“Tactical” Marketing

Words have meanings. As a marketing writer, I’m constantly under pressure to ignore that apparently obvious dictum. Some clients are convinced that hyperbole is the only way to get through to an audience supersaturated with marketing messages.

Wear this "tactical" watch to become competent and dangerous to others.

Wear this “tactical” watch to become competent and dangerous to others.

They may be right, but still I rebel. Still I believe that honest communication is the best way to address the audience. Maybe the audience really IS stupid enough to believe that your insignificantly evolutionary product detail is “a whole new ballgame – a revelation in (your product category here) design and function” if you tell them it is. But maybe you’d earn the audience’s respect if you treat them as if they had a whit of intelligence – if you leveled with them for a change.

In any case, I won’t bullshit the audience, even if it would and does sell more widgets. If you believe the bullshit about how capitalism maintains self-policing structures to ensure that capitalists don’t abuse consumers, then ethics surely play a part. I don’t believe that premise, and I don’t view morality as a pragmatic issue, but if that’s what it takes for you to act morally in business, go for it. I won’t do it because it’s wrong. Full stop.

All this is prelude to a pretty trivial issue: the use (misuse) of “tactical” in marketing and merchandising. Google “tactical” + (any product you can think of), and you’ll likely get some valid hits. There are tactical knives and holsters (no surprise), but there are also tactical backpacks, fanny packs, computer bags, tents, wrist watches, flashlights, pens, notebooks, bacon (!), shoes, shirts and underwear.


Gregory Peck’s drawers from The Guns of Navarone. Manly, yes. But I like it too!

Tactical fucking underwear.

Used thus, the word has literally no meaning. While a certain pair of skivvies might indeed wick sweat from your crotch more effectively than others, and might on that account be a good choice for conducting some dangerous undercover “op,” there is nothing “tactical” about it – or indeed, about any physical object that is not designed to accomplish a specific military tactic. An automatic rifle is not tactical: it’s a weapon that is used in the pursuit of a tactic, which might be something like gaining the high ground or protecting a city. Small nuclear weapons can be tactical, in the sense that they can be used as the primary tool to win a battle – as distinct from strategic nuclear weapons, which are designed to achieve strategic ends such as annihilating an entire enemy population.

For want of a nail, a kingdom may have been lost, but that was a butterfly’s wing effect. That nail wasn’t strategic, and it wasn’t tactical: it was just a nail. Same goes for your tighty whities.

If “tactical” has no literal meaning when used for marketing products, what IS it doing there? Its purpose is purely evocative. Even if you don’t know what a tactic is, you almost certainly do know that the word is associated with military stuff. So it’s dangerous. It’s macho. And every real man is supposed to want to be that. So a guy who needs a flashlight or an undershirt gets to think of himself as a bad dude if he buys the tactical version.

If his wife knew what it was called, she’d understand that he’s still playing army “at his age” and she’d laugh at him.

If I, as a marketing communicator, knew you were buying my client’s flashlight for that reason, I’d laugh at you. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to hold the people whom I communicate with in disrespect, nor will I hold them up to the disrespect of my clients who want to sell them stuff. So I’m going to talk to you straight. I’ll explain the benefits of the product and depend on your good sense to decide if those benefits make this product the right one for your needs.

Level with the customer. Treat him with honesty and respect. That’s a tactical approach to marketing communications, and you do it because it’s effective and it’s right.


Don’t Tell ‘Em Too Much

Notice anything about these two campaign signs by competing candidates?

campaign sign

Notice anything missing? Like, everything?

They both tell you virtually nothing. Name and office sought, nothing more. Not a word about their legislative priorities and no indication of political party.

This is typical in campaign signs. Two years ago, among the dozens of candidate signs that I saw around the Midcoast for local, state and national offices, just one indicated the candidate’s political party. That was Eliot Cutler, the gubernatorial candidate whose affiliation was proudly stated as “Independent.”

Obviously, candidates for political office don’t want to clutter your mind with picayune details like “Republican” and “Democrat,” much less brief position statements (For the Working Man; Keeping America Strong) Campaign signs have only one purpose: to make people extremely familiar with the candidate’s name. So that when Joe Voter enters the booth (You know Joe: he’s the only voter candidates care about: the undecided voter who thinks he’s performing a civic duty, even though he doesn’t understand squat about politics or policy.) he votes for the name he recognizes, or for the one whose negative attributes he remembers less clearly than the other guy’s. Political parties? Unaffiliated voters view both of them as negatives, so leave it out.

It’s a despicable approach to democracy, but elections aren’t much about democracy in the USA anymore: they’re all about marketing and which side can afford more of it. (Thanks, Supreme Court!) And the smart money says you don’t want to give the rubes too much information.

