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

Sunday, April 30, 2006

May Fast Company opens with fast start

The May 2006 issue of Fast Company hit my mailbox yesterday, and it got out of the blocks quickly with “Fast Talk: voices from the creative front lines,” interviews with five brand warriors from the world of sports. Except for the cheesy photo of the Oakland Raiders’ Patty Herrera wearing shoulder pads, it was a great look into the strategies these pros employ to make their brands different, inviting, relevant and truthful.

The aforementioned Herrera, a former Raiderette, is now the director of multicultural initiatives for Raider Nation. She overseas outreach to minority communities, and has helped the black and silver connect with Hispanics, Chinese, German and, even, Navajo. In the interview by Michael A. Prospero, Herrera says “The Raiders have always been about being different from the rest, which is why we decided to broadcast Raiders games in Navajo; to unite the Navajo Nation with the Raider Nation.”

Tom Whaley, executive vice president of the St. Paul Saints, has one of the most intriguing jobs, serving up bizarre activities to keep families coming back to fill the 6,000-seat minor-league baseball season all summer long. Under his guidance, the team started using live pigs to deliver baseballs because they thought mascots were becoming too fluffy. And for 2006, they’ll feature “ballet parking” – ballerinas who’ll park your car. The bespeckled Whaley says “If we just did baseball, we’d probably have 1,000 people here each night.”

The article also includes interviews with Paul Brooks, president of NASCAR digital entertainment and broadcasting (“Everything we do with technology is about giving fans the choice of how they want to watch the race.”); Tanya Van Court, vice president and general manager of ESPN broadband and interactive television (“The appetite for video on demand online is growing, and a year from now, it’s going to be insatiable.”); and Brett Yormark, president and CEO of the New Jersey Nets (“We’re fortunate to have great character guys like Jason Kidd and Vince Carter on our roster, so if I can exploit that in a positive way, why not? Our All Access campaign puts them in touch with fans…”).

These folks are winners that we can all learn a few things from. Check out their programs and their sites and see if you can apply their game plan to your operation.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Please put your hands up and back away from the table

Professional organizations that support communicators - such as IABC, of which I've been a member for a good part of the past 20 years - are always saying that communicators need to earn a seat at the management table. They need to support the organization's goals, speak management’s language and get serious about business. If they don't, the line goes, they'll be seen only as tacticians for the rest of their lowly careers.

Ron Shewchuk recently posted on this subject and, if you're involved with corporate communications either inside or outside the organization, I think it's worth your time to read his comments. They're really insightful.

Here’s a taste:

“Well, I’m here today to tell you that I’ve been a temporary dinner guest at that strategic table more than a few times in my long and sordid career. And I’m ready to share a little secret: most of the time the guests are insane and the food is undercooked, overcooked, rotten or poisoned. Very few decisions actually ever get made. Long-term direction is often nothing more than the path of least resistance, or whatever your cranky investors are insisting you do next. And battle tactics are devised in a very deep, cushy bunker in which the primary goal is not victory, but self-preservation.

“Want to have the ear of your CEO? Fat chance. So few chief executives actually listen to anyone, let alone a lowly communicator, that you might as well just forget it.”

After going through a litany of reasons the strategic communicator is a myth, Ron ends solidly with some very practical application in the third of the three-part series. Frankly, his tips parallel some of the things I wrote in my “be subversive” series, but he forgets one important foundation: brand.

If communicators want to get to the table – and have the courage to go there – they need to be brand warriors. They need to either fly under the radar, slowly communicating the brand standards internally, or be loud and proud about the value of brand, so that everybody starts asking “what’s with that guy?” They need to hold others accountable to the brand: write about the brand and how others are using it to make every decision. And they need to help people establish guidelines and deadlines and communicate them so they can’t cop out when the going gets tough.

Yes, it’s going to make some people angry. Some people are going to fight it. In the end, however, you’ll not only be at the table, I think you be standing on top of the table, holding up the brand as a shield against all things ordinary.

Or you’ll be out the door, pounding the street for a new and better opportunity.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

A little bit more of Scoble

I wish every corporate communications pro would read at least one short segment in Robert Scoble's interview in Communication World. In answer to a question about organizations being threatened by blogs, the A-lister answers:

"The fact of the matter is (corporations are) out of control and they're just holding on to a memory. When I talk about blogging to big companies, I see fear: I see a memory of the way the world used to be."

