dhc-brandingOne of the costs of getting older is seeing your parents get older, and that unfortunately means spending more time in hospitals.  This past week, my father-in-law was admitted to the local hospital with various heart issues. The hospital is part of the Dignity Health family.

As I drove into the main entrance, in the planter ahead of the garage were three foot tall 3-dimensional orange letters greeting me with “CARING.”  Passing one of the driveway fences, an attached orange sign declared “Every breath matters.”  Stepping into the main lobby, more 3D oversized letters spelled out “HELLO.”  Throughout the hallways, large posters offered various thoughtful messages and insights about Humankindness, which is the company’s main marketing theme (“Hello Humankindness”).  I even saw the same great posters in the basement hallways which are mostly used by the hospital staff. You couldn’t miss the point. And just as important, neither could the staff.

This is what branding is supposed to be, not just a slogan or logo or corporate color scheme but a complete experience.  “Environmental branding” unites the marketing messages presented in ads, commercials and online media with how the customer experiences the company at the street-level. More than that, it serves as a declaration of a company’s way of being. (You can’t promote that humankindness is important if you treat your families dispassionately, or worse.)

This idea of environmental branding is nothing particularly new, as everybody experiences it at their local Target or Starbucks or market or gas station. In essence, it is designed to get guests or customers (and employees) to align themselves with the brand while within the setting. Done correctly, it wins loyal and raving fans.

So, if environmental branding works in the retail setting, why not in other areas…such as hospitals. Or cemeteries or funeral homes?  Can you think of better opportunities to ease a family’s worries and let them know they’re in the best of hands and at the same time set the business apart from its competition?

Part of what makes the Dignity Health program work so well is that it’s not being done by other hospitals. Most hospitals look and feel like most other hospitals.  But Dignity hospitals deliberately look different and so it registers on the “audience” differently. That’s the value of being disruptive. Dignity has stepped outside the box and it’s paying off.

Unfortunately, most funeral providers are behind the curve when it comes to stepping outside the box.

Recently, we spoke with a funeral home owner whose own private office featured an amazing wall-mural of painted flowers. It was beautiful.  It was art.  The owner told me it was done by one of his family members.  I asked him why he didn’t do the same thing in the lobby, where families could see something unique and wonderful.  He said he was nervous about doing so because it’s not what families expect. I said that’s exactly why he should do it!  And yet, he hasn’t.

Although cemeteries are by nature “environmental,” they often miss the marketing opportunities available throughout their parks, such as branding with unique messages and signs in the parking lot, at the entries, along fences, and in the office lobbies. All I often see are the hours of operation, days of flower & decoration removal and service directionals. Ah, what superb opportunities missed!

I would offer this up to anyone running a funeral home or cemetery:  If there’s a Dignity Health hospital in your area, pay it a visit and see how they’re creating a complete experience – one that’s not too distant in spirit from what a cemetery or funeral home traditionally offers: care, compassion, dignity.

Dignity Health has done it right. Now it’s your turn.


Dan Katz is president, creative director of LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Dan on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit www.LAadsMarketing.com.  You can also connect with Dan on LinkedIn. See agency work via this link.


cem-dec-2016-coverWhittier, CA – LA ads client Rose Hills Memorial Park has been selected as this year’s winner of the prestigious ACE (American Cemetery Excellence) Award. The award, presented by American Cemetery & Cremation Magazine, one of the leading publications serving the funeral and cemetery industry, recognizes the most outstanding cemeteries both within the United States and abroad.

This year’s award honors the largest memorial park in North America, whose history spans 102 years, and reflects one of the most culturally diverse communities anywhere in the nation.  While Rose Hills provides approximately 9,000 burials annually, its commitment to caring, individualized service has remained its hallmark since its opening.  The cemetery has been acclaimed nationally for its cultural diversity, its social responsibility and its community involvement, including a massive water reclamation project that began well before California’s drought crisis, and the effort to literally reshape itself to offer aesthetically and spiritually exceptional spaces for burial and remembrance within in the principles of Feng Shui, reflecting its growing Asian community.  Throughout the year, Rose Hills hosts numerous religious, cultural and veterans’ events, drawing many thousands of attendees from across Southern California.

“We are extremely proud to be the recipient of this significant award,” said Rose Hills president and CEO, Patrick Monroe. “To be officially recognized as the best cemetery in the nation acknowledges our mission to serve our entire community with passion and excellence.”

