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(Read time: 8-10 minutes) marketingIn a tough business climate,  co-marketing initiatives can provide a means to stretch scarce marketing dollars. Often, collaborations involve the use of Marketing Development Funds (MDF), a way for ingredient-brand suppliers, in particular,  to intrude into larger campaigns (think Intel and Microsoft logos/content in laptops and/or server product advertising). 

Luxury-brand VP, John Cairo,  and I compared notes on MDF from two different perspectives. John works the Hospitality  segment with initiatives at such properties as MGM’s City Center and the Sand’s Venetian Macau; I do it real-time  for B2B in the tech sector with partners such as HP, IBM and Dell.

For the mid-sized ingredient brand or strategic, niche company without the big-brand and big-dollar clout, is there a way to tune MDF contributions to become more than just OEM slush and replacement $$ for their just-slashed marketing budget while still adding value for your customer?  We argue “yes”, if you’re nimble. Here’s a point/counterpoint discussion around a framework for MDF campaign success,

1.  ALIGNMENT AND CLARITY

Scoop:  Obvious? But how often have you found yourself tangled in customer meetings where it’s not the case?  It’s critical to be clear on your target communities, objectives and messaging… and demand the same clarity from your customer w/r/t targets, success metrics and messages.  Also make sure you/your team understands the resource load you’re willing to extend. Know this answer and who from your side will speak it. Every customer in an MDF conversation will ask – usually sooner than later, usually repeatedly.

Cairo:  Align Segment Strategies with the target audience.  The internal team speaks to the customer by functional needs.  These are often formulated by addressing operational concerns gleaned from customer conversations that play to the team’s strengths.  In hospitality the green  message is not just a warm and fuzzy topic but equates to specific $$ savings in reduced costs to run a property and products that “make a guest feel helpful”.  Make these issues part of your team’s strategies and identify the correct team member to take ownership.

TakeAway:  Get your internal act together first before walking into any customer meeting.  Be clear, demand clarity from your customer.

2.  DEFINE ROLES, BE THE MARKETING AUTHORITY

Scoop:  Everyone needs a specific role in MDF discussions.  Sales… Product Marketing… Marcom/Corporate… whomever.  Play to individual strengths in the context of overall strategy.  Co-marketing is about customer facing support. If you’re the outbound expert, be the expert, and make sure your team supports you in that role.  Limit MDF conversation to core-team players, from your side and from the customer’s side.  Voices around the table who are not primary stakeholders often distract. Above all, don’t let the meeting become a sales call. Creative Briefs can help.

Cairo:  It all starts with a vision, “how do I differentiate my firm from the pack”.  You’re so correct when u say “it’s not a sales call”.  I spent considerable time matching our personnel strengths to what we wanted to accomplish with the target audience, then forming ad hoc teams.  Identifying and presenting a solution or at least people that have expertise to deal or understand the issue sounds simple but starts with clear segment goals and strategies.  Everyone at the supplier level says oh yeah we know that, but presenting the team “up front” seizes the initiative and moves u to the front of the line.  Then it is too late for all the wannabes.  I always use this example, “I don’t want to be the guy in the hall or the one pacing around the decision maker table”.  I want a seatat the table and one for as many team members as required to win the project”.

TakeAway:  Have a vision for what success looks like.   Make sure there’s clarity in roles when you’re in front of the customer.  Put the people with useful knowledge around the table, regardless of title

3.  BE/BEHAVE AS A BRAND EQUAL

Scoop:  There’s an adversarial undercurrent that I face in almost every MDF initial discussion, sometimes subtle, sometimes very in-your-face. Often the discussion is around whether my ingredient brand offers anything of customer-facing value, about fitting into the OEM’s way of doing co-marketing v. our more collaborative methodology. To succeed best, you have to be seen/treated as an equal, not just someone with a pocket of $$ to “give away”.  Example:  In the last month, I and a senior product marketing lead opened first-time discussion w/a data storage segment leading OEM.  We pre-planned our approach, tapped business intelligence connections for perspective and felt going in there was ample ground for positive conversation.  As the meeting started, however, we found ourselves defending brand equity rationale, product certification hurdles, and segment priorities far afield from the MDF conversation we thought we’d been invited to have.  Eventually, we were able to steer back to co-marketing and our company’s MDF value-add approach.  And we closed w/positive next-step actions.  Without having aligned well on a methodology and process (future blog topic), the customer’s initial assault likely would have thrown us off stride and to a less useful outcome.

