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Adding Value – the Key to Radio’s Future – an interview with Branding Guru Tom Asa

Tom Asacker is a highly regarded marketing and branding advisor and the author of a terrific new book, A Little Less Conversation: Connecting with Customers in a Noisy World

. I spoke with Tom before he addressed a meeting of brand managers in San Diego (Visit Tom's website here).

What follows is an abbreviated transcript.  For the full interview, click here or download the MP3 file (Note:  You can also subscribe to hear2.0 Podcasts at iTunes)

Tom, A Little Less Conversation…. What are you trying to say? What should we be doing more of, and what are we doing too much of?

Well, the title is two-fold: First, it seemed to me that people think that the best way to connect with customers in this new, very competitive marketplace, is to create conversations with them. So let's take everything we're doing now, and let's go create social networks, let's try to figure out how to listen to what people are saying and connect with them in that manner, and that kind of makes sense. I don't have a problem with that — that's why it says A Little Less Conversation, right? What I think we need to do more of, however, is a little more action, please.

So instead of figuring out how to communicate and how to persuade and how to be clever in our approach to the customer, how do we actually create value and make our customers happy and improve their daily lives, whatever that happens to mean.

Look for people in their routines and say to yourself, "How do we inject us, our passion, our dollars, our spending, into their lives and improve them?" Not, "How do we communicate better with them?" How do we actually do something that will improve somebody's life? 

So what are some practical ways of doing that?

There are various components of marketplace value. I've identified ten components – everything from saving time and saving money to connecting with people based on the aesthetics of the product and the service – even of the communications. There are social connections that you can allow people; you can facilitate that as a brand. Meaning: How do you create more, deeper meaning? You see the whole green revolution, right? That all has to do with that. So there are value components that you can use to weave into your brand; it's how you creatively do that that differentiates one brand from the other.

Take, for example, Wal-Mart and Target. So Wal-Mart is "Save you time and save you money." That's in essence what it is, so what's the "feeling"? The feeling is, "Hey, I'm smart. I saved a lot of time and a lot of money by going down to Wal-Mart and loading up the trunk with stuff that's good enough."

What did Target do? Target said, "Well, we want to play in that field. We want to be a save-time-save-money type of value component. How do we do that?" Well, you've got to weave in another component of value. So they said, "We'll weave in aesthetics. We'll make sure that we're providing a certain environment that makes people feel different about their engagement with our store than they do with the Wal-Mart brand." So that's how they did it. I mean it was very clever, tough to execute – all these things are about execution. But as a brand, if you look to adding value, if you say to yourself, "Where's the value in this activity to the customer?" that's the mindset shift that's so hard for everybody. Because they're thinking, "What's the value to us? Oh, we'll persuade more people; we'll get our name out more." No, flip it back around and say, what's the value to them of creating this, whatever this is that you're thinking of doing. If you can't find the value, it's probably not really there.

Do brands need to understand their own DNA – who they are – before moving on to add this kind of value?

Well, Nokia was a wood pulp manufacturer; they were a rubber boot manufacturer before that. The only reason that they extended into cellphones was because the toilet paper market in the USSR was collapsing with the fall of the country. Right, so they said, "We've got to get into something." You can expand into what you have the ability to expand into, not necessarily what you have the history of. What do I have the ability to expand into in order to create value for customers?

The hardest thing about what radio is trying to do is they're trying to appeal to a broad audience. The bigger, the better. And that's what fails them, because they have a hard time understanding what their customers want – and by customers, I mean listeners and advertisers. What their customers want is a sense of connection, trust, and interest built around them as a collective, whatever that collective is.

So for example, if I'm listening to this radio station and I'm a bike enthusiast or whatever, and I know that these guys connect with me deeply, when they run an ad about something having to do with extreme bicycling, I will pay attention and listen because they've developed and trust and interest in what I'm interested in. All right, now they don't have to go that narrowly, right? They could be the people that are out there looking for certain genres of music, and I trust them on that. So now they clue me in to anything that has to do with music — stereo systems or portable music players — but until I have trust, right — it has to go beyond attention. They've already got my attention.

For whatever reason, I get in the car, I push this button and I listen because I like the music. So they've got my attention; now they've got to get deeper and say, "Okay, how do we keep people interested? How do we make what we do desirable to them, not just as a listener of music but as someone who's also listening to the content between the songs?" What are they doing to tell me that they care about my interests between the songs by talking about things that interest me or that are valuable in my life during that time?

And then from the advertiser's standpoint, the flipside of that is, "Hey, we have this community of people interested in what you are selling, Mr. Advertiser, so let us connect you with them more efficiently.”

Exactly right. Exactly right, because once we do broadcast to them, they will tune it in. They will be consciously aware of what we're talking about because they know we're the people to go to to find out about whatever that value is that they're trying to provide.

