Is your brand full of potholes?

Last night, I was driving down an avenue near my home.  It’s a popular connecting road, a long-ish street that runs nearly the whole width of two populous towns that has several schools on it, and a few traffic lights.  On one area, near the intersection of the two towns, there is a horrendously bumpy stretch that has hundreds of filled in potholes and can really make for an unpleasant ride.

When a roadway gets a pothole in it, it’s usually because there’s either a structural deficiency in a particular part of the road, or a repetitively trafficked area simply fatigues over time.  In most populous areas, these holes are promptly “filled in” with more asphalt creating a “potfill.”  Potfills are quickly deployed, and quite cost-effective.  Remember, paving a road is not an inexpensive undertaking.  Unfortunately, however, most potfills are rarely 100% smooth, and almost always create a new small bump in the road, because the new asphalt doesn’t quite bind with the existing asphalt.  And I guess most people prefer a small bump over a potentially car-injuring pothole.  But after a while, (as in the case in my town,) these hundreds of potfills –and some fresh potholes yet to be filled – are a landscape of past failures, and the original roadway can hardly be seen.

Naturally, this reminds me of marketing.

For many small to midsize companies, marketing is a challenge similar to keeping a paved road smooth.  After a certain amount of time and wear, holes in the marketing tend to become noticeable, and even conscientious marketers scramble to create brand potfills. But similar to the roadways, these random and uncoordinated “fixes” are rarely as smooth as intended and can damage the customer experience over time, rather than yielding the intended results. Let’s examine.

How does a brand get “worn” over time?
Brands are tough to manage, and even more difficult to measure.  But you can certainly examine the marketing strategies that are supporting your brand and your day to day tactics to get a sense of where things are.  Some questions you should ask:  when was the last time you reviewed your web copy?  Or your whole website for that matter?  How often are you upgrading/improving your basic offering?  Are you adding services on a regular basis?  What’s the messaging strategy?  Are you still as differentiated as you were when you launched?  When was the last time you asked your customers how they’re doing?  And what about your logo?  Is it a symbol of consistency, or has it been evolving over time?  And your service standards?  Are there standards at all?  Is your brand a bumpy proposition for prospects, or a smooth and enjoyable thoroughfare of commerce and interaction?

Patch a hole, or ditch the entire thing and start over?
In some cases, it clearly makes sense to execute a “quick fix” for your brand.  Maybe you got some bad press and quickly ditched your value prop in favor of emergency communications.  Maybe you merged with another company and didn’t want to spend a lot of money for new identity standards, so you slapped a new tagline on an old logo. Maybe you’ve got your hands on six sets of customer data, but you can’t find the time or the resources to integrate them.  It’s okay, as long as it doesn’t damage the day-to-day interactions and the long term perceptions.  But if your company can hardly be recognized as a result of years of quick-fixes, maybe it pays to strip the whole thing down and start over.  It’ll cost a few bucks, and it may even force you to re-route some transactions for a while, but it’s almost always worthwhile in the long run.  It shows you care about your customers.  It demonstrates a willingness to re-evaluate and the guts to develop something new.  And for every new customer that goes for a spin with your company, it’ll really have that “new brand smell.”

Understand your connection points and the concept of traction.
Let’s understand a key concept about roads.  They are engineered and built for the ONE connection point they have with the world:  tires.  It’s not some cars, or a lot of cars…EVERY car uses tires to connect with the roadway.  With brands, the key connection is with perceptions.  But instead of only four connection points, companies have an advantage with multiple channels, with frequency and with various forms of deployment.  So the entire stretch of your brand – every ad, every page of your website, every online checkout, every customer service call – is about making a smooth and consistent connection with your client’s or prospect’s perceptions.

When a road is bumpy, the tires lose traction with the pavement, and it makes for a treacherous drive.  Motorists will come to dread the experience, or figure out a way to avoid it altogether.  When your marketing is bumpy, perceptions are similarly jarred and your clients – and far worse, your prospects – will either dread the experience or figure out a way to avoid you altogether.

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A sticking point on the subject of “stickiness”

Yesterday, I spilled coffee in the cupholder of my car.  No big deal.  But today, it revealed a curious discovery about an important aspect of modern marketing:  the phenomenon known as “stickiness.”  We’ve all heard this term in the last several years, probably in many different contexts.  But what’s really happening in a “sticky” exchange, and is there something tangible for us to take away?  The coffee spill in my car provided one ineluctable clue.

First, let’s review what “stickiness” is.  This term came of age about the time websites and web development began standardization discussions. Sticky sites are those that have the ability to attract repeat visits, or to keep visitors there longer, by virtue of content or customization or both.  Basically, just about every website WANTS to be sticky, but not all of them are. Malcolm Gladwell, in his paradigm-defining book The Tipping Point, quantified the “stickiness factor” as the informational content and packaging of a marketing message. He argued that some messages are sticky (and therefore remain active in the consumer/recipient’s mind,) and others simply are not (and thereby forgotten, or worse, not transmitted or spread.)

These are both helpful clues, but they may leave out one critical factor.  In my opinion (as evidenced by the coffee spill I mentioned above,) stickiness is not as much a phenomenon as it is a process.  And it’s really a TWO-PART process. (And someday, these two parts may be managed by Chief Stickiness Officers popping up at forward-thinking organizations.  Yeah, no…that’s probably taking it too far.)  Part 1 is creating stickiness.  That’s the more obvious and relatively easy part.  Part 2 – the much more difficult aspect – is what I’ll call the “hardening.”

You see, anything that’s truly sticky tends to go through a transformational process from sticky/gooey phase to hard/fixed state.  Think about it…drop a dab of honey on your kitchen counter…all sticky and gooey, right?  Leave it there for a few hours or even a day, and it hardens at the edges – you’ll need a spoon to wrestle it away from the counter.  Same with glue.  It goes on sticky, but the real work isn’t done until the glue hardens.  And in some cases (depending on the glue,) that hardening could permanently affix two or more items. The process bears true for most sticky substances, like chewing gum (if left somewhere) and even a bit of spilled coffee in the cupholder of one’s car.

You certainly need assistance in getting something to coat the surface – that’s where a sticky/gooey texture comes in very handy.  (And probably a feasible budget.)  But the real value of anything sticky is that the substance is given what it needs to harden in place.

Let this be the beginning of a new understanding for anyone involved in the marketing process.  Messages are simply more effective – and if you buy Gladwell’s theory, they’re ONLY effective – if they’re sticky.  And an oooey-gooey texture will help initiate the process.  But for your messages to be truly memorable and worth spreading – to be clinically sticky – they must be given the time and the ingredients and the environment to harden in place.  How do we manage that?  Tune in for follow-up posts on this topic.