“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.


Marketing Vehicles

I’ve seen a number of motor vehicles used for marketing purposes lately, each with a different approach and, IMO, a different level of effectiveness.


The most “professional” of the three is this authentic antique Harley-Davidson police tricycle, dressed up as a Twisted Tea promotion in Shaws.

The vehicle is beautifully restored, and for people who are into vintage motorcycles, it’s an eye-catcher. However, I wonder if it’s a cost-effective marketing tool. To purchase the motorcycle, restore it, and give it a custom paint job must cost a bundle. Then there are additional display fees to the store. I have to assume that they don’t have a whole fleet of these, so all that investment appears in only one location at a time, and then you have to pay someone to load it onto a trailer and set it up at another store a few weeks later. For anyone who’s not interested in vintage motorcycles, it may not be terribly appealing. (Research into traffic accidents has indicated that car drivers who plow into motorcycles generally have no personal exposure to motorcycles, and therefore don’t “see” them.) There’s no apparent connection between motorcycles and beverages of any kind — although it might be possible to establish that connection through a broader promotional campaign (and for all I know, as a non-TV watcher, they might have a whole series of television ads doing just that).

So bottom line, the owner or marketing manager is probably a vintage motorcycle fan and thought this would be an awesome cool thing, but it’s probably not tremendously effective.


This lovely display is in front of the public safety building at the intersection of Simonton Road and John Street in Camden. In case you’re reading on a small screen, the sandwich board says “Don’t Drink and Drive.” (A couple weeks ago, it had an anti texting-while-driving message.)

Again, it’s certainly eye-catching (and really ugly). Unlike the Twisted Tea promo, it probably cost nothing, and everyone who drives will probably absorb the visual part of the message. I really wonder, though, if this will really help drive the message home to people who do, or might, drink and drive. If I were in the habit, I think I’d scoff at it as nagging. But I suppose if the wrecked cars help turn on the light for just one drunk driver, it’s worthwhile.

duck sign on roof of car

Photo from Penobscot Bay Pilot. Click photo to link to original story.

Finally, there’s the Duck Derbymobile, promoting a fundraiser by the West Bay Rotary. This is the most modest of the three, and I think it’s probably the most effective, due to i) its mobility — it’s seen all over the place, ii) the fact that the sign’s image relates directly to the event it’s promoting, and iii) its silly unpretentiousness. Rubber ducks make people smile, and a grown man driving around with one on his car just adds a bit of humor to one’s drive. Will it persuade anyone to attend the event? No. But will it make people aware of the event? Yes indeed.

Pink is for Girls

I was browsing in the hardware department at WalMart yesterday and this brightly colored electric screwdriver kind of jumped out at me (not in a good way).

Pink electric screwdriver

Screwdriver for girls

OK, I get it. Girls like pink things, right? In spite of this great routine by Ellen…

…it appears that a lot of big companies have the numbers to back up this kind of marketing-driven design. It can’t be the first time that they’ve made a pink tool and found that it performed in the marketplace. The number-crunchers rule at these places, and if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it.

And isn’t that nice? A percentage of the $39.97 purchase price goes to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Plus, the package include 5 screwdriver bits!

But RIGHT ABOVE IT, there’s this product:

black and red electric screwdriver

Screwdriver for manly men

Apparently the same tool, except for the colors. Same voltage. Same warranty. Same price too: $39.97. But gee, the pink one donates money to charity. Might as well buy the makes-me-feel-feminine-and-virtuous one, right?

Hey, wait a minute. The boy’s version includes TEN screwdriver bits, not the measly five in the girl-driver package. So some of that money that Skil is donating to charity? Sorry, Sucker-ette — YOU’RE actually making that donation by giving 5 driver bits back to the Robert Bosch Tool Corporation, the owner of Skil, while they get a nice little marketing boost on your dime!

p.s., I’m with Ellen on this. I suspect that if I were a woman, I’d be insulted by this pandering to my supposed girly taste. On the other hand, if the color kept my husband from borrowing my electric screwdriver…

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.

