We’re almost to Emerald City!
The book with the Oz theme and impossibly long sub-title is nearly ready to fly to far-flung corners of the world and the Kindle-verse.
No Place Like Home (Services) – How a Wizard of Ads and His Crackerjack Copywriter Helped America’s Best Companies Sell 2 Billion Dollars in Air Conditioners is headed for an October 2023 release.
In celebration of what’s to come, authors Ray Seggern and Monica Ballard are releasing chapters in advance, beginning with the section titled, Good Things Come in Threes.
Strategy, Message, Budget
Our most successful clients are in long-term relationships with us, with incremental progress measured over years, not just a few weeks. If you view that relationship as a road-trip, Strategy is the vehicle, Message is the fuel that drives it, and Budget regulates how long that car can stay on the road. Climb in as Ray and Monica explain how Strategy, Message and Budget not only provide a roadmap for the client but also inspires confidence that allows you to steer their journey.
When people ask what we do, our elevator pitch is easy. It’s just three things: strategy, message, and budget. It is our belief that those are the three pillars on which great marketing is built.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines strategy as:
“An adaptation or complex of adaptations (as of behavior, metabolism, or structure) that serves or appears to serve an important function in achieving evolutionary success.”
Whether we’re talking about cockatoos or companies, bears or businesses, strategy is key to success. Strategy drives the message, and the strength of that strategy affects the budget.
All too often, we’ll get a call from someone who believes all they need from us is a radio script or two, and that’s it. But small business owners who think too small and attempt marketing without a well-structured strategy often end up bobbing in the water with no landmarks in any direction. Setting out on dangerous waters takes planning and courage, and it requires you to think about how long this voyage will be and what you may encounter along the way. That requires a map.
What’s better than getting a map? Listening to the mapmaker who has traveled that route before and can forecast what hazards and opportunities lie ahead.
Just because you may be advertising doesn’t necessarily mean your company is branded. People may know about your company, but they may not understand how your business differs from others in your industry. Branding doesn’t just promote what you sell, but why your company should be the best choice when consumers need what you sell. Strong brands are created through a collaborative ongoing process. They begin with the fundamental building blocks of core values and company history. Then, they gain strength by staying relevant to what is important to the customer.
If success were a formula, everyone would be a Rockefeller. All too often, though, business owners start connecting dots after a success or disappointment, concluding that the outcome was caused by something not necessarily related. Often, the result is that business owners think of business (and marketing) as a gumball machine: “I pay for A, turn crank B, therefore C should happen immediately and every single time!” This kind of reasoning also results in thinking that if something works in one market, you can automatically assume it will be successful in another market without deviation.
Correlation is not causation, and neither is sequence. The variables in any successful strategy will be time, money, your market, the quality of your data, and that quirky variable known as human behavior:
- How much time are you willing to invest in “farming,” cultivating loyal customers rather than “fishing” for quick sales?
- How well are you deploying your budget’s resources? How much of your money is going toward Air (Mass Media), how much for Land (boots-on-the-ground efforts), and for Sea (online spending). We’ll cover Air, Land & Sea in more detail later in this section.
- Can you clearly define what is different in your market over last year, be it the decline in the economy or the strength of competitors? Are you relying on supply chains connected to overseas factories and shipping, or do you have more local connections and advantages? (Can you now see why comparing success stories with another market might not apply?)
- Nobel Economist Ronald Coase is credited with the phrase, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.” Are you seeing facts and figures in a biased way to prove your success theories?
- Like your commute, unpredictable human behavior will always turn an easy path to success into an uneven landscape. It is sometimes a slow ride home because of weather-driven fender-benders and good-for-nothing rubberneckers. You must always accept that there will be external stimuli and criteria that are out of your control.
So, what is predictable? Perhaps nothing. Accept it and hang onto what you can control.
If you had a slow season because of weather or other outside influences, odds are pretty good that something like that will happen again, right? So, formulate an action plan to compensate. If a competitor stole your technicians, ask yourself what steps you can take to improve your company culture. That way, your guys never again think to jump ship.
How can you track and measure progress toward the outcome you want to see? We have clients who meticulously track, not just K.P.I.’s, but also journal the monthly ups and downs of weather, staff sick days, sales promotions, and other “faucets” readily available. In this way, even the human element is embedded in the data. Follow the data cautiously and examine its plot line alongside the stride of your personnel.
Humans are natural storytellers, from cave paintings to puppet shows to multi-million-dollar movie trilogies. Whether we’re teaching our children how to be safe in the world (“don’t eat paste!”) or choosing a company to fix our AC, we prefer everything in the form of a story. That’s why the next ingredient of marketing rocket fuel is the all-important message. What’s your story? Your company’s story? Is there something unique to you and how you do business that will make a potential customer think of you when their plumbing or AC is on the fritz?
