Marketers are becoming focused on technology at the expense of some of the basics of consumer engagement, said Linda J. Popky, president of Bay Area consulting firm Leverage2Market Associates.
Popky is no Luddite: Over her 30-year career in marketing, she has worked with the likes of Sun Microsystems, Cisco, and PayPal. But in a new book, “Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters,” she argues a more contrarian, back-to-basics approach.
Popky spoke to CMO.com about how marketers must focus on strategy and learn by testing and failing in small doses.
CMO.com: You wrote that technology has expanded at the expense of connection with consumers. Can you explain?
Popky: I’m not saying you shouldn’t use digital technology. What you need to do is go back and have a solid strategy.
But too often I see people starting with digital, starting with social media. They’re starting with trying to get out there and do whatever is the latest and greatest technology, without doing the homework and backing up and understanding if they’re in the right place at the right time.
One company I profiled in my book, XOAB, is a small manufacturer of men’s socks, which sounds pretty boring. But they said: “We don’t like boring men’s socks. We want to create these really interesting designs.” They knitted a bar code into each sock so they could track the socks. They implemented technology to go out and really customize the experience.
They were named one of the most innovative companies by Fast Company because they had done things really differently. They aren’t sitting there tweeting 100 times a day, and they are not using pay-per-click to drive traffic to their Web site.
CMO.com: What are the fundamentals of marketing that don’t change?
Popky: The first is strategy; you need to know where you are and where you’re going. It sounds pretty straightforward, but not knowing your strategy is like getting in your car and not knowing where you want to go, just driving around.
You need to have to have good quality product. You need to understand your customers and get close to your customers. You need to have a good focus on your brand and make sure it’s consistent. We can’t have online and offline brands anymore.
You need to communicate effectively. You need to take all the messages you have and get them out there. You need to understand what sales needs, how they’re representing you in the market, and make sure that works.
Then you need to have the metrics to make sure you’re measuring it: How do we know if we’re successful?
A question I often ask my clients is: If we’re sitting here in a year, celebrating that we’re successful, what would be celebrating? It’s not that we had so many clicks, that we had so many tweets, or so many followers on Facebook. It has to be on a higher level--that we launched a product, and we gained such a percentage in the marketplace. We did something.
Those things haven’t changed in thousands of years. How we apply them has changed dramatically. But the thinking behind it is very consistent.
CMO.com: Who does a good job keeping up with the fundamentals and also with technology?
Popky: One is Caribou Coffee, which is located in Minneapolis. They are not Starbucks; they are much, much smaller. But what they do is they focus on understanding their customers and engaging with their customers, and they do that through technology. They have a program called Perks that, instead of giving out points, they’re surprise rewards. You engage and take your picture with your Caribou coffee cup, doing something interesting, and all kinds of neat things may happen to you. It’s much more experiential. The idea is to keep engaged and keep growing.
Another one is Boots, the largest health and beauty retailer in the U.K. They use technology in an Advantage Card program with 18 million members-plus, and they get feedback from those folks. But they will also set up a test store, try a concept in an actual drugstore, and see what happens. Based on that, they will make changes. They’re staying close to their customers; they’re driven by their customer strategy. But they’re using technology to help implement it.
CMO.com: But how can you test and learn without commiting to the latest technology?
Popky: I remember I was working at Sun Microsystems, and we were told we had to be on Second Life or we were going to be left behind. Well, nobody was on Second Life.
You need to test concepts and ideas to see where your audience is and where they’re going to be in the near future. And think small. You want to test, and you want to fail quickly and fail small, sort of like what Boots is doing.
One example of an occasion where they did not test and it was disastrous is JC Penney, which became JCP and threw out all the old retailing ideas. They had a loyal base of customers they totally alienated and lost hundreds millions of dollars. Within 18 months the whole thing was back to being JC Penney, and the jury is still out on whether they are going to survive.
They could have tried that on a small scale. They could have listened to their customers, done just a bit of piloting, but they jumped right in. They had to be the Apple of retailing, and they just weren’t.
Another one that most of us are familiar with is the Affordable Care Act, the Obamacare Web site. That was just thrown out there about a year ago, without any testing. This was the site everyone had to go to, but it just crashed.
They didn’t involve their partners. They didn’t test the product ideas. There was nothing wrong with the general concept, but the implementation—they just threw it out there.
CMO.com: How do you apply that fail-fast strategy and avoid the market-rinse-repeat cycles?
Popky: We need to be disrupted. We have Airbnb—that has changed the lodging industry, and Zipcar for cars. The taxi industry didn’t change for 100 years, and then Uber came along. Now that’s changed the way we look at local transportation. We can go on and on.
You have to be looking at your environment and your market and see how can we disrupt it. If you stay doing the same thing, someone is going to come in and eat your lunch.
Technology can be an enabler, and it can be a jailer. What’s important is that we use the technology to say: “Here’s where we’re going. Here’s our strategy. How are we going to get there? What technology can we use to help us get there?” As opposed to: “Let’s just have the best technology and move forward.”
You have to get above that, focusing on where you’re going to be and what’s going to be different, not just going out there and executing before you have a strategy. Then you’re just adding to the noise.