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4 Things "The Voice" Does That Every B2B Marketer Must Master


Season 8 of The Voice premiered a couple of weeks ago and once again I am incredibly impressed with the marketing genius of the show.  So what’s a reality voice talent show have to do with business-to-business marketing?  The Voice executes brilliantly on a number of critical marketing dimensions as it has competed with Rising Star, American Idol and The X Factor that I believe serve as models of success for growing your business.

1.  Relentless, multi-dimensional Branding

Establishing a brand is an enormously difficult thing to do today in today’s oversaturated environment.  And yet crafting awareness of your company and what you uniquely offer - rising above the noise - is critical to business success.  Consistent brand communication, from visual elements to content to the customer experience, is essential for your organization to speak with a clear, unambiguous voice that gets heard.  The Voice is an unrelenting brand superstar, expertly linking and amplifying its brand with every opportunity, consistently executing the ABCs of identity (Always Branding Company) masterfully:

·         Soundmark:  We are familiar with soundmarks, small trademarked sound clips that are used to help create a memorable brand.  Probably Intel and Microsoft are two of the most known users of soundmark branding.  With The Voice, at the close of every segment just prior to breaking for a commercial, and when you open the mobile app, you will hear the sung phrase “This is The Voice”.  It serves several purposes:

o   Identification – Soundmarks are used widely in television, often for tech company advertising spots.  Comedy shows and other TV series often have intro songs (think Friends, for instance) to reconnect the viewer with the program. But what’s a reality show to do?  The soundmark is a perfect vehicle to continuously identify who they are and re-immerse you in the show.

o   Recall – Like a hit tune getting a lot of radio air time, repetition builds recall.  After a time you become less consciously aware of the repeating refrain but as you hear it time after time, the brand is getting firmly established in your mind and is a consistent touchstone that ties show segments, episodes and online/offline properties together.

o   Differentiation – Creating differentiation is a matter of both affirming and distancing, clearly communicating what your organization does/doesn’t do (purpose, offering) as well as how those things are pursued or not pursued.  The soundmark is a unique element outside of ad spots, is mimetic (singing soundbite on vocal talent show), and subliminally links to radio (think the Top 40 jingle or a DJ jingle) – all combining to differentiate The Voice from other talent shows.

·         Use of color:  Many companies have successfully used color to define themselves.  A great example of this is UPS (“What can brown do for you?”), circa 2002.  You may have noticed that all the carriers are using color  (DHL is red and yellow while FedEx is blue and red) in an effort to distinguish what is largely viewed as a commodity service.  Color helps with identification, recall and differentiation and The Voice uses the color red masterfully to reinforce the brand.  Show titling, the stars’ (aka Coaches) chairs, the logo, set elements, website and mobile app  – all prominently use the color red.

·         Logo:  Have you noticed the hand holding a microphone with two fingers up making a “V”?  Have you noticed the stars (coaches) making the V sign?  The logo instantly identifies itself as a singing show through the use of the microphone and links to the show’s name with the V symbol.  Great logos visually add definition to an organization’s name that advances your brand.

·         Language:  Strong brands have values and a point of view.  Careful choice of language can be used to reflect those values and points of view.  The Voice is about advancing the best voice talent in the world.  As such, there are no contestants or judges, only Artists and Coaches.  In the first round, an inclusion round, there are Blind Auditions, the Coaches’ chairs turned so the artists are evaluated purely on the quality of their voices.  Coaches build their “team” by “tapping on a red ‘yes’ button” to indicate they are willing to take on and coach an artist.  This language is intentional and by design conveys a very clear, and I think positive, point of view.

2.  Integrated Customer Engagement

There was a time when television thrived simply by transmitting TV programming, when viewers passively watched.  That era, when there were just a few channels, you had to stand up to change the channel, and if you missed the broadcast when it was aired you were out of luck, has longed passed.  That was also the era of outbound marketing, where companies controlled the flow of information to customers and firms depended on interruption-marketing (think all forms of advertising, including print, radio, TV, billboards, etc. and PR) to break into the consciousness of customers.

Fast-forward through cable and independent content suppliers (ex. Netflix), the democratization of information via the internet, millisecond access to an index of the internet via search engines, consumer empowerment via social media, and control of time via universal remotes powering Digital Video Recorders, passive consumption of content - whether it’s TV programming or your corporate messages - is firmly and irrevocably a thing of the past.

The Voice is constructed with customer engagement in its bones, not tacked on as an after-thought.  Customers, through their actions, guide the season’s narrative and final conclusion, not the producers of the show.  While The Voice is the gatekeeper of the characters in the storyline as a result of their screening the talent that gets on the show, viewers (a strangely inadequate word all of a sudden) determine in real-time who stays and who ultimately wins.  The Voice has tapped into and leverages the following to accomplish this integrated customer engagement:

·         iTunes:  iTunes is the most ubiquitous online music ecosystem on the planet so linking into something which is familiar and relevant to The Voice’s customers makes all the sense in the world.  Every organization should link into ecosystems which are native to their prospects.  By doing so, you have a greater chance of being seen in a context which will support building a natural relationship as an extension of something which they already trust and are linked to.

