Arnold Palmer, a pioneer and a dealer in hope

It doesn’t take a brand strategist to figure out the appeal of Arnold Palmer. He was one of us.

Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer, the King of the people.

Before Palmer, golf was a sport for the elites, like polo. It was birthed in 15th-century Scotland by kings and stayed that way until after World War II.

That’s when Palmer showed up. His personality, born from less than elite status in Latrobe, Penn., was outgoing and inclusive. He adopted the game following his dad, who wasn’t a member of the local country club, but the greenskeeper.

Arnold Palmer’s personality was so welcoming that he attracted fans to the game who had previously ignored it. They became known as Arnie’s Army, a version of a rebellion in the sport of golf. If you were part of that army, you identified yourself as a new wave of golfers and fans. That is, the rest of us.

His passion sparked a game that was not polite, a go-for-broke style that worked against the demure, chip-away-at-things style his forbearers played. That led to 62 PGA Tour wins and seven major victories.

He was a true pioneer and he will be missed.

Arnold Palmer embodied a brand of the people.

He was also the perfect embodiment of a brand. Many mistakenly believe brand is about what the company/product offers. “We do this,” “We do that” become the mantras of brands that find themselves in perpetual stagnation.

But brand that’s practiced to be persuasive is about the aspirational self-reflection we (fans, consumers) see in the brand. When we buy an Apple product, we “think different.” When we buy a Nike shoe, we “just do it.”

For fans of Arnold Palmer, the self-reflection was, in its own way, fighting the power: The common man taking over a sport that was previously hidden. Palmer’s down to earth personality played into that, but also the fierce way he played. As Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” That was Arnold Palmer.

Even the drink he invented, the Arnold Palmer, was a common man kind of drink. Who would have thought that iced tea and lemonade, the drinks you sip while sitting on the porch, would work so well together?

Yes, Arnold Palmer was great. He was a true pioneer. And he was one of us.

Population health is an opportunity

Population health is a top concern, but it represents an opportunity

The Affordable Care Act has affected everything for hospitals, including the struggle to be financially successful.

Notably, however, it prompted the switch from a fee-for-service reimbursement model to a pay-for-performance one that emphasizes the value of the healthcare service.

This in turn has prompted hospitals to take population health more seriously because their reimbursements are now dependent on the success of outcomes. For that reason, hospital CEOs have listed population health as one of their greatest concerns.

Population healthHospital CEOs now need their hospital systems to be further integrated into their communities, working with local organizations and instituting programs that help population health. By doing so, hospitals earn more money based on the pay-for-performance reimbursement. Better population health means a better bottom line.

While many administrators see this as a hindrance, it can actually be an advantage for hospitals looking to steal market share from its competitors. It represents an opportunity to create preference.

Hospitals struggle to create preference

Traditionally, hospitals have grown organically. A new facility creates a new audience, whether if it’s at a new location or represents a new specialty. A system starts with a name usually associated with a location, a founder or a prominent contributor from the community.

Hospitals rarely see themselves as marketers who are creating for preference as much as they are seeking awareness. They also often consider the internal audience (physicians, staff, contributors) more than they do prospective patients. They take the care of their patients seriously, as they should, so they focus on acquiring talent, technology and new training.

But the changing landscape of healthcare, especially when it comes to reimbursement, has made investing in the hospital brand more important. There is now more competition, with greater regulatory oversight and technologies creating savvier patients.

Hospitals now have to think of themselves as a true brand, analyzing the competition, conducting market research and putting more dollars into their marketing. The competition has simply gotten too fierce. The world has also gotten more complex.

Population health is an opportunity

The regulations surrounding the Affordable Care Act can be confusing for the hospital, the patient and even insurance companies. Those are the ones forcing the pay for performance model because they don’t want to pay out as much money. Insurance companies also want to see better population health because it results in fewer claims.