In addition to its spectacular grounds and exceptional family service, Rose Hills was cited for being at the digital forefront, developing multiple websites, specialized landing pages, Facebook pages and other key social media platforms that speak to its many different audiences in their respective languages and cultures. Most recently, the cemetery launched a light-hearted series of YouTube videos (“Short Takes”) that answer questions people often want to know about cemeteries and funerals…but were afraid to ask.

From Cemetery & Cremation magazine: To help these groups feel “included,” Rose Hills has sought out multiple marketing agencies that specialize in selected populations. Today, three agencies serve Rose Hills: LA ads, responsible for English-language and “general” audiences and lead agency for creating the messaging strategy for all agencies; ARAS for Latino (Mexican) and other Spanish-speaking families; and InterTrend for reaching Asian communities, notably Chinese but also Korean, Vietnamese and others.

“People tend to think that a cemetery is about honoring preserving the past.  We feel here that Rose Hills is just as much about looking forward to the Future,” added Mr. Monroe.

Former ACE winners include Curlew Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor, Florida; Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York; Springvale Botanical Cemetery in Victoria, Australia; and East Lawn Memorial Parks in Sacramento, California.

About Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary

Founded in 1914, Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary, #FD970, has since grown to be the largest memorial park in North America. It is a full-service memorial facility with a modern mortuary, flower shop, reception center, and premiere cemetery property to serve the community in both pre-need and at-need situations. It serves 10,000 families a year. Rose Hills is located in Whittier, California, with approximately 1,400 acres of property for current use or future development and is considered to be the largest single-operated cemetery in the world. Although it is purposely secluded, Rose Hills is only minutes away from any point in the Greater Los Angeles or Orange County area, and offers a full range of cemetery and funeral services to meet the memorialization needs of Southern California families. For information, visit www.rosehills.com.

political-adBy Rolf Gutknecht

I’m so glad it’s over. Probably like you, my home phone was being called at an increasing rate the closer that we got to Election Day. Candidates’ faces and names were everywhere and on everything from direct mail to lawn signs and outdoor boards to TV and radio commercials.  As annoying as it was, there were a number of messaging strategies and tactics that caught my attention because they were executed exceedingly well, which, as marketers, we should consider adding to our communication toolkits for use tomorrow, next week or next month. For as we all know, your customer and prospects are still being bombarded with marketing messages each and every day by both you and your competitors.

So let me share with you some strategies and tactics used by politicians leading up to November 8th that are worth remembering today.

1)      Understand the takeaway

Truth is, these folks do have some things to teach us marketers, particularly regarding messaging. They see the world a bit differently than we do, and use techniques most people didn’t learn in school or on the job, such as: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and existing beliefs. We focus too much of our energy on finding the best way to sell our message, and too little on understanding the filters consumers have as we deliver it. Political marketers care more about takeaways than inputs.

2)     Make it look good

Did you see the biographic videos produced by the two Presidential candidates? They were extraordinarily well done. A number of other political ads were also well done from a storytelling and video perspective. They stayed on message concentrating on the one critical point (not 4 or 5 points) that they wanted to make sure was communicated. The videos were shot and narrated well. They didn’t hire amateurs to do their work but had expert writers and producers creating the content. Like with your business, there’s too much at stake to do cheap stuff because everyone knows what cheap means. People interpret what your company or brand stands for based on the quality of creative and the media channel it’s presented on. Don’t go out until you look good.

3)     Be the genuine article

Business marketing sometimes seems to stretch the truth a bit too much. When marketing messages are sufficiently visible and sufficiently wrong, the press will get wind and call you on the truth of your marketing. Transparency of your brand could never be more important. It is less about giving the appearance of perfection and more about being genuine and human as we build relationships. While it’s critically important to craft your story and advocate for the benefits of your product or service, it’s not fine to lie about them. My mom use to tell me “Lies have short legs,” meaning you can’t outrun the truth …so don’t stretch.

4)     You are who you say you are

In the world of politics, I would argue that there’s nothing as important as branding and having people recognize what the brand stands for. Brand consistency is always maintained.  Unlike politicians, too many companies struggle with this, swinging wildly from one branding concept to another. In political ads, everything from the taglines to the logos to the visuals has been choreographed beautifully. Get your branding figured out right now. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if your branding is clear:

  • Could your customers tell you what your tagline is?
  • Could company employees draw your logo?
  • Can any employee explain in 10-15 seconds why your company can do it better than the competition?

5)     Be social…not antisocial

Politicians don’t just post stuff to their respective Twitter or Facebook accounts and hope people will read it. Rather, they actually engage with their social media audience. They post images and video. They have their immediate families and supporters use social media regularly. How is your company using social media to spread the good word about your company? I’ll be the first to say that spending a lot of time, money and resources on social media is not right for every company, maybe not even yours, but without some presence, you’re letting the competition become more visible and be seen as a legitimate business partner at your expense.

