Category: Branding
June 25th, 2018

What to do when your engineers are from Venus and your creatives are, well, you know…


Engineers and Creatives are wired differently.

What one group regards as self-evident and logical, the other is just as likely to dismiss as tepid or irrelevant. And yet it is every technology marketers noble mission to unite these two groups to produce the right blend of messaging.

It’s rarely easy. 

In fact, I’m reminded of the story of  the Great Architect who decided to build a bridge with a unique feature: a 20-foot gap midway across the span.

Drivers who exceeded 50 mph would effortlessly sail across the open gap thousands of feet above a canyon below. Tourists would flock to the new attraction and the neighboring town.

Opening day dawned.

The first driver accelerated towards the gap at 50 mph as instructed. Only instead of sailing effortlessly over the yawning hole, the driver plunged through the gap to a fiery death on the chasm floor below.

The distraught, but nevertheless still Great, Architect immediately rushed over to his horrified engineers. They agreed their calculations were indeed faulty and that any further traffic should cease.

Seeking a second opinion, the Great Architect turned to his designers. But unlike the engineers, the creative team responded with disdain “What? Are we going to make all our decisions after just one bad test?”

Readers of this story will be forgiven for concluding that given their different viewpoints, the best way to manage technical and creative teams is to separate them.

And when it comes to developing marketing strategies, many agencies do exactly that.

In isolation, they identify what the engineers want said. Cement it into a brief of some sort. And pass the newly minted instructions through to the waiting creative team.

Which, of course, is a horrible way to work. And a sure-fire way to introduce barriers when we should be building bridges (admittedly one without giant holes).

If you are interested in a smarter way to forge a partnership between technical and creative teams, drop us a line at heythere@mortaragency.com, subject “Crazy Bridge”.

For more on how to avoid the consequences of chronic marketing inefficiency, brought on by the failure to collaborate, see “THE SUCKER FOR PUNISHMENT DILEMMA: WHAT IF YOUR CREATIVE AGENCY IS WORKING WITH(OUT) YOU?  at Mortarblog.com. Or the follow-up post: “LIFE AFTER THE BIG REVEAL: A PROGRESS REPORT“.  

PS: A bridge with a huge hole in it is not so crazy. See how some engineers are designing roads that sing.

June 18th, 2018

Lessons in testing. When a good A-ha goes bad.

I never cease to be amazed by the power of small amounts of  testing.

I’m reminded of a Mortar client that made water out of thin air (they said it involved condensation, I’m pretty sure the dark arts were involved).

Like most tech teams they were in a hurry, and so the question of testing kept getting pushed further and further down the development cycle.

Only weeks from launch, our strategy was nailed, we knew how our product was different, and we had a new name, logo, and a crisp elevator speech.  All that stood between us and the Market was confirmation.

For this project we chose an engagement session: the agency, client team and prospects sit down around a coffee table for a moderated discussion. Although less scientifically objective than traditional focus groups (which make heavy use of one-way mirrors and bowls full of M&M’s) engagement sessions provide a more immersive experience for all parties.

The lessons learned in engagement sessions are often much more powerful, because the team hears the feedback directly and without filter, instead of weeks later as part of a 116 slide PowerPoint deck.

So, there we are, sitting on a couch, with eight early adopters, the pioneers we expect to be among the first to buy, and we launch into our idea.

The CTO lays out the challenge, details the product idea, and is about to reveal our first creative concept when a burly engineer leans forward and asks, “so what does the water taste like?”

The CTO turns green and starts to stammer.

Everyone else on the team is taken aback. Incredibly, we’d been so wrapped up in the genius of the technology that we never asked ourselves this simple question: what does the water our machine makes, actually taste like?

Before we can respond, the engineer says “I bet it tastes awful, am I right?”

Yes, dear reader, it turns out that water condensed from the air (or via the dark arts) has no flavor. And while that may sound like a good thing, it turns out we expect our water to taste like something, and that the lack of any flavor is… well… disgusting. How water tastes is a critical attribute for any water-making appliance.

The discovery that the A-ha Moment for our water-making innovation was not “Wow, I can make water, anywhere,” sent shockwaves through the team.

We had simply not considered that the benefit of providing fresh water would need to include taste.

That was not the only thing we took from our research.

We were also struck by the pride with which our first prospect pointed out the flaw in our marketing.

Members of the early market are often heavily invested in product details and are rarely shy about offering their opinions for improvement or further innovation.

But there is a point, as every innovator will attest, when a product should be hurled into the market, as there is no better indicator of success than purchase and use.

