Tag Archives: Advertising and Marketing

That Tonnato Sauce

This Foodie Friday, I want to write about one of my favorite summer dishes, vitello tonnato. When I first had it at some fancy lunch many years ago, I thought it was something thought up by a clever chef. As it turns out, it isn’t a new dish at all. One can find it in the 130-year-old Italian cookbook Science In The Kitchen and the Art Of Eating by Pellegrino Artusi (it’s on page 271 of my edition).

The dish is veal, generally a shoulder or rump portion, that’s been boiled and thinly sliced. It’s topped by a sauce that’s basically a tuna and caper-infused mayonnaise. Trust me – it tastes a lot better than it sounds. The veal is really just a canvas for the sauce in my book.

I was pleasantly surprised when one of my friends emailed my a recipe for a vegetable plate of crudites that was served with a sauce that wasn’t called tonnato sauce but absolutely was the same as what one would put on the veal down to the capers and anchovies in the sauce. The chef described it as a “garlicky aioli bolstered with oil-packed tuna.” Uh, yes, please.

It got me thinking about special sauces since the tonnato sauce is clearly special to me. Every business needs a special sauce if it’s not going to be a commodity. If you’ve not done a competitive set analysis, that’s a great place to start to see how you’re different. Then ask yourself why you exist. What’s the problem you’re solving and why is your solution unique/better? Check your assumptions against what your customers and employees think. 

Is your sauce really yours? Can it be duplicated or is it unique and defensible? Back in the day, we used to call something that you marketed around a USP – Unique Selling Proposition but I think your secret sauce is more than that. It gets to the heart of what your business is, including the culture. It’s what makes you you!

You can put tonnato on sliced pork tenderloin, vegetables, and of course veal. I suspect it’s great on grilled foods – veggies and proteins. As I’m thinking about it, it’s not far from a Caesar Salad dressing but with tuna. You see? Once you have a secret sauce, you can’t really tell how far it will take you!

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Filed under food, Consulting

Vividly Dumb

Last week I wrote about my feeling that companies should quit selling as we all deal with the fallout from the Corona Virus. This morning I received an email from Vivid Seats, a ticket reseller. They apparently purchased another reseller from which I’d bought tickets. Here is part of the text:

As a welcome to Vivid Seats, we are giving you $30 off your next purchase!* Grab tickets to your next heart-racing concert or edge-of-your-seat game. Either way, here’s $30 to get you started — let’s get you cheering again!

Notice the asterisk. The offer expires next Tuesday. So where to begin?

First, can any of you say with any certainty when, or if, concerts, shows, or sporting events will resume? Why in the world would you go out and buy tickets to anything at this point? Vivid has a full refund policy if the show or event is canceled, but with this much uncertainty, are you seriously going to lock up your money until that happens? And what if the date changes and you can’t go? Of course, they’ll help you sell your seats, but is that without the 10% fee normally charged to sell? That’s not stated anywhere.

Second, it’s highly unlikely the situation will have changed a heck of a lot by next Tuesday. If you really want my business, why not make it open-ended?

Third, how freaking tone-deaf. We’re all being urged to stay home. Tours are being canceled. I’ve already had two shows for which I have tickets postponed and I’ve got more shows coming up in May that I’m thinking won’t happen. This is a reminder that our lives are different now. Hopefully, not for long, but there are no sports or shows or concerts happening. Why rub it in?

Ok, I believe in giving people hope and this WILL end. That said, it has just as much a chance to crush spirits if the events don’t happen and you bought tickets. This is why these different times call for different approaches, don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?, What's Going On

South Bye Bye

These are odd times indeed and it’s when we’re under stress that our true nature often shows. That same is true of organizations and that’s often to their detriment because that true nature is often anti-customer. There is an excellent example of this in what’s going on with the SXSW Festival.

If you’re unfamiliar with the South By Southwest festival, or South By as it’s commonly known, this is how it describes itself:

The event has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways since 1987, but at its core, SXSW remains a tool for creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn and share ideas.

It’s sort of a spring break for the tech, marketing, film, and music communities and it attracts thousands of people who attend for the connections they might make, for the music they’ll hear, and for the learnings they’ll take away. It’s become a huge deal and passes to the event cost about $1,400 per person for mid-priced interactive badges that last the length of the 9-day festival. It’s an investment, obviously, and that doesn’t include all the spending by agencies and sponsors.

Here is the problem. They canceled the festival over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and won’t refund attendees and vendors. They’re offering to defer your ticket to 2021, 2022, or 2023, but they won’t give you back the money. Is this in accordance with their stated policies? Yes, it is, but as we began the piece, these are odd times and maybe, just maybe, it’s time for this business to have another think about alienating their customers.