There’s no good way to tell a bad story. Ultimately, it’s the core message of your campaign, and it determines the success of your advertising strategy.
One of the most common problems we encounter is getting companies in service industries to look past the ordinary to dig deeper and find out what makes their companies different regarding what they offer.
Three Types of Ad Messages
Here’s a fun game: next time you see an ad, pinpoint which one of these three categories it fits into:
This type of advertising fits everyone without differentiation. Some ad agencies offer these types of ads to several companies in different markets: Unremarkable service guy shows up at the homeowner’s door, service man puts on booties before entering, service guy works on the furnace, or crawls into the cabinet under the sink, or makes notes on a clipboard after staring at a roof, or tweaks something inside a breaker box. You get the picture. They’re generic ads where all the editor has to do is insert your name, logo, and website info, and voila! You’ve got yourself a great ad! But …is it, really? If your company name can be lifted out and your competitor’s name inserted seamlessly, chances are this ad will be full of portable and pointless clichés. Is this sort of advertising the highest and best use of your dollars?
Product-specific campaigns are just as portable as category-specific and are useful for driving traffic. These campaigns generally advertise loss leader prices. And once you start bragging about sales and low prices, you’re setting yourself up for a dangerous precedent. You usually know ahead of time what the customer will spend because you’ve set it up for them in advance. And often, that loss leader product or service is the only thing that customer will take advantage of, and now that they have that, they’ll be on their way. If that’s all they want to spend, you have to prepare yourself for that inevitability. You should also remind yourself that they may be making a note of this low-price product or service, and they might not be back until you offer it again.
Now you’re talking. Client-Specific ads say things that only your company can say. Greater and more powerful than some Unique Selling Proposition, client-specific advertising starts with your origin story – a story only you can tell. It continues by telling the tale of your business’ development, describing your company culture, sharing your successes, and yes, even recounting rough patches along the way. You should be talking about core values, company, rituals, and business practices. Tell your story — not in a journalistic way, but with your company’s essence, your style. Are you warm and fuzzy or high-tech and polished? In this all-too-busy world, stand out by using entertainment as currency.
Don’t just brand. Bond. Win the heart, and the mind will naturally follow.
So, what kind of advertising have you been using? Is it working for you, and are you ready to try something different? Be honest with yourself and change what you can.
In the 1970s, there was a sketch done by a popular British comedy troupe, Monty Pythons’ Flying Circus, called “How Not to Be Seen.” In its opening empty landscape, the narrator asks a man to stand up. The gentleman comes out from behind a bush and is immediately shot. According to the narrator, “This demonstrates the value of not being seen.” Hilarious.
In marketing, however, the whole idea is to not only to be seen, but to be recognized as an attractive target for your customer. Having your advertising stand out either means going against the grain or being the only voice in the room at a certain time—you “zig” when others “zag”.
We had a few clients one summer who asked if they should run a Back-to-School special. After all, Back-to-School specials were all over the place! While it’s a natural fit for businesses such as clothiers, office suppliers, shoe stores, furniture stores, and other relevant markets, we emphasized to them that this was not the best use of their marketing dollar for three reasons:
- To shoehorn a Back-to-School concept for a home services company is a disconnect for consumers. There is no natural fit tying heating & cooling, plumbing, roofing, or electrical services with kids going back to school.
- Consumers may have to use some Back-to-School money they have squirreled away for home repairs, but they do so begrudgingly. No one ever decided to hold off on that furnace tune until you decided to offer that Back-To-School price break.
- If all those other businesses are jumping on the Back-to-School bandwagon, why would you want to blend in with all those other messages?
Now take Back-to-School out of the equation and insert any other holiday, season, or occasion when you might advertise. Is there a date on the calendar when you can be the only company to plant your flag and claim that day as “Customer Appreciation Day,” or “Founder’s Day,” or your mascot’s birthday? If you insist on waiting for the same holidays and occasions as everyone else, you’ll share that time with other companies in other industries trying just as hard to be seen.
Your message, therefore, has to be that much more relevant, memorable, valuable. And when we say ‘seen,’ we mean audio advertisements just as much as printed word, online coupons, web banners, home show displays, truck wraps, and TV. Done right, that audio will spark mental images in listeners’ imaginations. You will be “seen” in their mind’s eye.
We always recommend an early-week radio schedule so as not to compete with car dealers and furniture stores shouting “Sale, Sale, Sale.” Why not stack the deck in your favor and advertise at times when others aren’t? If you must market when others do, then say something extraordinary or say it in a way that will stand out!
What will you do to stand up and be counted? Don’t allow your message to blend in with everyone else’s noise. Otherwise, your marketing is an exercise in “How Not to Be Seen!”
Message vs Copy
Authentic truths cannot be uncovered in the ten-minute meeting you have with a media rep when they ask what you want your ad to be about.
