The Best Ad Campaign I've Seen in a While

Most of the advertising I see these days is really bad. Many companies and their ad agencies try to steal our attention with provocative statements and imagery. They adopt "attract the bugs to the lights" strategies instead of doing the hard work necessary to understand and connect with their tribes. That’s why I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the Wall Street Journal’s new Make Time campaign. It's dang good. I stood in the subway and skipped the next train as I savored the simplicity and depth of the message. Am I a geek? Maybe. But I appreciate great craftsmanship. Here are a few thoughts on why this campaign is so effective and what we can learn from it.

The Campaign:


The messaging and storytelling is what makes this campaign so great. “People who don’t have time, make time to read the Wall Street Journal.” Sheer genius. The message reflects highly nuanced insights about the Wall Street Journal’s tribe. The WSJ tribe is made up of highly ambitious people who are busy leading, creating, and making an impact. These high performers don’t have leisure time to read a morning paper. But, they make time to read the WSJ because it helps them perform at their best. The message not only reinforces the tribe's beliefs, it handles customers' biggest product objection – time. It effectively reframes WSJ reading time as a professional investment.

The campaign supports the message with an artistically composed photo of Tory Birch (and other business leaders) reading the WSJ at work. Note that the photos depict people reading at work. The images support the message that the WSJ is a tool for career success – not an accompaniment for your Sunday morning coffee.

The subjects of the campaign are also carefully selected. The campaign creators chose Tory Burch (designer), (musician), Zhang Xim (CEO of Soho China), and Mike McCue (tech entrepreneur). Each of these individuals is an artist/creator as well as an ambitious business leader. The subjects suggest that the WSJ helps spark creativity and business savvy. They wisely did not include investment bankers or hedge fund managers in the campaign (despite the obvious connection given the paper's name). Finance professionals are, indeed, part of the WSJ tribe. However, featuring them in the campaign would lead the audience down a far less relatable path. It would suggest the WSJ is a tool for finance professionals instead of a tool for creative, ambitious people. Financial professionals can relate to Tory Burch’s ambition while non-finance professionals often have a hard time relating to the titans of finance.

The campaign supplements its out-of-home message with a digital experience. The landing page and videos reinforce the story with even higher fidelity. Here's the Tory Burch video:

The campaign concludes with a new tagline: “Read ambitiously.” I generally don’t like taglines because they are either too abstract or too cheeky to be meaningful. In this case, the tagline works. "Read" is a concrete verb and "ambitiously" perfectly describes the defining attribute of the WSJ tribe.

Key Takeaways:

The WSJ campaign offers a few great lessons for marketers, salespeople, and leaders.

1. Talk about your tribe, not yourself
We all tend to talk about ourselves when we should talk about our audiences. Most ads, sales pitches, and presentations are more about the company (or presenter) than the customer. Customers like hearing about themselves far more than they like hearing about vendors. So figure out what your audience cares about and talk about that. Your product or service is only useful insofar as it supports the beliefs of your tribe.

2. Don’t be average
Focus on extreme users, not average users. The WSJ campaign doesn't feature 9-5 employees who read the paper once a week. It focuses on creators and executives with no time who read it every day. Nobody is inspired by average. Yet we're tempted to say “our product is for everyone.” According to Seth Godin, the day of selling average products to average people is over. We need to be comfortable saying “our product may not be for you.” People who want a paper for a lazy Sunday should buy a USA Today. 

3. Do the hard work
Clever jingles and creative stunts are poor substitutes for an in-depth understanding of our audience. We need to roll up our sleeves and listen. Only after we know what our audience truly cares about can we tell a story which resonates with them. Then we need to do the hard work of making the story simple. One of my graduate school professors regularly cites this quote by Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr.: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Distilling nuance and complexity into something simple is hard and incredibly powerful. There is no shortcut to success – we have to do the hard work.

What do you think about this campaign? Are there any others that similarly reveal an underlying truth?

