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Archive for November, 2006


Hi everyone. Ever feel the need to kind of back off from something you really love doing? Like, you know… take a break from it? A mini vacation? Is it wrong for me to want to give the BrandBuilder blog a little time to breathe?

No worries. I’ll snap out of it in a few days. :)

I’m sitting here on my couch watching a rerun of HBO’s 90-minute montage of interviews of the last surviving members of the 101’s Airborne Division’s 506’th Regiment’s Easy Company. The guys whose exploits during WWII inspired the book that the Band of Brothers miniseries was based on, and frankly. I’m sitting here listening to these guys talk about their experiences during the war, and it makes me wonder about all the hooplah lately about Marketing and WOMM and customer-generated-content and social media.

It makes me wonder about the importance of certain things over others.

It makes me wonder about direction and momentum and change.

It makes me wonder about the roles that character, courage and integrity play in our daily lives. In business. In everything. It makes me wonder why so many people are so quick to throw all three by the wayside whenever they feel threatened, when that’s exactly the time they should hold on to them.

It also makes me wonder why I have been so lucky to always find myself in the presence of men and women who do just that on a daily basis. Maybe it’s because I look for them. Maybe it’s because I can’t be completely happy unless I know I am working for the best – or with the best. Or maybe it’s because I have a hard time relating to anyone who doesn’t have a little wild streak in them. The kind that breaks barriers and paves the way for new ideas. New markets. New products. New businesses.

The world of business is always divided between two types of people: Those who easily compromise, and those who don’t. Those who lie or cheat and those who don’t. Those who are paralyzed by fear, and those who aren’t. Those who are happy with routine, and those who aren’t. Those who never ask the hard questions, and those who do. The list goes on… But the question is this: Which one are you? And how many of your co-workers fall into the first category or the second?

I spend countless hours every day meeting with both kinds. The Americans, and the American’ts. The guys in suits who use business-speak as a facade, and the guys in jeans who actually do something with their day. The guys who name-drop every chance they get but that no one remembers, and the ones who never brag about anything but get enthusiastic recommendations from their peers. The charlatans and the real deals. The cowards and the heroes. The people you absolutely don’t ever want to have to work with, and the people you wish you could work with for the rest of your life.

All I have to say is this: Choose your colleagues wisely. Choose your clients and business partners and employees wisely. Choose your bosses wisely. Choose your friends wisely. Be picky.

Be very picky. It’ll pay off in the end.

The first kind wll burn you or hold you back. The second kind will help you accomplish great things, even in spite of yourself.

It’s okay to be picky. It’s a sign of intelligence. ;)

PS – On a related note, it’s official: I just got invited to join the Hincapie Sportswear Triathlon team for the 2007 season. They’re the kinds of people I like to be associated with, so it’s sort of a-propos. I just hope I don’t let them down. I’ll just have to make sure I don’t.

Booyah. Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

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It’s Thanksgiving week here in the US, so I’ll be off tomorrow stuffing my face with turkey.

If you don’t do it on a regular basis already, this is a good time of year to stop and think about all of the things that we can be thankful for. I don’t know what your list is like, but since I’m in a sharing mood today, (in a kind of kumbayah group therapy kind of way) here’s a short version of mine, in no particular order:

Some of the things Olivier is thankful for in 2006 (other than family, which gets its own little chapter, but not here):

Great clients. Not-so-great clients. The unbelievably talented people I am lucky enough to count as my friends, co-workers, and partners in crime. You (my readers). Freedom of speech. Blogs. Free entreprise. The very concept of the American Dream. Pretty good health (knock on wood). Fast legs. Wireless internet. My Canon EOS 20D. Greenville’s triathlon/running/cycling community. Tsunami (the sushi bar down the street from here). Everyone who has ever taken a chance on me. Everyone who didn’t. Portable mp3 players. PB&J smoothies. Mark Knights’ spicy chicken salad. Briko bicycle helmet design. Spacetime dynamics. Wireless communications. The internet. Skype. Helpful strangers. Finding out that it wasn’t curiosity that killed the cat. Kevlar. Good instincts. Being bilingual. Aspirin. Deodorant, toothpaste, and things that make people not stink on long flights. Trees. My laptop. Merino wool. German engineering. Accel gel. Great music. Good reflexes. Not living in a hurricane, earthquake or pestilence-prone part of the world. Just about everyone I’ve met this year (with a few notable exceptions). Confidence. 20/20 vision. A good first full year for F360, and the knowledge that no matter what hurdles are ever thrown my way, everything will always be all right.

Thank you all for being out there and helping make the world better, even if it’s just a little bit.

