Brand or Die!

A Small Business Survival Guide

Who are you?

  • Posted: 2:47 PM
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  • Author: Mikal J. Caldwell

It's a simple question. Who are you? Do you know what your company's identity is? More importantly, do your customers? Are you sure?

An excercise that I take my clients through goes something like this: I ask them to imagine that they've been stranded on a desert island and have missed the last 5 years of advertising and commercials. You're rescued and given the opportunity to catch up. The only thing is, all they have to give you are your company's promotional materials. Would they be able to figure out exactly who you are?

There are usually two big mistakes companies make when producing promotional materials. They either (a) don't present their identity in clear, plain language, or (b) talk about their company from the company's perspective, instead of what would be meaningful to the audience. In some cases, it's both.

I remember when I first started out, I would try to impress people with all the jargon I knew. They'd ask what I did and I would spout off about core message alignment and concentric marketing design. Finally, one gentleman (who I still keep in touch with today), after hearing me use all the marketing-speak I knew, asked simply: "That sounds good...but what do you do?"

That was just the cold-water-in-the-face that I needed to wake me up from being so impressed with myself. How would you feel about somebody that constantly talked over your head or only about how great they were? The funny thing is, most of us do exactly that when we design brochures or content for our websites. Take a step back and ask yourself if someone that didn't know what you know, would still be able to get what you're trying to say. If not, then go back to the drawing board until you can present yourself in clear language, that explicitly speaks from the customer's point of view.

Go forth and be ruthless!

Hey! What's the Big Idea?

  • Posted: 7:40 AM
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  • Author: Mikal J. Caldwell

"There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come." - Victor Hugo

Every business should have a Big Idea. This is the essence of why you're in business. When you came up with your business concept, it was in response to something you saw that wasn't there before. There was a need for what you were going to provide. It was the space in the market that you were going to fill. It's bigger than the product or service you sell. It's the axis that your business world turns on. If you haven't really thought about it before, you should definitely do it now. Don't just look at the product, but try to understand the underlying idea of your product, because that is one of the most important elements of your brand and one of the keys to true brand penetration.

Apple is a great example of how to use a Big Idea. Although Microsoft had a near-monopoly on operating systems, Apple decided to compete on a totally different playihg field. They launched the IPOD not as a product, but the symbol of an idea that said: "We are the definition of cool." They were completely brilliant in their launch of it and immediately the idea caught on. Not fully realizing the mortal danger they were in, Microsoft was slow to respond, and by the time they had a similar product, they had already lost the idea war. IPODS were cool. Everything else was not.

From there they used the power of that idea to breathe new life into the Mac Computer brand. Macbooks became synonomous with cool, just as the IPOD was. You can see that Big Idea still being used in their "I'm a Mac. I'm a PC" ad campaign. Apple's success wasn't built on the strength of their product, but on the power of their Big Idea.

You might not be as big as Apple, but your Big Idea is and you can use it the same way that Apple did. Understand it well enough to articulate it simply and clearly, and then begin spreading that Big Idea in your marketing. Use it to design the look and feel of your store or office. Adjust your messages to reflect it. Spread the gospel of your Big Idea and watch how many of your customers become believers.

Go forth and be ruthless!

The Strange Case of Otto Rohwedder...or...Is your business the best thing since sliced bread?

I was skimming through Wikipedia (don't ask...) and I came across the story of Otto Rohwedder. Apparently, he invented the first single-loaf bread slicing machine in 1928. The thing is, when it was first launched it didn't really catch on. It got him some regional attention but most people thought it was unnecessary and kept right on going to the bakery for a whole loaf.

Then two things happened that made sliced bread the staple that it is today. First, Wonder Bread started marketing sliced bread nationally in 1930. Wonder Bread was already a popular bread bakery, but they used the innovation of sliced bread to launch their national brand. Even with this national push, it still probably wouldn't have caught on as well if it wasn't for another man named Charles P. Strite.