The Key to Great Sales Dinners


During our 2.5 years in stealth mode at Highfive we built a customer base of more than 100 customers with no website, no product, and no advertising. One of our most effective customer acquisition tactics was sales dinners. We hosted several of these dinners for heads of IT from the top companies in Silicon Valley including Dropbox, Uber, Evernote, Square, Pandora, and many more. Many of the companies became customers after the dinners. However, we didn’t invite our sales people and we didn’t do any selling. In fact, we had two rules for Highfive team members who attended these dinners: 1) never talk about us or our products and 2) don’t answer any questions unless explicitly asked. Sounds strange right? Not really. The secret to a great sales dinner is to stop selling. It's not about closing a sale, it's about cultivating a community. In this post, I’ll share the mechanics of how our dinners worked and why I believe similar events should be a regular part of any b2b company’s marketing mix.

The Sales Dinner
My old manager and the original CMO of claims to have invented the sales dinner. While his claim may inspire as much confidence as Al Gore's claim to inventing the Internet, he does appear to be one of the first people to bring customers and prospects together for sales dinners. His idea was that customers would help sell prospects if they broke bread together at the same table. The plan worked. These sales dinners have been a key part of the sales playbook for nearly 15 years. 

Stop Selling, Start Connecting
Every attendee at a sales dinner knows that at some point in the evening there will be a pitch where the sales person hawks the company's wares. The pitch usually includes a list of features and benefits. The only problem is, people don’t buy products for their features. They hire products to do a job. And part of that job is making sure that they continue to advance in their careers and add value to their employers. People don’t want to be pitched, they want to be connected. That’s why we decided to convert all of our sales dinners into roundtables.

Customer Roundtables
We regularly invite customers and prospects to roundtable discussions around particular themes. Our goal is to connect each attendee to his/her peers and to big ideas which may have nothing to do with our product. Here's how it works:

We invite 12-15 attendees with similar profiles (e.g. VP of IT at fast growing companies). I find that to be the optimal size for a diverse yet intimate conversation. We schedule 30-60 minutes for cocktails and 90-120 minutes for the dinner and discussion. After cocktails we seat everyone at a roundtable and kick off the discussion by having each person answer two questions:

  • What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?
  • What is one thing you’d like to learn from someone else at the table?

Then the facilitator guides the discussion towards the hottest topics.

My friend (and former World Economic Forum executive), Simon Mulcahy, deserves the credit for coming up with this format. He modeled it after the WEF councils in Davos. Simon demonstrated how important the role of the facilitator is to the success of the roundtable. While I could never facilitate a roundtable as well as Simon does, I have discovered what works and what doesn’t when it comes to facilitation:

Facilitator do's:

  • Sit in the center or head of the table
  • Learn the attendees interests during cocktails so you can integrate them into the discussion
  • Take note of key themes and specific interests during the introductions
  • Get the discussion rolling with more vocal attendees
  • Ask specific (often quieter) people for their experience or thoughts on the subject

Facilitator don'ts:

  • Answer questions yourself
  • Take a firm point of view
  • Give a product pitch

The facilitator’s goal is to create an environment where each attendee self-discovers new perspectives and insights on the topic.

This roundtable format worked well for us at Highfive. Word of mouth spread and we received numerous emails from IT leaders asking for invitations to future events. We also closed 80% of prospects who attended our dinners despite never giving a sales pitch.

I believe the key to a great sales dinner is to stop selling. Simply listen, connect, and facilitate, and your customer community (and sales) will thrive.

I hope that helps. What’s working for you with your sales dinners or field events?

Ski Resorts: Innovate or Die

Ski resorts are in danger of losing customers if they don't make skiing relevant and accessible.

Ski resorts are in danger of losing customers if they don't make skiing relevant and accessible.

Over the holidays I took my family skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho where I experienced the same feeling I get whenever I hop into a medallion taxi: this industry needs to innovate or die. I grew up skiing and always wanted to share my downhill passion with my kids. When I arrived in Sun Valley I realized nothing had change - and not in the good nostalgic way. Ski resorts have not innovated in the last 30 years and are falling out of touch with today’s consumer. We are living in a 140-character world. Ski resorts need to get relevant or die.

Where is the product innovation?

