The cost of pricing: When free may not be worth it.

Today I attended a seminar targeting senior marketing professionals in the financial services sector. The content was presumably custom-fit for my level of experience and my business. Given that I could walk there plus a no-cost price tag made it irresistible. However, I ended up leaving early and I’d actually planned to do so even before arriving. I’m sure you’ve done the same thing when it’s a free event because we have nothing invested in the opportunity except our time and attention.

But isn’t free the “right price” from an expense management perspective? Or do those sessions suffer by seeming less compelling?  Does paying a little money make you anticipate value? But these days, why even bother attending when you can probably get similar content through a free one-hour webinar that’s available whenever you want to listen?

Okay; a webinar doesn’t offer the on-site networking or the break from your workplace so that’s not a fair comparison. But I am intrigued by the pricing variable and how that may influence our level of commitment to an event.

Here’s how I’d set my event pricing:

  • Free: if the main event is professional networking, travel is unlikely and vendors may be on the agenda.
  • Small fee (less than $100): for educational forums with no-name facilitators (e.g. industry peers). They may be good, but you won’t remember their names and probably can’t find their books or blogs.
  • Medium fee ($100-$500): association events that may involve travel but to a second-tier location; some targeted/industry keynotes and high -quality networking.
  • Premium fee ($500+): save this for exclusive events or exceptional content with big name keynotes. At this rate, I expect innovative content and expertise that will make me really think, along with highly valuable networking and travel to top-tier locations.

I’ll probably always feel okay leaving early – or even skipping – a free conference but not anything I’ve paid for. There’s an expectation of getting something of value when money’s been exchanged. So if you want to fill the seats, a small fee may be worth it!sxsw_panel2015

Go Pokemon Go!

There is nothing like the tempting allure of a cultural phenomena. Whether a major sporting event, celebrity gossip or the latest fad, you can’t help but pay attention. Over the past two weeks, Pokemon Go has swept the country – and many other international locations where it’s being released on a staggered basis. Initially, the references were infrequent but within days, every news outlet was filled with stories and videos of Go gangs chasing rare Pokemons.

I downloaded the app last weekend, but poor timing, as it coincided with a visit to a remote area of Maine. Without PokeStops you can’t access free Pokeballs, so it was impossible to catch Pokemon. I had better luck when I got back to the city and multitasked playing Go while running errands. PokeStops were everywhere, and I caught a few Pokemon while waiting in line to pay at CVS. And it wasn’t just me. Summer brings tourists to town and as I continued on my errands, I passed a visiting family chatting in German. The only word I understood was their continual reference to “Pokemon.”

Apparently, there have been over 15 million downloads so far, with users spending more time playing the game than browsing Facebook or Snapchat. So why Pokemon Go?

1. Augmented reality is the critical hook. This is the first opportunity to readily engage with the technology we’ve been hearing about — and it’s pretty cool.
2. Downloads are free so no cost to participate.
3. Unlike most games, you can play alone or with friends.
4. No real skill is involved so anyone with a smartphone can play.
5. Succeeding is easy. With limited effort or playing time, you quickly advance levels and earn “rights” to join a team and set your Pokemon to spar at the Gym.
6. Nostalgia is powerful. Many remember the Pokemon trading cards or cartoon series.
7. And importantly, you can join the water cooler or social media chatter because you’re an insider.

Whether Pokemon Go will be more than a summer fad is hard to know. My guess is that hard-core gamers will remain loyal, while most samplers will find another distraction come fall. Regardless, these events are a great reminder of the power of mass appeal. Hats off to Nintendo for continually figuring out how to stay relevant. And I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited to see what else comes along that uses augmented reality.


Vacation Branding (or Why RI’s “Cooler + Warmer” Failed to Ignite)

Last week, I scratched my head when I heard about Rhode Island ‘s new tourism slogan “Cooler & Warmer.” Were they comparing New England’s famously ever-changing weather, which can be cooler and then suddenly warmer? Or was it another example of Massachusetts’ envy, e.g., “we’re cooler and warmer than Boston and Cape Cod?” I didn’t quite get it, and apparently, neither did most everyone else in the state.

As my day job is in marketing, I’ve learned a thing or two about branding, and it seemed that Rhode Island overlooked some of the basic principles. A successful brand strategy must be authentic, articulate compelling benefits that differentiates it from the competition and must resonate with those who represent the brand—typically employees but in this case, the local residents. As branding expert David Akers says, “A brand is more than a three-word phrase.

