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Small Local Retailers Struggling To Compete With National Brands (As Usual)

Have you noticed #brands in your feed, invited or not? Of course you have. Social media and email marketing are powerful channels for anyone selling a product to reach potential customers. The goal is to usher people toward the gaping maw of a sales funnel. Granted, at the moment ecommerce accounts for less than ten percent of retail sales, but the numbers are higher when it comes to apparel. A tenth may not seem like much, but the market-share is steadily growing.

Amazon logistics center in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Álvaro Ibáñez.
Amazon logistics center in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Álvaro Ibáñez.

National or international brands have the resources and know-how to use digital sales channels with utmost savvy (notwithstanding marketers’ cringeworthy affinity for youth culture). Can smaller businesses keep up? It’s more difficult to coax a customer into your brick-and-mortar shop than it is to get them to click a link. Even when small businesses are based online, lacking economies of scale means that they can’t offer the tempting perks and discounts that big brands do. Keeping everything on sale, all the time, eats into your margins.

The proprietor of a now-closed outdoorsy retailer in Wisconsin, who prefers not to be identified by name or city, doesn’t see big brands “supporting the little guy”. In an email she explained, “Certain brands keep separate inventories for their retailers versus their online business […]. It is hard to explain to a customer that you can’t get an item, when they can go to the brand’s website and buy it direct. The brands generally offer free shipping and many times 15%-off coupon deals just for sharing their email.”

She observed, “Customers are being trained to only buy with a deal or incentive.” On the phone, this former store-owner described a man who went into a local sporting goods shop to examine the products, while as the same time searching for the best deals on his smartphone. “He had absolutely no qualms about that,” she told me. Instead of buying from the store whose inventory he was touching and evaluating, he bought from Amazon or a similar retail aggregator, in order to save a couple of dollars.

Instagram post by REI.
Instagram post by REI.

From the customer’s point of view, shopping online for the best possible deal makes complete sense. Most won’t even bother to take advantage of testing a local store’s physical goods. Why wouldn’t you purchase the same thing cheaper without even having to leave your home? Everyone knows Amazon is a cutthroat company willing to crush competitors of all sizes, but that doesn’t stop people from shopping there, and it never will. If you can pay less to buy a parka online, and have it delivered to your doorstep, the alternative must be very attractive to entice you to do otherwise.

In 2013, technology analyst Ben Thompson wrote, “With the loss of friction,” meaning hassles and barriers to action, “there is necessarily the loss of everything built on friction, including value, privacy, and livelihoods. […] The Internet is pulling out the foundations of nearly every institution and social more that our society is built upon.”

Thompson continued, “Count me with those who believe the Internet is on par with the industrial revolution, the full impact of which stretched over centuries. And it wasn’t all good. Like today, the industrial revolution included a period of time that saw many lose their jobs and a massive surge in inequality. It also lifted millions of others out of sustenance farming.” It’s not all good, but it’s not all bad either. However, when you’re a family business-owner who is being “disrupted”, it’s almost entirely bad.

Traffic on Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney, Australia. Photo via Powerhouse Museum.
Traffic on Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney, Australia. Photo via Powerhouse Museum.

The analogy doesn’t work in every respect, but mostly this is the current state of affairs: Traditional retailers are horse-drawn carriages compared to steam-powered trains, or traditional taxis compared to Uber. Because of the internet, anyone can easily set up the infrastructure to sell directly to end users. Adjust your value proposition and differentiate or die, because the market doesn’t care about your ability to put food on the table.

This is the hard truth retailers have to confront: If you can’t compete on price or convenience you have to compete on quality, but it’s impossible to compete on quality when you’re selling the exact same product that people can easily buy online for less money. All you’re left with is the experience, the feelings you can evoke and the values you extol, urging customers to “shop local” and, as the anonymous Wisconsin store-owner said, “support the little guy”. She suggested staging events and collaborating with other local businesses, all boosting the community together. Her store used to host yoga classes run by a local instructor. Then Lululemon moved in down the street and also hosted yoga classes — free ones.

Castle in the Air is a truly gorgeous shop in Berkeley, California.
Castle in the Air is a truly gorgeous shop in Berkeley, California. Photo via Yelp user Michele C.

This is all very grim. Does the internet revolution mean that retailers based in physical stores should give up hope entirely? Of course not. It means that you have to be intentional about your business strategy, and understand the ways in which you can and cannot compete. It means you have to double down when it comes to reaching the customers who you can actually serve, to whom you can offer a benefit that is meaningful to them.

Understand that shopping in person instead of defaulting to the cheapest, highest-rated item on Amazon is now a luxury. Craft a rewarding experience, whether rustic or glossy, for the customers who show up in person.

Written in early June, 2015. Languished in my Google Drive until now.

Build A Better Hashtag

Brands often get hashtags wrong to the extent that it gives me secondhand embarrassment. Or they don’t seem to know why they’re prompting people to use a certain hashtag. It’s like they think, “The cool kids are doing hashtags, and we want to be hip, so we’ll do hashtags too!”

