Marketing interview: Cartoonist Tom Fishburne on niche marketing, career goals, and raving fans

by Karl Sakas on October 6, 2012

Marketing cartoonist Tom Fishburne headshot

Marketing cartoonist Tom Fishburne

If you’re in marketing or brand management, you probably know Tom Fishburne as the business cartoonist behind the popular Marketoonist series (read by 100,000 people each week), the author of This One Time at Brand Camp, and a communications consultant to companies like General Mills and the Wall Street Journal.

This month, I interviewed Tom from his Marketoon Studios office near San Francisco. As someone who loves both marketing and dry humor, I especially enjoyed hearing Tom’s perspective on:

  • How doing what his coworkers called “career suicide” actually helped at work,
  • Why the Dollar Shave Club has become so popular,
  • Why anti-social brands can’t just start using social media,
  • Why Don Draper isn’t calling the shots on branding any more,
  • How the “career ladder” has turned into a “career trapeze,”
  • How there’s more to career planning today than just “follow your bliss,”
  • How Tom’s creating a market to connect cartoonists and brands, and
  • Why helping customers become more awesome is your top priority at work.

You can find Tom on Twitter at @TomFishburne. Sign up to get a weekly email reminder about new cartoons at TomFishburne.com and learn more about his brand storytelling business at MarketoonStudios.com.

Our Mission, a marketing cartoon by Tom Fishburne

KARL SAKAS: In the video of your presentation at Do Lectures, you mention a Jerry Garcia quote: “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.” What if someone isn’t a rockstar or a “rockstar” CEO?

TOM FISHBURNE: It’s really about finding what you uniquely do, whether that turns you into a rockstar CEO or actualizes you as a person. The lesson came to me from having twin interests in marketing and cartooning, and thinking they’d always have to be separate, with a day job in marketing. The revelation for me was realizing I could combine the two and think about developing marketing campaigns based on cartoons. And they could be even more interesting than each on their own.

This can be true for anyone–find what you uniquely do, so that you’re not one of thousands, so you’re the first to come to mind. (Tweet this!)

When I joined General Mills–which has an excellent training program–I was one of 34 associate marketing managers. My initial thought was, “I don’t want to stick out. I want to be like everyone else.” I had this experience where I was trying to assimilate.

Then I started drawing a cartoon strip. A few of them were a little snarky. People would sometimes poke their heads over the cubicle wall, and say I was committing career suicide.

After a while, I got a voicemail from the assistant to the CMO. I thought, “Great, I’m getting fired after all.” (Tweet this!)

I called her back and she said he wanted to take me to lunch. Turns out the CMO had seen my cartoons and was really interested in what I was doing, and he wanted to get to know me better.

By assimilating and taking the safe route, I would have stayed anonymous. By sticking your neck out, suddenly you can have opportunities that others don’t.

You don’t have to be the best in the world, but you have to be the best in your environment, however big that might be.

TSA security screening and Facebook cartoon by Tom Fishburne

KS: I love your cartoon showing a “Like us on Facebook” placard at a TSA security checkpoint. Are some brands like the TSA or the IRS just hopeless? What about brands that just seem… not compelling, like SKF, the Swedish ball bearing manufacturer?

TF: It’s a great question. A lot of my worldview was shaped by my five years at method products. It’s a wonderful brand in an extremely dull category–household cleaning products. My boss liked to say, “There are no low-interest categories, just low-interest brands.”

If you can get people enthusiastic about a cleaning product brand, you can get them enthusiastic about anything. (Tweet this!)

The trick is not just about jumping into social media. If you’re an anti-social brand, you can’t just start being social. (Tweet this!) You have to be doing something likable and sharable in the first place. Anyone can do it, if you’re doing something delightful.

Thinking about yourself as a commodity is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Tweet this!)

If you challenge yourself to find an emotional connection to an audience, anyone can succeed. But you have to find that experience first.

The TSA has a bit of work to do before leaning into social media. But to be fair, they are trying to be more transparent about explaining why they do what they do.

KS: In your Google “Think Branding” keynote, you described how retro liquor brand Sailor Jerry gave a shot of rum to each customer who got a tattoo of the company logo. In college, I visited the NRA museum near where I grew up outside D.C. The guestbook comments said, “Our six year old loved the museum. She’s already a Lifetime Member.” Is there a replicable quality behind what makes people tattoo logos on their arms, or that makes people buy their first-grader a $1,000 lifetime membership in anything?