Rhode Island is our smallest state, and that presents much of its charm. Amazingly, there is a substantial range of opportunities within a 45-minute radius—a vibrant art and food scene, city-life and rural villages, beaches and woodlands, top-ranking colleges and second-tier professional sports are all accessible. But probably what makes Rhode Island special, is the people. It’s a proud and scrappy population that doesn’t care that Boston is only an hour away. Plus due to its small size, it’s nearly impossible to go somewhere without seeing someone you know. That sense of familiarity and simplicity is very comforting and in my view, differentiates the Rhode Island experience from its New England neighbors.

“Cooler & Warmer” didn’t capture this personality. Fortunately, the campaign was pulled within days, leaving only the sting of the $500,000 price tag associated with the doomed tagline—and yet another “only in Rhode Island” story for the locals to enjoy.

So as the governor and her team go back to the drawing board, here’s my advice.

  • Spend a little time vacationing around the state and consider what makes each place uniquely Rhode Island.
  • Find that authentic voice to define Rhode Island’s true essence—and then the locals will embrace your message.
  • Rely on earned media (PR) to offer an objective view of the state’s benefits vs. spending millions on advertising. Honestly, when’s the last time you decided where to vacation based on a slogan?
  • Consider a well-executed social media campaign with a #whyrhodeisland hashtag. People trust peer-to-peer views much more than marketing campaigns.
  • Watch what’s being said on the travel sites (Trip Advisor and Yelp); promote the success stories.
  • Last, introduce such campaigns to your community before going live, and let the locals be your ambassadors. Rhode Islanders are a proud group and not beyond bragging about this special little place.


SXSW 30: Older than many attendees, but still going strong

In my role as a marketing and communications strategist, I find it both inspiring and informative to immerse myself in opportunities to see what’s trending in my field. Like you, that often takes the form of reading blogs, tweets and articles, or catching up with industry friends. But there is nothing quite like attending a relevant conference to really capture that immersive experience.

Five years ago I began attending SXSW’s Interactive Conference – the geekier first phase of the famous music and film festival hosted in “Keep Austin Weird” Texas.  During those years, I’ve seen the conference evolve from a content and attendee perspective. My first year, the alternatives to the marketing and branding track were primarily technical sessions and participant demographics skewed young. Five years later, there are content tracks for gaming and VR/AR, sports, nonprofits, health and medtech, work & career management and more. Most of the panelists are older (mid-30s through 60s) and there are plenty of gray-haired participants. As well, corporate sponsorships have become substantial, featuring “recharge” lounges around the Austin Convention Center. However, that helps keep the registration fees affordable for the thousands who attend.

Each year,  some buzzworthy items surface during the conference (last year was Meerkat, this year was virtual reality, with VR experiences available at some sponsored lounges). However, I always have fun noting the smaller things that set the tone for the event. So here’s my list of #SXSW2016  trends:

  1. Tom’s flats and black sneakers were women’s shoes of choice (and comfort!).
  2. Man buns are here to stay.
  3. The hipster fedora is officially retired.
  4. Less live tweeting, however, it was cumbersome to figure out the session hashtags, as opposed to prior years when it was printed in the program.
  5. Highly engaged attendees, with those taking notes often using old-fashioned pens and paper.
  6. Fewer lines to get into sessions. Very long lines to get into parties and some of the corporate lounges.
  7. Lots of hotels downtown Austin, which is a huge improvement and convenience.
  8. Very fast runners along the riverside pathways.
  9. The bats were still on winter vacation (or avoiding the evening show on the Congress Street bridge).
  10. Lyft ruled. As the official ride-sharing partner supplemented by $5 and $10 on-site credits, they were the ride of choice (and did a great job, by the way!).

If you’ve ever considered attending, I highly recommend it. Great content, top-notch speakers, a vibrant setting – and the chance to spot trends as they happen!


Which is More Super: the Ads or the Bowl?

On Sunday, February 7, nearly 200 million people are expected to watch the Super Bowl, staggering numbers by any measure. This year’s 50th anniversary game features a retiring Hall of Famer vs. a dabbing MVP; what more could fans ask for? Well, $5 million ads, of course!

