Category Archives: Branding

Lesson two from “Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead”: set your content free!

Set some content free for your audience members, and it’ll lead to high levels of loyalty from customers/fans/followers/donors/etc. David Meerman Scott, author of Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead, is a big advocate of good, free content to establish credibility and trustworthiness. It’s also one way The Grateful Dead built its fan base and reputation: they let audience members openly record performances. In fact, they encouraged it by providing recording areas for these fans to set up camp. The band, as Scott says, “removed barriers to their music by allowing fans to tape it, which in turn brought in new fans and grew sales.” Rather than fighting it, they embraced it, showing the ultimate respect and appreciation for their followers.

And it’ll work for anyone. Lately, a few counter examples got me thinking about this idea. After attending last month’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C., I searched for video clips from the event. Unfortunately, I found many to have been removed by Comedy Central’s parent company. And this week, a friend Tweeted a video of Jimmy Fallon’s performance as Neil Young (with Bruce Springsteen) singing Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” on Jimmy Kimmel’s Late Night. After watching that video of the performance, I went back a few days later to watch it again, and the video had been removed for “copyright purposes.” [Here’s a link to the NBC-sanctioned video, for any Neil and Bruce fans.]

Let’s follow in The Grateful Dead’s footsteps and loosen up: less policing, more providing. I recently listened to an interview with Andy Bailey, president of NationLink Wireless, courtesy of a podcast from Atkinson Public Relations in Nashville. Andy has helped NationLink become an authority in its field by giving away information, including tips, tools, and even software.

“In order to be the expert, you have to share that knowledge with other people and give them access to the information,” Andy says. “And selfishly, they would market for us.”

That’s not selfish at all. That’s good brand-awareness strategy. Another great example comes from where I work: our digital recruitment specialist in the admission office has created a white paper called The Definitive Guide to Social Media (for college-seeking students).” It’s an awesome, free tool for teenagers who want to make sense of all the online options for exploring colleges.

And while it has our brand on it, the content appeals to the audience on a general, non-selling level. It’s a tool for teenagers (and their parents) to use no matter what college they’re looking for. Meanwhile, we’re establishing our expertise and our reputation as a thought leader in student recruitment.* And this can only do good things for cultivating lasting customer relationships for any organization.

*Of course, we can’t forget to measure these efforts, as we would any endeavor. Your free content isn’t automatically going to result in more of what you want (sales, customers, applications, whatever). It has to be the right kind of free content to make it worth the effort.

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Cooking hotlines during holidays are an awesomely creative marketing strategy

Today I saw a query from a freelance writer who’s doing a story for a major outlet about companies offering “online or phone help for frazzled cooks this holiday season.” Crisco is having a Pie Hotline this holiday season for the fifth time, and Butterball has had Turkey Talk-Lines in the past.

Awesome awesome awesome. This creative venture fills a huge need (who wants to call dad for help when you told him you’d handle the turkey this year), and it pushes a brand without being overwhelming. This puts a fun spin on the term “thought leader” and expands the original idea of the point of free whitepapers.

What about a Miracle-Gro® hotline for folks who aren’t sure how much water their indoor plant needs or if your ever-growing plant needs to be re-potted? Or maybe a Sherwin-Williams® hotline for painters who are flipping out because they’ve spilled on about 10 different surface types and have no idea what to do to make the paint come out?

This could get out of control. Again, awesome.

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Everyone’s invited to your web site redesign party: 5 internal communication tips

Creating a new company web site should be an exciting time, and things can go a lot smoother if there’s open communication, especially internally. Here are 5 tips to make the transition more like a party than a funeral for employees:

1. Treat a web site redesign like editors do at print magazines or like the world does leading up to each New Year’s holiday: create a countdown. Make sure your internal users – staff members, stakeholders, other constituents – know that a redesign will occur and when the transition will take place. Internally, there shouldn’t be any surprises: everyone should know the change is coming months before it happens.

2. Keep internal constituents pumped about the change! Drop hints in a company newsletter or your employee Twitter account about interesting, useful and unique capabilities or features the new site will have. Remind everyone consistently that the change is coming and that it’ll make their lives better. Some folks may think it’s cheesy (and possibly annoying) to be reminded of the change every time they turn around. Prevent this by keeping your messages short, simple and clever.

