Monthly Archives: February 2012

Shine a Light on your Agency

Dedicated readers of TRMusings know that I recently conducted a social media workshop at the Foodservice Sales & Marketing Association (FSMA) Top2Top Conference.  Attendees from sales agency (food broker) community came together with their principal clients, the food manufacturers, to discuss industry issues and to network.  As part of my research to prep for my session, I entered the scheduled participants names into LinkedIn to see who had profiles and who did not.  I discovered that nearly eighty percent of the manufacturers had active profiles; but less than forty percent of the sales agency attendees were active on LinkedIn.  The gap did not surprise me as much as its relative size.  It told me that despite the fact that “relationship selling” is the primary business of sales agencies, they were under-utilizing the tools and technology available.  Tools that could positively impact their business.

The focus of my workshop was to highlight some of the new social media tools, and advise participants on how to apply them to grow their revenues.  This post will be an extension of that session, but focused only on how a food sales agency can “Shine a Light” on its organization, and communicate its capabilities and strengths to its manufacturer principals (and prospective principals).

The majority of food sales agencies are small businesses, many operating for decades in their respective markets.  Yet the face-to-face methods of relationship selling and business development from years past are simply are not present in today’s hyper-active environment.  Broker-owners, therefore, must work harder to establish and maintain relationships with a broader array of contacts within their manufacturing sector clientele.

During my thirty-plus years as a food company sales and marketing executive, there were typically a number of opportunities throughout each year to personally interface with my broker organization owners and their key executives: conferences, meetings, business reviews, etc.  My broker rosters were not simply a list of company names, but represented individuals with whom I had personal relationships, and whose company capabilities I knew intimately.

But that was then.  Today, executives — and even manufacturer field representatives — are captive to reduced budgets, increased demands, and complex strategic initiatives.  Despite the need for a closer understanding of the broker organizations representing their brands within the 50 key markets in the US, most manufacturing executives do not have the same opportunities to interface with their broker sales partners as before.  So agency executives must take the initiative, or it won’t happen.

LinkedIn provides an excellent set of tools for sales agencies to highlight their capabilities, key staff, and major account relationships.  Properly developed and used, even a small broker organization can establish and expand their visibility to their key manufacturer principals by not only linking their networks, but by posting relevant content to showcase their market and industry expertise.  When needed, they can reach out directly to their principal’s key executive via LinkedIn “InMail”.  (Based on personal experience, I have found that a LinkedIn message is often addressed with more immediate attention and gravitas than a standard email.  Seriously.)

So why aren’t more agency executives using LinkedIn to enhance their executive relationships while polishing their brand?  Lack of knowledge about its purpose and use is one reason, which I hope I addressed for those who attended my workshop.  But unfortunately that group represented only a fraction of the agency world.  Word-of-mouth suggestion from within the industry and peer-pressure, combined with the general buzz about LinkedIn within our industry may — over time — make an impact.  The succession of younger managers rising to more responsible positions within the agencies will also have an impact.  Regardless, I’m confident it will evolve.

In the meantime, with minimal effort and virtually no cost, agencies can significantly raise their visibility using LinkedIn.  Why not separate yourself from other brokers in your market, and polish your organization’s brand while you’re at it?  Here’s a few ideas on where and how to start:

  1. Establish a LinkedIn Committee.  Assemble a few interested parties on your staff and ask them to serve on a team to research and outline a process to establish and manage your LinkedIn strategy.  Include a mix of responsibility levels to gain a broader perspective.
  2. Create a Company Page.  LinkedIn now has “Company Pages” where you can highlight your organization’s mission and values, and link the capabilities and background for all your key staff.  This article “5 Tips for Using LinkedIn Company Pages” will help you get started.
  3. Review and Expand Executive Profiles.  Each of your key staff members should have a complete profile on LinkedIn.  Have the team review them and use the information in “5 Simple Steps to Improving Your LinkedIn Visibility” to your organization to the next level.
  4. Find Key Contacts.  Search LinkedIn for the key targets you want to add to your network.  Start with your regional managers and principal’s staff you know, and work out from there.  Ask for a LinkedIn introduction to those you don’t know, or simply send an invitation on your own to the target individual.  Always customize the message accompanying your LinkedIn invitation (i.e. “As your foodservice sales agency in Cincinnati I would like to connect our professional networks.”)  Most should respond even though they may not know you personally.
  5. Post Relevant Content. On your profile’s home page, there is a box at the top marked “share an update”.  Post short commentary, links to relevant articles, or thoughts about industry events.  Post several times per week if you can, to further raise your visibility with your network.  It only takes a few minutes per day to manage once you establish the habit.  Be professional and active, and your efforts will pay dividends in elevating your position as a “thought leader”.
  6. Participate in Groups.  There are literally hundreds of LinkedIn groups dedicated to the foodservice industry (FSMA has one, for example).  Click “groups” on the header and browse.  Join.  Participate by making comments to subjects under discussion; post new discussions on industry subjects ; respond to commentary.  These activities will further “polish your reputation” and brand.
  7. Use Available Tools to Manage.  There are LinkedIn APPS for your smartphone, web dashboards, and email notifications to keep the data stream organized.  (Outline your notification preferences in your profile.)  The process can be simplified using the available technology.

