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How to Make Boring Brands Exciting

In conversation with Mana Ionescu

This episode of Ecoffee with Experts features Mana Ionescu, Founder of Lightspan Digital. Matt got Mana to share the best ways to add the oomph to a brand and create an effective customer journey. Watch now for some deep insights.

Talk to people around you. Talk to your customers. Ask them; What do you see in us? And you will find that sexy story. You have to believe that it is there, and it is.

Mana Ionescu
Founder of Lightspan Digital
Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of Ecoffee with Experts. I have a very special guest with me today, Mana Ionescu. I may have said her name wrong, so she'll correct me. But anyway, she is the founder of a Chicago digital-based marketing agency called Lightspan Digital. She has been dubbed a Marketing scientist for her focus on analytics-driven marketing. Busting Digital Marketing myths and bringing out the sexy in boring brands or brands that think they're boring. She and her team focus on driving traffic to clients' websites and building profitable connections through social media and content marketing. A sought-after speaker, she's been sharing knowledge at Kellogg Executive Education faculty, at high profile conferences such as tech week SCS, conversion conference, Content Jam Marketing Profs University, PubCon, and many more. She's passionate about aquatic conservation. When she's not tweeting, presenting, or running a company, she is a volunteer diver at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. Mana, thank you for coming to the show. It's a pleasure to have you here.

Yeah, thanks for having me.

So, I chose the topic today, a little twist on what you're known for regarding bringing out the sexy in brands that think they're boring. How to make boring brands exciting as hell? So how do you make a product or company seen as unexciting and interesting to consumers? Do you have a process, strategy, or framework that you take people through?

This is a trick statement of mine because fundamentally, all brands are exciting. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business. They have to be exciting to somebody. We want to think they’ve built revenues and are doing well. So it’s not about making the brands exciting but bringing that out for them. And many companies I talked to think they’re not exciting and have no stories to tell. I’m not sure where that comes from. I don’t know. Because many of them are not marketers, they don’t think in terms of storytelling, or maybe they’re just humble. But I talked to many people who are like, we watch all of these brands on Tik Tok, and we’re not like them. So how are we going to be on social media? And I am here to tell you that it is possible. Everybody can be attractive online while being true to themselves because that’s another concern. It’s that, I don’t want to start putting gimmicky stuff out there so I can be on Tik Tok. And I’m using Tik Tok as an example, but that is not to say that I advise all companies to be on Tik Tok.

I think Tik Tok is like they crave, or they're all the rage right now regarding it. It's the newest thing. But whether it's Tik Tok, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I can think of one of the most boring businesses out there to make sexy or exciting is accountants. Do you have any stories; accounts are the most boring business. I have friends who are accountants, and they're nice guys. But, do you have any similar stories of taking something so boring, or it doesn't have to be?

Let’s see if we can find something.

But something similar.

How about selling sand? It’s more boring than accounting.

You have worked with so many. Are you serious?

This is the interesting thing about life. Many transactions are happening worldwide and many products are being made to make the products we know of. We may not know or think of them, but they are crucial to our daily consumption. We can’t have a glass without silica, without sand. We may see a beautiful glass object, a piece of art made from glass. Well, somebody sells that raw material to somebody else so that they can turn it into glass. So yes, there are companies, and because I live in the Midwest of the United States, a very industrial area. We have Caterpillar. There are sand mines here. All sorts of stuff happening here makes it so that we can buy things we use in our everyday lives. So if we were to look at just that one object or that company, it might not seem that sexy.

But the ultimate result of having that is very sexy. So if we allow our creativity to go wild, we can go from thinking of sand as something that weighs a lot and has to be carried around to these beautiful Sandglass creations. So that’s an example. Another example, we worked with a company that makes sewage cleaning equipment. So, how does that compare to accounting? So, some companies out there may make Accountants feel very exciting.

I don't want you to give every detail. What did you do to make the sand more appealing? What framework did you use to develop the story? Or if you want to talk generic, so you don't reveal the company's strategies?