Now, does this imply that I need to focus on niches? Does it mean that I need to appeal to smaller groups of people?

Well, think about what "niche" means. Local is a “niche,” right? If you have a local environment, you need to understand what’s on listeners' mind from a local standpoint. So you're a radio station, and you're saying to yourself, "How do we add value to our listeners' lives?"

Yeah, we have this medium that we can use, but we also have feet on the streets; we have budgets, we have connections with advertisers, right? How do you use all of that to help local people improve their lives? Maybe socially they want to connect. How are you allowing listeners to connect? Maybe I would build a bar, and I would put the call letters on the bar and I would broadcast from there, and I would say “Come on down,” and I would figure out how to get sponsors in there to be giving people things.

Just look at your brand and say to yourself, "How do we use what we are — our resources, our connections, our influence — to provide value to people?”

So are you suggesting that maybe we as an industry are too dependent on the argument: "We're top-five-ranked, and Mr. Agency, please get us on the buy"?

No, I'm saying a lot of media has looked for "value" in this thing called “awareness” — eyeballs, attention, whatever you want to call it. And they've stopped there, and they said, "Okay, we have the value," or they say, "How do we grow this value bigger — this one component of value?’

"How do we get more listeners?" in our case.


Instead, why didn’t they say early on, "Wait a minute. There are other components of value." A big one is social connection. Why didn't radio have the first social networks? When they saw this coming, why didn't they say, "Whoa, let's grab that. Let's connect these listeners like crazy; we'll connect them to each other all over the place." Because that adds value to the relationship.

But many ad agencies aren’t interested in anything beyond what's top-five ranked. They're not interested in any other dimension of value besides that one. Is that going to change or is that not as true as it's made out to be?

You know, there are buyers who buy based on spec; then there are the forward-thinking people who say, "What is the depth of this relationship that we're trying to create between our message and the consumer?" And they're going to start going deeper rather than broader. That's why a ton of money is flying to the Internet — because it's measurable.


Okay, it worked. I've got a click. But even the Internet guys are saying, "Wait a minute; clicks aren't enough anymore!" The advertisers say, "If you really want our money, we want a purchase, or we want engagement. We want you to stay on our site — we don't want somebody just clicking and then going away. Every media brand is being forced to show that it can drive desire, trust, interest, engagement, and eventually sales. That's the name of the game.

In your observations, how well do you think radio people in particular are getting this message and adapting to it?

It seems that we've got a catch-22 on our hands, right? We need to get out on the street and keep selling in order to keep revenue coming in, so nobody wants to slow down in order to change the way they're doing things, to really rethink it, because that might take away from sales time. I mean we're putting out fires, and nobody wants to step back and say, "Wait a minute. Is there a better way of doing this?”

It's a difficult thing with an industry that's been around this long, with people that are well entrenched in relationships up and down the chain. It's tough to get people to change — to just say, "Put on the brakes, and let's rethink radio." But I think that that's what needs to be done: Let's rethink radio. Just like Steve Jobs said, "Let me rethink the MP3 player." He didn't say, "Well, we can do the MP3 player and slap this thing on it"; he said, "Stop, and let's rethink the MP3 player."

That's a tough thing to do. It takes guts.

You've talked a lot about value. It’s interesting that you haven't used the word "content." Where does content come in in your conception of the way radio needs to rethink itself?

That’s a good question. I was actually with 15 vice presidents of marketing at a large company, and one was really confused about what to put in a brochure he was writing. So I asked, "Where's the value in a brochure to what you just got done telling me was a very busy client base?" And he said, "Well, what do you mean?" I said, "Well, tell me: If you hand somebody that brochure, are they gonna thank you? I mean is there something there that is going to either improve their life, make them more knowledgeable in their job, engage them, make them laugh, or allow them to share it with others so that they got some social currency?" I said, "Is there any value in that brochure that you know of?" He said, "I can't think of anything." I said, "Well, then don't print the brochure. Come up with another way of doing what you're trying to do that allows other people to see the inherent value in it.”

Content inherently has no value. It has to provide value in some way. It has to provide engagement value or growth value in that through this content I improve myself in some way, I become more knowledgeable, I'm a better cook, I'm a better husband, whatever the heck it is. Or it must provide some kind of social value where I use the content to make connections with other people, people that I want to be interested in me, people I want to connect with.

So is this the key to creating a larger audience?

You can't create larger audiences by trying to create larger audiences.

You can only create larger audiences by trying to get deeper with smaller audiences.

Think about how to get deeper and make more relevant, valuable connections with individuals in a culture or a subculture.

Don't think about audience size. Think about the depth of the relationship and how important it is and how valuable it is. The more you do that, the bigger the audience gets.

“Individual” is the ultimate “local,” right?

That's it, that's it.

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