...goes a long way, especially when I'm thinking about brands, brand management and the power of brands to build successful organizations and careers.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Check out Stories by REL

I've not been able to put as much time as I'd like into this blog because of a variety of excuses...none of them too very good. However, I'm part of the team blogging at Stories by REL, and I invite you to stop by there, check out our approach to brand management and story telling.

And thanks for visiting here for the past six months. It's a been a fun run.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Engage everyone in brand management

The doorbell rang, earlier tonight and a neighbor, wearing a harness filled with a little baby, asked me to come restart her mower. When I arrived, I quickly started the mower and proceeded to mow the lawn, not wishing to see the tiny mom with the tinier baby struggle with the mower. Within a few seconds, I started wondering how she had accomplished the one trip around the lawn before the mower stopped. Pushing the mower was shear torture. I rested at the end of each trip around the yard, wondering why it was so difficult. After completing about one-quarter of the yard, I stopped to rest, and commented that I'd never used a mower this hard to push. As she started to walk over to see what my problem was, I realized what my problem was: it was a self-propelled mower, which I had not yet engaged. With the simple push of a lever, the mower practically did the job itself.

I laughed at myself, and then soon realized my experience was a metaphor for brand failure with some of our clients. Like the self-propelled mower, all the great brand management in the world does little good if the employees don't know how to use it, don't embrace the brand or don't own it every day.

My coworkers and I have been discussing this very issue lately, and realized that the failure of many of the brand management advice we give clients is directly attributed to the lack of follow through at the client level. When we include brand training at the front line, company-wide presentations and ongoing training, many clients say they'll avoid that cost and do it themselves.
Like picking a budget printer who has no contact with the designer or letting your in-house help desk team build the corporate website, internally launching the brand with only in-house resources is a recipe for disaster. In most cases, clients who come to us for brand management consultation and support don't have the team in-house to define the brand, let alone present the brand to the people responsible for owning the brand. The same outside viewpoint that discovers these clients' brands is also the best prepared to communicate that effort internally.

Even worse: someone completely outside the brand discernment process steps in at the last minute - without benefit of the lengthy, sometimes painful and always beneficial discussions - hijacks the process and the brand comes out the other end looking like its been through a mower.

The best way to attack the brand job: get many people involved in the beginning - the like-minded and the people most likely to puke on your ideas - in the middle and at the end, then let them get to work. It's a whole lot easier to get the job done that way.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Something weird is happening with Blogger

This is a test to see if I can upload a photo. It worked a few seconds ago....

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

You get what you pay for with Blogger

I started this blog about six months ago to say a few things about marketing, work out some of my ideas, discuss marketing and basically do like millions of others - have a take and see if anybody reads.

I've been writing less lately for a couple reasons: first, I've become quite busy with a number of other distractions and blogging has fallen to the bottom of the list. Second, I've become very frustrated with one little, tiny problem with Blogger: I can't post a picture!

Photos are an important part of the story and blogs are more interesting with a good photo. And there are millions of good photos available on the internet and from my own little digital camera (when I've not lost it on a vacation). But a few months ago, the FREE software just quit posting photos. (Weird, it started right after I lost my digital camera...as if MY digital camera was the interface to Blogger!). I've tried emailing technical support (quit laughing fellow bloggers), I've followed the message boards but nobody's addressed this issue. It's just not working.

I mentioned how brands can start to smell if nobody's paying attention. Well, something smells about the Blogger brand, and it's leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I'm going to have to do something about this soon.

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Does your brand smell funny?

First story: A few nights ago, I wandered into the kitchen for a little late night snack and some unfamilar, unpleasant odor hit me. When I asked my wife if she smelled it, she said she thought she smelled something earlier, and that it might be in the refrigerator drip tray. Now I didn't even know the refrigerator had a drip tray, so I proceeded to remove the little grill at the bottom of the fridge as my wife instructed, and then slowly pulled out the most disgusting puddle of hellish liquid this side of The French Quarter. Holding it as far away from my face as possible, I carried it outside, to the curb and then flushed it with the hose for a full five minutes. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect something that vile to be within feet of the food I eat. When I returned, my wife informed me that the water comes from the self-defrosting fridge and that she has to empty it two or three times a year, particularly with the humidity is up and the water doesn't evaporate.

Second story: I walked to lunch the other day, and at a fairly busy intersection on my route, I waited for a light. A guy on a nice looking motorcycle approached the red light and I thought to myself, "now there's one of the good motorcyclists. He's wearing a helmet, long pants, good boots: he's representing us motorcyclists." No sooner had I completed my thought did he blow right through the light and make a right turn without even the slightest pause. In all 50 states of the union, it's legal to make a right turn on red after a complete stop and yielding to all oncoming traffic.

Both stories are very representative of what happens in many organizations: the marketing or sales or management staff think everything's going fine, everybody understands the brand and everybody's living it. Then something starts to smell or someone blows through a stop light: someone ignores a rule, cuts a corner, shuts down early, blows off a customer and all the goodwill goes down the toilet. This is not an ongoing, low grade fever of failure that the zombies bring on: that kind of defect in the brand is pretty apparent. I'm talking about the occasional blip on the screen that goes unnoticed and unchallenged.

I like employees are your first line of brand defense, brand warriors unwilling to give an inch when it comes to protecting the reputation of their brand, unwilling to go to sleep on the job, unwilling to let the drawbridge down after hours.

And when one employee doesn't do the job, it's up to the others to let 'em know, hold them accountable. If employees are fully versed in the brand, are trained how to support the brand, tested to ensure they can protect the brand and empowered to defend the brand with every ounce of their being, they shouldn't be surprised when a co-worker holds them accountable.