First, it’s all about knowing your customers, knowing who’s buying? What are they going to use it for? Are they going to make glass? Or are they going to make other applications, or they’re going to use sand for blasting? It’s all about your audiences. And then, the trick is to find out what’s exciting to those audiences and create content that is sexy to them. Because as we know, what’s interesting or even what’s funny; What’s funny to me may not be funny to you. It’s the same with what makes sand sexy. What may be interesting to one particular buyer may not be for another. If the buyer makes glass, there are a lot of stories that tell about the applications of glass. If the buyer is in construction, there are many stories about the role of sand in construction. There are a lot of stories that tell about the supply chain. The supply chain was not a commonly used term, except most people did not think of supply chain until COVID hit. And then everybody talks about the supply chain. So, it’s a really interesting time to create content about what makes the world spin because the supply chain is what makes things happen. And as we can see, we have shortages because of breakdowns in the supply chain, which we never had to think about before. So now, when it comes to content marketing, and a lot of these companies that produce raw materials or that handle raw materials, there are a lot of very interesting transportation and supply chain stories.

The audience must match the stories. And we have to also pay attention to it. Let’s go back to the sewage cleaning equipment. Here we’re talking about significant machinery. Large in size, very expensive, and technologically advanced with cameras and other tools that can act as our eyes in a dark environment. So the people who buy this equipment are very proud of what they do. And they are very proud of their machinery. So we found them in forums and social networks showing off their equipment. So when we think of sewage as gross, they think this machine is awesome. And I’m awesome because I have a super high-tech machine. And to them, it was often like showing off their new car. And then they also know how to have fun. Not because they do dirty jobs, they know how to have fun. So we found forum conversations where they were talking about what is the weirdest thing you’ve found during a cleanup? And the list was hilarious. Everything from wedding rings to full costumes, like Halloween costumes and things. So the end-users know how to have fun. And they provide clues on how to make this more fun for them, even though we’re making a machine for a dirty job?

Yeah. So that's interesting. I've heard this repeatedly, and it's marketing 101, which is knowing who your audience is for the company. And I've talked to many marketers, and I want to know if it's your experience as well, it seems to be something many companies skim over. As I mentioned before the interview, I worked for a car dealership, the OEM. They didn't have customer personas for the people buying their vehicles on a model-by-model basis, and it blew my mind away. And I think it's a step that a lot of; they get going in the excitement of their company, and it takes off. But I think many companies miss or entrepreneurs or whatever you want to say, miss that step of creating, who's our customer persona? So who is it that we're targeting? Have you found that to be the case in many companies you work with?

I have. Let me add a little nuance to it. It is just things that I’ve noticed happening. One does not want to spend money on it. Getting to know your customers by doing it strategically, consciously, and intentionally takes a lot of time, and it will be very expensive. So, you have to have the vision, as in, know there’s this painful process that I have to get through to have the fun, beautiful marketing out there. And we don’t have that patience. And by we, I mean the universal we – whoever’s involved as part of the project. Whether an internal team or a cross-functional agency, we do not have the patience and the money. We do not want to put the money into it. And it’s intangible. So it’s very hard to make a case for paying for something that is not the outcome. It is the facilitator of that outcome. And many people don’t know how to make a case for it. And the other thing happens, and I see this with my students. So I teach a Professional Certificate in digital marketing at Kellogg at the business school executive education programs here in Chicago. And we have as a big part of the education is profiling. Whether it’s personas, segmentation, and so on, methods of doing it, and the students complain that it’s too much, and we’re spending too much time on it, they want to get to how I tweet. And I have to remind them repeatedly that it is the most important. Before you know how to tweet and what to tweet, we need to get through that stage first. So even as practitioners, we’re impatient, we want to get through it as fast as possible. And then the third thing that happens is that we are still doing it in an old-school way when we have limited data. We haven’t evolved our way of listening to audiences and profiling them so that it’s more nuanced in real-time. What I mean by that is that we need to look at the sentiment. We need to understand that personas are fabricated concepts that we need to put to the test. Now our real audiences may not function like personas. We must incorporate that people give us a lot of information online. It’s not just about demographics anymore. It’s about, what’s their mood? What’s trending for them right now? How do they feel? And thus, what do they need not just from a, I want to buy this perspective? What do they need based on where they’re at in their lives and how they feel about things? Like right now, people are exhausted. And the most powerful element you can add to your marketing right now is compassion and the ability to say, I hear you, these have been a couple of very difficult years. I hear you, and I’m there with you. No matter what company you are in, your audiences are probably feeling that. And most profiling, most personas do not take that into account. So times have changed, but the method of building audience personas and targeting lags behind what’s possible and available to us today.

