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How to Ruin Your Brand, Your Business, and Your Career: The 13 Worst Marketing Mistakes, Part 1

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This article originally addressed the seven worst marketing mistakes. But seven wasn't nearly enough. The list grew until it reached an unlucky 13. Since mistakes are discovered all the time, please think of this article as a work in progress.

1. "We'll make it up in volume"

Well, no, you won't. Volume helps absorb fixed costs, but low margin is low margin. It dilutes your entire financial picture, it infuriates your CFO or banker, and it generally fails.

Back in the early '80s, Procter & Gamble's Beauty Care business had a high cost structure. P&G thought it could fix the problem with volume.

Its launch of Ivory Shampoo and Conditioner as a value brand, supported by the category's first-ever $1 coupons, was the biggest introduction in hair-care history.


You couldn't walk into any store in the country without feeling dwarfed by the massive displays (88 cents for 16 oz. bottles!). At some retailers, you could walk out with a couple of bottles without paying a cent and without getting arrested!

P&G got its volume.

But its variable costs soared. Value brands need to keep delivering low price, and once you've taught consumers that your product is worth 88 cents, or nothing, they're not going to pay more. P&G found it needed to keep dropping $1 coupons to keep up the volume, and that ate up the thin margins.

P&G absorbed high fixed costs with volume, but those gains were dwarfed by losses behind continued high marketing budgets. The company hemorrhaged red ink.

In an effort to fix a bad situation, P&G threw in more cost. It reformulated, restaged, and tried to convince consumers that good value meant spending more for better performance.

In the end, P&G destroyed one of the oldest and most trusted brands in history by flip-flopping on its positioning, when the problem was far more fundamental.

And with all that volume, where is Ivory Shampoo and Conditioner today? Right. And where is P&G's Beauty Care? It's one of the most successful businesses in history. It was saved by lower-volume, high-margin brands.

Decisions and actions have inescapable consequences. So think twice the next time you hear the siren song of high volume to fix more fundamental cost-structure problems.

Mind the numbers. Master them. Grow margin. Face the brutal realities. And don't believe everything a brand manager promises you.

2. "They did what?!"

Marketing strategy, at its core, is concerned with only one question: How will we win? And to develop a winning strategy, you need to understand your competition. If the competition does something you haven't considered, you need to up your game. Surprises happen, but unimagined surprises shouldn't.

Think of this mistake as your own private Iraq war. You may have played a great opening gambit yesterday, but that's old news today; something's going to happen next. Are you ready for it?

On the mean streets of marketing, where competition lurks in every alley and aisle, you don't have many choices. You have five strategies. Of those, only two are worth pursuing. And of the two, neither will succeed if they haven't been built with a keen understanding of where the competition will be tomorrow.

  1. Slug it out means going up against an evenly matched opponent. You stand toe to toe and try to hurt the competition more than the competition hurts you. This is probably the most common strategy, and it's a bad one.

    A marketer convinces herself that her product has a unique selling point, launches, and finds out too late that the difference isn't perceived or valued by customers/consumers or that the competition can quickly adapt.

    In the end, it's a war of attrition, and luck has a lot to do with the outcome. Don't bet the company on this one.
  2. Loser, loser, loser is where you go if you are a masochist or you haven't done enough homework to notice that your enemy has deeper pockets, better product, better value, better connections, or a better brand.
  3. Dancing in the dark means you're hoping to win before anyone notices. You've found an underserved niche, an unaddressed need, or a new channel.

    You might succeed. Your market may be too small for your competitor to care about, or maybe your competitor is asleep at the wheel and will wake up screaming, "They did what?!"

    But before you go there, ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?
  4. Shock and awe is about engaging where you have an overwhelming competitive advantage. Your battlefield may be the heart of the market, or it may be a niche. Either way, the outcome is predetermined. Congratulations, soldier!
  5. Change the game leaves competitors either fighting the wrong war or scrambling to catch up. Done badly, this approach can degenerate into dancing in the dark or slug it out. But if you've studied the competition, consumers, and market dynamics, you may find several winning ways to change the game.

Here are some of the ways you might change the game:

  • Go upmarket. Vodka is pretty much of a commodity. So Grey Goose, Kettle One, Belvedere, and a few other upstarts started whispering that anyone not paying a hefty premium was a social loser. The old brands lost.
  • Go downmarket. Don't want to pay extra for a preassigned airplane seat? Southwest Airlines has a deal for you! Don't need a store with fancy shelves and snooty salespeople? Go Old Navy!
  • The best of both. Redefine the category by redefining the value equation. If Brand A promises (and delivers!) all the quality of premium Brand B at the price of value Brand C, what's not to like?
  • Sandwich shop. Again, you redefine the category by redefining the value equation. You go upmarket and downmarket simultaneously with two differentiated products, targeting both the segment willing to pay more for higher performance and the segment willing to accept less performance at a lower price.

    You position the heart of the market as mediocre, satisfying no one. Just remember that if you make a sandwich, you want to be the bread.
  • My team's bigger than your team. Find allies. Are there distributors who have been frozen out by the status quo? Or suppliers? They are likely allies. Or, maybe you can create some.

    iPhone provided a platform for application developers, and the resulting thousands of apps provided consumers incentive to  purchase of iPhones. Everyone won, except competitors.

The bottom line: Vigilance and imagination are fundamental for success. Don't get taken by surprise. Do your homework. Know the competitors' weaknesses. Anticipate their reactions. Be confident of your competitive advantage. Then go have fun, even though you already know the outcome.

3. "I am a rock, I am a silo"

Repeat after me: island bad, continent good. One of the fundamental hallmarks of successful companies and a key building block for successful marketing careers is a predisposition to initiate and engage in powerful, real-time, constant conversations.

Functional excellence is great; integrative excellence—the ability to build processes, structures, and culture that destroy organizational silos while energizing networks, conversations, and collaboration—is even better.

Marketers who don't participate in and cultivate networks will fail. Maybe that wasn't true a decade or two ago, but in our 24/7 networked world of social media, there is no alternative.

Opt out at your own peril. Our networks must include every other function in our companies—yes, even the evil trio of Finance, Legal, and Regulatory—as well as peers in other industries.

A few things to consider:

  • Others need to know what you know. If I know something and you don't, then we don't. You might have the best ideas in the world, but if everyone on your team doesn't understand them or hasn't bought in, you will fail.

    A colleague of mine recently said at a meeting, "This should be easy. We all know the answer!" To which another colleague whispered, "Yeah, but consider who doesn't!"
  • You need to know what others know. I once brilliantly segmented our retailers via a portfolio of different sizes of our product. It would take pressure off the discounting that was sucking profit from our category. Sales leadership loved it. Buyers in their headquarters offices loved it.

    Everyone was happy, except for one marketing rep who knew something that I, the Sales VP, the account managers, and the buyers didn't: Store managers at one of our biggest retailers would rather be out of stock during the height of the season than reset their shelves. He tried to tell us, but no one listened. My brilliant plan failed.
  • Group intelligence trumps individual genius. I may have the best idea in the group, but if we work long enough with some of the lesser ideas, chances are we'll synthesize a solution beyond what any of us imagined. Even me.
  • Group stupidity has no lower limit. The challenge for groups is to ladder up to a higher solution, not dumb down to the lowest common denominator. Compromising to reach consensus is what gives groupthink a bad name.

Think of it this way: Everything is interconnected, and so we're part of that everything. Corporate marketers can't get there without Sales, Finance, Operations, Product Development, agencies, and those pesky customers. Solopreneurs can't get there without referral networks, suppliers, clients, etc. Your success depends on my success, which depends on your success.

If we are not playing together, surely we will end up playing alone. Any kindergartener can tell you that's not as much fun.

4A."What's wrong? What isn't!"

In my experience, marketers tend to be chipper, but we've also been known to be melodramatic at times.

Have you allowed angst to overwhelm you, giving way to a bad attitude? Negativity can undermine companies and careers.

Fortunately, there is a cure: resilience.

Resilience, whether for a company or an individual, is the sum of three qualities:

  • Authenticity
    o Are you directed by your values?
    o Are you comfortable with who you are and where you are?
    o When things go wrong, do you start with what you could have done differently?
  • Balance
    o Can you balance a bias toward a positive outlook with an unflinching resolve to face the harsh realities?
    o Are you fundamentally patient but relentlessly driven toward results?
    o Are you comfortable with ambiguity while continually seeking clarity?
  • Connectedness
    o Are you focused on serving others?
    o Are you open to being influenced by those you seek to influence?
    o Are you curious all the time?

Authenticity, balance, and connectedness, the ABCs of resilience, can be cultivated. Although they may seem more about you than about your function as a professional, you cannot function long without a high level of resilience. Otherwise, sooner or later you will fall; sustaining success in life is all about how well you bounce back.

4B. "How can I run the business when it's running me?"

Nearly as bad as low resilience is resignation, the passive acceptance of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming demands.

Workload and expectations are moving in only one direction. Organizations and people need to actively work toward a future in which they have longer levers. The only alternative is herniating a disc from trying to lift too much. We need to consciously scale our strengths to accomplish more with less.

Even in the midst of the crisis du jour, effective leaders create time to think about ways to increase leverage. So ask yourself what you can do to start building organizational or financial capacity that will free you up to focus on what really matters, such as strategy, executional excellence, or a walk through the woods with your honey?

If you're not working on scalability now, when will you? Do you really think there will ever come a time without multiple crises?

In Part 2 of this article, we'll cover numbers 5 through 13 of the worst marketing mistakes.


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M. P. Friedman is founder and principal of FastGrowth Advisors (www.fastgrowth.biz), a Boulder, Colo.-based consulting and coaching firm. He tweets as @MPFriedman and blogs at AccelerateNow.biz. Reach him via mark@fastgrowth.biz

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Comments

  • by Tara Tue Jul 6, 2010 via web

    Great article.

  • by M. P. Friedman Thu Jul 8, 2010 via web

    Thanks, Tara! I appreciate the support. Please see new blog and articles on fastgrowth.biz/blog.

    -Mark

  • by Sammy Fri Jul 9, 2010 via web

    Gold...Nothing new, but people make the same mistake over, and over and over......Build strategies based on survival rather than lasting growth and leave some one else to pick up the pieces..

  • by Elaine Fogel Fri Jul 9, 2010 via web

    Good article, Mark!

  • by M. P. Friedman Fri Jul 9, 2010 via web

    Sammy, Elaine - thanks much! I look forward to your comments on Part 2.

    Mark

  • by Manasi Shah Wed Jul 14, 2010 via web

    Great article..interesting insights..can't wait for the second part..is it out already??..

  • by M. P. Friedman Wed Jul 14, 2010 via web

    Manasi - part 2 came out this week. Part 3 will probably be published next week. These articles are excerpted from a slightly longer e-book that will be on my site as free download sometime in August.

    Mark

  • by naveen sharma Sun Jul 25, 2010 via web

    thanks i learn lots of things after reading this

  • by R Badum Tue Jul 27, 2010 via web

    Refreshing. Thanks

  • by henrydes Sat Aug 28, 2010 via web

    What a practical and nice way of thnking and putting things up! Excellent.!!

  • by Webmaster Wed Oct 6, 2010 via web

    I love this article. Well done

  • by Rumaizon Sat Nov 6, 2010 via web

    This is refreshing! I'm already hungry for Part 2.

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