Why is messaging keeping CMO’s awake at night?
The average brand life span used to be 100+ years; now many are dead within a dozen. Digital technology is a culprit, making it simultaneously easier to release messages and easier to release too many messages. It’s created a huge archaeological dig of corporate messaging—a dig that forces customers to sift through a lot of layers to find the core message. And any marketer knows the more work your customer has to do, the less likely they are to engage.
A great example of inconsistency in messaging is what we tell our young girls these days. We spend a lot of time sending them messages about being powerful, about achieving anything they set their sights on, about embracing STEM. But we spend a lot of money dressing them up as princesses. The princess industry is worth several billion dollars. Compare that with the what’s being spent on STEM. The bottom line is a tremendous inconsistency in messaging that lack of clarity is evident in the fall-off in the number of women pursuing careers in STEM (and staying in those careers).
So how do you avoid this kind of confusion and create messaging that’s consistent enough to allow your CMO to get a good night’s sleep?
Start with a message audit—and by that I mean taking a serious look at what you’re saying about your company across every channel—including what employees are saying. It’s important to take a look at what you’re doing as a company, and what you’re actually saying, because the Gap in between is those two things is the one into which customers fall along the path to engagement with your organization.
Then assess how these messages align with your strategic goals. Jettison what’s not working and take the time to have someone lead your team through a workshop to develop foundational strategic messaging. This foundation will allow you to create clear narratives on which to create your communications campaigns.
Consistent messaging outlasts changes in technology. Go back to some of the most familiar fairy tales you know—Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Three Little Pigs. No matter how many times they’ve been told and retold over 800 years, their core messaging remains the same. And so should yours.
The evolution of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Chief Growth Officer (CGO) and Chief Customer Officer (CCO)
When I was in 3rd grade I entered a contest for the best “fire prevention” poster. I was pretty proud of what I created and I took it outside to show my dad, who was burning leaves in a trashcan. Even then I was a writer so I was focused on the copy. But my dad, who worked on Madison Avenue, took the poster from me, held it over the fire and burned all the edges, smoking up the center where my copy was situated. In that moment my dad taught me everything I ever needed to know about advertising. (I won the contest by the way).
I always understood what advertising was and the role it played in supporting marketing campaigns. And until recently, I always understood what marketing was: creative or educational customer communication, based in part on market research, with the goal of engaging and interacting with the customer in ways that motivate them to buy product.
But the definition—and role—of marketing is shape shifting. Marketing communications has been obfuscated by “brand” communications; brands are pushed to tell stories, though I can’t remember the last time a bottle of soda spoke to me. Market research has become subsumed by data analytics, which fail to give us the big picture. Customer engagement has come to mean counting retweets and likes. Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) are fading away, being replaced by Chief Growth Officers (CGOs) and Chief Customer Officers (CCOs).
Evolution is fine but we’re at the point where even those of us engaged in the practice of marketing are having a hard time understanding what it is anymore.
So, what is it?
In a smart HBR article about innovation and marketing, the author writes, “The search, content, and loyalty campaigns that most managers call marketing these days are common downstream tactics for generating or maintaining awareness or repeat purchase; the full, business-growing power of the marketing function comes way upstream — from creating markets. Understanding people’s fundamental needs and drivers, identifying customers, and developing the entire go-to-market and usage ecosystem are the essential aspects of marketing.”
At a time when many organizations are moving the roles of CMO, CGO and CCO around the board like chess pieces, it’s helpful to step back and re-read the above sentence. Marketing ties together the elements of growth, customer understanding and relationship building, and strategy. The functions of the CGO and CCO flow up into the overall CMO function. The data, the identification of customers and touchpoints, the creative that fuels a successful customer conversation—all functions of marketing. And in my opinion, so is sales (even though I’ve worked in both areas and have long experienced the antipathy between marketing and sales) because who to sell and where to sell it is part of the go-to-market strategy.
Achieving some industry-wide clarity on the definition of marketing is important because in order to do our jobs well, we need to understand what we’re doing and what the other people on our team are doing. Effective collaboration stems from communications and transparency. Because at the end of the day what we’re trying to do is have a conversation with the customer. And in conversation, language matters.