You see, message and copy are two different things. And although we take pride in our creativity, it doesn’t take a great copywriter to create an ad from an authentic message. When you assume clever copy will make up a vapid concept, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Here’s the deal, friend:
You need to stay on the air long enough for people to hear or see you and remember the message. That’s when you’ll begin to see results. Then, you have to wait for the listener or viewer to need what you sell. If you have a long product cycle… well, better make yourself comfortable. Remember, the longer you stay on the air, the deeper the message goes into memory and the better it works. We’ve never seen an advertiser fail because they were reaching the wrong people, but we have seen hundreds fail because they had a weak message.
Now for the lightning round of “what-about-isms”:
- In a WWE cage match of weak message versus equally weak message, who will prevail? Answer: The most repeated message.
- Are we saying, “clever never works?” Answer: Of course not. The advertiser with a weak message wrapped in cleverness and humor will vanquish a competitor with an equally weak message wrapped in a wet brown paper bag. But remember, “clever” can be subjective. Think of the car dealer ads you hate; somebody thought they were clever, or they wouldn’t have gotten made.
- What if you’ve been advertising on the same station for a few years, and you would like to move your commercials to one of your favorite stations or programs? Answer: Fine. But rather than abandoning the conversation with your current audience, find the money to add that new station, particularly if your product cycle is a long one.
- Does how much you spend matter? Answer: It depends on whether you’re trying to buy reach (number of ears or eyeballs) or frequency (how many times your message is heard). The advertiser with a weak message and a big ad budget will prevail over a competitor with a strong message that never gets heard. But if you don’t have deep pockets, the longer your product cycle is, the more you should hammer, hammer, hammer away with frequency and a strong message.
Our ad agency is built on little businesses with strong messages that became bigger, more successful businesses. They already had good stories; they just needed someone to find them and tell that story—not to some fantasy “target,” but to the public. Over time, with the right message, there is no wrong audience.
Planning your marketing budget may be the single most important determinant—and predictor—of future growth. In our years of assisting contractors with marketing and advertising, the biggest success stories have been the ones who trusted the process and participated. It’s the business equivalent of keeping your eye on the ball.
We regularly talk to companies that make less than a million per year, and we have been surprised to find several business owners who had no dedicated marketing budget at all. They just dealt with it month-to-month. The common refrain was, “How do I even get started?”
Assuming they are not alone, we thought we would give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at our process of helping these smaller businesses wrangle their annual budget.
There’s an old saying, “the best way to eat an elephant is one small bite at a time.” So, we’re going to break this elephant meal into four manageable courses.
FIRST COURSE: Review Your Contractual Obligations into Next Year
Sometimes you must “be for what is.” You’ve made commitments that you can’t get out of for a while? Fine. Move those over to the coming year for however long that contract is. Maybe it’s your Yellow Pages ad for the current book. The books have been printed and your ad is in there, but you’re paying it off through next summer. That’s fine but make a note as to whether you’re going to “re-up” for next year when the time comes. A smart company policy is not to have the life of a contract exceed one year. This forces annual bidding, or at least renewal discussions with the current suppliers. Almost always, these discussions lower your cost of goods. A lot of business owners feel that multi-year contracts will result in a better deal, but according to Forbes, arrangements like that will usually favor the vendor.
SECOND COURSE: Find Items That Are Planned but Cancelable
Many contracts have “opt out” policies that you may not know about until you ask; it’s certainly not something radio or TV reps like to advertise. If there are cancellation provisions in place, reps like to stay on the good side of advertisers, so they’ll work with you. A situation in which that wouldn’t work is if you bought a package deal—if you bought a football package that included Super Bowl tickets, and you used the tickets…well, you have to stick with the contract until the end of the term.
What are the things you have “on a handshake?” What are the written agreements you have that you’re not technically obligated to for a specific term? Consider each one carefully—both in terms of short-term benefit and in the long-term perception of your values and your company in your community.
THIRD COURSE: What Have You Done In The Past That You Don’t Do Anymore?
Look back into the last three years. Maybe you did Direct Mail, but you don’t anymore. Maybe you engaged in Pay Per Click or SEO. What don’t you do anymore—and why not? Was it not effective? Did you not see the ROI? Did it cost too much? Identify those things, and it could help you decide if you want to reconsider them or if they’re still “dead.”
FOURTH COURSE: Grab That Wishbone!
This is the “Wish List”: the things you hope to do in the future. Maybe you once considered them possible, but you didn’t know how to see them through, or maybe you didn’t have the financial resources at that time. Get one or two of those back on your radar.
It’s important to put a little positive emotion in that black and white spreadsheet. Make room for a few dreams in that budget of yours. Is it re-wrapping a company vehicle (or a commitment to freshen up the whole fleet)? How about taking a few more team members to some off-site training or rewarding them with a company excursion? Maybe you want to engage the company in a new community charity drive this year.
