Tag : brand

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129: What Is Your Competitive Advantage?

In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to consult several entrepreneurs who were starting new companies or starting new brand initiatives. When someone is asking me for advice, I tend to ask a lot of questions. In these situations, it’s been interesting to me how many times I’ve stumped someone with a two-part question I didn’t intend to be difficult.

“What is your competitive advantage? Why would someone hire you instead of your competition?”

The answer to those two sentences should be easy. You need that answer to determine what your brand is and what that brand’s ensuing message will be. You can and should be leading your presentations by addressing how you solve your clients’ problems. Soon after that promise, though, you’ll probably need to explain why your firm best solves those problems.

Maybe you do it faster than anyone else or for the lowest net cost.
Maybe you have innovative technologies that aren’t available anywhere else.
Maybe you can offer exclusive, dedicated personal to their account and only their account.
Maybe you have more narrowly-niched personnel for their asset type and/or location.
Maybe your brand leads your market in recognition, social reach, and consumer participation.
Maybe your terms are the most friendly to buyers or sellers.
Maybe you have the most efficient and targeted advertising campaigns.
Maybe you have the best track record for monetary results and the data to prove it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Also, you may have more than one answer. In fact, you might have different answers depending on the competition. In my business, I typically have two categories of competition: designers or print shops in my prospect’s local community and national auction-industry vendors. My competitive advantages for those two categories have some overlap but are typically different.

Auctioneers compete with other auctioneers, but they also compete with other types of businesses. So, part of your primary competitive advantage might be the auction method in some situations. In others, where everybody is using a similar method, it will be other other criteria that separate your value proposition.

If you can’t answer this question of value proposition, how do you expect to differentiate your company from the pack? If you can’t differentiate yourself from the pack, what’s your plan for acquiring new clients? My guess is that you’ll end up with the riskier reserves, the headache clients, and the lowest commissions—the projects other companies don’t have to take. Then again, maybe that’s your intentional brand image: that you work harder for less.

Taking It Personally

I pretty much know what my professional value proposition is, but I wanted to know what my competitive relational advantage is. So, I asked my wife why she chose to marry me. She had thousands of options, just at our small college—and interest from a few other dudes in the communicative arts building alone.

“You made me laugh.” (Also, I didn’t pull my pants halfway up to my armpits like one of the guys who had taken her on a handful of dates.) She told me that she came to college from Bolivia wanting someone tall, dark, and handsome. I replied, “Well, you got the tall part.”

I try a lot of humor on her that doesn’t work. When I do make her laugh, she almost always tells me, “That was a good one.” This is good affirmation, as I work to maintain some job security. (I don’t think it’s unrelated that a lot of my social media posts and face-to-face social interactions seem to have the same relational strategy.)

I’d love to know what most drew you to your significant other. What made them so different from the other fish in the sea?

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com.

112: Asking the Wrong Branding Question

Right before a recent seminar, my buddy Andy asked me a question. He thought the answer to it would make a great blog post. I’ll let you decide that, but his question does create a worthwhile discussion.

The two-part question: “If you have an established print design template, how do you incorporate that into your web site? Or should you try to get your print template to match your website?”

In the waning minutes before my presentation, I blurted an impromptu answer.

“Neither. You’re asking the wrong questions.”

I’ve had months now to ponder my answer, and I keep returning to that extemporaneous instinct. As much as I authentically preach templates, especially print templates, those templates can’t be the genesis of a branding strategy. In one of my seminars, I recommend that the first media to create in the branding process is a website; but for most businesses, the brand shouldn’t start with the .com, either.

It’s not even a “chicken or the egg?” enigma, because brochures and websites are both eggs. The chicken is your brand. Every way that your brand is expressed hatches from the hen that gives it her DNA—its appearance, its personality, its intrinsic qualities.

Another way to think of it is as a wheel. Any medium we use for company or auction promotion is just one spoke on the branding wheel. The structure, direction, and shape of the wheel is determined by the hub. The consistency between the spokes on that hub greatly determines how efficiently and smoothly the wheel travels. For the spokes to be the most consistent with each other, they must be formed together. Brand Wheel Spokes While new, small, or growing companies may not have the resources to produce all of their brand’s expressions at once, they can lay the foundation for future expressions from an early stage. The easiest way to codify the underpinnings of future media is to create a brand guide. The brand guide is a reference document that can be emailed to any vendor, subcontractor, or employee to explain how your brand will be expressed. Most major corporations use these, but I’ve seen small businesses put together good guides, too. (One of my clients in 2013 now uses the best one I’ve seen on any level, let alone in the auction industry.)

The two overarching areas your brand guide should include are a personality profile and a style sheet.

The personality profile briefly explains the heart of the organization—how you want the public to understand you, which niches or audiences you want to attract, and how you expect verbal interactions to occur. Even better would be to summarize those three paragraphs or less to three to five words that you want to encapsulate your brand.

The style sheet transcribes your company Pantone numbers & 3M colors, fonts & text styles, design requirements (like margins, spacing, text hierarchy, etc.), logo variations, and more. Some companies that allow their agents or franchisees to coordinate their own media also include samples of specific media templates; some even create various digital templates, formatted by their respective media-creation programs, for vendors to use to build respective media.

The more specific the brand guide, the more consistent a company’s media will be. The more consistent the company’s advertising is, the faster it will build brand recognition and retention—especially if narrowly niched. Recognized brands get more consideration and then more customers and then more evangelists.

If you want to grow your business, focus on the chicken. She’ll take care of the eggs.
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Religion likes its creeds and catechisms—its traditional branding. The American church likes its What Would Jesus Do bracelets and Not of This World stickers—its cultural branding. Some of these can be constructive for those who adopt them as filters by which to sift their lives. I’ve heard a lot of great examples of personal worldview statements along those lines, and I’ve unsuccessfully tried to adopt some over the years. Sadly, I have a bad memory and a minuscule attention span.

The one measuring tool (or personal brand guide) that has stuck with me since high school, though, is Luke 2:52. “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.”

For me to follow Jesus’ example, I must be constantly
(1) learning and evaluating the world around me—growing my ability to discern
(2) exercising and taking care of my bodily shell—growing my physical capabilities
(3) ingratiating myself with people, both those I love and those with whom I rub lives—growing my relational influence
(4) falling more in love with Jesus and his gospel—growing my kingdom impact

Mind, body, heart, soul.

Those four words take turns convicting and congratulating me in my introspective moments.

How ‘bout you? What credo defines your goals and journey?

[footer]Stock photo purchased from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

110: Rebranding Strategies from Super Bowl Commercials

Two of my favorite commercial’s from the 2014 Super Bowl had something in common.

One commercial used self-deprecating humor with 1980’s icons.
The other hired a movie director to shoot an abbreviated action movie scene.

Radio Shack made an established one-liner come to life. “The 80’s called. They wanted their [insert item] back.”

Jaguar leveraged a subtle movie trope and used a white car in a dark ad.

What one point were both the Radio Shack and Jaguar commercials—two very different brands with very different ads—trying to make?

“We’re not who you think we are.”

Both had the same goal: change their respective brand’s engrained perceptions. Radio Shack had been wearing a pocket protector long before Best Buy took its lunch money, broke its soldering gun, and stuffed it in a locker. Jaguar had been showing people it’s yearbooks from the 1960’s, while yelling at Audi to get off its lawn.

Both now wanted you to know that they aren’t old, that they aren’t has beens. Both brands needed to tell you that they aren’t just evolving; they are going in a new direction.

Together, these two strategies encompass the most common ways that brands reinvent themselves. Radios Shack courageously showed you their past in order to contrast and give context to their future. In contrast, Jaguar grabbed a dramatic car from its garage and hoped its raspy exhaust note and some movie villains would wipe your memory of Jaguar’s recent AARP street cred.

Entrepreneurs ask me about how to “phase in our new look,” usually after a logo change, merger, or other important mile marker event. My answer to that question is twofold:

  1. Make the transition period no longer than six months—hopefully shorter.”
  2. Develop as many of the new media templates as you can before launching the new look, so that as many matching media pieces as possible can launch simultaneously. (This requires patience and self-control. If you’re like me, the secret proves a tough one to keep.)

For an auction company, it might be easier to transition a brand than it is for most other businesses, because—in addition to company promotion—auction marketers generate a lot of media to promote their sale merchandise. So, it’s relatively easy to distribute a large quantity of quick impressions for a new company image in a compressed period of time. Also, every once in a while, an auction company will get a premium asset to sell that will make a high-visibility campaign on which to start a new brand look—for that clean break.

Consumers who buy at auction are primarily shopping for specific items. Their search for that item draws them to photos and online mentions of that asset category, specific items, or distinctive attributes. As long as those assets remain the primary emphasis in auction campaign advertising, the brand image should be happening in the periphery, anyway. So, a style makeover—while seemingly abrupt to the advertiser—will not be jarring for the consumer.

Whether you’re showing a new era for an established company or just wowing people with new capabilities to replace old perceptions, don’t linger in the limbo between brands. Go boldly toward your new image.
[tip]

When my pastor and his wife told their country church that they were changing the brand, 75% of people (including family members) left the congregation. Becoming a church that made unchurched folks feel welcomed meant making some church attenders feel uncomfortable. Candidly, every once in a while, I still get uncomfortable when my spiritual mentors challenge me to extend grace like God does—even when there are lots of positive peer pressure at what is now a megachurch.

Changing the dress code or the music style or the Bible translation from those of a traditional church can make you a contemporary church. Moving away from programs and dogmas and denominational jingoism can make you a culturally-relevant church. But I’m thankful that my spiritual mentors didn’t stop there—where form can still trump function.

Successful church happens when Christians don’t hold ownership of their local assembly—when it’s bigger than a brand, when we’re evangelists instead of multi-level marketers. When outsiders feel at home while still challenged by Scripture, growth can’t help but happen. Where there’s growth, there’s life. Often, life requires the death of an old thing for a new thing to sprout. Old things like the way church used to be.

95: What Would Your Brand Do?