The knee-jerk reaction is to promote the hospital’s various partnerships and programs to raise the community profile of the hospital. That’s all fine, well and good. But those alone don’t raise preference. They are simply the proof points to your brand promise.

Population healthThe danger is that hospitals will sport brands that are all about better health and caring medical professionals. But those aren’t the reasons to prefer one hospital to another. They are just definitions of a hospital.

Instead, the process of increasing preference is to find the emotional triggers that make those things – including the overall healthiness of a community – important to the prospective patient. Why are those important? What are the drivers for those patients so that they choose your hospital?

Creating preference

The key to gaining preference is to be early in a prospect’s decision tree. The earlier you are positioned, the greater your preference. The struggle for hospitals is that no one wants to think about a hospital. It spells danger, risk and potential death. Instead, you must be important enough to prospective patients that, when they need a hospital, they have already chosen you. Even if it’s subconsciously.

To accomplish that, hospitals must avoid the clichés and trite messaging that comes with most hospital branding. A few tips:

Understand your competition. To be a true choice, you have to be truly different and better in your messaging. If your main competition has messaging focused on caring and expertise, you have an opportunity. Audiences filter out those messages because all hospitals claim to care and have expertise. Those messages mean little.

Go deeper. Most marketing stops at the wants and needs, but those can be fulfilled by any number of healthcare providers. True preference is created when you understand the reasons why those wants and needs are important. That means uncovering the precepts that drive behavior and the self-identification those audiences treasure. Aligning your brand with that belief creates audiences who are incapable of choosing anyone else because they would, in effect, be choosing against themselves.

The opportunity with population health exists because hospitals can be more important to communities. They can position themselves differently. Improving population health offers a gateway to a meaningful brand that goes beyond traditional hospital marketing. It means the promises of your hospital have changed and now you have the proof points to show for it.

Your hospital is now in the results business. Think about that as a hospital brand.

Staples Workbar won’t fix the overall problem

Oh boy. As Staples (and its failed merger partner, Office Depot) tries to recover from disappointing sales, it has partnered with Workbar to set up office spaces for customers in a few stores around Boston.

Staples Workbar
The Staples Workbar space is nice, but who cares?

The space is far back from the retail area where customers can work without having their own real office. Said Evin Charles Anderson, whose video production company has been using the space, “On the weekends when we’re here, we see people peering in through the windows.”

Yeah. They’re wondering what the hell Staples is doing. The office supplies stores are in a free fall with Office Depot closing stores and regulators ending the proposed merger between Staples and Office Depot.

Staples Workbar is a tactic, not a strategy

Both supply stores, in fact, are looking for new CEOs to lead the retailers into a new era where all retailers are becoming more and more irrelevant. The Workbar additions, just in beta stage at this point, won’t hurt but it won’t fix the problem either.

For one thing, who wants to work in the back of a Staples store? FedEx, off its successful merger with Kinko’s, has something similar that has now existed for nearly a decade.

More importantly, however, the working world is no longer dependent on having a traditional office or even one that resembles one, such as the Staples Workbar situation.

As many employees at very large companies will tell you, working from home is the new normal. (The sheer number of them doesn’t even consider freelancers.) You may go to FedEx Office for shipping but you can buy just about anything off the internet. There’s no need to go to a Staples store to work.

That is, unless Staples had a brand that compelled you to seek it out.

But there’s no emotional reason to go to Staples or even the Staples Workbar space, which is the only reason to create preference. As Napoleon said, “You must speak to the soul to electrify men.”

That’s what the office supplies stores are missing. They believe they can out-tactic their way out of their dilemmas, rather than looking at a complete overhaul of what they provide and what they mean.

I’ve been thinking recently that the entire brick and mortar retail market is in serious trouble. Malls are becoming a thing of the past and the industry as a whole is losing their shirts to Amazon.

So, there’s now Staples Workbar. OK. So what?

Selling insurance when people don’t want it

Selling insurance has one of the single most difficult hurdles to overcome. How to convince audiences that they should buy something they believe they don’t need.