By downloading contestant’s singles from the show, viewers are voting (as all customers vote, using their choices, time and funds).  How contestants (always referred to as artists on the show) fare is in part determined by how well their song does on the iTunes download charts - which by the way is a very visible listing to anyone visiting iTunes.

Let’s not forget, however, that iTunes, first and foremost, is a store.  Customers are so motivated to have a say in the outcome of the season plotline, so eager to register their opinion, that they are willing to pay for the privilege.  Amazing!  (It would be fascinating to see what percentage of the time the downloaded songs are never played).  And BTW - This is also an important revenue stream for the artists and program.

·         Twitter:  Twitter is another ubiquitous global ecosystem where people have the opportunity to share their perspective.  Using hashtags, viewers have the opportunity to vote via their mobile device (the “second screen”).  Real-time windows for tweets, with volume statistics, have appeared on the show and determined the fate of contestants.  The Voice reinforces twitter engagement by featuring the coaches’ tweets throughout the show. 

A quick review of hashtag analytics via a tool like for #thevoice not only indicates reach and net impressions (in the tens of millions), but insight into the gender (74% female during this particular day), platforms (desktop (26%), Android (22%), iPhone (28%), etc.) and location (US 24%, France 25%, etc.) - incredibly valuable customer insight available given the plethora of analytical tools available from social media.

Whether your company is active on Twitter or not, your customers are engaged in a conversation…perhaps about your brand, perhaps about frustrations that your offering addresses, or simply about the issues that surround your industry or area of interest.  Understanding that social conversation, and participating in the dialogue, can make your brand what Malcolm Gladwell calls “sticky” in The Tipping Point, something which The Voice has mastered for the moment.

·         Mobile app:  Companies often focus the timing of their investment on mobile based on desktop vs. mobile website traffic as reported by a company’s website Google Analytics data, as well as (for product-based organizations) mobile vs. desktop eCommerce.  If a company’s mobile traffic and commerce numbers are low, they may logically infer that it is prudent to defer mobile investments.

However, mobile apps may, due to their clarity of purpose and streamlined user experience, have a level of appeal that website analytics does not hint at.  Customer engagement may be a viable endpoint in itself for investments in mobile, monetized through customer loyalty (less expensive to retain a customer than it is to recruit a new one) and customer satisfaction (satisfied customers become repeat customers and company promoters).

The Voice clearly uses its mobile app to build interaction and meaningful engagement, as opposed to building passive audiences.  ‘Viewers’ can directly “tweet the coaches” and the artists via The Voice app and during later rounds of the show, cast votes which will determine the fates of favorite contestants and teams.  Real-time interactions allow for viewers to “turn your virtual chair” and see when coaches on the show turn theirs as well.  It’s not just that the app has a common look and feel to the show and website;  the app enlists the active participation in the show narrative, which I believe is partly responsible for the global success of the program.

3.  Appeals to Emotional and is Aspirational:  Many B2B technology, healthcare and scientific companies stick very closely to providing only objective product/technical data to support their customers’ buying process.  After all, the buyer is looking to satisfy stringent specifications.  Objective data is the key, right?

The only issue is that comparative data answers threshold questions about quality, specific attributes, reliability, price, etc. but of course that is not the only basis by which purchase choices are made.  As Simon Sinek, author of The Golden Circle (see his TED talk), articulately explains, when people make purchase decisions, they depend less on what and how and more on why.  Why gets to the core of a company’s purpose, values and culture and customers are more tuned-in than ever to understanding a company’s offering within this why context.

Everyone, of course, has emotions and aspirations, even the most technical, scientifically oriented person cannot help but bring their humanity to their purchase decisions.  If there is alignment between you and your customers aspirations - we’re both trying to make advances in the understanding and treatment of [cancer], we are both trying to make a difference in [patient care], we are both trying to use technology to be more [productive, impactful, successful] - it is powerful to communicate within that shared context.  If you do, then you elevate the choice above the technical, product-to-product details once that threshold has been met. 

This kind of contextual presentation of ‘products as proof points’ of your mission/vision is different than we have this part over here which tells our story and then we have this part over here where we want you to buy our stuff.  If the product and company story are inextricably intertwined - as long as everything you are saying is authentically true - then your message which be more resonant with your customers.

The Voice is a master at conveying the human, aspirational context of the show at every turn:

·         ContestantsThe Voice does a great job presenting contestant’s backstory, with video of their home towns, family, and a spotlight on the reasons and purpose which drive the candidates in their aspiration to be successful singers.  The host interviews the contestant and as they wait for their big moment backstage, you hear their internal monologue and see their emotions and aspirations play out.