Still, our first customers would regard the lack of focus on taste as a critical product flaw—and it would cloud the bigger story: that they could now make water anywhere.

Not to fix the taste issue would leave our first customers feeling betrayed and ignored.

And it left me scratching my head over how I could have allowed the project to advance so far without considering such a vital factor.

My entire marketing career has been punctuated by moments like these.  I have learned the hard way that small, regular doses of feedback from potential customers are an essential ingredient of any successful marketing program.

And experiences like these are why we insist our clients test their A-ha moment before they head to market. For more on Mortar and our emphasis on the A-ha see this post: Five things we learned about A-ha moments in 2017.

June 12th, 2018

The Easy Science of Big Marketing Decisions

Malcolm Gladwell writes that proficiency requires 10,000 hours of experience in a particular field.

The practice of marketing is no different. But why are so many marketing teams—who’ve put in this time and more—struggling with fundamental decisions about what they should be doing to build their business?

The reasons are myriad, but I believe all can be overcome with three easy-to-follow steps designed to generate creative thinking. And while they may strike you as mildly contrarian, each is the result of thousands of man hours of experimentation and, as we in Silicon Valley so gleefully say, failing forward.

Lesson 1. You are not far from an answer. In fact, the answer is in the room with you right now.

I hate to admit it, but many of the core ideas we develop for our clients are not new at all, but rather a creative take on an existing notion they themselves brought to the table.

After all, few outside parties are as close to the material as you. Even fewer fully grasp the intricacies of your organization, product, strategy and industry. And none have spent as much time or energy thinking about the opportunity as you have.

The trick is to harness this power and knowledge and to use it as a source for creative idea generation.

We’ve found the best way to do that is to gather the team that owns the project around a whiteboard and engage in some radical and aggressive brainstorming moderated by an energetic and quizzical third party.

Mortar is a good third party (ahem).  We are not hidebound by or steeped in years of “doing things a certain way.”  Which means we can ask the tough questions of your team in a way that sparks conversation and illuminates what has been ignored or overlooked.

Few problems stand resolute when confronted by individuals who have permission to indulge in wild fantasies and have been granted the power to challenge the (often) unspoken conventions governing any project.

Lesson 2. The secret to thinking big is to first think small.

Big ideas are exciting. They appeal to big egos and satisfy the soul. But they are also hard to identify and articulate, and often slow and difficult to implement.

Small ideas, on the other hand, are easy to grasp. Come in multiples. Appeal to many. Don’t require uniform consensus. Can be easy to extract. Quick to fund. Simple to test. And, because they are so easy to come by, are easily discarded in favor of a more attractive alternative.

The secret is to start small. Identify modest goals. Develop long lists of low hanging fruit. Gather supporters. Test what’s promising. Watch what fails. And use the resulting energy to zero in on the truth.

Thinking small, not thinking big, is a much more manageable way to win friends and innovate successfully in big business.

Lesson 3. Remember to sell the sizzle not the steak.

We call it the pursuit of the A-ha moment.

Every smart marketing decision points towards something surprising and previously unavailable. But don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that your customers will buy your naked claims. Instead spend time thinking about what your audience will find surprising or unexpected. And then root your marketing in those emotions. A better biosensor may provide better data to the care team, but the real joy comes from how they will feel when they realize what they can do with that data.

So, get your team together with someone from the outside and give them permission to think wildly. Pursue multiple small ideas with gusto and passion. And double down on the surprise. Those are the elements of the easy science of big decisions, and the fruits of countless hours in marketing.

January 10th, 2018

2017 was the year of Aha Moments at Mortar: Five things we learned

We started 2017 by promising we would deliver on a new idea: that marketing thrives when it is focused on creating emotional impact. And that point of focus crystallizes in our intended prospects’ reaction. Aha Moments would be our new area of specialty. (More on that decision here).

To maximize focus we have to make a decision to be different

These two elements: the decision to be different (the Strategic Marketing Decision) combined with the resulting, emotional reaction, the Aha Moment, are the twin pillars of Mortar’s approach to Marketing. They come together best in this definition:

An Aha Moment is the desired reaction to a decision to be different.

Let’s break that down:A-ha's are an expression of insight or discovery

We say “Aha!” when we encounter something new, surprising, or as Collin’s Dictionary says, “an instant at which the solution to a problem becomes clear.” Webster’s puts it this way, “a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension … The aha moment you experience when you’ve been trying to remember the name of a song and three hours later it hits you.” When we say “Aha Moment” we are seeking a positive reaction to our message.

A-ha moments are a reaction to a decision to be different.