Sun Valley peak season full-day lift ticket prices vs. inflation since 1998

Sun Valley peak season full-day lift ticket prices vs. inflation since 1998

Ski resorts still rely on the same product they have for decades: the full-day all-mountain lift ticket. Ski resorts have rapidly increased prices in order to cover the costs of high speed quads, gondolas, and other infrastructure improvements. Over the past three years Sun Valley increased its lift ticket prices by more than 10% per year. That is more than 5x the rate of inflation. Other resorts have increased prices at similar rates. Here’s the problem: in a short-sighted attempt to recoup costs, ski resorts are ostracizing their core customer base and pricing the masses out of the market. I spent a single gondola ride thinking about a new marketing strategy for resorts like Sun Valley and here’s what I came up with:

Segment your customers:
Ski resorts should develop tailored offerings for three core customer segments:

i) Millenials - this segment represents the future of the sport. Ski resorts that want to be around in 20 years need to cater to millennial and hook them as lifelong customers. Millennials aren’t going to ski from 9am-4pm every day. They are multi-taskers who want action and variety - not fresh corduroy. They are also very price sensitive. $115 for a full-day lift ticket? Forget it.

ii) Young families – teaching their kids how to ski is one of the primary reasons parents take family ski vacations. Parents view it as an investment in a lifelong sport for their children. However, this investment needs to offer a reasonable value. Ski resorts need to make child care, ski school, and kids activities cheap, fun, and Facebook likable.

iii) Baby boomers – the boomers represent the golden age of skiing. They are the traditionalists who remember slow chairs and straight skies. They also tend to have more discretionary income. They no longer have the energy to ski all day long and would prefer to ski groomers for a couple hours and then retreat to a gorgeous lodge to drink chardonnay and talk with friends. Most resorts have catered to this audience so there isn’t a big need for new product offerings - just new pricing and packaging.

Create new product offerings:
Ski resorts should then develop products which cater to each of their customer segments.

i) Millenials – Devote a chair and section of the mountain to an X Games-style terrain park, slopestyle, and half pipe. The Greyhawk chair at Sun Valley would be perfect for this. I’d pump music through loud speakers on the hill and have a bar, stage, and viewing area at the bottom. People can sip microbrews and watch their buddies go big via real-time video feeds. I’d charge $40 for a park-only pass. Of course, there would also be live music, big air competitions, food and drink specials, t-shirts available for purchase which would probably bring the per day spend up to $60-70 per person.

Next, develop a multi-sport offering. Millennials like variety so ski resorts should create a single pass which gives customers all-day access to a suite of activities and gear including: skiing, snowboarding, terrain park, fat tire snow biking, and snowshoe trail running. Customers could do multiple activities in a day and end up at the base camp eating, drinking, listening to live music, and watching a nighttime competition.

ii) Young families – Sun Valley charges $300 for day care and $200/hour for private lessons. Crazy. They are profit maximizing on each transaction instead of optimizing for lifetime value. For small kids I’d offer a kids camp for a reasonable tuition and include a free adult lift ticket. I’d make it full-week pricing very attractive (e.g. the same price as 3 individual days). The resorts could offer enrichment add-ons including private lessons and an evening pajama party so parents can dine out.

I’d also incorporate wearables. Each family member should get a GPS-enabed bracelet which serves as an ID badge, GPS locator, lift pass, and payment system. Parents can add value to the bracelet and keep track of their kids’ spending and whereabouts. This would give older kids independence while keeping them safe and making it easy to meet up with parents for a few obligatory runs.

iii) Baby boomers – As I mentioned, ski resorts have already catered to baby boomers with high-speed lifts, grooming, and luxurious lodges. Boomers still go on ski vacations but tend to only ski for a few hours and don’t ski every day. Offer a “forever young” discount and include a free glass of wine for a day pass as well as per run pricing and this segment should be happy.

Build a pipeline:
Ski resorts need feeder programs which introduce people to the sport and their resorts. Baseball uses little league and farm leagues to develop players. Disney uses movies and books to captivate its audience and drive theme park visits. Destination ski resorts need local programs to drive pipeline for the resort. That could mean buying local mountains like Vail has done. Or simply offering compelling promotions through alliances with local mountains, airlines, and schools. Resorts need to create critical mass within specific geographies because people want to vacation at the same resort as their friends, neighbors, and classmates. If I were Sun Valley, I’d pick five cities to dominate: let’s say Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Chicago (I’m just making those up, the best way would be to look at its current customer geographic makeup). Then I’d structure programs to make it easy and cost effective for locals to visit the destination resort.