Image used by permission by purchase from iStockPhoto.comDuring the past couple Augusts, I’ve attended the Global Leadership Summit via satellite campus.  Each year, this gathering of business and ministry leaders (over 165,000 in 2011 alone) draws some of the leading thinkers and speakers from both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds.  It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to TED Talks.

This past year, Bill Hybels, the event’s creator and host, left us with a challenge, the completion of which has been on my to do list until tonight [New Year’s Day].  The assignment: define your organization in just five words.

For years, I’ve rolled my eyes at mission statements and the like, especially the ones that get posted on store walls or printed in company brochures.  I don’t really care what a company’s mission statement is.  If your customer service and marketing already exemplify it, I already know your vision and values.  If they don’t, why give me a yardstick to to measure your shortcomings?

Tonight, though, I finally assembled five words to define my company.

For the past week, I’ve been working on my content for 10.5 hours of classes I’ll be instructing at the Certified Auctioneer Institute (CAI) in March.  Tonight, I was working on a section of the material about defining your brand and then filtering various business and media decisions through that brand.  That’s when I bumped into the challenge of the five-word sieve.

After making my list of five words, I wondered what my clients would list as my five words and if any of their lists would resemble mine.  I also thought that it would be entertaining to hear from my friends, industry peers, and family as to what they, too, would list as biplane productions‘ emphases.  But it was my five words that stared at me like a list of New Year’s resolutions—to conduct my business in such a way in 2012 that the definitions of biplane productions‘ observers would fall as close to these five words as possible.

The point of this exercise wasn’t to create magic words or build a corporate guessing game for you.  My goals for biplane productions aren’t much different than yours: create mutually-beneficial transactions, cultivate long-term relationships (with both industry peers and clients), nurture an expert brand to an expanding audience, and get bigger black numbers that come with smaller red ones.

No, the point was to create a filter that will guide your brand and mine at each decision of literally hundreds or thousands of decision points—from website user interface to direct mail style sheet, from voicemail greetings to email signatures, from company dress code to bidding platform(s).  The ramifications of those cumulative choices will, in turn, move our companies closer to or farther away from our respective goals.

All of us may not need to make a five-word list.  We certainly don’t need another plaque on the wall.  But we all need to be looking at our everyday decisions through the lenses of our brands.
[tip]

I lead one of the three squads of the parking team at my church.  Eight of us direct traffic for the 8:30am service.  After we get everybody into the building and the signs & cones rearranged for second service, we eat breakfast together in our church’s cafe.  During one of these breakfasts, I had each of the team members discreetly write the five words they’d use to describe who we are and what we do.  Using a flip chart, I transcribed the cumulative list of words; then we tried to find five common denominators.  It was a great exercise to recast the vision of why we exist and what we do.  I love the heart of my team mates, as they were expressed in these summations:

Common Grounds group chartRESPONSE
The working definition of worship at our church is “the appropriate response to God’s revelation.”  So, serving is part of our response to unmatched grace, mercy, love, acceptance, and truth.  We hope that people can see worship in what we do and how we do it.  Words that came in this category included: joy, serve, glorify, awesome, expressive, and excitement.

IMPACT
Every encounter with Christ and Christians either pushes people toward Jesus or away from him.  What we do out on the asphalt (and grass) could change someone’s trajectory; and we’ve heard multiple stories of those new vectors from attendees, other servers, and other team members.  This is more than showing up to check something off a guilt list; this is ministry.  Words that came in this category included: greet, desire, energy, welcome, encourage, smiles, safety, connect, humble, and touch lives.

COMMUNITY
The Christian journey was designed to be completed with other travelers, each helping one another grow closer to Jesus.  Even the toughest personalities on our team are frail, because we’re all human.  We need encouragement, accountability, acceptance, and even boots to our back pockets.  Some of the most authentic conversations I’ve experienced have been with members of my team.  Words that came in this category included: love, unity, observe, conscientious, encourage, connect, humble, growth, and initiative.

PRAYER
I have cried during our pre-game prayer circle time.  I’ve locked arms with friends, laid hands on those who’ve made themselves vulnerable, and heard prayers that have to shake heaven.  In the least, they have shaken me—shaken us.  I’ve held Rick’s iPhone on speakerphone, as we prayed with someone in prison.  When a need or hurt is expressed by a teammate via email or group text, prayer ensues.  Listening to new believers pray has been both precious and convicting, as they skip religious jargon for straight-up conversation with heaven.

LOVE
This word appeared over and over again.  True, biblical love expresses itself in many ways—often in the ways categorized in the other four words.  Our pastor quotes some famous writer all the time: “Love is always on its way to someone else.”  As a parking team, it’s our role to be conduits to each other, to friends, to strangers—even to the combative.  If love isn’t the filter for our response, all of the above degenerates.  Love is the reason, the expression, the connection.  As Paul wrote, without love, we are nothing.

How would you describe the ministry or serving team to which you contribute?  Is it where you’d hope it would be?  If not, what can you do to affect change in the direction of that ideal?

[footer]Stock image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com.[/footer]

81: Your Brand Doing the Heavy Lifting

Global Force Auction Group

Full page trade publication ad

I recently had a conversation with a newspaper sales rep, who has been my contact at her newspaper for years.  She had called a couple weeks earlier to ask if my clients had any auctions in her region, and I had none to send her way.  That Thursday, she was calling to see if my client would be interested in any company promotion ads.  I told her that my client typically didn’t run lead-generation ads in newsprint—that they let the branding and content of their auction ads sell their services to prospective sellers.

That’s my recommendation to just about every auction marketer with whom I consult—and not just in newsprint.  If you’re going to spend company money on promotion, spend it making your auction promotion look better than what your seller is willing to pay to create.

If someone is looking through the classifieds for an auction vendor, they are going to be attracted by the professionalism communicated in a company’s ads.  They will also be looking to see the volume of auctions you have and if what’s being sold in the ads is similar to what they’d want to sell.  The same holds true in direct mail, signs, proposals, etc.

Counts Realty & Auction Group

Full page business journal ad

That said, there are situations and publications where accomplishing your goals will require a company promotion ad.  Before you craft your advertisement, take a stroll through your phone book, directory, trade publication, or ballpark outfield wall.  Take note of the advertisements you like and why and the ones you don’t and why.  Then use the following checklist to build your piece.

Keep your company name, logo, and contact information for last.
Phone book and trade publication ad designers know you take great pride in your business.  So, they will often build your ads so that you see first what’s most important to you: your business name or logo.  Unless your brand is ubiquitous (think: Walmart, McDonalds, Ford), assume that people are coming to the phone book, directory, or other print medium not knowing who you are or why they should care.  At the same time, don’t hide the logo, in case they’ve seen your brand somewhere else.  You want to build on any previous impressions.

Put information in order of the viewer’s wants or needs.
Unless you’re the only company under a publication category or in your market, you are competing for business.  And every company has a preeminent value proposition.  Maybe you’re the most convenient, the cheapest, the most thorough, the most established, the most innovative, the one with largest market share.  Whatever your competitive advantage is needs to be communicated first and foremost in your ad.  It needs to be framed by the prospect’s benefit.  And it needs to be simply stated and clearly illustrated.  If the shopper’s want or need is not met in your pitch, they don’t care what your name or phone number is.

Avoid mug shots or staff pictures.
The problem with using your face in your advertising is that your face isn’t for sale; your services or products are.  Unless you’re leveraging your own fame—which would require you to be famous (don’t kid yourself)—your portrait adds little, if any, value to the sales pitch.  Pictures also limit the shelf life of your ads more than stock images.  Unless you’re a model, assume that your face won’t sell your service or products.

Print Ad Redesign

One of these was scanned from a newspaper insert. One of these is my redesign.

Use only images that illustrate the benefit or process of what you’re selling.
It’s tempting to use some loud clip art or brash stock image to grab attention—and then try to stretch a pun or cliche to match it.  A good way to avoid this is to start with your core message first and then search for images that clearly illustrate this.  (Know that images aren’t always necessary.)  Before you purchase a stock image, grab a selection of potential images and show them to a handful of people (preferably of different genders and ages), asking them, “Do any of these images communicate [your message]?  If so, which one represents that best?”  It’s not uncommon for me to show clients 25-50 possible images for one ad.

Sheridan Realty & Auction Group

Black & white trade publication ad

Finish with one contact point emphasized over complimentary contact points.
Make it easy to get in touch with you.  If you use more than one phone number, emphasize one over the other(s) and annotate the differences between the numbers.  Never use more than one URL.  Your address only needs to be emphasized if you have more than one location or if you’re advertising a  change or addition in locations (example: “Now on Main Street, across from the courthouse!”).

Police your brand.
Make sure all fonts and colors that your designer uses exactly match your other marketing pieces.  I highly recommend keeping an email with your Pantone (also called “PMS”) color number(s) and font names.  That way, if someone other than your typical designer builds your piece, you can send them these specifications.  You will also want to save regular and reverse versions of your logo, and make sure you have .PSD and .EPS file formats of your logo available.  (JPEG logo files can create limitations or hassles on design work.)  Lastly, keep PDF copies of other advertising pieces available to send for reference.

Your company promotion can communicate something far different from what its words say.  Sadly, most small business advertising says, “I’m much better at what I do than telling you what I do,” or “You need to trust that we’re more professional than our advertising makes us look.”  Don’t be one of those companies.
[tip]

If you’ve spent any length of time in organized religion, you’ve probably sat through a sermon or seminar on how to share your faith.  Many of these sessions are aimed at perfecting your presentation and knowledge of your faith.  I’ve found a number of these to be rigid in their approach.  Maybe it’s me; but I feel like some of these could substitute Amway or Mary Kay, Rainbow or Britannica—and fit in a hotel conference room or Zig Zigler video.

I prefer to advertise my faith the way I would market biplane‘s services—making the value and benefit inherently stated in my everyday work.  If the Holy Spirit’s influence on my personality, morality, and perspective isn’t creating new life in me, then why would anybody else want it?  And if nobody else would want it, why would I use practiced tactics to convince someone into drinking my ineffective medicine with me?  I’m not talking prosperity; I’m talking peace and grace and forgiveness—both absorbed and distributed.

