branding

Iron Man helps explain confusing marketing terms

It happens all the time. Someone tosses a pretty logo giveaway on my desk or forwards me a viral video and quips, “This is such a cool strategy, don’t you think?”

No, it’s a cool tactic. The strategy behind it could be something else entirely.

I'll make this simple for you: Tony Stark is your strategy. Iron Man is your cool tactic.

Tony Stark is the planner, designer and strategist. He’s constantly surveying the landscape, anticipating mankind’s future challenges, and dreaming up the next big thing. He’s never satisfied with what’s now; he wants what’s next. His brain is on overload with multiple innovations for problems no one’s encountered yet – all with a tall, cold glass of sarcasm in his hand.

But no one waits in anticipation for Tony Stark to fly by. Tony Stark can’t fight an alien invasion or a demigod. That’s Iron Man’s job. Iron Man is the real show, with all the bells, whistles and explosions. Iron Man inspires kids to fly and fight crime. He’s the spectacle everyone craves and the invincible, shiny, badass rockstar adults want to be.

People don’t get awestruck by Tony Stark, but they cheer like crazy for Iron Man.

The partnership gives both sides meaning. Without Tony Stark, that crime-fighting super suit would just be a pile of metal that lights up; and without Iron Man, Tony would just be a selfish billionaire playboy.

Too often people (usually those in leadership) get caught up in cool tactics while ignoring strategy: "We must get blinking widgets because our competitor just got blinking widgets!" This is wasteful and short-sighted marketing. A tactic with no clear strategy behind it is just a shiny, meaningless distraction.

Your branding strategy gives power and meaning to your branding tactics. Behind the scenes, you’re researching, innovating and steering your brand in a certain direction. In the public eye, you’re delivering shiny, explosive branding messages.

For example, your credit union may want to increase the amount of loans to members with past credit problems. As Tony Stark would, you’ve strategized that this will not only increase interest income, but also inspire member loyalty and keep your credit union true to the mission of “people helping people.”

With that strategy in mind, you build an Iron Man suit of tactics. You shoot financial counseling videos for your social media channels. You host credit repair workshops and offer special loan rates for attendees. You produce the “Amazing Debt Race” promotion, where members race to eliminate their debt and improve their credit scores in the shortest amount of time. (I’d include an actual 5K run with all the proceeds going to fund financial literacy courses in public schools, and the first person over the finish line runs right into a money grab booth. But that’s just me.)

Brilliant strategy leads to exciting tactics that make people cheer.

Stark-ish sarcasm is purely optional. But fun.

Act of Fearlessness: Look at your current tactics. Do they parallel your strategy? Has leadership even defined the strategy in clear, measurable terms?


Author's note: This is the second in the Geek Girl series, where my worlds of geek and corporate culture collide. Avengers, assemble!

Raising hell can be good for your brand

When you're going to be on TV, don't forget your wig.

When you're going to be on TV, don't forget your wig.

Not long ago, a potential client flew me across the country, put me up in a nice hotel, and spent an entire day discussing how I could help improve their marketing communications efforts. I toured their facilities, met with multiple departments and was very impressed with their organization. But during a one-on-one conversation with the person who’d be supervising my efforts, I was told, “We need someone who can hit the ground running and produce amazing work, but not someone who’s going to raise hell.”

In that moment, I knew this client wasn’t ready for a Fearless Brand Champion.

Understand that being fearless doesn’t mean being reckless or irresponsible. Fearless Brand Champions are smart enough to keep what’s actually working and establish consistency in brand messaging.

But we are also firm believers in raising some strategic hell.

When I launched Bras Across the River in 2010, I spent two weeks of queasy days and sleepless nights, wondering if it was going to work. No one had ever stretched 4,500 brassieres across a highway bridge, then invited the people of four counties to walk the bridge and engage in a conversation about breast cancer awareness. We don’t say the word “breasts” in decent company in the South, and we don’t want to see thousands of bras hanging in plain sight. It’s as un-Southern as drinking unsweet tea.

During those two weeks, I actually received a one-line email from a media contact who asked, “Is this a real event?” This Fearless Brand Champion momentarily considered falling on her sword.

Now Bras Across the River is an annual event, drawing contributors and attendees from across the country. Several hundred people gather on that bridge each year, decked in pink tulle and feathers, as thousands of bras sway in the Mississippi breeze. Drivers of passing cars honk, wave and cheer us on as breast cancer survivors share their stories with TV reporters and Zumba instructors lead hip-shaking dance routines to warm up walkers. Most importantly, “decent company” now includes men and women unafraid to openly discuss early detection of breast cancer.

Ask yourself: when was the last time you launched a campaign that terrified you?  Why did it terrify you? When was the last time you actually followed your gut instinct, even if it was queasy?

Dig deeper: what would you try if you had an unlimited budget? What would your competitors never try? What would make them think you were crazy? Remember, your competitors might be scared, but you are fearless. 

Dig inside your organization. What would freak out your board of directors? (News flash: your board is NOT your target market. If you pitch an idea to your board of directors and they think you’re nuts, you’re probably on to something great.) What scares your executive team but ignites your employees and customers?

What ideas are big hits today because someone dug deeper while others kept saying “no.” List all your crazy ideas where everyone can see them. Put oxygen and a defibrillator nearby if necessary.

And never stop asking. Never stop digging. Never be afraid to raise a little hell.


So, funny story. This article was already written when I went to the craft store to grab items for this blog's teaser campaign. I confessed to the cashier that I was not crafty. Not at all. She flashed a smile and said, "They don't tell you this, but the projects you're a little afraid of are usually the best ones." Indeed.