#MeetTeamBacke: Malcolm Brown

A few communications strategy questions every brand needs to answer

Most marketers have a concrete plan for achieving their strategic communications goals. Yet, many brands overlook some of the most basic strategy questions.

Malcolm Brown, Backe’s Executive Vice President, has been in account services for more than 30 years, including stints at many of the Philadelphia area’s most prominent marketing agencies. I sat down with Malcolm to ask him about his experiences and observations in working with clients.

Moss: What are some of the most important questions marketers should ask themselves about communications strategy?

Malcolm: Often times, marketers don’t seem to understand who their competition really is. Sometimes it isn’t literally that there are other people selling products like yours; it’s that there are customer behaviors that you need to change. Maybe your product is solving a problem that your consumers don’t even know they have. If you’re selling a vacuum cleaner, you might assume that your competition is other vacuum cleaners – when in fact, your competition might be people’s hatred of cleaning.

Moss: So, you think marketers should dig deeper to understand what current customer behaviors and mind-sets they need to overcome, right? What other common pitfalls do you see in marketing communications?

Malcolm: Probably the biggest mistake is focusing on features rather than benefits. Many people will say, “There’s 20% more suction in our vacuum cleaner.” It’s expected that the consumer is somehow going to understand how that benefits them. And though it can be a good differentiator from a feature perspective, it doesn’t compel someone to pay attention and decide to buy from you. It doesn’t make an emotional appeal, like “Wouldn’t you like your life to be better? Wouldn’t you like to have greater confidence? Wouldn’t you like to trust more? Wouldn’t you like to enhance your life in some way?”

Moss: Given that it’s often hard for marketers to see their own communications strategies objectively, how do you approach assessing a new client’s needs to make sure you’re proposing the right solutions?

Malcolm: We provide that objectivity or fresh perspective for them. We explain that we’re going to start from the beginning, and that we’re not going to take on faith anything they tell us. We also say, “You know your product and your customer better than we ever will. But, we’re just going to try to understand all the variables and then take you to a different place.”

Moss: How do you go about understanding those variables?

Malcolm: We typically do what we call an immersion session. Basically, we ask a lot of questions and lay everything bare. We need to talk to various constituents within our clients’ organization, their possible consumers, even people who are vendors or contributors to this product, and find out where they’re coming from, what they were thinking about, and why they did what they did. And we need to talk to their sales people: “What is the attitude of the people you sell to? What are they buying now? What claims did they find to be irrelevant? What is the most compelling thing you ever said to a customer that made them make a decision?”

Moss: What kind of information do you get from these conversations?

Malcolm: We come to understand how the product was developed, how it’s sold in the marketplace, and basically do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). And from that, we then build a foundation, a rationale for what the problem is that the product or service is in fact solving; who that customer really is; and who the competitors truly are. And usually, in at least one of those three areas, we achieve a deep insight.

Moss: What do you do with those insights?

Malcolm: Generally, what comes out of the immersion session is sort of a tweak on the angle at which we’re going to approach the messaging. We’re pointing the rocket launcher in a slightly different direction, in the hopes that when we take off, we’re going to reach a place that makes us unique and well differentiated from everyone else.

Moss: What is your number one piece of advice for marketers?

Malcolm: I would advise them to listen. Because listening leads to understanding – and if you understand something, then saying the right thing will come naturally.

If you approach it from the perspective of “I already know what to say”…then you’re probably going to fail.

Stay tuned to Backe social, when we unravel the mysteries behind an ad team’s every day work – from design to strategy to social media and more – in our #MeetTeamBacke series.

Backe is a digital marketing and brand communications agency, focused on creating smart, beautiful and strategically-driven work. We build communities, relationships, and meaningful connections.