6)     Tell the story again and again

Why are most political ads annoying? Some of it is the content, but I think most of the annoyance is the sheer quantity of political advertising as elections draw near. But politicians know one thing: without a communications budget that allows you to be out in the market in a way that shows you’re a player, you won’t get the job done. Far too many companies who do “invisible marketing” base their companies short and long term success on thinking that customers will pick them over a brand that’s actively marketing and better known. The takeaway is that repetition is key …but too much repetition annoys.

As I said earlier, I’m glad the madness of the political advertising season is over. But I’m grateful to have observed it from a marketer’s perspective, because it’s a reminder that each and every day customers and prospects are voting who they want to do business with.  Let the winner be you.

# # # #

Rolf Gutknecht is vice president, director of account services for LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Rolf on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit www.LAadsMarketing.com.  You can also connect with Rolf on LinkedIn.

RollerAs I write this, my house is in complete disarray.  We have a contractor tearing up my girls’ old bedrooms and converting them into a guestroom and an art studio for my wife. It isn’t pretty…but soon will be.  As I walk past the tarp and power tools and stepladders, I’m so appreciative that there are people whom I can call on who know how to do this with an assured and desirable outcome.  I use experts to prepare my taxes, to check under my engine, to tell me my cholesterol is too high.  I leave the do-it-yourself projects to things that have very low consequences if I screw it up.

Marketing is not a low-consequence endeavor.  If it doesn’t succeed, company fortunes and employee livelihoods are at risk.  And yet, for too many companies, especially in the funeral profession, marketing continues to be a do-it-yourself project.

It doesn’t take an expert to see the results of this by simply flipping through the pages of any newspaper or magazine.  Home-made ads are usually the ones you ignore, are plainly designed (or far worse) without style or a fresh point of view.  The same goes for websites, Facebook pages, direct mail, radio commercials and company brochures.

D-I-Y is pervasive – but hardly ever persuasive!

We get inquiries all the time from businesses who have been creating their home-made ads and realize that the outcomes haven’t been what they’d wish for.  But just as quickly, they pull back, fearful of relinquishing control and suffering sticker shock when they compare the cost of their D-I-Y efforts to professional services.  What they’re missing is that by spending money for professional objectivity, expertise and talent, they dramatically increase the chances of their marketing actually having serious bottom-line impact.

The results of making the leap from D-I-Y to seeking out professional help can be dramatic.  I’ve seen countless times sizable changes in traffic, sales and inquiries that resulted from putting the marketing in the hands of experts who excel in that craft.  That’s how after 20 years, some businesses become overnight successes!

And by “experts,” I’m not talking about letting the local newspaper design the ad.  They’re experts in reporting the news and selling media space, not on helping families learn how to cope with loss or see the value in planning ahead, or helping you build a long-term competitive position in the marketplace.   Nor am I talking about brother Bernie’s kid who took two semesters of computer graphics and makes rock band t-shirt designs.

Every town has ad agencies and marketing firms who can provide you the ideal strategic guidance and talent required to make a difference.  They come in just about every flavor, from one-man shops to multi-floor mega-agencies.  Selecting the right company is a matter of chemistry, portfolio, history of success and their desire to win your business.  It’s no different than choosing an accountant, contractor or garage mechanic.  Price is a factor, but should never be the deciding factor – any more than seeking out the cheapest physician when you’re worried about internal bleeding.  (Remember, it’s your company’s life on the line.)

Here are some tips in selecting a marketing provider (or better yet, a marketing partner!):

  • Look at their work.  Does it surprise you?  Would it stop you if you were to stumble across it?  Will you remember it an hour later?
  • Ask how they would approach your business, learn about your audiences and develop strategies to attract new business.  This is especially important if they don’t have your specific category in their client roster.
  • Ask how they’ve handled similar marketing challenges in the past.
  • Look for a range of client types and industries.  Good ideas cross-pollinate.  On the other hand,  one-industry agencies limit how far you can go because they’re always reaching into the same old bag of tricks.
  • Ask for references, and then follow-up.  Ask their references if the company is easy to work with, do they listen, how do they deal with failures (’cause they happen even to the best of brands), and how responsive they are to requests and changes.

Just remember, success isn’t about your being able to do everything or know everything.  It’s about being able to find the very best resources to complement what you do and know.

That’s why I know when to run to Home Depot myself and when to call on the guys who are ripping out the girls’ closets right about now.