All that said, the Source of our hope asks us to intentionally share it with others.  Through the apostle’s pen he asked us to be ready to give account of the hope that lives within us.  That means telling our respective stories—explaining what God has done and is doing in us and how that came to be from the Truth he left for us.  That means understanding life contexts and leveraging them for Truth.  That means listening before and after talking.  That means extending compassion, not just seeking conversion.

That means you.  And that means me.

 

[footer]Stock image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

71: Getting the Right Clients On Board

Jetliner SeatsI’m writing this post on what will probably be my last jet flight out of the Lynchburg airport. To kick off 2011 on an efficient foot, Delta will be withdrawing its regional jet service from Atlanta, leaving Region 2000 citizens with the choice of US Airways prop service to Charlotte, private jet charter, or a long drive to a Virginia or North Carolina city with an interstate exit.

Even with 80% average occupancy on it’s 2010 flights, Delta hasn’t turned a profit here since 2008, when it operated at 62% average occupancy.† In an effort to offer Delta a package that would keep flights connecting ATL and LYH, Lynchburg city officials brought in airline industry consultant Mike Boyd. Boyd told them the problem was not how many passengers were on the planes but what type of passengers were on the plane.†† In a small city with multiple college campuses, our jets fill early with lower fares, instead of higher-margin last minute purchases typically purchased by business travelers. (Boyd suggests that Delta embargo availability of a number of seats until the last two weeks before departure to regain the higher-margin fares.)††

I can’t fault Delta. As I track productivity and profitability for biplane, I excuse myself from specific accounts, refer work to competitors or peers, and selectively change pricing structures.

Not all clients are created equal, even if they can keep you equally busy. Most of us want high-margin, headache-free work; the challenge is how to attract that work.

Part of that is branding—answering the questions, “What public personae are we projecting? And what kind of business does that attract?” You will have an uphill battle attracting premium clients with subpar marketing or high volume liquidators with a mom-and-pop feel to your collateral.

Part of that is taking the time to measure efficiency, review profitability, and quantify intangible aspects of your work. You might be surprised where you’re most efficiently generating revenue. Then there’s the question I asked during a recent consultation: “How much do you need the money that comes with that headache?”

Part of that is a brave self-control to shew away a bird in the hand to make room for one or two in the bush. A good, indirect way to sift prospects is changing your price points and/or terms of transaction. Sometimes, I just explain to now-former clients or prospects that biplane is not a good fit for them. It’s better to have a difficult conversation on the front end of a poor fit than on the post-game evaluation. (I’ve learned that one the hard way.)

So, where’s your sweet spot? For some it’s in high risk/reward problem solving; for others it’s in predictable efficiency.

And with whom are you working when you’re in your wheel house? It might be a demographic group, a personality type, or infrastructure.

From where do these good fits come to you? Answering this question will give you a good start on where you can go to find more clients like them.

Successful, popular brands—name plates like Apple & BOSE, CNN & FoxNews, MINI & Jeep—don’t appeal to the blank masses. They implement specific brand strategies to duplicate their happy customers. Do you?

[footer]†Bryan Gentry, “Delta to discontinue service from Lynchburg airport,” October 27, 2010, Lynchburg News & Advance
††Bryan Gentry, “Consultant: Lynchburg airport could keep Delta,” November 12, 2010 Lynchburg News & Advance[/footer]
[tip]

I’m really glad God doesn’t take just the easier cases, those with wills more pliable than mine. I’m thankful his invitation isn’t segmented to a specific people group.

The hard part for me is extending that patient, unbiased, consistent grace to others. So often, I prefer to associate with those who agree with my theology, those whose journeys are closest to my own, those whose needs fit into my available time and resource windows—the people who I’d look forward to having on my street in heaven.

But, as Andy Stanley wrote, “Grace is inviting to the unrighteous and threatening to the self-righteous.” When ugly feelings brew inside me over certain people, I am convicted by this litmus test and have to ask myself if I’m starting to take credit for any transformation Christ has accomplished in me.

[footer]Stock image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010.[/footer]

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69: Retail vs. Wholesale Branding

Shoppign CartsFor Christmas gifts last year, I bought my grandparents gift certificates to Aldi. They love that place—and will sell you on why you should, too. If you’ve never heard of the German-based super market chain, they have a strong American presence. In order to use a shopping cart, you have to insert a quarter into the cart return. You push that cart through warehouse-style aisles of vendor-placed boxes and cases. Some of the canned goods might be missing labels; a good number of items sit on the floor. Stores open at 9:00 A.M. or later and close at 8:00 P.M. or earlier. And they sell stuff cheap enough for my grandparents to forego their local Walmart Super Center and bring their shiny quarter.

My cousin, on the other hand, has been a chef at Wegmans, a very different grocery store—a place so premium it makes Whole Foods insecure. It’s like Disney World for the hungry: multiple specialty cafes, cooking classes, recipe subscription services, gourmet take-home meals, roofs over their parking lot cart returns, online shopping (sortable even by special diet restrictions), downloadable store maps, video tutorials, a food blog, and a magazine. Foodies, yuppies, and French expatriates can walk amidst gastrointestinal delights from 6:00 A.M. to 12:00 A.M.

I’ve shopped at both and can see how the two extremes have each garnered a dedicated following. Both constituencies know what to expect in terms of cost and shopping experience.

You’ve probably seen auctioneers brand themselves at each end of that continuum, too. Both extremities offer profitable business models and market segments.

We all recognize budget brands with an almost-wholesale/closeout feel. They have cheap, crowded newspaper ads and photocopied posters or brochures. Their liquidations and consignment sales advertise with phrases like “Something for Everyone!” and “Too Many Miscellaneous Items to List!” You’ll see lots of star bursts, thick fonts, and bright colors in their marketing pieces. Their pictures regularly show time stamps and/or harsh flashes from point-and-shoot cameras.

Then there’s the retail auctioneers, who hire professional photographers to capture their items and ad agencies to design their media. They use ballrooms and wedding-style tents, suit-wearing bid assistants and sophisticated multimedia systems. Some even have live music, catering services, drive-through event centers, and/or on-site financing representatives. In their advertising, they implement headlines that describe amenities and features of the auction item(s) and let pictures sell the sizzle. They have uncluttered Web sites, custom auction signs, and advertising-wrapped company vehicles.

The mushy part of the deal, though, is that most small businesses are somewhere in the middle. Wherever a brand is on the spectrum—between generic and niche, budget line or premium exclusivity, family operation and corporate feel—it’s important to know and then guide public perception objectively. If your market is not on the easy-to-segment ends of the scale, you need to determine if you need to move toward one—and, if not, how you are going to differentiate your firm from the rest of the large median? I recommend creating a chart that answers the questions like:

  • What are the common denominators amidst our sellers? Our buyers?
  • What non-auction brands have similar customer bases?
  • How do they market themselves and their products or services?
  • How are we different from other auction firms? From non-auction companies that sell similar assets?
  • How do our differences benefit our sellers and/or buyers?
  • How do we leverage our uniqueness? And how do we then market it?

Another place auctioneers must be careful and self aware is in recognizing when an auction won’t fit within their brands. In my young career, I’ve had multiple occasions when I’ve bit off more than I could chew or chewed something that later soured in my mouth. Shooting for financial security, brand extension, or an interesting challenge, I’ve taken projects that weren’t in my wheel house. It causes brand dissonance in my customers; it has sometimes resulted in less-than-best solutions for their needs; it regularly kills my efficiency and profitability. With enough of these lessons and now referrals under my belt, it’s slowly getting easier to chase the work that best fits biplane‘s core competencies and refer the rest to someone else.

In addition, be careful in presentations and proposals not to promise Wegmans-type results to a client, when you know you’ll be using Aldi-style marketing—or worse yet, giving buyers the impression that they’ll get a steal of a deal while forecasting market-beating results to sellers. Auctions often surprise even the experienced professional, but don’t set yourself up for discontented buyers and/or sellers.

If you want premium retail results from your services, implement premium retail tactics. If you want to develop a low-margin, high-volume work flow, give buyers and sellers premonition of such proficiency. And if you’re somewhere in the ambiguous middle, never grocery shop hungry—especially at Wegmans.
[tip]

In the final book of the Bible, Jesus communicates that he desires Christians to be hot (close to him) or cold (far from him), because lukewarm makes him vomit. It makes sense. Both religious and secular observers have certain brand associations for the holy and the hedonistic. And they have a big problem with the gray area in the middle, especially when it looks hypocritical.

Hopefully, nobody reading this is wanted for axe murders. I doubt any of us are up for conferred sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI. Are we then all hypocrites? Are we all useless, stomach irritants to our Creator?

There is no sweeping blanket answer to that. It’s tempting to judge our respective relationships with God by exterior criteria like what we wear to church or the streak of stars on our Sunday school attendance chart, the amount our tax return shows we gave to charity or the stenographer pads of all the notes we transcribed from the pews. Often, our default temperature reading protocol compares ourselves to someone else (other than Jesus) on the continuum until we find someone who makes us feel warmer about ourselves.

As a pastor’s kid, Bible college grad, and devotional book author, I know how to game the checklists. They leave me hollow. As uncomfortable and convicting as it is to ask, I find myself more challenged and authentic when I consider trajectory and momentum. Am I chasing into the Light, as I see shadows in my own heart? Or am I running from absolute truth and supernatural enigmas to be my own god?

As emotional, short-sited humans, we may fluctuate on the sine wave; but is the baseline ascending or descending? Or as gets regularly asked a lot in my circle of friends, “Where are you with God right now? Where do you sense movement?”

[footer]Stock photo used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010.[/footer]

It’s Not Who You Know

Mafia MenWe’ve all heard, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” In my life and career that has proven true time and again, and I’ve been on the fortunate end of that equation. But recently, that idiom has grown nuanced for me in—of all places—a movie theater.

