Branding Lessons From Fly Fishing

Trout“I need to make decisions. The perfect cast is like making the right decision, but does that cast always catch the fish? Making a thousand casts off target and slapping the water is a metaphor for making the same mistakes and always getting the same results, which is never the desired one (no fish). Everyone that makes the perfect cast has at some point worked to achieve said cast and will reap the rewards.” Colorado Fly Fishing Magazine

For a while now, I have wanted to combine my passion for fly-fishing with my business mission to help improve local community branding. The streams are running too high to wade and I am getting a bit of cabin fever. I find myself checking and rechecking my gear, and visiting my local Orvis store more frequently than my wife approves of. So, writing this post is an outlet for my pent up need to get on with the fishing season. I hope you enjoy it.

How To Catch More Fish (and Find More Leads)

  • Approach Outside the Cone of Visibility. Fish can see you coming and will be forewarned. It is important to remember that the refraction of light by the water’s surface allows them to see you from a greater distance. Your competition can also see you coming if you signal your intentions in advance of execution. Tactical surprise can often be the difference between success and failure. Be sure your pilot tests are large enough to give you the data you need but not so large as to trumpet your next move. And, don’t make the mistake of allowing too much time to pass between a successful test and your initiative launch. Too much time simply allows the competition to adjust their strategies.
  • Think Position First. Before you try a difficult cast, make certain there isn’t a way to get into a better position. In branding, there are many ways to achieve an objective. Make certain the approach you take is as simple as possible. Executional complexity simply increases the risk of failure. If you can achieve an objective by a simpler means, then change your approach. Don’t overburden your efforts with excess complexity or cost.
  • Timing and Planning Matter. Take advantage of the time you have to assess the stream and determine where the fish are feeding and what position will give you the best opportunity to present a fly. The time between RFPs is valuable and should be capitalized on. Use the time to better understand your target industries and the decision drivers for capital investment. The better you can communicate the benefits of locating a business in your community, the better odds your business attraction and retention efforts have to succeed. If you don’t have a winning strategic plan in place for your community, make it a priority to create one.
  • Walk Softly. Fish are as sensitive to sound and vibration as they are to visual warnings. Your community leadership often cares as much about the process you use to be successful as they are about the results. You need to have an approach that is as inclusive as possible, and doesn’t unnecessarily alienate segments of your community. Often this means making education a priority. As a leader, you have an obligation to explain not only what you are doing, but why people should have confidence it will work. Minimizing the loud noises of uber-critical reporters and the vibrations of a process that rubs people the wrong way will give you mission critical degrees of freedom with which to operate. This is particularly important when it comes to the use of incentives. Appropriate transparency is required to minimize the noise and vibrations that can cause your community to lose confidence in your ability to deliver a return on tax payer investment.
  • Fish the Close Water First. Don’t let your excitement to make a long cast cause you to miss the fish that may be close to your feet. It is certainly news making to attract a new company to your community. But the fact is that the majority of sustainable economic growth will likely come from companies and entrepreneurs already in your community. Make sure your retention and expansion efforts are adequately resourced and managed. Don’t take the companies in your community for granted simply because the media doesn’t necessarily see it as newsworthy.
  • In High Water, Fish Seek Calmer Currents. Fish the lower bank side water before wading into the stream. In tough economic times, companies seek less risk, not more. You need to be able to explain how selecting your community as a place to locate their business operations actually helps minimize their risk of failure. Don’t simply focus on how it increases their probability of success. Think about programs you may be able to offer that can help address any perceived downside risk from selecting your community. When the currents of uncertainty are running high, paying attention to minimizing downside risk can help keep your community from being eliminated from the short list.
  • Learn to See Fish. Watch for even the slightest movement to indicate where the fish are. You lead qualification process must be sufficiently robust that you can accurately differentiate between an unqualified lead, marketing qualified lead and a sales qualified lead. Each requires a different approach and different level of promotion to move down the site selection decision. Treating all leads the same is both inefficient and ineffective. Carrying leads well past their true potential value drains your resources. Learn to “see” which leads truly have conversion potential, and focus your efforts accordingly.
  • Share the Water. Learn local customs. It pays to be patient and polite, and be sure you are not moving into water another angler is planning to fish. You will unlikely be the only community talking to a company looking to make a site selection decision. Don’t denigrate competing communities in the process. This isn’t about your civic pride. The process is about helping a company find the community that represents the best fit for their long-term success. Present the benefits your community can offer. Don’t waste precious communication time focusing on highlighting deficiencies in competing communities. The company’s site selection review team is more than capable of identifying your competition’s shortcomings. But, they might miss some unexpected benefits your community offers if you don’t take the time to call them out in a compelling way.
  • Read the Water Speed. Trout feed in currents that are running at 2-6 cubic feet per second. Don’t invest your limited promotional dollars in venues where you do not have a critical mass of potential leads, or where your competition will overwhelm your best communication efforts. Be smart! If you are going to use trade shows as a tactic for business attraction, find ways to cost share (if possible) and invest in establishing qualified contact meetings at the show before you invest in a floor exhibit. Be as targeted as possible so your promotional investment has the greatest impact possible. If your target audience doesn’t use a media channel (e.g. social media) for getting information, then don’t invest promotional dollars to communicate in that channel. It isn’t rocket science, but fish where the fish are, not where you want them to be.
  • Learn to Read the Rise. Classic rises make dimples in the water and leave bubbles behind. Dimples without bubbles usually indicate trout are feeding just below the surface. Learn to read a true “buy signal” from a false one. Listen to the meaning behind the word when talking with a potential capital investor. Often, they unintentionally provide clues in conversations regarding both their information needs and their concerns with your community as a site selection choice. You must hear and interpret the true meaning of what is said and then respond in a way that reflects your understanding of their business needs.
  • Check Your Fly. Examine your tippet and fly every 4-5 casts to make certain it is presenting the way you intended it to. I figure most guys will recall this advice in a different context (LOL). But, you need to periodically check the strength of your value proposition and the degree to which your marketing/sales efforts are bring it to life. You also need to periodically assess your conversion rates between 1) unqualified leads to marketing qualified leads, 2) marketing qualified leads to sales qualified leads, and 3) most importantly sales qualified leads to deals. Use these data to determine if your efforts to fill the top of the funnel are sufficient and to find opportunities to improve the efficiency/ effectiveness of your conversion efforts. Don’t have a specific promotional approach for converting your leads from one stage to the next? Well, then I think you just identified a major opportunity for improving your branding efforts.


I know not every reader is into fly-fishing. But, I hope you can appreciate the parallels and find the advice above helpful. I encourage you to follow-up this post with a reading of my eBook on Leadership and my series of posts on strategic planning. Both will help fill in some of the blanks.

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