Birds, Pies or Nothing

Christmas is past, and the consumer gift-purchasing frenzy along with it. We wondered what local consumer/retail businesses are doing to keep the ball rolling in the post-Xmas season, so we asked a few stores in Camden and a couple inns in Rockland.

At Surroundings, a small sign in the front window trumpeted a 30%-off sale. This was an exception: we didn’t see similar sales at other Main St. Camden retailers.

A couple doors down at Once a Tree, owner Bernice Berger said “I am staying open seven days a week as my major attempt at keeping the ball rolling.” She added, “We do have sale items,” but no store-wide sale at the end of December. Come January, she’ll put some areas in the store on sale, but, she emphasizes, “Once a Tree is not a seasonal store,” and the merchandise retains its shelf-life indefinitely. December, she says, is only her fifth-busiest month.

Across the street at Ducktrap Bay Trading Co., I was nearly dragged off the sidewalk by a friendly lady excitedly urging me to visit to see live kestrels. You bet! That would have brought me in regardless of my mission. Inside, two members of the raptor rescue and education group Wind Over Wings were showing two of these lovely, diminutive and well-behaved birds of prey.


Wind Over Wings visits Ducktrap Bay Trading Co. in Camden with a pair of kestrels.

According to owner Joyce Lawrence, Ducktrap Bay is not a gift shop but, rather, a “serious gallery of wildlife and marine art.” As such, Christmas is not her key season either, and the birds were not a post-season marketing device, per se. She hosts Wind Over Wings more or less monthly, and does so because it’s mutually beneficial: it brings people into the store, she acknowledges, and it also helps raise awareness for Wind Over Wings, which she supports. Lawrence says she also sponsors bird carving classes year-round, but like Once a Tree, isn’t doing much marketing tailored to specifically the post-Xmas season.

In Rockland, P.J. Walker, co-owner of the LimeRock Inn, says he’s staying open but not doing any active marketing. “We’ve never really pursued off-season business,” he says, explaining that the inn operates with a staff consisting of just its two owners, and that they like things quiet at this time of year, to make up for working “flat out” for six months during tourist season.

In contrast, owner Cheryl Michaelson at the Berry Manor Inn says her marketing is a year-round effort. Berry Manor is a prime mover behind 9th annual “Pies on Parade” event (January 27) that also involves the other Historic Inns of Rockland (including the LimeRock), the local museums, several restaurants and other businesses. It’s a collaborative, city-wide effort to bring people downtown during the year’s darkest, coldest, and otherwise quietest days. To get the word out, Berry Manor relies on its newsletter, Facebook, and website updates, and these efforts all supplement those of Historic Inns of Rockland, which also blogs and does publicity.

So how are we marketing in the “quiet” season? It’s all over the board. A few are laying low, actually hoping that things will stay pretty quiet. Some pursue business as usual, just accepting that this is a quiet time of the year. And others are running sales or putting in a special marketing effort, trying to make the post-holiday season as productive as possible.

Marketing for Primates

Camden Gorilla says “buy local!”

M3R caught up with the Camden Gorilla, who began doing gorilla marketing for Camden retailers this holiday season.

M3R: How are you helping local retailers market themselves?
CG: We’re starting out with a Facebook page, where we feature individual shops with gift ideas for under $30. I go visit a store, sometimes with a friend to take photos. We’ll also do some PR with local media.

M3R: What’s the objective?
CG: I’m trying to promote the idea of shopping locally. The Chamber does a great job supporting Downtown, but it’s kind of dry, and some small businesses, artists and craftspeople just can’t afford to advertise. But everyone benefits when our local businesses do well, so I’m providing a bit of marketing at no cost just to help out.

This is a lot of fun, and I think it has good potential to go viral. Personally, as a gorilla I get a great reception just walking around Downtown, and it’s a wonderful way to meet other primates.

M3R: Why the $30 benchmark?
CG: There’s a perception that shopping in Camden has to be expensive, so many people who are looking for inexpensive gifts just automatically head to discount stores or shop online. I hope to demonstrate that holiday shopping in Camden can be economical, and that shopping locally doesn’t entail a sacrifice.

“Like” Camden Gorilla on Facebook.