Reaching the Right Audience
You hear so much today about audience size in different forms of media. It’s a game of one-upmanship to see who has 2 million Twitter followers or Facebook followers or how many people have downloaded podcasts.
But do these really have any meaning?
We should really be focusing on audience intention—the idea that the audience we’re reaching is truly the best audience for you.
If you’re not you’re wasting your time and their time, and you’ve become a modern-day version of Fred Kaps (more on Mr. Kaps in a moment).
First ask yourself these questions: Do I know how my message or story is being consumed? Am I optimizing my messaging for the best user experience?
Case in point. Your marketing department says we need video case studies to showcase a product or service. A great idea indeed. But does your marketing dept ever think that the majority of your potential clients consume your content on mobile and you just signed off on creating high-end 2-minute vignettes? If your staff had taken the time to consider audience intention you could have saved money and done a better job finding ways to maximize those who follow you on the right platform.
Think if it this way. Hundreds of people consume content in multiple media forms while doing something else. Some call it clutter. The smart executive finds a way to cut through that clutter and is not seduced by the pure size of the audience.
Effective messaging focuses on matching your message to your potential clients in the right medium at the right time. That takes work and planning and a true understanding of how to most effectively program to the right audience. Raw numbers of viewers or listeners or click-troughs should not be the most important measure of audience success.
The aforementioned Mr. Kaps is the best example of that.
On a cold night 55 years ago, Fred Kaps performed his internationally recognized and celebrated magic act in front of 73 million people. Consider that number for a moment.
Ever heard of Mr. Kaps? I didn’t think so.
He’s the classic case for not matching message with the audience intention, for on February 9, 1964, Fred Kaps had the misfortune of following the Beatles on their initial performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Audience size does not matter. Quality of audience does and getting the right message to the right people is the most important goal.
Don’t be Fred Kaps.
PS. Another performer that night on the Ed Sullivan show learned that lesson well. Waiting in the wings was an actor preparing to do a performance as the artful dodger in a scene from the Broadway play Oliver. His name was Davy Jones and soon he and his “Faux Four” Monkees colleagues had their own chance to strike a chord with an audience. 73 million people watched the first four episodes of their show. An interesting coincidence and every one of those 73 million people screaming for their message just as well. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Speech is a contest for your audience
Humans are the only primates who gain status by speaking instead of fighting.1 We talk to gain the attention of others and as society’s evolved, those who gained the most attention in the cave controlled the crowd.
And therein lies the DNA of leadership.
This “attention getting” through speech is what elevated the status of storytelling for leaders in pre-literate society. The ability to tell a good story was so prized in some societies, such as Celtic Ireland, that leaders were as known for their poetry as their prowess in battle. As the size of kingdoms spread out from caves, through villages and into city-states story became even more important. In the early Middle Ages, troubadours—traveling storytellers—became fixtures at Court. The top ones were heavily wooed because their ability to tell the king’s story throughout the kingdom was a critical way of disseminating his message and creating perception about what was happening at Court. Shaping that into story made it easier to remember and pass along (making troubadours, in many ways, the first press secretaries and spokespeople).
Today, story continues to be a key element of leadership speech communications because of its ability to engage, connect and persuade. A neuroscientist named Uri Hasson researches story and human communication and he found that story actually synchronizes brain waves across a group of listeners. He has shown that if you experience an event, say you fall down the steps, the incident generates a pattern in your brain waves. Then later, when you tell the story about falling down the steps, your brain regenerates the same wave patterns. AND, when you tell others your story about falling down the steps, their brains generate the same wave patterns as yours! Our brain waves are literally synced by story.
It stands to reason, whoever is telling the story is in control of the crowd.
Story is a powerful component of strategic communications as well, because story can provide a framework for understanding complex information. Hasson conducted another experiment with story that bears this out: he assigned a short story about a husband and wife at a party to two different groups. He told one group the woman was having an affair with a man at the party and told the other group the woman was loyal but the husband was intensely jealous. Then he sent the groups off to read the story—and when they returned, the interpreted the story along the lines of how it had been framed to their group. The framing of the incident shaped the groups’ interpretation. That’s level of persuasion is what politicians dream of.