That’s sound policy for a lot of nonpolitical marketing too. Few ads or other marketing vehicles should talk price, unless price is your unassailable Unique Selling Proposition. It’s too easy for consumers to compare, and all money is money that people would rather not spend, so best not talk about it. Don’t want to field email inquiries? Don’t push your email address. Is your business one of those “rent-to-own” operations? Highlight the “own” part and never mind that pesky “rent” thing.

Make the message as simple as possible. Focus on just one positive attribute that appeals to the consumer or solves his problem. In many cases, the only other thing you need is a call to action (CTA): i.e., tell the consumer explicitly what you want him to do: buy, call, visit, click, “like,” “share,” or whatever.

And even a CTA is superfluous sometimes. Campaign signs don’t use it because until the polls open, the consumer can’t take action. They’re all about familiarity. That principle applies to many national brands too — think fast food and sugary fizzy beverages especially. Many of those ads don’t try to make you buy right now. They just want to fill a certain part of your brain so that they’re the first thing you think of when you’re hungry or thirsty.

Pay for the Photography and Photoshop, Dammit

In an article on web marketing that I wrote recently for MaineBiz, webmaster Al Arthur advised that small business owners cough up the cash for professional web design — advice that I heartily support. But due to space constraints, the article had to leave out Al’s follow-on comment about the comparable importance of paying for decent photography. To that, I’d add professional photo editing, and design for print too. When things don’t look good…they don’t look good. And if customers don’t have a professional’s eye for design, they are at least subliminally influenced by quality when it appears, or doesn’t appear, in any graphic context associated with your company.

Two full-page, four-color ads in the current issue of the Camden Herald (and, I presume, its local sister publications) are good object lessons in how not to do it.

PETA ad shows bad Photoshop and a dead lobster masquerading as a live one.

We really shouldn’t come down too hard on the designer. She lives in Idaho and television ads for Red Lobster constitute her entire familiarity with the species.

This ad by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals purports to show a live lobster being cruelly rent asunder by an uncaring “slaughterhouse” worker. As any Mainer would immediately recognize, its bright red color signals that this is no live lobster. Or as Mr. Praline might say:

‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This lobster is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-LOBSTER!!

So those two hands that are meant to be so roughly treating this poor crustacean are, in fact, only about to start enjoying supper.

Except: those two hungry hands never really touched said cooked lobster. It may not show very well in my photo (and I apologize for that: my scanner’s bed isn’t big enough to take the full page ad), but those hands have been obviously Photoshopped in with all the finesse that you’d expect from an organization that throws blood at people as a means of political discourse.

Walmart ad shows prescription bottles with bad info on labels

Opposite the PETA ad was this one from Walmart, which opened its new store in Thomaston a day or two ago.

The problem here is subtler. Look below at the labels on the prescription bottles.

What’s that? The fictitious prescription holder lives in Anytown, Arkansas. And her refill order expired in two thousand and frickin’ nine!

Now come on, Walmart! You’re one of the world’s biggest companies; you could fund PETA’s operations for a century on last quarter’s profit. You think that just maybe you could pay for 15 minutes worth of Photoshop to update the labels to make the customer a Maine resident of the current decade?

prescription bottle label shows inappropriate content

No way we’re gonna fill this prescription for you, Jane. We stopped selling fen-phen years ago.

Slightly off-topic, but back to the PETA ad: at the bottom, the call to action reads: “To learn how you can help stop this suffering, visit PETA.org.” Go to that (home) page, however, and you’ll find nothing about Linda Bean and her red, dead lobsters. Perhaps if you dug deeper into the website you might find something relevant, but an advertisement has to: a) make things as easy as possible on the audience, and b) include a meaningful call to action. There’s no indication of what the reader is actually supposed to do to help “stop this suffering.” Call Linda Bean? Sign a petition? Send money? Throw blood on someone? If the information is somewhere on the website, the URL should lead directly to it. A QR code wouldn’t hurt. But the ad shouldn’t require the reader to go to the website in the first place: it should tell me, right there on the page, what it wants me to do.

Indirect Messaging in Ads

Advertising is not the practice of the obvious. The best ads are often not the ones that address the subject directly. Indeed, an ad that spells out exactly what the seller wants you to buy can be among the worst. Back in the Soviet days, a huge Moscow billboard carried this (translated) message:


That was the whole text of the ad. It said exactly what the state-run tea importing and processing company had in mind, but it was hardly persuasive. Every Russian was already aware of the option — indeed, tea drinking was as essential element in Russian culture as it was in Victorian England — but they were drinking something else (water, vodka… I don’t know) and “drink tea” certainly wasn’t going to do much to make them change. Perhaps it just needed a little tweak: the addition of an incentive, like this one:



In contrast, this Geico ad takes an indirect approach.

Geico isn’t trying to sell you insurance — at least not here in this ad. No one buys insurance because an ad makes it sound appealing. You buy insurance when you find you need it: when you buy a new car, or when your current carrier raises your premiums and you decide to look for a better price.