What are some of the things that are available and possible? Are there tools that speed things up regarding building out what you just talked about?

Well, I don’t think the human touch is replaceable. I don’t think we can use a tool to do it for us. But we have ways to speed up access to information. So we have tools that tell us what’s trending online at any given time. The big social networks published reports. They give the data to us if we pay attention. Twitter just published a report to support summer trends. They can help with their meanings. It may not be immediate; it takes some a couple of months or months to put the data together and give us the report. But they tell us exactly what will be trending, what people are into, and what they seek. As they said, this is the return of fun. This summer is the return of fun. The first year in a few, where people seek to be out there, again, without the fear of COVID. Where they’re excited to be returning to music festivals, there’s a list they just published last week or the week before of things that can inspire your marketing. So then there’s no excuse not to talk to your customer. Most people think of talking to their customers before they start a project, and then they don’t do it again. A very long time ago, this was before my agency; one of my clients was Bose. So I was working in banking and credit cards, we were doing marketing for the Bose credit card at the time. And they insist that anybody who works with them should go to the facility in Boston and spend a day in the Customer Service room and listen to customer service calls to get a sense of how they talk to their customers and handle things and what customers say. It changed my life. Since then, I’ve asked clients, can we listen to your customer service calls? Can you guess how many yeses I’ve done? I’ve worked with hundreds of companies in the past 13 years.

Less than 10%.

None. I’ve gotten the – we will send you some recordings, or you can interview our salespeople, and they’ll tell you what our customers say. And fundamentally, I realized that the infrastructure is not there for marketing people to sit in on customer service calls without fear of disrupting the process. So, in the cases where we did turn to the sales teams, we realized that they did not have a good sense of what the customers were saying. They were so focused on the potential and future customers that they weren’t listening enough to existing customers. So long story short, there are a lot of gaps today between what is possible when it comes to an understanding of the customers and how much we do to understand the customer. Hence why we see the rise of an in-house discipline. So the user experience or the customer experience discipline, that’s not quite customer service. So that’s a little bit of marketing because it is possible and very, very needed.

Yeah, I'm just in awe. I didn't realize that it was that big of a problem, that gap in between. I don't have as much experience as you work with big companies or clients like that and hear that it's not just an isolated problem. It blows my mind away. You just talked about it. It's the foundation of finding out what your customer is saying to build content and stories. Especially at the customer service level, they're telling you what their problems are. You can probably come up with new products as a result.

And why are they saying what they’re saying? So one of the exercises my students do is to take a scenario, such as I think this scenario is given to them, it’s Uber. They get three personas and then develop a campaign for the three types of personas with different needs. So most students pick, for whatever reason, the business traveler and their needs. The business traveler flies into an airport and takes Uber from there. They pick that scenario and that persona. And these students don’t know each other, I’ve taught across multiple cohorts, and they gravitate toward the same answers. And the answers are entertainment during this trip from the airport to where they’re going, to their hotel. People assume that this business traveler needs something to do while in the car from the airport to the hotel or other assumed needs. So I asked the students why? Why do you think that is? And why and why? And I believe in this, asking why five times method to get the core of what motivates our audiences. We make so many assumptions in marketing, so many assumptions. So we must constantly challenge ourselves to ensure that we’re not investing all of our money based on an assumption, personal bias, or an assumption that comes from seeing everybody else behaving a certain way. Now, what I tell my students is, what if this traveler in this Uber is just really tired? Maybe what they need is for the driver not to talk to them. Like, what if they’re really hungry? What if they’re, start thinking about their emotions and ask yourself questions beyond the practical function of this ride from the airport to the hotel.

Yeah. Was there data that contradicted their assumption?