Who is that? He's the guy that invented the spring loaded, single slice toaster. He invented the machine in 1919, but he couldn't sell more than a few as a novelty. But it soon became apparrent that the Wonder Bread slices fit perfectly into the toaster. Now there was a practical reason for both sliced bread and the toaster and as a result, sales for both skyrocketed.

What struck me is that the biggest beneficiary of the invention of sliced bread wasn't the inventor of the new innovation. The biggest beneficiary was the one that was able to spread the IDEA of the innovation. In your own business, you could (and should) probably boil your company down to one Big Idea. This is the problem you exist to solve. The improvement that you represent over what was there before you. Whatever your Big Idea is, this is the idea that you want to spread. A good portion of your marketing effort should be directed to ensuring that the IDEA of your company catches on. Especially if you're offering something that either wasn't there before or hasn't really caught the mainstream attention yet.

So think about what the Big Idea of your company is and look for ways that you can invade the public conciousness with that idea. After all, at the end of the day, who would you rather be: Wonder Bread, or Otto Rohwedder?

Go forth and be Ruthless!

The Social Networking for Business Project: Using Social Media

Social Networking is actually an umbrella label. Within "social networking" in general are several different categories of social networks, each with its own value. So in my social networking experiment I got to know all about the world of one of those categories: Social Media.

Social Media, specifically, is a network built around user generated media. From the more ubiquitous YouTube, to sites like Digg or Twitter, these types of sites can present several unique and valuable opportunities to communicate with your audience.

YouTube, for example, has several possible uses. First, you can try to create your own viral video. You know, the kind of video that someone forwards to you with the note: "You've got to see this!" That's a viral video. So named, because it spreads like...well, a virus.

Although most viral videos have been humorous, perhaps even silly or weird, there have been established brands that have used it very effectively to build buzz. BMW, for example, had a series of videos about a fictional kidnapping that the hero foiled using his BMW. The object was to build buzz around a new model that was launching.

Viral content should be used carefully in a way that never undermines your brand. If you don't want to be seen as silly, don't create silly content. On the other hand, your content must have a sharp hook that will make it something that "you have to see!"

Another use for YouTube is less "pop culture" oriented. You can start a YouTube Channel that features your videos. Here you can expound on topics, post clips from workshops you've given, etc.

However you use it, you can see how the immediate connection is made. That's why it is such a powerful medium. Plus it's set up to be shared. Every video carries with it instructions on how to link to the video, embed it in their website or share it through other social networks like Facebook and MySpace.

Another type of Social Media is the one you're reading now. That's right, blogging. If you don't have one, you should. They are easy to set up and carry the same viral capacity that YouTube has. In addition, it's possible to carry your blog with you onto other sites to increase your exposure potential. For example, this blog that you're reading now is being simultaneously broadcast on Facebook, Linked In, Plaxo, and my local newspaper.

This should give you a brief overview of Social Media and some ways that you can use it to promote your business. Have fun with it and let me know how it works out!

Go forth and be ruthless!

The Social Networking for Business Project, or... "I donated my business for science."

For the last couple of weeks, I've been conducting an experiment in the use of social media for business. A lot of talk is going on about the value of social networking sites as a grass roots way to market yourself. As a Ruthless Marketing Guru, I felt it was my duty to take it out of the realm of theory and make some practical analysis of it's true value.

Most people still think of Myspace and Facebook and others as simply toys for the young. But there is a real power in social media that, if used properly, represents real marketing potential. Having said that, it is not the medium for everyone (but we'll get to that later)

For the purposes of my experiment, I decided to really dig in to these sites and find out what treasures might lie within. I was familiar enough with most of them, but beyond the broad, common benefits, I wanted to find the less known benefits, if there were any to find. The results of my experiment were surprising to me, and I got a lot of useful information that I'll share on the blog in the days ahead. For this first post, I wanted to lay some foundation about the use and value of social networking.

