Do you know your brand's position in the marketplace? Does people's perception of your brand match how you want them to see you?

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In his book Lobster on a Cheese Plate: How to Stand Out, Attract the Best Clients, and Win Every Sale that Comes Your Way, Mark Harari breaks down the science of positioning and offers actionable tips for creating compelling messaging.

Mark also offers some clear cut do's and don'ts of marketing through a crisis. (Keep these handy, because you never know when you might need them!)

In this episode of Marketing Smarts, we get into the four critical steps marketers and business leaders can use to successfully navigate a crisis: Inventory, Communicate, Offer Yourself, and Next Phase.

We even get into what the "Avengers" movies can teach us about positioning.

Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode. 

If you prefer reading to listening, the full transcript of this episode is below (and available as a PDF, here). 

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Full Transcript: Be the Lobster on the Cheese Plate

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone: 

Thanks for joining us today. I’m talking with Mark Harari for the Marketing Smarts Podcast today. He’s an accomplished speaker and writer, the vice president of Remodelers Advantage, president of R/A Marketing, and he’s also co-host of the PowerTips Unscripted podcast. If that wasn’t enough for you, he’s also the bestselling author of Lobster on a Cheese Plate: How to Stand Out, Attract the Best Clients, and Win Every Sale That Comes Your Way. So, he knows a lot about lead gen, a lot about positioning, and a lot of things about a lot of things. I’m excited to have Mark with us today.

Mark Harari:     Thank you for having me, Kerry. I’m excited to talk to you.

Kerry: Where to start? It has been kind of a rough even 18 months at this point for marketers since things blew up.

Mark: Yes. Talk about getting into a tailspin pretty quick. Right? Everybody was scrambling. It’s amazing how some industries were crushed and others were prospering. With Remodelers Advantage, our main focus is the remodeling vertical. They’re all reporting record years. Companies that have been in business for 60 and 70 years have never had a more profitable year from COVID. 

It makes sense in hindsight, because everybody was trapped in their house, and they just were living in the house and they really started to see all of the problems with their house. A lot of people had to convert them into offices and stuff, so remodeling just skyrocketed. Of course, other industries were losing millions of dollars per day. It was crazy. Just full spectrum crazy crisis for the industries. 

Kerry: Some people totally switched industries. There was one event company that completely changed course and became a cleaning company, basically, to come and clean up all of the PPE that people were discarding everywhere. Just a totally different business model for them. 

Mark: You heard about also some of the companies that were trying to help out, like the gin distilleries and such converted their equipment so they could help make hand sanitizers and all that stuff. Not that they’re going to stay in the hand sanitizer business, but the way everybody pivoted to both help and to make some money as well, it was pretty impressive the way the globe adjusted to it. 

Kerry: Now that we’re kind of climbing back out of the pandemic, if you want to call it that, I feel like we’re not post-pandemic yet, but we’re coming out the other side, what has changed and what is going to stay the same? Which of these really sweeping changes is here to stay?

Mark: I think the most obvious sweeping change that’s not going away is the remote work. That’s better for some and worse for others. For me, I’m an in-the-office kind of guy and I like having my team here. It’s a little odd, I’m kind of Zoomed out, I’ve had my fill of Zoom. Unfortunately, though, I think it’s here to stay. A lot of people in a lot of industries have found that it’s more financially fiscally responsible to not have the office space and reduce that and stick with the remote work.

For me personally, I think it’s unfortunate, because I like the face-to-face stuff. We’re struggling here at Remodelers Advantage. R/A marketing has always been a remote force, so I am used to that, but at Remodelers Advantage we have a huge office space. We’re struggling with trying to see if people want to come back in. We’ve only had one or two people come back into the office. A lot of them want to stay home if we’ll let them.

Kerry: You need an extrovert’s lounge or something.

Mark: I love it. That’s fantastic.

Kerry: When you’re lonely, to come back.

Mark: I already just pictured the logo. That’s fantastic.

Kerry: Lobster on a Cheese Plate… I know I’m changing gears a little bit, but I have to know about the title. The majority of the book you talk about positioning, you get into copy and messaging and all that kind of stuff, pricing, missed opportunities in marketing. Where’s the lobster in this book and why is it on a cheese plate?

