Driving Your Marketing Metaphors

Car marketing metaphors used to drive me crazy.

A Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe from around 1957
Over many years, I started to see a pattern of how often marketing and general management professionals would talk about cars as a stand-in for marketing activities.  I don’t know of a better way to explain an idea or thought than to compare it with something common enough that everyone can relate to it. Cars are a great device to help communicate more complex topic and can be an easy hook to hang an idea. The following examples are from several decades as a marketing professional. Please buckle your seatbelt and come along for the ride. 

Are you an accelerator or a brake? 
Accelerator and Brake: In the 1970’s, when Ra El and I were driving our brownie business, we often described our approach to our marketing style by identifying me as the accelerator and her as the brake. In interview after interview, we would outline our approach as a combination of stepping on the gas and slamming on the brake. This was how we moved our vehicle (the brownie business) forward. It was an apt description at the time and served us well to explain how we complement each other’s style to achieving forward momentum. I would have a new idea and get so excited that I was ready to roll immediately. Ra El would sit back and think through the potential bumps in the road and recommend that we slow down. Finally, we would agree on a plan and it was a balance between speed and caution. In your business, are you an accelerator or a brake?

Are you stuck looking in the rear view mirror?
Rear View Mirror: In the 1980’s, I had a number of advisors confer with me about marketing as we were growing our business. I was fortunate to have a high-ranking executive from Campbell Soup, provide me with insights into building our business. Bob Subin, who at one point was President of Campbell’s bakery division (Pepperidge Farms,  Arnotts and Delacre biscuits) and developed the Prego product line (pasta sauce), used to be an unofficial member of the board of our humble little bakery business. From time to time, in exchange for brownies, Bob be a sounding board for me to talk to about marketing issues. Bob once made a comment that has stuck in my head for all of these years. He told me that if you are looking in the rear view mirror (or your side mirrors), worrying about the competitors around you, you aren’t looking forward into your own future. He said that like driving a car, it is important to glance at the rear view mirror, but don’t get stuck looking backward. Keep your eyes focus ahead on the future. Wow! This turned out to be a great suggestion as I tended to overanalyze the competition. With eyes planted straight ahead, we could find the right highway to success. This may sound trite and cliché, but profound wisdom often is simple and obvious. Do you spend too much time looking backward?

What fuels your marketing effort? 
Fuel in the Engine:  In the 1990’s, after selling our wholesale bakery business, I went to work for a large food company who owned some very large brands including one with sales over $100 million dollars.  We had a marketing budget in excess of $12 million dollars and a big percentage was spent on broadcast and cable advertising.  With no experience spending millions of dollars on advertising, I had a lot of OJT (on the job training) and fortunately for me, we had an agency who quickly brought me up to speed on all the relevant terms like GRP, Reach, Frequency and the importance of creating advertising that speaks to your target reaching them on an emotional level. I remember Grant MacDonald, the President of our ad agency from Stamford, Connecticut (North Castle Partners) explaining to me that advertising was like the fuel in your car. It gives you the energy to drive the forward momentum and to help you speed past the competition. Without the fuel, you aren’t going forward. In fact, without fuel, you are stuck in park. Marketing (and in this case advertising) was that fuel to spark an ignition and to motivate your consumer to purchase your product. Are you putting gas in your marketing engine? 

How do you set your course? 
GPS:  During the 2000’s, I held a number of positions with several companies ranging from software to soft drinks. My career felt as if it was bouncing around a bit but I was fortunate to have a coach to help give me some guidance along the way. Bob Stapleton was the head of outplacement at Lee Hecht Harrison and since I chose not to move to Minneapolis to follow a job, I was in a job search mode and felt totally unprepared. It was 2004 and I  realized that since 1976, when I graduated from The Annenberg School of Communications at The University of Pennsyvania, I had never looked for a job. Finding a job was a new highway for me to explore. 

I recall Bob asking me how I developed a marketing plan for a company.  I shared with him my approach that included having a really clear measurement of success so I knew when I arrived at my goal. He said to me, “so what I am hearing is that you put a destination into your GPS, and even if you end up recalculating the route, you know what your final destination looks like.”  This simple metaphor of searching for a marketing job and the GPS in my car was an apt idea to help me stay on course with  marketing a product (me) toward my next position. Bob urged me that just like with a marketing plan, a career plan needs to have a well-thought out metrics that let you know you are successful. And, not to lose the metaphor, you better enjoy the ride along the way. Are you clear about your destination and how you'll know you have arrived? 

What is the key (or keyless) ignition to success? 
Keyless Ignition:  Today in the 2010’s, marketing requires a number of adjustments to change. I recently had service on my car and the dealer lent me a new car that had keyless ignition. As the service technician walked me out to this sleek new car, she said, you don’t need a key to start this car- all you need is to have the key fob in your pocket. With a dazed and confused look on my face, I sat in the car and realized that in order to move forward, I had to rethink what it means to get in the car and to start my engine. Driving along the highway to work, I thought how apt that comment was to marketing in general and how I could use it at work.  Imagine a car that doesn't need a key to start the engine. Imagine a car that parks itself. Imagine a car that doesn’t use gas but you plug into an electrical outlet. Marketers need to be looking for new markets where competition doesn’t exist and where you differentiate your products or services by adding (or removing) something as basic as the ignition key. What innovation is coming at your business fast and furious and are you driving the lead car in the race or just following? 

Metaphors are powerful ways to communicate and drive home important messages. 

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