The Te of Piglet is a book that came out over a decade ago. It is about the virtue of smallness featured in Taoist philosophy. Smallness in the West gets a mixed reception. For the most part, we are a culture focused on largeness. Until only recently, American ideals included large homes, large cars, large portfolio valuations and living ‘larger than life.’
Similarly, the consumer marketplace has also been dominated by largeness. We’re offered ‘20% more free’ in repackaged detergents. We super size our meals for added ‘value’. We have ‘big box’ stores. And of course we like our engines large, our power tools large, our plasma screens large… just about everything (except the credit card statements).
XXL to S
But all of that seems to be changing now. Recessions are famous for reducing our collective appetites, shrinking our portions (and portfolio values) and getting us ‘back to basics’. But the trend has historically been cyclical with largeness coming back en vogue as soon as the economic purging eases sufficiently. It’s funny, we aren’t really good at staying ‘right sized’ for long.
This time though, it might be different – especially in consumer marketing. Here’s why:
In terms of media, consumer markets and meaningful connections, things are trending smaller.
Begin with the well-documented fragmentation of media. Sure we have the occasional viral video that gathers millions of viewers or an annual spectacle like the Superbowl to aggregate millions of couch potatoes. But generally speaking most media channels and content providers are targeting smaller groups, not larger. The number of truly mass media and mass cultural moments in our day-to-day lives is shrinking as people scatter across the expansive array of media options.
(Not incidentally, our attention span is getting smaller because of all this.)
Next up, consumer markets themselves are getting smaller. With product customization becoming easier, and individual consumers demanding greater levels of catering to their own needs, it’s getting a lot harder to say, ‘Our target group is males 18-49’ with a straight face. Even the formerly ‘niche’ groups like ‘extreme sports enthusiasts’ are splintering into subsets. This constant fragmentation is being enabled by digital media and its ability to empower people to control 100% of their personal programming. Digital media also conveniently accommodate the growing mandate for customized content; whatever one person is looking for, someone else is making. If not, said person has the tools and means to make it himself.
Then there are meaningful connections – the holy grail of marketing. I came up in the marketing business and have watched the TV-centric, Nielson-focused, broadcast paradigm reluctantly shift to share space with new media, new metrics and newly empowered consumers who don’t just take what’s thrust upon them by the ivory towers of old-world content creation.
Instead of eyeballs and impressions marketing lingo is moving toward engagements, experiences and relationships.
Doing The Little Things Well
It is at the intersection of smaller markets and smaller media channels that smaller connections can make a big difference. And it is here that the virtues of small marketing can be found. Businesses that succeed today do so not through superior advertising or stellar promotions or incredible events. Though these can all contribute, stellar businesses today focus on doing the little things well. It is these seemingly small details that make a company stand out in a world of hyperbolic overpromise and underdelivery.
Often these ‘little things’ are the afterthoughts of the old world advertising hierarchy. They are the customer service representative’s training. They are clearly designed and well-used receipts or deposit slips. They are a package so well thought out that it contributes to the positive emotions around a purchase.
Would the iPhone be as enjoyable a purchase if it came in a crappy blow-molded plastic package? Hell, Apple is so good at details, even their replacement adapter is packaged artfully (taking some of the sting out of shelling out eighty balloons to replace something that maybe shouldn’t have broken in the first place). And the owners manual for an iPod shuffle is a single card – the embodiment of user-friendly simplicity.
Starbuck’s decline began when they over expanded. Symptomatically, they pulled out the hand-operated espresso machines and replaced them with the automated devices designed to handle larger volume. The result was a less remarkable experience. Suddenly Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s could get into the game. And they have, much to Starbucks dismay.
In fact, just today I got a birthday gift from a co-worker. It’s a workout shirt by a company I’d never heard of, called Atayne (their Facebook page is here.) In addition to making their product out of 100% recycled plastic, they’ve attended to little details that make an already great product even more remarkable.
In ordering my shirt, my friend had to call to rush delivery as the start-up company didn’t offer express shipping online. She offered to put the cost on her credit card and in response the phone rep said, “It’s on us, just spread the word.” And she did. (And so am I, right now.)
So attuned are these guys to the ‘little things’ that even the clothing tag furthered the company’s green credentials. The tag actually has wildflower seeds pressed into the recycled paper it is made of. The copy on the tag encourages runners to do ‘guerilla gardening’ – that is while out on a run to dig a hole, bury the tag, water it, and wait for wildflowers to grow.
Atayne understands their audience which is the secret to doing small things well. Those actionable insights into a consumer group lead to levels of understanding which can be woven (pun intented) into a powerful message.
In addition to understanding my need as a runner (for wicking fabric), Atayne embodies my desire to be greener. But the real insight comes from how. That tag appeals to my inner rabble rouser by encouraging random acts of greenness. This is an emotional connection with the kind of positive rebellion that resonates with a Gen X fellow like myself. Combined with a civil sales rep and the free express shipping my perception of Atayne is of one cool company.
Given the choice between Champion or Nike or Fila, I would look to Atayne first. While other brands spend millions on advertising and highly flashy websites, these guys won my heart with a good phone rep and a clever clothing tag (not to mention a great product).
Big Ideas vs. Small Differences
In the advertising industry it used to be that the ‘general agency’ (read the people doing the TV commercials) defined the campaign by a ‘big idea’, which was then repurposed by all the ‘below the line’ agencies (direct, promotion, interactive). This created not a little resentment from the below the line shops who always felt they were doing the unglamorous work while the TV guys were doing the fun, big idea, creative stuff.
That’s changed in some agencies and not as much in others. In addition, the digital/social media world has turned the outside-in means of marketing on its head. Today those small, seemingly incidental elements are becoming increasingly important. A good package or deposit slip or in-flight video or user manual often makes the difference between a satisfying experience a remarkable one.
That matters because it’s the remarkable experiences that create word-of-mouth buzz which, amplified across social media, is now the dominant marketing channel of our time. For example, Atayne in spending $10 to help my friend ship that shirt, now has access, through me, to my entire network. Not only will I mention Atayne to my athletic friends, but I’m also blogging about it and will be wearing their shirt and message. Not a bad score for a couple of sawbacks.
In an advertising-saturated world, products recommended by a trusted friend can almost be assured strong consideration, if not purchase. Conversely, a product featured in a funny, six-figure-plus TV commercial may not even be remembered beyond the comedy. (“Who were the guys who did that funny commercial about the hamster cannon?”)
Then there’s the whole matter of authenticity. Let’s say your big money ad campaign actually drives customers to your door. If upon getting there the experience is just average, or worse, negative, then all that money was poorly spent. If, on the other hand, the experience was exceptional, then that advertising investment will pay greater dividends.
The problem with starting at the ‘big idea’ TV commercial is that the details that pay off that idea aren’t usually in place. But if the ideas are in place first, and the little things are attended to, then the big bucks being spent in media work harder.
As companies wrestle with shrinking budgets and splintering media and the challenges of our age, they should look at the small things that accumulate to create a remarkable customer experience worth talking about. Those ‘below the line’ materials just might make the bigger contribution to raising your sales.