By John Pohl
Ever since pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood invented the concept of marketing in the late 1700s, marketers have struggled to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Today, due to the profound impact of the Internet, sorting that out has never been more challenging.
While this impact may be less pronounced in the dental products industry than elsewhere, it would be a mistake to ignore just how dramatically customer options and hence customer behaviors have changed during the past 10 to 15 years. And because customer behaviors have changed, the way we market to customers has to change.
But that doesn’t mean that everything we learned in the pre-Internet era should be tossed out the window. Rather, the successful marketers will be the ones who are able to blend the “new rules” of the Internet era with the old rules – the “timeless jewels” of marketing — that remain as relevant as ever.
The new rules
Think about how your own purchase behavior has changed in recent years. Chances are you don’t buy a book, a CD, a car, or a laptop without first researching your purchase online. One of the first things you probably do is see what others who have bought the product have to say about it. Where feasible, you’ll take the product for a “test drive,” reading an excerpt if it’s a book or listening to some cuts if it’s a CD. You’ll also likely search to see where you can get the best possible price, particularly with a big-ticket item like a car. Finally, you’ll no doubt try to tailor the product to your exact tastes, such as selecting from dozens of hardware, software, and design options if you’re buying a laptop.
In virtually every product category, this is the kind of shopping experience that customers have come to expect. If no one in your category is offering that today, chances are someone will be tomorrow.
The nature of the advertising you’re exposed to has also changed. First of all, you’re probably watching less TV because you’re spending more time online. Not only are you not exposed to as many TV commercials, but TiVo and DVRs allow you to fast-forward through the ones you are exposed to. Meanwhile, the ads you’re exposed to online are essentially optional: if you see something that looks interesting, you can click on it to learn more, but otherwise you are largely free to ignore most online advertising.
With that perspective, here are some of the “new rules” that all marketers must be aware of:
- The customer is in charge. Mass marketing is no longer the answer; wherever possible, we need to market on a customer-by-customer basis.
- Traditional advertising — which is one-way, product-focused, and interrupts the target (while they’re reading, watching TV, etc.) — will be increasingly replaced by advertising that is interactive, information-focused, and delivers information when the target wants it.
- It’s not enough to advertise to prospective customers; you need to build a relationship with them.
- Your Web site is the face of your company. In many cases, it’s the first — and, if poorly designed, the last — opportunity you have to make an impression.
- Your Web site — and all of your communications — should not be about you; they should be about your customers. These vehicles shouldn’t hype your products and services; they should provide information that solves your customers’ problems.
- The best SEO (search engine optimization) strategy for maximizing your Web site traffic is to have great content that people will want to seek out.
- You should encourage your customers to interact with you, such as providing suggestions or other feedback, in as many ways as possible (e.g., your Web site, a corporate blog, a Facebook group, Twitter, and other social media).
- Middlemen — whether they be distributors or media — are in trouble; customers want, and often expect, to deal directly with the manufacturer.
- If you make your customers happy and give them reason to trust you, they’ll do your marketing for you.
Regarding that last point, we’ve always known that word-of-mouth marketing is probably the most powerful kind of marketing there is. The difference now is that the Internet makes it possible for happy customers to reach dramatically more people than ever before. (Marketer, beware: this is also true for unhappy customers!) As Word of Mouth Marketing author Andy Sernovitz says, “Advertising is the price of being boring. If your customers won’t talk about your stuff, you have to pay newspapers and TV shows to do it yourself.” Apparently, Google isn’t boring; one of the fastest-growing companies in history was built with virtually zero advertising. Similarly, Starbucks grew to greatness almost entirely through word-of-mouth support.
Question: What would it take to get your customers talking about your company?
Just because the Internet has changed so many things does not mean that it’s changed everything in the world of marketing. In fact, given that so many Internet-related marketing vehicles are easy for the target audience to ignore, one could argue that the following guidelines are more important than ever:
- To deliver sustained above-average sales growth and profitability, your product or service needs to be differentiated from and superior to all other alternatives. Just knocking off your competitors doesn’t cut it; this forces you to compete on price, and that’s a game you’ll eventually lose. Remember, “me-too” leads to “mediocrity.”
- The best way to differentiate yourself is to simply ask your customers what’s most important to them that none of your competitors is delivering.
- All marketing communications need to be ownable; they need to work better for you than they would for your competitor. The next time you evaluate an ad, a tagline, a sales brochure, a Web site, or any other piece of marketing communication, ask this question: “If I take my brand out of the piece and replace it with a competitor’s, does the piece work as well for them as it does for me?” If the answer is yes, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
- Even the best advertising will rarely persuade a prospective customer — and especially a dentist or hygienist — to purchase a new product. The best you can hope for is to make them aware of the product and induce them to decide to learn more about it later by attending a trade show or seminar, asking a sales rep about it, or checking it out on your Web site. Unfortunately, many marketers don’t seem to understand this, and so they cram their advertising full of everything they can possibly think of to say about their product. The result is an ad that’s so cluttered and hard to read that it has virtually zero impact. In other words, more is less; the more you cram into an ad, the less likely it is to get read and to communicate your message. Conclusion: Keep it simple, yet interesting.
- Your marketing communications need to be consistent and to reinforce each other. Your ads, brochures, catalogs, Web site, stationery — even your business cards — should feature a consistent style, and one that is unlike any of your competitors’.
- The better your ads, the fewer you need to run. It’s true. A bad ad could run month after month and never get noticed, while a good ad could run once and make a meaningful impression. Investing in marketing that gets noticed and communicates effectively is one of the best investments a company can make, and the cost of creating the ads can literally be funded by reducing the number of ads purchased. That’s why we say, “Don’t outspend; outmarket.”
- Don’t be shy about promoting your brand. Beware the advertising agency that is more concerned about creating a fashionable portfolio than creating advertising that sells. One telltale symptom: they tend to make your logo small and rarely mention your brand name. A good agency will celebrate your brand, not hide it.
Two more observations about these “jewels”: First, the majority of all companies don’t follow them. Second, the majority of successful companies do.
To be clear, marketing is still as much art as it is science, and successful marketing is not simply a matter of following a detailed list of prescribed steps. Still, the odds of success will improve greatly if you can anticipate how your customers’ needs are likely to change in the future, while trusting what has proved effective in the past.
John Pohl is founder and chief elevator officer of strategic marketing agency 14th Floor Solutions, based in Lake Forest, Ill. Prior to founding his agency, he was SVP Global Marketing & Strategic Planning for Hu-Friedy Mfg. Co., and before that he held senior marketing positions at Dial Corp, Kellogg Company, and the E. & J. Gallo Winery. Contact him at [email protected].