marketing using fear

the_screamIn today’s economic climate, I see lots of companies abandoning sound marketing strategy and retreating to adopt a fear based marketing strategy. While fear can motivate, it also camouflages real underlying problems. If you want to survive these unsure times, you need to have a plan that will keep you afloat today and lets you emerge as a stronger business at the end of the tunnel.

First off, kneejerk short-term strategy is always a bad idea, both in grim times and in upbeat ones. When you’re implementing plans that reflect what’s going on today, you also need to look at what those plans mean for tomorrow. Ask yourself if the cost cutting changes you’re proposing would also make sense if it was a boom time. If they don’t, then you’re making a mistake.

Right now, lots of companies are pulling back on customer service options, cutting off communication paths to potential markets, and cutting back on the quality/quantity of the goods they sell. All bad ideas because they hurt long term relationships with the customer.

And it’s a slippery slope. Sure, eliminating one customer service rep, cutting the ad budget, or making a quarter pound hamburger with 3.5 ounces of meat saves a few bucks today. But when you think you’ve gotten away with it, you are tempted to go further and further. Eliminate an olive today and become a hated industry tomorrow.

I’ve heard some marketers say it’s a great time to make the most of the situation and use the fear that’s out there to the company’s advantage. I say becoming an advocate of today’s fears makes you look like an idiot tomorrow after the real or supposed danger has passed. Remember the companies who thought it was a really smart marketing move to capitalize on Y-2-K? They marketed their products using fear of the millennium bug in the same way that lots of companies are using fear of the recession today. Fear marketing hurts your long term brand equity.

I’m not saying that you should keep marketing as if nothing has happened. The zeitgeist has changed. People have adjusted their buying habits. The first thing you need to do is reevaluate the mindset of your customer and adjust your marketing plan accordingly. If you’re a necessity, then there may not need to be much adjustment. If you’re a luxury, then major modifications may be needed. Or maybe you need to really step back and figure out if your customers view you as a necessity or a luxury.

But as you adjust, remember this: A strategy of fear makes you look weak. It infers that you’re unsure. And just like animals, people can sense fear.

There is a huge opportunity for marketing right now. I’ve always said you should market against the grain. While everyone is cutting back on marketing, step yours up. It will be more impactful. And while everyone is running fearful and pessimistic marketing, be bold and market like you’re going to win.

i need to stop making suggestions on this blog

come fly the friendly skies
come fly the friendly skies

Last May, I made a outrageous suggestion in a blog post with the caveat not to laugh because it may happen.

Well, it may be happening. Sure, the CEO seems a little spacey…

“Michael makes a lot of this stuff up as he goes along and while this has been discussed internally there are no immediate plans to introduce it,” Stephen McNamara said in a statement.

But the key quote there is that it has been discussed internally. And while this airline’s PR flacks are trying to put out this fire, you know it’s been discussed at every airline.

When it does eventually happen on U.S. carriers (because we know how much they care for their passengers), I will be using my 3-1-1 bottles and clear plastic quart bags for other than intended purposes as a protest.

I wonder how much the airline industry will have to mistreat customers before there’s a pushback.

CtrlAltDel

So today was Bill Gates’ last day. However, there was an incident. As he tried to leave the building for good, this popped up in the door:
bill gates
He couldn’t get it to go away and none of his keys worked. Eventually, he just had to turn the power off to the building and walk away in a huff. When they open back up Monday morning, Steve Ballmer will have to run a scandisk before he can come in.

There is a widely held belief that Bill is the devil. I don’t necessarily think HE’S the devil. But his company and his products certainly can be. I think it’s because the brand and the company didn’t develop along with Bill. He would have been a good candidate to develop an accidental brand, but the growth probably overshot him.

Seattle PI’s Todd Bishop found a Bill Gates e-mail from 2003 by sifting through the documents in the antitrust suits. When you read the email, you can see Bill’s frustration because everyone of us has had the problems with Windows that he’s describing in the email. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Bill was concerned about usability and making the product work. The problem with MSFT was (is?) the company culture and the individuals below Bill.