Cairo:  Demonstrate how your team/company is promulgating its own segment strategy that aligns with the customer.  Avoid the “buzz” trap of getting sucked into something topical that “works against your own team/organizational expertise”.

TakeAway:  Equality = respect = opportunity for you/your brand to co-promote

4.  LISTEN FOR INTERSECTIONS/GAPS, THEN WALK AWAY

Scoop:  Don’t try to get to a solution too quickly, and certainly not during the initial client F2F (oh yeah, for meaningful discussion – you have to be face-to-face.  F2F is unequaled for beginning the relationship build.  By hearing first hand where customer priorities fall, you can internally brainstorm the gaps and possible intersections that add value.  Joint whitepapers, co-authored PRs or editorial features, web content sharing, sales force training modules, tradeshow collaborations… these are all low-stress, high-success early possibilities.  Don’t expect to immediately become part of a national advertising campaign w/logo identity (might happen, but rare).  By walking away, you buy time to digest, brainstorm and truly think about the right approach, not just any approach.

Cairo:  If it’s not seamless forget it.  Even if the customer campaign becomes more focused on their strengths rather that featuring something from your side, the impression that your team delivered whether value added or fundamental demonstrates strength of commitment.  Also u leave them with the question “what if”, not “what a waste of time”.

TakeAway:  Find the gaps and fill them. Make it seamless for the customer.

5.  END WITH A CLEAR NEXT ENGAGEMENT STEP, THEN EXECUTE

Scoop:  In the early stage of MDF talk, agreement to sustain is an important metric.  No one has time to waste.  Gaining a next step meeting, or the opportunity to dive deeper with presentation material on a particular outbound concept, or being passed along to an expanded group of customer stakeholders – all are real endorsements that you’ve broken the ice.  In the customer meeting I mentioned above where we were a bit ambushed, we ended with my having two specific actions to set up review meetings around a joint partner collaboration, and a tradeshow blog experience.  My product marketing counterpart took the action to explore topics for a possible joint whitepaper.  It’s all happening real time so stay tuned.

Cairo:    Carry out your execution by presenting finished marketing materials along with execution steps.  In one specific Hospitality example the National Brand staff passed on the campaign around a “guest satisfaction” product but passed it to one of their individual Brands that ultimately sold the idea to their largest hotel franchisee to test.  In this case the Franchisee was the buyer and immediately saw the campaign as a way to differentiate his properties with a superior idea.  The product was successful then worked it’s way back up the chain to become a Brand standard. The ultimate goal of the team was “presenting and developing products and a marketing campaign that improved guest satisfaction levels”.

Some Further Observations

Co-marketing has fewer rules than marketing campaigns developed for your own company – or more thinkHead2rightly, different rules/more opportunities to innovate since the multiple partner environment often provides larger budgets, freedoms from normal messaging and graphic standards, and air-cover that comes naturally from collaboration.  Downside risks, however, are equally large.   Success requires a core passion for outbound marketing and the ability to listen, advocate, and solve problems in real-time while remaining calm during a chaotic process. 

From the supplier side develop clear segment strategies that align your company strengths with target audience.  Assemble the team from within the firm that reflects the expertise required and tutor them on the team strategy and the target audience challenge.  Represent this group as the “doers” and let their expertise shine so the target audience sells itself on the co-marketing collaboration.  Contribute manpower, not just $$.  You may even be able to bargain that your human resources should offset some portion of the hard-dollar contribution.  By dedicating manpower, you can maintain a larger degree of control, even if your company is the smaller of the players.

Would love to hear feedback and commentary.

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