Having completed all four courses, you can now make the difficult choices with all your options on the buffet in front of you.
Where Are You Going?
Once you get a clear picture in your mind, it becomes easier to lock in the steps necessary to achieve it. We all want to grow our businesses, but it’s crucial that you have a fully formed, three-dimensional view of what it looks like when you get there.
What resources are required to do the increases you are targeting? How will your run rate look? What about recruitment and staffing (more on this later)?
If you have read Verne Harnish’s excellent book, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, you know that he preaches that one of the keys to achieving that gazelle-like growth, year after year, is a continuous measurement of variables and performance.
As we weave that into what we do for our clients, it should start with a demonstrated understanding of what is required operationally when marketing, sales, and operations are fully integrated and working in harmony.
Budget to Become the Company You Want to Own
Businesses regularly toss around different percentages as benchmarks for how much to spend on marketing. Should it be 7% or lower to work towards optimum profitability? Or, as John Young always preached, should a company focused on heavy growth in the short-term earmark 10-12% of projected top-line sales?
Our opinion is that there is no right or wrong answer. Every company is different. We have some clients spending upwards of 15%-20% on marketing to achieve their goals in the short term. This is especially true when launching an aggressive radio or TV-driven branding campaign, or when thoroughly addressing your website’s deficiencies (more on this later, too).
There is a front-loading of the investment that is required for the dividends to start rolling in. We sometimes compare it to rocket fuel: You burn a lot of fuel to break away from the earth’s gravity (and the view sure is beautiful once you get in orbit). And while we cannot generalize about the number that comes before the percentage sign, we believe that you have to budget to become the company you want to be next year…not the company you were this year or last.
Recruiting Is Part of Your Marketing
When our clients sit down with us to do annual planning, the recruiting conversation is central to those discussions. They have all heard us say this until we’re blue in the face: Your ability to grow is determined mostly by your ability to attract, hire, train, reward, and retain great people. Anyone who doesn’t see that recruiting effort as part of their larger marketing effort is missing the bigger picture.
When we are mapping out how to divvy up resources to get the jobs done across all marketing platforms, we are very methodical about how much of those resources are designated to our recruitment campaigns, which run year-round. Look, if you want to be a gazelle (20%+ growth year after year), begin with the end in mind. You’re always going to be growing, so you’re always going to be hiring.
Fix Your Website (Finally)
Just a suggestion: fix your website this year. Make it relevant and credible. Add a blog or content management strategy so you’re constantly adding new and fresh information (Google loves this). Add a video component (Google reeeeally loves this).
And even more than pushing to please the ever-evolving Google algorithm, make sure your website’s design and messages encourage visitors to convert — to take the desired action.
Sailing the High Seas of Your Business
At the start of this chapter, we alluded to setting out on dangerous waters. In closing, there are 4 helpful ideas we want you to take out there on the water with you.
- Cancel Limiting Beliefs. Success comes from the inside out. It’s time to recognize the limitations that are dragging you under and throw them overboard. Decide on what you really want, and then commit to how you’ll accomplish that goal.
- Get Granular. Be specific with yourself and your employees about where you’re going and why. When everyone is on board with the destination and what it looks like, you’ll have more mates and fewer mutinies!
- Execute With Small Steps. Every sea voyage starts with a map. Although Columbus started with a lousy map, and he ended up somewhere completely different, he was simply going by what made sense at the time. Plot your voyage in small increments and learn from each “leg” of the trip.
- Follow Your North Star. Find that non-negotiable that keeps you going when Passion fades, there’s no shore in sight, and provisions are running low. That’s when Commitment and Ability step up and confidently report, “Nothing to fear, sir. We’re on course.”
Sailors, like pilots, veterans, explorers—and small business owners—share stories of adversity, close calls, and victories. They learn from one another that the adventure of life isn’t always about smooth sailing. They’re grateful for the sailors around them who have invited them on board to share their adventures and report from the crow’s nest about rocks, storms, and the occasional magical mermaid.
May we have many more amazing tales to tell, friends. Let’s sail on…
Air, Land & Sea
It’s quite simple, really. The marketing budget should be divided into 3 areas. Air is the airwaves (radio and television). Land is outdoor, print, and collateral materials, as well as “boots on the ground” efforts on the part of the client. Sea is online, where surfing happens. The amount in each category depends on where their strengths and weaknesses are, as well as the marketplace. Ray and Monica break down each division and how to allocate time, energy and resources.
Story, Culture & Experience
Many times, a business owner thinks that the only thing they need are ads to “make the phones ring.” This is rarely the case. The story our ads tell MUST be translated into action, which requires a strong and willing company culture. The net result is that the brand and culture connect with the customer at every touchpoint both internally and externally. Ray and Monica explain this powerful vortex and the amazing results when you reach that “sweet spot.”