I know a hashtag for that!
Bizarrely relevant cartoon by studio tdes.

Example: Last fall I went to the Asian Art Museum’s exhibit Gorgeous. Near the gallery entrance, a big poster instructed me to post photos on social media with the hashtag #HelloGorgeous. (See also: SFMOMA on Tumblr.) For one thing, I didn’t do it, because there was no compelling reason why I should. For another, #HelloGorgeous is generic enough that most of the Instagram posts using it were unrelated. Generality could be a plus if it aided exposure, but the Asian Art Museum didn’t benefit; although #HelloGorgeous is frequently used, it’s not an intuitive search term. So what was the point? #SFGorgeous would have been better. Brand-building hashtags need specificity.

Some companies get it right, or at least righter. GEICO’s #BrakeTheHabit video contest, which aims to promote safe driving among teens, is relatively well-conceived. When you search #BrakeTheHabit on Twitter, you encounter content that’s actually relevant to GEICO’s promotion. Furthermore, the phrase is catchy, and a good use of triggers. People seem to be responding:

You go, Glen Coco!

GEICO could greatly improve their webpage for the contest, and thus encourage media coverage, by including pictures and writing snappier copy. But that’s neither here nor there; the hashtag #BrakeTheHabit is just about perfect for its purpose.

How To Design An Effective Billboard

Here are two pieces of feedback that I got about my billboard manifesto: 1) “Sonya, more people have watched Office Space than you think.” 2) “This post is like the billboards that you’re criticizing.” Although I had good points (if I do say so myself, which I do), my suggestions weren’t presented in a clear, actionable manner. Hopefully this post will amend that. Most of the following design ideas apply to other types of display ads, like magazine ads or even web ads, but my specific aim is to improve billboards.

The process is slightly different for new brands versus established brands. (You are a new brand if most people have never heard of your company/product. You are an established brand if everyone already knows who you are and what you do.) The advice for new brands largely also applies to established brands, but not vice versa.

celebrate 125 years with Coca Cola
Photo by Elliott Brown.

Billboard Checklist For New Brands

#1: Define your objective. What do you want people to do after they view your billboard? Do you want them to visit your website? Buy your product next time they see it at Target? Simply remember your company when they’re prompted to think of your industry? It’s important to pin this down so that later you can evaluate whether the billboard accomplishes what it’s supposed to. Keep in mind, as a new brand, that getting your name/logo/image in people’s brains is CRUCIAL before you can expect anything else.

#2: Include essential information. These things MUST be on your billboard, and they must be big and readable: the name of your company, what your product is/does (if there’s room, also why people should want it), and where people can get it. Textually, here’s an example:

Safer Dog Leashes
made by Company Name
available at

Accompanying the text would be a picture of the dog leash. That’s it. Simple is good! People need to be able to process the information quickly, with little attention and zero intention. Prioritize clarity, and when in doubt, enlarge the font!

blowing a giant bubble
Your text should be as big as this bubble. Photo by Thangaraj Kumaravel.

Billboard Checklist For Established Brands

#1 is the same: Define your objective. How do you want people to react to your billboard? What do you want them to do? As an established brand, you may be playing a longer game, oriented toward perception as well as action. Do you want people to start associating your product with luxury, business, fun? Etc, etc.

#2: Signal your brand. You don’t need to lay out everything about the company and what you do, but you still need to show whose billboard this is. In a legible way! Depending on how well-known you are, this can mean putting your company’s name in a corner, or in some cases just the logo. Make sure that people can tell, from far away, what brand the billboard represents.

shot on iphone 6
Photo by Elvert Barnes.

#3: Core message. Suppress your desire to be clever. Jokey or sarcastic billboards can be done well, but it’s so infrequent that statistically speaking, you’d do better not to even try. Be straightforward. To use the example of “Shot on iPhone 6”, the core message is, “The iPhone 6 has a really good camera.” Boil down your core message to be as simple as possible. If you use text, use LARGE text.

HELLO light art installation
Artwork by Peter Liversidge; photo by See-ming Lee.

Now I gotta backtrack. Before you do anything: Step zero in any kind of marketing endeavor is to consider, “Is our [product/service] valuable? Why should people want it?” If whatever you’re offering isn’t useful and desirable, go back to the drawing board before you try to sell it. If you’re in a position where you can’t amend the product to make it better, your job is going to be a hell of a lot harder. More on that here: “The single worst marketing decision you can make” by Ryan Holiday. Also, this memo from Stewart Butterfield to the internal team at Slack (a workplace communications system) is a must-read. Salient quote:

“Just as much as our job is to build something genuinely useful, something which really does make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant and more productive, our job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of [our product] into their terms.

A good part of that is ‘just marketing,’ but even the best slogans, ads, landing pages, PR campaigns, etc., will fall down if they are not supported by the experience people have when they hit our site, when they sign up for an account, when they first begin using the product and when they start using it day in, day out.”

That’s it! Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or via email ( whether you think this post is correct, super wrong, or how it could be more helpful. Feedback is welcome. Thank you!