·         Family:  In what I have dubbed the Fate Room,  family members, clearly participants in the unfolding drama, are shown interleaved between shots of their loved one as they walk on stage, start singing, and get or don’t get chair turns.  At the end, the contestant comes to the Fate Room, closing the circle in exultation, resolution or disappointment.  If the contestant goes on later stages, family is mentioned and shown when they are in the audience, and there are further on-screen discussions in the Starbucks lounge.

·         Stars:  The dynamics between the Stars is a key theme in the show.  The relationships, humor, competitive remarks, pitches for artists - all serve to humanize the stars and have them be active participants in a very emotional, aspirational journey.

4.  Dealing with DVR (media challenges):  As a marketer one of the things I find most fascinating about The Voice is how they have dealt with a fundamental shift in the market landscape.  As reported by the Leichtman Research Group in January, their annual survey reveals that over 60% of pay-TV subscribers have a DVR (digital video recorder).  TiVo reports that 45% of prime time commercials are “fast-forwarded”.  Advertising is how TV programs make money.  The higher the audience reach, the higher the ad rates.  If DVRs are being used to systematically bypass commercial messages, advertisers will apply discounts to those audience figures.

Before digging further into this, let’s contrast this reaction to how one of the big, remaining office supply chains is dealing with online buying.  When you go into these stores there is no wireless internet in the store.  While they have invested in smartphone app and their website has responsive design (meaning it reconfigures the content based on the viewing screen size), you can’t reach either of these in their stores because they are dead-zones.  If you ask them about matching a web-based price on an item they have in-store, they will tell you their policy prohibits them from price-matching web offers.  Understandably, bricks and mortar companies who bear the expense of facilities, inventory, personnel, etc. are wary of folks who use their stores to view products that they then purchase somewhere else.  But not liking it isn’t going to make the practice stop, and rather than embracing the stickiness of customer’s wanting to see a product before purchasing it (especially for larger purchases) by leveraging this fact and linking online and in-person to their advantage, they are closing hundreds of stores.

While product placement is as old moving pictures, The Voice has been particularly creative in dealing with DVRs.  Yes, the artists have branded Starbucks drinks in their dual-cup swivel chairs, and yes, those same branded drinks show up during the artist practice sessions.  They also appear in the recreated Starbucks on-set store, replete with baristas, coffee bar and comfy chairs.  Artist/family interviews, mentioned above, are filmed in the Starbuck lounge.  Starbucks gets great exposure for their brand during show content that exists between the formal ads.

Nissan is another primary sponsor and beyond featuring a car giveaway to the final contestants during the show at its most climatic (highest viewership) part of the season, they created a linked public safety campaign that features one of the stars in front of The Voice TV location.  Nissan is also featured in The Voice app.

The text-and-drive campaign, which they have dubbed the “red thumb” campaign, is cause marketing which advocates against texting and driving - with Adam Levine as the pitchman and the clever use of the Nissan (and The Voice) brand color red.  The campaign is smart as it gives Nissan another context in which customers can think of their brand.

These advertisers are getting their message across to viewers despite changes in the media landscape and companies should also consciously examine whether they are having DVR moments where customers are eschewing commercial messages and think of ways to reach and support their customers in more organic, integrated ways.

Continuous, multi-dimensional branding, integrated customer engagement, tapping into customer aspirations and emotions, and dealing with the realities of today’s media landscape - The Voice embodies these critical pointers for building your brand and growing your business.

5 Critical Things Your Brand Must Accomplish

I'm beginning to get familiar with a start-up that a colleague of mine is leading and as I do, I've noticed that his firm has a branding problem.

Actually, they have a number of branding problems.

So far I've attended a couple of public-facing events the organization has hosted, checked out how they appear in search results, visited their website, looked at their printed pieces, and spoken to a few of their employees and customers.

At this point I feel that I have a pretty good sense what the organization does, what they stand for, and how they're different. Based on how they communicate those messages, I should be getting a clear and consistent sense of their culture and how customers benefit from their relationship with this organization.

At the highest level an organization's branding must accomplish 5 very critical things:

  1. Establish who are you. (Introduce your brand, both textually and visually).
  2. Define what goods/services you provide.  (What specifically is offered within your industry/segment).
  3. Preemptively answer how your offering is it better or different than alternates. (The reason why someone should buy from you).
  4. Be relevant to your primary customer. (The benefit statements, language and proof points must resonate with your core, target customer).
  5. Help establish credibility.  (Building trust and authority as a foundation for the customer relationship).

So how is my colleague's firm doing so far?

The Good
A number of brand elements are well in place.

  • They are consistently using their name, both visually (font, color and logo) and textually.  This should help with retention and recall.
  • The voice and tone of the language is also consistent.  That consistency establishes familiarity and trust.
  • There are some common message elements which show up in multiple places, helping to build identity.

The Gaps
There are some missing pieces.

