Monday, June 15th, 2009

Sweatpants forever?

Sweatpants forever?
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You’ve been struggling with your marketing for years. Every time you take on a new initiative you hope for it to make a difference, but somehow you’re left back at square one. Although you have a new website or piece of collateral it hardly ever seems to make a difference. Where’s the disconnect? I suspect it’s in your story and the value you put on it.

“Young, progressive, out of the box”

A few weeks ago we met with a company that was having exactly this problem. They’re a respectable law firm whose website just didn’t seem to be doing what it needed to. They particularly liked a website that we had crafted for another firm, and decided that they should get in touch with us.

The meeting went swimmingly. They were all pleasant and had a lovely office space. They explained to us that they were quite different from other law firms, and that while others were rather boring and stodgy, they are in fact much younger, more progressive, and “out of the box” thinkers*. They didn’t think this came across in their current materials, and were highly dissatisfied with their existing website. They felt that if we built a site for them like the one we built for their competitor, it would remedy this problem.

We explained that although we could help them with this, we didn’t want to duplicate what we had already done for another client. We felt that they probably had a good story to tell, and that we should “mine” their own history and practice in order to pinpoint that story, instead of trying to shoehorn them into something made for another firm. They seemed to appreciate this and asked us to prepare a proposal with hopes of beginning the process by the weekend. Given their urgency, we had a proposal to them within a couple of days; sadly, this is where things started to stall.

*Incidentally, Almost every law firm we’ve met with has told us exactly the same thing. I have yet to encounter the law firm that claims to be “boring and stodgy”.

Second time’s the charm?

From there a little back-and-forth began. They acknowledged that of the companies that they had met with, ours was the only one they wanted to work with. That being said, they were struggling with the price. The next bidder had provided an estimate 20% lower than ours; meanwhile, the company that built their existing website (that’s right–the one that wasn’t working for them) came to them with a price that was two-thirds lower than ours.

The fellow who I spoke with there was very cordial, and noted that he didn’t want to use the other two bidders; that being said, he felt that if he could squeeze the price a little, he’d have a better case to make with the partners. We liked how keen they were, so we cut out a few features in order to tighten things up a little. What I tried to remind him, however, was that a website can be made to match any price tag. If the funds were really so limited, I suggested holding off for a year and investing properly in a site that would actually solve their problems, when funds allowed them to do so. Ultimately though, price beat out value, and they went with the lowest bid.

This isn’t uncommon by any means, but that doesn’t make it any less nonsensical. They started with a core messaging problem, which they felt related to a shortcoming in their original provider’s capabilities. They then sought out firms with stronger track records. Once it came time to make the decision though, they concentrated only on the commodity cost. As a result, they’re going to spend twice with people who built something that didn’t work in the first place.

I didn’t fight the decision; doing so never makes any sense. Once a choice like this has been made, any encouragement to reconsider is often seen in a dismal light; nevertheless, I felt a little deflated. Their problem wasn’t so difficult to solve and I knew we could help them. (I suppose we’ll just have to wait a year for them to come back to us, once they realized that this course only wasted their time and money.)

Differentiation isn’t without a cost

Although I’m talking about one specific operation, my point applies to many. In our (nearly ten) years in business, we’ve spoken with a lot of people. Almost all face similar challenges, and they typically lack one of two requirements needed to remedy the situation and spur change. The first and most important is a willingness to differentiate; the second is the allocation of appropriate funds, in order to make this happen.

The law firm in question knew their problem–they came off as “beige” and boring like everyone else. They then looked to all of their competitors and decided to copy the site that they liked most. While I understand what leads to this, it’s a rather perverse notion: “Let’s differentiate our firm by copying the one that we like the most.” (Riiiiight.) They wanted the result without the price–a price which is both monetary and psychological in nature. In order to actually stand out from their competitors, they’d have to find a story of their own to share. With this does come some small amount of risk; it also brings with it the opportunity to create something powerful.

You don’t differentiate by copying the most attractive brand you can find. (If we did, KFC would be marketed like Louis Vuitton, and that would be sort of weird, wouldn’t it?) No, you have to isolate that which is uniquely yours and amplify it compellingly. You need a story that’s plausible (and one that people want to hear) and then you need to share it effectively. Not doing so leads to what one might consider the marketing “doom loop”, in which new campaigns are crafted and deployed haphazardly–destined for failure before they’re even out of the gates.