You know, if you don’t feel all that chipper, remember that life rarely goes according to plan, but all and all, it’s good. There are always moments that make it all worthwhile (or more worthwhile than others). Good times and bad times come in cycles. When you’re in a bad cycle, all you need to do is stay the course until things get better. They always do.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone. :)

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1. Ignore them.
A few months ago, my wife and I went to Best Buy to buy a new TV. After thirty minutes of standing around in one of the TV aisles, trying to make eye contact with salespeople who were too busy yapping and NOT making eye contact with us, we took our business across the street to Circuit city, where a very friendly salespereson greeted us, answered our questions, and helped us check out. We then returned to Best Buy, found the floor manager, and told him what happened. By then, it was too late for him to fix it.

Best Buy used to be our first choice when we were shopping for electronics. Now, it’s our second or third.

2. Lie to them.
Promising one thing and then not doing it is bad. Very bad. Heck, it’s inexcusable.
Employee #1: “Yes, Mr. Blanchard. Your installation is absolutely free.”
Employee #8: (Three months later.) “I’m sorry, but the installation was $150. You must have misunderstood what the installer told you.”

Um… no. I don’t think so.

3. Sell them crap.
If it breaks easily, needs constant repairs or doesn’t work the way it should, the likelyhood that I will buy your product again or recommend your brand to anyone drops to zero.

4. Don’t make things right when you should.
See #3, above, and don’t make things right.

5. Treat them badly.
You aren’t the soup nazi. In the real world, bad service isn’t cute or funny. It’s the best way to turn all of your customers against you.

6. Treat your employees badly.
Without great employees, you’re dead in the water. Unless you want to do everything yourselfand can take care of five customers at once, answer the phones, mop the floors, order stuff, receive deliveries, stock the shelves, and acept returns all by yourself, you need employees.

At any given time, you are either attracting talent, retaining talent, or chasing away talent. If you are chasing away talent (your people keep quitting), something needs fixing. Fast. Great people are worth more than great real estate. Remember that.

Just last week, I watched a store owner treat one of his people pretty condescendingly in the middle of his store. The employee tried to hide her frustration and be professional, but her boss dug into her even more, then laughed about it. (I guess he thought he was being cute.) I felt really bad for the employee, who was just trying to do her job and was visibly embarrassed. Every customer there was also embarrassed by what was just happening. I watched a woman put down a pair of shoes she was waiting to buy and walk out. The store’s mood immediately turned sour. I handed the dumbfounded store owner the handful of things I was planning to buy, and told him that he had just lost a customer because of the way he treated his employee. I pointed at the woman who was walking out. He shrugged and said “win some, lose some.”

Really?

“She’ll be back,” he said.

No she won’t, I replied. And neither will I. Probably none of these folks either. How funny do you think you are now? Learn some manners. Then, I walked out.

7. Don’t listen to your customers.
Shut up and listen. Watch. Observe. Whether or not they actually come out and tell you how they think you could improve their experience, they will tell you what they want.

8. Stop caring about your customers.
Focus on improving your customers’ lives, not just giving them a reason to spend their money with you. It isn’t about how many eyeballs your ads reach or how many promotions you offer. It’s about the value you create for them. Look at your business from THEIR point of view. Your customers are your livelyhood. Care for them, and take care of them accordingly.

9. Copy your competitors.
Why offer something cool and unique when you can be an exact replica of your competitors, only with a different logo on the door? After all, your customers only care about low prices anyway, right? The faster you decide to become as boring and bland as everyone else, the faster you’ll be able to engage in profit-shredding price wars with your larger, better financed corporate clones. Wow. That business degree sure paid off!

10. Convince yourself that anyone gives a flip about you or what you have to say.
Oh wait… that goes for bloggers too. Darn.

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Yep, welcome to a brand new week.

;)

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Lesson # 36: Unless you are a) in a position to introduce radical changes in the way a business is run, and b) are given the authority to do so by whomever signs your paychecks, the organization you work for creates the culture that will determine whether you will be a successful leader, or a frustrated one looking for greener pastures.

I very recently had a conversation with a friend about the management skills I learned in the French Navy. There were many, but this is probably the most important one of all.

But first, let’s backtrack a bit. As some of you may already know, back in the early nineties, France still had a mandatory national service. And by “national,” I mean mostly military.

For a 100% bilingual college grad like me, the options were a bit more varied than spending a year learning how to march, salute, and shine my boots. I could have easily grabbed a comfy diplomatic post somewhere – probably in the US – where I would have enjoyed a desk, bankers’ hours, a more relaxed dress code, and a whole lot more personal freedom.

Instead, I chose to test myself a little bit, so I joined the French marines.

Brilliant.

