...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, May 30, 2006

Brand ownership moment in a garage

In no other business, in my humble opinion, is brand more clearly defined as a reputation than in the auto repair business.

That's a sensitive subject today because I took our 2000 Town and Country Van in for an oil change and a brake inspection and found out that I need new brakes. If I really do need brakes, it's better to know now than as we roll down a mountain in Colorado next week. If I don't really need brakes, it's par for the course for an industry that carries plenty of dubious baggage.

I say this because I've been spoiled. We had a great mechanic: Randy was trustworthy, neighborly, and fair. He would tell us when we didn't need to do anything to the car. He was typical small-town America and we never once questioned his judgement or his estimate of what was needed to keep our family vehicles safe. He closed up his shop a month or so ago, and went to work repairing a company's fleet vehicles, much to the dismay of his loyal customer base, of which we were one household. Now, we're back at the mercy of an industry that gets intself on 60 Minutes about every two or three years because it performs so poorly and instills such little trust in its customers.

Today, I took the van to the local Tuffy franchise near my office. The owner was cordial, and several in our office had experienced good service from them in the past, but I still had more than a little trepidation when I heard the estimate.

Just last week, I took our 98 Lumina in for an oil change and the manager tried to upsell me on several fluid system flushes that would cost about $250. Now, I've never changed those other fluids and it was entirely believable that they needed flushed, but he'd never mentioned that during previous oil changes. And those services are on sale this month! One coworker said they almost always find $300 worth of work that needs to be done, and always say you need a serpentine belt. The estimate from fixing my brakes was $372. And the 129,000-mile Lumina would soon need a serpentine belt, he told me last week.

I really don't think they're taking me, but I just don't know for sure. I just think it's an unfortunate coincindence: My brakes need work and Randy's not there to take care of it. And the industry's brand got in the way. I hope this place proves me wrong.

Flickr photo from Jon Haynes

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Does your brand make you puke?

Brand ownership isn't easy. In fact, its very difficult because we've all been taught to suppress our natural creativity. The only time we take our eyes off the bottom line is when we wrap our hands around what Hugh McLeod calls business porn - the stories of great brands, great businesses and great lives in the pages of Fast Company, In Search of Excellence, and others - dreaming of immersing ourselves in the self-satisfaction of a good brand, an invigorating work environment and or job that doesn't make us puke.

This is what it looks like.

Mike Wagner's post about Blu Dot gives us some clues about what the alternative might look like. In his post is this clue:
"Andrew Blauvelt, design director and curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is a big fan – and a customer who owns several pieces. He raves, “They take a lighthearted approach, but are still serious about solving design problems. Their furniture has spirit and ingenuity; a down-to-earth appeal."

It's not about making money - although they made $7.5 million last year, according to Mike. It's about why they are in business: to solve design problems. And look at the picture: they're smiling. They enjoy their job! If you can't love what you're doing, why do it?

How do you know you don't love your job? How do you know that you're not even close to owning your brand? You start saying things like:
  • "We can't spend money on marketing until we make a few more sales?"
  • "We can do that in house and save a lot of money."
  • "Customer service and quality are our strengths."
  • "I'm getting tired of our logo. Let's freshen it up."
  • "What's that going to cost."
Most of the people at Blu Dot, at Southwest Airlines, at Starbucks love their work. And it shows.
How do people know you love your job? And what are you willing to do to change?

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Bad customer service you gotta love

Last night, I popped a new, refilled ink cartridge into my printer to find it wouldn't work. I called the Walgreen's technical service number on the cartridge and was greeted with a thick, but delightful female British accent. I began by explaining my problem, telling the lady my printer type, etc. but was soundly cut off with "Just a minute, love, I'll ask the questions." And then she proceeded to ask my name, address, telephone and email address. I could hardly keep laughing as I dutifully answered her questions before she told me that a technical services person would call me back shortly.

