“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.


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.

Eliot Cutler on Marketing the Maine Coast

Eliot Cutler, independent candidate for Maine governor in 2010 and chairman of the marketing consulting group MaineAsia LLC, was the keynote speaker at Maine Built Boats‘ first Global Outreach Conference on December 6 at Maine Maritime Museum. While many of Cutler’s comments were specific to boatbuilders and/or the China market, much of his talk was relevant to many businesses in the Midcoast and Maine in general. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

CutlerAs we think about our Maine coast and try to solve the challenge of jobs and incomes that it presents, sometimes in unforgiving ways, we sometimes get confused . . . and confounded. We often make the mistake of thinking about this amazing resource – this ecosystem – in pieces independent of each other.

What do we need to do to keep the big ships rolling down the ways at BIW? (Well, they don’t roll down the ways anymore, but I like the imagery!)

How do we revive the ground fishery in the Gulf of Maine? How do we process more of our own lobsters for export to markets around the world?

What is the best way to promote the unmatched quality of Maine-built boats?

Tourism – exporting the Maine experience – is Maine’s biggest export product. Where can we find the money – now estimated at roughly $3-4 billion – that it will cost to repair Maine’s roads and bridges so that we can double the number of tourists who visit Maine?

In fact, all of these issues are elements – deeply interrelated to each other – of a single larger and deeply important question: How will we preserve Maine’s coastal communities?

As a state, what are the policies we need to pursue and the investments that we need to make that will help Maine’s coastal towns and villages, both those with working waterfronts and those without, retain young people and survive against the gravitational pull of larger urban areas?

If we fail to answer this question in a smart and strategic way, the consequences will be tragic.

Without coastal communities, from Eastport to Kittery . . .

  • Maine’s largest industry – tourism – will be decimated;
  • Our Gulf of Maine fishery – the third largest by dollar value in America – will be left to fishermen and women from southern New England and the Canadian Maritimes;
  • Maine-built boats will become a lost art; and,
  • We will have ignored our own DNA, abandoned our competitive advantage, turned our backs on our past and put Maine’s future in peril.

Yet, today we have no clear goals for preserving Maine’s coastal communities to which we are all committed.

We’re not focused, we’re not thinking, and we sure as hell are not investing.

We have no plan, no strategy, no shared idea of where we will be ten or twenty years from now. We have become fatally preoccupied in Maine with fighting over shares of a shrinking pie.

Let’s set a new course. Let’s put our extraordinary competitive advantages to work. Let’s build a Maine brand, market the hell out of our products and start making the pie bigger.

Some might ask, why do we need to build an overarching, umbrella Maine brand? After all, lobster is already synonymous with Maine. And you boatbuilders have a great brand, “Maine Built Boats.”

But you know what? Too many people around the world think that Maine lobster really comes from Canada or Boston, and no one in China has ever heard of Maine.

Yes, we need to build and develop the Maine brand.

The latent power of the Maine brand is extraordinary; there are a few states that are mythic, that hold Americans in thrall, and Maine is one of them. Yet, a powerful brand for our state is an opportunity that we have ignored for decades.

Over the years we have moved from one slogan to another faster than our weather changes.

Recently, and for a few years, our slogan was It Must Be Maine, a brand that some Business Week analysts said isn’t well-known because “it is bland, dreary, and vague.”

Now our slogan appears to be The Maine Thing.

Really?? The Maine Thing?

We don’t have everything wrong – there are, for instance, some wonderful new videos on the Maine tourism web site with Maine folks talking about why we all love to live here – but there is no evidence that we have invested the kind of time, effort, expertise and, yes, money that is necessary to develop a brand that is meaningful and that casts its net over all of the products and experiences for which we want Maine to be known.

We need to develop a brand that motivates people to place a higher value on what we make and sell and on the experience of living and visiting here.

If Virginia can be for lovers (as it has been for decades), if you and I can love New York, if pork can be the new white meat . . . then we ought to be able to figure out how we want people to think about Maine, and develop a brand that will get them to think that way.

For a state where so many jobs – now and in the future – are and will be found in this Maine Coast economic cluster – in tourism, in seafood production, in boatbuilding – there aren’t many more important investments that we can make in our future and in our kids’ futures than the development of a strong brand.