Mark: When I was writing the book, the title was one of the last things to come out, it was just ‘marketing book,’ or ‘positioning book.’ I wrote the thing like I talk, so it kind of went pretty quick for me. When it came time to figure out this title, I went through a few iterations, and none were really clicking with me.

One Friday night, my kids go into the basement, as they usually do on a Friday night, and they’re playing PlayStation. My wife makes a nice plate of cheese because, I’ll tell you, I love cheese. There isn’t a cheese I don’t like. Gouda, brie, blue cheese, let’s go. I love cheese. So, she makes a nice full plate of cheese, brings it in with a couple glasses of wine, and we’re going to sit there and watch a movie.

You know how pathetic life can get when you get to my age. One of my most exciting moments was trying to decide which piece I’m going to cut into first. There’s all these great cheeses on there. Which one is going to be my first bite? How am I going to kick off my night? Then the whole thing clicked for me right at that moment. I said, “This is what so many consumers are facing.” Whatever industry you are in, you are going against a lot of companies that are really good companies, your competitors are just as good as you in some respects.

Your customers, your clients, your prospects, they are faced with that same choice, “This is a land of really good choices. How do I pick?” You need to stand out. You need to be the obvious choice from the onset. There needed to be that piece of cheese that was the clear and obvious choice to me. It shouldn’t even have been a debate which one was going to be my first, but none of them were. I also love lobster, so I just thought if there was a lobster tail on this thing, that’s the obvious choice, I’m going to eat some lobster, then I’ll go back and eat the cheese. The lobster is the obvious choice.

So, there’s the title. That’s really what the book is about, being the obvious choice from the onset for your prospects and clients.

Kerry: Let’s really mix it up, throw some Skittles on that cheese plate. Why not?

Mark: Whatever it is. Skittles, Oreo cookies. I could go for an Oreo and some milk.

Kerry: Positioning is one of these things, it’s not old fashioned, but it’s definitely a thing that we all learn when we go to school for marketing, if we go to school for marketing, because a lot of marketers actually came up from other areas, but it’s something people know the word, but they don’t always know what it’s about.

I feel like we haven’t really followed the evolution, especially with the pandemic. The pandemic seems to have accelerated change, like compressed probably a decade worth of advancement into six months to a year. How has positioning changed? What do people need to know now about how to position their products and services in the marketplace?

Mark: That’s a great question. I’ll be honest, I don’t think it has changed at all. At the end of the day, what it is, there’s a lack of understanding of what positioning is. Your position in the market is happening with or without you. You have a position, because your position lives in the minds of others. You don’t own your position, your clients, your customers, and the marketplace owns your position.

I use an example in the book, if McDonald’s just opened a location tomorrow and said, “We’re a fine dining restaurant,” you’re not going to accept that. They can’t just say, “We’re fine dining,” and you’re going to say McDonald’s is now fine dining. They own your position, you don’t own it.

Positioning is the effort to influence that position in their mind. It’s happening with or without you and it’s always been that way. You should really pay attention to it and at least give yourself a shot at putting yourself in the position you expect to be in or the position you think you should be in. But at the end of the day, people are going to position you as they see you, and you need to work at that. I don’t think that will ever change.

Kerry: How you do it changes.

Mark: Yes.

Kerry: What does it look like now when, let’s say you come to a client and they have a whole portfolio of solutions and it’s complicated, they’re already doing a lot of things. How do they approach positioning? Do they look at it like let’s look at the industry as a whole and figure out what business we would aspirationally like to be in and kind of blow everything up, or do you look at what they have and try to figure out where it currently belongs, where they’re currently positioned, and whether that’s where they want to be?

Mark: I think it actually starts a step back and it starts with who your target market is, who your target customers is. Actually, even drilling down more, who is your target of one, who is that one person? Identify your perfect customer and then you set yourself up to be everything to that target of one. As you go out the next ring of the target that’s almost a clone of that person but slightly different, they’re still going to resonate with you and connect with you. Then you keep going out rings until you get out to the 15th or 18th layer where you’re not resonating at all.