  • The organization's name, in itself, calls up off-message connotations.  This happens frequently if an organization's name has broad, established usage in other contexts.  This is not usually an insurmountable issue (unless there are strong negative connections) but must be consciously dealt with. As mentioned above, an effective brand builds identity through visuals and language.  The more consistently your brand resonates at every level - visually, conceptually, consciously and unconsciously - the more powerful an impression is created.   
  • In my colleague's situation, they are using a tagline to help define the brand, which is excellent.  However, they are using a tagline that  could credibly be used by other suppliers in their market.  Instead of adding definition and speaking to what's uniquely better and different, the more general tagline contributes to keeping the brand somewhat nebulous and therefore not as compelling.
  • Sometimes organizations speak using their in-house knowledge and expertise and forget to translate benefit statements into customer terms which are understand and valued.  A miss here means that your relevancy will not be as high as it could be with your customers.  One easy way to test if you have gotten to the root of a benefit that a customer will value is to use a Lean/Six Sigma analytical technique call Five Whys.  Simply put, keep asking why until you reveal the explicit benefit a customer will quickly understand and value.

Whether it's contained in your Mission Statement, boilerplate language of a Press Release, or detailed in the About section of your website, refining the brief explanation of your organization's unique offering will help clarify foundational elements of your brand.  I recommend starting with an internal document which lays this out and is agreed upon with your critical stakeholders.  This is often called a Value Proposition and should be compelling, differentiated and true...and can serve as a guide for all customer-facing materials.

CMO: The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

Rapid change. Complex analytics. Brand advocacy, creativity and strategic leadership. Judged on execution and impact....and by the way, the clock is ticking.

These are some of the challenges that face to the evolving role of the modern Marketing leader, requiring a dizzying array of skills to deal with a rapidly changing environment and high CEO expectations.


As McKinsey & Company presaged a few years ago, "Few senior-executive positions will be subject to as much change over the next few years as that of the chief marketing officer".  A number of factors are driving that change:

  • The liberation of the information consumers use in making buying decisions
  • Multiple, online channels of interaction between consumers and brands
  • Rapid evolution of digital marketing technology
  • Competitive intensity and the shortening lifespan of competitive advantage

The Liberation of Information:

Consumers today have access to product reviews, detailed product descriptions, comparative price data...and that's before they ever hit your company's website.  "CMOs face a power shift from selectively informed consumers to consumers “armed to their teeth” with information and choice", as detailed in The Changing Role of the CMO - Evolution and Revolution At Work by the Vivaldi Partners Group.

The empowered consumer can be at multiple phases in the buying cycle (awareness, consideration, investigate, purchase and use) at the same time, quickly obsoleting any notion of a linear narrative with your customer.  In addition, being transparent, factual and honest about your brand has never been more consequential given that customers will detect gaps and inconsistencies across your message points (customer service, technical support, trade shows, in-person sales, online, print, etc.).

Multiple Online Channels of Interaction:

Of course customers will, if you're skillful and can break through the noise, be listening to your messages across your platforms (blogs, social media, Pay-per-Click advertising, your website(s), and email).  "Designing a consistently positive, rewarding experience across all those touchpoints takes system-wide thinking and an integrated service-delivery approach. Point solutions, such as focusing on the call center, the store, or the website, no longer cut it in a multichannel environment", says Peter Dahlstrom, Chris Davis, Fabian Hieronimus, and Marc Singer in the Rebirth of the CMO,  (HBR Oct. 2014).

But as important your messages on your platforms (and they best cohere), the messages about your company and products/services hosted on 3rd-party sites are potentially even more important.  These include other purchase channels that have customer reviews, consumer interest groups (these exist in both B2C and B2B), user-developed content and the social media 'twittersphere' and beyond.  Being keenly aware of the digital conversations about your brand, bringing that information into your organization, and appropriately directly or indirectly responding can be critical.

Rapid evolution of digital marketing technology:

As Aditya Joshi states in Technology Questions Every CMO Must Ask (HBR Oct. 2014), "Marketers today encounter a mind-boggling array of technologies.  CMOs I talk to are swamped by meeting requests from technology vendors, and most feel an acute pressure to climb on the tech bandwagon".  Marketing technology has dramatically evolved over the last decade and continues to quickly mature.

Digital Marketing platforms (for landing page and forms development, social media management, email marketing), Web platforms (for eCommerce, product and content search, and online customer experiences), CRMs (customer relationship management for a 360 degree view of your prospects and customers), Customer Review platforms, Analytical tools (Google Analytics, KISS metrics, etc.), Online communities (for customer engagement, customer feedback, and market research) et al. are enabling marketers to track how well they are evolving customer relationships and which activities are positively contributing to each step of the customer journey.

These systems create multiple imperatives:

  • From the sea of data these systems produces, what actionable insights are being generated?
  • How will you scale Marketing's impact by connecting the dots across these systems and the other critical enterprise systems linked to production, development, finance, reporting, etc.?
  • Can you successfully set expectations for return-on-investment timing and business impact?