Selling insurance isn’t like selling something people want. Consumers want iPhones and a nice-looking car. They will gladly pony up for them.

Selling insuranceHowever, they don’t want to think about what insurance is protecting them from: Death, illness, fire, liability, etc.

Selling insurance includes another dilemma. People believe that insurance companies are simply out to take their money and will automatically fight any claims. Whether that’s belief is true or not, it is believed. We have conducted research in this industry and that belief is the single biggest hurdle for insurance sales reps.

What are the other selling insurance hurdles?

Without giving away findings that are preparatory to our clients, our research has borne out a few themes:

  • People, including white-collar professionals, believe insurance companies are unfeeling entities, which means claims of caring rarely resonate.
  • Fear-based messaging (“What happens when you die?”) is ignored because it’s seen as the start of a scam.
  • Policies are confusing, feeding into the belief of insurance companies being deceitful.

Here’s the catch. Agents, those chosen to sell insurance products, often feel the same way. They also believe that messages about caring are not believable. They are also sick of telling the same story. And they find working with insurance companies to be cumbersome.

This should not be a surprise to anyone in the industry. What is surprising is that too few in the industry do anything about it. Yet overcoming those hurdles is exactly what would increase market share.

Let’s address each hurdle.

Insurance companies are unfeeling entities:

This is the most difficult hurdle because few believe any company cares more about its customers than its bottom line. This belief is especially acute with insurance companies because insurance is a low involvement category until they have to use it. Then it is high involvement and highly personal.

An effective brand message is the best step. Any message must be aligned with that belief (insurance companies are unfeeling) and positioned against the competition.

Selling insuranceAsk yourself these questions: What is it that audiences seek in their lives? What are they truly seeking when considering insurance? What are they rebelling against if they are forced by an employer to seek a particular structure of insurance, such as a health savings account?

More importantly, the message should be about the customer, not you. You lose the audience’s attention the moment you begin talking about you (either in person or in an TV advertisement).

Selling insurance becomes even harder when the rep knows that all products are the same and the only effective tool is the personal relationship with the individual customer. This is one of the main reasons an insurance salesman is such a cliché. Customers need insurance, not someone pretending to be their newest best friend. Be expert and understanding.

Fear-based messaging is ignored:

So stop doing it. Advertising for life insurance is especially guilty of this, often asking the question, “What will your family do when you’re gone?” This might have worked decades ago when life insurance was a relatively new idea. At its best, protecting your family is a category benefit.

Today, audiences have become immune to that message and consider their own investments as savings against such an outcome.

Think about this. Thousands of messages come into our view every day. Even the logo on a pen is a message. Humans, though, have a filter. They only hear messages that are about them.

What insurance companies and agents must do is understand the emotional reason why someone would want to protect something with insurance. Not a rational reason. An emotional one. Too much messaging today is superficial and paper thin. (A better example for life insurance: “It’s what a good father would do.” A definition of who they are when they buy insurance.)

Policies are too confusing:

This is an industry-wide problem. Policies have variations on variations, papers upon papers, language that is too confusing. Even agents have trouble deciphering everything.

To potential customers, it looks like an attempt to intentionally confuse them so the fine print can’t be understood.

So much of the world seems complex, so we thirst for simplicity.

Simple is best. Make everything you do, including how you explain policies, as simple as possible. What is the final result? The details are usually ignored.

The most powerful way to clear the hurdles

The most effective way to address all of these issues, however, is through brand. So many  insurance companies get brand wrong. GEICO spends millions on a message – “15 minutes could save you 15%” – that isn’t believed. The result if market share stagnation. As an even worse example, Genworth Financial once said: “We’re big, safe and friendly.” Ugh.

Selling insuranceBrand is about the customer. Who they are when they use your brand. We are winners when we wear a Nike shoe because we “just do it.” Apple positioned itself against everyone else, saying that its customers “Think Different.”