Your 90-second tour of the FUMACO culture: The Fusiliers Marins have been around for a few hundred years (and basically served as naval riflemen/guys with rifles and sabers who protected ships from assaults), but the scope of their mission changed during WWII, when the impending invasion of Normandy forced French marines stationed in the UK to be retasked as commando units. They trained alongside the ritish Royal Marine commandos, adopting their tactics, weapons, and special operations culture. The success of these units on D-Day made the change stick, and just like that, the culture of the Fusiliers Marins changed from that of old school “naval riflemen” to one of raiders, scouts, and special operators.

To this day, the Fusiliers Marins training center in Lorient still uses the same training techniques as the ones taught to the original Commandos back in 1942-1945 in Scotland. The choice of locations for the school is also no accident as the weather in Lorient is typically pretty lousy in the fall and winter, when those of us dumb enough to be lured by a good challenge undergo what can only be described as a “conversion.”

Trust me, night combat swims in the North Atlantic in November are not fun.

But I digress. Let’s try to get back to the point.

The “commando” culture in the FUMACOs was such that – although the basics of our schooling in combat leadership was based on specific tactics and maneuvers (procedures) – everything about our training in the field dealt with thinking outside the box (innovation).

Why?

Survival. our units had to compensate for their small size by being smarter, faster, stealthier, and less predictable than the enemy.

If you’re already finding parallels with the corporate world, good. It means you’re paying attention.

In the classroom, our instructors droned on and on about textbook tactics – which would really only work in specific types of situations. The real world, however, doesn’t always play by the rules. As a matter of fact, it rarely does. In the field, we were tested and retested on our ability to make decisions quickly in the face of seemingly impossible problems. Improvisation was a matter of life and death. Tactical innovation was, more often than not, a matter of necessity.

And I loved that.

But our interactions with the rest of the military world (the larger, corporate portions of the military machine) were very different. Getting anything done took forever. Many of the officers I ran into in my regular dealings with other services in the Navy were there simply to make sure that procedure was always followed to the letter. Passing the buck was common. Things worked well enough, but well enough wasn’t always all that great.

Of course, it depends whom you ask.

Once my training was over and I found myself assigned to a FUMACO company on a naval base, I found myself working shoulder to shoulder with many such folks – and having to juggle “management” styles between both worlds (one of quick thinking and decisive action, and the other of procedure, bureaucracy, and politics) was difficult.

One of the first thing I was told by the “lifers” who had been doing the same job in the same office for 10+ years was this: “Here’s the way things work around here. Don’t make waves, don’t try and change anything, and you’ll do great.”

Scary… but good advice for times when I had to get things done in their world.

Note: Understanding the different cultures across department lines – as well as knowing where the borders separating one from the other lie – puts you at a decisive advantage when your objective is to get things done without stepping on too many toes. You just have to know when to switch tactics to best suit your environment.

Many of the officers I shared meals and drinks with when I was on base (not combat officers) looked for advancement at parties and dinners given by their superiors. They didn’t make waves. They didn’t change anything. They just performed their function as well as they needed to, no more, no less, and waited for their next payraise to come. If they played their cards right, they might even land a nice, comfy HQ job someday. That’s what they were into. They weren’t the least bit interested in fixing inefficiencies or questioning bad systems. It just wasn’t the kind of thing they were into. They weren’t necessarily bad leaders, but they were most comfortable simply being managers.

And although that often drives me a little batty, I understand that there’s nothing wrong with that. Without people who crave order and routine, we would have absolute chaos. These folks can make an imperfect system work fairly well before someone who has vision and the authority to improve it comes along. (And they always do, eventually.) There’s a lot to be said for that.

What’s interesting to note is that we all chose our paths. Those of us who wanted to serve in a more… unconventional way, found a home with the FUMACOs. Those of us who prefered routine and predictabilty gravitated towards more conventional types of jobs. In other words, from the very start of our military careers, we all chose job descriptions and corps cultures that appealed to our own interests and personality types. To help us, the military’s selection process quickly weeded out or redirected those who weren’t completely honest with themselves about their strengths, weaknesses and motivation. (This was done within the first weeks or months of training rather than mid-career.)

The truth is that not everyone is cut out to be a combat leader. Not everyone is cut out to be a department manager. Not everyone is cut out to make split-second decisions in high-stress situations. Not everyone is cut out to sit at a desk all day or file forms properly. No matter how much we may want to be a CEO or a CMO or a field commander or a desk clerk, we aren’t necessarily cut out to be one.

But we are cut out to do something very well, and love doing it. Every last one of us. The trick is to find what that thing is and directing our lives and careers in that direction. It takes honesty, and sometimes also the courage to give up a wrong path to find the correct one again.

In my short but relatively well-filled career – both in the military and the private sector – I have found myself at times in the perfect type of job, and at times, not.

The perfect type of job for me (and for everyone) keeps you engaged. It draws on your passions and talents. It makes full use of your skills. It doesn’t bore you or burn you out. It brings the best out of you because it makes you want to perform at your best day in, day out.