The lesson for any organization is that fanatic attention to detail and quality assurance can’t fall on one person. It has to permeate the entire group. The one guy approach may work when the company is small. But if you grow enough to be called a monopoly, it can’t work.

eliminating the last olive

There’s been some minor buzz about the customer service atrocity of hidden fees. But as with most things in our society, it’s quickly forgotten with the next thing that snaps the masses’ head another direction.

There’s hidden fee news today that may stick. American Airlines will start charging $15 for your first checked bag. Not extra luggage. Not heavy luggage. Just your one basic container with supplies that make sure you’re clothed and clean when you get wherever you’re going.

Minor nickel and diming by the airlines has been happening for a while. I flew American a few weeks ago and rolled my eyes at the ridiculous $3 charge for a bag of nuts. I understand the age of the “freebie” is over. And I can see charging a dollar. Maybe a buck and a half. But $3 is an insult to common sense. And I chose not to “ensure” the fact I would have a seat for a standby flight for $35. Also — I held it and didn’t drink the $3 bottled water instead of paying $5 for a trip to the airplane lavatory. (Don’t laugh. It may happen.)

I had said in my post about my flight during American’s last PR disaster, that the airlines have beat their customers into accepting any level of bad service. American is trying to lower the bar again. While I understand that these are rough times for the airlines, there are other ways to cut costs and increase efficiency. When times get rough (in any business), don’t cut costs where it touches the customer. Or if you really do need the extra $15 to get my underwear there with me, just raise the price of the ticket. Don’t try to hamstring me with a fee.

Fortunately for me, 95% of my flights are one-nighters where I go the night before and fly back immediately after my speaking engagement. I’ve become a semi-master at the art of packing a suit and toiletries in my laptop bag. For 2-day stays, I have to take another bag, but it’s a small one and I check it at the gate.

And that’s one of the ripple effects that this American move will have. More people trying to do just carry-ons. That means longer delays getting on/off the plane. Less room in the overheads. And longer lines at security. (Government Propaganda Tip — 3-1-1!)

I predict there will be one of two reactions to this move by American.

  1. Consumers will balk and American will back down.
  2. All other airlines will follow their lead and baggage will be extra for everyone.

I hope it’s #1. It will probably be #2.

Clarification: In case you’re not familiar with the useless trivia behind the title of this post.

jared has lots of stamps

Read this consumer review of a Subway in Ohio.

Just as demanding as the Seinfeldian Soup Nazi, I’ve dealt with many Subway Nazi “sandwich artists”. And it’s always about the minor things like a drink refill, a few extra olives, or like the guy in the link — arguing the finer points of a free sub card.

A Subway franchisee will argue that giving a free sandwich that comes out of his pocket/profit to a customer that may have never been in his store is not good business.

I would argue that keeping core Subway customers who are willing to eat 6 (or 12) sandwiches happy and content is good business. And if all the franchisees were willing (or forced) to participate, the money would all equal out in the end.

But here’s the bigger point for everybody. If a marketing promotion makes you irritate your customers and generates negative brand images and kills goodwill — maybe you shouldn’t do the promotion.

come check my wiring harness

I’m a Southwest person. If they don’t go where I’m going, I’m a US Airways person. With US Airways alliances, sometimes they stick me on a United flight.

I haven’t flown on American in about 10 years — until a speaking client’s travel agency put me on an American flight this week.

On Wednesday, when I saw the lines, I thought there would be a bloggable customer service disaster. But BNA did well. They were handling the crisis very well (at least, they were on Wednesday morning). The only trouble I had was that I didn’t have any AA miles clout in achieving standby status. Luckily, I had plenty of time to get where I was going with relative little trouble.

The thing I kept thinking was that just a few years ago, people would have been incensed at the whole situation. All through the airport, there were just dead eyed accepting blank stares from passengers. The entire air travel industry has lowered the bar so much in the last few years that people are accepting of situations like this. I suppose if you mistreat customers enough, they eventually are satisified with subpar experiences.

double half caff

Earlier this week, Advertising Age quoted me in an article on some comments I made about Starbucks shutting down over 7,000 locations one night in late February for a barista boot camp.
It’s now old news, but let me clarify and expand upon my original comment — and provide some updates.