Your position, I don’t think you start with your products and services, because at the end of the day, there are other people that offer the same stuff and you can get it anywhere. You need to start with who you’re trying to reach. You start with your target and then you connect with all of that and you position yourself as their perfect choice. That’s how you go through the exercise of what is it for my target, what messages resonate with them, what are their interests, what are their desires, what keeps them up at night, what scares them.

If you have a software that organizes your calendar, that’s going to work for doctors and lawyers and it’s going to work for remodelers, but they have completely different desires, completely different life views, and completely different interests. To say, “I’m going to help all these people,” no. Which one is your target? Maybe focus on the doctors, and now you can say, “This is how our calendar organizing app helps you, Mr. Doctor.” Always start with your target in mind.

Kerry: Or Ms. Doctor.

Mark: Or Ms. Doctor, yes, absolutely.

Kerry: What does that look like for Remodelers Advantage, what’s your position in the marketplace, what’s your target market?

Mark: It’s actually even in the name of the company. We focus on the remodeling industry vertical. We’ve even niched even further where our roundtables program, which is our peer group membership organization, you have to be $1,000,000 to $20,000,000 in revenue, you have to have the certain pain points that we’ve identified, so on and so forth. So, we focus on that vertical.

What’s interesting is there’s a lot of other companies that do peer roundtable programs, peer group advisory boards, and they also focus on different niches. There’s one in our industry that focuses on optometrists. There’s one that does it for dentistry. That’s a way to play in the same playground in the same sandbox and we’re not even ever overlapping. We have very few competitors in that regard.

Kerry: When you’re looking at your position in the marketplace, let’s say you have a lot of stuff going on, you’re acquiring maybe even new companies, how do you make changes if the way you’re being perceived is not the way you want to be perceived?

Mark: That’s the million dollar question. It’s not easy to change your position. Either you need to accept your position in the market and play to that strength, or you need to make a commitment to changing. That can take years.

Buick… When I say Buick, what do you think of, who do you think of as their target?

Kerry: My grandpa.

Mark: Right. 100%, Buick is for old people. Buick spent how many hundreds of millions of dollars trying to change their position. They got Tiger Woods as their spokesman a long time ago. They were trying to move it towards this car is for young people. They dumped millions upon millions of dollars trying to reposition themselves. I don’t think it worked, because here we are in 2021 and you still said grandpa.

Kerry: I mean, you might as well wait, everybody will be a grandpa someday.

Mark: Right, 100%. So, it’s incredibly difficult to overcome that once you’ve become ingrained in everybody’s mind to try to reposition yourself. It’s doable. I’ve seen it done. But it’s not easy. The short answer is you might want to consider that’s your position, let’s stick with it.

Kerry: Ouch. Like, hey listen, you’re not fit, so just learn some jokes or something. Like that’s really sad.

Mark: There are ways. I do go through some exercises and some different things you can do. Admittedly, if you’re a smaller business, it’s going to be easier than a well-established brand that’s global like Buick. That’s a much taller order than maybe a ma-and-pa shop on the corner. They probably will have an easier go at it. It’s going to be relative to your company and your size.

Kerry: Do you think that there’s anybody left after having experienced 2020 that does not have a crisis communication plan in place? Are there any people who were like, “Nah, it’s going to be this bad again?”

Mark: Actually, it’s funny, I would bet there’s quite a few people that didn’t put everything that happened on paper and they figure we’re through it. They were reeling at the moment, then okay, we’re good, we’re done. Did they actually put it down and say let’s put this into a formal plan for the next time, because there will be another something, there’s always going to be something that comes up, that’s a good point.

Kerry: People are now thinking, “Whew, that’s over,” and they’re not thinking about it in terms of something else bad is definitely going to happen.

Mark: Right. I know I personally am not thinking about it. I’m kind of still looking in the rear-view mirror thinking I can’t wait until we’re completely clear of this. It’s a tough one. But, yes, you absolutely should. You have to go through it. That’s actually why I had shelved the book, because COVID hit when I was weeks away from sending it to the editor to make sure I didn’t misuse semicolons and all that fun stuff.