In sharp contrast, the wrong kind of job is always frustrating, boring, unsatisfying… or all of the above. Many of us fall into these types of jobs by accident (we didn’t do enough research on the company or the management team, for example), or because we weren’t honest with ourselves. The lure of good money or a big name brand or an impressive title on our business cards brought us there. I’ve been there. I’m sure you have too. It happens. Finding the right company to work for or the right client to work is often based on trial and error.

That means that I haven’t always been 100% honest with myself. It also means that I haven’t always had the luxury of being able to choose the ideal job.

Ah, the harsh realities of life. (Yes, we live in an imperfect world… where most of us actually have to pay these things called bills.)

It’s one thing to take a job you hate because you need to put food on the table while you’re searching for the right one. It is another to take a job you don’t really enjoy and spend years suffering through it.

Trust me on this: You aren’t doing anyone any good by staying at the wrong job once you know that you would be happier doing something else (or the same type of thing for someone else).

Don’t even try to argue. It’s a fact.

Another fact is this: It’s okay to drive a desk or a cash register. It’s okay if you never become CEO or if you never get your picture on the cover of Fast Company or Time or Newsweek. It’s okay if no one ever recognizes your efforts. It’s okay to be a link in the chain. If that’s what you excel at and you enjoy it, don’t try to be something that isn’t in your blood.

If you read this blog, chances are that you’re either a leader or a future leader, so I’ll focus my little conclusion on what that means for people in leadership or management positions:

There are two types of organizations:

1. Organizations whose cultures favor routine, procedure, and the status-quo.
2. Organizations whose cultures favor initiative, innovation, and risk-taking.

There are also two types of people:

1. People (and leaders) who are best suited for the first type of organization.
2. People (and leaders) who are best suited for the second type of organization.

Matching the right type of person to the right type of environment will yield great results. The opposite will yield little more than complete disaster.

It’s really that simple. (It took long enough to get here, but hey. Like you had anything better to do than read this post.)

When taking a position with a new company or at a new office, it is crucial to understand what type of culture you are about to enter into. If you favor initiative and innovation, but find yourself in an environment whose leadership favors bureaucrats and “not making waves,” you will be miserable, and you probably won’t last very long.

Likewise, if you’re great at being an effective “status quo” manager and get promoted to a leadership position with a fast-speed, innovative, out-of-the-box thinking team, you’re probably going to get run over.

I’ve watched officers who were great managers crash and burn when they tried to command an operational unit in the field. In peace time, it’s just an embarrassing little adventure, but in war time, hesitation and waiting for confirmation from your superiors gets people killed, which isn’t good. Likewise, I have watched terrific combat leaders try and run teams of office clerks, only to fail miserably as well. (Tip #871: Yelling and the threat of forced night marches work well with combat Marines, but not so much with indoor desk warriors.)

The same is true in the corporate world.

So, select your next job or client wisely. Know when to turn down an offer that you know will end badly, even if it seems attractive on the front end. (A bigger salary isn’t worth the headaches and stress of finding yourself in an environment you hate.)

And always, always, always make sure that whomever signs your paychecks gives you (in writing) the authority to do your job.

I’ll say this again: Get your authority in writing. Always.

If you find yourself tasked with reviving a department or organization that has been performing poorly, make sure that you have the authority to make the necessary changes, or you will find yourself a) turning gray prematurely, and b) looking for another job before you know it. (The average tenure of a CMO in the US is less than two years. Hmmmm… I wonder why.)

Understand this: Most great organizations (and brands) become great because the right people are in the right jobs at the right time – and NEVER because they had the wrong people in the wrong jobs at the wrong time.

Seems like common sense, right? Okay… now welcome back to the real world. Look around you and tell me what you see.

(Okay. Point made. Stop staring at your coworkers. You’re probably freaking them out right about now.)

So how do you accomplish this glorious feat of efficiency and karmic equilibrium? Well, since you’re a leader and you were lucky to be blessed with this crazy thing called initiative, it all starts – simply enough – with you, and just a few seconds of introspection:

Step 1 – Figure out what type of corporate culture best suits you. It could be routine, or it could be the furthest thing from it. (It’s okay to like the routine stuff. If that’s your thing, embrace it.) Just be honest and pick one.

Step 2 – Make sure your organization’s culture is aligned with what works best for you. With any luck, you’re already in the right place. If not, go to step 3.

Step 3 – If you determine that you are working in the wrong kind of environment, start looking for one better suited to your leadership style interests.

Step 4 – If adjustments need to be made to an organization, department or team you are responsible for, make sure you are given the authority to do so – or move on.

Step 5 – Make sure that your team, department or organization is staffed adequately. Not everyone is going to go through steps 1-3, so do it for them. As a leader, your team is your responsibility. Making it work isn’t about working harder. It’s about working smarter.