Decision-making can be tough, especially among marketers. But without clearly identifying some unique area of differentiation marketers fail to lay claim to something people can prefer, an idea customers can choose, remember or tell their friends about. The quickest way to leverage any position is to claim novelty—and put everything you can behind communicating the benefits of choosing an option that is quite unlike everything else. 

a-a moments can be tested (and yes, that is Paula).

Deciding to be different is a testable proposition. So too is the Aha. It is not too much to ask that prospects use the words we expect and indicate the Aha we promise is motivating and clear. (Testing need not break the bank or slow the process unduly. On several occasions in 2017 we found quick, 45-minute one-on-one phone calls with a small group of prospects (four to six) to be a cost effective and relatively painless method of gauging impact).

a-ha moments are many, but they should all liberate and inspire

Crafting any communication requires a solid grasp of the product or service, the target, the opportunity and a myriad of other factors. By selecting an Aha Moment we seek to inspire our teams to be more creative—and explore the possibilities of delivering a focused message. Boring or mundane Aha’s don’t cut it. Neither do Aha’s that rely too heavily on logic or sound like a line from a press release. Strong Aha’s sound authentic and spark response. In many ways the Aha Moment is similar to the the notion of a Big Idea or Unique Selling Point, but with two major differences: 1. Aha Moments often travel in groups—there can be many. One person’s moment of clarity can be another’s ho-hum moment. 2. Aha’s can only be expressed in words the target might actually say. People only say, “Wow, because my network infrastructure is now fluid and adaptable, I can drive home strategic value and orient my stack to open protocols” in our minds. What they actually say is more along the lines of: “F**k me, flexibility like this rocks.” The Aha discipline reminds us to focus on genuine expressions of discovery. (BTW, we have written elsewhere on how a juicy swear word can enhance the impact of a well-chosen Aha.)

aha moments are personal and heartfelt

At the core of our approach is a questioning of Big Idea thinking and the requirement that what we are selling is merely a new way to think about an issue. Aha Moments are experienced by prospects encountering products or services for the first time, or looking at an existing product in a new way. Aha is what prospects say when confronted with our message. By attempting to shape the intended reaction, we leapfrog the necessity of providing logical reasons to believe to attack the amygdala—the part of the brain devoted to emotion and arousal—head on. Because if we don’t, our marketing will fall short of its intended purpose: to move people along the funnel to buy, recommend or just like. 

In any creative solution, smart, reasoned decision-making and the promise of discovering something new go hand-in-hand. To divorce one from the other is to miss an opportunity to deliver marketing that makes a lasting impact.

January 17th, 2017

A-ha Moments: What They Are and Why They Matter Now. Our New Website is Here.

Advertising Agency offers A-ha

Careful Mortar watchers (that’d be both of you, so listen up) will have caught the stealthy launch of the new Mortar website on the very last day of 2016.

Now I realize this will come as a shock to the rest of you, but THERE IS A NEW MORTAR WEBSITE! THE BACON IS GONE.

We’ve replaced the pile of pork with a simple insight: most of the time small ideas beat big. And marketers still don’t spend enough time aiming at the emotional impact they want to have on their customers.

Now why would this be?

  1. We forget our job is to amaze and delight. There’s a lot to say about our companies, our products, our vision, and our contribution to the planet. So much that we forget we actually want people to buy our thing. And for that to happen we must first get their attention. The simple pressure of communicating what’s important to us overwhelms our need to prick the needle of delight.
  2. People don’t actually buy ideas until late in the funnel. At first they buy delight. Joy. Fun. Awesome. A client of ours spent hundreds of thousands and months researching why people came to her organization only to find that her customers were looking for fun. Fun? Not an educational experience? Or a new perspective? Or to be a better citizen. Just a plain old great way to kill a few hours and giggle. You see, great marketing promises a result. If you haven’t defined how you want people to react when they hear of you then you are not ready to go to market. (Doubt me? Dig out a recent agency brief and scour it for something resembling the A-ha Moment you want your customers to experience).
  3. Small is easier and simpler than Big. Big is bold. Big is dramatic. Big costs money and time. Big requires hard thinking, consensus, commitment and a willingness to change. Big is thus hard. For most, Big is simply too hard. Small? Small is easy to find. Easy to execute. Easy to change. Easy to replicate. Easy to test and adjust. And Small is not hard on a CEO who changes his mind, like, well, every week. (Which BTW is most of us now.) Nevertheless the right small idea can have immense power (hello Uber, who spun a small app into a revolution in global transportation).

For many of us, the future is about finding and exploiting A-ha Moments. We’ve gathered some of our best A-ha Moments on our new site. Take a look and see if you might benefit from thinking smaller in 2017.