Then everything got shut down. My phone was ringing off the hook, remodelers were emailing me, “What do we do? What do we do with our marketing? Should we shut down? What should we do? How do we do this?” I shelved the book and then I ended up just adding a short chapter in there after we settled down on that, just to say this is what you should do as initial steps the next time something comes up.

Kerry: I have some bad news for you, there’s going to be a next time. That’s number one.

Mark: Right, unfortunately.

Kerry: You’re going to face a crisis, and let’s say that you didn’t document everything you did in 2020. What’s the first thing you need to do now, and document for next time?

Mark: I had broken it down into be an ICON. The I stands for inventory, C is communicate, O is offer yourself, and then N is next phase.

Step one is inventory. That’s all about checking all of your messaging that’s out there, going through all of your social media, seeing your drip campaigns, your emails. I travel a lot with speaking and consulting stuff and workshops, so I’m on a lot of airline lists. I was one of the thousands of people that got that Spirit ‘never a better time to fly’ email that went out. I’ll never forget, it was March 12th, because that’s my son’s birthday.

I got that email when I was on my phone and I looked at and thought, “Never a better time to fly? What the heck are you talking about?” I was looking into it, and they had put this formal apology out saying that email was put into the campaign months ago. Just an example of why you need to inventory your drip campaign, you need to inventory everything, because suddenly you might have some messaging that’s not going to work out for a lot of people.

Kerry: I’m amazed that they didn’t check that. Doesn’t it send a test email out?

Mark: I don’t know. I got it. It was pretty bad. I think they did cut it off before it hit everybody, but I wasn’t one of the fortunate ones to miss it. Or it was fortunate, because it was a good lesson.

Kerry: I guess so. So, look at what you’re doing first.

Mark: Yes. Then immediately after that, these are almost happening in concert, the second step is to communicate. It seems obvious, but you’re so involved in yourself, it’s like we look inward, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do? What do we need to do? Where are we going to move? How are we going to reposition?” Well, we need to start with communicating to all of the key stakeholders, our customers, our clients, the staff, the team.

Then after you’ve gone through the key stakeholders in your business, then move on to the community at large, your future customers, your community, and communicate to them with what you’re doing, how you’re working through it, what’s going on and such. Communication is always key, but I think we hold off a little too long doing it because we’re reeling on our own.

Kerry: Why don’t brands say sorry more of the time? Then we’ll get back into ICON. They’ve done things, like when United broke guitars, they weren’t like, “Wow, we’re really sorry. We don’t try to break people’s things, that’s not who we are. That won’t happen again.” They just said nothing at all.

Mark: Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t know why. I think a sorry is the best thing you can do. It’s almost like they don’t want to admit it. Saying sorry admits fault, it admits you messed up. I guess it just comes down to that. I’ll be the first one to apologize.

Kerry: It’s on video that your people were throwing guitars around and breaking them. You can’t be like, “That’s never been proven.” It’s there. Just own it at that point.

Mark: I know, right.

Kerry: What’s the next step after you communicate?

Mark: Then offer it yourself. It was like PR, but that didn’t fit. I kind of looked at it and said this is really close to ICON, so how can I change PR into an O? Offer yourself. That’s how I switched that up. You need to offer yourself. You need to be, again, thinking about the community. Put yourself last.

I know it’s a crazy time and stuff is going nuts. I remember what it was like, and I was almost forced into it because all of our members were calling and emailing, “What do we do?” We didn’t even look inwardly. I think it was about 10 or 12 days after things really went to spiral before we had a team meeting to figure out our next steps. We focused on our customers, we focused on helping them. A lot of companies did what they could. You and I were talking a little bit just before about the gin distilleries and such that converted all of their equipment to make hand sanitizers.

It’s understanding that everyone is going through something and that means your target is as well. Let’s think about how they’re being affected. What is happening to them? Now, within the parameters of what your services are and what you offer, how can you be of help to them to make them better? That’s going to go a million miles to them loving you.

