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The Seismic Shifts in Marketing’s Role in Direct Selling

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Brett DuncanThis week’s article is provided by Brett Duncan, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of  Strategic Choice Partners . Brett has worked in direct selling since 2002, holding titles that include Vice President of Global Marketing and Sr. Director of Online Solutions. He works directly with direct selling companies as a strategic facilitator and corporate consultant, specializing in leading marketing, communications and digital teams and projects

Guest Post by Brett Duncan
The Seismic Shifts in Marketing’s Role in Direct Selling

“Marketing doesn’t matter for a direct selling company.”

Have you ever heard this one before? If you’ve been working in direct selling for more than ten years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard someone say this outright, or at least imply it. In fact, that person may have even been you.

I know it’s a concept that’s been suggested to me on more than one occasion since I started in direct selling in 2002. You see it pop in several different contexts and conversations.

For example, it was a popular rebuttal to any marketer with a consumer packaged goods background prior to coming on board, as they began their journey in the mysterious waters of direct selling. You’d hear this sentiment when a creative director was asking for packaging that would take away a few extra pennies from the bottom line. You’d even hear it when it felt like corporate was over-stepping their bounds, relying on the field to come up with their own tools, their own campaigns and their own messaging on how to share the products.

I heard one corporate executive even go so far as to say the corporate office’s role was to “ship product and mail checks.”

I always loved the simplicity of that statement, and the loaded implications behind it. Unfortunately, I think there’s a little more to it than that now, though.

In large part, up until 2005 or so, the “Marketing” team at a direct sales company was really just a “Sales Support” department. They ran promotions. They designed stuff. They wrote stuff.

More than anything, they did what the sales leaders in the field needed them to do. Often times, they would even do it for them.

I still believe some marketing departments at some companies work best with a sales support-centric mentality. But what became very apparent around 2006 was that marketing was becoming a lot more important in direct selling than it ever had before. Companies were considering areas that had been largely ignored in the past. Good marketing was no longer a bonus; it was a must-have.

For example, I can remember when Xango launched, and how beautiful and fresh and xangocurrent their design was, how consistently and modernly they presented their brand. That curvy bottle of juice was so sexy.

I remember Mona Vie showing up, and taking it all a step further. Packaging was SO important, and it was SO different than the industry had seen before.

I remember seeing Vemma’s Brand Book, a style guide that meticulously laid out the brand elements of the company. They took it all quite seriously, and it was impressive.

Now, it may be easy for you to get hung up on the journeys those companies have gone through, but don’t. This article isn’t about that. This article is about the seismic shift that marketing has undergone in direct selling, and those three examples really stick out in my personal journey. They were pioneers in this area, and that’s something I definitely appreciate.

Which leads us to today. As 2017 nears 2018, I think anyone with direct selling experience can easily point to not only the evolution of marketing in direct selling, but also its fundamental importance for direct selling success. Marketing is no longer a support role; it is a sales driver, and often the centerpiece of a direct selling company.

With that in mind, and given my experience now as a consultant who specializes in corporate strategy and marketing know-how for direct selling companies, let’s explore a few of the more obvious shifts we’ve seen in marketing over the last 10 years.

Brand and Target Markets Matter

I’ve maintained that, at the end of the day, a direct selling company is selling and sharing a culture. It’s not just the comp plan, not just the product. It’s a melting pot of those two things and so much more. Ultimately, people choose and stay with a direct selling company because it feels like a tribe where they belong, and where the elements of the business align with their worldview.

That’s what good marketing does, no matter what industry you’re in.

So it makes sense that direct selling companies are launching now with a very clear brand vision in place from day one. They are clear on who they are, what they do and who they do it for. They aren’t interested in “providing products everyone needs,” but rather presenting their products in a way that attracts a certain demographic and psychographic in a nearly irresistible way. There is a personality, a tone and an approach to how that company “does its thing.” And there are also clear boundaries that the company does NOT cross.

That’s what a brand is all about. It’s not the logo, not the packaging, not the writing style and it’s not even the founder. It’s an impression. It’s a promise made, and then a promise kept. It’s the culmination of so many things (best saved for another article).