First off, it’s obvious that the shutdown was not “training”. It was nothing but a PR/media stunt. It garnered LOTS of free coverage from the press who seemed not to realize they were being used.

I had said in my original comments that I would be interested when baristas started spilling the beans (ha!) about what went on during the 3 hour period. Just as I predicted, customer service was discussed during the training as well as how to make a machine produce three dollar foam. But some baristas are ticked off about the training and point to poor working conditions and wages as a reason for sub-par customer service and not-so-perfect drinks.

But here’s your big problem, SBUX. Customers aren’t finding any big difference. And that is a huge problem. After pulling a stunt that showcases how you’re going to improve, people expect…improvement. When it doesn’t show up, you’ve ultimately hurt the brand.

customer misservice

After years of building customer service infrastructure (like outsourced support numbers, online service chats with robots, on-hold purgatory, etc) that distances a company from their biggest asset (their customers), the customers are now catching up and biting back with their own technology rush.

Here’s a very nice overview article from Jena McGregor at Business Week via MSNBC about the customer backlash against bad service with technology.

As anyone who is on the web knows, angry and disgruntled customers with an internet connection can easily wreak havoc on a company’s brand. Got a problem that the company won’t fix? Upload something to YouTube, start a blog, leave feedback on a shopping site, or flat out email the CEO and someone will pay attention (either the company or other customers).

This new age of the “customer service conversation” has been swelling for years. I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of companies who are doing a good job reacting to the community and providing great customer service. But even more are not.

The online marketing community is well aware of the dam bursts like DellHell, ComcastMustDie, and iPhone rebates. And while those make great examples for case studies, I really think they are in the head of the long tail of disgruntled customers on the web. There is a great unwashed mass of negative customer experiences stretching out in the long tail that I don’t think anyone has picked up on. In other words, while companies may have been talking for the past few years about this new rise of the customer, no one has any idea how big it really is.

Here’s the question. After years of trying to distance themselves from the customer, how will those companies react to the new realities of customer service that are just now starting to go mainstream? And will they be too late before they realize that the mass collective has grown to a point that they can’t respond?

free parking

Here’s some marketing fun you can have the next time you go out.

If the parking lot you’re going into has an “Employee of the Month” parking space close to the front door, park in it.

When (and if) you’re confronted by the management for parking there, explain that you’re there to buy something that will help pay the salary of the employee of the month.

Reward your employees. Don’t do it by punishing your customers.

Speaking of parking — We went to a large mall in Louisville last weekend and got there about 15 minutes before the stores inside opened. We parked about halfway back in the parking lot because the spaces up close were full. There weren’t that many shoppers milling around inside waiting for the stores. Mmmmm …. I wonder where the employees parked.

Seems trivial. But small things like your parking lot say alot about how much you treasure your customers.

charity case

Two conflicting thoughts in my head about this story.

1) Wow. What a great business.
We should all strive to create products that customers crave. Products that customers are willing to become involved in (emotionally and financially). We should be developing a customer community that people are willing to fight for. Toscanini’s apparently has done this and has a fan base that is willing to band together to try to save Toscanini’s.

2) Wow. What a horrible business.
Making ice cream is fun, but you first have to keep the lights on and pay Uncle Sam. If you don’t do the basics to stay in business, you won’t be in business. And it’s an insult to your customers. As one commenter on their blog said —

“Honestly, I think it’s a slap in the face to everyone who has been a loyal customer to take their money for taxes, ‘lose’ this money and then ask for donations to get them out of a mess they caused themselves with bad management.”

This is not a rare occurrence. It’s happened right in my own backyard to a place that I have eaten lunch at and blogged about.

In addition, there’s a business in my hometown that apparently couldn’t make it with just charging membership dues. So they had other businesses become sponsors to “help the kids”. Oddly, the kids still pay for gymnastics and cheerleading lessons.

If your business needs a benefit charity drive or sponsors to keep the doors open, then maybe it’s a sign that the doors should close.