I know there’s the panic, you have to figure your stuff out, too, but you really need to offer yourself to them first and help them. Be there to help them. That means more to them than anything else. I’m a big movie guy, I’ve watched thousands of movies, and I quote movies all the time when I’m just having conversations with people. I don’t know if it’s a guy thing.

Kerry: No. I do it, too.

Mark: Okay, good. My wife started to do it after we got married, which is fantastic when she drops movie quotes on me.

I say in the book, the classic Mr. Mom, Michael Keaton, Teri Garr. She goes to that big marketing meeting and she tells the president of Schooner Tuna, “Your gimmicks and giveaways, you’re giving away free trips to Hawaii and free coffee mugs, housewives don’t need that. They need to know that you’re there for them. Show them that you care about them and they will give you their loyalty in return.” Then she comes up with her pitch and that’s, “We’re going to reduce our prices on tuna by $0.50 a can until this crisis is over. We’ll raise our prices at that point, but until then, we’re here, America is great,” and all that stuff.

I use that as an example. It’s a great movie, too, so I say also go watch the movie if you haven’t seen it. It really did encapsulate. People need your help. They don’t need your gimmicks, they don’t need that stuff. Help them. I think that’s the biggest point to ICON, offer yourself is the big one.

Kerry: We still say, “You’re doing it wrong.” That’s from Mr. Mom, too, when he’s taking the kids to carpool for the first time and they’re like, “Dad, you’re doing it wrong.” He’s like, “No, I’m not.” The other lady says, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Mark: I have a t-shirt, “You’re doing it wrong.” Yes.

Kerry: Let’s say you find a way to make yourself useful and be a resource for people in a time of crisis. What’s the next thing you do?

Mark: After that, now it’s time to look at yourself, look inward, look at the next phase. That’s what it is, next phase. That is what are the next steps for you. Your marketing plan is probably out the window. Your business plan and your goals are out the window. Everything has completely shifted, so now it’s really just the next phase now, let’s sit down as a team, let’s work the problem, let’s figure out what we need to do to fix it.

Hopefully, whoever your vendors are know about ICON and they’ve been offering themselves to you up until this point, so you’ve been getting some assistance in some way. Hopefully, you’ve been getting some assistance in some capacity. Now it’s time for you to sit down with your team and work through it.

There are studies I have in the book that I pulled up, they show the recessions of the ‘70s, the recessions of the ‘80s, and the recession of the ‘90s. They show on different charts how continuing to market through crisis, all the companies that do it come out way ahead years afterward, they blow the competition out of the water. I just really underscore I know the kneejerk reaction is to cut marketing.

I’m going to take an aside here, I blame the accountants and bookkeepers for this because they put marketing in the expense category on P&Ls and balance sheets. It drives me nuts because everybody looks at marketing as an expense, and it’s not. Can’t we have an investment category on the P&L? Marketing is an investment. Why are you going to cut an investment? Especially something that is yielding multiples on the dollar in return. It drives me nuts. Do not cut your marketing.

The benefit nowadays, as you well know, is thanks to the low prices of some of the marketing you can do with social media stuff, you can keep on going without having to really spend a lot of money and you can reallocate some funds, but you have to keep it going. It is an investment. Everybody who pulls their money out of 401Ks and stuff, really? No. Let it sit there, let it work for you. Go.

Kerry: I think the people that came out the best, probably, at least early on in the pandemic, were the ones who had experienced previous downturns, previous crises, and had to deal with those, and knew that you have to work your way through it instead of just slashing and hacking and hoping for the best.

You mentioned that you’re a movie buff. I have heard that you can talk about what we can learn from The Avengers movies about positioning, so I feel like I have to ask that.

Mark: Yes. I use tons of movie quotes and analogies throughout, but probably the biggest one is the fact that the vast majority of the first one-third of the book is all about creating your positioning statement and going through all of the steps of that. The positioning statement, I broke it down into six positioning stones, and I equate it to the six Infinity Stones in the Marvel Universe. At least for myself, I found it to be a fantastic analogy. Thanos was this huge god-like being, but he wasn’t all-powerful, he needed the six Infinity Stones to be all-powerful. He ends up being defeated by –

Kerry: Whoa. Spoiler alert.

