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Cooking With Teflon:
How To Reach "The Teflon Customers"

By Jeff Greene

Hi everyone! It's been two months since the annual conference, and I am still thinking about those few days in Memphis we were able to spend together. During and after the conference, several of you were asking for some concrete ways to reach Teflon customers. Here are some thoughts to consider:

* Talk to different people differently. A client asked me recently, "How do we target parents and teens with the same marketing campaign?" My answer was, "You don't." If the marketing industry hadn't grown up on mass media, then "targeting everyone" might not be our knee-jerk response today. So ask yourself this question: How narrowly do we define our different audiences?

Think about it. Teflon customers don't want to be "mass" anything. They can pick from 75 television channels. They can choose from thousands of magazines (some examples: National Parks Magazine, Referee - The Magazine For Sports Officials, and New York Dog). Not to mention millions of web sites. So it's very likely that divorced, female executives and suburban, minority parents are interested in totally different aspects of life insurance or investments. It's up to the marketing department to give each customer what he or she wants.

Of course, this is easier said than done. One company I know combines the convenience of the web with the flexibility of digital printing, and lets customers create their own newsletters. New customers complete a short web survey. Their answers translate to newsletter areas of interest. For example, if a customer checked off "saving for retirement," rather than "saving for college," that information would be stored in a database. During the printing process, an article about 529 college accounts would be cut in favor of an article about IRAs. The next customer could see a completely different set of articles. In both cases, the newsletter design and layout stays the same. It's all done automatically -- for a truly Teflon-melting customer experience.

* Adopt local customs. Suppose you were a senior technologist at Yahoo!, the popular web portal, and you were invited to discuss advertising with the board of a prominent Manhattan bank. If you showed up in your Silicon Valley duds -- ripped jeans, Birkenstock sandals and a button that says "Programmers do it with their fingers" -- would the bankers take you seriously?

Go ahead and laugh, but keep in mind companies are making these boneheaded mistakes every day. Even the successful ones. Abercrombie & Fitch, which outfits the majority of college and high school students these days, made a serious gaffe in underestimating the emotions of its market. The company decided a few years ago to make its racy catalog even racier: Teen models in some of the photos appeared to be naked, and a headline promised "group sex" inside the catalog. In New York or Los Angeles, this is nothing out of the ordinary. But among America's increasing population of evangelical Christians, Abercrombie drew fierce ire.

Ultimately, the company needed to protect its base of teen shoppers between the coasts and the catalog was changed. But the incident put Abercrombie beneath the microscope, and today it faces a class-action lawsuit charging employment discrimination. Some legal analysts say the company could actually lose. In the meantime Abercrombie is emjoying the publicity, but you have to wonder -- if the company communicated more like its customers, would it be in such hot water?

* Develop and protect a style. If your team gathers copies of the competition's brochures that's great. If you review them all before starting work on a new brochure, even better. But -- if you don't revisit your cache before going to press, your review process is missing a critical step. Because after countless edits, tweaks and legal reviews, odds are good your brochure is going to be looking like everyone else's. And we all know where Teflon customers file those brochures.

Consider developing a unique style for your collateral materials and campaigns. What's that? You're beholden to using the same boring stock photos over and over? That's OK. Even tired photos can be refreshed. In a brochure, you could: Use only photos that cover the entire page. Use a single photo many times, each cropped differently. Convert every photo to black and white. Convert every photo to black and white, except for the one with the dancing little girl. Often, it's the marketing staff who needs refreshing more than the photos. So hold your creative meetings outside the office and the ideas will fly faster.

Even if you're working within already established brand guidelines (i.e. ''The logo must go in the bottom right corner!") there's almost always some leeway to create the rest of the page. Whether it's an interesting photo treatment, illustrative approach, creative use of type or unique paper stock, a communications style can help set you apart and minimize "creative suggestions" from the higher-ups. I've even seen marketing staff sell style to upper management as a cost-saving measure -- external designers will spend less time on projects, selected paper can be purchased in bulk, and so on. As long as you're making Teflon customers happy, you might as well work on those Teflon bosses, too.

* Write like it's 2004. You'd think most marketers were living in the 1800s from the flowery, Victorian sound of their language. "An impressive, robust offering." "An increasingly broad range of best-in-class products and services." Hear all the buzzwords? All the abstractions? Even the Queen doesn't speak like that anymore. So why not try using the vernacular? Consider this recent Washington Mutual billboard: "Hey, it's an ATM not a one-­armed bandit! No-fee ATMs from Washington Mutual." Isn't it easier to bond with a financial institution when it speaks your language?

To catch up linguistically, you'll need some resources. One is thesaurus.com. Why settle for "wealth accumulation" when you can have "nest egg?" Another is "On Writing," by Stephen King. I know he's a fiction writer, but he's a great fiction writer. If your web sites and ad campaigns spun stories as compelling as King's, you'd be sweeping next year's IFCA Awards competition. Finally, you might consider creating a "buzzword" list of unnecessary terms the marketing department loves but Teflon customers don't truly understand. Anyone caught submitting rough drafts with a buzzword owes $1 to the office kitty. When the pot reaches $20, it's time for one of those off-site creative meetings, ­preferably at an "impressive," "best-in-class" saloon.


Originally appeared in IFCA e-Communique


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