This year, advertisers will spend $166,666 per second to promote their brand to an audience that will immediately tweet, post or chat about their reaction. For well-established and sizable brands, getting this air time can be a no-brainer. But what’s amazing are the smaller brands that spend the bulk of their annual ad budget on such a fleeting opportunity. What if your time slot is right before Coldplay? Won’t most viewers be grabbing snacks so they can watch the halftime show? But advertise, they will.

So why are the Super Bowl and its high-profile ad campaigns such a phenomena?

  1. History: Sports competitions have long been a primary form of entertainment dating back to ancient times. Think Greek games and amphitheaters. They play; we watch!
  2. Brand equity: The NFL is among the most successful brands today; period. The championship game is a must-see event due to the incredible loyalty and size of its fan base.
  3. You score and you win: Whether the game or the ads, getting points on the board means you’re assured replays and extended interest.
  4. Level playing field: Those who may know less about football can easily engage in conversations about the ads; after all, what’s so complicated about a 30-second video?
  5. Shared experience: And the bottom line, come Monday morning, who wants to be the only person in the universe who missed the big game and can’t vote on the best and worst ads?

Whether its touchdowns or tacos that will turn your attention to the screen, this Super event is truly the epitome of a branded experience. Let the games – and the marketing – begin!


When Being Served “Fast” Ain’t Good Enough

Face it; convenience is the go-to attribute for our day-to-day activities. It likely influences where you work, shop or live, as convenience usually translates to more downtime. To classify a brand or product as convenient, we rely on crisp adjectives so it’s clear what we’re getting. Think, “drive-through”, “walking-distance” or “we deliver” and time is suddenly on your side. I was recently thinking about how these adjectives even project the quality of the experience, such as “takeout” versus “fast food.” Which would you rather have for dinner?

Given how busy life has become, I rarely cook during the week. Sure, tossing a salad or reheating leftovers takes a little effort, but even those simple preparations compete fiercely against the instant pleasure of dinners to go. Whether Whole Foods’ entrees or the local Thai restaurant, those meals only require making a selection by dropping in, calling – or increasingly, a few clicks on their apps – all of which are certainly quick or “fast.” But I would never describe these culinary experiences as “fast food.” That efficiency label is strictly describes burger joints and pizza parlors, and implicitly suggests less healthy/higher calorie options. How did those distinct labels evolve and why is “fast” not as well regarded in this instance, even though it truly does describe the customer experience?

Some possibilities:

  1. Fast food was coined as a term in the 1950s, an era when people didn’t worry about their health as much. And during that time, the primary option was a burger joint – think White Castle, the original fast-food restaurant. So labeling those experiences as “fast” was initiated long ago.
  2. Convenience was less important when there were fewer two-career households or 24/7 work schedules. So it was really a fun dining-out experience that just happened quickly.
  3. The “healthier” fast-casual restaurants such as Panera have emerged more recently, in response to customer demand for such menus.
  4. Additionally, the abundant availability of prepared meals at groceries and specialty markets has fueled this “takeout” trend. Admit it: we love having this permission to skip true home cooking!
  5. Consequently today, fast can suggest lower quality, which means to select that option, you expect other benefits besides getting served quickly, such as cheaper pricing.

So the next time you frown when you hear the term “fast-food” just remember of all that extra time you gained when you elected to pick up sushi to go or waited two minutes for your caramel macchiatto!


When Your Family is Named Mike – and Mike

For eight years, my commute to work involved an hour’s drive. When I first relocated to working in the suburbs, I realized I had to upgrade my 12-year old car for a new, more reliable model. And along with the car, I decided to subscribe to satellite radio. After all, I needed entertainment for all that alone time. Being a sports fan, I happily settled into commuting to the office accompanied by Mike & Mike on ESPN radio.

For the uninitiated, the Mikes are a team of opposites – Mike Greenberg is a sports journalist while Mike Golic enjoyed an eight-year career in the NFL. Together, they chatter as a self-proclaimed nerd and a jock, with an on-air chemistry that’s both entertaining and informative. Whether dishing on the prior day’s professional sports highlights or offering insights to help settle March Madness brackets or fantasy football line-ups, I became a loyal listener.

What’s interesting was how easily I made an emotional connection with two guys I never met. Maybe it was the subject matter – yes, spectator sports are a very emotional pastime! Or perhaps it was the genuine easy rhythm that comes after 15 years of working together. No matter how it happened, they made it feel like I was spending time with old friends. I even got to know their families a bit!  And frankly, it got to the point that I actually found I missed one or both Mikes when travel or vacation took them away from the show.

