Thursday, August 28, 2008

10 questions with tom fishburne

"by Ben McConnell -
Church of The Customer

(Note: method comes into play in the second half of the interview, and even moreso when you click over to finish reading the rest! Enjoy!)

Tom Fishburne is the Gary Larson of marketing: He creates cartoons that lampoon the often-ridiculous nature of business processes and marketing.

His inspiration is his work as a marketer at companies like General Mills, Nestle and home-product manufacturer Method Products, where he currently resides as senior marketing director of Europe.

His new book, "This One Time at Brand Camp," is a collection of his work from 2005-2008 (and features a foreword from CotC blogger Jackie Huba). We sat down with Tom (virtually) and tossed a basketful of questions at him.

Q: What's the biggest challenge in being a brand manager today?

Remarkable thinking. Then shepherding that thinking through the organizational gates. Too often the edges of a great idea get sanded, eventually launching as a pale shadow of the original idea.

I love this quote from Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad: "Advertising is a tax you pay for unremarkable thinking."

Q: What's the biggest trap most brand managers stupidly fall into?

The mass market trap. Chasing market size. Trying to appeal to everyone and avoiding alienating anyone. By trying to appeal to everyone, no one gets excited.

In my past brand lives, we joked that our target was "a woman, age 25–39, with a pulse." Instead, if you cater to a passionate and vocal niche, you become more meaningful. Consumer loyalty follows. Niche marketing isn't just for small brands. General Mills does a great job of training marketers to find and truly understand your niche's brand champions. You create your products and marketing just for them. When you do, much of the mass market will follow, too.

Q: A central theme among many of your cartoons is the fear of standing out. From your experience at various companies, who typically is the driver in the race to be average -- an internal person/department or a force outside the company, such as Wall Street?

The fear of standing out mainly comes from inside the company. When I started at General Mills, a big product launch called Wahoos had just failed. Many people who worked on it had been let go. That created the Wahoos hangover: If someone suggested a risky idea in a meeting, someone else would say "we don't want another Wahoos." Most companies have their own version of a Wahoos hangover.

When I was at General Mills and Nestle I tacked this quote over my desk from Doug Hall: "Don't be afraid to take risks. Corporations have an amazing array of checks, balances, and safety nets to prevent you from hitting the wall at ninety miles an hour. Be bold and brash. Develop a reputation for it."

Q: How serious is the disconnect when brand managers work 12-16 months on product then, because of the nature of the employment game, move on to a new one? How can you build customer loyalty with such a short timeframe?

It's like that game of telephone we all played in kindergarten. A departing brand manager whispers their insights and brand plan to the replacement, much of which gets lost in the transition. Often the replacement brand manager starts from scratch with research and navel-gazing. As soon as the replacement brand manager gets a feel for the job, they move on, and the telephone game continues.

When I was starting out, I loved the quick transitions because I got exposure to different situations. But it's not great for creating customer loyalty. It sands the edges. It can feel like a different brand incarnation each year. A lot of hard work gets lost in the revolving door.

Q: Provide us, if you will, a brief, state of the union report on retailing today.

Retailing is in flux with the credit crunch. It will make consumers think hard about their brand choices. If a brand has proven that it is meaningful, it will continue to do well. If not, its true colors will be exposed. This is an acid test for meaningful brands.

Q: Who typically has the more insanely inflated ego: marketers or professional wrestlers?

Most of the marketers I've worked with have been down-to-earth. That's why I think ego inflation comes from hierarchy.

For instance, when I was at General Mills, all of the executives worked in a separate wing that even had its own parking garage we called the Bat Cave (where all the Jaguars went to park). They had a different dress code in the executive wing and there was very little mixing. The hierarchy was reinforced at every turn. As you progressed in marketing, you moved from a cubicle to something called an "officle" to eventually an office. You could tell the seniority of someone with an office by counting the number of ceiling tiles. I remember an official memo that stated that marketers above a certain level were entitled to leather Filofax binders. Everyone else received pleather. I swear I'm not making this up.

All of this resulted in a medical condition I call Title-itis, where it was assumed that the more senior the marketer, the better their ideas. It's tempting to start breathing your own exhaust in an environment like that.

I love the idea of a "No Holds Barred Title Bout World Marketing Federation Cage Match."

Q: Did your cartoon work help or hinder your landing at Method?

I joined method thanks to my cartoons (tell that to my high school guidance counselor). I discovered method in 2003 and was inspired by the impact they were making with such a small team. Then, I discovered that Eric Ryan, their co-founder, was getting my cartoon each week. So, I drew a cartoon on method comparing them to Apple and their famous "1984" ad where they took on IBM as Big Brother. That was my cover letter. When I actually joined the company a few years later, I told Eric that my last boss often said that if he ever ended up in a cartoon that I would be fired. Eric responded that if he didn't end up in a cartoon that I would be fired.

My cartoons often lampoon the type of business absurdities I try to exploit in my day job working with method as a challenger brand. Many of my cartoons are used around the company, in presentations on our strategy and even in our handbook. Eric often pings me with an idea that he wants to communicate. I'm pretty candid though, so I often cover topics in my cartoons if I think we're making a wrong call, steering in the wrong direction, or becoming too process-driven.

Q: What's your marketing mix for Method?

Eric once calculated that our competitors literally spend more on employee toilet paper than we do on advertising. We can't outspend them..."

Check out Church of The Customer to read the rest!

And Holy Yow!, I got another shout out, this time from Tom! "We know (word of mouth) is working when we find consumers like Nathan, who created an entire blog devoted to method."

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