Without that level of commitment by everybody involved, a little stink can bring down the brand.

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Monday, July 31, 2006

Wrong too many times to hide

In my last post, I wrote about truth. I think truth is often a casualty in business, a victim of ego. Few people are willing to admit the truth when it makes them look bad, or has the potential to look bad. I've been wrong too many times in my career to put my ego before the truth.

In my third job, I was the communications director for a dairy association. My expertise was writing newsletters. In this case, my main responsibility was to explain the value of the dairy check-off - a USDA mandated expenses dairy farmers paid to support generic dairy advertising. My secondary job was to promote ice cream, milk and other dairy products. Now, I'm a suburban kid through and through, always living in middle class neighborhoods in between the tough inner city and the hard working country. While I learned to appreciate the very hard work of dairy farmers and others involved in production agriculture, I did a lot of on-the-job training.

One day, while doing a radio interview promoting June Dairy Month, I delivered ice cream to a morning radio personality. To add a little fun, I also gave him an inflatable cow that was used in grocery store promotions. I told him "It's not too difficult traveling with an inflatable cow. He packs up real easily." Without missing a beat, the DJ said, "Uh, Mark. Aren't dairy cows female?" I can't remember my response but just remembering it still makes me laugh.

Another time, on the same job, I was taking ice cream to yet another radio station - DJs love ice cream in the morning - on an incredibly hot St. Louis summer day. I had the ice cream in a cooler and it was starting to melt, so I ran into a restaurant near the radio station and asked the manger for some ice to keep my ice cream cold. He looked puzzled, but gave it to me anyway. As I walked out the door, he asked "You know that ice is frozen at 32 degrees and ice cream melts above 0 degrees?" I said, "so?" That's when he told me that by putting ice on the ice cream I actually helped warm up the ice cream and made it melt faster!

Again, I laugh about it today, but I never put ice in the cooler with my ice cream!

I wonder if the guy who thought up new Coke can laugh about it today. Or the person who designed the Edsel or the Cadillac Cimmaron. What about the team that developed the Martha Steward version of The Apprentice?

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A truth about truth

It was in my second job, as an editor of a company publication for a large insurance company, that I first learned the power of truth. And what people will do to avoid it.

I was writing a typical article about a committee's marketing planning efforts. I asked what the team was doing, who was on the team and when they expected to finish the work, and I got a blank stare from the manager who was my source. She said she didn't want to put a date out there because the team might held accountable to that date.

That's when I first learned the truth about truth: it's a moving target.

And I think that's why so many brands are so bland. Company's say one thing and act entirely different. There's no accountability to the brand.

And sometimes, there's not even a good attempt at being truthful. I was also the editor of a safety magazine for the insurance company, so I got to write articles about propane explosions, vehicle accidents, grain elevator accidents and other things that drive the cost of agribusiness insurance through the roof. On one particular site, the grain elevator manager told me to get on the manlift to go look at the site of a fire at the top of the building, then squeezed himself alongside me, saying "the insurance company doesn't like it when we do this, but it'll be okay this one time." I didn't bother to remind him I WAS THE INSURANCE COMPANY!

It was clear from my vantage point that the marketing effort was never going to be successful and that operation was an accident waiting to happen. Or was it the other way around?

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Everybody has a story

As an editor of a small trade magazine, I learned that everybody has a story. Even though I was a freshly graduated communications major, it was my job to figure it out.

I stumbled across a job at a small publishing firm in Collierville, Tennessee after I graduated. I was trying to return to the Memphis area because I was born there and through it would be an interesting place to settle down. The mom-and-pop publishing firm posed unique challenges because mom didn't get along with pop, and would drop in every few months to mess up everything in the name of "this is how we've always done it", and then leave in a huff for us to clean up. In between these visitations we would work hard to create three pretty good trade magazines covering the upholstered furniture, casegoods furniture and building materials industries.

We got good at finding stories because the publisher would sell an ad, and then send us off to write a story that would say something nice about the advertiser. When I'd ask what the story is, he'd tell me to "find it when you get there."

On one visit to a manufacturer - I cant' remember which one - I spent 30 exasperating minutes interviewing the plant manager only to realize that they were doing absolutely nothing that was newsworthy. Finally, almost all hope gone, I asked to take the obligatory tour of the plant, hoping that something would pop up.

And it did. The plant manager stood up from his desk and grabbed a cordless telephone to take with him. This was 1984 and cordless phones were expensive extravagance...and newsworthy. This manager would keep in touch with his plan supervisors via the cordless phone; a sort of high-tech management by walking around. It was a great story that simply appeared.

Another time, I was to interview the vice president of La-Z-Boy. It was the biggest interview I'd ever done, and I was a little nervous as I was lead into Pat Norton's leather-and-wood-filled office. A large man with pinstriped suit, Norton came out from behind a huge wooden desk and kindly invited me to have a seat on the luxurious leather sofa and asked if I minded if he had lunch brought in for us. I said no, and he quickly asked "what would you like on your hamburger?" This high-powered, highly paid executive was a regular at the local Wendy's, and he often had the juicy burgers brought in for guests. He ordered up two Norton specials, a specific combination of meat, cheese, pickles, etc. that he was known for. It was a great story, and it was the highlight of the article that focused on the humble, kind, soft-spoken vice president of one of the country's largest furniture manufacturers.

I'm still looking for stories today. As part of the brand strategy process we use at my firm, we ask a lot of questions and challenge our clients to be truthful about who they are and who they want to me. It's the first step in producing brands that are different, inviting, relevant and truthful.

And I learned how to do it at my very first job more than 20 years ago.

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