Don’t waste your time being frustrated or unhappy. It is never worth it. Not even in the short term.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

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Original image by http://wray-mccann.com

I liked this comment left on my last post a lot:

“advertising is a tax for having an unremarkable product”.
- Chief Inspector, The Geek Squad
“Here’s to being remarkable. Not in the great new award winning ad. Not in the emotional spin. But in having a drop dead, fantastically designed product that does all the talking.”

Huzzah.

Thanks, David.

David Taylor publishes the where’s the sausage blog, which also deals with all things branding. Definitely swing by there and add him to your blogroll.

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Ground-Zero Brandbuilding


Here’s a little blast from the past. (I always liked this post.)

Before the cool ad campaigns, the TV spots, POP displays, the trade show displays, the press releases, the cool packaging, the WOM facilitation… before all of that, you need a cool product.

Cool comes in many flavors: Sometimes, it’s something radically stylish and revolutionary like the iPod. Sometimes, it’s “knock your socks off” customer service or a fantastic story or a moving photo essay or a life-changing art exhibit. It can be the most cleverly designed roof rack or the fastest time-trial bike or the lightest kayak paddle. It doesn’t matter what the product is. No matter how you look at it, successful branding always starts with a product.

Not just a product, but a very well-designed product.

Ask yourself this: What if I completely got rid of advertising, catalogs and company websites… What if all of the promotional stuff we are so used to were suddenly gone? What would I be left with?

Answer: Your product, your brand’s reputation, and word-of-mouth.

So… what is your reputation? Where do you stand against your would-be competitors? Are your products smarter? Tougher? Softer? Faster? Are you known as a cool innovator or are you a pain to deal with when it comes to dealing with warranty or service? Do your customers recommend you to their friends or make a point of steering them away from you? If so, why? What are you going to do about it?

We’re only scratching the surface here, but you get the point: It all begins with the product’s design. No matter how cool your packaging is, how dead-on your concept is and how hot the celebrity endorsing it may be, if your fragrance isn’t appealing, you aren’t going to get many repeat customers.

If the cars you make look great, have fantastic features but burn out their electrical systems after 35,000 miles, guess what? Even your most hardcore drivers are going to think twice about buying one of your cars again.

If your $300 faucets start leaking after only three months…

You get the picture.

Design your customer-service touch-points better than everyone else, and your customers will reward you. (Your competitors’ customers will soon reward you as well.) Build a better car or a better razor or a better computer, and you’ll see what happens pretty quickly, with or without advertising.

For better or for worse, especially now that the planet is more connected than ever, word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire. Do something wrong, get slack, cut corners, and no amount of advertising will save you. Do something right – and be consistent about doing something right – and you’ll be rolling in puppies.

If I wanted to be boring, I would tell you that your product is the foundation of your brand. That it’s the big fat boulder that your success is based on. But the truth is that your product is more like the epicenter of your brand. I say epicenter because your brand isn’t static. It’s always moving outward, towards more and more people. Once the shockwave of a new product launch begins, those ripples start moving. And just like you can’t unspill milk, you can’t unripple a ripple. You can try, but you can’t. Every product launch puts your reputation on the line. Every ad. Every press release. Every change in packaging or manufacturing or design. Every change you make unstills the water and reaches out to the rest of the world.

That’s why brandbuilding starts at the beginning of the product development cycle, not at its end. Everything that goes into the development of a product, whether it is an mp3 player, a zombie flick, a handbag, a sports drink, a magazine or a faucet – before the designer’s pencil ever graces a sheet of paper with its first rough sketch – has to take into account the brand’s strengths and weaknesses and relevance. The product managers, designers, manufacturing engineers and marketing gurus have to understand where they are, where they have been, and where they want to go. They have to ask themselves: Will this look, feel, smell, perform and inspire like an Apple product? Like a BMW product? Like a Michelin product? Will this meet the expectations of our customers, or will it exceed them? Will this cement our position for another year, or will it elevate it?

Before. Not after.

If you aren’t a BMW or an Apple, maybe the questions will be more along the lines of: Will this help us reconnect with the customers we lost? Will this restore their faith in us? Will this get them excited about who we are again? Will this finally pull us out of the shadow of our established competitors?

If the answer is no, how do we get there? What are we missing?

All too often, companies will turn to strategic partners (usually marketing firms, ad agencies or Identity companies) once a product has already been developed. The dynamic is pretty-much “Here! We have this product and we want to sell it (or sell it to more people). Help us.”

Okay, so there’s really nothing wrong with that. If what you’re looking for is a killer marketing strategy, great ads, pub coverage and all kinds of cool POP and promo stuff, you can definitely get your money’s worth. But what if you didn’t wait until your product was pretty-much designed and ready to go into production? What if you didn’t wait until sales had been kind of flat for six months?