No, but they also don’t look for it. Now, this is a class. You don’t have all the resources at your disposal. So it’s more a matter of having those conversations where the idea is planted, we need more research here to figure this out. Another example is a toothbrush brand that discovered that the kids, these are all hypothetical scenarios, discovered that kids don’t want to brush their teeth. So what parent hasn’t run into that issue? The kids are okay, brushing their teeth in the morning but not at night. So the students are asked to do a marketing campaign. And the interesting thing is that they gravitate toward product enhancements, not marketing campaigns. So they come up with ideas like, we’re going to do an app. Although in marketing, marketing and product development are getting closer and closer together. So I think a lot of times, as marketers, we get distracted from thinking about the customer. And think we have solutions a lot faster than we should. And we dive right in to try to implement things. It’s very tempting. It’s very tempting for me to jump straight to wanting to do things and not stop to think about what’s happening there.

Yeah, I ran into that at the dealership, all they wanted was leads. But there was no foundation for me, as you mentioned, there was no patience. There was no inclination to develop. And looking back at how I was able to achieve what I achieved, I don't know. I didn't know what you were talking about, even though I wanted it very badly. And in some ways, I tried to develop it to a certain degree because I use CRM. This was an established business. So I exported the data of all the certain types of vehicle buyers out of the CRM and then analyzed that data in Google Sheets. In what was their average age range? Because car dealerships do a lot of financing, you could also see what they do for a living. So, family growth was one of the major reasons the company had for switching from a sedan to an SUV. It was family growth, they just graduated university or college, and they're buying their first vehicle, and it's a car normally. However, that's changing. And then they would get married, realizing this is too small. Family growth was a driver of the reason for getting a larger vehicle. But I didn't have all that data on what they were. They are just generic stuff. So, it's amazing because it's critical to what you're talking about and what you've mentioned in developing the stories. And there's probably even things in there, like you just mentioned, sand that just blew my mind away. And there are probably many interesting stories now that you've pointed out that could be made around sand and things made with sand. I just thought sand, and I thought about the beach. But then, when you mentioned how many different things are made of sand. And how many different interesting stories can be told around that. And is that one of the ways to find these things. You mentioned going into forums. Is this voice of the customer sort of an approach to finding things? Because back in the day, like, let's be frank, before the internet, or even I don't even know before forums, wherever we've gone, let's go back 30 years. It was very hard to get this data, but nowadays, with Facebook groups, Reddit, subreddits, and forums, even though companies don't want to do it, it's probably a little easier, would you say to find that data?

Well, yeah. Ethnographic research has come to us. We don’t have to travel and be in the customer’s homes. We can go on forums and get an estimate for how they behave. But it’s also advanced to the point where research companies will give a tablet to a participant and then go into a store. And the tablet walks them through prompts as they shop and interact with the products and then records their experience. So, that way, we capture ethnographic research type information and user behavior information, even in a retail scenario, it’s possible with the technology available today. So, in your example, about finding people who are about to have children. Facebook has some targeting indicators or all estimates. But if you wanted to run Facebook ads targeting potentially pregnant people, you could do that. Then there’s a classic target example where targets miss targeted people, or rather they started sending baby information to the family home, the daughter was pregnant. Still, she didn’t want the parents to know.

Yeah. And I heard that story.

That’s a classic of Miss targeting. So that’s the danger of having so much information. We may think that we know and are allowed to speak to people with a certain familiarity that may turn them off. So I think we have to be careful not to go from; we get you to we’re stalking you in your home. So there is a fine line where we can overdo it with our targeting.

I agree with you. I don't know how much truth there is, but I will share a story. My wife complained to me the other day because I'm a marketer. She and her sister-in-law were having a conversation about something. I don't know what. Next, she sees an ad in her Google feed for this particular product. And she's like, Matt, I wasn't typing anything into Google; I was talking. Well, I don't know if that is allowed. Suppose they're allowed to listen. That seemed like an invasion of privacy. And I don't even know if that's allowed. So I have a Google phone and a mic listening to you? Your private conversations and then to do that? Is that a myth?

It’s a big question, and I wrote a blog post about this. I’ve researched it because it’s been a concern for many for a very long time. So there are two parts to this answer. One is that the technology is there. So it is possible for Facebook’s Messenger that has a microphone feature built-in, it’s possible for them to listen to you. The Google and Alexa devices pick up voice cues before activating. Right. So technically, they are listening to us. The tech giants have reassured people that that is not the case. On Facebook, you can turn off the microphone feature in Messenger if you don’t want it ever to be on.