For more about the article - the online version of Communication World is not posted yet - check out IABC's engaging blog, IABC Commons.

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How do you monitor blogs?

I've been slow to post over the past few weeks because of travel, a number of thunder storms that forced me to shut down the computer during my evening sessions and the desire to catch up on much needed sleep. Today, however, the May-June 2006 issue of Communication World, the magazine of the International Association of Business Communicators hit my mailbox. The cover story featured an interview with Microsoft's Robert Scoble.

The piece is a great primer for those corporate communicators who are cowering in the corner of their cubicle hoping an executive doesn't come by asking "what's this blogging thing all about?" For the rest of us, it's reinforcement for many of the issues we already understand and look forward to sharing with others not yet embracing the emerging tumult in communications.

I was particularly intrigued by one quote: "When you start putting everything you're doing in public, you start getting new kinds of input that you didn't have before. People start working with you." So, in that spirit, I'm asking a question today; not giving advice.

How do you monitor blogs and message boards for comments on your clients, your employer and topics of interest to them?

I use Bloglines to subscribe to a number of blogs, but don't make a regular habit of hitting them all. And I use Technorati to search for specific topics at specific times. But what's the best way to keep an ongoing eye on the whole blogosphere or message boards?

In the old days, we used clipping services that simply filled our file cabinets with tons of newsprint in two-inch-wide strips. And video monitoring services cost a fortune. There's got to be a better strategy to passively monitor digital discussions on behalf of our employers and clients.

Let me know how you do it.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

When personal decisions bring a brand down

On the way back from the National Agri-Marketing Association's Trade Show and Conference in Kansas City this week, I came across this example of good brands going bad because of personal decisions. I say "personal" decisions because I don't believe that this local McDonald's restaurant in Bethany, Missouri, was following brand standards when they plastered these red golden arches across the front of this awning. Many brand identity standards don't allow for their logo to be used as a decorative element, either. I believe the local manager thought this was a cool idea, and he liked red and black as a color combination, so he called up the local sign company and asked him to make a bunch of vinyl logos. Then he probably asked one of his teenager employees to put them up. It didn't matter if it was straight...it just needed to look cool. Will this little error kill McDonald's? No. But will a bunch of personal decision that aren't built on the brand kill McDonald's? Definately.

In my 20+ years of experience, I've learned that this is what happens when personal decisions override brand standards. There's absolutely nothing wrong with red and black - I love red and black - but I'm thinking the brand identity standards for McDonald's don't allow for a red logo.

I'm working with a client - a professional services firm - that employs one person who wants to be the marketing director, create a new logo and marketing materials, even if it's not his job. His heart is in the right place, but his responsibility isn't.

A small town bank client had one employee who would bend over backwards to serve customers, even when it violated policies, put the bank at financial risk and made his coworkers look bad.

This is the same thing that happens when marketing managers leave organizations and new ones arrive: ready and willing to change agencies, change logos and put their imprint on the brand, if that brand needs it or not.

Employees should take charge of the brand, but only after they understand it thoroughly. It's up to an organization's leaders to define that brand, teach employees how to communicate that brand and then allow them to own the brand and hold others accountable to the brand every day.

And then someone should say "Golden Arches are to be printed in gold!"

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Brochure basics

A few posts back, I started a short series of posts about business basics including business cards, letterhead and websites. Today, I want to tackle the basic brochure.

Since the explosion of the Internet - I was there when we called it the "Information Superhighway" with a straight face - the lowly printed brochure has fallen on hard times. Two dimensions just aren't sexy any more.

I disagree, and think there will always be a place for a printed brochure. It's usually where there's not a computer or an Internet connection, such as a trade show hallway, at dinner in a nice restaurant or on an airplane: some common places to tell your story to would-be clients and influencers. It's in the hands of people that don't spend hours a day searching the Internet or those who spend all Sunday morning reading the New York Times.

A printed brochure can use photography, typography, texture and weight to ignite the vision and the sense of touch unlike a Website. Typography adds dimension to concepts in a completely different way than even sound and video on the Web. Creative folds can also create motion and emotion.