Offer flexible pricing:
Since we have already introduced wearable bracelets it would be easy to introduce per run pricing. Ski resorts should welcome skiers who may only ski a couple runs and call it a day. After all, they will likely indulge in other services (food, drinks, gear, rentals) and by definition won’t clog up the mountain. The skier can ski as many or as few runs as he or she wants and pays accordingly. The skier is never charged more than the cost of a full-day lift ticket. Resorts can use Uber-like surge pricing to avoid congestion at 9am on powder days. This will bring more skiers to the hill more often while not congesting the mountain.

Lastly, make seasons passes affordable. Sun Valley’s season pass is $2,299 which is equal to 20 days of peak season lift tickets. That means only locals would buy it. Instead, ski resorts should price season’s passes at just over a week of skiing. That creates an incentive to visit the mountain for two separate week vacations. Seasons passes are powerful because they provide upfront cash and give the resort predictability and financial liquidity.

Alright, that’s a quick summary of my gondola brainstorm on how ski resorts can get relevant and thrive. I didn’t have time to get into how to make the resort relevant in all four seasons (another key to survival - maybe that’s a future post). I want to make sure I can enjoy the sport with my kids the same way I enjoyed it with my parents. The only way that will happen is if ski resorts get aggressive and innovate.

Is anyone else thinking about this subject? What are your thoughts?

photo credit: angelocesare

Off-site Exercises That Don't Suck

Let’s face it, company off-sites can suck. You have the best intentions of planning an impactful retreat to align and motivate your team but you end up boring them to tears with trust falls and mission statements. We recently held a Highfive off-site in Half Moon Bay. Some of the things we did were awesome and some, well, weren’t. Here are three exercises that worked. 

1. Happiness Index

Our team loves data. Especially our own data. We had everyone fill out a Highfive Happiness Index survey one week prior to the off-site. We aggregated, printed, and bound the results for everyone to see. We shared everything – the good, the bad, the ugly. The free response questions in particular led to honest and open conversations about things we need to improve in order to build the kind of company we love. See our GetFeedback survey here.

Recommended time: 60 minutes 

2. Vote with Your Feet

We developed this exercise with the help of my former Stanford professor and HBR contributor, Ed Batista.

First, we hand-picked values statements from the culture decks and mission statements of companies we admire such as Zappos, Netflix, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods, HubSpot, and Google. Next, we created a paper and pencil survey that lists fourteen of these value statements on a Likert scale. At the offsite, we gave everyone the survey and asked them to privately rank Highfive on a scale of 1 (“we never”) to 7 (“we always”) for each of the statements. Download a copy of survey here.

After a short break we placed seven orange cones evenly across the room, each one marked with a number from 1 to 7. We then read out each statement on the survey and had everyone “vote with their feet” by standing next to the cone with the same number as their survey score. Groupthink can be a problem in these environments which is why the paper survey was so important, it kept everyone honest. We then let the conversation begin. We were amazed at how frequently team members rated Highfive on opposite ends of the spectrum for the same value statement. Digging into “the why” behind these outlier rankings brought out some incredible insights and generated a ton of practical ideas.

Recommended time: 90 minutes

 3. Make it Tactical

One of Marc Benioff’s favorite sayings is “the tactics define the strategy.” We decided to commit to a series of tactics with the hope that those tactics will do more to shape the values of the company than a hollow mission statement. We picked four company values using our favorite method of sticky note voting. They are:

1) Make work fun
2) Love our mission
3) Strive for better
4) Deliver magical customer experiences

We then broke into four groups and had each group come up a couple tactical changes that we can implement immediately upon our return to the office. We’re putting these ideas into action right now.

Recommended time: 90 minutes

So there you go. A four-hour off-site program that doesn’t suck. My recommendation is spend the rest of your allocated time eating, drinking, and hanging out – leave the trust falls at home.

How to pick killer company and product names

There is power in a name. Great names communicate certain attributes of your brand and product experience. They create memorable impressions (e.g. Virgin). Over time great names save millions of dollars in marketing expense since you don't have to constantly buy media to explain what your company stands for or what your product does. Conversely, no amount of marketing dollars can makeup for bad names (remember the Chevy Nova?). So how do you come up with a killer name which reflects your brand attributes and product experience?

Sadly most companies fall victim to one of the following naming mistakes:

  • HiPPO (highest paid person's opinion)
  • Keep the project's code name
  • Use whatever domain name is cheap and available
  • Hire an expensive agency

Most of the time these strategies yield poor results. Don't worry! There is hope. Commit to a few simple naming exercises and I'm willing to bet you'll come up with brilliant ideas. Here are a few exercises that will help you find a killer name.