Anyone can make a website, identity, logo, or ad campaign for a lower price. If you look around for long enough, you’ll even find people who will do so for free. The thing is: some things are worth their price. I wouldn’t go to the “cheapest” surgeon to have laser surgery performed on my eyes; similarly, entrusting your organization’s story with an unproven team may invite disaster.

These things matter

The funny part is that for as price-obsessed as this particular client was, they didn’t seem to have much of a reason for being so. From what I could gather, their offices are spread amongst a couple of floors in what appeared to be a Class A building, and that certainly isn’t inexpensive. Additionally, I believe their staff to number in between fifty and a hundred members, and no one appeared to be financially burdened. So why did a budget that wouldn’t have even matched a month’s rent seem more terrifying to them than one of those chainsaw-wielding murderers so common in eighties horror flicks?

This sort of thinking always confounds me. Positioning an operation well has great value. Doing so minimizes the costs associated with ineffective and “off-brand” campaigns; meanwhile, defining a strong value proposition and story that people can buy into can be catalytic. Not being open to investing in telling their story effectively just doesn’t jibe with the desire to change that most of these groups exhibit when we first meet with them.

Nevertheless, many organizations confuse showing and telling. Let’s clarify this point now and be done with it. A law firm like the one we met with can say anything. They can tell us that they’re young, progressive and out of the box. They can even stand up and shout from the rooftops that they’re different from all of those other “boring” guys; but (and this is a big but), it doesn’t matter. You see, belief is altogether a different thing. Belief is established through one’s actions, and it’s often steered by what others see and experience. People are tactile and they make decisions based not only on your service, but as a result of how you speak and present your company.

This is why it costs something to define a great story for a brand. There’s more to it than wireframes, logos, sitemaps, or stationary systems. A good brand is resultant upon aligning an organization’s values realistically and building something around this that resonates and holds value for potential customers. This is particularly difficult to establish with groups like law firms, given how intangible their offerings are. Any design student can put together a witty mock-ad for a condom company. It’s a little harder to define a compelling value for service groups with few outwardly visible differences.

Open thy wallet or be condemned to wearing sweatpants… forever!

We’re always eager to work with clients who want to transform their organizations. Even those companies that, at outset, seem most boring can excite us with such a challenge. That’s why we worked to get this particular contract–when it appears that there’s a desire to change, we can really help an organization, and that makes the work interesting. When a company just wants a quick-fix without any real investment though (be it psychological or monetary) we find ourselves less than riveted.

While this firm was willing to invest in offices, etched glass walls, and expensive chairs, they weren’t prepared to put as much attention into their own firm’s messaging. Chairs are certainly nice, but in my mind secondary. The voice with which you speak shapes perception, and perception is a very important thing. If you need to connect with customers (and who doesn’t?) you need to consider what your company is saying both verbally and with the visual cues you leave for them to interpret. As such, your first points of contact are critical in removing doubt and establishing value.

While this firm had all the accoutrements of success and trustworthiness, they slipped when it came to their appearance and messaging. This was their big stumbling block, as messaging is so much more important than any single fixture or marketing piece. An analogy if you will: You’re a hard worker and a nice guy. In university you were always at the top of your class, and you take a lot of time to do volunteer work with needy groups. Not only that, you really love the work you do; if only someone would hire you. Oh, right… you also go to job interviews wearing a pair of sweatpants with the word “juicy” written across the buttocks.

A lot of companies do just this. They take care of all kinds of things only to get sloppy with their messaging and presentation, thinking that their website or brand can be built by an 18 year old in Romania. Sure, the price may seem attractive, but the true cost is debilitating! If you want to differentiate your company, get ready to invest. It will cost you both in terms of a commitment to your organization and from a monetary standpoint. Then of course, you don’t want to wear those sweatpants forever, do you?

If you want to read more on this topic, and others, reserve your copy of Speak Human; arguably the best book ever written.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. You make a sound point Jon, however, I wonder if you've perhaps skipped the first stage in that process. Before a client would even see that space, they'd likely research several firms online. If the website doesn't do it's job, that firm may never need to worry about a client walking into their space. ;-)

    I'm not harping on the notion of just creating a lovely website; rather, I'm suggesting that organization's need to create a compelling and appropriate value proposition. Without it, they all 'blend' and then they too are reduced to commodity.