Thanks to our town having a second-run (“dollar”) theater, I got to watch this summer’s A-Team movie four times before it left the big screen. I’m not normally an action movie guy, but I’m hoping whichever sibling drew my name for Christmas this year gets me the ensuing DVD. There are too many quotable lines to count, but one of the most practical lines came from “Face.” In military prison, living large with luxury amenities, he reveals the secret of his success.

“It’s now who you know. It’s how you know them.”

This is the premise of black mail and organized crime, extramarital affairs and Free Masonry, BALCO employees and undercover police officers. On a warm, fuzzy note, it’s also true of romantic relationships—unless you just heard the death knell of, “I’d like to be [just] friends.”

What does this have to do with marketing?

Consumers are more comfortable transacting with vendors who’ve gained their confidence—local or otherwise. You gain part of that confidence through consistent branding, the sum of advertising and customer interactions that continually reinforce the culture and quality of your services and/or products. Some of the biggest disappointments that we as consumers face is discovering a disconnect with the expectations companies have created in us, like Apple has recently experienced with their iPhone 4 foibles.

Western culture celebrates the brands we love, even wearing or displaying the logos of our favorite companies on our clothes, shopping bags, and Facebook “like” lists. We recommend the products and services we buy and talk around the water cooler about those with creative marketing or cool stories like TOMS Shoes and Zappos.

So, how do you initiate those relationships? And how do you move from initiating those relationships to brand trust or—even better—customer evangelism?

Evaluate and extrapolate from your current client base.
If all you want is more customers in the store, you’ll waste your advertising budgets. So, research the common denominators of who already likes you and recommends you. Discover the kind of people or businesses that best match your culture and proficiencies; then research prospects that are as identical as possible to them.

Codify and celebrate your company culture.
Chick-fil-A and GoDaddy.com have very different brand images; and both have experienced wide-spread success. You get specific mental images when you think “Geico” or “Yankees” or “VH1.” Determine the mood and message of your brand; then build your advertising and transaction environments around them.

Hire some brand police.
Don’t just spend money to fill a media quota; and don’t let advertising leave your office, unless it meticulously matches the rest of your materials and media. The public’s retention of your brand runs parallel to your advertising’s consistency both (1) from one advertising medium to another and (2) between your advertising and your company’s underlying culture.

Keep the hits coming.
Most guys don’t propose on first dates, yet entrepreneurs do it all the time. One of my clients recently lamented that their first mail piece to a certain demographic didn’t generate any significant business. They wanted to get to at least second base on their first date. While that may be possible with some creative marketing or serendipitous matching of their need—at their time of need—and your solutions, you’re probably going to have to take the prospects on multiple visual dates. People may not need your services right away or may need multiple impressions to recognize and remember your message apart from the din of the marketplace.

Get conversational.
Go to the trade and home shows where your clients mingle. Host free seminars or cocktail receptions; take people to lunch or a sporting event. Personalize invoices and/or receipts. Write hand-written notes. Sponsor local fundraiser events or maybe create a float for a parade. Better yet, get behind a non-profit as a corporate partner or spokesperson. Even if you have to hire someone to do it for you, use social media presence to post helpful links and interact with people as humans. Don’t interrupt their Facebook and Twitter streams only for broadcasted announcements; no, jump into show-and-tell like Local Motors does. The more patient and engaged you are, the more interest and/or trust you can capture.

For a lot of this, the payoff seems abstract, if not distant. But I’ve read or witnessed too many success stories to dismiss the value of a brand that’s unique and authentic, creative and engaged. So, discover who you are, and spend your time with folks who like people like you.
[tip]

Charles Jones said, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today, except for the people you meet and the books you read.” It’s interesting for me to compare where I was spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and experientially five years ago to today’s vistas in those same categories. I’ve met a God I hadn’t known, despite life in a minister’s home. I have more and deeper friendships than I anticipated having at this stage in life. Five years ago this month, Crystal and I were planning our first post-honeymoon vacation to somewhere other than a family gathering. Since then, we’ve traveled to multiple countries and found interests we didn’t know we had. My magazine subscriptions and other non-fiction inhalation has sling-shot me into valuable positions with influence.

As a Christian, how I relate to God and his book definitely determines the rate of change in my life. Right now, we’re going through a challenging series at church, called “All In.” The basic premise is that we have as much of God and his supernatural impact on our life journeys as we want. That’s heavy. That means we change only as much as we release to sovereign access.

We can do the ritual gig, punching our spiritual time cards each weekend (or even more often) and living mostly-tidy lives. Or we can fall in love with our eternal groom and watch what that intimacy does to us. It’s scary. I struggle regularly with surrender—in multiple areas and on various levels—to the unseen omni-everything. Thankfully, heaven rewards me with an unexplainable pleasure and presence, when I do surrender. And he’s got a bunch of that for you, too—if you want it.

[footer]Image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com.[/footer]

63: Your Two Thirds of the Pie

Pie and TeaWe can’t overnight packages to Moscow on a 44-cent stamp.  Frank Lloyd Wright could never design and construct a home in the time it takes a double wide to be manufactured, transported, and stitched together.  Deep down we all know that—for the most part—”you get what you pay for.”

For just about every commercial transaction we make, you and I use the trilateral equilibrium (shown below).  The tri-what?

Let me break it down for you.  In every transaction, we make a choice about the following three criteria of that transaction: quality, price, and speed.  Of the three, we can have a maximum of two in our favor.  We can have something that’s:
fast and premium (but not cheap),
fast and cheap (but not premium), or
cheap and premium (but not fast).

Cost Speed Quality

Using graphic design as an example, Colin Harman illustrates the principle with this Venn diagram.

Using flying as an example, you can fly via:
private jet or Concorde—quick and custom but expensive,
commercial coach—quick and affordable but crowded and not luxurious, or
standby ticket/military transport—inexpensive and professional but time-intensive.

So, what does this have to do with marketing?

As entrepreneurs, we can only promise, at most, two of these spheres to our clients—with integrity anyway.  The laws of the universe say we can’t give them superlative service in the shortest possible time frame at the lowest possible cost.  You can try to break these laws, but you will only break yourself upon the laws.  So, we have a brand decision to make: which (one or) two will we wrap around our brand?

Each of the three combinations holds value, especially for niche businesses.  In the auction industry, I’ve seen all three branded and leveraged for success.  We all know of speed + quality auction companies that have large annual sales volumes on relatively few, custom, high-dollar auctions a year.  Several speed + cost firms have grown to international prominence with regular, large auctions with late consignment deadlines for lots of consignors who couldn’t independently afford to advertise their assets.  Meanwhile, cost + quality auctioneers annual or semi-annual events that have television audiences (with low/no marketing fees) and where sellers are willing to wait for a large bidding crowd.

Do you know in which (one or) two spheres your brand resides?
If so, does your marketing emphasize your side of the triangle?
Do your fonts and colors and logo match cultural norms for companies on your portion of the equilibrium?
Do your business cards and web site and other marketing collateral give the kind of impression typically associated with successful businesses that share the same strengths?

You and your firm don’t have to be the fastest and least expensive and most exclusive.  You just have to know where your strengths are and how to weave those strengths into your brand image.
[tip]

My wife carries a lot of relational wisdom.  She has had to tell me more than once, “You can’t be everybody’s friend.”  I don’t know if it’s insecurity (pride’s off-stage personae); but I work too hard to impress people, to be as many things to as many people as possible.

The theme at church this week has been on recognizing what Christ’s love and acceptance look like and challenging ourselves with what life would look like, if we fully embraced that.  Could we have remorse without guilt?  Faith without tangible blessing? Acceptance without approval?  Encouragement without popularity?  Reward without competition?  Love without merit?

The answer to all of these is, “Yes!”  The Pharisee in me still struggles to fully adapt to this truth on a spiritual level.  On the relational level, I’m thankful to have friends in my life who encourage authenticity and individualism—like my wife and guys like Harney, who once told me, “Ryan, one day you’re going to realize we all like you for who you are.”

I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m moving.  If you’re on the same journey that I’m walking, how’s it going for you?  In what environments or relationships do you feel whole and alive?  What could you do to increase the frequency and or depth of those interactions?

[footer]Image(s) purchased from iStockPhoto.com © 2010[/footer]

57: Avoiding Brand Dissonance

Shoe ClosetFor years, I’ve told my clients and prospects that I’m not trying to get 100% of their design work. Multiple auction marketers have heard me say, “Just bring me in on your big or showcase auctions.” Sovereignty has more than taken care of my workflow, and I prefer customers to find my work a good value than to be sold into something they can’t afford.

So, while that’s still my official invitation to auctioneers, I’ve been experiencing some internal dissonance regarding that position. From time to time, I’ll see different clients’ lower-end work or see local vendor ads for a national product or franchise that do not match the national campaigns or branding. (Car dealers and closeout stores are notorious for this.) They just don’t match. The logos are off; the fonts are unprofessional; the margins or spacing is inconsistent; the images haven’t been edited or presented for best presentation; information flows in a strange order. It’s as if their brand is schizophrenic.

I get it. Sometimes, we have to take small jobs to keep the lights aglow and phones ringing in the office. But we have to be careful our work doesn’t look cheap, or we’ll be needing that cheap work more and more—in lieu of the bigger transactions. We can cheapen our established, progressive brands by slapping our name on shoddy advertising, our signs in front of entry-level work.

Do you remember the Cadillac Cimmaron? Coming off the 1970’s oil crises and reacting to CAFE standards, the GM luxury brand thought it could grab more buyers by slapping leather seats and a Cadillac emblem on a Chevy Cavalier. Economy buyers saw past the badges; luxury buyers left the brand for upstart Japanese lines and proven European rivals. Reviewed as one of the 50 worst cars ever manufactured††, “[t]he Cimarron’s failure was part of a series of events throughout the 1980s and 1990s which eroded the brand’s share of the US market from 3.8% in 1979 to 2.2% in 1997[.]”†

Cimarron Ad

Cadillac pretty much lost a generation of buyers by mixing its luxury brand image with cheap brand extension.