Why Your Company’s Billboard Sucks

iPhone 6 billboard ad in San Francisco
Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns.

I like to critique billboards (read: make fun of them). There’s plenty of material along the freeway or in downtown areas. A few of them are good. The frequent winner is Apple, with their colorful-but-minimalist ads. Recent displays have been boring–dude, I know what an iPhone looks like–but at least they make sense. (Granted, the “Shot on iPhone 6” campaign is brilliant, but I haven’t seen it many places.)

Most billboards are headscratchers, especially Verizon and AT&T ads, which are full of inscrutable acronyms. To this day I don’t know what LTE stands for, and I don’t care enough to look it up. This indicates that Verizon and AT&T have failed, especially since I actively pay attention to advertising, unlike most people.

Verizon billboard
Photo by Mike Mozart.

Verizon proudly announces, “We’ve doubled our 4G LTE bandwidth in cities coast to coast.” Okay, um, what does that even mean? Here is a better thing for Verizon to say: “Fast, reliable texting and data, available all over America.” Or something to that effect, preferably shorter and simpler.

People seem to think it’s fine to resize a magazine ad and slap it on a building. They are wrong! Often the magazine ads aren’t very good in the first place, so this is doubly ineffective. I am consistently amazed by how many billboards neglect to communicate extremely basic information: 1) the company’s name, 2) what the product is and what it does, and 3) what action the potential customer should take.

Here is a train billboard for a good cause that totally fails:

Are you 1 in 26? Epilepsy billboard on the train
Photo by Elvert Barnes.

When you look at this ad, the immediate question is, “Am I one in twenty-six what?” The answer is “epileptics”, but unless you stop to examine the lower lefthand corner, you won’t figure that out. Very few people are going to slow down to closely examine the small print. This ad just doesn’t work, because billboards are usually not the place for high-concept, or even intermediate-concept, artwork. Billboards need to be punchy, delivering their message immediately.

billboard: Shot on iPhone 6
Photo by Elvert Barnes.

There are situations where you can ignore the basics. For instance, if you’re Apple and everybody already knows what your brand sells and how to get it. At that point you can do high-level emotional marketing. (See also: beer and car ads.) Most brands are not in this position. They try to be clever and complex, although it would be wayyy more effective to say, “We are [name]. We sell [product]. Find us at [location/website].” A+ if you can figure out how to say that your product is superior, but brand recognition is probably all you should shoot for with a billboard. Remember, most people aren’t paying attention. They’re looking at the road. If they’re on the train, they’re looking at their phone. Your billboard should be SUPER SIMPLE, easy to comprehend at a glance.

HipChat billboard ad, a play on the cult comedy Office Space
Photo by Elizabeth Krumbach Joseph.

The HipChat billboard above toes the line between “Ahhh I see what you did there, that’s funny” and “Huh?” Joking about the horrible boss from Office Space is cute, but you have to pay attention to the ad to get it. You also have to have seen Office Space. (Steve Carell’s character from The Office would have been a similar-but-better choice.) Sure, some people are going to notice the billboard, get the joke, and enjoy it, but most people aren’t going to pay attention long enough to go through all that. At least HipChat’s logo is big and readable, but the explanation of the service is too small for people to scan while changing lanes.

I could do more examples, but I’ve probably harped on this enough now. What do you think? Comment below, or hit me up on Twitter/Facebook.

UPDATE: I wrote an instructional follow-up post.

Office Space boss

Native Advertising Hubbub

Edit: Contently studied this topic with disturbing results. I reserve the right to revise my opinion!

I wrote the following post in response to a brief Twitter conversation (screenshotted below) and an article by Jeff Jarvis: “WTF is promoted-native-sponsored-brand-voice-content? It’s an ad. That’s WTF it is.”

what is promoted content

Anthony De Rosa (chief editor of Circa News) has a point. In effect, sponsored posts are advertisements. But the experience of reading one is more complex than that.

No one is going to click on an article billed as an advertisement. They shouldn’t, because reading several hundred words of traditional advertising copy would be tiresome. However, paid-for editorial can feel different from a hard-sell ad. Using a new term for a distinct practice does not constitute deceiving readers. Jarvis’ survey demonstrates that the terms currently being used are inadequate, but that doesn’t mean “advertisement” is the only option. I agree that clear language is needed, but I don’t agree with the conflation of regular ads and “content marketing”.

To cite an example that I’ve used before, this is a traditional Marriott ad:

Marriott hotel ad

Whereas this is a post sponsored by Marriott:

post sponsored by Marriott

Underneath the vague disclosure—that part is not exemplary—is an actual story. Marriott paid for the essay and I associate it with them, but the text ignores Marriott. An unnamed hotel is mentioned once, but that’s as close as it gets. The purpose of this sponsored post is to link luxurious wandering with Marriott, which it accomplishes. Without being totally evil.

TL;DR? Be honest with readers, yes, but there’s no need to unnecessarily hamper native advertising. It’s frequently executed abysmally, but so is everything.

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