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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