Cadillac’s hard lesson taught its competitors what not to do. Toyota has different locations and building designs for Lexus dealerships. BMW requires MINI franchisees to house both sales and service centers in separate buildings from its BMW models. Daimler sells it Smart Car units through Penske dealerships, not Mercedes ones.

So, it’s not so much about having an economy product or service. You just have to be careful about how those smaller sales reflect on the shiny deals you want people to assume are your standard.

You can create either separate divisions or companies, branding or color schemes—like corporate America does for different product lines. For about $2,000-$3,000, you should be able to obtain a professional logo, basic stationary, company brochures, and branded landing web page that can redirect after a short brand splash to an Auction Zip or Global Auction Guide auction calendar for your lower-end sales (instead of a whole new calendar site). Such brand differentiation has the potential to be as much of an investment in your priority brand as would be extra runs of your current high-end collateral.

If you can’t afford the time or resources to separate your markets or manage separate brands, you can raise the floor on the low-end look to make the differences in branding look less extreme. If some of your auction budgets require postcards, they should match your brochures. If your marketing plans can afford only black and white or two-ink brochures, they should be designed on the same templates as your color pieces.

If you have to go with smaller ads, create separate templates for those—not just shrunken or squished logos slammed in a corner below five-point text. Or use line ads (or small display ads without your logo), so that the graphical difference is less noticeable and associable. It’s pretty inexpensive to create different email templates, and changing a company or division name or a URL on a press release takes mere seconds. Your generic and directional signs should at least match your custom ones in color; font matching would be a professional, low-cost touch, too. Most web sites you use for marketing are universal in design; so, you’re okay there—especially since most don’t show your logo and branding, anyway.

Not every auction can be a a feather in your cap. But you have to be careful to limit the time your cap is collecting change on the sidewalk.
[tip]

Sometimes, my Mondays are crap. I mean, my Sundays and even some Friday nights are filled with spiritual highs and soul-level fulfillment, emotional connection and obedient surrender. Next to my valid resumé of Holy Spirit moments I drop a pile of self-worship, scorching unkindness, and primal depravity. It smells. It spoils and sours everything, even beautiful things. It can even ruin designated God environments. Stack enough of it, and it wafts doubt onto sure things.

From what I hear, this is common. Cultures around the world see it so much, they use it as evidence that all religions spring from the same contaminated fountain of human imagination, that the God deal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, nobody likes hypocrites. Nobody craves inconsistency. Nobody wants to waste time on something that doesn’t truly do what it’s supposed to do. (Well, except for infomercial and QVC buyers.)

The way I reconcile that is to seek forgiveness vertically and horizontally, to repent and make a U-turn at this green arrow left lane—even if I might only make it a mile or two until I take the wrong exit again. And while it’d be better not to need stop lights, I can at least be thankful for them and use them as God intended.

[footer]†Flammang, James M., and Ron Kowalke: Standard Catalog of American Cars 1976-1999, page 149-189. Krause Publications, 1999.††Peters, Eric: Automotive Atrocities! The Cars We Love to Hate, pp.94-95. Motorbooks International, 2004.

Cadillac ad used with permission from ProductionCars.com

Image(s) used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010[/footer]

56: Survival of the Fittest Marketers

Business EvolutionLast Saturday, I had the privilege of reviewing senior portfolios at Liberty University, the largest of the four major colleges in the greater Lynchburg area. Of the 39 portfolios to be judged, I was assigned eleven.

Sequestered in a small conference room, one at a time with each student, I had them give me a tour of their work—what they were proud to show and why, what they felt needed to be reworked. I’ve got to tell you, a couple or three of these “kids” had work as good or better than mine (and I’ve got a 10-year head start on them). I wish I could show you their work. I left there (1) impressed by the next decade of talent to be unleashed on businesses who need branding help and (2) thankful I left college when I did in the job market I did.

For the past four days, I’ve been reflecting on my own senior portfolio and my journey since then, literally 2,000 different project folders/campaigns—mostly in the auction industry. I’m embarrassed to look through my D-ring binders full of the direct mail pieces of the last decade of my career, especially the first half of the collection. I would even shy from showing my designer peers some of the pieces for which I’ve won national awards.

Tonight I pulled out my senior college portfolio and thumbed through its pages. The nostalgia of that belongs on a different blog, but let me say that my time in the auction industry has honed the core principles of how I design.

So, since this article is about us (not just me), what can we all learn from my 5.5 hours in a conference room?

Don’t stop evolving.

In the peripheral, we know that culture and technology are in permanent flux. Progress—the constant movement—has become normative. It’s hard to remember life before the Internet. I don’t know what I did before my iPhone. Email and facebook are built into the rhythm of my daily life; texting and tweeting have lost their new car smell. The various media I help clients coordinate per auction is a longer list than it was five years ago—even two years ago.

That trajectory won’t change.

In an industry where the average age literally qualifies for an AARP card, it’s easy to make habitual the successful tactics of the past. But the audience has changed. The media they use to find things to buy has diversified and multiplied. The competition for auctioneers now includes self-helpers and retailers. The buyer base required to achieve market value often requires bidders from foreign markets.

The question is not, “Am I adapting?” It’s, “Am I adapting at the same speed as the market?”

It’s not a question of whether you should have a Facebook account but how you immerse yourself in it. It’s not whether you have online bidding but how you broaden the buyer base that’s on the other end of it. It’s not whether you have color brochures but how precisely you can target to whom it mails. It’s not whether you get designations and continuing education but how much you absorb and implement.

It’s not about the brand image the locals trust. It’s about updating and expanding that brand to include a new generation, a wider buyer base. And it’s not about whether you have a logo; it’s about what that logo communicates. It’s not about having an email list but whether your emails interest those who receive them. It’s not about the auction anymore. It’s about what you’re selling. It’s not good enough to measure yourself against the industry; we must measure ourself against the marketplace.

So, can you chart the changes in your service? Can you articulate why your strategies have changed. Are they changing?

The balance of consistency vs. creativity has dramatically changed since I entered both the design and auction industries The filter through which I look at branding has evolved even in the 7.5 years biplane productions has had a hangar. The tasks I include in my service packages have increased, while my focus has narrowed. The way I organize my workflow, finances, and thoughts looks different now than it did a few years ago. (I could be specific, if we had more time here.)

How ’bout you? What’s your metric for relevance? Do you measure success or growth? There’s a difference. If you don’t see the difference, please move out of the HOV lane. Your faster competitors hate using the right lane to pass.
[tip]

I cringe when I look back at some of the things I used to think about God and say on his behalf. I was jacked—straight up. I had a personal relationship with my Creator, but it was shadowed by philosophies and tradition, insecurities and ignorance.

But rather than focus on the regret over waisted spiritual interactions and who I may have pushed farther from God, I choose to look at the mile markers of progress from that place. The way I express gratitude to and feel affection from God has expanded. The way I approach heaven in prayer has been profoundly rethought. I’ve substituted new filters through which to view the church, culture, and my own introspection.

Our relationship with Christ is often compared to marriage. I’m a few months from my tenth anniversary. The way Crystal and I relate and the depth of our knowledge of each other has evolved greatly since the days I carried her backpack to class. It’s a constant adjustment, a gradual education. We’re better at marriage and better people for it.

Much of organized, Western religion is set up to get to a place, a set of parameters—walls in which to build and conserve a faith. But if you look at Jesus’ personal ministry, you’ll see a constant walking, a journey beside people. That personal evolution with our eternal love still works the same way. If our faith looks the same as it did a year ago, we’re dying. If we aren’t seeing new aspects of our love (not just new facts from the Bible), we’re losing touch with our lover. If we define our spiritual life solely by correct theology or a list of accomplishments—instead of what the Holy Spirit has recently whispered into our souls—we are in atrophy and of less and less value as salt and light in a lost world.

[footer]Image(s) used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010[/footer]

Tampons & Sports Cars

Tampon & Race CarDuring this economic downturn, Audi has grown market share and remained profitable as traditional global automotive leaders wallow in bailouts, recalls, and falling sales.  While many companies cut advertising expenditures, Audi America has reported an increase in its marketing budget by 20% and developed waiting lists in several metro markets for its models.

How?  Well, if you agree with Audi America’s chief marketing officer in this revealing video clip, it’s because they abandoned Detroit mainstays and appealed to more than consumerism.  Rather than relying on drives down winding roads accompanied by headlines of new features and price points, they use traditional and nontraditional channels to separate themselves from ubiquity.  With their clean diesel and green police campaigns, they give consumers something to ponder.  Their vehicles—what they sell—occupy only brief seconds in their spots.  In fact, in some of their commercials, long, shiny lines of their competition’s vehicles fill most of the space.  They take some risks, including racing an airplane at takeoff for viral video and asking ESPN video journalists to film a racing documentary on their race team.

If you’re not into European cars, consider Kotex, which is fighting ubiquity and segment stigmas with its new “U” campaign.  Using candor and self-deprecation, they are bucking the clichés and euphemism their industry has implemented for decades.  Their product packaging now comes in rainbow colors within black boxes.  Rather than talk about product features, they mock menstrual product advertising.  They’ve built social media into their web site that generates donations for a female-empowerment non-profit.

“We’re really out there and we’re trying to touch women and say we care about this conversation,” said Mr. Meurer, of Kotex. “We’re changing our brand equity to stand for truth and transparency and progressive vaginal care.” †

How ’bout your company ads, promotional materials, and “About Us” web page?  Are you just stacking resumé bullet points against your competition’s stack?  Are you making superlative claims then making sure they see your logo?  Are you trying to do what you’ve seen your competition do but just a bit shinier or with better stock images?

Or are you evoking something that makes prospects stop, think, and maybe change their preconceived expectations of your industry?

To be fair, I ask those questions about my company, too.