Geico (or its ad agency) understands this, and they build their ads not to sell insurance, but to make you remember Geico in a positive light. They’ve created a whole campaign of ads that are  funny, well-produced, and based on startling (but not disturbing) visual images (e.g., a camel in an office). So that when you find you need insurance, Geico comes to mind: they’re the guys with the funny ads! Remember the camel in the office? Remember the gecko with glasses who looks like Warren Buffet? Of course you do. And there’s a damn good chance that they’re who you’ll call, rather than some more straightlaced company that preaches to you about protecting your family or your investment and whose name you don’t immediately recall.

The indirect sell isn’t right for all products in all advertising environments. If you’re pitching an engineering product in a trade journal ad, for example, you might need to appeal to the engineer’s specific application requirement: our bearings last 33% longer in agricultural applications; our marine pollution spill response service is available for immediate deployment worldwide. But for consumer products, making the consumer love you is often the way to their wallets.

When the Media is the Marketing Message

Pilot marketing tools

Marketing handouts and promotional gimmes exhibit the Pilot’s visual branding, which relies on fashionable colors and bold design.

How does a news medium market itself? That’s the question The Penobscot Bay Pilot faced before it launched in September, becoming the Midcoast’s newest news source and advertising venue.

Almost any other type of company would send news releases to the local media, and run a few ads saying “We’re here!” In addition, those ads might promote a “Grand Opening Special!!!” (can’t forget the exclamation points!) to get people through the door and overcome the natural resistance among potential customers or clients to changing suppliers.

But that approach obviously wouldn’t work for the Pilot: sending news releases to the VillageSoup newspapers would be an explicit acknowledgment of their importance as a news medium in the region, and it’s questionable whether the Soup would run the news in any case. And it would be a bitter pill indeed to purchase ads from a direct competitor for local advertising dollars.

Instead, the Pilot based its launch strategy on a combination of distinctive branding, social media marketing, and personal contacts. Sales Directors Terri Mahoney and Janis Bunting say that they didn’t solicit advertising until the day the site went live. As soon as they had something to show potential advertisers, however, Mahoney and Bunting began an aggressive push, targeting 20 organizations with whom they had done business in their previous roles selling ads for Village NetMedia, the former owner of the VillageSoup brand. “Just getting out and meeting people face to face and showing them what we have available” has been one of the new company’s most productive marketing strategies, says Mahoney.

By offering free trials of the Pilot‘s Affiliate program to those former clients, they overcame initial resistance and had all 20 come on board. This leant the site credibility and in turn encouraged other advertisers. (Many of the original 20 organizations have been successfully transitioned into paid Affiliate status.)

Online marketing has taken off in several complementary, directions. Of course the Pilot maintains a Facebook page (current “likes,” about 3,600), and has a Facebook “Main Street” page for its advertisers “designed to make it fun, easy and rewarding to put your money where you live,” according to Mahoney.  They’re also active on Twitter, and their Pinterest account has followers who appreciate the separation of content into various pin boards for news, sports, recipes, etc. The most popular board is Contests, Giveaways and Free.

Perhaps the most strategic element of the Pilot‘s social media program is to make the site itself a social medium. Readers are invited to submit stories and upload their own photos. With the website’s tight integration of all common social media platforms, readers can then easily forward their own photos to friends and acquaintances and share them on their own Facebook walls. This goes beyond simple reader engagement and helps create emotional investment in the medium. Reader uploading took off in a big way during the recent winter storm that was named for a cartoon fish (Sorry, Weather Channel, but we’re not on board with you branding public weather events.), and it got another boost a day or two later during the National Toboggan Championships.

Photo uploads are further encouraged by the QR code on a giveaway tote bag, and by another, more unusual gimme: an “egrip.” These are little imprintable rubber pads that you stick on the back of your mobile phone to prevent it from sliding around on your car’s dashboard. The Pilot‘s version is imprinted with the message “See Something? Shoot it/Share it” with an upload address.

Branding, too, played an important role in the launch. Working closely with Adventure Advertising, the Pilot developed a striking visual identity that relies on large blocks of contrasting, contemporary fashion colors, lots of “white space” (which isn’t white), and unusual but not inconvenient organization of content. Business cards and rack cards were printed in non-standard sizes which, while distinctive, may involve some functionality tradeoffs (for example, the square business cards don’t fit in a wallet). But aggressive face-to-face efforts by Mahoney and Bunting have been successful in getting the 7″X7″ rack cards placed in many stores, restaurants, cafés and even libraries, even though they don’t fit in a typical literature-rack pocket.

