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

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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