They didn't call back last night, and hadn't as of early this morning. Nevertheless, it was an interesting example of bad service that left me with a smile on my face. She was entertaining and I didn't expect to get a good answer anyway. I guess that's what happens when you go in with low expectations.

Today, Mike Wagner reminded me that Ireland has embraced the world's customer service work, so I figure that's where she was when I called. I think I interrupted her tea time!

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Who's your mama?

Mike Wagner's done it again. He's lobbed a timely brand-centric post linking moments of truth in the family with brand moments of truth in business. He cites the mom-delivered line "That's how we do things in this family" as the ultimate brand management dictum.

While Mike reminded me in an offline conversation that many companies (dis)function like families, I found myself wondering how would we act if our moms actually worked alongside us every day?
  • Would we use only brand-appropriate language?
  • Would we be more diligent about sending thank you notes to our clients and vendors?
  • Would we get our work done on time, checking it twice before leaving the office?
  • Would we say please and thank you - and mean it - to our co-workers?
  • Would we follow up on our promises to others?

Or would we slip out at night, hang out with undesirable vendors and drink cheap beer?

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

A personal brand that hits close to home

I went to a going-away party for my wife’s co-worker and discovered the power and longevity of a personal brand.

At the party, a guy name Jerry sat down next to me and introduced himself. He had spent a lifetime in various manufacturing jobs, and even did a little marketing, so that’s what we talked about. When I shared that my father worked his whole career in manufacturing, at International Harvester in the Quad Cities (of Iowa and Illinois), he cocked his head quizzically and asked his name. When I told him by dad was John True, his eyebrows shot up and his eyes practically bugged out. Knowing that my dad had a reputation as a tough man with whom you didn’t want to tangle, I thought I was staring at a victim and asked with great trepidation “where you one of the guys on his good side or his bad side?”

A smile came over his face, followed by an excruciating long pause, after which he started to tell me how much he admired my father, how calm and quiet my father had been when he supervised Jerry and others at that plant. He said my father was a gentile man, never said a bad thing about anybody, never spoke in anger, never raised his voice and was always fair. He said, second only to his first employer (a man to whom he’d run in an instant if he needed Jerry’s help), my dad was the man he respected most in this world. Through the tears welling up in my eyes, I could see Jerry admired my father deeply.

He told stories, shared names of co-workers I remember my dad talking about, and made the evening very enjoyable.

On the way home, though, I began to think about my dad, and realized how short of that brand I’d fallen in my own career. While I think I’m a fair person, I don’t know that anyone would notice because I’m as far from quiet and gentile as you can get. And I’ve been known to speak in anger about people, raise my voice and fly off the handle. With a smile on his face, my boss once said “Mark, if there were a war, you’d be the first one to get your head blown off!”

While my clients sometimes believe that I take ideas too personally, in reality, I take their brand very personally. If an idea supports my client’s brand, I’ll defend it loudly even when the client doesn’t seem to care. My title is brand warrior, not brand guesser or supporter or guy-who-will-tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear. The title of this blog reflects this brand because a little bit of Mark goes a long way. And I believe my brand represents passion for ideas and a penchant for action.

I think my dad had a passion for people and for empathy.

Talking to my wife, I told her of my concern that I’d fallen short of the standard John True set. She reminded me that he and I have something in common: the role we play with clients. After retirement, he did some consulting, and would quietly observe managers in their environment before offering advice. He offered constructive criticism in a calm, quiet and personable manner. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t speak poorly of the man. He was fair. And that’s the job he was paid to do.

In my role as a consultant, helping clients understand their brand and use it to drive forward everything they do, I think I can put a little John True into my work. I can be the voice of the brand, but lower the volume, slow it down a little.

That’s when I realized a little bit of John True lasts a long time.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Sports logo blog's a winner

If you want to combine your marketing interests with your sports interests, check out the Sports Logo Pundit Blog. The guy's admittedly an amateur design critic, and he's sometimes a bit harsh in his commentary - such as on the Connecticut Defenders logo pictured here - but he's not afraid to share his opinions. Besides, logos are really subjective, and everyone has an opinion.