3. Educate and train: in some organizations, a central entity creates a web site’s template, and then individual offices are responsible for updating their section. So if your new web site requires folks to learn how to work with HTML code or anything different than what is currently being used, hold workshops well before the launch date to train employees. Be patient  and be kind, and your colleagues will appreciate you making their transition to the new web site easy. And offer free snacks at the workshops, in addition to holding them in a room with natural, bright light.

4. Design by suggestion: we all know designing by committee hardly works, but if your organization is open to input (and all really need to be), allow employees to suggest ideas for the web site, whether it be content, colors, images or style. Including everyone in the process will ensure employees on every level feel as if they have a stake in the change. And they do have a stake because the change affects them.

5. And finally, have a large focus group (consisting of your employees) test out the new site before it goes live: There’s nothing more frustrating than coming across a problem months after a redesign launch and wondering if hundreds of others have also gotten frustrated and left your site (ending with potentially a lost customer or client). In addition, employees use various parts of an entire web site. Someone in finance may see a problem with a section that someone in marketing wouldn’t.

When a print magazine completes a redesign, it completes the redesign. Just because web sites are dynamic and can be changed easily doesn’t mean we should count on changing things later. When you launch, make sure it’s as perfect as possible.

And make it a party!

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Billboards: yes, no, maybe?

Accepting billboards as an effective advertising avenue is a constant struggle for me, especially so in the last four years as a higher education marketer. In fact, they confound me so much I hope I can even make a coherant blog post about them.

The thing is: in theory, they should be really effective. In reality, I just don’t know if they are. There are rules, exceptions, and a lot of “ifs” when it comes to proving that your billboard ad is effective. But what are the rules? And the exceptions to those?

I’ve found that billboards are effective in trying to convey a single message to a mass audience: read this book, visit this festival, drink this beer, reserve your seats for this show. Trying to convey a deeper message, such as the essence of a university or the charm of an entire town, is a bit harder.

One billboard I see often in my travels that I think is great is a simple one that has the image of Pepsi’s logo. No text, no presence of the word “Pepsi.” Talk about brand saturation: a survey would likely show that most folks recognize Pepsi’s logo when they see it. The billboard is suggesting, without saying it, you want a Pepsi.  Oh, and look, there’s a gas station just ahead. Billboard effectiveness is all about placement, too.

Measuring the effectiveness of a billboard is the most frustrating part. It’s damn near impossible. If there’s a call to action on the billboard (go to this micro site, text this number for a free t-shirt, call here for more info) it at least allows a marketer to measure something. On the other hand, just because someone didn’t follow the call to action doesn’t mean the billboard’s message didn’t sink in.

Here are a few billboards I’ve noticed lately, for better or for worse:

  • Thumbs down: Insurance companies love the billboards with photos of insurance agents. This isn’t very effective. I see where they’re going; they’re trying to personalize their service with a friendly face. These faces are often, well, awkward, and just might do less for the brand than not having the billboard at all.
  • Thumbs up: I don’t think any company could have more reason to utilize billboards than McDonalds. And they do it very well. The only suggestion I have is to place your consumer. That is, let drivers know how far away the next McDonalds is. Once you hook ’em with the promise of a 49-cent ice cream cone, let them know how long they have to wait before they get one.

What’s the best and/or worst billboard you’ve seen lately?

Advertising: Is Diet Coke as classy as it wants us to believe?

Last summer, my partner and I spent a long weekend in Miami, and we ate at a fantastic Indian restaurant (bad, bad service, awesome food). After wandering around South Beach for hours (including a half-mile trek in the sand), I was super thirsty, and at the restaurant I ordered a water and a Diet Coke. I just had one of those cravings.

Later that night, while talking about the restaurant, my partner mentioned something about “ordering a Diet Coke in a classy restaurant.” That is, he was pointing out the unclassiness of ordering a Diet Coke at an expensive, sit-down, nice establishment.


I hadn’t given his pronouncement much thought until I recently saw a commercial for Diet Coke, in which Tom Colicchio, famous New York chef and judge on Bravo’s Top Chef series, told me it was okay to order a Diet Coke in a classy restaurant.


