Podcast | Mike O'Toole 07.27.17

Resist the Ruts: How Big Ass Fans, American Express, and Virgin America Stand Out in Their Markets

There's a reason we follow well worn paths; it's easier, it's safer, and we won’t get lost. But marketing isn’t about following the leader, it’s about standing out. The best opportunities for brands are where gaps meet assets. Where you find an unmet need or a fresh approach that you can take advantage of because of what makes you different or interesting. While this is simple to say, good gaps are harder to find than you might think. In this first installment of our new three part podcast series, we've developed a way to make it easier. And looking in these places, can unearth some great opportunities. Take a listen as we identify the problems and opportunities in some common marketing ruts.

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Michael O'Toole:
So, I just finished a book called, "The Oregon Trail." It's a great book, you should pick it up. The author and his brother buy some mules, and they attempt to drive a covered wagon from Missouri to Oregon. And they're the first ones to try this in about 100 years. But in many parts of the trail, the ruts from the original wagon trains are still visible. Now, there's a reason we follow well worn paths; it's easier, it's safer, but what's good for a pioneer, it's bad for marketers. Now, good marketing at it's very simplest is about a match between gaps and assets, finding an unmet need or a fresh approach that we can take advantage of, because of what makes us different or interesting. While this is simple to say, good gaps are harder to find than you might think. At PJA, we've developed a way to make it easier. We've identified three categories of gaps: ruts, blind spots, and taboos. And looking in these places, can unearth some great opportunities.


I'm Michael O'Toole, PJA's president, and I'm here with Hugh Kennedy, who's partner, head of planning. Hugh also started our healthcare practice. We're going to spend a few minutes talking about ruts, the marketing kind, not the Oregon Trail kind.


Hugh, give us a rut that we can all relate to?

Hugh Kennedy:
I will. In fact, I will give you two generations of ruts, because what we found is these things tend to run in cycles. So, if you look at the wine world, for example, a lot of people are really intimidated by wine labels. And California based vineyard, Bonny Dune, kind of broke through with a wine called Flying Cigar or Cigare Volant, and it was so popular and become such an iconic wine that they extended that nomenclature system to all the wines in their line.


Then you jump forward about 15 years, and there was a realization that women are much greater wine drinkers. They drink wine in greater quantities proportionally than men do. And so, people saw an opportunity there to start marketing wine to women. So, we had this flood of wines starting with Mother's Little Helper, The Madhouse Wife, Two Wives, Cleavage Creek, and soon, there was a whole shelf in most wine stores devoted to these wines. The problem is they weren't very good, and so, rather than kind of deepen or extending this opportunity, the whole industry has kind of fallen into a rut, and created what's essentially a commodity.

Michael O'Toole:
Yeah. It's interesting how it does go in cycles like that. A fresh insight gets copied, people jump in the bandwagon, then you need to restart. By the way, a favorite label of mine is Big Ass Red Table Wine. And this is not the last time I'm going to say, "Big ass," on this podcast. Now, I love the wine example, another one from our consumer lives that I like talking about is airline safety videos.


You know those brief videos that nobody ever watched, because they were all the same and really boring? Until they weren't. We're coming off what I would say is the golden age of airline safety videos. Air New Zealand was the first to play with the form. They introduced a video that featured Bear Grylls, and then another one that had hobbits in it. Then Virgin America came next, and you know the idea had tipped when Delta changed up it's video. They had a man with two left feet and a dude stowing his accordion, and even a brief glimpse of Abe Lincoln.

Hugh Kennedy:
I think what I love about airline videos is typified in the Virgin America one, which surprisingly became appointment viewing five or six years ago. The very first one with the animations, and the narration of the slightly bored voice that actually sounded like it was the traveler watching the video.

Virgin America:
Hello, and thanks for flying with Virgin America. A few announcements as we begin our flight. Please keep your seatbelt fastened whenever the seatbelt light is on. For the .0001% of you who have never operated a seatbelt before, it works like this, just insert the metal into the buckle until it clicks.

Hugh Kennedy:
What's amazing to me is that it become kind of a viral success on YouTube with millions of views, which is the last thing you'd expect from something that's meant to just talk about safety.

Michael O'Toole:
Well yeah, and in fact, this is important information. Right? It's critical that all passengers when we get on airplanes should know about. So, why not make it interesting enough so that we actually pay attention? So, in a way, what I like about that example is it's changing the culture, it's changing how that stuff was communicated. Now, in the case of airline safety videos, that's a small culture change, effective, but small. But here's a bigger one, Black Friday. Hugh, did you know Black Friday dates back to the '60s?

