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As both president of LA ads and a private pilot, I’ve discovered that many lessons learned in flight training and in the cockpit apply to marketing and managing a funeral services business. Here’s one of those lessons.  (For more lessons from the cockpit, read my post, “What I know about marketing I learned at Flight School.

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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.

 

looking back

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  – Soren Kierkegaard

The last quarter of 2016 is almost history and as we stand poised to welcome 2017 in less than 2 weeks, we hope for a future that is successful, rewarding and where your dreams will be realized. Having seen the start of more than a few “new business years” during my career, I’ve learned that you can do one of two things in preparation for the coming year. You can yet again try to create a brand new marketing strategy for the coming year or you can pause, look back and do some serious reflecting, resolving to change, or improve some aspect about how you will initiate your future marketing campaigns. For some people, looking back over the past year may be something better left in the rear view mirror; on the other hand, burying your head in the sand can be seen as the primary ingredient in a recipe for another disappointing year. So, before one celebrates the dawn of a new year…take time to ask yourself what are you going to do to change? What does success in 2017 look like to you and your team?

Speaking for myself and our firm, the end of each year is met with a healthy dose of optimism for the coming year. We see 2017 through a lens of hopefulness, that things will continue to get better. Is that just us or will you and your organization also view the coming year with a level of anticipation that you haven’t had for a few years? Hey, it’s been tough for most everyone out there, especially in the funeral profession, but let’s remember that at least a few organizations — perhaps some of your own competitors — have fared better than most despite these trying times. So what have they done to plot a course for a more optimistic and profitable path for success in 2017?

Depending on marketplace factors (cremation growth, tightened economy, uncertain political future) coupled with how well you were able to strategically position and market your company, the past year was either seen as a success or another year of same-old, or even a disappointment.  The question that begs to be asked here is, how much of last year’s growth or lack thereof was because of something you had no control over, such as good or bad luck, and how much was because of something you specifically chose to do or not do?  I’ve found through personal experience this is the time to be totally honest with yourself.  As Sigmund Freud said, “Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.”

Hey, I’m all for a bit of luck but you probably don’t want to continue betting future success on lucky things happening in the coming year.  With this in mind, here are a few questions to ask yourself as thought starters as you begin the process of looking in the rearview mirror at this past year and through your windshield to the next:

  • What marketing activities worked for you and which ones didn’t in 2016?
  • What 2 or 3 trends did you notice have taken place in your industry and outside of it that you need to incorporate into 2017 activities?
  • What 5 pieces of really good customer feedback did you receive this past year that you need to take deliberate action on?
  • Is there one part of your marketing activities that if it got more attention could yield better results?
  • What are the 2 mission-critical initiatives that absolutely need to be accomplished by June 30th 2017?
  • What are the top 3-5 problem areas that could impact your bottom line or stunt the growth of your brand if you don’t tackle them now?
  • What are the 3-5 opportunities that could grow your bottom line, brand visibility and preference?
  • How did your marketing (from strategy to execution) match up with your competitors? Was it “beige”- boring or was it “full of color”- impactful?
  • What do you produce, offer or do that excites your audience and makes them think “Wow!”

As marketers, one thing we know for sure is that change will not stop in 2017. The marketplace will continue to shift on us, and so will the economy. But by reflecting back on 2016, taking control of your marketing activities rather than being tossed around by the waves in the market, along with thinking optimistically about what 2017 can hold, this New Year might actually be a year worth celebrating.  It will be for us and hopefully will be for you as well.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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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