Before you go off half-cocked and jump on every site you can find, you must first determine what the goals of your strategy will be. This is a basic planning step that for some reason is usually skipped when attempting internet marketing. But just like any marketing strategy, there should be measurable goals that determine whether it was successful or not. Are you looking to drive more traffic to your website? How much more? Are you looking for appointments or calls to your office? What about foot traffic? Whatever it is, you should have a clear and realistic goal for what you're undertaking, so that you can judge its effectiveness.

What types of social media will you use? There are several to choose from. There's Digg, Facebook, Myspace, StumbleUpon, Twitter, LinkedIn, Plaxo, (getting tired yet?) YouTube and others. Then there's blogging... *whew*

So as you can see, if you don't know what you're getting into and why, it's easy to get confused or even worse...waste valuable time.

So stay with me and we'll take this journey together. At the end of it, I might add you as a friend on Facebook...

Go forth and be ruthless!

My list of the Top 8 Marketing Mistakes that small businesses make (5-8)

  • Posted: 7:34 AM
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  • Author: Mikal J. Caldwell


Common Mistake: Underestimating your need to market your product or service.

You have a product or service that you believe in passionately. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be involved with it or working so hard at it. The problem is, you assume that all you have to do is turn on your open sign and everyone will automatically see how great it is and beat a path to your door. Wrong. There are at least 5 other people just like you offering the same thing, maybe even at a lower price. You have to effectively communicate to your potential customers why they should come to you and not go anywhere else. That’s why you need to take the time to focus on effective marketing.

Recovery Plan: Start from scratch. Assume nobody knows who you are or what you do, but they already know everything else about your competition. How do you tell them about you? What makes you different from everyone else out there? Don’t assume anything about the knowledge base of your audience and assume that you will have to educate them completely. That’s the best way to gain perspective on why you need effective marketing communications and lead you down the best path to develop those communication tools.


Common Mistake: Focusing solely on acquisition of new customers and not including retention in your marketing efforts.

You have a bright, shiny new marketing campaign planned. You’ve developed a great brand promise and set up your marketing mix effectively. You know that at the end of this process you will have “X” amount of new customers. You launch everything and it seems to be going well. Until you look at your numbers and realize that your growth is flat. What happened? Growth is more than the acquisition of new business. It is the retention of existing business that forms the basis for growth. If you gain 1 customer a week, but lose two, then you can do the math.

Recovery Plan: As you’re planning your marketing strategy, be sure to include marketing and communication to existing customers as well. These customers are vital to your success and you’re already starting from a position of strength with them because they’ve already bought into your product or service. All you have to do is keep them believing in what you’re offering them. Customer Appreciation Days, discounts for long-time customers, or anything else you can think of that maintains your existing base’s belief


Common Mistake: Creating marketing language that only tells everyone how great you are.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. You’re the best at this. You’re great at the other. Come and see how wonderful we are. If a person talked like that all the time we would call them self-centered. Now take a look at the language you use in your marketing materials. Is your marketing too self-centered? Customers don’t really care how great you are. They just want to know what’s in it for them. Ultimately, your marketing should always answer that question. Focus on the customer, not yourself.

Recovery Plan: Do an audit of your marketing materials. Start with your tag line or your brand message. Does it focus on you, or your prospect? If it’s too self-centered, change it! Develop positioning statements that focus on the benefit you offer to the customer. Do the same with all of your external marketing pieces.


Common Mistake: Playing Lone Ranger with your marketing, whether by choice or out of financial necessity.

I hear organizations all the time complain about the results they get from their marketing efforts and the money they spent on it. I always ask who was responsible for the marketing and the answer is usually someone who already has a million other things to do. Marketing is a process that requires time, attention, and patience. Sometimes it also requires using someone else’s time, attention, and patience so that you can focus on other things. That’s where consultants like me are a great asset. Whether you use me or someone else, the investment you make will pay off in dividends immediately. Not to mention having someone with the advanced specialized knowledge you need to get the most for the money you’re spending on marketing.

