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Radio Trendspotting – an interview with marketing guru Richard Laermer

Richard Laermer is president of RLM Public Relations, a columnist for the Huffington Post, and the author or co-author of numerous marketing bestsellers, including Punk Marketing, and his latest bestseller, 2011: Trend Spotting for the Next Decade.

Listen to the complete webcast of my conversation with Richard below. What follows is only a brief excerpt from our conversation.

Richard, why did you write this book?

Well, right now, we’re in this decade of mediocrity. There’s nothing going on – everybody knows this. It’s just a ton of stuff happening, but no bolts from blue, nothing to connect. I wanted to look ahead, just like I did with Trend Spotting, the first book I did on this subject in 2002. But now I wanted to show people how they could take a deep breath and start the new decade, which I call 2011, with a clear head and a positive outlook and realize that we can learn a lot from what we went through in this unnamed decade.

So give me a sense of what some of the most critical trends are. What do you think are the core themes of the next decade?

Well, for one thing there has been a kind of inflexibility in the air – people have their arms folded, and they’re always looking for somebody else to clean up their messes; it’s always somebody else’s fault. People lack the power to get things done.

I invented a word in this book called “Gumby-tude,” which is based on the green character, Gumby – not the one Eddie Murphy played, but the real Gumby.

And the idea is, “Gumby-tude” is utter flexibility. People will realize that they’re responsible for “getting it done,” by hook or crook, as the old saying goes. And I think people are going to learn to look to themselves. And what I’m saying is, look, let’s not pay attention to all the great futurists out there. Let’s pay attention to ourselves. Let’s go out and find the trends that we need to know about so that we could either make money or make more money. I want folks to learn how they can be their own trend spotters.

My new book is a guide to “do-it-yourself trend spotting,” if you will.

In the radio business today a lot of people are waiting for the leaders at the top to do something that makes a difference in their everyday lives that is a positive difference rather than a negative one. I don’t get much of a sense that people are feeling this self-reliance that you say will be critical for the next ten years.

Radio, which has been around forever and will probably be around forever, has a problem: There aren’t a lot of people who are willing to take risks.

In a lot of the work that I do, I’m always trying to get people to think about what they’re not doing, and whether or not they’re just doing what they’re doing because they were told to do it.

Radio has to think about the way they communicate its message. Radio is stuck in this thinking of, “Well, listeners will have to pay attention because we’re repeating our messages over and over again.” You and I are both marketers, and as we both know, communication is everything. And there’s no worse communication than a kind of stodgy group of people who are just going, “Huh, what do we do now? I don’t know. Let’s talk about the greatest hits of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.”

You work across many industries. Is radio different from some of these other industries? Or is radio typical of an industry this big and this mature?

Well, it is different. I work with a lot of technologies. What I find is that radio seems to always be fighting a battle against somebody, as opposed to saying, “To hell with you guys. We’re gonna do things our way, and we’re gonna change.”

In the last fifteen years or so, radio has felt beaten down by so many other types of radio-like experiences, like satellite and Internet radio, etc. And I think that radio always feels like they have to be on the defensive. And that’s tough – that’s a tough way to market, when all you do is think about how, “Oh, God, we’re so old fashioned. We’ve gotta do something.” It’s not a real strong way to fight for customers.

And I think that most people in radio are not thinking about how to create the radio fan – not the new listener, not the person who doesn’t listen to radio – but how to get their current customer to think about radio as being that one thing for them – that one communication device for them. As opposed to all this craziness where people are marketing this HD stuff and trying to get kids or people who have just dropped away back into the fold.

When I turn on commercial radio, I feel like I’m listening to the same promotions and ideas that I’ve been listening to my whole life. You know, I mean, we’re evolving human beings.

So give me just a couple of the ways in which you advise people in the book to spot trends, as opposed to fads.

Well, for one thing people have to be much more alert than they are today. Thanks to the Internet, most people use a kind of personalized way to get their information. They only go to what’s interesting to them, and that’s really a failing.

The real trend-spotter doesn’t do that. Being interested in something, only those things, doesn’t make you an interesting person. And in order to be a magnet for information, you have to know a little bit about a lot of things. But the truth is, people today only know about the entertainment world or they only know about radio, or they only know about sports, or they only know about yoga. But they don’t know about a lot of other things out there. And you have to be that person that people want to connect to because you know what’s going on.

So to be a trend-spotter, get a little bit of everything from everybody and pull it in.

I’m always surprised, Richard, that in Radio, for example, folks will go out of their way to go to a radio convention, but will rarely attend any gathering focused on new media, when that is the industry Radio is now a part of.

Well, people don’t think about what their customers do. They think about their own industry, but they don’t think like their customers.

Radio stations are doing less research today, not more. Why is that? That drives me crazy. Why aren’t they looking at what their customers want out of their own lives, you know?

Just because your station has listeners doesn’t mean you’re connecting to them. In the book I talk about auditing and how you can find your listeners, users, or whatever, and get to know them. I mean it’s so easy to do that now. And I mean real audits – ask the hard questions, like “Why do you hate us?”

Let’s talk about the recent re-branding efforts of Radio, which I know you’re aware of. When you’ve got something like radio, an industry that big with that many tentacles, what is the best way to “re-brand” it, if that’s even the right thing to do?

Well, I saw the re-branding of the logo and the slogans. It’s yet again an example of people not realizing that this kind of wasted money never really helped any industry. I mean it’s been a long time since “got milk,” you know.

If you’re going to re-brand radio, you have to do it in a way that makes people feel that it’s not a slogan, but it’s real, that something is happening – there’s a revolution brewing that the listener wants to get involved in. And you have to do that by getting the listener involved with the re-branding effort.

It’s definitely not about slogans and logos, that’s for sure, because I saw the slogan and the logo, and it’s not good. It has to be a lot messier than that.

I’ve said this to you in the past, but I’m always surprised about how little radio stations get really involved in their communities. And I don’t mean sponsoring softball teams and going to the local bakery, but I mean really getting involved – taking over whole neighborhoods and commandeering streets and just showing people that – you know, these are the public airways, right? It’s not just “Yes, we have the airways, and yes, we keep changing our call letters. And we hope that one day you like us.” Instead, “We commit to this, and we commit to you. And we’re going stay on this line of thought because, like any good marketer or seller, we believe in the mission of who we are.”

Mark, we have known each other and been friends for a long time – and I never see radio commit to anything. Most consumers and listeners are so smart – remember, these are the people who invented hype, so they know when they’re being hyped to death. And radio is a victim of it’s own hyping – not it’s own hype, but it’s own hyping – that it’s constantly saying things, constantly changing, and it’s like a whirlwind. People roll their eyes and are like, “Oh, look, that radio station is now X instead of Y. Big whoop!”

What you seem to be describing is a “re-branding” that comes from the inside out rather than from the top down or the outside in by slapping a new label on something.

If I ran the world, I would put all the branding companies out of business because I don’t really think they’re actually helping people. I mean they make a lot of money, and they say a lot of cool things, and they do great PowerPoints, but it’s a joke now.

Branding is about connecting with people and knowing what you want to say to them. Pandering is deadly, and I see radio doing a lot of pandering. But if you’re actually resolute about who you are, then prove it without a shadow of a doubt. Do what you think is right, because you’re the station that wants to be different and wants to prove its value, and you promise you’re going to stay like that.

Put it in blood!

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