Welcome to the Age of Noise

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I have a new appreciation for irony. For months now, I have witnessed and participated in the most significant era in the history of advertising. By every measure -- dollars spent, air time, volume of media, the rise of advertising as one of the world's fastest growth industries has been epic. During last year's Christmas selling season, one radio ad sales representative told me, "A station today can realize 35 percent revenue growth by just answering the phone."


It seems that his good fortune has been fueled by dot-com companies. Not long ago, I would sit with the founders of Internet companies as they boastfully promised to "put NBC out of business." In the quest for eyeballs, dot-coms came to believe that mass media was their best bet. As a rule of thumb, these companies would dedicate 80 percent of their operating budget to advertising, flooding the airwaves and print media.


The result was the creation of a box in the customer's mind where dot-com information is placed. Although dot-com companies have collectively and quite unintentionally created their own category, they have not differentiated their message or themselves. In the end, the e-commerce leaders are the traditional brand leaders; companies like Wal-Mart remain successful while upstarts begin looking for buyers.


Welcome to the age of noise, the most information-rich era in the history of civilization. Dot-com madness also served to shine a light on the most compelling issue facing business at the turn of a new century: establishing customer relationships. The volume of information today is staggering. U.S. companies spent an estimated $79.3 billion on advertising last year, up 8.3 percent from the previous year, according to industry experts. An increase of 5.5 percent in ad spending is projected this year. Estimates vary widely on just how much advertising a typical American is exposed to daily. Over the past several years, various experts and studies have reported numbers ranging from 76 advertisements to thousands a day per person and 1,518 daily exposures for a family of four.


Consumers generally accept advertising as a source to learn of new products and services, as evidenced by the 10 million Super Bowl viewers who tuned in just to watch the ads. Most of the growth in advertising can be attributed to spending in the electronic media, sponsored by information technology that organizes and streamlines content and commerce activities. But it is not the amount of noise that is the problem; it is the type of noise.


The risk to marketers in the age of noise is volume, both in scope and octave. Last year's stampede to market reminds me of a man I once saw trying to sweep the courtyard of an office plaza during a minor windstorm. He would sweep the dirt and litter into a neat pile, only to have the wind disperse his effort, leaving him to start over. There was no point in sweeping that day, but apparently, it was his day to do so. The lesson for marketers is that if the wind is howling, your message will be blown away.


Typically, advertising strategy concerns itself with "breaking through the clutter." The flaw in this approach is that it assumes that clutter is an uncontrollable variable. As a result, breaking through really means turning up the volume. Ironically again, clutter appears to be a creation of information technology companies blasting messages over electronic media under the theory that "if we say it long enough and loud enough, our message will sink in." One of the basic tenets of electronics and information theory is that noise refers to "those random, unpredictable and undesirable signals or changes in signals masking the desired information content."


So what are those random, unpredictable and undesirable signals marketers are sending out to their customers? Fundamentally, market noise is created when the image the company is creating is separate from its business model. In the case of Internet marketers, many run the risk of attempting to position their Web-based application -- accepted as commonplace by consumers -- as their chief brand attribute. For instance, online bankers have positioned against the inconvenience of going to the branch, but so far, consumers have not stampeded to a total online relationship. Why? Because they can see the bank every day. Bricks and mortar signify the comfort found with financial institutions, thus contributing valuable substance to the relationship.


The disconnection between business and communication is often most pronounced when it comes to messaging. Allen & Gerritsen's analysis of current marketing techniques has unveiled the following characteristics that constitute the age of noise: homogeneous messaging, obvious presentation and historical framework.


The world does not need any more "solution providers, partners, e-somethings, fast and easy devices, time savers, or reliable service providers." Too many marketers today trot out these handles in lieu of more meaningful, tangible and emotional benefits to consumers. When Microsoft says, "Where do you want to go today?" chances are they can help you get there, especially if you bought shares in the company in 1989.


When the presentation is obvious, the outcome is completely expected. I am mindful of online grocery companies that position home delivery of goods as their chief benefit. Consumers assume the groceries are going to come to them. This generic benefit pales against other valuable outcomes, like produce that has not been picked over, fresh-cut meats and price savings on packaged goods.


Too many marketers build communications programs based on historical perspective. The frame of reference for a marketing program should be the business horizon over past experience. In an age of "disruptive technologies," the successful marketer responds to current customer preference, while shaping a role for the company in the future. Hindsight becomes meaningless.


These characteristics result in several problems for marketers and the businesses they support. If the tendency is to respond by increasing volume, two unfortunate outcomes occur. First, a marketing communications program that has volume as its chief objective will likely fail. In response, the company will either pull back or redouble its efforts. Either way, the outcome is the same -- diminished external and internal credibility. Second, constant message "tweaking" will occur. The most prominent symptom of this is "tag line retooling." For some reason, tag lines have become the holy grail of marketing organizations. Companies make a tag line obvious, not the other way around. In both cases, substance and a long-term view create a reliance on image rather than genuine communication.


Marketing, particularly business-to-business marketing, is the means by which a bond between company and customer is established and nurtured. In order to have a relationship with a customer, a company must effectively answer the one question on the customer's mind: What is your role? Companies that successfully establish a high value role with customers are in a better position to manage relationships.


A high value role is when the customer identifies value, then acts on offers made to further the relationship. A high value role differentiates a company through emotional and tangible benefit, a proprietary lexicon and highly relevant market communications. The high value role is the chief leverage point in the business relationship. As such, all business activity, not just marketing, should support this role. By communicating at this level, the company eliminates static and develops a clear message.


Determining a high value role means honestly assessing the company-to-customer relationship. It also requires an honest internal dialogue. In too many companies, the success of market communications efforts is measured by output. The real value of a market communications program, however, is a blend of output and input. In order to connect market communications to the business model, everyone has to rally around a common idea: Business growth is tied to customer revenue, and customer revenue is tied to relationship.


Everyone is agreed on the company mission: Provide value through goods and services profitably. The real question is "How do we get there?" We tell clients to throw out the traditional mission statement and answer the following five questions:


What is our business idea? Define the unique set of circumstances that lead to customer value.


What is the one thing our customers want from us? Do we deliver it on a consistent basis?


What will customers want in the future? And why should they receive it from us?


How well do we communicate this idea externally and internally?


What is our high value role with the customer?


Translating the answers into customer-focused programming will require new thinking on everyone's part. In essence, the answers will mirror the questions asked by your customers every day.
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