How to Pick Killer Company and Product Names

Exercise #1: Brandscape

This brandscape exercise establishes the personality of your company, product, or service. Think of your brand as a person. How would you describe it if it were walking down the street in the flesh? Branding expert Jonathan Bolden from Leader created this card sorting exercise to help you discover your brand's personality.

Print out cards with images of people, places and things in the following 10 categories.

  • Cars
  • Actors
  • Actresses
  • Trees
  • Places
  • Sports
  • Animals
  • Architecture
  • Brands
  • Colors

Each category should have a set of distinct images. For example the cars category may include: 

  • Toyota Camry
  • VW Jetta
  • Harley Davidson
  • Tesla
  • Toyota Tundra
  • Subaru Outback
  • Audi RS8
  • Lexus ES300
  • Honda CRV
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Range Rover
  • GMC Yukon
  • Honda Odyssey
  • Ford F-150
  • Corvette
  • Rolls Royce

Go through each card and decide whether or not it reflects your brand. Explain why or why not. Write key attributes down on post-it notes and put them on the wall. By the end of the exercise you will have a series of images and descriptive terms which reflect the personality of your brand. You can then group all the terms into four clear themes. Our brand attributes at Highfive are:

  • Progressive
  • Human
  • Empowering
  • Cheeky

Exercise #2: Analogy Boards

Channel your inner elementary student and get ready to have some fun with analogy boards. While the brandscape focuses on brand attributes, analogy boards focus on product experiences. Start by coming up with three experiences which are analogous to your product experience. The three experiences we used at Highfive were:

  • Launching off an aircraft carrier
  • Winning the World Cup
  • The last day of school

Write each experience on a separate poster. Then pick up a stack of magazines fit for creative destruction. I stopped by a couple of the countless nail salons in San Francisco and offered to take old magazines off their hands. After commenting on the odd nature of my request the salon owners happily obliged.

Next, get your teammates together and have them cut images out of the magazines which they feel best represent the experience on the board. Have each person pick their favorite image and describe why they think it embodies the emotion of the experience. Keep it fast and scrappy. Write keywords on post-it notes and put them on the poster board alongside the images. Get creative and get messy! You'll be surprised at how many great ideas and terms come out of the exercise. And yes, you'll be surprised at how much your most hardened engineers enjoy searching through fashion and hair product magazines.

Exercise #3: Crowdsourcing

Create a contest for your teammates, investors and customers. We printed large images of our product on a giant foam board with a note that said "Hello, my name is ________." We provided plenty of food and cocktails and had our guests write their ideas directly on the board.

Exercise $4: Competitive Namescape

While I think great companies and products should focus more on their customers than on their competitors, it never hurts to keep an eye on the competition. Your name should standout in a crowd. Use the competitive names cape to make sure your name doesn't follow the industry herd.

List all your competitors in the left column of namescape matrix. Then put a check mark in the column which best represents the competitor's name. The columns are:

  • Functional - names which describe what the product is or does. Functional names tend to be the most common and least differentiated (e.g. Whole Foods, Public Storage, OfficeMax).
  • Invented - names which have no semantic meaning (e.g. Skype, Häagen-Dazs).
  • Experiential - names which describe the product experience (e.g. Highfive, Zendesk, Under Armour).
  • Eye Opener - names which are provocative and create cognitive dissonance when associated with a particular category, product, or service (e.g. Virgin, Starbucks).

In general, names increase in differentiated value from functional to eye opener. However, its important to look for white spaces which represent opportunities to differentiate from your competition.

Exercise #5: Dot Voting

Okay, now you have a solid list of potential names. Now its time to vote. Put each name on a post-it note. Give team members five dots each and have them "dot" the name(s) they like best. 

Exercise #6: Due Diligence

Sadly, I don't have a fun creative process for due diligence - just hard work and iteration. Once you have your finalists screen them for domain availability, trademark risk, and unintended foreign translations.

Picking great company and product names pays huge dividends for your business. You don't need to be a creative genius to come up with great names. Just use a few of the naming exercises above. You'll not only come up with a great name, you'll also enjoy the journey!