The Law of Constant Improvement

In marketing, most brands that are enjoying success are likely doing so because they created something that WORKS. Whether it’s a consumer product like a vacuum cleaner that never loses suction, or the standard-setter in smartphones or a business-to-business service like an ad network or a social media platform or even a service provider like an ad agency or web development firm, something is WORKING. It could be the product design, or the solution to a common problem, or a specific process or a recipe or even an algorithm.

But what’s the secret sauce that KEEPS brands thriving? How do we move from enjoying just a modicum of success to relishing a systematic pattern of victories and enduring prosperity? While some may chalk it up to luck or a charismatic CEO or market timing, I assert that the most successful and most profitable brands in every corner of the marketing world all share a similar trait: they employ the Law of Constant Improvement.

When brands (in virtually any category) are thriving, it’s typically due to a combination of factors that include the basic food groups: an ability to deliver [manufacture/write/uncover/sing/whatever] something of value, an understanding of the market environment, an understanding of the target consumer needs, an understanding of limitations and mandatories, and so on. But the lasting effects of excellence are usually garnered by a sustained and even obstinate desire to continue improving on current successes.

The Law of Constant Improvement states that you are never quite “there” yet. While you may be enjoying success (and profits,) there is no qualifying reason to halt the process of improvement. And in this law, improvement is not one-sided. Normally, we would focus on the consumer audience, and how to make the product/experience/service better for them. But brands can constantly improve internally, [financially, operationally, culturally, philanthropically] as well. This is true if you run a small business, a large corporation, a non-profit or a community. It’s especially true if you’re in marketing.

A healthy side effect of The Law of Constant Improvement seems to be a proclivity towards extended tenure. It becomes evident when you review success stories in almost any category: a technology leader like Apple; an online leader like Amazon; a consumer leisure brand [or is it a retail experience? or is it a coffee shop?] like Starbucks; a band like Coldplay.  All seem to factor a common denominator: they are constantly striving to improve. And it doesn’t have to be big, blue-chip brand business: local and regional marketers can employ the same law, and alter their DNA to replicate success. The evidence seems to suggest that brands who continue to improve with a near-obsessive regularity become leaders.

Another aspect of The Law of Constant Improvement is its ability to permeate into the corporate culture. It’s clear that brands who adopt a process of constant improvement don’t do so as a line item operational procedure, but rather because it’s embedded into the personality of the company, and into the personality of each employee. It turns out that constant improvement is less a thing to do, and more a thing to be.

Also note that in the inner gears of today’s consumer-centric commerce machine, the market has come to DEMAND constant improvement. That’s just the new rules at play. There’s so much competition and customization out there that brands have to continue to evolve each product and feature to keep their audience(s) engaged and entertained.

It would likely be a lot easier to happen on a formula and then just keep churning it out for eternity. (Note, for some brands, that’s a solid strategy – see Coke vs. the New Coke debacle.) But for the vast majority of brands, The Law of Constant Improvement is the new mandatory to continue to engage your original audience, to roll up new fans, to outperform expectations and if you fit into this category, to satisfy shareholders.

So start improving today. And be prepared to never stop.

Are you a “wham-bam-thank-you” brand?

So much has been written about social media, it’s hard to find a spot that hasn’t been filled with advice, and best practices, and case studies and epic fails and wow-how’d-she-get-700,000-followers white papers.

And yet it still seems that many brands (even the big, smart ones) think of social mediums like they think of traditional mediums:  each a single-shot source for their single-shot message.  But the key (and obvious) difference between social media and all the others is this:  social is your always-on messaging tool.  Whether you like it or not.

In traditional media, (like print or broadcast, for instance,) you choose to make your presence into THEIR schedule and THEIR available inventory.  So you want to do a big spring push for your b-to-b message? You put it in every book’s March issue, and maybe you do some PR around the big events that month, and maybe you sponsor the March business meeting at the national association’s conference.  Perfect.  Same is true with b-to-c:  get in the books, get on a tv or radio schedule, send out the press release and Wham! Bam!  Thank you, Brand! Your presence magically appears on the consumer perception field at the precise time.  Then you can disappear for three months while you tally your ROI and your other magical KPIs to convince the bean counters to do it again next quarter.

But social is different.  Social certainly cares what message you’re pushing, but definitely not WHEN you want to push it.  Because social is less a medium and more of a monitor.  Social is ALWAYS ON.  Because your customers (whether they’re teenage girls or the C-suite types,) are always on. Listening.  Watching.  Waiting.  Wanting to engage.  Wanting to converse.

