On Sunday March 8, 2020, I took my friend Kathryn out for brunch. We did not know this would be one of the last times we would be inside a restaurant that year.

We were celebrating her birthday, but she had a gift for me.

Kathryn and her boyfriend Neal saw the mug in the photo above at a gift shop in the South End of Boston. Knowing that I am a marketing consultant, they decided I had to have it.

What a perfect gift!

I loved it so much that I posted a picture of it on Facebook.

My friend Mark, also a marketing consultant, expressed his affinity for the mug in a comment on my post.

I knew Mark’s birthday was in June. Guess what I sent to him?

The perfect gift strikes again!

What made this gift perfect for both me and Mark?

It reflected who we are.

It appealed to us.

It was delivered at the right time – a moment of celebration.

It brought us joy.

Those key gift-giving elements also comprise the characteristics of the best marketing today.

Blanket-the-World Marketing Is Just Noise

When I was growing up, the marketing messages I received came via television and radio commercials, print ads, and billboards.

A trickle of messages throughout my day.

Today we are flooded.

Joining those media from my childhood are…

Promoted posts on social media. Robocalls. Text ads. Marketing emails. Pop up ads. Ads in apps and games. Ads that precede online videos.

Experts estimate that people now see 4,000 – 10,000 marketing messages per day. PER DAY.

No one can process all of that.

What’s worse, the majority of these messages fail to offer anything we want or that is appropriate for us.

Instead, they waste our time and annoy us.

Since we can’t opt out of most of them, we tune them out to avoid being robbed of our time. We treat them like a white-noise background to our lives.

Which renders all this marketing a waste of time for everyone involved.

Even well-targeted advertising fights to be heard above the din.

Your brand is not going to out-shout the other 9,999 ad messages lobbed on any given day.

Ditch the Blanket and Get Personal

Rather than fight the noise, brands need to approach prospects and customers away from the din, in a manner that makes them want to pay attention.

Marketing isn’t about casting a net – or a blanket – and reeling customers in. It’s about building relationships.

Just like the gift-giving stories I relayed.

Kathryn wasn’t guessing that I’d like the mug. She knew. Her knowledge came from our decades-long friendship and everything she’d learned about me.

You may be thinking I got lucky with Mark, since he told me he liked the mug in a Facebook post comment.

But for that to happen we had to be friends on Facebook, close enough for my post to show up in his news feed. And he had to want to pay attention to it, because hundreds of posts and thousands of marketing messages were firing at him that day.

My post got his attention because we’d been friends for years, spending time together in person and connecting via email and online.

Building relationships takes time. Savvy brands invest the time to get to know their customers.

Then they use their knowledge to offer products tailored to their customers’ lives and to deliver them in a personal manner. Like giving a gift.

They turn customers into fans because they keep learning, and keep deepening the relationship.

When these brands send offers to their customers’ mail box or inbox, they are welcome, get attention, and often lead to a sale.

A Delicious Example

While we get plenty of junk mail, my husband Dan often pays attention to anything that comes from Laithwaites.

Dan and I enjoy red wine. Several years back we found ourselves occasionally dashing out to grab a few bottles if we were expecting company or going to a friend’s house for dinner.

Laithwaites sells wine by the case. We began buying wine from them to stop worrying about having red wine on hand when we needed it.

Initially we joined their wine club which offers you a case of wine every three months. If you do nothing, they send the case. You can opt out if you don’t want it.

In the beginning, the cases they offered were half red, half white wines. Dan signaled that we only wanted red wine.

Even then, we didn’t drink the wine fast enough to want a case every three months. The cases also included varietals that did not interest us.

Dan would call and order a custom case of wine two or three times per year.

After a couple of years, a Laithwaites rep called Dan to say they were going to stop sending the quarterly case offers, but would still send special offers and we could order a custom case any time we wanted.

Dan liked not having the burden of declining a case every three months. Moreover, the special offers we received seemed to get better and better.

A recent direct mail piece they sent will show you why they have our attention and our business.

Right at the top, Laithwaites told us they were offering us 20% off their recommended wines and specified the four factors they base their recommendations on – “My Favorite Wines,” “My Wine Preferences,” “My Top-Rated Wines,” and “Wines I’ve Purchased.”

The first three categories come from preferences we can express on their website. The fourth shows the company is paying attention to our purchase history.