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  3. Jon Lax says:

    What you are running up against is just a value decision. Some people aspire to own Louis Vuitton while others wouldn't pay that kind of money. Those who are willing to pay for LV value luxury and premium. They value the status that comes with carrying it and potentially the craftsmanship.

    Most clients do not value design or brand in the same way we do. We think it insanity to not invest in these things but in all likelihood these lawyers would not win or lose a client based on their Web site. They perceive that their offices if shabby would reflect so badly on them as to be liability possibly costing them a brief. Hence they value it more, hence they invest in it more.

    I love our Web site, we spent a lot of time on it. We get compliments on it and other designers love it. It ends up on portfolio sites and it is something we are proud of. Could I tell you how many clients its won us. I would probably say none. In fact we've lost pitches to agencies who's own sites would make your eyes bleed. If I had to do a true ROI on our site, I would invest very little in it because the return I can associate to it is fuzzy at best. But I value good design and the thought that our site was substandard would not sit well with me. Because we value those qualities and attributes we invest in them.

    Clients will invest in what they value. Often these values are subjective. Because they are subjective, logic does not motivate.

  4. Tony Wanless says:

    Eric. welcome to the world of consulting in Vancouver where everyone thinks you're just some kind of commoditized tradesman. Several points:
    1. expertise marketing is often the hardest do because you're often working with people who think they're expert in everything, including your business.
    2. It's not your fault. since they're supposed to know everything but don't, they fall back on the only thing that makes sense -- measurement. Price is the easyist and safest measure there is. No one was ever reprimanded or fired for getting the lowest price.
    3. This was probably a decision made by committee,where the managing partner or financial comptroller rules. They usually aren't real good on intangibles like quality or strategic thinking. They tend to check things off on lists, like decision making. It's the clean desk mentality.

    Keep plugging away at it. They're not all like that. Some actually get it!

  5. Selby says:

    Bravo! well spoken sir.

    The one thing that annoys me nearly as much as 'spec' is clients who want a top notch job at $2 shop prices.

  6. Ben Moorhouse says:

    Totally agree there Selby!
    I recently pitched for a website for a Steel Fabricator. When he said " but I could get this done by my 12 year old nephew" I completely lost interest!

  7. Waggit says:

    A really good blog post. I seem to have come across this scenario time and time again.

    I really like your analogy with the sweatpants. Im always using analogies with clients, I think this is the best one ive come across! It's definitly the best way of getting the message across, as they can visualize it in their heads.

    I'll have to agree with Tony Wanless. In my experience its usually the finance director who says, "NO" only for one reason, and thats for monetary reasons of course, that's his job! All they understand are facts and figures.

    In general, I think its finance directors that really need to read blogs like this. The finance directors I usually come across really need to be educated about the worth of good design!

  8. Lisa says:
  9. Aaron Riddle says:

    Great post, Eric! We too have encountered this stubbornness all to frequently with potential clients. This is the first of your blog entries that I have read and I will be subscribing to catch your next posts!

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  11. Andrew says:

    I've been in meetings where I felt like the client was spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to convince me that they had something special to differentiated them from their competitors.

    They seemed to think that all they had to do was convince me, and then I'd use my magic to transmute all of their aspirations into reality as perceived by their potential customers.

    Some clients aren't special. They see a competitor of theirs whom they admire in some way, and want to emulate them without really understanding that differentiation isn't a superficial quality.

    Granted, branding and marketing can LEAD a company's aspirational efforts, but you need buy-in at the top and a culture that will support it. Your lawyer clients might have gotten spooked when they realized that.

  12. I'm sure most designers have experienced similar situations. I wish it was just about numbers and finance directors exercising due diligence, but it's symptomatic of deeper rooted problems.

    As a visual art student at the University of Victoria, I clearly recall outside opinion on what we produced. Other faculty members, especially commerce students, thought a BFA was an free ride to a degree. Of course, opinions were not all homogeneous, many students, commerce or otherwise, admired what we did.

    However, as Ben mentioned above, the disconnect between what a Designer does, and what people perceive them to do, is not bridged easily. That particular attitude is further compounded by a spectrum of service related prices that extends from one extreme to another: 25 dollar logos, etc.