Many agencies have been cutting back their spending as the festival has become too big and unwieldy. I suspect this might anger those who haven’t been cutting back. Airlines have been refunding tickets and Airbnb recently announced that some coronavirus-related cancellations will qualify for refunds under its “extenuating circumstances” policy.  Many of the attendees are small business people looking to promote themselves or artists they represent. Tying up this money for at least a year can be a big hit, one that just might put them out of business by the next festival.

On top of all this, the festival company fired 30% of its employees. Insurance won’t cover enough to maintain the full-time staff where it was.

Should a cancellation something that should have been in the disaster plan? You would think so. This didn’t happen overnight. Companies and artists began pulling out of the festival weeks ago. Should the decisions that seem to have been taken about how to handle the aftermath of a cancellation been more consumer and business partner-friendly? Based on the extreme negative responses in both sectors, definitely so. Will SXSW ever recover from this? Time will tell, but the lessons we can learn will be the same. Be customer-centric. The short-term pain leads to long-term gain most of the time.

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Fried Chicken

It’s Fried Chicken this Foodie Friday. What comes to mind when I mention that dish? Is it the stuff you get from The Colonel or Bojo’s or Popeyes? Maybe it’s a plate of true “southern fried chicken” which is generally on offer at most of the classic BBQ joints here in the South. Whatever you’re thinking, let’s see if we can get you to think a little differently about it today as well as about your business.

At its core, fried chicken is juicy meat surrounded by a crispy coating. From that point, all roads seem to diverge. Is the bird marinated in buttermilk or some other seasoning? Is the coating full of herbs and spices or relatively plain? Is it thick or thin? Are we deep-frying or shallow-frying and in what oil or fat? I vaguely recall my mom making some sort of cornflake encrusted “fried” chicken and I’ll admit we had Shake-N-Bake on many a night. Does that count as fried chicken?

Decisions, decisions, right? But the choices we make can result in a completely different product even if it’s still “fried chicken”. Not many people would mistake Japanese karaage for traditional southern chicken nor Korean Fried Chicken for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even within the south, Maryland Fried Chicken, which is breaded in just seasoned flour, shallow-fried and served with a cream gravy is very different from what’s generally served throughout the South – marinated bird, deep-fried, coated in flour and often cornstarch and/or baking powder.

All of this is a way to get you to think about your business. First, how is your product different? If you’re promoting “fried chicken,” is there a gap between what the common perception of that product is and what you’re actually marketing? Second, given that your fried chicken is different from most, why is it better than any types that are similar? KFC, Bojangles’, and Popeyes all sell the same product on the surface but it isn’t hard to tell the three of them apart when you try them side by side (I’m a Popeyes guy myself). I’m not sure, however, that you should need to do that comparison if each of their marketing clearly differentiates why their product is different (and better).

Many products fall under broad umbrellas even though there may be substantial differences, just as there are with the types of fried chicken. Our job is to stand out and to make consumers aware of how we’re different and why we’re better. How are you doing that with your fried chicken?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints

I’m Sick Of Scammers

Another year, another scammer surfaces. I’ve written many times in this space about marketers who try to take advantage of people’s limited attention spans and fear of all things “official”. The mail delivered another example of one to my doorstep the other day and I want to tell you about them. Admittedly, part of this is venting but another part is a very real concern that many marketers have lowered their standards to a point where they’ll do just about anything to drive business. It’s even worse when the business itself is a scam.

North Carolina, like many states, requires that all businesses file an annual report with the Secretary Of State. If you’ve never done that, it’s a very easy process that can be completed online in about 3 minutes. I had to do the same thing when my LLC was registered in Connecticut and the process was equally easy. You check a few boxes and pay the fee. Easy peasy.

In the mail the other day was an official-looking document – 2020 Annual Report Instructions Form.  The blanks in the form were already pre-populated with my LLC’s information. It also contained the language from the general statutes about having to file an annual report. I thought it was something the state had sent until I gave it more than a cursory look.

In a different typeface was a sentence that said this was being sent by a third-party who would file my report for me. Just send along the $292 fee and that would be that. Of course, the filing fee is only $202 – the other $90 was what this company was scamming me for. The grift IS the business – there is very little, if any, work involved otherwise.

My first thought when I saw the form was, oh, I’ll do this online, as I do pretty much everything. My next thought was “wait, this isn’t the state, this is a scam.” The thought after that was “some percentage of business owners are going to fall for this.” It has all the right information and it’s very official-looking. Of course, anyone can get that information on the state’s website and matching the state’s form and typeface isn’t exactly rocket science.

I admit there are a couple of disclaimers that the company is not affiliated with the state but why should anyone have to read very carefully to avoid being taken advantage of? Are they providing a service? I suppose so, but why not offer the service in a clear manner instead of trying to obfuscate that you’re charging $90 to save someone a few minutes’ work?

