Steve Cone is managing director and head of advertising and brand management at Citigroup Global Wealth Management. Along with five other senior executives, he coordinates worldwide brand management for all of Citigroup's businesses in more than 100 countries, encompassing 200 million customers.
Over his 30-year career—half of it in financial services for such other large companies as American Express, Key Corp. and Fidelity—Steve has earned a reputation as an out-of-the-box thinker who creates advertising that gets results. He writes about his ideas about what makes effective marketing in Steal These Ideas: Marketing Secrets That Will Make You a Star (Bloomberg 2005).
I had the pleasure of chatting with Steve when we were both speaking at a recent conference of the Zyman Institute of Brand Science in Atlanta.
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Roy Young: What makes great advertising?
Steve Cone: There are three essential ingredients: visual and/or sensory excitement, real news about the product or service, and a compelling reason to respond. Without these ingredients, your promotion simply has a lot less chance of making an impression on your target audience and ultimately resulting in a sale.
The average American is subjected to 4,000 ad messages per day. Why should they pay attention to yours? They won't unless you impress their two senses, sight and sound, tell them something special they didn't know about your product and service, and be very clear about what action it is you want them to take.
RY: Why are you such a strong believer in "unique selling propositions," and what must brand managers know about creating effective USPs?
SC: Every brand manager should read David Ogilvy's Confessions of an Adman and any article they can find about Rosser Reeves—the inventor of the USP concept. Also, always remember one word—surplus. For example, there are 1,200 varieties of soda in America today. How can you make yours standout among this surplus? Or take the auto industry. All cars basically do the same thing. Most are superbly engineered today, and in fact one of the challenges the auto industry faces is that cars today simply don't break down after a few years as they did in decades past. How can you get your brand, your model, to stand out? You need a unique hook. A unique positioning. This quest for differentiation among a crowded field is the hardest and most essential part of marketing today.
Creating USPs is more important now than ever before. To create the right one in general you must rely on a few people who think differently about your product than you do. Invite marketing outsiders to look at your product or service and give you an honest appraisal of the top two or three features. Then, think of a clever and truthful way of condensing their observations into one simple phrase that will set your product/service apart—hopefully for all time. Best example I can think of: A Diamond is Forever. That line has been in use since 1948 and will be—forever.
RY: You write that PEOPLE are the most critical element of all good advertising. Why is that so?
SC: Without being flippant—because we are people. Everything we do or choose not to do is based upon how we want to appear to others. At the end of the day, you buy a product or service because you believe you are buying it from someone who cares about providing it the best way they can, to you. There is nothing more powerful than creating an emotional bond between seller and buyer. It's that simple.
RY: You say the most critical time in the relationship with a new customer is the first week after an initial purchase. What should we do during that period?
SC: We should reinforce by email or phone or letter that the new customer made the right decision by putting their trust in us. If you have their email address, that is the fastest way for saying, "Thanks for your order. I appreciate your business and you will receive the item in a few days." The term that retailers use for this is alleviating "post-purchase anxiety." They are right. The faster you respond, the more likely it is that this anxiety never develops and your customers stick with you.
RY: How do you meet the new challenges of fragmented media and declining television audiences?
SC: Media has been fragmented for many years, and television viewing is going up, not down—it's just spread over more channels than in past eras. TV will be around for a long time to come, and certain programs such as all manner of sports and dramas and even local news will remain popular as long as society exists. By the way, your chances of having your message seen on TV is dramatically better than on the Web—based on simple math. American adults spend on average a half hour a day (not including work-related tasks) bouncing around 11 Web sites out of 30 million that are accessible. They spend 4-8 hours a day switching between 11 TV channels out of, on average, 100 that are available. Math aside, you need to pick your spots across the medium spectrum and concentrate on a few prime spots with regular frequency. The longer answer is... read my book.
RY: Has the Web created "new rules" of marketing and advertising?
SC: The Web is great for doing repetitive transactions and poor to horrible in showcasing products or services for prospects who are not familiar with them. Thus, how you use the Web depends a lot on the type of business you are in and who your audience is. As a general rule, the more affluent the target audience the more attention you should pay to how the Web should be integrated into your marketing campaign. And, for certain, your own Web site must be best in its class. When given the choice to either call an 800 number or go to the Web to learn more about what you are offering, consumers prefer the Web.
RY: Tell me a bit about your background. What path did you take to get where you are today?
SC: I joined four database marketing pioneers fresh from Harvard Business school while I was a senior in college, and initially with seven total employees, we built a dynamic database marketing company that grew to $100 million in annual revenue and 1,000 employees. This chosen path taught me the benefit of being able to be utilize customer data in conjunction with promotional marketing techniques to create extremely powerful marketing programs for clients from every category of business and for all types of not-for-profit organizations.