Competitive Intensity:

In the Rebirth of the CMO the authors state: "Digital disruption...has created an increasingly commoditized product and service environment. Digital has removed barriers across sectors, even in old-line businesses known for “sticky” products, such as telecom and insurance. And that same transparency has radically shortened the shelf-life of any new competitive advantage."  As information has become more democratized, barriers to awareness have been lowered.  A firm I worked with saw it's competitive ranks climb from 30 to over 300 competitors in less five years.


The pace of change will not slacken in coming years and the systems and technology will necessarily (thankfully) continue to evolve.  Role expectations will not soften either.

Shelagh Collins reports that the IDC Predicts Hard Times Ahead for CMOs (CMS Wire, Dec. 2014) that "One in four CMOs will be replaced every year through 2018."  Why?  "Chief marketing officer turnover is partially due to a disparity between CEO expectations and the hiring of the CMO to execute them. 'If the CEO isn't sure what he wants when he makes the job requisitions specification, it's not surprising that the CEO might be disappointed if the CMO doesn’t perform over those first 12 or 24 months', according to Rich Vancil, Group VP, Executive Advisory Group."

Last year Fortune reported that although CMO tenure has improved in some sectors, it remains significantly lower than CIOs or CEOs.  They report that CMO tenure is "shortest in the healthcare, automotive, restaurant and communications/media sectors, averaging between 28 to 32 months."

Ty Montague (Are CEOs to Blame for Short CMO Tenures?  HBR July 2013) states CMO tenure is "astonishingly low compared to other execs in the C-Suite: eight years for CEOs and ten years for CFOs. So why is CMO tenure so short? Experts have pointed to a host of reasons: the explosion of social media, the rise of big data, general complexity and chaos, incompetence…"


While as Dahlstrom et al state "The need to deliver on organization-wide imperatives creates lots of pressure for CMOs", it also "has elevated – and complicated – the role of CMO. Delivering above-market growth increasingly hinges on differentiating the customer experience and building tighter customer relationships . That in turn relies on not only having excellent marketing capabilities, but also connecting marketing with the entire organization."

To be a CMO today is to be at the cross-currents of change, with customers, technology and the organization.  Technology is enabling marketing capacity and capabilities to positively impact the strategic direction of the company, customer engagement, product definition, brand vibrancy, and revenue growth.

Marketers experience in their personal lives, and see all around them, dramatic changes in the way customers learn about and purchase products.  Marketing leaders have a unique opportunity to work across the entire organization to build a shared vision for uniquely delivering value to customers.

Executing against that vision, with products and programs that result in dynamic customer relationships, could not be more critically important or rewarding in business today.  If you like leading change, technology and analytics, creativity and strategy, and continuously evolving yourself and your team's marketing skills, being a CMO is the toughest job you'll ever love.

"Getting to Know David Freeman, Industry Thought Leader"

As it originally appeared on Schwartz Communication's PRx Blog:

PRx Blog

Getting to Know David Freeman, Industry Thought Leader

Name: David Freeman Title: President Company: Freeman & Associates Consulting My first job in healthcare was: My first job in healthcare was as a PR Specialist and Tradeshow Manager at HP Medical, in the headquarters operation.  I was 26 years old and I remember the feeling of awe when I first came to the company for an interview (the first of 9 interviews). HP was famous at the time for its open workplace environment (read low cubicles). As I rounded a corner I looked across a huge expanse of desks and people and computers on every desk!

It was a great start in healthcare because I had the opportunity to learn about HP’s entire portfolio as well as travel to conferences like the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, where I got to interact with clinicians, sales reps and marketing professionals from around the world.

What I like most about working in healthcare is: It’s of course trite to say that I work in healthcare to make a difference.  And that the industry attracts good, smart and caring people. All true. But working in an office, caught up in conference calls and cross-functional meetings, a challenging regulatory environment, demanding quality system requirements, it can be easy to forget why I feel so passionate about being in healthcare.

However healthcare has a way of stripping the business veneer away and reminding you of what’s at stake and how you make a difference in a way that I imagine few industries can. Every time I visit a hospital on business, suit and tie, folio in hand, there’s a moment when the environment breaks through and I realize that I’m surrounded by people in crisis and that I’m connected to assessing and preserving health.

I was a pediatrics product manager when the first Iraq war broke out. We were racing to develop a pediatric transesophageal ultrasound imaging transducer. The miniaturization of the electronics was pushing state of the art at the time but my clinical trial sites at children’s hospital in the U.S. and U.K. had conveyed how important this innovation would be to assess surgical repair of congenital heart defects from behind the heart, out of the sterile field, after the repair but before the chest was closed.