Last spring, however, I had to give them up because my job moved back into the city and I reclaimed train commuting. I occasionally listened to a replay of the show but it’s just not the same as live. Recently, I was driving to work in another one office and was excited to tune in to the Mikes. It had been a while and the football season was in full swing so I was ready for some good insights. But just like any good family, a surprise was in store – today’s scoring highlight was Mike Golic’s standout performance in a donut eating contest! With a laugh-out-loud moment in the car, it felt like we’d only been together yesterday as I listened to Greenie proudly congratulate his co-host on his big win.

Why was this such a great example of the “Mike & Mike” brand?

  1. Authenticity – these guys are who they are. Golic is a self-deprecating, extrovert, who understands that being a radio host requires entertaining. And Greenie is student of journalism, who often talks about his humble start, and helps steer their focus.
  2. Emotional connections – whether the NFL Superbowl or the station’s donut challenge, these guys know sports and help listeners appreciate athletics through their lively dialogues. Yet their friendly demeanor and down-to-earth style is classic water-cooler office chatter vs. know-it-all smartypants.
  3. Consistency – you know what to expect in terms of overall content and style. And if you like the experience, you want to come back for more!

I congratulate these guys for providing a thoroughly entertaining show that kept my dial positioned on ESPN for eight enjoyable years. I don’t miss putting all those miles on my car, but it’s comforting to know that whenever I have the occasion to drive to work, my Mikes will be waiting to keep me company!


Learn from the Best: Lunch with Martha Stewart

I’m at a conference and today’s lunchtime speaker was branding maven Martha Stewart. In my view, she is a charter member of the brand positioning hall of fame. Her focus and passion around home and entertainment have yielded an iconic brand carefully crafted by Martha Stewart, the person.

So what did Martha have to say?

  1. Brand positioning: “We believe every home is a canvas.” This simple statement implies adventure and possibility, and also suggests that with Martha as your art teacher, your creation will be tasteful and stylish.
  2. Brand values: this ambitious list features the company’s efforts to be “inspiring, informative, innovative, distinctive, timeless, educational, surprising, celebratory and beautiful.” They aim to deliver on these promises through artful content, primarily beautiful photography, as found in Martha Stewart “Living” magazine, her blog and other content marketing tools.
  3. Martha Stewart recognizes they have strong competition (think Bon Appetit magazine and other lifestyle publications) and that the internet has reinvented consumer expectations.
  4. Effective management is a major challenge. Given her many ideas and opportunities, having the leadership bandwidth to nurture the longstanding core business while developing aspirations is important to succeeding.

No startling revelations; simply an inside look at a well-defined brand strategy. I’m not sure I’d thought of my home as a canvas, but it’s an uplifting term – and maybe means some redecorating is in order!


Which came first: Maine or Lobster Rolls?

From time to time, two brand categories become so commonly associated that it’s hard to separate them. Think movies and popcorn, country music and cowboy hats, beer and pretzels. While you can certainly enjoy one without the other, together, they’re just better.

A fundamental branding tenet is making emotional connections with your target audience, and I think that’s what these paired experiences have perfected. This came to mind recently, during my visits to Maine this summer – the state where the license plates read “vacationland.” You can’t help but relax, whether you’re visiting the rocky shoreline, sparkling lakes, craggy Acadia National Park or enjoying the art and food scene in Portland. Speaking of food, when we think of Maine inevitably a lobster roll comes to mind. That’s part two of the paired branding experience!

Interestingly, there are many variations of lobster roll recipes, which contradicts branding’s consistency principle. What remains the same, however, is the authenticity of eating a fresh catch from local waters, preferably while seated dockside. And maybe having many recipes encourages continually sampling this simple dish, which means seeing more of Maine. Sounds like everybody wins!

Right now, the Maine Maritime Museum is hosting a history of lobstering exhibit, with a video featuring a Portland-based chef showcasing his lobster roll recipe. While his lovely dish is a little fussy for me, it is a fitting sea-to-table ending for this exhibit celebrating both vacationland and the lobster.

So branding isn’t always about a uniquely differentiated company or product. Sometimes great branding is about a memorable pairing, with room for personal interpretations. I hope you get to enjoy a lobster roll sometime soon – and better yet, on the Maine coast.

 A consistently top-ten rated lobster roll from Five Islands Lobster, Georgetown, ME.