On branding and going a little darker

The interesting thing about having a background in branding is that it's fairly easy for me to see other people's brands, and help them bring them to life. In fact, I wrote a whole book - REAL YOU INCORPORATED - about the process. But, just like the cobbler's children, when it came time for me to take a look at my brand, I froze. I mean, my stories have been "Sparkling with humor and heart" since 2011. I loved that tagline, and my happy Gerbera daisy, too. 

But, change can be good, too! I'm beyond excited for next September when my second domestic suspense novel, BEST DAY EVER, arrives in the world. I say second because it is. ALL THE DIFFERENCE was my first domestic suspense novel, but I've been forcing it under the "sparkling" branding all this time. (Sorry, ALL THE DIFFERENCE characters.)

But now, it's time for a change, a darker change. After consulting with my awesome agent, Katie, and my fabulous editor, Margo, I've figured out my shift and the stories I love to write. I am fascinated by what goes on behind closed doors in seemingly perfect lives. And truly, I've been writing about this all along: entitlement, narcissism, the push to overachievement, the destructive power of affluence and keeping up appearances. In HERE, HOME, HOPE, Kelly faces a midlife crisis and the novel also deals with eating disorders, adultery, suicide and ultimately, self empowerment. The young mother in IN THE MIRROR has her perfect life put on pause by a deadly disease. Themes include mental illness, the power of celebrity, divorce, adultery and attempted rape. As for THE GOODBYE YEAR, the question is about what it means to be a couple once your last child goes to college. Darker issues include divorce, bullying, drugs in school and the empty nest syndrome. The black widow in ALL THE DIFFERENCE is, obviously, a dark character. Even my short story, A MOTHER'S DAY, deals with one tragic event that changes the lives of three mothers forever. When I think about the story lines of my romance novels, of course there is darkness. How else can we appreciate the light, the happily ever after?

So, I guess, I've been sparkling and looking at the dark side of people all along. Suburban people, with strong women protagonists who overcome a lot to find real, true purpose. These places, these lives of luxury, can make you lose your anchor, your moral center. And that's where good stories begin.

BEST DAY EVER's arrival next year will signify an even darker shift, but hopefully, the light will sparkle through the story, too. My new tagline: Behind closed doors of seemingly perfect lives. My new imagery is a closed door. I like it. I hope you do, too.  

On going a little darker with story

Real You: Are you looking for an advertising agency?

Finding the right agency is like hiring a new employee. You need to be selective. The firm needs to fit in with your brand/culture—get your brand/culture. Think of your agency as an extension of your team. Because if you and your agency aren’t collaborative and creative together, you’re better off apart!  Try these agency hunting tips to ensure a stellar team for your business’ growth.

  • Ask for recommendations. Talk to your friends, and find out what kinds of experiences they’ve had with different firms in town or across the country.
  • Check out each agency’s past work and client list. Anyone in your space?
  • Have a brainstorming meeting with their team—the ones who will actually work on your account.
  • See what kinds of ideas they have. Are they fun, innovative? Do they get your brand?
  • Learn how their processes and communication work. Will you be talking to them once a week? Will you receive documentation on what they’re working on and when items are due? Will you have a dedicated account person?
  • Be specific about what you want and when you want it. If they can do it, get it in writing. Have them clearly define their role and the scope.
  • Make sure your contract has an out. Not all relationships were meant to be, and you don’t want to be stuck paying for terrible work or service.
  • Ask if they will work with you on a project-basis or if they will be on retainer. Most all beginning relationships begin best as project work.
  • Don’t be fooled by a big name, big client firm. Sometimes—but not always—that means you’re the small fish, and they may be more worried about their big accounts. Make sure you know they’re committed to you.
  • Look for agencies with specialties. Some firms will tell you they can handle anything; while others focus on a niche, like book marketing. Take a look at what you need and find a great complement.  

Remember, these are the folks that will help build and grow your brand. So be selective, and make sure they’re the right fit for your needs. That way you, and your agency, will grow together and experience real results.

