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What we do now that helps meaningful things get found better, faster

I’m going to tell you why we completely abandoned how we did marketing—when doing it the normal way had begun to seem… pointless. We looked at what really worked—for companies who want to create compelling, original, and meaningful things, that are loved and celebrated by enthusiastic fans. And, we decided to build our business only around helping people who wanted to do that.

Having each spent years doing marketing solo, we came to see how much of our time was wasted, doing things in the normal way that marketing consultants do things (and in the process, how much of our client’s money was being wasted doing it that way!).

As we converged to form Essential 3, we asked ourselves:

  • What makes one company’s marketing feel exciting and spreadable, and another’s, dull and generic?
  • What makes one business become popular, and another languish in obscurity?

We boiled what we found down into a few key principles (which I will  share with you). 

In our inquiry, two big things stood out. These were:

  • “Tacking marketing on” after you’ve built your product is a huge waste of effort, and puts you at a real disadvantage
  • Trying to get someone else to be the voice of your company leads to generic, disconnected work

Before I tell you what we found that does work, let’s look a little more at how marketing companies usually operate. A traditional consulting firm comes in when your product or service is already fully baked. They create writing, video, and graphics that try to grab attention—through advertising, social media, etc. They focus on blasting a message out, in the hopes that a sliver of the audience will react favorably. It goes like this:

  1. You design a product
  2. You hire an agency who “markets” that product (in the ways described above)
  3. If your customer acquisition cost is less than your expense—you just keep doing it

This model—“bolting on” marketing to the product after design, outsourced to an agency, and seen as an eyeballs-maximizing numbers game—is an artifact of Industrial Age marketing mindsets. It harkens back to a time when company roles fit into neat boxes—manufacturer, designer, business analyst—and in which other roles (including marketing) could be outsourced completely. It let people create generic things more efficiently, to be sold to the largest number of people through “streamlined distribution channels”. This might not sound so bad, until you realize how poorly it works now—especially for small businesses and startups.

Here are some of the specific the ways in which the traditional, Industrial Era marketing process no longer works:

  1. The world has too many generic products that don’t work very well; too many boring services that try to appeal to everyone; too much stuff that feels like it was built by committee. Waiting to apply the principles of marketing until after your product is designed misses the fit-finding process, through which products can be made truly unique and exceptionally valuable to a particular audience. Marketing principles are crucial to all areas of your business, and should not be relegated to the sales phase—they need to be woven into the  DNA of the business. (This is why we help clients with product and service design.)
  2. Good marketing is about building a relationship with your customer—and this is such a precious thing that outsourcing it to someone else is like paying a rent-a-friend to hang out with you, or hiring an automated service to celebrate your anniversary—it’s not going work very well. Today’s customers can easily sense when marketing feels canned or inauthentic. They’d much rather hear from you, much rather feel they are part of something with you, and cared about by you—even if your communication isn’t as polished as a professional media person’s might be. (This is why we coach clients to be their own successful communicators, rather than doing it for them.)

We’ve consistently noticed that the most compelling companies have something in common: they create a strong relationship with their customers, and are specific about who those customers are. The business is its own mouthpiece, creating work that feels original and connected. As you learn to do more of this for your business, you’ll gain a set of skills that’s far more valuable than any “tacked-onto-the-outside,” old-fashioned marketing ever could be.

Putting this process into action, we boil it down to three steps:

  1. Fit your product to a specific audience—and to the talents and passions in your company. In this process, you’ll also remove the drag that’s caused by doing unnecessary, unfocused things. It involves learning, listening, and design.
  2. Connect with your audience by communicating and engaging them sincerely. It involves building trust and community. It involves finding a voice your company can use naturally, and choosing outlets that feel natural for you.
  3. And finally, Amplify your message by using the standard marketing tools—but informed by the fit and connection you’ve crafted. Where these tools traditionally take center stage, we place them last because we know how important it is to get the first two right, before the tools will serve you. Once you have done that work,  marketing tools will amplify it, and help you spread those focused, meaningful messages effectively.

Finding fit means tailoring what you do so it is extra-valuable to a specific market (instead of trying to be somewhat valuable to everyone). Adam Davidson, author of The Passion Economy (2020), points out that because of globalization, your competition can be all over the world—this means that if you’re trying to be a generic brush maker, a generic accountant, or a generic chocolate bar maker, it’s hard not to get lost in the crowd. The brush maker now has to compete with China; the accountant with others across the country; and the chocolate maker with a grocery shelf full of generically “gourmet” chocolate bars. Not easy.

On the other hand, if you can find a tight niche where you have super-concentrated knowledge and talent, you can become something special, and difficult to copy. The brush maker in the book, for example, took their generations of knowledge and learned how to produce super-specialized brushes for NASA, and for the inside of nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, they abandoned the low-cost, generic brushes where they had to compete with Chinese companies, who were making them cheaper and cheaper.

Because along with globalization creating more competition, it does something else as well: It allows you to reach a specialty market that might be scattered all over the world. This means countless companies can create prosperous, fulfilling businesses based around these focused, high-value markets. Davidson calls it the passion economy because he believes the secret to mastering a micro-market for your own business is to combine the blend of passions and abilities unique to you, in such a way as to produce something uniquely valuable.

To connect with your audience means a lot of things, which add up to creating a feeling that you are present in their lives—like an advisor, a friend, or a trusted expert. When you speak to them, it can’t sound phony—they will notice. You’l want to learn to ask questions. And for heaven’s sake, when they reach out to you, be sure to respond graciously and promptly. When you build trust with them, they’ll no longer think of you as just the functional supplier of some commodity—they’ll feel meaning in the relationship, in being a member of the tribe who loves what you offer. And this will give them great loyalty, and higher price tolerance—so don’t forget that!

And finally, once you begin to feel comfortable with your fit and connection, you’ll be able to apply the traditional marketing tools—advertising perhaps, social media maybe, and whatever other methods make sense for you. But if you get the first two parts in there first (and never forget them), then your customers won’t feel like you’re spamming them or bothering them; they will want to hear from you.

This is a radical departure for the way marketing is normally done, because it isn’t something you “tack on” at the end—it’s a whole mindset to find the right fit from the beginning, and build authentic communication throughout. It will work for you if you are passionate to create something relevant and special, and reach people who really care about that special thing. When we came together, we turned our marketing practices inside-out because we wanted to empower businesses like these.

So ask yourself: where are the talents and passions of my business most unique, most energizing? Which feels most valuable to my customers—and which customers feel the most appreciative? And, what can you let go of? Are there any things in how you run your business, or think about your marketing, that you’d like to turn inside-out to get a better result?

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October 10, 2020 - Chris Burbridge + Anita Edge