TF: [Laughing] You just shortened my Christmas list.

Most brands try to talk to everybody. But that means they talk to nobody. It’s like the Charlie Brown parents’ voices, “wah-wah-wah.” Marketing sounds that way. And consumers recognize that, and tune it out.

I think the replicable quality is finding how to preach to your choir. Who is your laser-targeted core? Who’s most likely to be interested in your product? Evangelize to them, and focus on them.

One of the reason The Simpsons is such a wonderful show is that 5% of the jokes are only understood by a very small number of people. These are the people who start the Simpsons wiki, who watch every show, who go to Comic-Con, who know every line Matt Groening has even written. The show never forgets them.

Brands need to do more of that. They need to do some communication that is deliberately exclusive. For fans of Chevy Chase and Fletch, you could do a lot of ball bearing jokes.

At method, there was a[n external] blog called “method lust: one man’s unsuppressed lust for all things method home.” It was updated three times a week, and it’d get 5-10 comments per post. It was entirely about the method brand. And the blogger didn’t know anybody at the company.

In one sense, it’s a little creepy. But by inspiring a guy like Nathan [Aaron], we knew we were inspiring more. Find the evangelists. They’re a proxy for the people who didn’t start the [fan] blog or leave comments. (Tweet this!)

[KS: We discussed the Dollar Shave Club, which, it turns out, we both recently “joined.”]

Dollar Shave Club logoThey tell a story so well. And [with social media] it’s never been so easy to connect with a brand that way. So focused and targeted. You know from Dollar Shave Club’s marketing, they’re not trying to get on NBC primetime, but that’s fine.

They’ve also gotten people to change their purchasing behavior. It’s pretty amazing.

KS: Your cartoons often poke fun at the disconnect between what a company wants from consumers and what consumers want from the company. What’s your advice to any readers who work at a company that’s resistant to having a two-way conversation with customers?

TF: I think a lot of businesses can breathe their own exhaust. It’s an echo chamber. They hear only what they say.

Yogurt on social media cartoon by Tom Fishburne

I had an experience when I was at the Green Giant brand. We had a frozen vegetable product with a sauce that you’d melt when you microwaved the veggies. The package used the term “sauce chips,” as in, “Put sauce chips in bowl.” Thing is, “sauce chips” was a technical term–consumers would never say “sauce chips.” It was technically accurate. But we needed to listen more than we talk.

The first step is to acknowledge that consumers are already talking about your brand, without your control or your ability to ensure they’re getting our single-minded proposition. The two-way conversation is happening, whether or not you’re listening to it. (Tweet this!)

Turn on the listening, and hear how they’re talking about the brand. Consumers define the brand, not the marketing department.

Listen more, and then think about communication as a conversation. It’s no longer a command-and-control model, where Don Draper defines the brand. (Tweet this!)

KS: In a 2008 interview with FreshPeel.com’s Chris Wilson, you shared that cartooning has taught you to embrace niche markets instead of the mass market. I’ve noticed most marketing agencies don’t want to truly specialize. My employer, hesketh.com, specializes in websites for non-profits… but we’re still not the only one in the world who does that. What would you say to reassure companies that are reluctant to pursue niche markets?

TF: It’s something a lot of marketers struggle with. There’s often a feeling that to become a big brand, you have to appeal to as many people as possible. But there’s a much higher value to appeal deeply to a few, than to be blandly appealing to a majority.

At General Mills, we had a joke that every creative brief was written to target “women ages 18-49 with a pulse.” (Tweet this!) Our CMO used to challenge us to get as niche as we possibly could, in our target positioning.

One Size Fits None, a marketing cartoon by Tom Fishburne

If you appeal to a core in such a meaningfully way, you’ll get a broader audience, with evangelists at the core. Otherwise, it’s the “one size fits none” approach to marketing.

It’s difficult for a lot of companies to understand. But the more focused you are, the more likely you are to hit that insight.

Like with the Dollar Shave Club–it would be very different if they tried to appeal to anyone who shaved. They’re targeting men who don’t like shave tech. It’s a powerful insight for that brand.

Companies still can become big when targeting a niche, by preaching to the choir. There’s high value in preaching to the choir. (Tweet this!)

KS: You’ve been an account director at an interactive agency; a brand manager at General Foods, Nestle, and method products; and now a cartoonist and communications consultant. Considering the changes you’ve seen, what are your thoughts on the value of setting career goals?

