Your mother was right: Just be yourself


Just be yourself.

Your mom probably said this to you before your first middle school dance. Your significant other probably said this to you before your interview with a potential new boss and her posse of 13 associates packing a glass-walled executive board room.

Your marketing director or agency likely said this to you after a thorough assessment of your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

In this transitional era of news media marketing, the adage “just be yourself” might sound counter-intuitive. But any good marketer can tell you that your situation is unique, your geography’s market sectors distinctive, and thus your business model should be shaped accordingly.

Consider JCPenney, which underwent revolutionary change to its brand in early 2012.

Then-CEO Ron Johnson brought what seemed to be promising ideas to a struggling retail giant.

Some of his initiatives included setting prices that were “Fair and Square” all month long, not just during mark-down periods, cleaning up properties with tired and dated floorspace, and going whole hog on the boutique “store-within-a-store” concept.

What happened?

Cleaner, brighter stores = great. Store-within-a-store = depends. Sephora continues to be a JCPenney darling; Levi’s, Liz Claiborne, and Joe Fresh are also doing well. Disney Shops opened in 565 JCPenney stores this October, promising additional retail foot traffic from lovers of The Mouse and sparkly princess costumes and tiaras.

But the effort to change well-documented consumer shopping habits? Customers already knew how to shop sales and with coupons, so the “Fair and Square” message fell on deaf or at least confused ears. And while its mailed marketing materials — high-design, full-colour glossy catalogs, seasonally themed — were stunning, they failed to move the needle on sales.

A huge tactical error also cost JCPenney and its long-time newspaper partners. During the new branding launch, the company cut almost all run-of-press (ROP) advertising and inserts. (They are back now.)

The takeaway? Customers like specials, coupons, and deals, and they like hearing about them in a variety of different channels, especially the newspaper.

Take a look at Seattle-based Tully’s Coffee, one of the United States’ largest privately owned/independent coffee chains. After gazing longingly at behemoth neighbour Starbucks (inexplicably, many Tully’s locations opened right across the street from them), new chairman and part-owner Michael Avenatti has promised to make changes that play to Tully’s own unique strengths.

Industry analyst Dan Geiman told The Seattle Times this fall, “They’ve always kind of wanted to mimic Starbucks, but they don’t have the scale or the resources to go toe-to-toe with Starbucks.”

And, Avenatti said, “people like the taste of its coffee.”

The takeaway? Your brand has strength, depth, and a great, rich taste all its own. Improve on it where you can, but don’t try to be something you are not.

And — side note on corporate sportsmanship — don’t pin your company’s years-long cultural inertia and business challenges on some smart and energetic outsider that comes in with (often great) ideas that don’t resonate instantly with customers — not to mention your own executive and line staff.

So, news media company: What are you great at? What does your community count on seeing from you? Are your business decisions deliberate and smart, or are they knee-jerk and “we just have to be different?”

Mobile development and e-commerce? Yes, of course. Bring it on, build on it — it is the way we already live.

Digital? Yes, of course. Be where people want to access your content and advertising; make it social, make it visual, make it of-the-moment, include video.

And print ... yes, of course: Let us remember the rock upon which our business was built and still stands. Should it remain unchanged and stagnant? No. But the print component in some way, shape, or form is in fact a core piece of the information puzzle for ever-busier consumers with digital choices coming at them like snowflakes from the sky — dizzying in their beauty and melting as they hit the ground.

Our brands mean something to our readers and customers. Let’s improve them — not destroy out of haste and magical thinking.

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