Celebrate Life and Loved Ones

You've heard it a million times: Don't take things for granted. Yet, it's difficult for us to grasp the concept in our everyday lives that seem to move at the speed of light. We're so busy. We have just one more thing to do and then we can have dinner with our kids or grab a drink with a friend we haven't had time to see. With the recent loss of several American icons, it makes me once again take a step back and admire all the wonderful people I have in my life. My family, my friends and my co-workers.

Don't take those around you for granted. Re-connect. Reach out to those you haven't seen or talked to in awhile. Maybe it's just a quick catch-up on the phone, or maybe it's a long weekend with family. No matter what, thank them for being a part of your life.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend and call at least one person who you've been thinking about!

Businesses Use Twitter to Engage Customers Online

If you haven't jumped on the social media bandwagon, hop on! More and more companies are coming up with creative ways to engage their customers online. According to Marketing VOX, a recent study indicates that more than eight in 10 Twitter users, most of which represent small businesses, expect their company's use of Twitter to increase in the next six months. Juicy Juice AdAnd if you know me, you know how much I love Twitter and believe in its power. Nestle is taking an interesting approach to get moms talking about their product. The company is running a Juicy Juice ad that asks questions like: “How do you help your child shine a little more every day?" and "How do you stimulate your child's mind?" If you go to CafeMom and BabyCenter, you can tweet your answer, and it will be live on the ad, wherever it’s running in cyberspace. Talking about the love(s) of our lives and being an online celeb for a day. Who doesn’t love that?

How are you using Twitter to grow your business and increase awareness?

Real You: When a free gift looks cheap

One of the guilty pleasures of cosmetics shopping is the gift with purchase, which has been luring us into retail stores since the beginning of time. I remember the good old days when the gifts were amazing: real leather totes; a full assortment of real-sized cosmetics; or a simple, but classy, special compact.

And while I realize it is the time of cut-backs, the lipstick economy is stronger than ever. Attempting to tap into that small splurge mentality is Clinique, with the buy something for $5 and get the gift above. Sure, the gifts looked cool when they were all stacked up everywhere around the counter: happy purple-sided glossy boxes, an interesting design on the front panel and on the back, a glamour shot of three products included inside. Caught my eye, and created a purchase.

But. When I arrived home and opened my box, I found a plastic-wrapped assortment of Barbie-sized products and a box that, upon closer examination, had a lot of asterisk disclaimers. That's a lot of packaging for not a lot of value, and it came across as a waste, not a gift. Just stick the miniature samples in the bag next time.

The days of glitzy packaging and over-promising/underdelivering are finished. It's time to be real. Genuine. And if you're not able to give a true, transparent gift to your customers, it's better to just give them a genuine thank you.

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Buy an ad: Save a magazine (or a newspaper)

Thinking about advertising in print media? Now may be the best time ever.

I have to be honest. I have been at odds for awhile with print publications, especially daily newspapers. Yes, it’s true, there was a love-hate relationship there based on decades of control (the newspaper’s) and decades of increased cost (my real estate company’s ). Same space as last year? That’s only a 12 percent increase this year, the rep would say. Oh, wow, thank you. How about if I cut my space in half? Well, we’ll double the cost and still add on the 12 percent. Sound good?

Bleh. That was the sorry state of affairs between newspaper classified ad reps and real estate company marketing folks until the Internet was born and got mass. Newspapers’ Sunday classified sections were “the place” we all believed that consumers would always look for new homes on the market. Heck, in 1997, my company made the “radical” move of cutting all institutional newspaper advertising and investing those dollars online. We were considered renegades or worse. Now, those same folks who called us crazy consider us visionary. And they’re all gleefully leaping from your daily hometown paper’s advertising pages as I type. And the newspapers are teetering on the edge of survival because real estate wasn’t the only industry treated like this. Consumers were, too.

