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Simon Says

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OK, so you know the drill. Young American Idol hopefuls perform at various auditions or stages of the competition where the judges Randy, Paula, Kara -- and of course the irrepressible Simon Cowell -- pass on their comments/assessments to the contestants. Their criticism often hits hard, but invariably they get it right.

In most business categories we work with, brands need only face maybe a dozen competitors; but the music industry abounds with hundreds of thousands of talented artists of which only a small number go all the way. The stakes are high. Rarely does succeeding in this competition come down to technical singing ability. Instead, it's how that talent is packaged and presented, and most importantly, how it resonates with viewers. There are many parallels in brand marketing.

How often have we heard them give this advice each week?

"Don't pick a Stevie [Wonder] or a Whitney [Houston] song...chances are you're going to come off as a poor imitation."

Brands can't afford to imitate. To be honest, very few brand ideas are truly original. But at the very least, you have to have a fresh take on an old idea. Would Nintendo Wii have been as successful if it tried to imitate the Sony PlayStation experience? Very unlikely. Puma is not going to win by imitating Nike, nor does it try to.

"Have an interesting story...the oil-rigging dad from Texas; the clean- cut nanny from California; the bartender from Tulsa who first picked up a guitar at age 2."

Brands need to tell a story. As humans we can relate to stories. More importantly, we react to stories with emotion.  Emotion causes people to pay more or act impulsively-exactly what a brand needs. Jim Beam's story of a German immigrant who settled in Kentucky, founded a distillery, and the Beam family's 214-year association with bourbon is very much part of the brand's story and appeal. Always remember that facts support, they don't sell.

"Imagine what you've got to do to get 12-year-old girls to text in their vote."
I've never really heard them say this, but let's face it, that's what they infer. Every market or brand has a sweet spot, yet so often the temptation is to try to appeal to too broad a consumer. Despite Coca-Cola being obviously consumed by every age demographic, they focus their advertising on that 17-year-old consumer. What about retailers? Do the same rules apply? I worked with a popular retailer in the U.K. that defined its customer as "Debbie." It was able to articulate her life, her interests, her family and her concerns. It put up posters of her in their meeting rooms. Then every decision the company made from product ordering, store design, point of sale, promotional items, advertising creative work and even the media plan would be qualified with the question, "Do we think this is going to be relevant to Debbie?" Have a picture in your head of whose vote you are pitching. What's going on in their lives? What does it take to sell to them?

"If you can't dance, then don't."

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