Monday, January 16, 2012

Monkey Butt.

If you’ve remained alert during one of my recent speeches, you probably know that I consider pants to be the essential cultural bellwether. Here’s something you may not know, though: I have a thing for internet forums. To me, these primitive places are the real internet, where one ordinary person helps another ordinary person fix a toilet float, or convince her cat to eat dry kibble, or get chip dip stains out of a cummerbund. They’re the original social media, older than the web itself, the places where the communitarian voices of regular folks still rule. Whenever something new arrives at our house, the first thing I do is see if there’s a forum about it somewhere, and then lurk on it like an invisible tourist, soaking up the sounds and smells of a new place (I’m still a planner at heart). This year, it was a tractor that did it. And in my quest to unlock the mysteries of the three-point hitch on an agricultural equipment forum, I stumbled onto a thread entitled, “Which jeans do you use?” Irresistible. And not just because it involved pants. Irresistible because of the word “use.” The subject of pants was going to be argued by people who work with their hands, the culture that gave us blue jeans in the first place.

And that’s where I found the Duluth Trading Company. I’d never heard of it. Maybe you haven’t either, but I can tell you that there is a legion of people out there with dirt under their fingernails who, on this 11-page thread on this day, weighed in with conviction that they made the best pants for working in. Suddenly feeling like Cayce Pollard (except, you know, a guy. Bit older. Less neurotic. And real), I headed straight for their web site. And was charmed speechless.

Because here’s the thing: Yes, they have pants. Also shirts. Tool belts. Knee pads. And, um, t-shirts that cover your butt crack when you bend over. Pants that don’t squish your dangly bits when you crouch down (all the way up to 4XL). Non-chafing, odor-fighting underpants. Ointment for cracked hands. Sliver grippers. Powder to relieve monkey butt (don’t ask). And at about this point, it begins to dawn on you… the Duluth Trading Company doesn’t see itself in the business of making and selling things. It has picked a tribe of people with their own unique problems, and cheerfully gone looking for ways to solve every one of them. You look at what they sell, and you can see with absolute clarity the person whose life they want to make better (despite, rather brilliantly, a complete absence of photos of models, at least for the guy stuff). I might or might not get me some of those pants; to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve earned them. But it was a complete delight to see how lovable a brand can be when it defines itself by whom it serves. So I thought I’d share. I’m like that.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the writer said that maybe this whole idea of following our passions was bunk and destined to leave us feeling disappointed and directionless. Instead, he said, find a problem to solve. That will give you purpose, and purpose is the real secret to happiness. It seemed like good advice for a kid making decisions about her future. I think it might be even better advice for brands.

Thursday, January 05, 2012


Ah, 2011. Strange days. What with all the populist revolutions and lost icons, you probably forgot this was your humble scribe’s first year alone in the branding wilderness. It was at the end of 2010 that I forsook the comforts of agency life and wandered monkishly off in search of marketing’s soul. Promoting Consumer Republic and building my consulting practice, I probably ended up hearing more new voices in the last twelve months than in the preceding 12 years. The bad, if unsurprising, news was that the marketing professions are in a pretty deep funk right now (according to Forbes, marketing jobs vie only with IT jobs as the most hated ways to make a living). But the good news was that there are some people out there who are actually finding meaning in this work, and who see our current travails as a turning point.

Reflecting on this over the holidays, I realized they have some things in common, those fortunate souls. We should be more like them. And this, in case you still haven’t got around to making your New Year’s resolutions, seems to be the recipe for doing that:

Be in the world. Marketing is still a people business, and the inside baseball attitude some of us have about it is alienating. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever said, “Hey, Pookie, I’m-a go interact with some content.” Hang around with real people as much as you can, and pay silent attention to how they live, think and speak, not just how they buy. Their opinion is the only one that matters, in the end.

Listen. Marketing isn’t a stimulus/response game, and data isn’t just a way to keep score. Data is your customers trying to talk to you in a language you can understand. The harder we listen, the harder we try to read the consumer’s tea leaves, the less learning by mistake there will be and, in the long run, the more efficient marketing will become. Not to mention ethical. B. F. Skinner probably had great Powerpoint presentations, but those don’t make you a marketer. Listening does.

Don’t forget about reach. We don’t search for what we don’t want. We don’t want what we haven’t had presented unbidden to us at some point in our lives. Desire is where the whole thing starts. Desire is the zygote of free market capitalism. It makes everything else work, and advertising is really good at creating it. Give your agency a hug.

Quit changing everything. Anyone with even a slight understanding of how an adoption curve works knows that only the leading edge thrives on novelty, and there aren’t many of them. The rest of us are waiting until you get it right. Believe it or not – I’m kind of looking at you, right now, Twitter – constant ‘innovation’ isn’t the shining path to growth. Past a certain point, it actually freaks people out. Remember your brand is a narrative. Be a story of confidence and vision, not a story of trial and error.

Have some respect. The accessibility of modern marketing tools is illusory. YouTube doesn’t make everybody a filmmaker. Facebook doesn’t make everybody a public relations expert. Wordpress doesn’t make everybody a writer or, for that matter, a web developer. Be demanding about the credentials of the people you work with, but then show respect for them. We may all use the same tools, now, but that only makes competence more critical and more differentiating. (Here’s an example of what I mean: A while back, I donated my time to a community group to help with their web site. A new site was built by some super smart people who put extra effort into SEO because the client needed traffic but had no money to buy it. After a year or so, I did a little analytics presentation for them, the highlight of which was how – based on a Google AdWords valuation of just a single relevant search query – they had already recovered five times their investment in traffic value. But some of them didn’t like how the site looked. So last year they paid a graphic designer to build a whole new one, including the addition of a charming landing page built in Flash. If you didn’t cringe a little at that last sentence, you are part of the problem).

Practice empathy. One of the collateral effects of modern marketing is that it’s pulled us away from our customers as human beings. Yes, @garyvee, even in social media, where we’re so petrified of getting into a bun fight with them that we’ve started talking like robots. But it’s as true as it ever was that the beating heart of an enterprise lies at the place where its brand and its customer have something in common. If there isn’t something you and your customers are equally passionate about, then you are essentially adversaries. And possibly doing the wrong thing for a living.

Feel lucky. If you get joy out of making money by making people happy, that’s going to come through in your brand. People will sense it, and it will make them like and trust you. Three quarters of branding is imputed motive. But more than this, remember that what we do is important work, a sacred trust. The future depends on the sustainable exchange of value between people who make things and people who buy them. Sustainable economically, environmentally, morally. We’re custodians of that. I can’t imagine a better reason to get up in the morning.

Thus, the fruits of my peregrinations. This and a renewed commitment to flossing, and I think we'd all find ourselves well on the road to self-actualization in 2012, Grasshopper. Master Po would be proud. As for making us better marketers besides, well, that's just karma...