Mark: By someone. Spoiler. But at this point, if someone hasn’t watched it, then there’s no spoiler alert. Tough noogies. You can always put spoiler alert and beep me out, I guess. If you get the book, there are going to be spoilers.

Kerry: That’s true.

Mark: He gets defeated by Iron Man who gets the six Infinity Stones. That’s kind of the point, if you have a strong positioning statement with all six positioning stones worked out and you have dialed in right, you can defeat anyone. You can go toe-to-toe with the titans in your market, you can go toe-to-toe with Amazon and win if you have it done right, 100% of the time. But that’s because you have identified all six stones.

The first stone is that target, and we really dig deep into the target. I’m big on that. Your target can’t be everyone. That drives me nuts. Everyone wants the target to be everyone. Anytime I get somebody that wants to fight me on that, they always go to Coke. They say, “Who is Coke’s target? Their target is everyone.” I say, “Well, first of all, you’re not Coke. Second of all, they didn’t start with everyone.” Nobody started there. Their target was not everyone on day one off the plant. They had a target. Who it was, I don’t know. I didn’t do the market research on that.

Kerry: I feel like they said it was medicinal or something.

Mark: Yes, it was medicinal at first. Right?

Kerry: It wasn’t really, but…

Mark: I heard originally the first formula actually had cocaine in it.

Kerry: Yes. I think so. I think it was medicinal and they were like, “Drink this to…,” I forget if it was supposed to invigorate you or something. But it was people who needed a solution to a specific problem and Coke was the solution.

Mark: Right. So, I say, “When you get to the size of Coke, then you can market to everybody. Until we get there, let’s focus on a target. Shall we? What do you say?”

Kerry: I say yes. Mark, if you could start a movement, what would it be?

Mark: That’s a great question. I was asked that recently and I paused for a moment. Being the marketer that I am, there’s one trait that all marketers need to have if you want to be successful, and that’s the ability to empathize. You need to be able to stand in your customer’s shoes, in your prospect’s shoes, you need to see the world through their eyes so you can understand them, you can understand their pains, you can understand what motivates them. It’s a required skill for any marketer.

I would love it even if we could have just Think Like a Marketer Week or something, because I think the world needs a little more empathy these days.

Kerry: You’re not wrong.

Mark: It’s funny because a lot of people think empathy means that you’re agreeing with someone, but it’s not. It’s just understanding their point of view. You don’t have to agree with it. Empathy leads to understanding. Then understanding leads to respect. Respect leads to kindness.

Kerry: You talked about Thanos. Thanos was the hero of his own story.

Mark: He was the hero of his own story, that’s true.

Kerry: You have to understand where people are coming from.

Mark: That’s right. Actually, he makes a good argument, too. He thinks he’s doing good. “There’s hunger, there’s starvation, planets are overpopulated. I’m helping the universe, I’m resetting it, I’m going to cut everything in half.” Spoiler alert again. Sorry.

Kerry: Right. We could talk about this all day. We could have been like you have the Time Stone, you just go fix it, or you have the Reality Stone, why don’t you just double the resources. There’s a million other ways to do it.

Mark: Right. That’s a good point. He has his story and in his eyes he’s right. I think we need to be a little more empathetic.

Kerry: Mark, where can people learn more about you and where can they get their copy of Lobster on a Cheese Plate?

Mark: BeTheLobster.com is the website for the book with all of the resources that I offer in the book. That’s where I send everybody in the book to download my resources, and you can get the book, there’s a link to Amazon. You could also just go to Amazon and search for it. If you don’t type Lobster on a Cheese Plate, you’re probably going to see things like lobster bibs and lobster crackers, so just get the book. If you’re getting the lobster bib, you’re doing it wrong.

Kerry: Maybe. That’s debatable. Maybe you’re just changing course.

Mark: There you go.

Kerry: Thank you for listening here to the very end. We would not have a show without you. This has been the Marketing Smarts Podcast. Talk with you again soon.