“When it comes to taste, it’s important to know the difference between being sophisticated and, uh, whatever that is…,” says Colicchio in the opening of the commercial, as he watches a waiter at an upscale restaurant bring a woman an entrée most would call “fancy.”

“You don’t have to overcomplicate it,” Colicchio continues, as he sits down at the bar. The bartender pours a Diet Coke into a glass for him. “No gimmicks, no fads…just keep it simple. Because when you start with good taste, you don’t need anything else. ”

Diet Coke is attempting three major things: 1) to draw in customers from the higher-echelon, foodie segment; 2) to tell current customers Diet Coke isn’t just for those drive-through Styrofoam cups, and 3) to tell men it’s okay for them to drink Diet Coke. (We’ll just focus on the first two.)

The marketing strategy at work here is fantastic. Diet Coke has determined a segment of the population it isn’t currently serving and that their research has shown might be receptive to and perhaps benefit from its product.

In addition, the long-term goals here are lofty and profitable: if people begin craving a Diet Coke with any type of meal, consumer demand might encourage restaurants who don’t sell soft drinks now to do so in the future. And this, of course, increases Diet Coke’s sales in the restaurant segment.

But will any of this advertising work? Except for that one time in Miami (no, really), I normally order a glass of water or wine at a nice restaurant. This isn’t uncommon by any means, and because my curiosity was piqued, I explored the drinking habits of fellow Diet Cokers I found.

*Editor’s note: for the context of these purposes, “fast-food restaurant” is defined as an establishment like McDonalds or Taco Bell; “sit-down restaurant” is defined as an establishment like Applebee’s or O’Charley’s; and “fine-dining restaurant” is defined as, well, none of the major chains, the food is excellent, a bit pricey, and you feel you should dress up when you go.

Sarah* is a self-proclaimed Diet Coke drinker who has one to two cans or glasses a day. When she visits fast-food restaurants and sit-down restaurants, she’s been known to order a Diet Coke. However, she says, “I usually drink wine at fine dining establishments.” Ah, my partner would like her.

Jane, also a Diet Coker, only drinks it from cans or 20-oz bottles (one or two a day). But she only drinks water when eating out, no matter what type of restaurant it is.

A gal who has two to three Diet Cokes a week, Elizabeth orders only Diet Coke at fast-food restaurants, rarely at sit-down restaurants and never at fine-dining restaurants.

Sheila “hardly ever” has a Diet Coke. Hardly ever as in probably once or twice a year.

And when Nicole has a Diet Coke, which is maybe once every two months (and even then, that’s stretching it), it’s just at a fast-food restaurant. “Or at a bar mixed with some rum!”

Ann concurs. She’s been “Diet Coke free for two years,” but admits: “The only way to drink Diet Coke is with rum.”

And finally, we have what Diet Coke might consider its ideal customer: Mary, a Diet Coker, who, though she’s cut back from three to four a day to one a day, has been known to drink Diet Coke at each of the three different types of establishments.

A total of 12 individuals responded to my survey (11 females, 1 male). I know, not exactly scientific, but you have to admit, it has been fun.

Of those 12:

  • 2 drink absolutely no soft drinks
  • One prefers Diet Pepsi
  • Another prefers Diet Dr. Pepper
  • One is a former, recovering Diet Coke drinker
  • Two rarely drink soft drinks, but when they do, they choose Diet Coke
  • One tolerates the taste of Diet Coke for weight-loss reasons
  • Four out of 12 people surveyed consider themselves regular-basis Diet Coke drinkers

And now for the final stat of the survey: of those who consider themselves regular-basis Diet Coke drinkers, only one of them admits to drinking the beverage in a fine-dining establishment.


According to my unscientific survey, Diet Coke has definitely pinpointed a market. And whether they can beat out wine and water (among women) to become a favorite option at fine-dining establishments, well, that may be a challenge. I suggest Diet Coke narrow its goals down to one: encouraging current drinkers to drink it anywhere and everywhere. Just don’t bring a Styrofoam take-out cup into a fine-dining establishment.

*names were changed to protect Diet Cokers!

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