It’s just not that hard to be nice to your customers: Better living everyone!

This post was first published as an opinion piece on marketing blog Stoppress under the title “Why lawyers make bad marketers”.  But as the subject matter concerns this blog itself I have reposted it here.  Do you agree with me? What do you think Clorox New Zealand should have done?

snap lock bagsAs far as I’m aware, my blog has around four readers, most of them closely related to me. But I recently gained another! An intellectual property legal firm called AJ Park. They’re very good, and I’ve used them in a professional capacity myself.

It turns out that I referred once to a certain type of recloseable plastic bag you may well have in your own kitchen. AJ Park representing Clorox New Zealand Limited sent me a letter, asking me to change the way I have referred to their client’s product, suggesting ways I could ‘help’ their client to ‘safeguard their rights’. Thoughtfully they attached a highlighted photocopy of my blogpost and a list of suggested alternatives.

Honestly? Kudos! I’m impressed that anyone made it that far through my lemon cordial recipe, let alone an IP lawyer’s clerk clutching a highlighter. I suspect a little help from Google Alerts or a special lawyerly search tool.

Confession #1: I was once admitted to the bar in an excruciatingly silly horsehair wig. So, as a reformed lawyer, I do understand why companies want to be able to protect their property. If their brand name becomes the generic name for the product (which, actually, some might argue it has), it may be able to be removed as a trademark, and they lose the investment they’ve made in the product.

Confession #2: I also acted as a professional marketer for many more years than I care to admit or recall. So I know that while Clorox via AJ Park are probably doing what they feel they have to do to defend their brand, it is also just plain stupid in terms of brand perception and word of mouth marketing. Also, at $300+ per hour for a law firm partner’s time, it is also represents a very poor allocation of resource.

First, there’s the negative frisson in receiving an unexpected letter from a lawyer. Apologies to my many lovely lawyer friends, but joyful anticipation is not uppermost. A lawyer’s letterhead ups the ante in a heavy-handed way, no matter how anodyne the content. Not a feeling I’d want associated with my brand, especially smack bang in the middle of the target market. Let alone in the hands of a gobby blogger.

Secondly, however much Clorox may be in the right, actually nobody likes to be told what to do. As a marketer defending your legal rights, you need to keep this in mind in order to ensure the situation is managed to the product’s best overall advantage.

Now, I’m a fan of the product in question. I have snack sized, sandwich sized and storage sized bags in my kitchen drawer at all times, despite the fact that they are the most expensive and patently unsustainable. I have more money than sense, clearly. They just happen to be terribly useful. Until now, I haven’t seriously questioned this. And as a keen cook/baker with three kids, my future purchase potential is shamefully large.

But now, guess what I’m going to think about next time I’m in the kitchen consumables aisle? How seriously, do you think I’m going to be considering the alternatives. Quite, I’d say.

When a company sees someone using its product name, correctly or incorrectly, it is a great opportunity to recruit that person as an advocate, along with their potentially extensive social network. The last thing you’d want to do is shut down that conversation.

So, how could Clorox approach this differently? How might they ensure that fans who inadvertently use the wrong nomenclature continue to feel good about buying, using and recommending their product?

  • The message comes from the company—a product manager, or a marketer, a community manager or leader, not the lawyer.
  • It uses an appropriate medium. Unless there is a specific legal reason why the communication should be in a formal letter, it should take the form of a blog comment or email.
  • It is friendly.
  • It refers directly to the use of the product.
  • It finds some common ground.
  • It presents the client’s argument in the context of a benefit to the user, not to the brand owner.

With less effort, and considerably less expense, Clorox could have commented/emailed the following:

“Hi Jennifer, We love your blog (a little flattery never hurts, right?), and we are delighted you are finding our products so useful. We have an online community you might enjoy here, where keen cooks share ideas and recipes. We’re really flattered that you have mentioned our product by name and hope you will continue to recommend us. When you do, we would ask if you would please use our trademark*. The reason for this is that it helps us to fight bad copies of our product and ensure you are able to keep buying the quality product you’ve come to expect.”

A smart marketer who respects their target purchaser could choose to use any of the following tools in order to encourage a customer to become an advocate for their products, while correcting any misuse of trademarks:

  • Give a compliment.
  • Generate a conversation.
  • Provide sample products.
  • Offer discounts.
  • Incentivise friend get friend bonuses.
  • Ask them to like your Facebook page or join your online forum.
  • Invite to join your customer panel.

It’s just not that hard to be nice to your customers.

*For those who are interested in helping to safeguard Clorox New Zealand Limited’s valuable trademark rights, you may refer to a recloseable plastic bag as a ‘Snap Lock (R) bag”, a “SNAP LOCK (R) bag” or a “Snap Lock (R) bag”. If you’re feeling all relaxed and informal, you may apparently use the catchy phrase “SNAP LOCK resealable bag”.

He was my dog

HectorHe was nothing but a skittery pompom with a sharp little nose when we first brought him home.  He was small enough to fit into the pocket of my fleece.  His life spanned the length of our marriage.