The case they offered featured three bottles for each of their top four picks for us, based on our prior purchases. The letter showed a picture and description of each wine, along with the price and the code.

 

We did not need to visualize what this case would look like. A picture of the twelve bottles we would get was at the end of the offer, along with a URL that would take us directly to our personalized case online and a mail-in form in case we chose to order that way.

How do you not love a company that selects great choices for you and makes buying so easy?

Great Marketing Is Personal

Laithwaites’ helpful and considerate offers have resulted in us rarely buying wine elsewhere. They dominate our consideration set because we know offers from them reflect what we like, will arrive reliably, and make our lives easier.

To get to that exalted state of being the go-to in your brand’s industry, be like Laithwaites and the gifts Mark and I received.

Get to know your customers. Listen to your prospects as they tell you about their problems and what they seek. Make note of it. Use that information to hone your offerings.

Laithwaites learned early on to offer us only red wine.

Our insurance company, AMICA, keeps a file with notes on our interactions. Any time we call, the rep who answers can read the notes and be up to speed to help us. That’s why we’ve been with them for 30 years.

Be patient. Instead of rushing to score a sale, look to build a relationship. You may have several interactions before your prospects consider their first purchase. Rather than view these interactions as biding time, reframe them as valuable opportunities to learn more. Answer their questions. Help them. Inquire about their needs.

The insights our Laithwaites rep gleaned over time led them to stop the quarterly case offers we never accepted.

In his book The Context Marketing Revolution, my friend Mathew Sweezey relays his experience after purchasing snowboarding gear from outdoor outfitter Backcountry. Backcountry’s Gearhead program pairs customers with service reps who are knowledgeable about their favorite activities.

A few days after Mathew’s purchase, he received a call from Wesley, a “Gearhead,” asking if he had any questions about the gear or wanted to chat about snowboarding. Wesley followed up their brief call with an email offering to help with service or chat about gear anytime.

Who do you think Mathew will likely buy from next time he needs any outdoor gear?

Use your knowledge to curate what you offer them. Your customers are processing thousands of messages and pieces of information each day. Your ability to hit the sweet spot of what they seek makes your brand a smart choice for them and increases the chances they’ll return.

Our offers now include at least one Côte de Rhône or Bordeaux because Laithwaites has noticed their presence in our prior purchases. Their selections immediately feel like they’ve been handpicked for us.

Netflix recommends programs and movies to subscribers based on their past viewing history, the time of day they watch, the devices they watch on, and how long they watch.

Amazon and retailers like Nordstrom display “you may also like” selections based on customers’ current views, past views, and past purchase history.

Keep learning and ensuring that your customers get the outcome they seek. People’s preferences can evolve. Continuously listening and learning means that your brand can keep pace with their evolution and serve them in a greater fashion.

While Laithwaites continues to offer us more of what we’ve enjoyed, Netflix’s recommendations system knows not to suggest programs that we have already watched.

Knowing your customers and using that knowledge to deliver personal service is the simple recipe for great marketing.

Brands in adolescence can use this recipe to get back on the path to growth, especially if they find their niche has gotten crowded. Despite this simple recipe, few companies execute great marketing, making deep customer knowledge a major competitive advantage.

The Emotional Payoff

The personal nature of great marketing elicits a positive emotion in the moment. It feels like a gift. Over time, it builds an emotional bond with the brand.

Both Mark and I felt joy receiving our mugs.

Em & Friends, the company that sells the mug, knows the power of personal marketing and has spent time getting to know their audience. They allude to their astute listening skills on their About page:

“We believe humanity is an endless source of inspiration, and we find it creepily satisfying whenever a customer asks if we’ve been reading their diary, because it means we’re doing something right.”

Recently I bought several greeting cards from them. Here’s the message I received upon completing the purchase:

Thank you Evelyn!

You are a wickedly intelligent, devastatingly gorgeous human being. Get out there and own it! Also, we love you.

Clearly Em & Friends knows me well. This response made me smile and brought joy to my day. Even before the cards arrived.

When was the last time you felt that a brand’s marketing was a gift to you?

 

Just for Fun

If you like fun online tests, take this one from Adobe Create to see what your creative type is. Hat tip to my friend Mark Schaefer, recipient of the mug in the story above, for cluing me into this.

I got Visionary. What did you get?

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A Better 2021 for You and Your Brand