What if you brought them in before your designers’ pencils ever hit paper? What if you were to let them help you make sure that your product itself – not just everything around it – were the embodiment of everything you want your brand to be?

Design think-tanks like IDEO and FROG embrace this concept all the way by completely taking over the conceptualizing, design, prototyping and testing of products and systems for client companies. (If you aren’t familiar with their work, check them out. You’ll be astounded at the number of products you have in your house right now that were developed there, starting with the computer mouse.) They have been so amazingly succesful at it that they have now reached cult-like status. But hiring a full-on design juggernaut isn’t always the answer (or financially feasible). Most of the time, companies that already have very good products to their names have the resources to create more. All they might be lacking is that little extra bit of insight.

And that’s where creative companies working as strategic partners come in. Most manufacturers don’t have anthropologists on staff. They don’t have human factors specialists or curiosity officers to help product managers, engineers and business development execs. translate sometimes ethereal customer needs into (first) specific design elements, (second) a relevant brand language, and (third) a complete customer-brand experience.

Real strategic partners act more as interpreters than teachers. Their wisdom comes from living in the village, not on the mountain top or in the classroom. Find them. Invite them in for tea. Let them spend the night and tell you stories by the fire. Let them inspire you and guide you and enrich your company with their bag of ancient magical weapons: creativity, imagination, marketing savvy, behavioral science, and most importantly: insight.

If insight had mass, it would be worth its weight in gold. Here’s a tip: Branding shouldn’t start when a product ad is released. It shouldn’t start when a marketing campaign is implemented. It shouldn’t begin with the creation of clever packaging or when a mark gets burned onto a product, or when a customer service representative gets his new script. It really starts with the product itself, with the very first brainstorming session, when input from customers first get discussed by a project team. That’s when it begins, and that’s brand-building’s ground-zero.

If everything about your brand ripples outward, and at the epicenter of your brand – of your reputation, of your image and ultimately of your success – is your product, then you need to realize the importance that insight plays in the process that brings this product to life.

Every shock wave needs a trigger. A catalyst. And that catalyst is people: Engineers, creatives, listeners, curious Georges, artists, writers, mathematicians, designers, philosophers, anthropologists, product users, historians, poets and problem-solvers. These are the people who will turn a chunk of metal into not only a work of art, but a product that will inspire awe and love and want.

These are the people who will help turn something as precarious as an interaction between a frustrated customer and a customer service rep. into three-minute of toll-free bliss.

These are the people who can make anything transcend its “sum-of-its-parts” banality into an extraordinary experience.

Think about iPod. Think about the Starbucks cup of coffee. Think about the Palm V. Think about every iconic innovative breakthrough that has changed the way we live and work and travel and play. Every single one without fail startedwith a group of people from diverse backgrounds sitting in a room together to listen to each other talk about how to address a need.
This happens at the beginning of a product’s design cycle, not at the end.

Anyone can do this. You could be an international corporation or a one-person company. It doesn’t matter.Think about where you are today. Does your product truly embody the spirit of your brand? Does your brand live and breathe and grow with every new customer?

Imagine you couldn’t afford advertising. Imagine you couldn’t print catalogs or publish a website or create POP displays. Imagine the only way you could promote your product were through word-of-mouth. What would people say about it? What would they say about you? Who would you be?

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On staying sharp

Lesson #391:
Sometimes, without a good fight to keep us sharp, without barbarian at the gates,
without a serious threat to keep us awake at night, we just… go soft.

Sorry I’ve been away these last few days. I’ve been busy… staying sharp.

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So, I have this client. Great little company. Enthusiastic owner. The most engaged, talented, fun staff you’ll ever meet. A great market presence. Good numbers. Good prospects. A bright future ahead. Seriously. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re definitely better than average.

Anyway. This morning, I walk into the big Kahuna’s office, and he’s having a conversation with one of his managers about a problem he’s having. One of his promotions isn’t working. It isn’t bringing in the volume of customers he expected. He’s frowning. He’s shaking his head. He leans back in his chair and sighs. “I’m at a loss with this one,” he says.

So… I throw an idea at him. Just… you know, my usual speak-before-you-think type deal. Total improv. And, luckily, it turns out to be pure genius. (Whew.)

I really expected him to give me that look that says “how can I politely tell this guy to shut up and go bother someone else,” but instead, the look is more akin to a shocked stare, and maybe for the first time since I’ve known him, the look on his face is starting to whisper “damn, that’s actually a really good idea.”

He says to me “Damn, that’s actually a really good idea!”

Somebody pinch me.

Without getting into details, the solution involves inspiring his customers to earn good karma points by trading in something old that they aren’t using anymore for something new that they will use.

