Returns on Relationship in Marketing

Barry Martin
Oct 5 2017

It’s sad to say, but it’ll be an eye-opener for too many that relationships are at the heart of great marketing communications.

Reading Wayne Robert’s writing is one of the most pleasurable ways to wake up from the matrix. His work, and the work his firehose of social curation will point you at offer a blueprint for the way things would be done if infrastructure and policy-making were designed to elicit the most beneficial impact and range of returns for the most people for the longest time.

Head of the Toronto Food Policy Council for ten years, author, journalist, activist and pragmatist, Wayne’s insight into doing things sustainably is 20/20.

Disclosure: He’s a good friend and has been a colleague and client at times over the years as well. When I asked him what he’d like to see me write about/explain, naturally, he zeroed in on a pattern:

“Why effective marketing is first and foremost about relationship building, as evidenced in your relationship with ChocoSol and Fiesta Farms”.

I couldn’t tell whether he was interested in learning about how the relationships we build:

  • with our clients leads to effective marketing or
  • between our clients and their audiences leads to effective marketing

So I covered both.

First I should qualify that we’re not your typical marketing strategy, design, and web development practice. We cheat. We only work with people we like who are doing things we think are important. It’s a luxury we can afford because:

  • We’re made up of a small team of conscious, passionate people. We don’t need to take just any client to feed a machine
  • We’ve never taken any investment capital, so there’s no external pressure to maximize profit on any single project
  • Taking on clients working against the mandates of our ethical clients would be counter-productive. You can’t work for organisations that promote food justice and work for the Nestlé’s of the world at the same time.
  • While the relationships we develop with our clients might seem like extra work, they’re both what makes the work enjoyable and makes it easier.

Wayne has told us that our model is “ingenious and original”. It’s not. It’s the bar for entry. Everything else is fake, short-lived, and a distraction at best. In the media-saturated moment we live in, communications that help people do things they’re already interested in have a better shot of being noticed, processed, and acted on.

Here’s the long answer.

How the relationships we build with our clients lead to better marketing.

Wayne’s question set a stream of thoughts in motion:

  1. Design is a fancy way of saying “problem-solving”.
  2. “A problem clearly stated is a problem half-solved”– Dorothea Brande
  3. Stating a problem clearly is harder than it sounds. Especially when the problem is about intangibles like what a brand stands for or when we’re talking to a consumer audience who has a right to be sceptical.
  4. We need to understand the context they operate in. Their business challenges. Their audiences. Their motivations and goals.
  5. All that understanding comes from asking a lot of probing questions. We ask “why” a lot. Often in response to questions we’ve just asked. People need to be able to put up with this habit.
  6. We’re being paid to suggest how they might evolve in some personal, sensitive areas like how they look and sound. (Does my brand look bad in these jeans?)
  7. And they need to learn enough about how we think, behavioural science, or conventions in niche fields like interface design, UX, writing for the web/conversion copy, Information Architecture, etc. to keep projects moving forward instead of getting bogged down in subjectivity.

This process is a breeze when our clients have people on the inside who know things we know.

It’s a complex dynamic, but it can still work well enough when our clients bring a growth-mindset and are keen to discover new approaches, strategies and tactics.

It works even better when they trust us.

And trust is what relationships are based on, right? Working with a client in a trust-based relationship gets so much more out of us than a contract or assumption-based relationship. Which is one of the many reasons our industry dreads RFPs (a subject for another blog post). The process outlined above:

  • Creates more friction, which creates more sparks, both illuminating the path we’re on and increasing the chances that we’ll ignite one of the many sticks of genius we leave lying around during our many projects.
  • Puts the back of our brain to work noodling on our clients’ problems even when we’re not focused on them.
  • Puts a lens in our mind that brings a different type of attention to the headlines, sound bytes, and other media we consume daily.

How the relationships between our clients and their audiences lead to effective marketing.

For those who don’t know the brands Wayne mentions, here’s a quick rundown:

Chocosol is an award-winning whole chocolate and coffee purveyor based in Toronto. In twenty years of doing this work, I’ve never met anyone who so comprehensively considers their footprint and opportunity for the beneficial impact of each micro-facet of their operation.

Beyond their horizontal trade and cradle to cradle level sustainability practices, the entire operation is a front. Chocosol exists to model and share the lessons we might glean from:

  • The civilisation who discovered the benefits of cacao and from
  • Turning points in cacao’s historical, geopolitical, and industrial journey since

Fiesta Farms is a much-loved (family-run) indie grocery store in Toronto. People love them because over the last twenty-five+ years they’ve consistently anticipated, supported, and balanced the values and interests of multiple communities of interest through their shelves, public and private sponsorship, and the feel of the store and their adjacent garden centre.

Put simply, brands that turn their enthusiasts into evangelists need to show the math.

These brands need to articulate, visualise, and otherwise manifest their difference. Their audiences need visible, tangible evidence that brands are moving the needle they claim to be. Their enthusiasts (and prospects) need ideas they can easily explain, examples they can point to, artifacts to share, and otherwise use as aides to make the case that the brand they love has a story worth telling.

There’s no distilling Chocosol’s agenda into a pithy mission statement. It’s too audacious. So instead, we:

  • Manifest their mission by using their biggest customer touchpoint, their packaging, to teach
  • Manifest their values through compostable packaging using vegetable-based inks
  • Manifest their audacity with bold statements that challenge consumers to reconsider their relationship to the products (“This is not a bag of coffee, it’s an invitation…”)
  • Put a visual language in place that holds together an identity across a diverse (and sporadically changing) range of activities and brand touch-points
  • Inform and entertain a local food-focused Edible Toronto readership with a long running ad campaign

Fiesta Farms is a different animal. Their founder blended his career in the retail food sector with his values. Researching why we and so many others had a special attachment to a place that sold commodities, we netted out at a platform of nine values people felt were being reflected in their visits. We made it our marketing strategy to help people celebrate these values outside the store. Specifically, we:

  • Curate a content strategy on three social networks
  • Focus their philanthropy
  • Publish custom content on their website
  • Sponsor local events and organisations in ways that add value to the event, attendees, and the brand

Whether it’s Fiesta, Chocosol, another SME, a national non-profit, a government team, global foundation or a department at a corporation, all of our clients benefit from the time we take to “get” them and the effort we go through together to ensure their marketing is meaningful to their peers, partners, and prospects.

Get in touch for a free consultation. If you’re doing something progressive, it might be a good idea to start a relationship.