Storytelling helps leaders not only frame events but makes the events understandable whether they’re simple or complex. And employees are predisposed to pay attention to those storytelling leaders because we’re born to understand and think in story. Yet storytelling takes a backseat to analytical and financial skills in the C-suite. Multiple channels have been opened between organizational leaders and their employees in an attempt to increase and facilitate communications—when in the end, they may need just one. A story.
Marshall Poe, “A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet”
The Moral of the Three Little Pigs
Fairytales are an excellent subject for Harvard Business Review case studies—for example, the lesson learned in the Hansel and Gretel case study is, “always have an exit strategy.” (There’s also a darker, familial morality, but we’re not talking about Psychology Today here).
The Three Little Pigs also offers actionable insight:
Sent out into the world to seek their fortune, they begin by constructing new homes for themselves (which, depending on the neighborhood, can be one way of seeking a fortune).
The first pig quickly tosses together a house of straw and settles in lazily; the second pig, only slightly more motivated, constructs a house of sticks, and then climbs into his easy chair, remote control in hand. But the third pig, whom we know to be savvy about long term strategy, builds a house of bricks. Despite all the huffing and puffing, his house is still standing at the end of the story.
What makes the Pigs a great case study? Easy. The pigs are Brands, sent out into the world to tell their stories, and the houses are their communications strategies. The sticks and straws are dwellings built without a core message—so they’re easily blown away on a gust of wind or a wolf huff. But the brick withstands the maelstrom because it houses a strategic message, meaning it’s built to last. And the wolf? He’s the short attention span that eats up your audience’s interest before you’re able to build a connection with them.
The moral of the story is, don’t build a comms strategy or produce content without first developing a foundational strategic message. Otherwise it will blow away—taking your brand, your audience, and your marketing budget with it.
Men and women are equal–until they step in front of an audience
A male executive stepping on stage is going to be judged very differently than a female executive. Take the issue of clothes, for example. For male execs it pretty much boils down to which shirt and tie to wear with the suit—a suit, any suit or any variation on a suit. For a female exec it’s, suit or a dress? If a suit, a pant suit or a skirt suit? If a dress, with a blazer or not? Hose? Heels? What kind of jewelry will set off the outfit without wreaking havoc with the mic?
The deeper issue behind the question of what to wear is how the clothing will add to or subtract from the executive’s presence. When an audience sees a man in a suit, it registers the suit as the statement of a position of authority—and then promptly forgets about it. What color or cut of the suit is immaterial, the perception has been established that the man is in charge, because of the suit. Women’s clothing never sinks into the background that way–there are still articles about Brandi Chastain’s sports bra, 20 years after she led her soccer team to victory. Still.
Clothes are the first thing the audience perceives about a woman, because society continues to judge women on their looks whether we admit it or not. And if a female exec’s clothing or hair or shoes don’t fit the preconceived image, the audience will remember it before they remember anything else. A colleague of mine coached a senior level female exec at a large pharma. She delivered an in-depth, knowledgeable and serious presentation. But what did she wear? A very pink dress, with her long blond locks tumbling about her shoulders. My colleague said that all anyone could think when they looked at her was, “Pharma Barbie.”
Once execs open their mouths to speak, it can get even worse.
Everyone gets a little nervous before going on stage and when they do, their voice rises higher in their chest. Men’s voices start lower on the scale so when anxiety pushes their voices up, it’s still a lower octave than where most women speak naturally. When anxiety triggers breathlessness in a woman, her voice gets higher and thinner. Think of the words associated with women’s high voices—shrill, shrieking, scolding—all of which are the opposite of resonant, which is associated with power.
Getting an exec ready to go on stage involves more than prepping talking points and slides. They’re being judged when they’re up there—and you can help them win points by getting them help with their presence as well as their presentation.