Yeah. I know. It isn’t rocket science… but as simple as it is, it’s never been done in this market, and it will work. There is absolutely no way that it won’t. By its very nature, the industry that the client is in lends itself to this so well that it’s amazing no one ever thought of doing this in Greenville until now.

They simply bring in their old product, buy a new one, and get 30% off. The old product will then be sent to non-profits and charities that help underpriviledged athletes, soldiers, and the homeless. Clean out your closet or garage, save some major cash on your next purchase, and earn good karma points by helping somebody out.

It’s painless, fast, fun, and rewarding both financially and spiritually. It’s a no-brainer. Even if only 5% of the client’s customers decide to participate, the campaign will be a success, but we expect well over 30% right from the start.

Incidentally, word-of-mouth will play a big part in spreading the good word, so we’ll be monitoring that, which should be interesting.

On the client’s side, the financial benefits are clear, but there’s also this: From a PR standpoint, this is a newsworthy program, so they can expect to get some great exposure out of it. Positive exposure. Probably for years to come. This is the kind of program that can help them bring other local and regional organizations together to help.

It will also make shopping at his stores more than just a shopping experience. We’re talking about strengthening a community which is already enjoying a deepening sense of purpose.

What we’re talking about here is a movement. A small and very targeted movement, sure, but a movement nonetheless, with extraordinary potential for growth.

Perhaps the most rewarding thing to come out of our meeting wasn’t so much that the client loved the idea and that we’re going to be doing something very cool for people who could use our help and that the business will be strengthened as a result. Those are all great, and it’s why I get paid the big bucks, but there’s more. Once we hashed out the basis for a plan, the client looked at me and said “you know, I’ve always wanted to do something like this. After all these years, I’m finally going to get to do it.”

I didn’t get all choked up, but I wasn’t far from it.

Whenever you can get a business owner to suddenly feel engaged in his business the way he used to be when he first started, you know you’ve done your job. To see the excitement in his eye and to hear the emotion in his voice when he said that was more rewarding than everything else.

If only every meeting could be that way… Wow. Wouldn’t that be great.

Every company can find its salvation in good-karma projects. Every organization can inspire its members, clients and customers to see them as more than a business if they step up and become more than just a business.

You already know the ABC of selling: “Always Be Closing.” There’s nothing wrong with that… but I think that we can probably retire that one and replace it with a simpler, less formulaic, and infinitely more effective and rewarding little motto:

Always be inspiring.

I’ve never, ever, ever seen it fail.

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Brilliant.

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How badly do you want it?

That’s a question you probably haven’t asked yourself in a while. Or maybe you have, and if so, that’s great.

This isn’t one of those sales meetings types of questions, where the guy doing all the talking, the guy with the leased Mercedes outside and the condo in wherever and the golf stories and the overstarched white shirt and the tacky gold watch and the enormous class ring , that guy, whose incredible success in sales has led him to conduct sales seminars in stale hotel meeting rooms at the crack of dawn four days a week for the next ten years tries to sell you on the disturbing notion that you want his life.

So, no. The it in in the question isn’t money. It isn’t success. It isn’t fame and fortune. It certainly could be, but it isn’t. Not today. Not here.

The it that I am asking you about is a little more about you. About what you’re about. About your raison d’etre. Not just in the professional sense.

If you read this blog, I have to assume that you are a bit more involved with your career than punching-in every day, collecting a paycheck every so often, and doing only what you need to to keep your job and not make waves. I have to assume that you are passionate about what you do. That you can’t really separate what you do from who you are. That your career is an extension of who you are as a person. As a human being. That you’re here to create extraordinary products or campaigns, help whomever you are working for reach the next step in their evolution, and help your customers and clients live and work more productively. I have to assume that you are an agent of change. (In a positive way.)

So my question, again, is this: How badly do you want it?

How badly do you want to be working for the right people? For the right kind of company? For the right kinds of customers? How badly do you want to be the dumbest guy in the room, for a change? How badly do you want to make a difference? How badly do you want to affect the future of a company, or of an industry? How badly do you want to be challenged? How badly do you want to see your work on giant billboards and TV spots and magazine ads and showroom floors because it’s that good?

How badly do you want to be what it is that you dream of being?

Badly enough to move to a different part of the world? Badly enough to wake up at the crack of dawn every morning and brave freezing snowdrifts to get to work? Badly enough to work eighty hour weeks if you have to? Badly enough to take a huge paycut and lose great insurance benefits just to have the freedom and opportunity to make a difference and take a stab at the biggest longshot in your career?

Do you want it that badly? Or do you just like to say you do because it makes you feel all nice and fuzzy?