In my opinion, there is no more important social media activity you can undertake short term (especially in today’s volatile environment!) than establish a LinkedIn strategy for your agency.  In addition to the above links, there is a plethora of information on the web on how to maximize your participation in LinkedIn.  Quoting Seth Godin, “Kick fear’s ass and SHIP IT.”

What are you waiting for?  An engraved invitation?

PS: This just in: An excellent article from Open Forum on How to Get More Business with Linked In.  Click it.

RIM Shot

In addition to my work in the food business, I am also engaged in technology and social media, and their application in the foodservice channel. As such, I keep up with the tech blogs and feeds.  This morning I read a blog by Alex Goldfayn writing in Mashable Business, outlining the 7 Marketing Lessons from RIM’s Failures he identified from analyzing the rapid decline of RIM/Blackberry in the smartphone marketplace.

These lessons, however, are not unique to RIM, or to the tech business. I found them to resonate with foodservice channel challenges as well, and decided to reflect on how they might be applied in our industry.

1. Make Great Products
Great products solve so many challenges. Invest in the best food technologists and industry marketing analysts who understand the target segment and its customers. Follow the consumer trends. Understand flavors. Watch leading-edge chefs and their culinary art. Even if you make products for quick service, or the non-commercial markets, there will be ideas that you’ll discover by knowing everything that is happening throughout the channel. Study the supply chain mechanics, looking for opportunities to create competitive advantage thru service or packaging.  And peel back the layers of your product category and discover what drives it, then develop innovative products that fulfill those needs…with a difference.  Never stop.

2. Build on Strengths Instead of Improving on Weaknesses
Everyone in business in the late 80‘s learned the Japanese word “Kaizen”: The concept of “changing for the better”, or “continuous improvement” as a product or process philosophy. A slightly different angle on that concept is embodied in the idea that a brand can overcome weaknesses by focusing on its strengths: products, services, techniques, process, approaches, relationships, etc. As an organization, if you concentrate on weaknesses, your strengths can wither and die. By relentlessly concentrating on your strengths, weaknesses will be pushed to the background and die, due to lack of nourishment.
In the food industry, continuously examining your products for opportunities to improve them should be routine. Exploring ways to take your best products and identify how to increase sustainable practices, reduce excess packaging, or improve BOH prep process will keep you ahead of your competition. Sit back and “harvest” your sales and you’ll quickly find them gone.

3. Gravity Pushes Backwards
You can count on your competition to aggressively innovate. And they’ll pass you quickly if you stop doing what gave you your original success. A personal episode will illustrate. As a sales executive at Fred’s Frozen Foods in the 80‘s, we had invested, developed and were the leading supplier of mozzarella sticks to the mid-scale segment. We were happily harvesting our profits, without exploring product, service, or packaging improvements. A small company by the name of Anchor Foods had followed us into the market, but we ignored them as upstarts incapable of competing. We were wrong. And by the time we realized it, they had taken not only the lead in volume, but had pushed us out of our primary distribution agreements as well.
Gravity always pushes backwards in business. Consistent and aggressive innovation is required not only to attain success, but to sustain it.

4. Know Precisely Who Your Customer Is
In the food business, no matter what you have convinced yourself, your customer is the consumer. The consumer is the patron at the restaurant, school, hospital, or food-away-from-home location. Distributors and “end-users” are important steps in the supply chain, but they are only the MEANS to reach that consumer. Whatever your segment, know who they ultimately serve, and that will guide you to not only the right product, but will help you uncover how to market your product throughout the stops along the supply chain. Branding, product positioning, messaging, packaging, and final product specifications and flavor will be completely different depending on the consumers you target.
So identify your customers as precisely as possible, and synchronize your marketing efforts throughout the supply chain to reach out to them.

5. Executives Set the Marketing Tone
Ben Franklin (and others) said, “A fish stinks from its head”. The reverse is also true. Leadership begins at the top. The CEO can set the tone, and if the team is properly engaged, they will follow. Watch Steve Jobs introduce the original iPad and listen how everyone who followed him on stage used exactly the same words. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos follows that rule. And I’ve seen examples in new product introductions in the food industry as well.
In our industry, this factor becomes especially important in “prepping” your field sales partners (brokers and distributors) to embrace the concept and language of your product when they sell it in the field. Since they have likely NOT been part of the kick-off, it falls to the field and formal training to make this connection. And of course, a video (or even written) message from the corporate head or CEO can help “fix” the key words and action phrases,  and elevate the process.  The goal, of course, is to have everyone adopt the “language of the product” as a part of its branding. It protects and defines the brand, and can transcend the product itself over time.  The coup will be when you first hear a customer use that language in describing your product.