But it’s also a culture, and that’s especially important for a direct selling company.

Today’s marketing team is needed to keep a direct selling company’s identify and culture clear and contained. When done well, it helps a company stand out. When it’s not, companies get lost in the shuffle.

Brand Awareness Is Even More Important

StarbucksBuilding a brand is important, but making sure your audience is aware of you is the real key. In the past, direct selling counted 100% on its Distributors to create brand awareness. Now, Distributors still do it (to the point that many companies call their Distributors “Brand Ambassadors”), but what helps them more than anything is knowing someone will know what they’re talking about when they mention their company or their product.

Assuming that a conversation is the fundamental unit of success in direct selling (and it is), then your Distributors will have more conversations about your brand when they know that conversation will go well. And a great start to a conversation is when someone says, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them.”

Today’s marketer must invest in building brand awareness for the primary purpose of emboldening your sales force. Some companies go as far as sponsoring large events or sports teams. Other stick to more direct or targeted means, like Facebook ads. Regardless, figure out where you can take a next step in terms of brand awareness, and take it ASAP!

Packaging May Matter More in Direct Selling Than Any Other Channel

When I first started in direct selling, the popular thought was that packaging really didn’t matter for us. After all, it’s not like our products are sitting on a shelf somewhere, in the midst of all of the competition. Lots of customers don’t even see the packaging until after they’ve bought the product anyway, so why bother with wasting money on great packaging? The product should speak for itself, right?

To me, that all sounded logical. But I’ve completely changed my tune. I actually think packaging may be more important in direct selling than anywhere else. Here’s why:

We rely on Distributors to share these products with their friends, family and other contacts. That can be a scary proposition for so many, and the least little hiccup in the process can be enough to keep a well-meaning Distributor from sharing the products with anyone. If a Distributor can show a product packaged in a way that’s modern, attractive and impressive in the customer’s eyes, it can be a huge boost to their confidence. And more confidence leads to more conversations, which lead to more sales.

On top of that, contrary to popular belief, we humans do judge a book by its cover, and a product by its packaging. When a new customer receives our product for the first time, we need them to feel reassured that they’ve made a great decision. A great product in half-baked packaging won’t cut it. If we can create an experience, a moment, with our product, the likelihood of them ordering again and being happy with the product increases exponentially.

Finally, today’s direct selling company is also an e-commerce company, in that we offer our products online. And we all look at packaging when we shop online, so it has a profound impact on our decision to buy (or not to buy).

Today’s successful direct selling company must invest in compelling packaging, both in terms of label design as well as container design. Provide products that your sales force can be proud to share with others, and that customers can be impressed with before they ever even use the product.

Dig in to Digital

No one needs to be convinced of the importance of technology and online solutions in today’s marketplace.social media Over the last decade, we’ve watched most of these projects merge from isolated IT projects into marketing-led collaborations that touch every department.

I still use the term “digital marketing” in my conversations, simply because it helps communicate a certain concept in those situations. But there’s a part of me that cringes every time I say it, because I think all marketing now is digital. Put another way, every bit of marketing we do has a digital impact in some form or fashion.

In just the past 10-15 years, we’ve seen marketing go from simply making a website look great to leading and sometimes even managing the teams that develop and create the entire technical solutions.

Great Design Boosts an Emotional Connection

Our attention to design cannot just stop at packaging. Every touchpoint must be presented in a way that’s congruent with the brand and in sync with your audience’s worldview. They need to have personality and clarity that makes someone happy they interacted with you, even if it’s on the smallest level.

In today’s environment, there’s really no excuse for even the smallest company to have compelling graphic design that is consistent across all touchpoints. Great design is more accessible than ever.

That said, great marketing leadership must step in and make sure those design chops lead to consistent and simplified communication in all that you do. When done well, the typical customer won’t even notice everything you’re doing; they’ll just know they love interacting with you because it always clearly portrays who you are. When it’s not done well, people most definitely notice. They feel like the company has multiple personalities, and the inconsistency can lead to doubt for your customers, which can eventually lead to disengagement.

