I went to my first M2 (Marketing Squared) conference yesterday to hear what some smart marketing people had to say about the state of their (and my) art. The compact confab--it lasted just six hours, including breakfast and lunch--was sponsored by Influx Insights, the strategy arm of Marin County ad agency Butler Shine Stern & Partners, whose stated purpose is "to create movements, not campaigns." The speakers clearly agreed with that credo. Engagement, openness, emotional connection, authenticity, and customer involvement were the unifying themes of their presentations. I came away more convinced than ever that to succeed, a business has to tell a compelling story.
There were seven speakers. I'd like to tell you about the three who spoke most directly and convincingly about the connection between story, emotion, and marketing.
Jim McDowell, vice president of MINI since 2005--and the rare marketing guy with a masters degree in public policy--talked about why this cute little car has turned customers into enthusiasts and why the car's influence goes far beyond its relatively small representation in the market. From its rounded surfaces to its "go-kart feel" to its endless customization options, MINI "makes an emotional connection with people," McDowell said. Two examples: this summer's "MINI Takes the States" cross-country road rally (video footage revealed gung-ho owners dressed to match their cars) and the MINI credit card, which can be personalized with an image of your MINI (just punch in your VIN and up pops the appropriate photo). Every time you make a credit-card purchase, McDowell said, "It's like showing a photo of a family member." The essence of the MINI brand, he said, is openness. When you shop for a MINI you enter a showroom that's a meeting place (McDowell says MINI owners stop into dealerships just to shoot the breeze.) When you own a MINI you're invited to express your creativity. When you drive a MINI people stop and talk to you. "The world is increasingly closed," McDowell said, illustrating "closed" with slides of a gated community, a runner insulated by her iPod, and a TiVo. "MINI lets you become approachable and accessible. It lets drivers embrace their inner child and extract more joy out of every day." Now, if only MINI produced a hybrid vehicle, life would be perfect.
Michela O'Connor Abrams, president and publisher of Dwell magazine--another cultlike brand--told us how and why the magazine's circulation has grown from 50,000 to 300,000 in five years: it was launched "with the clear intention of becoming a brand"; it defined a clear vision from the outset (engaging "Design Seekers" who care deeply about modern design); and it made smart decisions about brand extensions (Dwell once partnered with a shoe manufacturer on a limited-edition style that promptly sold out; it sponsors a series of design conferences; and it's now getting into the prefab house business). "We speak with one voice to consumers and professionals," said O'Connor Abrams. "We believe in the power of engagement," she said. And she said: "Your brand is what your customer says it is."
Chip Conley, founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality--the largest boutique hotel company in California--said he envisioned his hotels as magazines (his first endeavor, the funky-hip Phoenix Hotel, was Rolling Stone; the clubby, literary Rex is The New Yorker). It's not a cute branding trick; it's a way to create "an emotional connection with the customer," he said. When the hospitality industry took a nosedive after the dotcom crash and 9/11, Conley didn't draw a salary for three years. Instead, he re-read the work of self-actualization guru Abraham Maslow. Now he sees his hotels as satisfying Maslow's "hierarchy of needs"--going beyond "meeting expectations" and "meeting desires" to reach the apex of the pyramid: "creating lifelong memories." One of his most successful techniques for connecting with customers: a cartoon character on the corporate web site called "Yvette" who matches your interests with the Joie de Vivre hotel that's right for you--and then introduces you to a couple of real-life locals who embody the attributes that appeal to you (creative/electic, stylish, serene/soulful, and so on). Yes, "Yvette" distinguishes Joie de Vivre from every other hotel chain. But there's been another happy consequence to this "mass customization" tactic: Joie de Vivre's referrals from Internet travel sites like Expedia (which charge hefty fees for the service) have dropped from 80 percent of the business to 30 percent. Now customers go directly to jdvhospitality.com to book their rooms.
Wish I could have stayed for the post-lunch talk by John Battelle of Federated Media--his topic, marketing as conversational collaboration, is something I'm very interested in--but I had to get back to creating some emotional marketing for my own clients.
(Thanks to DuctTapeMarketing for cluing me into M2.)