    Expensive chairs and etched glass walls are tangible - solid objects that reinforce an entrenched consumer driven paradigm. Web design is abstract compared to chairs. I wish there was an easy way to show clients the mechanics behind design, and discuss why it's important, without pointing at brands like Apple and Nike.

  13. Great post Eric.

    As a small freelance agency at the lower end of the spectrum, we always come across similar situations, albeit for smaller scale clients. People want to land on the moon, but they are only willing to pay for a short haul flight on easyJet. I find it quiet interesting that no matter what the size of the clientele base; this issue still persists. Whether it's small independent business owners or large legal firms, people just don't understand the cost of experience and time.

    Thanks for the great read.

    BTW The sweatpants allegory is pure gold.

  14. Ben Kunz says:

    Brilliant post.

    However, I do see why the lawyers did what they did. Been there, done that. The fatal mistake of numbers- or fact-oriented businesses that don't deal with branding or design daily is they consider a web site just another cost, like the 100 other operating expenses they must manage in steering committees. So your web project got put in the same category as the office expansion on the second floor and the new furniture order -- keep the costs down, because they all add up. It's not your cost -- it's the cost of you and the 99 other things that MUST be brought under control. Wrong, of course -- but you need to make them wake up and realize that.

    Perhaps a sales solution around this is in your initial pitch, before you get into the tactical issues that make half the business audience glaze over, is to ask a simple question:

    "How important is your main marketing channel, this web site, to the future growth of this business? On a scale of 1 to 100?"

    If the partners scratch their heads and say, well, um, perhaps a 95, after all, this is really our only marketing ... then respond:

    "Great. We aren't the cheapest. But given that this project represents your future, let's discuss how to do it right."

  15. Great post. And the video Lisa suggests above is wonderful.

    What you, Eric, and all the rest of us are in, is a battle of the left brainers vs. the right brainers. While the conversation may sound sensible, two different languages are being spoken.

    I've spent a life in advertising and at some point I learned that I didn't have enough time in life to waste it trying to convince people to advertise. Though at times I've been able demonstrate the wisdom of paying a little bit more to get something better.

    The price squeeze isn't confined to creative work, either. When its hard to differentiate (and it's always hard to do that with intangibles) people wonder why they should pay more.

    The only solution IMHO is to work for people who understand the difference. Sometimes they knock on the door. More often you have to seek them out.

  16. Matt says:

    Great post Eric, I run into this same problem often. "You get what you pay for" is ringing in my head.

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  18. laura says:

    I think your point of clients' "willingness to differentiate" is a huge stumbling block for many clients. When faced with this challenge, many are risk averse when it comes to breaking established visual conventions....everyone wants to stand out, but not too much.

    I suspect that there are many designers out ther who have encountered numerous clients who, while desiring to strategically position themselves in the marketplace, are woefully lacking sufficient conviction to establish their own 'story'— either internally among employees or externally via the visual brand.

    And until we as designers are able to insight sweeping changes in how our clients understand and value the function of design in business, we will continue to encounter clients who want to be 'different'... but not too different.

  19. Jason VanLue says:

    Great post Eric - I've experienced a number of similar situations. I appreciate the details you put into the post and your perspective - right on.


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  21. stephen says:

    Well said, something all of us in this field can attest to.

    For many reasons "web design" is and probably always be undervalued and misunderstood.

    Similarly, a lot of companies have a tendency to think that that the process of defining/establishing/identifying a brand is fulfilled simply by "paying someone to build us a new website". Can't tell you how many times we've gotten the "we really want to work with you guys, but..." or "can't you just make us the same thing you did for X" shpeal.

  22. Glenn Hilton says:

    Great post Eric. We encounter this challenge on a regular basis and often have firms come back to us a year later to re-engage with us after they took the cheaper route. Next time a potential client starts balking, I think I'm just going to send them the link to this post to knock some sense into them, or to get them to hire you instead ;)

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  24. Network Geek says:

    Well, the old rule of "You get what you pay for" is no less true now than it ever has been. I never understand why it's so hard for people to understand that crafting the right image and marketing strategy for your business is an investment into future earnings. A solid marketing plan is no less important or valuable than a nice office, professional staff, or great products and services. It's not rocket science, after all!

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