Recovery Plan: Call me! (LOL)

My list of the Top 8 Marketing Mistakes Small Businesses Make (1-4)

  • Posted: 12:08 PM
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  • Author: Mikal J. Caldwell

When marketing efforts are not successful, many companies wonder why. They sent out direct mail, or refreshed their website, initiated Google Adwords, or attended a trade show, but are left disappointed and frustrated with languishing sales and underused resources. Why isn’t the phone ringing? What went wrong?

My answer comes from analyzing the top 8 biggest marketing mistakes I’ve seen companies make. Are you making one or more of these? If so, consider these tips on how to recover:


Common Mistake: Believing your product does everything, your target market is anyone who has money to spend, and /or you don’t have competition, so your marketing plan is the strategic equivalent of simply turning on the “open” sign.

Because companies are frustrated by a lack of desired success (measured in revenue, sales, membership or other KPI’s), they often equate limiting their target market with limiting opportunity. The fact is, for marketing efforts to succeed, you must define a target market segment where your product has the most relevance and the best competitive advantage. As great as your product/service might be, don’t make the mistake of thinking that your customers don’t have other options.

Recovery Plan: You need a strategy—and fast. Stop all marketing activities immediately and take the next three to six weeks to plan your new approach.
Build a brief overview description of each product and service you offer, including features and benefits—concentrating on the differentiating features only.
Research your competition and document their offer, pricing structure, strengths and weaknesses, along with your competitive advantage. Once you identify your key advantage over the competition, play it up consistently in every marketing vehicle you produce.
Recognize you can’t afford to market to everyone and define your target markets by grouping and categorizing the characteristics of your current customer base. Then choose marketing vehicles that only cater to that defined group of potential buyers.
Finally, create a calendar of events and associated budget that will act as your roadmap to success!

Watch your sales begin to climb! But don’t congratulate yourself yet; effective marketing takes patience and persistence. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint and your journey is just beginning!


Common Mistake: Rushing straight to advertising without identifying your core brand identity.

When most people think of marketing, they think about the Big 3: Television, Radio, and Print. You hire a great graphic designer and they come up with some really great looking stuff. You get the guys at the radio station to work on your ad and it sounds perfect. The problem is, they don’t really say anything about you or why you’re any different from the other guys. Of course, that’s probably because you haven’t sat down and figured that out for yourself yet. So when your advertising launches, you have less than stellar results. You just can’t seem to break through to your audience.

Recovery Plan: Take some time and figure out what makes your business unique. What is it that you offer that no one else can offer? Extra points if it’s meaningful to your target audience. Sometimes the answer isn’t about the tangible things like response time or inventory. A lot of times it’s more about the intangibles, like security, feeling cared for, or the attitude of the staff. Use those points of difference as the foundation for your marketing and make a real connection with your audience.


Common Mistake: Changing your company’s positioning depending on the audience, marketing vehicle used, or person delivering it.

Although some companies have actually gone through the steps of clearly outlining their company’s positioning language, I find that many individuals within that company still have their own version. And this “customized” statement can change depending on who is receiving the information. The result? A confused audience, unsure of who you are and what your company does. An audience that is unable to convey your offering to anyone else. Brand awareness is only built by CONSISTENTLY communicating your company’s position and identity each and every time, so that eventually your “listeners” will repeat your positioning exactly as you intend them to repeat it.

Recovery Plan: You need positioning language that clearly defines who you are and what you offer, strongly differentiates you from competition, and can be delivered consistently by every employee. Host a brainstorming session with key team-members and craft a statement that everyone agrees upon, understands, and supports. The positioning statement must include who you are, what you offer, for whom, for what result, and why someone should choose you over anyone else. Launch it internally, and define its use and how employees will support it. Then do a full audit of your materials and fix any inconsistencies. Gaining buy-in at the executive level will ensure success from the top down.

Remember all employees must work together as ambassadors of the brand. Understanding this concept before you spend money on marketing activities is imperative to your success!


Common Mistake: Fixating on only one marketing vehicle to promote a company and/or its products.