I'll be visiting regularly because he writes quick, clear and concise about logos I know and many that are new to me. I'm also a logo junkie from way back (have you ever seen the Memphis Rogues' logo from the 1970s North American Soccer League?). And I'm fascinated by the money sports teams make on gear while generating interest and unequalled brand loyalty.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Soccer's got a brand problem

First of all, I'm a soccer fan. I've played the game - slowly and rather awkwardly - for more than 20 years and watched it with interest for about 10 years. It's a sport, not unlike baseball, that takes a lot of experience to understand. I watch a little baseball but I don't get anywhere near as much out of it as real baseball aficionados. And while I don't know all the intricacies of soccer, I imagine I know a lot more about that game that the average American.

I know...that's not saying much. Americans generally despise the game of soccer. They think it's slow. They think it's boring. They think it's not worth their time. Some sports journalists and on-air personalities actually go out of their way to blaspheme the sport rather than simply ignore what they don't understand.

Yes, soccer has a brand problem.

For the last 10 to 15 years, people have been forecasting that millions of youth players would grow up to be fans and soccer would boom in America. That never happened because the kids grew up and were told by the culture that soccer was foreign, it was uncool and boring. Even in my home town, the high school football coach has openly insulted players who even hint that they want to play soccer when they're not in football season.

In the old days of the North American Soccer league (NASL) during the 1970s, the plan was to develop US-born players and personalities that would draw fans. Purists got impatient and started importing has-beens from around the world because they had a name, and fans abandoned ship. They even resorted to a minimum quota of American-born players on each team. American fans couldn't pronounce that players' names (even when they only had one name, ala Pele). David Litterer has assembled a nice history of the sport in America, and the U.S. Soccer Federation features an abbreviated timeline here.

About that time, I remember reading in sports magazines that the short shorts, the fit bods and the flowing manes on the young, good-looking players would attract women in droves. Again, it never happened.

Up until the last few years, the men's national team would play friendlies (those are games that don't count toward any league standings or tournaments) against Mexico in San Diego, against Poland in Chicago and against Ireland in Boston just to assure a good gate. Now that the team is getting combative - they're ranked number 5 in the world the last time I looked - they play competitive games against Mexico and Costa Rica in the snow of Columbus, Ohio. And a growing audience is paying attention. During the 1994 World Cup, the American hosts - who many thought would fail miserably - drew an record average of 67,000 spectators per game!

The women's national team has been the cream of the crop around the world for a decade, and it made media stars out of several of its regulars, including Mia Hamm, but the buzz has fizzled with the retirement of key players, and the women's pro soccer league has folded when interest faded after winning the Women's World Cup held in the US in 1999 and reaching the semi-finals on its home turf again in 2003.

And Major League Soccer (MLS) has only managed to get one weekly game on ESPN2, a few on the limited Fox Sports Channel and subscription packages with Dish Network or Direct TV. Starved for viewers, MLS fans on non-LA teams have to wait for the weekly game between the LA Galaxy and their home team because ESPN follows the team around like a homeless puppy. The league championship game pops up on ABC in the fall like a spring mushroom, with little to no promotion on the broadcast station. Only a few MLS teams play in soccer-specific stadia, the Home Depot Center in California, however, is a jewel.

With the steroid scandals in baseball, the inflated egos of the NBA, the NHL strike of last year, it would seem that soccer has a huge advantage right now to make some hay. And the men's national team is going into next month's World Cup finals in Germany with its highest ranking ever: fourth in the world.

I'm looking for answers: what's it going to take for soccer to explode in this country? Does America simply expect a winner? Can American's support a sport that we didn't invent? (Think about it...even American football borrowed the name from soccer, known in the rest of the world as football.)