I have mine turned off because I don’t do voice calls through there. But also, scientists have researched this, they looked at the data transfers. They had conversations, recorded everything, and then measured who saw what. And they’ve discovered that it’s just a bias. That’s because we just talked about it is top of mind. When there’s an ad or a mention, we often talk about trending trends, so we’re probably already seeing those ads. And also another element is that we drop clues through our behavior online. So when we talk about something, we probably also do other online behaviors, making advertisers pick up on this person who may be interested in this because the ability to predict our online behaviors has gotten pretty good. So, the reality is that today, advertisers are in a race to try to guess our minds. And they will do everything. And they will use all data available to try to guess our minds to predict what we want before we even know we are looking for it. So I think a lot of what we’re seeing is not that they’re listening to us, but that the predictive methods are getting pretty good. And that we are dropping a lot of clues online. I was listening to a podcast yesterday, which I think was from the New York Times, where they brought on a security specialist. And they were talking specifically about how apps collect data on children and how that’s illegal. But even those that say that they don’t, they do. And how technology now leaves something that we’re talking about. And we leave something like a million bits of data every day. Like someone in the interviewer challenged. He was like that sounds like too much. And the technology expert said everything is data, every single thing is data. Every pixel gets transferred. On apps, they can track battery levels and usage; they use all sorts of data to create a fingerprint for us, to identify each phone independently. They create an identifier for me even if they don’t know my name and email address. And because we use our phones eight to ten hours a day, we drop many bits of data. And companies are getting very good at using that data for predictive targeted advertising.

I don't know if it's a good or bad thing. For instance, some ads have come to me on Facebook, and I'm like, this is perfect. I wanted that. Thank you. I would never have found out about it had you not shown me this ad. It brought value to my life. So this is not all cases, but that's been the scenario in many of them. I would rather have ads that are relevant than some stupid ads that I'm not interested in.

I think brands are getting very good at it if they create relevant, targeted advertising that enhances somebody’s online experience rather than detracts from it. And I think that is what we should aspire to even with advertising. Is this ad going to enhance somebody’s experience online? We only think of ads as something that should convert. We don’t all think that, but there is the tendency for brands to only care about that conversion. But before we get to that conversion, we have to win them over. They may not even know who we are. So there is a process, there is a life cycle to it.

The customer journey.

Yes, and I advise companies to incorporate paid advertising planning into their overall editorial planning so that stories align. And what that person may see organically and paid flows as part of one journey and one experience.

I will pose a question to you. I know you don't work with smaller companies and start-ups. Correct me if I am wrong. I saw you on a newscast. Earlier in the show, you mentioned that it is expensive, the customer persona, and everything else. So it would be best if you created that to have some effective storytelling. So, how do small companies, for instance, a home renovation company, develop a customer persona when they, unless they are an international brand, most of them can't serve more than one city. So, where do they fit in with all this?

I don’t know how they do it? But I did find that smaller businesses know their customers better than bigger businesses. Because they are closer to them, they hear firsthand, and the decision-makers of the smaller businesses hear firsthand from their customers. So they appreciate the closeness, which indicates that smaller businesses are better at communicating with their customers than big businesses. The challenge that small businesses have is that they don’t have time. So, while they know their customer very well, they may not have the time or ability to translate that into prime time and activity. And I don’t know how to solve that. So many small businesses are lucky to have one of the company’s founders as their marketing thinker. Because they are good at it, they do it themselves. They will have interns. I think it is very important to hire the right people, given that they are entry-level. I have worked with entry-level employees, some are very fast learners and did well. But, at the same time, some needed a lot of hand-holding. So if you are a small business, you can’t bring in somebody who needs a lot of hand-holding. So you will want to hire people who care about listening to the customers, and the third one is, and I say this about social media, you want to hire somebody who likes people. So I remember hiring somebody who said I’m anti-social and don’t like people. They did not last very long. their marketing wasn’t that great. Didn’t like people? We don’t think of that before you hire somebody. But to me, negative will not be a good Marketer.

I don't understand why they would even go into the profession?

Admittedly, they are interested in the creative side of things if you want to create or mesmerize. They want to create interesting things. And that is a big part of being a good marketer. But you have to like people. Some of the best marketers I have worked with were formerly bartenders, people who loved people more than your average person. They were probably extroverts and loved to listen to people. So who you hire matters, especially if you are a small business.