Smart and fully engaged, he was excellent and constant company.  Dethroned successively by three babies, he generally took his demotion in good part.

Nosier than the Microsoft Paperclip, he always had to be involved, or at least present.  A naughty, loud fellow, scourge of the neighbours.   He was badly disciplined, an unrepentant pizza thief, a problem barker.

As he aged, he became blind and sick, and the sickness spread, despite our energetic denial.  What made it hardest to bear is that we could see in his eyes that he was still in there.  Barely able to walk he would still leap joyfully in the air when we came home.

When we broke the news of his condition, the children said ‘I wish I had been nicer to him’ and ‘it’s worse because he doesn’t know’

Towards the end, we ran a shift where one of us had to get up twice or three times per night and let him out.  We could never sleep past 5.30am.  It felt like having a newborn but without the upside.  It was unsustainable.  We walked like the undead, dealing with our kids and our jobs, but unable to bring ourselves to the point of what we had to do.

We heard many stories from others, some who had been to amazing extremes to keep their old dogs alive.  They all told the same story: ‘We kept him alive too long because we couldn’t bear to let him go’.  They were stories of bargaining, rationalising and denial.

In the end it was quite simple.  We carried him into the vet.  The vet spoke to us quietly and reassuringly, like a kindly priest.  The tears ran unguarded down our faces from the moment we arrived until we left.   When he was gone, he was gone.  I wish I had not looked into his eyes as they changed.  The right thing to do did not feel like the right thing to do.

Now, we can leave our food on the table without losing it.  We can walk around the back lawn without the danger of stepping on landmines.  We can sleep.

But weeks later I still hear his claws making fickety fickety noises behind me when I walk down the hall.  I throw food on the floor and it stays there. When I rise from reading, there is no attentive dismount beside me.  Coming home lacks a leaping celebration.

He was my dog, and I miss him every day.

The Signature of All Things – A Book Review

Book Review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

signature of all things cover tiltedElizabeth’s Gilbert’s historical novel The Signature of All Things swings into action at a critical juncture between the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.  Exploitation of the New World is a fraught but lucrative enterprise bringing lands, fresh resources, and most importantly, valuable plants for a rapacious coterie of collectors.  Far from an elegant pursuit, botany is brutal but profitable, and many will die in the quest for the new.

Red haired, choleric and amoral, Henry Whittaker, is surely one of the liveliest and compelling historical figures never to have lived.  Discovered stealing plants to sell, the ‘useful little fingerstink’ is brought before self-noting botanist Joseph Banks, and sent as a botanic spy on Captain Cook’s third voyage.  Used and humiliated by his mentor, Henry forges a future and a pharmaceutical empire from medicinal plants.

Born into privilege, Henry’s daughter Alma resembles her father: ‘Ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose’.  A stoic, clever girl, with a love of argument and understanding, she becomes a dedicated naturalist while young.  Disappointed in love, and confined by duty, she rejects sorrow and buries herself in the tiny universe of mosses, edging towards a major discovery.  The walled garden of Alma’s life is both illuminated and utterly transformed by the late arrival of a ‘fellow soul’, the enchanting and delicate artist, Ambrose Pike.

Alma’s journey towards personal and professional enlightenment is touching and transfixing. Engaging, salty, and vivid, her story is immersed in a relentless, and fascinating flow of historical detail.   Often lyrical and quite beautiful on Alma’s pure love for her work and catastrophic love for Ambrose, the novel is clear eyed on the grimmer issues of  the day such as slavery, venereal disease, asylums and shipboard sodomy.

Perhaps Gilbert’s greatest achievement, is to bring to life the commitment and passion of the naturalist for her field of study, at a time when science poses a greater challenges biblical truth through the closer examination of nature.  Alma is unimpressed by the mystical idea of a divine code (the ‘signature’ of the title), based on God’s arrangement of plants and objects.  Falling firmly on the side of science and argument, she nevertheless struggles to square her discoveries with her experience of human nature and altruism.

Gilbert feasts deeply upon the language of the period and studs the text with beguilingly archaic words such as ‘ensorcelled’, ‘gallimaufry’, ‘marplot’ and, importantly for Alma’s self discovery, ‘quim’.   The rich and inventive description uplifts and occasionally disconcerting.  Can a servant really be described as a ‘competent young washbasin of a girl’?  But the reader is nevertheless enslaved and borne along by the impulsive, rhythmic energy of the writing and ongoing discovery.

Fans of Gilbert’s phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love may see her as having diverted from form with this historical epic.  But it is entirely typical of Elizabeth Gilbert to take a brave creative risk and carry it through wholeheartedly and I, for one, am glad of it.

Both Eat, Pray, Love. and The Signature of All Things feature as protagonist, a strong, intelligent and self-critical woman, for whom work is its own reward.  Both open themselves to transformational new experiences, seeking only to know and to be known.  It seems that in The Signature of All Things, the apple has not fallen all that far from the tree.


Note: This book review was published in Metro Magazine, Jan 2014 edition.