What will happen the men's national team comes home from Germany with a nice piece of hardware? It looks good for a U.S. team loaded with talented young players like Landon Donovan (pictured), Brian Ching, DeMarcus Beasley who have earned a few caps (games played) in international competition, joining veterans Claudio Reyna, Kasey Keller and Eddie Pope to form the most talented and deep US Men's National Team ever.

If they did win, how long would that keep the fickle America sports fan happy?

A wonder if John - a PR pro and soccer nut - has an idea on this subject?

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why do franchisees buy franchises?

I stopped by one of my favorite sandwich shops tonight, a Blimpie owned by one of the most engaging franchisees I’ve ever run into. He and his wife work behind the counter at their two stores because they’ve seen what happens when minimum-wage zombies are put in charge of a business.

It was slow, as it has been every time I’ve visited in the past year or so, and I got to talk to him about his business. Traffic and sales have been lousy for over a year, and the high price of gas has killed store traffic even more lately. He’s spent thousands of dollars redesigning the store in bright colors, and keeps the place spotless.

He went on to explain that the national Blimpie office is in a mess, and has quit supporting the franchisees with advertising. The result is a lawsuit by a bunch of franchisees and subfranchisors. They claim misappropriation of funds and accuse Blimpie and its CEO Jeffrey Endervelt of entering into agreements with Pepsi and a large turkey supplier that resulted in higher costs for lesser quality products. Endervelt recently resigned as CEO, chairman and president, which might have been a good thing to do after last year’s makeover of the Blimpie brand identity.

The local owner said he always believed that a great product and great service was all it was going to take to make a living. In fact, the Blimpie sandwich is arguably comparable to sandwiches from competitors Subway and Quizno’s, and these two Blimpie owners set a high standard for engaging service but they’ve not seen the success they expected. He admits that the price points are a little bit higher than the competitors, and now they are getting beat up by Panera Bread and brown baggers.

The Subway sandwich shops I’ve seen don’t exactly scream "clean," yet the chain has been ranked the number one franchise opportunity in Entrepreneur magazine’s “Franchise 500” rankings for 14 of the last 18 years, and first place since 2001. Note: Blimpe comes in at #88, behind Hungry Howies Pizza & Subs, Panera Bread, Arby's, Carl's Junior, Denny's,Burger King, Hardee's, KFC, Dairy Queen, Popeye's, Church's Chicken, Hot Stuff Foods, Taco Bell, Quizno's Subs, Sonic, and McDonald's.

Of course, like any franchise, Quizno’s has had its own problems with franchisees.

So I wonder why entrepreneurs decide to buy a franchise. Why buy a Blimpie? Are the branding package, the opportunity to learn from other franchisees, the resources and the promise of ongoing support really worth it? Is the instant recognizability worth the restrictions? Can you really believe what you read in the Uniform Franchise Offering Circular (UFOC)?

I’m really curious about the pros and cons of franchising, so entrepreneurs out there let me know what you think.

In the meantime, I may stop by Blimpie again soon and suggest that he start again without the baggage of the franchise, without the expensive overhead, without the high-cost ingredients. He’s learned how to do it. He’s learned how not to do it. And I think he can do it better.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

Entrepreneurs trip out of the blocks

Stan DeVaughn is singing a sweet tune in his latest post over at Branding Post blog. In his post about the long distance between "vast vision and a half-vast go-to-market effort," he zooms in on the lack of a brand. "Hint: It's not about the logo" he writes.

In my post about short-sighted entrepreneurs a few weeks ago, I thought this was because most entrepreneurs are in love with their ideas and can't believe that anybody wouldn't also love them. In fact, these are the same business owners who believe that a great product can sell itself and marketing is something you do after you make a few sales.

One more great tip for start-ups from Branding Post: branding "demands that you see through the target’s eyes, stand in his loafers, and know precisely how he describes and feels the problem you profess to solve for him."

Wow. That takes a lot of work, a lot of vision and a lot of humility.

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