As a result, my company brochure isn’t full color.  I abandoned print ads years ago.  biplane productions isn’t even in Lynchburg phone directories.  There are no galleries of my award-winning work on my web site—instead: a link to a clearinghouse of free marketing advice and a map of auctions to which I’ve contributed.  I don’t rent trade show booths; I engage with my prospect base through seminar podiums, industry lobbying, and trade publication contributions.  Unlike the ad agency industry standard, I don’t mark up my printing or take a commission from newsprint ads.  biplane productions‘ clients see exactly what I pay for media and subcontractors in line item detail.  I open my personal life to clients and prospects through a robust Christmas letter and proactive online social networking.  My company car is wrapped like a race car.

These are each intentional choices, sifted through a specific brand identity.  It’s more than advertising, bigger than graphic design.  It’s letting branding infiltrate my business.

Why?  Because a lot of work-from-home designers are hungry and willing to charge less than biplane productions does.  Because my work isn’t a price point commodity that you can find at the other end of an online shopping cart.  Because I’m not a freelancer; yet biplane productions isn’t a traditional ad agency, either.  I am the only one who does exactly what I do for whom I do it.  So, why use other companies’ marketing techniques to illustrate my services?

As an auction marketer, you’re in the same boat right now.  Your competition is cutting commissions to get the auctions you’re chasing.  Bid callers are muddying the water in which auction marketers like you swim.  They’re offering online bidding and the same web sites you do; they’ve got lettering and a logo on their SUV, too.

So then, how are you leveraging your individuality to gain sales and hopefully market share?  How are you illustrating your competitive advantage beyond the designations behind your name, the plaques on your office wall, and the charts & graphs in your proposals?  None of these are bad things, but they can’t carry the weight of your brand alone.
[tip]

God gave us unique combinations of pasts, talents, interests, relationships, and burdens. He’s the master of creativity; and we could chock this all up to the same expression of infinity as DNA and snow flakes.

But he handed those “random” cocktails to us for a reason: for us to leverage them for kingdom gain. He needs people to fly missionaries into remote fields and folks to love parking cars in church parking lots, hearts to sit with the elderly and arms to rock the infants, professionals to reach secular strongholds and private-school instructors to tutor the Christian leaders of tomorrow.

Take a look at your life. Maybe scribble notes on a piece of paper. Whom might you be able to reach that the church as a unit might not? The pains from your past—how could Jesus comfort and rescue others through those experiences and ensuing growth? How can you use your hobbies and proficiencies to leave a legacy larger than your own?

[footer]* “Rebelling Against the Commonly Evasive Feminine Care Ad,” NYTimes.com, Andrew Adam Newman, March 15, 2010.

Image(s) used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010[/footer]

48: Should You Co-brand?

Mixed FruitEspecially in a tight economy, the more you can add value to your transactions, the more transactions you’ll garner. Whether you leverage that extra value for a higher price or to beat competitors at the same price point, the more coordination of offerings you can do, the better.

At some point, though, you will reach the edges of your core competencies. You can outsource some services, if you want the headache (or the ability to markup or leverage for lower pricing). You can create a recommendation list that you hand to clients to coordinate separately on their own. Or you can co-brand with reputable firms you trust.

Co-branding is the tactic of combining brands visually as a means of cross-marketing the respective services or products.

The practice can be a great way:

• for an obscure brand to benefit from the market recognition of a larger one
[a new artificial sweetener advertising on a diet soda can]
• for two (or more) brands with different segments to introduce their following to each other
[“America’s Next Top Model” and Walmart creating a joint clothing line]
• for two (or more) premium brands to reinforce their quality
[BMW advertising its vehicles’ integration with Apple’s iPod line]

Corporate America has been employing this tactic for decades in advertising, packaging, and public relations. But few entrepreneurs unleash the marketing boost into their small business strategies and practices.

You can trade web site links, verbal mention, advertising space, signage, and/or other perks for items such as discounted (or even free) services, advertising investment, and/or reciprocal advertising.

If you’re considering this strategy, have you considered these potential co-branding opportunities?

Home Inspections
Fight the stigma of “as is, where is” with verifiable reports. Post those reports in your Property Information Packet (PIP).

Commercial Staging
Auction day decisions are often made by live impressions of the property. So, make superlative impressions or recommend such to your seller.

Landscaping/Lawn Maintenance
Every HGTV expert will tell you that retail buyers are highly swayed by curb appeal. Raise the floor on your bidding.

Professional Photography
Pictures win more NAA awards than design and printing do (and cost less than either), and they tell your prospects more than your words do.

Financing/Closing/Title Searching
Many buyers already have these in place before the transaction; others have no preference. If you share the same source, you’ve gained credibility.

Security Systems
Illustrate to people that they’re about to buy something valuable by directing them to vendors who can reassure them that their purchase will be kept safe.

Shipping/Trucking
Answer the question, “How am I going to get this home?” If possible, a co-branded calculator on your web site would put you at the front of the industry.

Maintenance/Tuneup
If it has an engine and moving parts, it will eventually need service. Show forethought by addressing future concerns with vendor direction.

Equipment Rental
Whether it’s portable bathrooms or tents—or even the hosting facility of an off-site auction—you aren’t the only one who needs to use them.

Catering
Display your choice of Chick-fil-A/Panera/Subway catering or your connection with a fundraising non-profit.

Advertising Medium
Signs, magazines, print shops, web sites, etc. You trust them with your business. Maybe your bidders should, too. What if your postcard asked recipients, “See more information in [insert publication/web site name here] with a cover of the publication or web site screen capture?

If you market to wholesalers and the investor class, this extra touch will probably not gain you enough extra credibility or deals to reward the effort. But if you interact with the retail market, you want consumers to connect as many positive, professional brands they might know with yours. This will give them added confidence to buy from you. You can also use this tactic in your proposals to show that you’re doing your homework—and more homework than your competitor is. Co-branding could be a successful part of your brand-building program.
[tip]

I’ve seen so many churches try to start their own version of successful nonprofits. They create redundant ministries to those already succeeding under a different name and management to put them under their own umbrella. So it was refreshing when I heard that one of the nation’s largest churches, North Point Community Church (Atlanta metro area), made it a policy to seek out other nonprofits successful in initiatives for which they shared a burden. By co-branding with them, both can maintain their autonomy and also the synergy of their combined effort. I hope their example is found and followed by many other congregations, especially those who already tend toward the exclusivity of denominations.

On a personal level, I find it hard to escape the challenge of being co-branded with Christ. He trusts us with his eternal, unblemished brand. Our choices and expression reflect on his plan, his character, his eternal solution. Our authenticity (or lack thereof) bears the image of his integrity. Our charity and forgiveness demonstrate his unconditional love.

We can’t just tack a cross or fish or label on our kingdom and call it shared. We can’t throw Jesus’ prerogative onto our bracelets to sanctify what our hands do. We can’t add his name to the end of our self-helping requests and call them prayers. Intrinsically, we have to unite everything we are with everything he is. And where there’s conflict, our assignment is to learn and repent and adapt to the omnipotence of sovereignty.

[footer]Images used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2009[/footer]

47: Take Your Message to the Streets

Hutch UnwrappedFor over a century, business owners have labeled their wagons and motorized vehicles with their respective companies’ names. For decades, precision painters scripted entrepreneurs names on the door of their trucks and vans. Decades later, vinyl lettering came along for faster, crisper installation of words and artwork. Then, a little over a decade ago, 3M perfected a product that could be wrapped around vehicles, expanding the advertising space to include almost the entire surface of a vehicle (I even have advertising on my roof).

Now, people can still get your dot com, phone number, and company name from those little white letters on your tailgate or rear window. But they could get more than information. They could get an idea of the kind of company you run, the culture of your staff, the type and value of the items or services that you sell.

With a vehicle wrap.

I recently had VSP Marketing Graphics Group of West Seneca, NY, transform my MINI Cooper with a vinyl wrap. [If you follow me on Twitter, you saw a live photo blog of the transformation process. I’ve also uploaded the pictures and process descriptions here.]

Already I’ve found several significant benefits stemming from this investment.

Brand Awareness
If your brand includes a modern logo and is well maintained across multiple media, a wrap will extend that professional image to people who would not otherwise interact with it. For a company looking for local or regional customers, there’s no medium as ubiquitous as public roads and parking lots. Due to a non-compete agreement with my local client, I wasn’t looking to gain local business from my MINI wrap. But in just the first couple weeks, I’ve had multiple inquiries about biplane from people looking at my car. biplane, a company run from a quiet-neighborhood basement, flew onto the radar of my community.

Hutch Wrapped

Wow Factor
I started designing cars when I was in junior high—aspired to that career in high school, when I drew over 500 vehicle designs. So, when the opportunity came to literally create the skin my sports car would wear, I spent well over a year mulling artistic elements. But that design time is atypical in the vinyl wrap industry, and the finished product matches biplane’s brand image and stands out in traffic. I’ve literally seen heads turn and people point at it. You can’t miss the vehicle, which means people can’t miss your advertising. It makes a three-dimensional, moving impression. In traffic, you become the visual exception—the unexpected and colorful image that gets remembered.

Cost Value
Your vehicle presents a large canvas—probably much larger than my MINI. At a national average of $15-$25 per square foot (including installation), you can’t ask for a better value in visual promotion. A typical wrap lasts 3-4 years. So, your one-time expense can end up costing you less than 48¢ per thousand viewers. Try that in newsprint, television, or direct mail!

Tax Benefit
In my case, wrapping my MINI allowed my personal vehicle to count as a business expense. Should I use this wrap for three years, as planned, the tax benefit should be roughly ten times the cost of the wrap. Consult your accountant and your auto insurer, but you may be able to turn one or more of your personal vehicles into mobile signs—with a net gain on your taxable income.

In advertising, we’re constantly confronted with upgrade choices like black-and-white versus color, postcards versus brochures, or line ads versus display ones. Strategic choices of where to upgrade and how much can accelerate or decelerate your brand’s growth in the marketplace. But a vehicle wrap should be a no-brainer. It’s the best value in corporate promotion and constantly introduces your company to new potential customers who wouldn’t know of you from any other medium.
[tip]

As holiness grows in you, sinful habits and negative influences will shed from your life. But sanctification doesn’t mean perfection or demur asceticism. It means “set apart,” something different than secularism and the world Satan has fogged with deceit. Some Christians take this concept as an excuse to hide from culture, to avoid interaction with the secular—except on the church’s terms or in cold-call canvassing.