Hugh Kennedy:
I did not know that.

Michael O'Toole:
Me neither, I was cramming before this little podcast. So, and talk about ruts, for 50 years there's basically been one Black Friday formula with just a couple variables. You entice people to show early by opening your big box store early, or giving big discounts, and probably some combination of the two. But along comes American Express, and they were thinking corner store, not big box. And they came up with the idea for small business Saturday. You know, why not on the Saturday after Thanksgiving go out and support your local retailer? Seven years later after they've launched it, has absolutely become a part of our culture. Everyone from congress to our former president just to basically about everyone of us in our communities knows small business Saturday, and use it as a time to support local stores and shop differently.

Hugh Kennedy:
Another example, which I particularly like is what REI has done, which is essentially just closing on Black Friday, and saying, "We'd prefer that you do what our employees are going to be doing, which is getting out into nature, enjoying this hard one long weekend, hiking, doing whatever." And that is exactly in line with their brand. It's also a great opportunity for them to break out of a pack, because as we've seen, a lot of what happens with Black Friday is people end up discounting so deeply, they end up cannibalizing their profits.

Michael O'Toole:
Right.

Hugh Kennedy:
So to shift categories, I think another area that's rich with ruts is retail banking. So for example, if you live anywhere near the ocean and you bank with a community bank, you're going to see clear blue waters, and high end wooden boats, and happy sailors. If you're in the city, and you bank there, you're going to see charged up young urban professionals who are obviously pumped about their checking account.

Michael O'Toole:
Happy knowledge workers.

Hugh Kennedy:
Happy knowledge workers, and this is a category where any way to stand out, actually, as someone in some bank research told me, recently. I would love it if banks marketed based on what makes them different as opposed to what makes them the same.

Michael O'Toole:
That is a really important point. And it sounds obvious, but boy, is it hard to do in a category like banking where everything is pretty similar, products are kind of the same, the offerings are kind of the same. But there's a good example of somebody who succeeded and that's Umpqua Bank in Portland, Oregon, and they've become the largest community bank in the country by doing just that, deliberately focusing on what makes them different, not what is table stakes in the category.


Well, remember, to switch gears, I talked about Big Ass Red, but what I really want to talk about is Big Ass Fans. A really cool company that I met through the Unconventionals. Now, most of what they sell is really big industrial fans. And as you can imagine, there's not a lot of imaginative marketing in that category. There are ruts all over the place. All the corporate names sound the same, everybody markets based on features, and big pictures of their fans, and talking about how much air is displaced. In fact, Big Ass Fans used to be named The High Volume, Low Speed Company.

Hugh Kennedy:
Wow.

Michael O'Toole:
What will you remember from this podcast, Big Ass Fans or High Volume, Low Speed? Big Ass Fans is an innovator in design and performance, and in marketing. And their name helps you remember that, so they deliberately avoided the rut, and they have become much more memorable as a result.


All right, so we've given you a few examples of ruts, now for a little bit of advice. And the first one, I think is inspired by Big Ass Fans: aim for what's different. Take a few minutes to think about your origin. What was that original insight or that brand personality that you were founded on, and that nobody else can match? And make that the heart and soul of your marketing. Or answer these two questions, we were the first company to? Fill in the blank. Or our product is the only one that can? Fill in the blank. Simple exercises like this really remind us of what truly makes us different, and what will help us stand out in the eyes of our customers.

Hugh Kennedy:
I think another way you can look at this issue is look inside your company, and think about well, what is it we're committed to? What is our bigger mission as an organization? And are we here to just sell widgets, or are we actually about solving a bigger problem for our buyers and removing friction from the path that they have to their own goals? And when you do that, I think you start to get at opportunities that maybe you haven't taken advantage of.

Michael O'Toole:
Yeah. No, it's great. Mission is magnetic. Right? We've talked about that. That's a great point.


So, we've given you a few examples of ruts. Next time, we're going to talk about taboos. Those dirty little secrets in the category that nobody wants to talk about, but if you can figure out a way to do it, it's the foundation for really standout marketing.


Thanks for listening. I'm Michael O'Toole.

Hugh Kennedy:
I'm Hugh Kennedy.

Michael O'Toole:
Talk to you next time.

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