The European OEM firm we were working with to develop the transducer had a sister division that got caught up in the night-vision scandal and the State Department put the entire company on hold for business with the U.S. Six months in on a scheduled nine month project we scrambled to find an alternate firm to work with to restart our effort. Our schedules slipped and while we kept our clinical trial sites informed, one day the head of Pediatric Echocardiography from the largest of the U.S. children’s hospitals reached me by phone at my desk.  He proceeded to tell me about a patient they had lost on the table the day before and that the transducer might have saved the patient’s life.  He was upset and emotional and asked me what was taking us so long.

Similarly, I was involved with Schwartz to build awareness of sudden cardiac arrest from the early days when every new airline placing AEDs on board was still news. At each turn, as we worked with corporations, public places, schools and home users, the calls would come in…hi, my name is (pick a name)…and I’m just calling to thank you because my (husband, father, daughter…) was saved by your device.

It’s that vital connection to people, to saving and preserving lives, that keeps me loving this industry.

When I’m not working, I like to: We have four kids and I love spending time with them. Other interests include music (jazz and chill), taking nature photographs, writing poetry, and keeping up with the world and technology.

Who had the biggest influence on your career?: A woman named Cynthia Danaher, who was at HP, has been the most influential person on my career. She heard me interacting with customers on the trade show floor (when I was in my first healthcare job) and recruited me to work in the ultrasound business. She demonstrated a mix of three qualities as a manager that I admire to this day:  (1)  The ability to personally connect with people, (2) Passion for advancing the business, and (3)  Intellectual rigor of the work she did and asked of her team. I learned an enormous amount from Cynthia and HP about management, marketing excellence, and corporate ethics.

People would be most surprised to learn that I: Went to a canoe/survival camp when I was 15 years old in Northern Canada where I learned to portage wood canvas canoes for up to five miles and survived 5 days in the woods with nothing but a match and a knife.

If I wasn’t in healthcare, I would probably be: If I wasn't in healthcare I would probably be an unknown writer.

You can find me at (email, Twitter, LinkedIn): Web: LinkedIn: Blog: Twitter: @freemanb2b

Tags: David Freemanhealthcarehealthcare PRmedical device PRpublic relations agencySchwartz CommunicationsPosted by Jayme Maniatis on December 7, 2010 at 12:31 PM Comments (0)TrackBack (0)


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Effective Marketing: What's Sushi Got To Do With It?

When I was at Hewlett-Packard in the late 80s there was an interesting tension between two conflicting aspects of the company:

  1. It's pride in developing bench to bench, as in engineers making products for folks just like them (where's the marketers?)
  2. The self-deprecating characterization of marketing, best typified in the now famous quip "that if HP were marketing sushi, they'd call it cold, dead fish", a reference to its marketing via objective, conservative benchmarks and specifications.

Which leads me to my question:  Effective Marketing:  What's sushi got to do with it? As a lover of both sushi and marketing I think there some interesting observations to be made.


Sushi has been around a very long time, starting in 4th century BC in Asia as a method to preserve fish, an important source of protein.  Salted fish was kept in rice, stored for months, allowing the rice to ferment the fish.  With this type of sushi, called nare-zushi, the fish was later consumed but the rice was thrown away.

Early in the 8th century, after having spread throughout China, the Japanese began to adopt their own form of sushi in which both the fish and the rice were consumed.  The fish was allowed less time to ferment with the rice and was therefore still partially raw.  Seisei-zushi represented a fundamental shift from food preservation to cuisine.

Later in the 19th century mobile food stalls began selling sushi in Tokyo Bay, combining fresh fish and select seaweed and calling it nigiri-zushi.  As a result of the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 there was enormous dislocation in the Tokyo area, which couldn't sustain the city's concentration of sushi chefs.  They spread out across Japan, helping to spread the new variety of sushi, which later gained popularity in the United States in the early 80s not only for taste considerations but as a healthy dining alternative.

As for the history of marketing, it has a shorter timeline.   Some attribute Gutenberg's invention of metal, movable type in 1450 as the beginning of marketing as that technology eventually led to the first "mass" production of flyers, notices and brochures.  Magazines followed in the early 1700s, paid advertising in newspapers in the early 1800s, and spam (via the telegraph), billboards and brand trademarks followed shortly thereafter.

Methods, materials, primary purpose, location have all evolved for both sushi and marketing and having a sense of the history helps provide perspective on current trends and future directions.  And that despite great change, there's continuity.

Specialized Skills:

In Japan it can take 15 years of apprenticeship before you are viewed as "ready" to be out on your own.  Pre-dawn selection of fish from the fish market, preparation of the special vinegar rice, cleaning and cutting the fish, perfecting making the rice ball and maki rolls, all require specialized skills, attention to detail, and great patience.

Having tried to making sushi at home I have had the dispiriting experience of my rice balls falling apart and the cut fish looking like a ham steak instead of an elegant piece of sushi.  I imagine that many people don't want to "try this at home", happy to trust their sushi experience (and their health) to the experts.