6. Avoid Unforced Errors
Most marketing problems are self-made and entirely avoidable. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a few of examples of “unforced errors” stuffed away in my career closet. For proof, think of the recent Netflix gaff, the HP announcement that they were getting out of the PC business, and of most of what RIM has done since the introduction of the iPhone. In the food arena, P& G’s struggles to close the deal on the sale of the Pringles brand to Diamond Foods won’t do that brand any long term service.
Never outsmart yourself, and always be acutely aware of the possibility of unforced errors. In fact, keep your eyes open for them so as to identify them quickly. When they happen, address them immediately and there’s a good chance you can make them appear as if they never happened. But ignore or ruminate over them too long, and they will spread like a nasty virus. And you don’t want that.

7. Keep Talking to Your Customers
Number four in this list was “know precisely who your customer is”. If you don’t know, find out. And once you discover who they are, establish platforms and opportunities to have a “conversation” with them. Note I didn’t say “communicate to them”, but “have a conversation with them”. We are in an age of hyper-connection with consumers. Use the terrific tools available in social media to have on-going conversations with your customers. Listen, respond, track, and analyze who they are and what makes them tick. Uncover what they like and don’t like about your brand/product. Focus groups and research can be used to validate what you learn from social media, but don’t use the formalized research methods as your only tool. Sometimes it can send you down the wrong path.  Just ask me about “UFOs”…
So if you’re not talking directly to your customers, you’re just guessing from a conference room.  And that’s not the way to succeed in the long run.

In summary, I suppose I make these steps appear much easier to initiate and execute than they actually are.  Following them takes diligence, focus, and tenacity. Observe and learn from those who have gone before you, and set your course.

Hey, if it was easy, they wouldn’t need you, would they?

Paraprosdokians

Here is a fun post I couldn’t resist…

Its said that Winston Churchill loved these phrases. They are technically figures of speech in which  the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or  unexpected; frequently humorous.

  1. Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.
  2. The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on my list.
  3. Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.
  4. If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.
  5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.
  6. War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
  7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
  8. They begin the evening news with ‘Good Evening,’ then proceed to  tell you why it isn’t.
  9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
  10. Buses stop in bus stations. Trains stop in train stations. On my desk is a work station.
  11. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.
  12. In filling out an application, where it says, ‘In case  of emergency, notify:’ I put ‘DOCTOR.’
  13. I didn’t say it  was your fault, I said I was blaming you.
  14. Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the  street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.
  15. Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a  successful man is usually another woman.
  16. A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.
  17. You  do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
  18. Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
  19. There’s a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can’t get away.
  20. I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.
  21. You’re never too old to learn something stupid.
  22. To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever  you hit the target.
  23. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
  24. Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.
  25. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than  standing in a garage makes you a car.
  26. Where there’s a will, there are relatives.
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Sweater Theory

Someone said that “…creativity is the stuff you do at the edges.” Intriguing, but here is something to consider: The edges are different for everyone, and the edges change over time.
 
If you visualize your area of responsibility like an old sweater, you’ll realize that as you wear it over time it stretches out, gets bigger and looser, and the edges move away. Stuff that would have been creative last year isn’t creative at all today, because it’s not near the edges any more.
A perfect example can be found in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.  Many clever internet ideas are hatched every day, but Zuckerberg’s brilliance is how he constantly pushed his creativity to the edges, never ceasing to at the same time backfill his platform’s foundation while adding clever capabilities that fit his team’s feedback about what was wanted by its users. With its (soon to be validated) valuation of $100 billion in less than six years, you can’t argue the idea that he always had his eye on the edges.  (In fact, in recognition, perhaps it should have been called the “Hoodie Theory”).
 
So, we are presented with two useful tactics for effective personal (and organizational) evolution:
1.    If you want to be creative in your problem-solving, understand that you’ll need to keep moving toward the edges, even if the edges have moved. Being creative means going to the place where the last person left off. 
2.    If you feel you are not “creative” — or have been convinced that you aren’t — don’t fret.  Just keep stretching your sweater as you do your job, while watching the creative things others do with their sweater, and keep a mental library of ideas.  Then, once you do YOUR THING out there on the edges, people will recognize it as pretty creative indeed.
Oh…and pay attention to Einstein.
  
“The secret to creativity is to know how to hide your sources.”
— Albert Einstein