Dan Katz is president, creative director of LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Dan on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit www.LAadsMarketing.com.  You can also connect with Dan on LinkedIn. See agency work via this link.

growth-mindsetWhat a great NFDA Convention it was in Philadelphia this past week!  The soles on our red shoes were feeling pretty thin after all our traipsing around the massive exhibit hall.  I hope you caught the flash mob we arranged for Sich Casket just outside the hall on the first day.  What better way for a “Non-Chinese” Chinese casket company to introduce itself than with a rousing surprise chorus of “God Bless America!”

The vibes all across the hall were very upbeat.  We were particularly interested in discovering new products, new ideas, and new services, and indeed, there were a number of them.  But…

As we looked at the booths that drew the most traffic, they were the same exhibitors we’ve seen in years past, most notably the casket companies, the chemical companies, several memorial & vault companies, some pre-need insurance groups and a few big software names. Basically, the “staples” of the funeral business.

But what struck me was the number of booths that had hardly any traction whatsoever.  Admittedly, some of them did abysmal jobs of “selling” their stories at their own booths.  (See my earlier blogs about “Tradeshowmanship.”) But there were DNA companies, some new software offerings, unusual cremation products, webcasting services and others that folks walked right past as they bee-lined it to the names and products they already knew.

OK, with over 400 exhibitors, it’s hard to take in everything.  But it seemed to signify a crowd who was more interested in what IS versus what’s NEXT.  And this theme has been echoed to us by a number of innovative suppliers who can’t seem to make any headway despite having the products or services that could help a funeral home or cemetery expand in a contracting climate.

And that’s ironic, given that the common theme of both state and national funeral association events is the need to embrace change and discover new opportunities.

My wife, a professional educator, is constantly talking about creating a “Growth Mindset” among her students, which is all about having the openness to explore, the willingness to make mistakes and be OK with that, and the self-motivation to push past one’s perceived limitations.  If 15-year-olds can develop a growth mindset, why can’t a 45-year-old funeral director?  Why can’t the profession as a whole?

At the next state or national convention you attend, why not challenge yourself to stop by at least five booths that you wouldn’t have ordinarily.  See if there aren’t a few new ideas you could incorporate into your thinking, or a few new products you could incorporate into your offerings.

Why not commit to being ahead of the curve rather than falling farther and farther behind it?


Dan Katz is president, creative director of LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Dan on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit www.LAadsMarketing.com.  You can also connect with Dan on LinkedIn. See agency work via this link.

picard-facepalmI really wish marketing was a science instead of an art.  It’s great to think that when you mix together the right formula of strategic messaging, targeted creative execution and thoughtful media planning all financed by an adequate budget, out pops the perfect sales results you desire.  Ah, if this were only the case.  It’s not.  In fact, there’s not a marketing exec alive who can look you in the eye and tell you that every campaign he or she created was a winner.  Some efforts, if the truth be known, were complete and utter disasters.  It happens.

They happen more frequently in the funeral business than in many other industries because of the greater challenge of speaking to an audience who doesn’t want to hear about death.  Moreover, the majority of funeral businesses are run by people whose own backgrounds lay in providing compassionate care, not writing strategic marketing plans.

Marketing failures generally happen for two reasons.  The first and most common reason is the combination of lack of experience, unfocused effort and minimum expenditure leading to insufficient marketing results.  The ol’ rocket just didn’t have the stuff to get off the launch pad in the first place.  The truth is that this accounts for most marketing duds.  Usually then the owner looks at the marketing manager and says, “See, I told you advertising doesn’t work!”

However, the second reason for marketing failure is the kind I actually support, where the right effort was made, the proper budget was spent, the creative was fresh and the media seemed properly chosen, but still, THUD!  Another egg was laid.  Why do I support this kind of failure?  Because it wasn’t from lack of energy or forethought.  Sometimes, $%#@* just happens.  Sometimes, in an effort to think outside the box and venture out on a limb, the limb snaps. (But if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained.)

Of course, there are a hundred other factors that can negatively influence results outside the marketer’s control.

Remember, some very bright, highly experienced professionals came up with the Ford Edsel and New Coke.  But Ford Motor Company and Coca Cola have done pretty well before and since.  And think about how many new products McDonald’s introduces that don’t last even a year?

In the world of direct response (infomercials, junk mail, etc.), failures happen all the time.  But experienced direct response marketers willingly accept this fact, knowing that everything is all about testing.  They just keep tweaking the copy, fiddling with the offer, adjusting the media until the results start to show positive results.  And then they tweak and fiddle some more until the sales needle climbs or dips with each new change.  Those ab flexer and indoor grill commercials that sell by the millions are the result of many successive failures on top of which have been layered ongoing testing, ongoing fixing, and a willingness to keep playing the game.