After 15 years on the agency side, I made the leap to Corporate America in 1986, beginning at American Express and eventually to Citigroup, where I am today. I have stayed in financial services because I view it as a noble profession. After a family's health, the second greatest concern is financial security. This is a universal truth that crosses all borders and cultures. My job and the job of my colleagues from Citigroup and the job of our competitors is to make the world a better and more secure place for families rich and poor and in between. I don't think I could get as passionate about soda or pretzels or jeans or designer handbags.
RY: What has made you most effective in your marketing career?
I believe that staying focused on a few simple human traits has helped me be an effective marketer. Number one trait is people buy from people, not from skyscrapers or pictures of sailboats at a marina, or from an aerial view of a golf course. Take the strongest bond there is that binds people together—religion. The power of religion has always been how the message is delivered by one person to another or to thousands or millions or billions.
I also enjoy reading about a wide range of subjects, and I subscribe to many magazines, including several pubs targeted exclusively to women. You can't be an effective marketer without having an interest in the news and views representing men and women of all ages.
A particular skill that I am blessed with is all about one word—angles. Anyone in any profession who becomes successful has to think differently from their peers. They have to see an angle no one else sees that can make a huge impact on the target audience. A good analogy is how a world-class football quarterback gets to be world-class. When a play is executed in the first few seconds, he sees where the ball should go and decides how to deliver it to maximum effect—when others would see confusion or no clear pattern.
Finally, you have to just plain love what you do. And, I do.
RY: What has changed most since you started your career in marketing? What do you like most about your work today?
SC: What has changed most is that there are fewer talented people in marketing—specifically promotional marketing. America churns out thousands of MBAs year after year—smart and able. Problem is colleges and business schools teach you how to run a business but not how to promote it. Sure, many have courses on branding and advertising, but they are basically textbook discussions on theory, not how to do it. Thus, most marketers today don't have a clue how to create or recognize breakthrough ideas and campaigns that can really make a difference and leave their competitors in the dust.
What I enjoy the most, and always have, is turning colleagues into better marketers by showing how certain techniques can make a big difference in execution and eventual results.
RY: On your marketing team, who are the most valuable players and what makes them successful?
The most valuable players have open minds, are curious about everything, and in equal measure recognize the power of big ideas and the necessity of flawless execution of them.
RY: What do you value most about the advertising agencies you work with now?
SC: Four words: great writing; dramatic visuals.
RY: Of all the groups with whom you and your team interact inside Citigroup, which relationships are the most likely to experience some tension and why? What steps do you take to construct a bridge between your team and the business units?
SC: Tension is a natural consequence of different business units with different leadership working on joint projects that both can clearly benefit from. This is human nature and applies to every type of business or government entity. Think Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines all working together toward a common purpose—should be a slam dunk. But there is friction at every juncture. The trick at any company, or government agency large or small, is to avoid large planning groups with no clear path to decision making. Think way back to Eisenhower managing the successful invasion of Europe that led to defeating Nazi Germany. Two things were key. Ike had a small inner circle of advisors whom he trusted. And, it was clear to everyone that Ike was in charge. Joint business projects at Citigroup or elsewhere have a better chance of success if they adopt the same approach the Allies did to winning the war in Europe.
RY: In your experience, what is the most effective way to sell your advertising ideas internally?
Having a boss, like my current one, who believes in the power of well-executed advertising and that the number one reason to advertise is to motivate our own employees. If employees are excited about our promotional approach, they become more engaged, more energized, more positive about the company and its future. This attitude is infectious and transfers quickly to family, friends, and customers. Without employee pride in our messaging, the message is as good as dead. Most companies fail to understand this overriding principle of why advertising is a must and how it must be conducted.
RY: Are there any other keys to becoming an effective corporate marketer?
Promotional Marketing is first an art and then a science. Success is about brilliant ideas executed brilliantly. There has to be an atmosphere of openness to new ideas and ways of thinking. There has to be a commitment to zigging when all the competition is zagging. You don't learn marketing in textbooks. You learn it by understanding what turns people on. And, that is not presenting the company as a big impersonal entity that many large corporations continue to do year after year, decade after decade.
Also, don't throw out great positioning because it wasn't your idea. Often, our predecessors had great campaigns that should be kept alive and yes freshened—but not discarded because they are not invented here. Too often, far too often, we leave behind brilliant positioning, brilliant taglines, brilliant points of differentiation, because we think we can do better, because we think it's time for a total makeover. Most of the time that is the absolute worst thing for a marketer to do.
RY: Of all the advertising campaigns you managed, which are you most proud of any why?
That's an easy question to answer. In 1980-81, I was asked by several Vietnam War veterans who were spearheading the drive to have a memorial built in Washington DC if I could create and execute a fundraising campaign to help raise the necessary funds. I did. The campaign, done exclusively by direct mail, raised more money than was needed, and we distributed the surplus funds to several disabled veterans support groups.
Seeing how powerful the Vietnam War Memorial has become as a symbol of sacrifice and raw emotion for all who walk through it and having helped make it a reality is a singular honor. I think often about the friends I lost. And I think they would be pleased with how their sacrifice is represented.
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