But magazines? Say it ain’t so. Recent reports show an 11 percent plummet in magazine newsstand sales. Some magazines are barely afloat, while more are being closed each week. Shelter publications catering to freaked out homeowners have taken the biggest hits, as have automotive magazines. But even celebrity magazines are seeing sales tank. And that’s sad. There is something purely comforting – especially in a world gone mad – curling up with a new magazine. I love the smell, the color, the feel. It’s like a new book – only more immediately vivid, if less lingeringly so. When my People magazine arrives each Saturday, I’m ecstatic. And apparently others feel that way, too, as People’s sales were up three percent. People knows what I want as a consumer and delivers it each week.

So, what’s the struggling magazine industry to do? Change. And do so quickly. The newspapers didn’t get it for the most part, and they’re suffering. The real estate industry didn’t see it coming, and we’re suffering. Every industry has a different answer; a way to emerge from the tunnel of this economy to a bright future on the other side. Models must change. Entire industries will contract, and re-emerge.

There will be great magazines born and sustained, as long as the focus is clearly on the consumer just as there will be great real estate agents delivering amazing service to their target audiences. And yes, there will be great, content-driven newspapers where editorial staff is treasured over the ad sales folks. Where publishers will understand that written words are their greatest assets - that if you write it, and well, with insight and foresight, attract consumers with originality and differentiation, those advertisers, they will come. But it just doesn’t work the other way.

Pander to advertisers, and eventually, the advertisers will catch on. And the consumers will already be long gone. Those who survive this phase of right-sizing in print will be great partners for you and your business. Print is still a great medium for the right message – and now, when you sit down with your favorite ad rep, realize you are in the cat-bird seat.


Use public relations to create buzz.

If your budget looks like mine, you’re probably cutting back on advertising and ramping up your PR efforts. A common misconception is that advertising and public relations are the same. Let me clarify. Advertising is paid placement; PR is third-party coverage, as in a reporter included you or your business in an article. This can be much more credible than advertising, but you lose the control you have when you place an ad. Keep in mind the pros and cons of both. A good PR campaign can have lasting effects, creating buzz and driving sales.

For one entrepreneur, doing her own public relations paid off—big time. Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx—footless pantyhose—debated whether to use a big PR agency or do her own publicity work in-house. “I believed so much in my dream that the idea of someone pitching it who maybe hadn’t even worn Spanx just completely freaked me out,” Sara said in a Startup Nation article. Working out of the back of her apartment, Sara hired a PR assistant and went after celebrity testimonials, receiving rave reviews from stars Renee Zellweger and Gwyneth Paltrow. She even sent a gift basket to Oprah that landed her on Oprah’s “Favorite Things” show and a nice endorsement from the media mogul. The next day her sales skyrocketed.

“With no money to advertise, I had to do things in a way that were on the edge. A lot of news editors and other people hung up on me at first when I said, ‘I’m calling from Spanx.’ But I took the most boring subject on the planet, pantyhose, and made it something people wanted to talk about,” Sara said. Sara’s strategy worked, putting her on the cover of magazines, on a top-rated reality TV show and as head of a $150 million-dollar business offering 100 different styles.

If PR isn’t your forte, consider hiring someone or working with an outside agency. Do you have publicity success stories? Let us know!

Dear Advertisers. It's me, Female Consumer.

Every month I’m excited to read my favorite magazine. I open the glossy cover with its witty teasers to find: full-color, beautiful woman, product, no substance (flip). Repeat. Repeat. Great content (finally!). Flawless woman, product (flip). It’s a vicious cycle. I quickly move past the ads to get to the good stuff.

It’s disappointing to say the least. Here you are with your great brand, prime real estate in a highly-circulated magazine, an over-paid advertising agency on retainer and a full page ad that says … nothing. Hello? Anyone listening out there? What happened to the emotionally captivating messages that accompanied the great imagery?

To read more about emotional branding and which companies are doing it right, check out my eBrandMarketing post and tell me about some ads that speak to you!