Graphic-wrapped PenBayPilot car

The Pilot’s graphic-wrapped car is a can’t-miss-it moving billboard

Whether seen individually (each staff member has a different color business card) or together (as on a car wrap), the designs and colors are eye-catching and memorable. “Adventure Advertising was extremely helpful,” says Mahoney. “They were instrumental in a lot of our creative concepts and were a great organization to work with.” And the sales directors have some attractive, high-value goodies at their disposal, including color-coordinated travel mugs, tote bags, and a logo-inscribed yellow rubber “cause bracelet” that conceals a USB drive. (Disclaimer: this blogger received all of these goodies, and they are awesomely cool.)

The Pilot still faces better-established competitors, most notably, the VillageSoup newspapers and website, and their cousin publication The Free Press. But the Pilot‘s innovative marketing efforts and its proposition of free news for all readers look to be a combination for success for this new local medium.

The Pilot: New Ad Game in Town

Staff of Penobscot Bay Pilot

The Pilot’s crew (clockwise from left): Lynda Clancy, Editorial Director; Ethan Andrews, Writer; Kay Stevens, Writer; Terri Mahoney, Sales Director; Janis Bunting, Sales Director; Holly Edwards, Editorial Director; Ron Hawkes, Writer

The past year has been a roller coaster for Midcoast advertisers and news consumers. At the beginning of 2012, there was a single entity – Village NetMedia –publishing newspapers and news websites for Knox and Waldo counties under the VillageSoup brand. Village NetMedia folded abruptly in March, leaving the region without a local news source, but the company’s news assets were swiftly acquired by a new owner and resumed publication after a gap of about three weeks. Then in September, former Village NetMedia employees launched a new competitor, the Penobscot Bay Pilot. From one news source, to zero, to two, all in a half a year. (Read more on the demise of Village NetMedia and the rebirth of the VillageSoup brand.)

The most obvious difference between the two competitors is format: the Pilot is strictly web-based, while Courier Publications (i.e., the VillageSoup group) publishes both news websites and traditional print newspapers. But perhaps a more fundamental difference is one of access: the Pilot is free to consumers, while the Soup‘s readers must pay to read both the print and the online editions.

“Our readers can navigate freely on our site as well as share any story,” says Terri Mahoney, one of the Pilot’s two sales directors. “There’s no barrier between our website and the reader. We want our readers to have the best online experience.”

Janis Bunting, the Pilot‘s other sales director, agrees, adding that Penobscot Bay Pilot is compatible with social media channels like Facebook and Twitter. “Why would you want to ‘share’ something when you know that others may not be able to read it on the other end?“ she asks, noting that when Soup readers post news feeds to Facebook, only the first few lines are visible to others. (VillageSoup readers must either subscribe to the website or pay a per-article fee to access the full text. And while any reader can post comments on Pilot stories, only paid subscribers can do the same on the VillageSoup sites.)

Both companies offer programs in which advertisers can post unlimited news items in a special section of the site and link their business to a hosted web page. Among the advantages of the Pilot‘s Affiliate program, according to Mahoney, are larger photo galleries, the ability to upload video, tighter social media integration, and no long-term contract. Pilot Affiliates can participate on a month-to-month basis, while the Soup‘s “bizMembers” must subscribe for a minimum of three months. A monthly arrangement, says Mahoney, can be especially attractive to organizations whose promotional needs are seasonal or center around discrete events (for example, theater groups).

Affiliate membership was initially deeply discounted to prove the concept, but as the new year progresses, the Penobscot Bay Pilot is gradually inching up to its published rate card. Full rates, however, aren’t projected to apply until May, giving advertisers an incentive to come aboard during the remainder of the slow, dark winter and early spring.

According to Bunting, industry statistics show that 82% of readers find somewhere else to go if they hit a pay wall, and the Pilot‘s readership statistics suggest that it is satisfying a need for free local news. The site gets about 60,000 absolute unique visitors and 300,000 page views per month, and both figures have been increasing by 10-15% monthly.

Mahoney cites the organization’s “Truth in Advertising” promise regarding traffic numbers: “The counts on our Affiliate posts reflect actual human readers and not the additional traffic generated by automated bots, spiders, and other web crawlers,” she says, noting that robots still crawl the site and gather content to share across the internet, providing search engine marketing benefits. “We strive to be completely transparent with our business partners, our Affiliates, about the business of advertising online, and with the community that turns to us as a resource,” she says.

And the Pilot plans to continue innovating and growing. The organization is teaming up with the Hutchinson Center, the Belfast Area Chamber, and Our Town Belfast to revive the popular Best of the Best of Waldo County, adding online voting and a larger business expo element to what was previously a VillageSoup-sponsored program. The Pilot will also partner with local public safety organizations to help promote the first Run For Your Life Emergency Services Challenge in May, and will soon be compatible with mobile devices, making it more convenient for shoppers looking for information on local businesses.

For more details, contact Terri Mahoney or Janis Bunting.