That’s why more brands FAIL in the social media sphere than they expect to.  Some marketing professionals treat social media like a one-off insertion instead of a constant scheduled presence.  When brands start pulling consumer comments off their Facebook pages, or have to yank tweets from their agencies, it’s not because those content nuggets are not part of the conversation (although they may wish they weren’t.)  It’s because “conversation” was never a chapter in “how to write a marketing plan” before about the last three years or so.  This stuff is still pretty new.  It was easier when marketing was a one-way proposition.  Now it’s decidedly a multi-voiced interaction, and brands have to listen.  Even if what’s coming back is very negative.

It’s not that brands will ever STOP doing timed marketing, or running themed promotions, or launching stuff in a huff.  [Jeez, without those deadlines, how would any of us know we have a pulse?] But in the new media age, timed marketing activity has to start fitting in with your ongoing social conversations.  NOT the other way around.

Super Bowl Advertising on AUTO-Pilot?

For the most part, the super bowl spots this year were, well, less than super. No really big ideas. No breaking of any molds. No we’ll-be-talking-about-this-in-20-years executions. It’s not that they were bad. They just weren’t memorable. And in the world of advertising, if you can’t do memorable, you can’t do anything.

Let’s spare the knocks and gaffes. We all know what those were. (A kid peeing in a pool for a free online tax service? Really?) Instead, I’ll focus on the few standouts in the automotive category and see if we can highlight some themes to remember if and when you ever have the chance to put your brand on the grandest stage of all.

For my money, GM wins the night with their “2012” post-apocalyptic survival spot for Silverado. A Silverado pulls out of the gray rubble of the aftermath with every cliché in tow: a rugged middle-aged man, his trusty dog and, of course, Barry Manilow crooning “Looks Like We Made It.” Even the Transformers (yup, that’s Bumblebee’s head laying on the side of the road,) and the alien ships couldn’t outwit the Mayan foreshadowing. But Silverado did.

And in the gutsiest move of the night, GM takes on the competition by name. The main character meets up with three other Silverado drivers and asks, “Where’s Dave?” A saddened friend reports the dreary news: “Dave didn’t drive the longest-lasting, most dependable truck on the road…Dave drove a Ford.” Home run. Say goodnight Gracie. That’s all she wrote. Best spot of Super Bowl R2D2. Take on the competition by name, and kick ‘em in the ding-ding. Then share a Twinkie.  Wow.

In general, cars made the best showing as a category, but also seemed to demonstrate the weirdest strategies. Audi (with agency Venables + Bell) spent $7 million on the 2-minute “Vampire Party,” which is a neat little spot that goes a LONG way to make a point about their LED headlights, which apparently recreate daylight so well they fry vampires. I love advertising that’s singular and focused and creatively makes a point about a particular feature. So points for telling us SOMETHING about the car. (More than others can say.) But on the Super Bowl? Let’s keep it brand-ey, okay?

Fiat: fantasy about a gorgeous Italian woman with all the soft-porn of latte foam. Chevy: “stunt drivers” thing was kind of done already by Nissan earlier this year. Cadillac: let’s take on BMW on the positioning they’ve owned for more than 25 years. We know the creatives came out to play, but where was the CMO in all of these executions?

Clint Eastwood enlisted to do a tug-at-your-heartstrings-but-watch-out-cuz-I-can-also-kick-your-ass sendup for Chrysler. Okay, this is exactly the kind of thing Americans who are feeling patriotic and puffed up want to hear. And the spot is well done, and turns last year’s coming-out party into an extended affair. All good. But I think we’ve all come to expect more from Wieden + Kennedy than a reboot of the 1984 Hal Riney “Morning in America” classic.

VW also took the let’s-build-on-last-year strategy with “Dog Strikes Back,” a touching anthropomorphic vignette of a dog who’s lost his mojo. The dog can hardly chase a car anymore because he’s gotten too complacent. So he embarks on a disciplined workout regimen, resists the temptation of mom’s table scraps and gets back into fighting shape so he can hustle out the door and chase that flashy new VW Beetle down the road. Really good work from Deutsch. Nice little tag on the end to connect the dots to last year’s “Vader” spot for Passat. Another winner for 2012.

One thumb up to Hyundai for a number of reasons. They’re feeling their oats these days (and they should – their sales are killing,) so they decide to invest in some Super Bowl branding. The “cheetah” spot and the “think fast” spot (both from Innocean) weren’t feats of advertising genius, but they were solid entries into a pretty crowded field of automotive advertising. Compared to Toyota and Lexus, they were smarter. Not as funny as Honda’s “Ferris Bueller” or “Seinfeld,” but probably did more to educate viewers about the brand. And by the way, where was Ford, the company that bragged all year about not needing a bailout?

This article first appeared on Technorati.