Do not shrink away from the possibility of failure in your marketing.  My wife, a very accomplished high school teacher, has on her desk a sign that says “The greatest risk in education is not taking one.”  I’d say the same so perfectly applies to the world of marketing.


Dan Katz is president, creative director of LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Dan on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit www.LAadsMarketing.com.  You can also connect with Dan on LinkedIn. See agency work via this link.


expensive-adIt happened again:  A client of ours was speaking with one of their customers and mentioned that our agency was doing the marketing for them.  The response was, “Oh, yeah, I hear they’re good but they’re expensive!”

Our client doesn’t think so, given that their marketing has resulted in more business than they’ve ever had.  But one more time, someone has used the “E-Word” without any substantiation.

So, with no intention of sounding self-serving, let’s tackle this head-on, shall we?  What does “Expensive” mean?  And what exactly is their point of reference, in other words, expensive compared to what?

(By the way, “good but expensive” has been a line that has cropped up at every – and I mean every – advertising and marketing firm I’ve ever worked at, not just my own.)

Here are some reference points that are often cited as measures of what is and isn’t expensive:

  • Having one’s TV commercials created by the local cable station isn’t expensive. Aside from the fact that they really aren’t imaginative, not well-produced and don’t get the attention of anybody but the people on your own staff.
  • Having the newspaper or magazine’s sale department create the ad isn’t expensive. Although it’s unlikely that the ad will get anyone talking about it or take the desired action that justifies the media expense – coupon ads excepted.
  • Creating one’s own ads is inexpensive. But home-made looks home-made, and even if those in the company don’t see the difference, the audience certainly does.
  • Pulling “stock” ads out of a catalog isn’t expensive. On the other hand, it absolutely guarantees that the ad isn’t really building your unique brand since hundreds of others have also plugged their logo into the box at the lower right hand corner.
  • Running a social media-only campaign isn’t expensive. But driving up your “Likes” actually does cost time and money, and hoping a post will go “viral” is a hit-or-miss proposition, which is like deciding you’re going to play for the NBA: only a very very few out of all the contenders actually go all the way. Most end up with no results to show for it.

So what are you paying “more” for with a professional marketing agency?  If the agency’s worth its salt, there’s a lot of sweat-building strategic homework up front, such as determining who is the best audience to target, comparing what’s going on competitively in the marketplace, making sure that the message actually has motivating power, thinking about visual and verbal cues that impact emotionally as well as rationally, strategizing the best call-to-action, and deciding how the results can be measured. There’s nothing “off the shelf” about this critical process.  And then, there’s the creative component that assures the greatest stopping-power in both words and images.  Especially in funeral marketing, creatively breaking through to a strongly disinterested and jaded audience is paramount. (Ads that the audience expects are an instant turn-off.)  Admittedly, this kind of higher-end creative and strategic brainpower costs more because good agencies pay more to attract good talent to work for them.  But the results more than compensate for the added expense.

I’ve long said, marketing is a self-fulfilling prophecy:  If you believe in its power, you’ll invest your time, your resources and your money to make it work and you’ll be right.  And if you don’t believe in it, you’ll hold back, go the “inexpensive” route, and you’ll be right as well.

I have a sign on my wall that says:

If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.

It’s more true than words can say.  So what’s expensive?

Are funerals expensive?  Yes, but families benefit in untold ways from a healing memorial experience that lasts lifetimes.

Are cars expensive?  Yes, at least the ones that don’t break down before their first oil change, provide genuine safety and make you feel good to be behind the wheel. (And let’s be honest, are you really driving the cheapest car on the lot?)

Is health care expensive?  Yeah, you bet.  But trying to avoid its cost will certainly cost you much more in the long run – and maybe the short run too.

Is entrusting your business’ marketing to professionals expensive? Well, in retrospect, no…not really when you look at the alternative prospect of a sinking sales curve.

Believe me, this is NOT a pitch for LA ads.  This is a plea to re-think what “expensive” means with respect to your marketing.  Far too many in the funeral profession, whether providers or suppliers, are taking the inexpensive path and, boy, it shows.

In my book, “good but expensive” will always beat “so-so but it’s cheap” every day of the week.  I hope it’s the same in your book as well.


Dan Katz is president, creative director of LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Dan on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit www.LAadsMarketing.com.  You can also connect with Dan on LinkedIn. See agency work via this link.

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