Thinking in strategic story
Once I was writing a speech for an exec to deliver before a large sales force. It was to take place at 8 in the morning. In Las Vegas. Are you seeing the challenges?
So the exec says to me, I want to talk about…and then he lists 4 or 5 bullet points. They were long and not very interesting bullets points. But really, when are bullet points ever interesting? When he finally stopped, he asked me, so what do you think? And I said, I think your audience is asleep.
He was taken aback but my point—not a bullet point—was this: you need to talk to your audience about something that interests them if you want to get their attention. Yes, you’re on stage to get your own points across, but first, you need to wake your audience up and give them a reason to pay attention. Then, you need to engage them in a way that teaches them what you want them to know and helps them retain your message—even at 8 am in Vegas.
And that’s where strategic story comes in. Strategic story transcends bullet points while delivering your message. Let me give you an example. Say I’m giving a presentation on the importance of accuracy in language translation—a pretty dull topic, right? For my presentation, I would probably use the following point bullets to get my message across:
- First, accuracy is critical in translating languages
- Second, always understand the context of the sentences you are translating
- Third, if you do use slang, you need to verify the meaning of the slang
- And finally, always double check your translation before handing it in
Chances are, I lost you on the second bullet point. And you probably can’t remember the first bullet without replaying this. Now I’ll tell you a story that illustrates those same points.
When I was a college student, I spent a semester in France. In Angers to be precise, in the Loire Valley. Angers prides itself on being called the “cradle of the French language”. They take that reputation very seriously and the professors at the university made sure you paid attention to the particulars.
I was not as particular and admittedly, I spent more time cutting class and picking up language lessons in cafes. I also took to reading French novels that were more interesting than grammar books.
One of the novels I was reading was “Cyrano de Bergerac”, a 17th century romantic novel, full of flowery language. One of the most memorable passages is about a kiss, and it goes: “un baiser, mais à tout prendre, qu’est ce?” Translated, it reads, “A kiss, but what is it?” It’s a lovely passage that goes on to describe what a kiss feels like.
I was reading the original French version, the 17th century French and was simultaneously loving it and feeling good about my ability to understand it. One day, I walked into translation class and the professor handed out an excerpt of a Time magazine article in English, and asked us to translate it into French. The article was about kissing customs—for instance, it said the Japanese never kiss in airports, they shake hands; the French kiss multiple times per cheek, sometimes 3, sometimes 4; and the Americans hug instead of kissing.
Since I was reading a novel that involved a lot of kissing and a lot of conversation about kissing, I did the translation cold and handed it in. Several days later the professor returned the assignments. It was customary at that time for profs to walk down the aisles as they handed back papers, making comments about the students’ work. Obviously a precursor to the kind of embarrassment one can suffer on social media today. When he got to my desk, he looked at me and suddenly stopped talking. He dropped my paper on my desk without making a comment and scurried back up the aisle to the front of the room. He was obviously embarrassed and I was intrigued enough to actually pay attention.
He cleared his throat and began, “Mesdemoiselles, the verb for kissing is s’embrasser, not se baiser.” He then went on to give a short lesson in slang and how the verb “se baiser” had morphed over time and no longer meant, “to kiss”. Suddenly, he stalled and began to blush. And that’s when I got it. The meaning of “Se baiser” had evolved from kissing to…let’s just say an impolite term for making love.
I looked at my paper, filled with “se baiser” instead of “s’embrasser”. I had literally turned an entire article about kissing customs into an article about something quite different. Think back a moment on how I had translated the line, “the French kiss multiple times in airports” into the line, the French—shall we say—make love multiple times in airports.
It was funny to me and to the rest of the class when I shared it with them. But to this day, I always check the provenance of any slang I use in foreign languages and I always double and triple check my translations.
This story embodies all of my key messages—be accurate, know the meaning of the local slang, understand the context and always check your translations. But it does it in a way that’s memorable and, because it’s funny, repeatable. Now, can you remember my bullet points from the beginning of this piece? Probably not. Will you remember this story next time you go to speak a foreign language? I’d bet my dictionary on it.