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MarCom Matters

February 2013
Issue: #40

Cliff Notes

It seems we avoided skidding off the fiscal cliff, à la Wile E. Coyote, and making a splat on the economy’s canyon floor.

Now I don’t usually comment on matters political or economic here in Marcom Land, and I ain’t gonna start now. But the whole cliff episode left behind a B2B marketing lesson that’s too tempting to ignore.

The hubbub began in earnest one year ago this month during a congressional hearing when Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, spouted the now-famous metaphor.

So does that mean a Fed chair can teach us something about marketing, you ask in a somber and nonpartisan tone?

In this case, yes. A couple of somethings, actually…

  1. The fiscal cliff metaphor commands a heck of a lot more attention than automatic sequestration, the technical term that describes what would have happened had we actually found ourselves in mid air.

    It’s visual for sure, if a bit dramatic. But it makes you stop and listen, even if you’ve heard it a million times before. And it ties together both the problem (Hey, we’re heading for the cliff!) and the consequences (Quick, do something or we’re mincemeat!) into one easy-to-understand package.

    Think about those three elements — visualization, impending problem and consequences. Together they form a neat little context into which your products and services fit.

    From a marketing perspective, a compelling metaphor is more than a campaign theme or tagline. The visualization part helps capture audience attention. The problem description lets them know there’s a cliff in their future. And the consequences compel them to want to take action. To which you of course respond, “Have you seen our stuff?”

    To be effective, a metaphor needs to be credible, command attention and point to your products and services as the logical solution. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a silly feature-function battle against the competition, like Wile E. Coyote duking it out with the Road Runner.
  1. From the moment Ben uttered the magic phrase, fiscal cliff became the lead-in for news stories, commentaries, blog posts and talk-show rantings well into the new year. It got so that even our cat’s ears perked up when he heard the words coming out of the speakers. And all along the way the little-metaphor-that-could fended off inferior alternatives like fiscal hill and scarier ones like austerity bomb.

    This strength of connection, continuity and comprehension is key to your own metaphor’s success.

    For starters, a good one (like IBM’s Smarter Planet or Fidelity’s Green Line) anchors your communication strategy and helps fortify your brand. Because once you’ve set the context with the metaphor, your solution will create more “ah ha” moments. Sort of like when Wile E. realizes he’s overshot the cliff edge (Although in that case it’s, “Uh, oh”).

    Because the quicker you can get across what you do (versus what you sell), the more likely you’ll connect with harried buyers and to external communicators who can help spread the world, like journalists, bloggers, partners and consultants.

    Then, the metaphor becomes the basis for messaging across all of your channels. You can use it on your home page or as the foundation for a blog, an entire microsite, an advertising campaign, an ongoing thought-leadership series or an online customer forum.

The bottom line: A metaphor helps audiences quickly understand what your company does by putting the big problem you solve into a context that connects at a basic level. From there, it unifies communications across all of your channels.

Now there’s an edge you can use.