In my opinion, developing and executing an effective marketing strategy is the most important job of any marketer and failure to do so is the single greatest threat to creating anything that looks and feels like business building momentum.
While few would argue with the statement above, marketing strategy as a practical tool remains little more than an academic exercise for most businesses.
Inside Threadless HQ in Chicago
I’ve spent a great deal of time wrestling with the idea of developing useful, real life marketing strategies for small businesses and have concluded that there are a handful of characteristics that can be mined, explored and shaped in order to make marketing strategy the foundation of business building.
The key to discovering an effective marketing strategy lies in understanding first that its essence is much more about why a business does something than what or how the business does something.
These elemental characteristics are rooted deeply in human wants and desires and act to create a connection between a company, its products and services, its people and ultimately its customers.
I believe any company can create a marketing strategy that will actually serve as the catalyst to creating a remarkable business by deeply exploring and embracing one, or some combination of several, of the characteristics outlined below.
Single minded purpose
If I were going to point to a requisite characteristic it might be this one. When a company is built with a single-minded purpose and can communicate that “why we do what we do” in a way that makes meaning in the lives of its customers and prospects, magic can happen.
The idea of higher purpose can be a tricky one too. A customer can resonate with the fact that your mission is to bring peace and harmony to the world, but it’s just as likely that there’s a market hungry to do business with a company that believes bringing beauty to the world through incredibly simple design is why they do what they do.
The key is a thorough understanding and simple and consistent communication of the why. You can’t fake this characteristic but you can move your higher purpose front and center in your marketing strategy.
Some of the companies that enjoy the highest levels of staff and customer loyalty focus almost entirely on why they do what they do, as opposed to simply trying to do what they do better.
The product is almost secondary to this single-minded purpose – Shatto Milk Company’s marketing strategy is one that claims to bring a return to what’s good about creating all natural products in small, hand crafted batches and, by the way, we sell dairy products.
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has said repeatedly that Zappos is a customer happiness business that happens to sell shoes.
Desperately seeking inspiration
People want to go on journeys they feel are epic in nature. Now this may sound a little far fetched if you’re simply building a small law firm focused on small businesses, but every business can inspire.
We can inspire by telling stories, by communicating the why, by standing up for simplicity and by bravely connecting our own purpose in life with that of the business and that of the goals and objectives of our clients.
Leadership, the kind that’s drawn from deed and word, the kind that understands that the best way to get more is to want more for others, is inspirational. Firms that draw commitment from customers and staff give them a way to sign up for something that can allow them to be their best self.
Steve Jobs is cited more often than any other company leader for his ability to inspire through telling stories about the Apple brand.
An obvious innovation
Every industry engages is some practice that customers just come to live with. And then someone comes along, either from outside of the industry or as method of survival, and shakes it up but suggesting there’s a better way.
Creating what ends up looking like an obvious innovation in an industry and then embracing that change as a marketing strategy is one way that companies create a clear differentiation.
Rackspace, a hosting company located in Austin Texas, created an obvious innovation in the hosting industry by simply making a decision to provide real service. While that shouldn’t seem like an innovation it was in an industry that appeared to abhor actually talking to its customers.
To sum up Rackspace’s marketing strategy – “Fanatical Support isn’t just what we do. It’s really what makes us, well, us. It’s our need to make a difference in the lives our customers—no matter how big or small. Really, it’s our way of life.”
Let us entertain you
People will give their last dollar to be entertained. I believe this has never been truer than it is today. Since so many of the products, services and ideas we sell can be acquired for free these days, the money’s in the package and the experience.
Fun, joyful, theater and stage aren’t words that are always connected with business, but bring them in and a new world opens up. I had reason to spend a day at Google recently and they get this one very well. Work is often long, hard and boring, but when do we ever tire of play? Make that fact that yours is a business that’s fun to go to work in and fun to do business with central to your strategy and people will be drawn to the game.
Step inside the offices of t-shirt maker Threadless and you’ll be greeted by giant stuffed creatures, two Airstream “think pods,” offices decorated by staff to show off departmental personality, and a basketball court in the warehouse. The place is definitely fun.
The role of convenience
This one goes hand in hand with simplicity and surprise, but it’s something different entirely. Some businesses are actually hard to do business with. We may love what they do, but scratch our heads at how they do it. This one is all about non-friction, speed of change and a mentality of yes.
Take down the barriers to communication, give people the tools to do what they want, rethink meetings, eliminate the policies of control, trust your customers and staff and, above all, use technology to enhance personal relationships rather than wall them off.
Being easy to do business with is a marketing strategy that can become a culture and mantra that spreads word of mouth and drives customer adoption faster than any promotion or campaign ever could.
Evernote is easy to do business with. Their products sync across all of my various tools and just work, without the need to consult an owner’s manual.
Simplicity is harder than it looks
Life’s too complicated, instruction manuals and return policies and messages and mission statements and features and design are all too complicated. One of the most attractive features of organizations that enjoy high levels of commitment is a lack of features.
Simplicity is the most appreciated attribute of the products and services we love to love. And yet, it can be one of the hardest to actually achieve. This can’t really be achieved by simply stripping out features. If this is to be a marketing strategy it must become a way of life that informs every decision.
37 Signals is a great example of a business that has embraced simplicity as a marketing strategy. They make great software that does just a handful of things very, very well. According the CEO Jason Fried they spend more time considering what features to leave out of a release then what to add.
The element of surprise
Few things enamor like exceeding someone’s expectations. This might end up sounding more like a personality trait, but companies that turn customers into volunteer sales forces fully understand and use the power of giving more than was promised and surprisingly beating expectations as a marketing strategy.
Who doesn’t like to get little unexpected gifts, free overnight shipping, and hand written notes? And yet, when was the last time you got any of those?
Again I return to Zappos. Zappos has an unstated policy of surprise. If you order shoes on a Monday, the order confirmation will suggest that you allow 3-5 days for shipping, but don’t be surprised if they show up the next morning.