Missed opps in Cowtown

In my last piece ('Calgary talent,' Strategy, May 20/02, p. 19), I made the claim that Calgary is a hotbed of creative talent. (It still is.) I also hinted at the idea that the client base may not necessarily be making the best use of that talent. (It still isn't.) I'd like to elaborate on that last point.

In my last piece (‘Calgary talent,’ Strategy, May 20/02, p. 19), I made the claim that Calgary is a hotbed of creative talent. (It still is.) I also hinted at the idea that the client base may not necessarily be making the best use of that talent. (It still isn’t.) I’d like to elaborate on that last point.

Even though we have the second largest number of head offices in the country, this is not a real marketing town. Most Calgary companies are not forced to rely on advertising, for two reasons. Either they operate in a safe perceptual niche, or they sell B2B and refuse to accept the fact that corporate buyers are influenced by intangibles. (Please see this week’s ‘BookMark,’ p. 14). In either case, many Calgary companies are falling short of their potential by failing to use advertising to win hearts.

As an example of the first group, let’s take two of my favourite companies, WestJet Airlines and Big Rock Breweries. Both of them have done remarkably well at winning over customers and employees, and as a result they have consistently outperformed. Neither one of them has been forced to rely on marketing communications, primarily because they both live in safe perceptual niches.

During its formative years, WestJet was essentially the only authentic (i.e. non-charter) discount airline around. Their advertising consisted of price points and starbursts, and people flocked. Big Rock is the only authentic microbrewery around. They eschew advertising, and what little they have done has not reflected or communicated the quality of their brand.

Put bluntly, WestJet and Big Rock are better branders than advertisers. They are to be commended (and copied) by any company that wants to deliver a consistent, customer-centric experience to everyone they come in contact with. On the other hand, these folks may be leaving a great deal of opportunity on the table by choosing not to communicate their brand through advertising.

For example, WestJet is now facing stiff competition. Competition which, by the way, is making liberal use of advertising to communicate its brand promise, like Air Canada’s new discount carrier, Zip Air.

Similarly, as mass-microbrews à la Rickard’s become increasingly popular and prolifically visible, Big Rock’s home turf is no longer protected territory. Advertising would bring more opportunities to defend them against canny competitors.

If WestJet and Big Rock were to put effort into capturing the excitement and authenticity inherent in each of their brands, they could be some of Calgary’s most influential exporters – not just of product, but of Calgary’s culture.

On to our B2B companies. Calgary is full of them – many of them in the resource sector. Let’s take two instructive examples, Nexen and ATCO Midstream (AML), the latter of which, in the interest of full disclosure, is a former client of mine.

At first blush, neither of these companies is a candidate for compelling advertising. Nexen produces oil and gas, and has a relatively limited range of customers, all of whom buy the product in a strictly regulated environment. AML separates gas from existing wellheads into usable fuels, stores it in huge underground tanks, and re-sells it to non-consumer companies. Not exactly Cannes-ready material to work with.

Nonetheless, both were able to realize that intangibles are important in B2B purchases, and they acted accordingly. While large producers like Nexen are not able to sway their customers, they can have an influence over investors – a critical component to their success. Nexen captured the essence of its brand – ethical oil and gas production – and explained it through advertising to investors around the world.

At the time it seemed an odd positioning, however, it effectively positioned them vis-à-vis competitors like Talisman, who take a more – ahem – expedient view of the ethics involved in their operation.

Unfortunately they did not stay the course with this positioning, and are now relegated to parity-hood.

AML was also able to see the potential upside of winning some hearts.

AML clients base their purchase criteria on a matrix of mind-numbing engineering details. Nevertheless, the directing minds of AML saw an opportunity for growth by making an emotional connection as well as the factual case. They placed full-page ads in trade magazines without photos of oil wells or businessmen shaking hands. And large producers, who traditionally do their own midstreaming, started showing interest in the financial benefits of outsourcing the midstream function.

By planting the essence of their brand promise through conjoined advertising and sales efforts, they have successfully set themselves apart in a sea of parity players.

I would throw out the following challenge to Calgary companies: If you’re not relying to some degree on marketing communications to win hearts, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough, and you may be missing opportunities. Business is a battle for hearts and minds, and there is no question that those who can win both are more successful.

Fighting for hearts is not cut-and-dried. It’s messy, it’s unpredictable, and it’s not something you can always control. But the financial rewards are clear. The creative talent is here to support your effort. Let’s go to the U.S. Let’s go to Europe. Let’s go to Asia. Let’s go anywhere. We have everything we need to make it happen, right here.

Mark Szabo is a senior suit with MacLaren McCann in Calgary. He can be reached at mark.szabo@maclaren.com.