But have you noticed that folks from many functions believe themselves a marketing expert?  After all, research suggests we're bombarded with marketing messages every day (Consumer Reports suggest American consumers are exposed to 247 messages each day.  To put that in perspective, each of us sees more ads in one year than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime).  All that exposure makes us experts on some level with regard to a sense of what resonates and what appears to simply not work.

Nevertheless, like being a sushi chef, great marketing requires specialized skills.  Whether it's customer and market research methodology, creative design and branding, strategy development, communications expertise...all combine to establish the art and science of cost-effective marketing programs that have impact.

Great sushi looks good, is free from parasites, and tastes great.

Great marketing moves markets, creates new categories, defines new business and product strategies that offer unique customer value, creates product intros that generate profitable sales, etc.

Beauty:  An End In Itself?:

Clearly the Japanese aesthetic is part of sushi's attraction.  Glazed sushi plates, chopstick rests, soy sauce dishes, placement of the sushi on the plate, attractiveness of each piece, plate decorations (seaweed dividers, wasabi and ginger arrangements, etc.) all contribute to an attractive appearance.

But if the fish isn't fresh and the maki doesn't taste good, well all that beauty doesn't add up to anything.

Similarly, artistry and creativity are certainly a part of great advertising, website and collateral design, and even brand naming.  There are a number of industry awards that recognize such creativity, innovation and artistry...but does the marketing work?

The products of marketing may be aesthetically beautiful (even art) but a few of the true tests of marketing lie in:

  • Are the messages and visuals credible and relevent to the audience?
  • Are your products, services and related communications different, so that they get noticed, provide unique value to the customer, and establish unique space vs. the competition
  • Does the marketing advance your company and brand image (awareness and preference)?
  • Does it move your audience to purchase consideration?

These are just a few of the litmus tests that can be applied to really good marketing.  Like sushi, great marketing must satisfy more than your visual appetite!

Timing Can Be Everything:

Did you know that the least popular days to go to a sushi restaurant are Monday and Thursday?  Fresh fish is at the heart of good tasting sushi.  In Japan fish markets are often closed on Sundays, which is why many sushi restaurants are closed on Mondays.  Many sushi restaurants buy their fish on Tuesdays (for the mid-week) and Fridays (for the weekend).  The best nights to get fresh fish are Tuesday and Friday night (very busy sushi restaurants may also buy fresh fish on Saturday as well).  Monday and Thursday, if the sushi restaurant is open on those days, may not provide the freshest sushi.

Timing is critical in strategic marketing and communications as well.  The right campaign at the wrong time could yield negligible results.  Some critical timing factors to think about:

  • Product development, particularly in regulated industries like medical products, invariably takes longer than anticipated.  Having been around that block a number of times, what contingencies do you have in place if your product functionality, portfolio completeness and timing shifts?
  • Are your messages linked effectively to the buying cycle?  If you don't get invited to be part of the RFQ/RFP, spending a lot of resources on communicating about your differences vs. the competition may be a waste.  Gaining awareness, being considered in the purchase process, growing your positives with the installed base, each require linking critical messages to your audience at the right time in the customer lifecyle.
  • Have a disruptive innovation?  Many times enthusiasm for the attributes of the innovation cause marketers to communicate too close to the product instead of conditioning (educating) the market about the new category and then linking it to their company.  A great example of this now is the UPS logistics campaign, a fabulous example of category creation (we're not in shipping, we're in logistics) so that customers understand the new benefits and that those benefits are uniquely provided to UPS (which provides a far more detailed description of benefit than the prior campaign, "What can brown do for you?"...I don't know, deliver my box?).

These are just a few examples of critical timing considerations for effective marketing.

Timing can be critical, whether you're crafting a sushi roll or marketing message.  Ignore timing at your dining and business peril!

Convention and Protocol:

The first time I traveled to Japan I was excited to go to my first authentic Japanese meal.  I was honored by one of the business leaders to be taken to a nearby sushi restaurant.  With his help I ordered a few items.  We got caught up in conversation as the food arrived and I hungrily dug in...with my fingers.  I hadn't yet mastered the art of chopsticks so I simply grasped a piece of sushi between finger and thumb, dipped it in the soy sauce, and popped it into my mouth.

When I looked over at my host he was staring at me in horror.  In a flush of embarrassment I asked what was wrong and he proceeded to lecture me that I must use chopsticks, turn the sushi over and dip only the fish side into the soy sauce, not to put additional wasabi on the sushi as the chef already put the right amount on when he made it, and not to put wasabi into the soy dish.  I begged forgiveness  and ate with difficulty and self-consciousness the rest of the meal.

A few decades later I have mastered chopsticks but when in the States I cater to my own sense of taste and propriety and can't say I've noticed any shocked stares from the chef or other patrons.  And while I respect the tradition, I'm not sure any of those conventions change the quality of the experience in my mouth.

