April 1, 2001

Redemption at Breakfast

Filed under: Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

I was a little nervous approaching a breakfast meeting a few weeks ago my personal marketing guru, Al Ries. I’ve been reading books he wrote or co-authored since I discovered his classic, Positioning, about 15 years ago. His logic struck me so clearly that I have been pushing his later writings on employees and clients ever since.

But I’ve been haunted by the fear that, subject to his scrutiny, my own record as publisher of these newspapers would get a failing grade. The purpose of breakfast was to discuss story ideas about Al, but I had a secondary motive. Having been raised a Catholic, I learned at an early age the import of going to church and confessing one’s sins to the priest. In return, the priest would give absolution and God would grant forgiveness. Now as an adult, I felt a strange desire to confess my marketing sins somewhere between the coffee and French Toast.

The short version of his doctrine is: in a world in which we are bombarded by millions of messages, our brains only assign a space a couple of words long for each company or product we care to remember. Volkswagen means small. Mercedes means expensive. Maytag means washers. Xerox means copiers, etc. When products remain true to their narrow “branding,” they succeed. When they morph into other meanings, they fail. Xerox computers never made it. Neither did larger VWs or inexpensive Mercedes. In fact, these diversions hurt the image and earnings of the original brands.

Try to be all things to all people and you will fail, Al preaches. The secret of success: narrow your focus – and thus enlarge your marketing potential.

I used to work for the big daily newspapers. Then I instinctively followed his sermon when I quit and started my own neighborhood newspapers, focused on and even named after the zip code I live in, Atlanta 30306, and later, the one I grew up in, Atlanta 30305.

Everything seemed to be going fine. Then we approached a dilemma: we needed to grow the company, but didn’t want to change its focus. We began to look at the potential business beyond our zip code boundaries and wondered if we wouldn’t do better if we enlarged our coverage – and changed our names. Temptation. Greed. Envy. This fork in the road had all the makings of a morality play.

For months, my staff argued the merits and the risks of changing our original name and focus. Some thought it would show growth. Others argued it would confuse our original readers. In the end, it probably did both. Over time, we have proved that we could survive the metamorphosis, but would this youthful indiscretion forever hinder our marketing purity and potential? It has worried me ever since.

After my first cup of coffee, as our discussion drifted toward neighborhoods, I broached the subject: “You know, my Atlanta Buckhead paper used to be called Atlanta 30305.”

“Yes, I know,” he said dryly and changed the subject.

“What was that?” I wondered. Disapproval? Disdain? Disinterest? I pressed again after the waitress cleared the dishes. I needed to know if my company was continuing to harvest fruit from a poisoned tree.

“I’ve got to ask you, was it a mistake for my company to change its names as such an early age?” He paused, took a sip of tea and looked at a recent copy of my paper. “Here it comes,” I thought. “My penance is on the way. Would I spend my life in purgatory?” I suddenly noticed Al’s face reminded me of one of the priests from my grade school years. I braced for his answer. “Please, give me an answer,” I thought. “I can’t carry this burden any more.”

“No,” he said. “I think you did the right thing.”

“Come again?” I said in shock.

“I think the zip code names were novel, but they don’t a lot to people who don’t live there. They don’t know where the zip begins or where it ends. Everyone knows where Buckhead is. The name connects to a place in people’s mind. Your product has weight just for carrying that brand.”

“But what about Atlanta Intown or Atlanta North, my other papers?” I asked.

“I don’t know enough about Atlanta to know if people use those terms,” he said. “But if people say I live ‘Intown’ or live ‘North’ then it works.”

There it was: redemption. As we exchanged business cards in the parking lot, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. “Could I email you if I have future marketing dilemmas?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

As I drove away, beaming, I thanked God for email, wishing for a moment that I could email Him for guidance on life’s more important dilemmas. Or at least share a breakfast. “Maybe one day,” I thought. “Right now, I’ve got to write a column.”

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