From my experience, especially here in the Bible Belt, people want something different than both the dark realities of their habitat and the plastic facade of America’s church culture. But they want the difference to be authentic, not manufactured—inspiring, not entertaining.

If we live from the core of who we are (and who we’re becoming), God can use our personalities, interests, talents, and perspective for Kingdom benefit. So, rather than hide behind some clichés and coverups, we need to catch those who watch us off guard with our response to life—standing apart from the rat race, the status quo, even the American Dream. When we wrap our outside with what God is bubbling on the inside, we can pull out into life’s traffic and expect heads to turn. We can then redirect them to “turn [their] eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

“Just Shrink the Logo to Get Everything to Fit.”

You probably already know that your brand—your company’s public image—is way more than a logo. But you probably didn’t know that your logo can be more than a logo.

“Huh?”

A professional logo is a great start. If you don’t have one, get one. Yesterday. But the logo “treatment,” its context in marketing materials, can magnify or diminish your logo’s impact.

Skyline Tent

Take this set of samples from Skyline Tent Company. It wasn’t enough to just put their logo on this postcard, magazine ad, and business card. They carefully placed this logo in identical locations and similar proportions. Their logo’s font is the same font in all of their ad text. The colors change to fit the mood of the pictures, but there’s no mistaking their corporate-looking brand that makes them seem some large franchised brand, even as a local small business.

It’s not enough to slap your logo on a piece. In fact, you can be hurting your public persona by branding inconsistency. (I see a lot of this in the auction industry; and I used to be a regular perpetrator of such malfeasance.)

See, “different” stands in your memory better than consistency. Right now, when you hear “David Letterman,” do you think “comedian” or “affair with staffers”? Now, most golf enthusiasts remember Greg Norman for a couple huge chokes more than his string of success as “The Shark.” For a time, Ford Explorers were more synonymous for “rollovers” than “category-leading sales.”

Using your logo flippantly won’t have such draconian effects, but it will separate you from a Fortune 500 feel. That perception of professionalism could be the deciding factor of who someone calls first about selling their property—you or your competitor.

In your local paper, ALWAYS keep your logo in the same place, the same size. If you can, keep the pictures, headlines, and auction times in the same place. On your brochures, brand the consistency of the layout itself. You might have different templates for your each size brochure or postcard, but they should all look like they go together. Your web site should match your marketing materials. Your fonts should transcend media. You should have on record your company colors in RGB, CMYK, and HTML.

You don’t have to exert OCD tendencies on your advertising. You could just cut your commission to get the work that would otherwise go to your better-branded competition.
[tip]

As Christ followers, we can have one of two responses to our mistakes. We can hide and hypocrisize—and (try to) deceive ourselves and others. Or we can admit and air our errors, acknowledging to others that we stepped out of the Jesus path.

Even the “man after God’s own heart,” David, couldn’t live a consistent life. Why should we think we can? In our marriage with Jesus, we will have both Caribbean-vacation romance and overtime-at-work distance. The world wants to see authentic response to imperfection more than the opaque coating of rose-colored syrup.

I’m not saying we give up on the idea of consistency, just that we embrace our mistakes as learning experiences for us and others. Jesus’ reputation isn’t fragile; he’s not worried about his name. (A day’s coming when every soul that ever lived will get that right.) Rather than run cover for our bare sins, why don’t we embrace the mercy and grace that others need for their foibles and brokenness?

Don’t Be a Cross-Dressing Advertiser

Aftergame AftershaveHave you seen the new ad where the NFL linebacker is selling an aftershave while wearing an evening gown? You know, the one where his chest hair shows lumpy through the exquisite, red-carpet style dress?

Neither have I. There isn’t one. Gillette is smart enough not to try that.

I wish I could say the same for small businesses, whose ads fill local magazines, phone books, and web sites. No, they don’t cross-dress in their staff pictures, but they force their brand into inappropriate fits all the time—through their questionable stock photography choices.

From my professional experience, I can tell you that here’s how it works: “Hey, I’ve got this really cool picture. Let’s come up with a tag line that matches the picture for this ad [or postcard or online banner ad]. I want something that will grab their attention—something creative.” Using puns and/or stretches, you can create a headline that bridges the gap, words that explain the picture.

The problem? The picture shouldn’t need explaining. You’re letting the artwork determine their message, instead of allowing your message to drive the aesthetics. Sometimes, you can get away with this, when your images closely relate to the service or product you provide. The rest of the time, though, the solutions will be forced—often to a comedic level. Indirect connections create a visual dissonance that is often loud enough to push people past your message.

So, don’t be a cross-dressing advertiser.

Before you choose your next stock photography, ask these five questions:

  1. What would my message be, if there were no picture?
  2. Does this picture illustrate that message without explanation?
  3. Does this image also match my clientele, my prospect, and my brand?
  4. Is this photograph “best foot forward” (illustrating the peak of my capability) or dishonest (illustrating something I am not or I am not selling)?
  5. Is this image available for purchase, or did I take it illegally from the Internet or another source?

I buy hundreds of stock images a year for biplane and its clients. I’ve found that sites with price tags give you a better selection and save you time from sifting through poor-fit and/or lower-quality images. But even if the images you acquire are free, you’re wasting money—and, more importantly, brand capital—when you buy the wrong ones.
[tip]

I notice the change in me most, when I see the old me in other people. One of the biggest spiritual transitions I face is letting God out of the confines by which I used to define him, Christianity, faith, and the church. I’m finding him more creative, more gracious, and more sensible than the superstitious deity I had tried to appease.

The problem of forcing God into a contrived, me-shaped box, is that he becomes the kind of God I’d be: vindictive, superstitious, rules-oriented, OCD. My insecurities become his—and not in a good way. My traditions shackle his undefinable essence and limit the potential he has hoped for me since before Eden. I replace intimacy with religiousness, fulfillment with sin management.

When we attempt to box and package the infinite, we stunt our growth and maybe even put a barrier between our souls and his voice. When we define God by our man-made lists, we distance ourselves from a vibrant relationship in which we feel his pleasure. When we wrap our faith in our putrid, self-washed rags, we waft the stink of humanism over his new creation. And maybe worst of all: when we narrow our view of God, we make it difficult for others to see him in us.

[footer]Photo(s) used by permission with purchase from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

39: Sideswiping Your Company Image

Car AccidentI’ve got a good buddy what pulled off some crazy stunts in his days before I met him and he met Jesus. One of the stories has never left my memory. His big Ford pickup truck had just endured a significant collision—big enough to collect an insurance check but not big enough to total the vehicle. Thankfully, the damage left no evidence on three of the four sides of the truck—thankfully for him, that is.

See, he wanted to trade the truck for a newer one—and keep the insurance money. So, when he visited the dealer to purchase the replacement, he parked the trade-in’s damaged side tightly against the dealer’s building. After driving off the lot with his new purchase, he received a call from the dealer. “Did you know this thing is severely damaged down one whole side,” asked the salesman.

“Really? How’d that happen?” And now the legend continues.

Many auctioneers have washed and waxed brochures, garage-kept ads, and rust-free signs. Yet their content on listing web sites and sometimes even their own web site is a garbled dump of text from a Word® document. It’s not formatted consistently—or at all. It’s not organized. It doesn’t flow in order of importance. It’s incomplete or filled with errors that “we will get right, once we get the brochure approved.” In attempt to show sellers they’ve started the marketing process, they “just throw something up there with the date for now.” Depending on when a prospective buyer—or the seller—views the site, they might see very different presentations and different levels of professionalism.

If you want maximum value for your brand, when you try to trade it for transactions in the marketplace, you need to treat the Internet like you do other media.

A good start would include

  • creating a style sheet similar to what you have for your print and sign media
  • assigning only one or two people to manage uploads for a consistent workflow
  • discovering and saving the HTML color numbers (a six-digit alphanumeric code) of your logo
  • developing an information sheet that must be completed with all major information before initial posting

Good short cuts to consider include

  • typing regularly-used formatting code items (like bold text, hyperlink, email link, bullet lists, etc.) into a document for copying and pasting
  • using coded/formatted content from one web site to paste into the next
  • collecting and saving links to community, collector, and/or government web sites related to the subject property

Consider going the extra mile by

  • asking design vendors to color/contrast correct images before uploading to web sites (assuming they do this for your other media)
  • avoiding the use of “auction” and other generic terms in headlines of auction calendar listings or listing sites
  • breaking content into smaller chunks and line-item lists
  • using ALL CAPS sparingly, if at all

Web sites are no longer the last resort or cheap add-on of the marketing mix. Treat them like the primary media they are, and the buying (and selling) public will find your content easier to absorb. The easier information can be assimilated, the more approachable you make your auction. You don’t need me to tell you what that, in turn, will do for your income and brand.
[tip]

Yesterday, I listened to a podcast by Joel Thomas (North Point Community Church), talking about wisdom. He boiled the pursuit of wisdom down to one key phrase: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” The application was that we need people with access to our lives and the permission to speak biblical truth into them, to fill the gap of knowledge and perspective of our situations and spirits.

We can get some of this in a pew, similarly to how we would from a college class. But life transformation requires more intimate encounters with spiritual leaders, even if not from the highest leadership levels of our local churches.

We need authentic community where we vulnerably make ourselves available to the insight of others and the outside perspective on our blind spots. We need someone to tell us what we don’t know—not just about God and the Bible but about ourselves. We can have three sides of our vehicle immaculate and still be a wreck; so we need to submit ourselves for close examination to maintain maximum value to the kingdom.

[footer]Photo used by permission with purchase from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

35: Running Into My 7-year Niche

Bulls EyeSometimes, “No” wakes me up.

See, this post was supposed to include the highlights of an interview with a local aviation company on how to market yourself as a premium brand. But when I emailed a request to the Lynchburg firm that charters for the jet-set, I got a succinct reply: “We are not currently marketing our services to the general public.”