Developing a brand like that is hard work. It takes in-depth research, leadership willing to slay sacred cows and an understanding that emotion works better than the rational.

Insurance companies and agents should take note. Because audiences right now believe you are out to get them. And get them good.

Office Depot, Staples and new CEOs

What the future CEOs of Office Depot and Staples should know

Changes are afoot among the office supply chains with both Office Depot and Staples looking for new CEOs. This comes on the heels of the expected merger between the two retailers coming to an end over antitrust concerns.

That leaves both of them in a quagmire. What to do now? What do the future CEOs of these chains have to look forward to when they take office?

Office DepotFor one, they both will find declining sales and profitability. Office Depot will close hundreds of stores, including an exit out of Europe. Staples is doing much the same with sales declining 5% in the last quarter.

Both retailers have blamed the rise of internet spending for the kinds of products they both offer, and they are right about that. Amazon has become the go-to retail space and threatens the entire retail industry, not just the office supply chains.

From the perspective of consumers, why buy from office supply stores – especially in bulk – when shopping online is believed to be more convenient?

Where Office Depot, Staples stand now

The proposed Office Depot Staples merger was irrelevant anyway. Consumers never saw a true difference between them, so a Office Depot Staples merger would have largely gone unnoticed among them. (That is, until prices went up.)

Now that a federal judge has nixed the merger, both must think of the other as the enemy, not a potential partner. Stealing market share from Amazon is possible, but it’s impossible if target audiences cannot distinguish between the two suppliers. Consumers can’t choose either Home Depot or Staples when they cannot tell why they should choose one over the other. Audiences couldn’t tell you which is which.

Closing stores will mean nothing if consumers have no compelling reason to choose one of them over the competition. In fact, if Office Depot and Staples don’t uncover those reasons for choice, they will become the next Circuit City and Radio Shack.

Right now, neither has a brand claim that makes them relevant. The theme line for Staples is “Make More Happen.” Office Depot claims you shop there to “Gear Up for Great.”

StaplesWhat do those mean? Is either of them emotional enough to create preference? Both themes are used in current back to school advertising, but neither are emotional or say anything truly meaningful about who their individual customers are.

Taken at its word, the definition of a Staples customer is some one who wants to make more happen. The definition of an Office Depot customer is that they gear up for great.

Does either of these retailers truly believe these are the most emotionally intensive triggers for target audiences when buying office supplies?

What the CEOs of Office Depot and Staples should do

Let’s take one step back. Retail as a whole is an industry in crisis. Amazon has taken a big bite out of the market share of brick and mortar brands, and retailers have been late to respond. It’s not too late, but audiences prefer Amazon in greater and increasing numbers, thanks largely to its Prime membership.

But there are larger issues involved. Retailers have long taken for granted that the shopping experience will draw customers. Therefore, there is an entire science devoted to making the experience more fulfilling and enticing.

What if shoppers don’t want to experience a store at all? What if they would rather do something else and leave the shopping chores (such buying back to school supplies) to Amazon for the convenience or Walmart for the prices?

Office DepotThe answer to those questions is simple, but difficult to achieve. You must create preference for your brand.

Strangely, retailers invest very little in their brands. Instead, most focus on products, sales and sub-brands. The problem with that strategy is that you train audiences to shop based on convenience – which store is closer – and that means opening more stores, not closing them. Convenience becomes the rational trigger because all retailers sell similar products, hold sales and promote sub-brands. Customers can get them anywhere (even online).

Instead, investing in the parent brand as the reason for preference gives the meaning to why those products, sales and sub-brands are important. It demonstrates the difference between you and your competition to offer a true choice.

It’s the reason why Nike has rarely talked about the advantages of its shoes, instead saying the Nike user will “Just Do It.” The Nike wearer is a winner, who does not have time for indecision.

For the new CEOs of Office Depot and Staples, there is also no time for indecision. There is a future where both chains could close and the new executives will wonder why they couldn’t prevent it. Don’t be that CEO.