ingredients and made something close to a vat of cannoli filling. I had planned to buy the shells rather than make them myself, so around 3pm I took off for the grocery store.

*Gulp*

My usual store didn’t carry them anymore. And neither did the next one. Or the next one. Or the next one. With three hours left till the cultural fair, I was out of luck and out of time.

No problem, I thought. I’m a resourceful person. I can figure this out.

And I did. Spying filled cannolis in the pastry case at my local Fresh Market, I asked the clerk if she would be willing to sell me some of the empty shells I knew they had in reserve.

I don’t know, she said. I wouldn’t know what to charge you.

Is there someone you can ask? I persisted.

Well, one bakery manager is at lunch, and the other one is on vacation, she replied, as if that were the end of the discussion.

Surely, I said, we can figure this out. There has to be someone in the store who can help. Please.

With a groan and a sigh, the clerk retreated. Several minutes later she picked up the phone and placed a call. After a round of hushed voices and furtive glances, she hung up the phone and returned to the counter.

Sorry, she said breezily, I can’t. And just like that, with no further explanation, she turned around and walked away.

I doubt the clerk has any idea what really transpired. Even in refusing to sell me the empty shells–I don’t believe she made anything resembling a valiant attempt on my behalf–and in purveying a haughty attitude about it, she wasn’t the one I resented. I resented Fresh Market. Perhaps she didn’t realize that everything she says and does while wearing her bakery duds and name tag represents the company. So how did she affect the store?

  1. Fresh Market lost a sale. They had the goods and I was willing to pay for them. A win-win turned into a lose-lose.
  2. Fresh Market ticked off a customer. I not only felt mistreated by the clerk by her annoyed demeanor and lack of concern, but I also felt as if I were being strong-armed into buying the filled cannoli. Which, by the way, I did not do.
  3. Other people heard of my dissatisfaction with Fresh Market. While I refrained from taking a scorched earth approach, I definitely shared my frustration with several of my friends. Negative word-of-mouth is not helpful to any business.
  4. Fresh Market lost future sales. Oh, I’ve shopped at Fresh Market several times since that day, but I have yet to pull out my wallet at the bakery case. I’ll get my sweet treats elsewhere for a bit longer.

Truthfully, I don’t really care about the cannoli shells (anymore), but I love the branding lesson here. It’s a great reminder that most often it isn’t the people in marketing who have the most impact on a brand–it’s the people talking to customers.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I trashed the cannoli filling. The cultural fair got mini eclairs as my contribution, and my daughter got an A+ on her project.

Coffee klatsch

creamerDoggone it. Why do my local grocery stores only carry plain-Jane flavors of coffee creamer? Vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, and a few seasonal concoctions are all that grace our shelves. I know from traveling and a few relevant trade shows that there are dozens of flavors we never see–flavors that appeal to me a whole lot more.

So here’s the dilemma. A store might say it is catering to the preferences of its clientele. Customers buy a lot of French vanilla, so they stock French vanilla. But how do customers (or the store) know whether they like cinnamon creme if they don’t even know it exists?

We limit ourselves by serving only current needs and desires. We look at what’s around us rather than looking ahead at what could be. Although we think we are meeting demand today, we’re actually limiting it in the long run. There’s a big difference between serving demand and creating it.

Forget coffee creamer. The point is that we have to think ahead. Where can we go? What can we accomplish? What new solutions can we offer? What can we do that no one has ever thought of? We move forward by looking beyond our current situation and reaching for more.

And lest you think my capitalistic heart has taken over, I’m talking about new ideas, not necessarily new products. Reach for the stars, friends. You might just find a planet.

Eye candy

EyesWhen I started cooking as a kid, I loved to try new recipes and even make up some of my own. I lived for the praise I hoped to get at the moment of truth, when I served my dish. I knew something wasn’t right when my stepmother would say, It has good flavor.

Now, those words may look innocent enough, but my first reaction was always to retort, But it looks like crap?

***

Years ago, I sometimes helped my former mother-in-law serve food when she catered large events. Although the food always tasted good, what really set it apart was its presentation. Sometimes I thought we spent as much time arranging each platter as my MIL had spent preparing it. (Did you know that a cheese tray looks terrific on a bed of red, curly lettuce? Or that there’s even such a thing as red, curly lettuce?)

I never minded helping her because her customers were always so profuse with their compliments.

***

When I lived in Germany, I tried hard to make sure I spoke using good grammar, but as a non-native speaker, I regularly made mistakes. What I did master was the accent. To this day, I have friends who tell me I speak perfectly, even as I stumble over an adjective ending. They just don’t hear it because the sound is right.

***

One of the toughest things to get used to in my job was formatting my work a certain way–even the drafts and the internal stuff. At first the requirement seemed like overkill, but eventually it sank in and became a habit. Now it comes almost naturally.

One day it all came together.

After reviewing some documents I had presented to a client, he remarked about how pleased he was with them–especially the format. I never get anything this well put together, he said. I expected to work on this, but I can share this with my colleagues just as you’ve given it to me. I am so impressed.

Time after time I am reminded that presentation is half the battle. If you make it look right, sound right, act right–whatever it is–people are more receptive to the content. The package is part of the experience, and people eat with their eyes first.