Here’s a Better Question: What Makes You Unique?
I start my day by reading Seth Godin’s blog. It’s typically a great way to get my mind churning, and some days, it gets me fired up (in a rah-rah way). Today was one of those days.
His post was titled “Nothing to Ad,” pun intended. He’d probably hate this quick synopsis, but it picks apart digital marketers and social influencers, portraying them more as street hustlers and hucksters (and drug dealers). In Seth’s telling, they lure people in, get them hooked and then string them along, selling the dream all the while. One notable section includes this:
“DTC companies end up raising baskets of money and spending just about all of it on social media and online ads, payments to influencers, etc., losing money on every customer.
Once committed, they’re open to trying just about anything. They listen to wise (but actually making-stuff-up) sales reps and consultants about what time to post, whether to use photos, color photos, testimonials, paid influencers, free samples and more.”
As you can imagine, as a digital marketer for over two decades, I was incensed to read this – but not for the reason you might think. I was mad because, ultimately, Seth is right.
We see it all the time. New clients come to us with aged campaigns fraught with unnecessary spends, trash keyword targets, unrealistic expectations and (worst of all) wary approaches. They’re victims of just what Mr. Godin detailed: They started with a small campaign that brought results (thanks to fresh ads for fresh eyes), and later were convinced to spend more on varying tactics. Some tactics worked, some didn’t and, over time, results continued to decline while costs went up. They had seen all the contradicting statistics and heard their share of excuses about diminishing returns, and finally reached wit’s end. This process usually plays out over years, with budget numbers that no one wants to talk about.
So they hire a new agency that puts a fresh face on things, reaches into its bag of tricks for techniques that worked for “other companies just like yours,” and proceeds to further homogenize their company, product and services until they look just like everyone else, with results to match. Hey, when you race for the bottom, you’ll likely get there eventually.
Wait, Are You Saying That Digital Marketing is a Waste?
Not in the least. What I am saying is that the current state of digital marketing equates to a LOT of noise, with some sporadic standouts in between. It’s possible that we’ve hit a “jump the shark” moment, where the original innovators have died out and so, so many of the new players have mimicked a playbook that creates advertising that numbs the brain. It’s all devolved into a mantra that “you just have to be in their face in the right place at the right time.” They tell us that the ad doesn’t matter, the message doesn’t matter, the medium doesn’t matter – it’s simply about being Johnny-on-the-spot when the user needs a new dentist, a better website or an improved office chair.
To this: Well, I’ll let Seth say it, since he puts it succinctly:
“As long as your project is built around the misguided myth of ‘getting the word out’ and promoting itself to strangers, you will struggle. Someone always wins the spend-money-on-DTC-promo game, but it probably won’t be you. It’s simply a lottery where one of the spenders hits a magical level of critical mass and becomes buzzy.”
Once again, I agree, if for no other reason than I simply don’t like the odds of winning the lottery (not that I don’t still play it every now and then. I mean, come on).
OK, So When Does Digital Marketing Make Sense?
Well, this is the fun part. I can provide some suggestions and actual solutions, but most people will ignore it, much as they have ignored Seth’s advice and the wisdom in his book Purple Cow. The key here is to differentiate, but differentiation is hard and paying for ads is oh so easy.
For our entrepreneur readers, think back to when you started your company. You obviously thought that something was missing in your industry, that you could bring something to the table that was different, better or needed. This may take a little digging for the corporate folks, but it’s typically there in that dusty company history, or even in the Mission Statement that no one reinforces. And if you’re experiencing (or have achieved) any measure of success, there’s a reason people are choosing you instead of your competition, even if you aren’t quite sure what that reason is. Point is, you need to figure it out if you’re going to get to any kind of next level.
I’ve been pretty derogatory about the Internet up to this point, but here is one thing that is certainly incredibly positive. It has created a worldwide marketplace for each and every niche you can possibly think of. It’s amazing, and the possibilities are mind-boggling.
The Yeti Factor
I love talking about Yeti. It’s such a shining example of taking the mundane and turning it into something that is truly epic.
We have all used coolers, and I’d venture a guess that none of us (myself included) gave two hoots about them. There were Igloo, Coleman and a host of other brands, but they were essentially the same. God knows why, but brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders decided that the world needed a better cooler, and went for it. Obviously, the rest is history, and today a cooler can invoke oohs and aahs when proudly displayed at a tailgate. A cooler. A freaking cooler, for God’s sake. Not only that, but they had the audacity to reinvent insulated cups, and now even buckets (don’t get me started on the buckets. It’s a dang bucket, people!).