Many marketing plans we see only focus on one activity like direct mail, advertising, public relations, or cold calling, and do not use several or all of these vehicles together in concert. Putting your eggs in only one basket may generate some leads for your company, but this strategy will ultimately limit your ability to maximize sales opportunities within a target market. Your customers need to see and learn about your company through a few different vehicles before they will be finally prompted to respond to your offer.

Recovery Plan: Your goal should be to touch your prospects from the many angles they conduct business. Choose the activities that cater specifically to your target market, and then create a program schedule that ensures the right level of coverage across the multiple channels, increasing activities around key product launches or to address seasonality issues. Then be patient and let them work. It takes time, but rest assured, the variety of vehicles, working in concert, will build awareness and generate leads at an exponentially higher rate than any one vehicle alone can accomplish.

Look for parts 5-8 tomorrow!

Are you tapping into your customer's pain?

  • Posted: 9:33 AM
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  • Author: Mikal J. Caldwell

When I do sales training, one of the techniques I drill into the doe-eyed sales teams I see is that you can't sell until you find out what their pain is. By "pain" I mean, what is it about their current situation that bothers them the most. Once you find that out, it's just a simple matter of positioning your product as the solution to that problem. Now you're not a product, you're a solution.

This is even more important in tough economic times. One of the misconceptions about this "recession" (or slow down, or whatever...) is that people aren't spending money. That's not true. It's just that they're only spending money on necessities. That's a key distinction, because what's "necessary" depends on the person. So as a Ruthless Marketer, what you should do is get inside the head of your target market and figure out what their pain is. How can you position your product as a necessity for them?

Look at the car industry, for example. Where you used to hear commercials about horsepower and walnut interiors, now all the commercials talk about either safety or economy. Even the luxury brands are talking more about MPG than MPH.

Here's one for those that are worried about the Christmas shopping season. is announcing "Frustration-free Packaging." Have you ever gotten an item that seems to be the Gordian Knot of plastic packaging? You wonder if it was even designed to open in the first place! Well they're now shipping select items in easy to open packaging, eliminating the need for hacksaws and butcher knives at Christmastime.

Seems silly? But it taps into a common frustration and offers a solution. And you know what? They'll probably get more sales because of it. So take a hard look at your product or service and ask yourself what frustrations can I solve. You customers will thank you for buying from you and not the competition.

Go forth and be Ruthless...

How to select the right contractor/consultant.

It is Veteran's Day. For most of the country, that means a day off. For us Ruthless Marketers, it's just another day at the office. Although I am trying to do LESS work than normal, at least. So to that end, my blog for today is actually an article that I co-wrote with a colleague on how to select the right contractor for your company. It could be a marketing consultant like me (!), or a CPA or anything that you don't have the time or staff to do yourself. It was a pretty good article that gives you a few step-by-step instructions on how to make the contractor or consultant relationship work for you. As always your feedback is appreciated

What is "Ruthless Marketing?"

Well, it's been an exciting day already! My first official day as a blogger and I've gotten more feedback than I thought for my nascent entry into the blogosphere. No negative rants yet (knock on wood) but a few interesting questions. Essentially they all boil down to "What the heck is Ruthless Marketing?"

Ruthless Marketing. Sounds rather violent, doesn't it? Well it should. If there is one thing that I've learned in all of my years in marketing and sales, it's that marketing and communications is a full-contact sport. Most people diminish the effectiveness of their marketing because they take a passive approach to their marketing efforts.

Now I'm not advocating a marketing mindset that says "I'll crush my competition under the heel of my boot! (insert evil laugh here)" However, I am advocating strategic planning that plays to win. For example, I'm advising my clients to buy as much media time as they can right now. Radio, TV, billboards, whatever they can afford. Now I know some of you are looking at me (or the screen, anyway) like I'm crazy. "Don't you know how tight the economy is right now? I'm trying to save my bottom line here!" Well that's exactly why I'm advising them to buy. Because most people are pulling back on marketing right now, it's a great time to get your message heard. That kind of counter-intuitive thinking is the essence of Ruthless Marketing.