That is interesting because I spent some years working in the hospitality industry. In every industry area, from busing tables, managing a restaurant, bartending, serving, and working in the back. So you have to like people. I don't know if I should have you back for a second part. I would love to. I. How can brands know we are getting on in time here. So it is coming to the top of the hour. There are so many other things I would like to ask you about. How can brands build authentic relationships? I know we talked about how to make brands more exciting by; finding out more about who your customers are and listening to what they are saying. Finding out some of the things they are saying on forums and social media and Reddit and turning that into the content. And there may be some fascinating stories about the supply chain that would be very interesting. A podcast is made, I don't know the name of it, about how stuff works or something along those lines. How it's built?

Some call it how stuff works? And then there is one about Entrepreneurs, specifically how businesses are built.

‘How it's built?’ Is the name of the podcast. In some of the late-night TV talk shows, people were like, Why would I care about how potato chips are made? Once you start listening to it, it's fascinating, and they tell stories. Those stories are argued. So telling stories about how your company came to be. That may be a little bit boring but highlighting that story, telling the story of how your stuff is made? How do you handle customer service? How do you serve the customer? I am just throwing this out there, but those are probably all valid ways of coming up with stories?

The origin stories are very compelling. You see it every day and everywhere around you. The origin stories are the things that are the glade. They are the easiest to discover and the most compelling to people. They are what we call mythological patterns. Mythical thinking patterns make for the most compelling stories, such as the battle between good and evil. The origin story is the hero’s journey. All of those are used in creating content that people care about.

That is so fascinating. And then even talking about the mediums of communicating that content, for instance, video. Have you seen powerful examples of videos used to make brands exciting that are boring when you can make an incredible video that would communicate the story you created?

Boring is a relative term, but I notice that big trucks are not that interesting for your average person, for little kids. But Volvo does an amazing job. They have a Youtube channel and, at one point, a series of videos done from the drivers’ perspective. And they were almost like travel videos from the perspective of the drivers. These long-haul drivers would tell stories as they were driving their trucks. They are not filming themselves because that would be unsafe. But they are being followed around and tell stories as they drive in their trucks to Norweigh. They are not talking about the truck. They are talking about this country and this road, but somehow it has an impact on making you remember Volvo. For that particular purpose of brand recognition, that is very impactful. They focus on women drivers. There is a shortage of women drivers for commercial vehicles. So they will have women drivers tell stories while driving these Volvo trucks. Then we realize these trucks are amazing. Like, the living conditions in them and the technology and everything. So as we take you on this journey, you will learn how amazing their trucks are. But you don’t even realize that’s what is happening. But when you walk away from it, it completely changes your mind about who Volvo is. It’s brilliant.

That is brilliant. I am so glad you shared that story. I know we are running out of time, but is there one takeaway you want listeners to get from this episode?

I have talked so much in many different directions.

You talked about a few things.

The one thing I want people to remember is that everybody has a very interesting story. You just need to find yours. Don’t ever think that you don’t have something to say or something to say that people would care about. Talk to people around you. Talk to your customers. Ask them, What do you see in us? And you will find that sexy story. You have to believe that it is there, and it is. Most companies will have that story, and it’s about bringing it to light and enchanting people with it.

That is an awesome closing statement. Number one, you mentioned doing some instructions through the Kellog Program. Is that available in person, or can people join that online?

It’s all online except for office hours and things that are real-time. Everything is recorded, and it’s online. In every cohort, I have somebody from Canada. There are people from everywhere in the world.

Where would they go to find the course you are teaching?

I am not sure where the link is.

That's okay. I will get it from our producers.

I am not involved in promoting it, it is their program, so I can mail you the link if you are interested and I can find it.

I think that people in our audience would be interested in that. How else can they connect with you online?

You can find me at lightspandigital.com. And on every social network, such as manamica, even on LinkedIn. On Tik Tok I am ManaIon.Manama was taken and can be found anywhere online as Manama.

Thank you so much for being on the show, and I appreciate you being here. It has been a fascinating discussion.

Thank you, Matt.

Thank you very much.

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