Yeti was also smart enough to target specialty sporting goods stores and high-end trade shows, thereby increasing the perceived value of their product. Re-read that: They limited availability to build their brand. And it obviously worked, as the hunting and fishing nerds went out of their way to tout the products, even wearing the logo proudly on shirts and hats. To this day, I don’t think you can buy a Yeti product without a sticker, and all the free advertising that comes with it. There are plenty of other examples of taking a mature niche and redefining it. Harley-Davidson and Fender guitars come to mind.
Obviously, forging a new niche within an established industry is extremely difficult, but not impossible. We have a client, Neanderthal Fire Company, that has made a name for itself in cutting boards! Yes – it can be done.
So the Way to Differentiate is to Create a Luxury Brand?
Well, it’s certainly one way to go about it, as it appears that there is no top end to what people will pay for (perceived) luxury goods. But it’s certainly not the only way. Here’s a variety of examples:
- Become the cost-effective alternative
The antithesis of the luxury solution, you can provide a consistent product at a reasonable cost. Examples include regional airlines such as Spirit and Allegiant, as well as Dollar Tree and Shein. This is an extremely tricky path, as there’s a very fine line between cost-effective and cheap. And people always expect more.
- Provide world-class customer service
This is a great example of companies not being willing to invest in the infrastructure it would take to really pull this off, but back in the day, Nordstrom was lauded for this. And if you haven’t been to a Trader Joe’s, you need to find one, as they do it masterfully. Imagine if one of the monolithic call center companies had people who answered right away and actually cared?
- Depart from the norm
It’s not always about price. Sometimes, it’s about doing things a bit differently. Swatch set quite the example years ago (Polaroid before them), and Uber and Airbnb are great recent success stories. As with Yeti, it’s a matter of looking at things that are already out there, and figuring out how to do it better.
- Make it more convenient
The Dollar Shave Club was a lottery winner thanks to a brilliant viral video, but they also turned an aging industry on its head simply by delivering their product as a monthly subscription. They have plenty of imitators now, but the model they made famous has bled into a number of other products.Other great examples include Stitch Fix, Warby Parker, Turo and food trucks.
One last thing on this topic. You know what isn’t a differentiator? Crowing about the year you were established, your “world-class” service or support, or the 2017 “Best of (insert city here)” award that you won. Yes, those things are important for final bottom of the funnel consideration, but they are NOT leads for ad campaigns!
Don’t Let Your Digital Marketing Become a Slugfest
As a digital marketer, I echo Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire and beg you to “Help me help you.” Identify what makes your company, your product or your service unique. We will figure out how to market that difference, and who should hear about it. And here’s the best part: Your difference will do some or most of the work for you. Standing out creates a buzz, and it always has. Nobody will ever tell you about the service they had that was just like everyone else’s, and cost the same amount, but they will talk your ear off about the wine shop that sent food and dessert pairings along with the bottles you ordered. Your clients become your biggest and best form of advertising, and nothing that any digital marketing agency does can compare to that.
And if you create that kind of buzz, the rest becomes easy. Ads practically write themselves, they seem to always appear “at the right time and the right place,” and results continue to increase.
Or, you can choose to continue to offer the same product or service as your competitors, market it the same way, and try to slug it out in the mud pit.
How an Agency Can Help
There are a number of ways in which professionals can help, but it’s important to know two ways in which we cannot help. One, we can’t decide what makes you different. We can suggest, cajole, urge and even beg, but in the end, you will have to decide and to go all in on it. And no, being $5 cheaper than the competition is not a differentiator (unless you’re selling cups of really good coffee).
Two, it will take effort on your behalf as well. We had, for a time, a great client that developed a new spot cleaner for carpets and clothing. It truly was amazing. I still have a few bottles that I guard like gold (I spill a lot of things on myself). And we were happy to brainstorm with them about ways to create that buzz (such as getting in front of retailers and other distribution channels), but they didn’t have the drive to make any of that happen. So the world misses out on a really great product, and we remain frustrated about what could have been.
We have a building full of amazing, creative people. If you are struggling to figure out your “Yeti,” hit us up. We love to brainstorm, and we are at our best with brands that want to disrupt. Let’s create some noise together!
(Special thanks to Seth Godin and his blog for the inspiration.)