I'm not suggesting a printed brochure is superior to a Website, it's just different. And when it's done right - with a foundation in the brand - it can complement every other communication tool in the brand warrior's arsenal.

Make it dynamic; make it personal
Ironically, the dynamic characteristic of the Internet is the driving force behind my overarching brochure creative. Brochures that my firm creates are flexible, consisting of multiple components that can be used alone or in combination to tell a story to a targeted audience after understanding their motives, the desires, their pain and their needs. If you sell three product lines, and you're talking to a customer who's interested in only one, why put a brochure about all three products in front of him. Act like you've listened and show him only the most relevant piece of information you have. Why pull out a catalog with a hundred items when you can pull out a short brochure that explain what your brand means to his company and two product detailers about the models that will get him excited. A component brochure is like a website in that the reader only sees what they need to see.

Make it emotional
The old adage "sell the benefits, not the features" became an old adage because it's true. Your competitors can sell features, only you can sell the benefits of buying from you: it's called a brand and it's an emotional response in your prospective customers. Roy H. Williams is the master of meaningful copy that elicits emotional responses, in my opinion, and anybody can learn some helpful tips from his book Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads. I suggest you read it if you want to make your brochure copy sing to clients.

Don't forget to exploit the drama of great photography. Use faces to grab the readers' attention. Move in close to create excitement. Or pull out wide to create awe. And don't skimp on the photographer: Photoshoping is not a verb!

Make it memorable
Use beautiful paper that reeks of passion. Or heavy paper that beats its chest with power. Or light, delicate paper that crinkles when you breathe on it. Paper holds unique clues in a story: let it work for you.

Make your brochure BIG so it stands out on a desk, or make it small enough to carry conveniently in a jacket pocket. Or make it tiny so you can whisper a single, simple and critical point into the mind of your reader.

Use type right. It's not something I claim to know how to do, but typesetting is the difference between good and great design, and it's worth paying someone who knows the difference to get a hand on your design. I know it when I see it, and your readers will enjoy the experience if the type's done right.

In the end, a brochure is just another tool, but when used correctly it's amazing the brand you can build with it. Don't ignore it: embrace it.

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The truth about teamwork

"Top performers are not enough" according to Mike Wagner in a post that points squarely at teamwork. The comments at the bottom of the post point out the trouble with teamwork: it rarely exists despite our constant lip flapping.

Patti Digh writes "...Ours is one of the most individualistic cultures on earth - we have much to learn from more collectivist cultures about teamwork, " but Mary Schmidt really nails it with "It's been my experience that the more a company talks about something - teamwork, ethics, quality - the less they actually believe it/have it. "

While others say teamwork is a myth, Lucia Mancuso writes "The whole theory of 'the team being as strong as the weakest link' drives me insane." She sounds like she's been the victim of too many weakest links in a system that sees teamwork as a way to keep the hangers on hanging on, which is another form of denial.

Both situations are sad. Companies that talk of teamwork but don't actually support it, are lying to themselves and their employees. And if they aren't truthful about something simple like that, you have to wonder what else they'll lie about. And in Lucia's case, her employers aren't getting the most out of the team because she's been burned before. Fortunately for her, she's self-employed and gets to make the rules.

The truth about teamwork lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: While there's no I in team, I am the one who has to take the first step. No organization can create teamwork: individuals create teamwork.

I used to be like Lucia; I didn't like teams. I liked doing it myself. Then, about six years ago I completed a rather in-depth strengths a styles assessment and realized the root of my teamwork issues. I was the type of person who wanted to get moving, do something, don't stand around waiting for things like facts and policies and procedures. I thrived in an environment that promoted "it's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission." The problem was that I needed someone alongside me to slow things down, sweat the details and build the systems. I needed a detail oriented person to dot the i's and cross the t's. I needed someone to be the social butterfly that keeps the team together in tough times and celebrates in good times.

I needed a team. And they needed me. Once I learned a little humility - something the sports superstars Mike writes about don't understand - the truth about teamwork became clear to me.
It was an amazing realization that has allowed me to appreciate others more, produce more incredible work and enjoy my time on this Earth a whole lot more.

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