These emotional connections are extremely valuable for a direct selling company. A major variable we deal with are all of the different personalities and approaches of our Distributors. We already know that they will be inconsistent among each other, and sometimes even with themselves. The company must present itself as a solid rock in every way, and consistent, compelling, clear design helps achieve this.

Product Development Isn’t Just an R&D Thing

I remember the first time I heard a marketing executive say that marketing was the leader of product development. r&dThat rocked my world. Coming from a background in nutrition, I was used to the R&D team coming up with a product (and sometimes it even came with a name and container already selected), and then turning it over to the marketing team to make a label and go sell it.

There’s a natural friction that lives in that space between marketing and R&D, and it’s typically a healthy friction. But a major role that today’s marketing team must heavily contribute to, if not own completely, is product development.

Good marketing starts with the market, the people. If you know your audience well, then developing solutions for that audience becomes not only easier, but also more successful. Where the typical R&D-driven product development approach begins with a product looking for a market, the marketing-driven development approach begins with a market looking for a solution.

Today’s marketing team in direct selling is increasingly driving product development. I personally believe there’s a healthy mix here that can be achieved, and regardless of where product development “lives,” it’s the collaborative approach and checks and balances that make all the difference.

As marketers gain more and more influence, and even ownership, of product development, the more successful a direct selling company can be in creating products that best serve their audiences.

Shifting from Sales Support to Sales Empowerment

I have a core belief about what the corporate side of a direct selling company is responsible for, and it’s especially true of marketing. Our job is to facilitate evangelism. Our Distributors are responsible for sharing and selling the products, and enrolling new Distributors. We simply try to make that process as easy and effective as possible for them.

Of course, a lot has changed since I originally thought this ten years ago, but I believe the fundamental truth is still the same. Digital tools, social media and a company’s online presence all make a consumer’s connection to the company itself just as prevalent as to their own upline. And the expectations of the sales force has shifted from simply supporting their efforts and their systems to actually giving them the system to follow, the tools to use and the content to share.

Marketing is (and maybe it always should have been) all about sales empowerment, not just sales support. From the social graphics we create for Distributors to share to the videos and decks we create to use in presentations, today’s direct seller expects to be fully stocked for success. On top of that, today’s environment requires that those graphics and videos and other materials are all compliant, too.

Marketing’s role must constantly be looking at ways to help Distributors spark conversations, connect with new people and complete transactions. Sure, they’re still “independent” Distributors, but their dependence on marketing to partner with them throughout the process has grown exponentially.

“Lead”ing the Way to Prospects

I remember when, at best, a company’s corporate leads program was just a nice extra that generated a few new customers here and there. At worst, I can remember lead generation at the corporate level and the process behind it causing a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth among field leaders. The field would feel threatened by the programs, to the point that many companies shut off their leads efforts altogether.

Not any more. Today’s direct seller is looking for a company to hand over qualified leads on a regular basis. They appreciate the company incorporating Facebook Ad Campaigns, retargeting campaigns, search marketing and all the other different lead generation mechanisms.

The most attractive income opportunity is the one that makes finding prospects the easiest. Marketing teams must get aggressive and creative in how they deliberately and proactively generate leads for their field.

No More Single Channel Operations

Direct selling is just a distribution channel.

Many of you cringe when you read that. Direct selling represents so much more to so many of us than just a way to distribute products. But at its core, that’s all it is.

Which is why we’re seeing a multi-channel approach as such a trend right now throughout the marketplace. Many companies are choosing direct selling as the newest sales channel, coupling it with retail stores or e-commerce. Other direct selling companies are, likewise, choosing other channels as a way to extend their brand outside of direct selling.

It’s all quite exciting, and it’s definitely requiring companies to think very differently about how they operate.

Many companies are bringing in marketing experts for each channel, which makes sense. But as the multi-channel approach continues to grow, it will become important for at least some members of the marketing team to have not just direct selling expertise, or retail expertise, but an expertise over all channels, and especially how those channels co-exist. Phrases like “channel conflict,” “cannibalization,” and “shelf space” will become more common in our conversations.

Where Are You Seeing the Biggest Shift? 

These areas only scratch the surface. Where are you seeing the biggest shifts in how marketing works in direct selling? What must marketers do now that they didn’t have to do before?

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