Over the weekend, I pondered where they get their hangar full of clients—enough to employ nine pilots with their “Your jet is ready” slogan. Then it hit me, when I heard my own voice telling a Yellow Pages telemarketer why biplane didn’t want a phone book ad, “I don’t pursue local clients.”

Over 90% of biplane‘s income arrives in my mailbox from auction companies, and over 90% of my marketing dollars and time head back to the same industry. That focus is narrowed even further by not using auction convention trade show booths or magazine ads, because I am searching for a select number and kind of accounts from the auction industry.

biplane‘s growth and maintenance strategies look for a specific feel, size, and inertia in an auction company. I prefer writing and conference speaking as marketing vehicles to sift new clients who buy into my approach. I also rely on my current clients’ referrals to pre-qualify their peers, both relationally and financially.

As you brand your firm toward a specific specialty or market segment, you will similarly start to thin the audience to whom you need to advertise. This allows you a bigger impact to a smaller group of more likely prospects. It might not have to get as narrow as that of biplane productions or Falwell Aviation. In fact, the geographic radius of your market might actually grow, if your core competencies are tied less to location than to asset type or skill set. Conversely, if you are the king of a specific geographic area, emphasize that dominance to its citizens.

As you get sellers (or buyers), evaluate what makes the good ones good and the poor fits so problematic. Look for common denominators; ask them how they heard about you. Focus your marketing where those answers take you; then evaluate those efforts regularly. You don’t have to abandon all of your shotgun-style efforts, if you’re not comfortable with that. If you build demand from one or several segments, though, you will grow less addicted to mass marketing.
[tip]

So many Christians are focused on mass evangelism—crusades, campaigns, and broadcast media. They’re handing out Gospel tracts at the carnival on a hot summer night. They’re hitting neighborhoods door to door, mega-phoning at flea markets, or holding up John 3:16 signs in an end zone near you. They’re the devout parents or even ministers who work in a church but have lost their own kids.

Sure, some people cross the line of faith [in Jesus’ substitution] from impersonal/mass efforts. Others go through the motions only to wither without discipleship or without truly taking that initial faith step. But is mass marketing the best practice for evangelism?

In most purchasing decisions, I put more stock in a friend’s recommendation than a TV commercial. You do the same. So, why would it be any different in a spiritual context? It seems to me, while far more difficult, that our greatest life impact for lasting change in the spiritual landscape is through our inner circles first–outward through concentric spheres of influence.

Jesus’ contemporary disciples about whom we read at the end of the gospels and in Acts–the ones who changed the world as we know it–aren’t the masses who listened to the Sermon on the Mount or the sea-side message with a free dinner. They weren’t even the crowds shouting “Hosannah!” for his ride into Jerusalem. For the most part, no. Those who walked with Jesus, ate with him, felt his physical touch or healing—they took Jesus’ words and faith and salvation with them. Seems to me that should be our approach, too.

[footer]Photo used by permission with purchase from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

27: Buying Credibility to Build the Expert Brand

Advertorial Bill BryantFor at least as long as I’ve been in advertising, press releases have long been classified as “free press.”  The danger of free press is that, sometimes, you get what you pay for.  You can do all the right things with your press release and it still may not get published—at least through the key media on which you were relying.

One way to guarantee that your message gets in print (or an online outlet) is to pay to have the story published: an “advertorial.”  In our culture, the statement advertorial is often just an ad that buys a whole page but only uses part of it for a short message.  These often extravagant media buys, usually by celebrities or united activists, often get picked up by other media and fulfill their original intent—a publicity stunt.

Publicity stunts work; they’re great for one-shot deals.  But if you’re looking to build your brand in the community, particularly an expert brand, journalistic advertorials can get your piece not only published but read.  Here are some tips on how to do that.

Fill an Information Gap

If you are properly nichéd, professionally trained, and/or personally connected to hot button issues, people will value your advice.  So, use your space to sell your knowledge more than your company.  People hire experts.  You will establish yourself as a source for answers, which later may grow into a source for solutions. You’re reading my biweekly advertorial right now.  Would you have read this far, if this were a commercial? Do your homework.  Then be prepared to wait a long time for a grade.

Write (And Edit) Like a Writer

If you want consideration from readers, you have to write like you value their time.  Use statistics and references; use quotations and accentuate them with “pull quotes.”  Check your grammar, or have a professional edit for you.  Sidebars with stats or charts give you that much more credence.  Look at the media’s current articles; mimic their approach.

Half Full or Half Empty?

You don’t always need full pages to get noticed.  You can create a themed article and pay for it to run at regular intervals.  Name yourself as the author, and design the space to look more like a sidebar or column.  Three third-page runs will get you more consumer interactions than one big kaboom.

Reach Out and “E” Someone

It can be expensive to rent space from your local newspaper or regional trade publication.  And you may be paying for readers you don’t need.  Many online sites invite expert contributors to their oligarchy of writers.  Some even allow free access to their visitors.  Email can allow you to regularly reinforce your brand to a targeted group of people already familiar with you and open to your company.  It’s usually cheaper than print, too.

Seduce the Unsuspecting

Draw people into your stories the way that newspapers do: use large, interesting images and captivating headlines.  Make sure stock photos concretely (not abstractly) relate and that company photos are professionally shot and/or digitally enhanced.  Get multiple eyes proofing your prominent text; you don’t want to end up on Monday night Leno.

Your message doesn’t need be contained to you, your competitors, and people hiding in the restroomat work.  Hone it.  Enhance it.  If you believe enough in it, pay to publish it yourself.

—————–

Examples of client advertorial designed by publication and by biplane productions available upon request.
[tip]

I’m not a regular country music listener, but I love Tim McGraw’s twangy song that became the theme song for CMT’s “Trick My Truck.”

“How Bad Do You Want It?” is one of my life theme songs.  In the land of the American Dream, I motivate myself by questioning my will, my talent—even my success.  I sort my to do list and my life goals regularly, asking myself that very question, “How much do I want this?  Is [this] worth not having [that]?”

Sometimes I have to say “no” to some pretty cool things, some fun pastimes, some lesser dreams.  But I know too many people paralyzed by the inability to choose which passion(s) to chase, which talent to exploit.  I don’t want to miss throwing a touchdown by waiting too long to decide between two open receivers.

I use my unwritten obituary as a sieve, as well as my life mission statement—among other things.  As a writer and a live-er, I realize that I will sometimes (if not often) have to pay—financially, emotionally, and physically—to impact others with the intrinsic message and lesser statements of my life.  Thankfully, like advertorials for business, those costs are outbalanced by the reward.

[footer]Stock image(s) used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2008[/footer]

Newsletters & Fruitcakes

NewsThe word newsletter used to evoke an internal groan akin to the one for holiday fruitcake.  For decades, newsletters were more blessed to give than receive.  With desktop publishing and internet technology constantly improving, though, in-house newsletters have made improvements by leaps and bounds.

That said, not all newsletters are created equal.  I’m not just talking about printed pieces versus email or online versions.  See, some build positive recognition of their company’s brand.  Others are still wrapped in their green cellophane.  The recipient knows the sender means well, but they’re not going to stop from their mail sort to absorb the content.  So, here are some tips to keep that from happening to your newsletter.

Establish Your Expertise
The primary function of the newsletter is to inform the reader in a way that establishes your company as an expert source.  The residual effect of newsletter investment may take years.  If you need to borrow articles to fill the space, you are still communicating your knowledge prowess—because you know where to direct others for information.  Just make sure to obtain permission and properly attribute the source(s).

Serve the Reader First, Your Company Second
You wouldn’t want to read your local used car dealer’s run down of his sales reports.  Your prospects don’t want to read your litany, either. But if your local car dealer sold the first off the assembly line or accepted a trade-in from a celebrity, then he’d have your interest.  What’s in your piece for your reader? Make them care about your business by caring about their interests.  Save your “sold!” gallery for your web site.  Spend time to obtain quotes and supporting materials that will make your newsletter more journalistic, more professional, and more engaging.

Graph-fiti Like a Gang Member
If you want to illustrate your accomplishments, don’t toot your horn with paragraphs of text.  Give your successes context with chart and graphs.  I recommend showing sale prices in relation to appraisals/assessments or sales by day of the week or month of the year.  Compare types of auction properties, or map types of properties per geographic area.  Chart online bidders versus live ones over a span of sales.  Make abstract ideas concrete by illustrating them graphically.

Use Large Photos and Lots of White Space
If your piece looks more like a bible page and less like a magazine spread, seek professional help.  This isn’t high school yearbook class or “BUS 107: Intro to Business Forms.”  Your newsletter carries your brand as much as any other media you place in front of your audience.  Break stories up with pull quotes, statistic boxes, charts, and inset photos.  Don’t’ crowd content, especially text.  Use action photos as much as possible.  Use a test audience, especially one unfamiliar with your news.

Stay on Schedule
Determine a schedule—whether monthly, quarterly, or annually—that will allow for you to consistently generate original content.  You want to develop a distribution pattern, even if a sparse one.  If you have extra material for one release—rather than try to shoe horn it into this issue, save the least time-sensitive content for the next issue.

You can save your newsletter from the round file the same way you would protect a Christmas food gift investment: give something the receiver will want to eat.  Put some thought into it.  Avoid the non-refundable bargain bin.

And make sure the old family “special recipe” stays at home.
[tip]

The underlying message of your newsletter is, “We are experts.  You can trust your business with us.”  What is the underlying, almost-thematic message of your life? Do you sift your actions and goals though the sieve of that statement?

For me, I want it all to match my life goal: to live a creative nonfiction life of spiritual and physical adventure that, with integrity, will draw others into the same.  It doesn’t take too long on my web sites and facebook pages to see the ways I pursue that (successfully or not).  But the chase makes the mundane less so, the necessary a contribution—and a positive legacy possible.

Is the way you’re writing the pages of your life story pulling people into the bigger picture?  If not, you can still edit and rewrite the remaining pages—starting with today’s.

[footer]Stock image(s) used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2008[/footer]

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