TF: A mentor of mine shared the idea that career building was not like a career ladder, but more like a career trapeze. You come across these funny opportunities; you have to take a leap of faith and jump off. You don’t know if it’ll take you up, down, or sideways. But if you don’t leap, you’ll never know. (Tweet this!)

I’ve found this to be true many times in my career. When I went from Nestle to method, which was pretty small at the time, people said I was crazy to leave such a big company. But I know where my career would be now if I’d stayed. I learned so many amazing things at method.

Likewise, the same happened when I eventually left method to start my own business. Everyone thought I was crazy. But I know I had this passion and interest. If I’d stayed at method, I’d never have known, unless I jumped.

We all face those opportunities. The trick is to decide if and when to jump. (Tweet this!)

My guiding principle was to find some way to combine cartooning and drawing as part of what I did. Early on, I achieved this with cartooning as a nights and weekends hobby. But over time, I’ve found ways to integrate cartooning into my professional life.

There’s a Joseph Campbell quote, “Follow your bliss.” The trick for me was to figure out how to market that bliss–how to make it marketable and useful to others. (Tweet this!)

Each time I’ve taken a jump, I didn’t always know where the path would lead. But I know now that they’ve all built on each other.

It’s always more about the gut than the head. Sometimes I’ve found myself trying to convince myself to take a certain path. At times, I’ve listened to my head and leaned in that direction… and my gut said it wasn’t the right path. And it’s true. I’ve always been happiest when listening to my gut. (Tweet this!)

KS: In your “Think Branding” keynote for Google, you also noted: “We sometimes get so excited about the shiny new thing that we forget about the actual big marketing idea needed to take advantage of the shiny new thing.” If a marketing professional were to write a pithy reminder on a Post-It note and stick it next to their computer, what should it say?

TF: There’s a quote from an engineer named Kathy Sierra:

“It doesn’t matter how awesome your product is or your presentation or your post. Your awesome thing matters ONLY to the extent that it serves the user’s ability to be a little more awesome.” (Tweet this!)

That’s been very relevant to me. So often we get caught up in our day to day business, we forget that ultimately it’s about the consumers we’re trying to reach. (Tweet this!) Not only just in terms of what makes sense to us; it’s about helping your audience actualize what they want to be, to become awesome.

If we take care of [customers], we’ll be successful.

5 Types of Social Media Strategies, a marketing cartoon by Tom Fishburne

KS: I know you’ve done a lot of interviews over the years. Is there a question you’ve never been asked that you wish you had? And how would you answer it?

TF: It would be, “Where you see your business 15 years from now?”

I don’t often know where I’m going next year, or two years from now. But it helps me to have an idealized goal of where I see myself long-term. If I keep that in mind, things magically come along to make it happen. It’s like a version of the “invisible hand.” (Tweet this!)

Since I’ve started writing down long-range goals, which I do every five years, I find even the crazy ones find a way of making themselves true. (Tweet this!) For instance, I’ve become a full-time cartoonist.

What’s the next stage? I’m fascinated by how the cartoon industry’s broken. So many artists are really struggling. Traditional markets for comic strips are broken.

Cartoonists who create traditional comic strips are quitting, people like Gary Larson, Berkeley Breathed, and Gary Watterson.

My goal, in the next 15 years, is to grow this into something bigger than me–to provide a new market for the world’s cartoonists. Cartoonists are such talented storytellers, and there are so many benefits to brands.

Brands need storytelling. I want to connect them with cartoonists who need new markets.

[KS: I mentioned the idea of Contently, which connects brands with bloggers to produce articles for content marketing]

Yes, brands are becoming publishers. And authors and cartoonists are becoming free agents, and they need markets for them to work.

KS: Anyone else you recommend for an interview, or someone you’d love to see interviewed?

TF: Yes, Betabrand–I’d love to hear more from their founder.

Question for readers: What’s your favorite takeaway from my interview with marketing cartoonist Tom Fishburne? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Karl Sakas uses marketing, recruiting, and business operations to optimize and grow hesketh.com, a marketing agency specializing in strategic web development for non-profits. He lives in Raleigh, NC. This is the 19th in Karl’s regular series of interviews with marketing and business leaders. Thanks for visiting!

Image credits: Cartoons courtesy of Tom Fishburne of Marketoon Studios. Other images courtesy of the respective brands.

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