In marketing, we have a fair bit of convention and protocol as well.  It seems automatic in the B2B world that for every new product introduction a brochure, print ad and press release are what's expected.  Besides there being so many more ways to engage your customers, raise awareness, and support sales efforts, fundamental questions should always be asked before jumping to conventional deliverables.  These questions center on who your target customer is, what's important to them, how to build credibility and relevance, what are the barriers in the market to overcome, and what are the best vehicles to achieve your initial and downstream objectives.  Maybe your first resources will be spent on visual demonstrations, white papers and industry association engagement.  Or perhaps social media, web ads, and email.

In  both sushi and marketing, convention can get in the way of meeting your objectives (whether it's an enjoyable meal or an effective campaign).


Chop sticks, convention, cold, dead, raw the novice, sushi can be a little intimidating.  Perhaps you've heard of "beginner sushi", which includes a California Roll (no raw fish in that), cucumber rolls, and if you're daring, maybe a piece of tuna sushi.

Marketing can be a little daunting too.  I recommend starting with the end in mind:  What are you trying to achieve and work backwards to what is the strategy and tactics to reach your objectives.  And when in doubt, reach out to an experienced marketer to help you navigate the menu of marketing strategies and tactics best for your business.

Inform Your Gut!

Interesting HBR guest blog post "Hire Great Guessers", those folks able to make cognitive leaps from limited information.  Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender, rightly advances the use of analytics to drive decision-making but also carves out space for intuitive reasoning and how it can support a smarter analytical approach.  More than just common sense, it is invaluable to have folks on your team capable of informing their gut and driving better business outcomes.

The Power of Observation in Innovation

A number of years ago when Hewlett-Packard still had a Medical Products Group (prior to the Agilent spin-off and later acquisition by Philips), I had a chance to be a product manager in the echocardiography business.  My first big assignment was to assume marketing responsibility for a  development project focused on bringing new functionality specifically designed for pediatric echocardiographers and their tiny patients. The project was already defined and the engineering team was deep in the implementation phase.  I was not only new to being a product manager but also a novice when it came to the complexities of congenital abnormalities that my customers were tasked with assessing.  Hearts the size of a walnut and beating rapidly, pediatric cardiologists have the difficult task of plotting treatment plans for complex heart issues.

One of the things I did to gain an understanding of my customers' needs, clinical environment and competitive dynamics was identify the top 15 thought leaders in the market and speak to them face to face in their labs about how our product was performing on their patients.  Armed with a questionnaire and QFD survey (a valuable tool which I highly recommend when trying to turn qualitative needs into actionable information), I was able to see side-by-side demonstrations of how our solutions performed compared to the competition.

In the midst of this humbling and illuminating process I learned many things, though some of the most valuable take-aways didn't come as the result of my questions.  In preparation for one of the planned key opinion leader visits, I contacted the head of the echo department at a fabulous children's hospital in Ohio and asked him if he minded my shadowing him for the day.  I told him I wanted to understand his needs, the context in which our products existed, and how he used information in his daily job.

"Are you sure you want to follow me around all day?" he asked.

"I really do", I earnestly replied.

"Then meet me at 6:45am tomorrow morning in the lab, ready to go."

We started the next day by visiting his patients in the NICU, checking charts, speaking with nurses, and examining the patients, hearing how his patients fared over the night and how they were recovering from surgery or other therapy.  I watched him wheel our imaging system over, select a transducer, fiddle with the imaging settings, and then open both port windows of the incubator, putting one hand into the left port and the hand holding the transducer through the other port window.

I could clearly see that he was struggling to maneuver the transducer and asked him what the issue was.  Exacerbated, he told me that the cable of the transducer was heavy and stiff.  It was hard to get the transducer into the incubator and in the right position without letting the transducer put any of its weight on the tiny patient's chest.  If he let that happen, he explained, the weight could cause an arrhythmia.

I nodded my head in acknowledgment, watched him struggle and eventually get the transducer in place, gently touching the baby's chest, and get his assessment images.

I had arrived loaded with my questions and survey, ready to find out about image quality, frame rate, transducer frequencies and imaging depths....and came away with an unexpected gift, the opportunity to observe and let my customer's needs reveal themselves. I didn't know to ask about transducer cables.  It hadn't come up previously and I might not have gotten to that insight in any number of surveys.  But fortunately I had the invaluable opportunity to simply observe.

It is a lesson I try never to forget.  While so much has become virtual and remote in this day and age...telephone survey, blog posts, internet panels and Twitter feeds...I encourage you to preserve time to be in your customer's space, get a sense of what frustrates and motivates them, get a sense of how your solutions fit into their context, and find ways to add value that are meaningful to them.  Sometimes it's the aggregation of little things which sum to significant, differentiable contributions.


For more information on the power of observation, I recommend the book "Customer Centered Growth, Five Proven Strategies for Building Competitive Advantage" by Richard Whitely and Diane Hessan.

I also highly recommend Eric Von Hippel's work at MIT that discusses lead user innovation.