It's pressing the attack when other businesses call for retreat. It's going after the big contracts, even though you're a one man show. It's being absolutely relentless about keeping your name in the community until the big guys don't know you're the little guy anymore. It's not being ashamed or afraid of being David to the marketplace Goliaths, 'cause you know how that turned out!

That's my approach to marketing. That's the way I advise my clients. That's the way I market myself. That's why I like working exclusively with small businesses. The big guys have plenty of people falling over themselves to work with them. I want to give Fortune 500 marketing help to the small business owner, and show them how to run with the big dogs and end up the leader of the pack.

And I'm absolutely ruthless about it...

Marketing and the Presidential Election

For those that are familiar with me, I tend to have a winner-take-all approach to marketing. Not that I play dirty, but I do play to win. The marketplace is crowded and it takes an all-or-nothing approach to cut through the noise and make your audience pay attention to your message.

In my experience, the only thing more ruthless than business is politics and this campaign was an excellent case study in Ruthless Marketing. No matter what your political affilliation is, or who you voted for, there are some key lessons that can be learned from the process and most importantly, from the winner. While there are several, I'll only list 3 main ones here...

Lesson #1 - Find your message and stay on it.

From the beginning, Obama ran as the "change" candidate. He ran on that message all the way to the White House. But more than being catchy, it followed two basic branding rules (1) your brand should be a reflection of who you are, not who you want to be and (2) use your competitive advantage as your main brand leverage point, especially if you can use it to mitigate a potential weakness.

His resume wasn't as long as his opponents and that could have been a disadvantage, but he obviously had some savvy MarCom people working for him and they used his youth and short resume and positioned it as an advantage in a marketplace tired of the "old." This is a great tip for startups in a market with older, more established names. The disadvantage of being new is that you don't have an established history. The advantage is that you don't have an established history. You're starting with a clean slate, and no negative marks on your record. No disgruntled customers or bad service experiences. Use that to your advantage and let it differentiate yourself from the competition.

Lesson #2 - Always sell to your strengths, not the competition's weaknesses.

This is a basic sales strategy that was played out on a grand scale in the election and you can see the results. Obama's campaign focused wisely on their core strengths (for the most part), and used those as contrast points, without specifically tearing down the competition. The assumption was that the audience already knew the competition's negatives, so by making simple benefit statements, the comparison and contrast would be understood.

Conversely, the McCain campaign focused almost exclusively on Obama's percieved weaknesses. In a sales scenario, this is one of the first things they tell you NOT to do. It diminishes your credibility with the customer if you spend the whole time running down the competition. If you want to position yourself against a competitor, do some research and find out what the common negative perceptions of the competitor are. Then create a marketing message that positions you as an implied contrast, without addressing the negative directly.

A great real-world example is Visa's "everywhere you want to be." The perception of MasterCard or Discover is that they're not accepted in as many places as Visa. Rather than say that explicitly, they use a simple statement that defines their advantage over the competition's percieved weakness.

Lesson #3 - Operationalize your brand

What does that mean? It means that your brand, in order to be effective, has to be reflected throughout your organization. Not just in your logo or your tagline, but in the way the phones are answered an in the way your sales staff sells. It's in your billing and collection practices as well as your customer service procedure. It should show up in the entire operation of your business and every employee should know it, understand it, believe it, and exemplify it.

Every campaign had surrogates, but the Obama campaign's surrogates seemed to have the same script wherever they went, and it was the same script that Obama had. Their message remained consistent from the senior level, to the volunteer level. They had several checks and balances built into their organizational structure designed to keep every aspect of the campaign on-message.

Your brand should be seen and felt throughout your organization. This allows for consistent communication of your brand to every customer, every time. Without that consistency you won't be successful in establishing penetration for your brand.

There are lots of other great lessons to be gleaned from the election cycle. Let me know if you agree or what others you might have noticed.