Just a few days ago, a handful of friends I have known for years drove down to Panama City, FL to compete in the Ironman Florida Triathlon. 2.4 miles of swimming. 112 milesof cycling. 26.2 miles of running. 17 hours maximum to complete the event. This isn’t the sort of thing you can just roll off the couch and attempt. Not if you want to reach the finish line uninjured… or at all. It takes time. It takes training. It takes dedication. It takes giving up a lot of free time and family time, and perhaps even a promotion at work to make the dream of finishing an Ironman a reality. Seven hour rides on Saturday mornings. Five hour runs on Sundays. Four to five hours of swimming wherever you can fit it during the week, between work, runs, bike rides, meals, family time, sleep, taking the dog for a walk… Training for an Ironman is almost like having a second job for six months.

How badly do you have to want to cross the finish line of an Ironman and be inducted in that elite group of athletes, to spend months, sometimes years training your body to pull, pedal and hoof itself across 140.6 miles of terrain?

How badly do you want to beat your 10K PR to get up before sunrise and run in sub-freezing temperatures every morning in the dead of winter?

How badly do you want to make that dream a reality?

Badly enough to give up your petty comforts? Badly enough to sacrifice your sausage and egg breakfasts and your morning paper?

How much harder than the other guy are you willing to train? To run? To push?

Every morning starts with a choice. Sleep an extra ten minutes, or get an early start. Brave the elements, or skip the run or ride. Go to work ready to knock the ball out of the park, or just get through the day. Continue working at a job you aren’t passionate about, or give your life and livelyhood a purpose.

The question is always this: How badly do you want it?

How badly do you want to be an Ironman? How badly do you want to beat your own record? How badly do you want to win that race? How badly do you want to be in advertising? How badly do you want to work for the company of your dreams? How badly do you want to make a difference today? How badly do you want your product or your agency to be the best in the business? How badly do you want to make every single one of your customers happy with you today? How badly do you want to have the most impecable reputation in the industry?

How badly do you want it?

How much fight do you have in you when it comes to doing all of the right things that will lead you there?

Is brand you a happy brand?

If not, what is it going to take to get things back on track?

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Blogging slowdown?

No worries, the posting should get back to normal next week. This one’s been busy, what with Halloween, a surprise trip to the emergency room (no worries, everyone is fine), project deadlines all hitting the deck at the same time, the business partner leaving town for two weeks, photoshoots, interviews, gallery openings, fighting a cold, kicking my winter training into high gear, product testing, and working on a media kit for the Hincapie Sportswear Triathlon Team (yes, that was a shameless plug…).

Things should get back to normal both here and on the Corante Marketing hub as early as Monday.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

PS: Here’s a thought for you – What if all advertising were as venomous as politcal ads? Imagine what iPod commercials would look and sound like. Jaguar. HBO. McDonald’s. American Express. HP. Dove. KFC. Coca Cola. Travelocity. Absolut. The list goes on and on.

Crazy.

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The message.

I woke up from a candy-induced coma this morning, and found this (see image above) on my bedroom floor. It wasn’t meant for anyone in particular. It was just… a message, scribbled by my daughter on a Barbie scribble board left behind before school… that almost made me walk into a door, I laughed so hard.

It kind of got me thinking about our need to communicate. As a species, I mean. Sure, we have opposable thumbs and we can craft tools with them, but we also like to give people the thumbs-up and the thumbs-down. We love to tell stories around the campfire. We hate to eat alone, because we crave companionship. Interactions. Dialogue. Communication in all of its incarnations is built into our DNA. We read papers. We read and write blogs. We buy magazines. We spend hours watching a magic box that talks to us or tells us stories. We all carry cel phones now, so that everywhere we go, we can talk to someone. Even alone in the car or on the train, we talk. We listen to the radio. We yell obscenities at really slow drivers. (Or… not. Ahem.)

We have a fundamental need to communicate, share experiences and feelings. We laugh together. We cry together. We gather to share our tales. We paint. We sketch. We make music. We design products. We customize our cars. We build models. We dress ourselves. We play our music too loud. We die our hair. We get inked. We ride loud bikes. In everything we do, we express ourselves almost non-stop. We can’t help ourselves. It’s who we are.

Many, many moons ago, we painted stories of great hunts on cave walls. Today, we blog. We create advertisements and beam them to millions of TV sets or plaster them on giant billboards. We speed-dial our friends. We skype our family members half a world away. We post movies on YouTube.

We scribble little notes on erasable Barbie scribble boards.

We all have something to say, and our world is in no short supply of ways to help us reach more and more people.

Is there a management or branding lesson in all of this? Sure, but not today. Today, I just wanted to share that one little message with everyone. South Carolina. Paris. Tokyo. Milan. Perth. The world. Static electricity holding little metal shavings together against a flat pink plastic board. A momentary state of mind. A rare snapshot of my daughter’s experience, from her point of view. The coolest creative use of the English language I’ve run into all week.

“Halloween is a fishily over!”

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. And keep communicating.

;)

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