If you market a product or service, the road to profitability isn’t made easier by misleading or scamming your customers. Let’s not do that. Even better, let’s shine some sunlight on those scammers who do.

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We’re Not Stupid

I do quite a bit of headshaking these days. We won’t talk about the political stuff that causes me to do so but there are just as many things outside of politics to trigger the behavior. I’d like to talk about one of them today because it’s instructive for anyone in business.

One term that’s become en vogue is “alternative facts.” You know what I mean – the dissemination of pieces of information that are mostly or completely untrue. Orwell termed them “doublethink“. I term them lies.

What brought this on? I subscribe to a bunch of magazines – golf publications, cooking publications, and several others. This time of year, in particular, I get snail mail with offers to send a gift subscription. Some ask me to renew or extend my existing subscription and offer to send a free gift subscription to someone as a thank you. So far, so good. These offers are usually clear and only mildly annoying.

Then there is one publication that just doesn’t get it. It’s part of a larger family of magazines and I wonder if what I’m about to describe goes on at the other publications as well. An envelope shows up stamped first notice. I’m told my subscription is expiring and I should renew. A few weeks later comes the second notice. Last week, I got some mail marked THIRD NOTICE in large letters outside the envelope. Inside was the same notice I’d already received twice – my subscription was going to expire (aren’t we all?) and I need to renew ASAP for uninterrupted service.

Here’s the problem. I just renewed this subscription last year for several years. Just to be sure, I found the last issue and sure enough, there on the mailing label was the expiration date. It’s January alright. January 2021. I’ve got a year to go. I wanted to confirm this so I logged on to my account on the magazine’s website. My account lets me use the site’s “recipe box” which I do quite a bit but for some inexplicable reason, it’s not linked to my magazine subscription. When I click on the “manage account” link, up pops a new tab asking me to renew. Again, there’s an assumption that you’re dumb and will just renew because a very in-your-face page is telling you that you need to. In order to see your current account, you need to click through on the FAQ link at the foot of the page and scroll until you find a link to “log in to your account”. Of course, when I finally found this and did so, I confirmed that I had a year to go on my subscription.

Putting the awful user experience aside, what’s bugging me is that these publishers think their readers are dumb. They seem to believe that sending out misleading notices with “alternative facts” will lead to renewals. I wish I could say they were unique but they’re not. I’m sure you get the same kinds of “notices” that I get. My home warranty is expiring (I don’t have one), I can have a “free security system” (it’s far from free), and on and on.

Companies that think we’re stupid deserve to be out of business. I’m well aware of Mencken’s statement that “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”. We need, instead, to think like David Ogilvy: “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife”. Putting aside that deceptive marketing just might be illegal, doesn’t it bother you to be thought of as an idiot?

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Filed under Consulting, Huh?

The Grocery Store

The topic for this Foodie Friday is the grocery store. Think for a minute about where you do the bulk of your grocery shopping. Is the merchandise that it carries substantially different from one of its competitors? My guess is that it probably isn’t. All the national brands are there and the same person who stocks the snack or bread aisle at your store might have left a competitor twenty minutes earlier. So why do you go?

We had a Wegman’s open here. The lines to get in were HOURS long. I’ve never shopped at a Wegman’s but those who have proclaimed their undying loyalty. There’s been a rumor floating around my neighborhood (since confirmed!) that a Publix will be opening in the not too distant future. People who’ve missed their sandwiches and service are swooning. In the case of these two stores, they separate themselves from everyone else in very clever ways; Wegman’s via setting themselves up to feel like a European marketplace and Publix via their signature subs.

Some of it is just smart branding. While my local Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods both make various types of sausages in-house, Lowe’s brands the entire operation as The Sausage Works and gives each type of sausage a clever name. They even sell “My Sauageworks” tee-shirts (and you can imagine the looks I get when I wear mine in public). They pride themselves as being the Best Of The Wurst and are constantly inventing new flavors such as their newest, The #63 Philly, which they describe as a brotherly love blend of chicken sausage, mozzarella, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, and spices. No commodities here but while both stores sell the same basic sausages, Lowe’s goes the extra mile and can market behind it.

I think may business sectors have become quite commoditized. When I was running a sports site, we would often remind ourselves that people can get a game score or most statistics anywhere. The only way we could compete was to provide something unique, better, and in-demand. I think every business needs to think of itself in terms similar to that, even if you really do have unique aspects baked in. It won’t be long before someone has what you have and maybe is offering it on better terms.

Why do you shop where you shop? If “better prices” is the only answer, that store might have trouble the minute a competitor decides to price match.  It’s much harder to match a better experience or unique merchandise, no matter what business you’re in. Don’t you agree?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud