Archive for September, 2005

Changing the world

image copyright 2004, Olivier Blanchard
If you were to put together a top ten list of inventions that have changed the world in the past ten years, cell phones and the internet would probably sit pretty squarely at the top.

Think about it: Who doesn’t have a cell phone these days? And who doesn’t have internet access, either at home or at work? Sure, there are segments of the population and large areas of the world that haven’t yet joined the communications revolution, but their numbers are dwindling.

In Africa, for example, where widespread internet access and wireless communications still seem decades away from hestablishing a true presence, cell phones are already empowering people to take control of their future:

“Running up to the December 2000 election, Radio phone-in shows pilloried the hand-picked successor of the outgoing president. During the election itself, voters used cellphones and talk radio to report voting fraud: “Whenever someone at a polling place reported fraud, the called the radio station, which broadcast it; the police had to check it out, not having the excuse that they did not receive a report.” The combinition of new technologies contributed to the end of nearly two decades of one party rule.”

The rest of the world is following suit, and advances in technology are changing the way people use their cell phones:

“In addition to voice calling, cell phones are becoming a platform for other kinds of information services like text messaging, email, and basic Web browsing.”

Text messaging was used by protesters in 2001 revolution in the Philippines to rapidly coordinate demonstrations that helped topple president Estrada.”

“During the 2002 presidential election in South Korea, a demographic shift in the population reverberated at the polls, mobilized by electronic media: In a matter of minutes, more than a million e-mails were sent to mobile phones and online accounts urging supporters to go out and vote. This online rallying cry sent young voters to polling stations nationwide and delivered a narrow 2.3% election victory to the self-proclaimed political outsider Roh [Moo-hyun], who had been summarily rejected by South Korea’s conservative media.

“Cell phones were used extensively to coordinate autonomous rural social movements in Bolivia in 2003.”

“In May 2004, Fahamu and a coalition of women’s rights organizations launched the first continent-wide campaign using SMS (Short Message Service) text messages in Africa. The electronic petition campaign urges African governments to ratify the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Users can sign via their Web site or can via SMS from their mobile phones. Since the launch of the campaign both Nigeria and South Africa have ratified the Protocol.”

The list goes on. (Information courtesy of backspace.com) But political activism is only one of many areas revolutionized by cell phones and wireless technologies.

Several years ago, writing for Hardware Central, Jeffrey Tseng wrote:

“Many countries, such as China, do not have the technology infrastructure to run physical lines into every household and business, so much of the world’s population is still “un-wired”. However, cellular phones are widespread in these regions because of their mobility and ease of implementation–they have a much higher penetration in the world as a whole than internet-enabled PCs. With new wireless technologies such as WAP enabling internet access through cell phones, the impact on the internet stands to be phenomenal. It is estimated that, by the year 2003, more cell phones will be connected to the internet than computers.

He added:

“It is interesting to note here that for many countries it is wireless technology which will bring them into the information age. Many will be using wireless handsets with Internet capability even without ever having used telephones.”

And he was right: People around the world are buying internet-enabled wireless phones much faster than they are buying PCs. This means that the majority of people around the globe who will access the internet for the very first time this year will do so from a cell phone, not a computer. This trend will continue to increase in the coming years.


It isn’t to say that home computers will someday be obsoleted by hand-held internet-capable wireless devices (the next generations of what we still call cell phones), but in terms of lifestyles, of empowerment and of access to information, the convenience and affordability of this technology is bound to completely change the way we live, communicate, shop, travel, work, learn and play. Not just here, but all around the globe. Not twenty years from now, but very soon.

From political activism to marketing, from commuting to shopping for the best car deal, from booking flights to studying, from following breaking news to blogging, from banking to sharing live video of yourself with loved ones, this evolution in portable wireless communications technology will absolutely change the way we live… and in so doing, will change the world. The global divide between digital haves and digital have-nots is about to get a lot thinner, and that’s exciting.

The technology itself is only a means to an end: With a truly global network of affordable and convenient access to ideas, to information, to education, to dialogue through voice, text, sms, message boards, chat rooms, video, blogs and the slew of new communications formats yet to show up, things are bound to get pretty interesting. Will it spell the end of exploitation? Will it help governments and corporate entities become more transparent? Will it help people learn more from each other? Will companies connect more organically with their customers? Will lives be saved faster in times of emergency? Will we find in this a weapon to make illiteracy, poverty and disease a thing of the past?

Only time will tell, but things definitely seem to be moving in the right direction.

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WOM & Authenticity

(Long live the King.) image copyright 2004 Olivier Blanchard

Grab your #2 pencils, kids, because it’s word association time again!

Today’s word is “Authentic.”

Okay, I’ll give you a minute to write down a few synonyms or whatever else comes to mind.


Ready? Okay, pencils down. Here are some of the synonyms my trusty thesaurus came up with:

for real

(source: Roget’s New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.1.1) .)

I’ll assume that everyone in the class came up with at least one of those. Good job.

Now, for the definition of “authentic”:

1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief: an authentic account by an eyewitness.

2. Having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship; not counterfeit or copied: an authentic medieval sword.

(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s briefly talk about advertising, marketing, branding, WOMM, and how important authenticity is to all four, and particularly WOMM. (Don’t worry, this will be fast.)

First of all, if your product, brand and message are not authentic, then they are:


(source: Roget’s New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.1.1) .)

That’s right: Either you are authentic or you are bogus. Period. End of story. There is no such thing as 75% authentic.

Authentic = trustworthy. Mess with people’s trust, sell-out your brand’s reputation to cut corners, and you will lose customers in droves.

It doesn’t take people long to lose their faith in something nowadays, especially when that something comes from a corporate entity. This is in great part why word-of-mouth is so appealing a concept: Because it is peer-based, it promises to be authentic.

WOM, then, is relevant only as a consumer-based brand/product advocacy channel that exists beyond the realm of corporate influence. The voices speaking to us through word-of-mouth are those of our friends and neighbors and fellow discerning shoppers. That’s why it works.

The reality of word-of-mouth: If a product is good, people will talk about it. If a product is bad, people will talk about it. For better or for worse. You can’t stop that.

Does that mean that companies shouldn’t play a part in WOM? Absolutely not. On the contrary, companies should get involved in this movement and capitalize on it, but in the right way. That’s the difference between basic word-of-mouth (WOM) and word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). While companies should not try to manipulate the message itself, they should be intimately involved with facilitating its outward journey to consumers:

1) By listening to their customers and giving them what they want better than anyone else out there, companies can turn them into fans. (Think “lovebrands” like Apple, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, VW, etc.)

Believe it or not, that also applies to spark plug and urinal cake manufacturers. (More on that in a bit.)

That’s the first step. Most companies should already have a dialogue with their customers… but many still don’t, unfortunately.

2) The second step is to create an customer-brand ecosystem that gives these fans a public voice: Now that they love you, give them a chance to share the love.

There are many way of doing this… like setting up blogs and message boards, for starters… Or linking to your fans’ blogs. Or publishing letters from happy customers. Or encouraging them to spread the good word. Give your customers a voice and embrace what they have to say. Facilitate the process. Help their voices be heard. Their story is your story. Help them tell it.

But don’t fake it. (See WOMMA’s code of ethics for guidance.)

If you don’t like what your customers have to say about your products or brands… or if you have no idea what your customers would say about you if given the chance, then… maybe that’s something you should spend more time focusing on. Marketing 101. Start at the beginning.

For all its wonderful potential, the reality of WOMM is that not everyone can be ‘best in show’. Not everyone can have the coolest design, the highest quality products, the most pleasant customer service, the best flavor… Only the best can be the best, and only the unique can be unique. Brand advocacy isn’t all that effective when it comes to “average” or “ordinary”. You have to be extraordinary in some way for your message to be relevant. You have to have something that people will talk about. Something. Anything: The lowest price. The freshest flowers. The toughest coating. The biggest bubbles. The finest dining. Really cool green carpets. The fastest delivery in your industry. 100% honesty. Whatever. You get the idea.

Note: Even when it comes to commodity items, even if tou don’t think that WOMM and advertising apply to your business, plain old word-of-mouth still does, andbeing a just “same as” company doesn’t cut it. There has to be a reason why your customers prefer you over your competitors… or your competitors over you. Your reputation is your business. Find out what that reputation is, and if it’s good, flaunt it.

Will that stop ‘average’ companies without anything relevant to talk about from jumping on the increasingly popular WOM bandwaggon? Nope. And here’s where the trouble begins:

When such companies realize that they can’t come up with real brand advocates, will they resort to… making some up? Will there be a temptation from such companies to pay “advocates” to paint a prettier picture than they should about them? Will we start seeing “fake” or manipulated blogs and WOM campaigns pop up here and there?

If WOM must be genuine and authentic in order to work, how do we keep it that way? It’s difficult to police ethics.

Fortunately, thanks to how interconnected we all are these days, companies engaging in bogus WOM campaigns will no doubt see their efforts blow up in their faces. There are enough genuine watchdogs out there now press the alarm button whenever they smell a rat. In that regard, WOMM should kind of police itself, and that’s encouraging, but will it be enough?

Until someone answers that question for me, let me speak to those of you out there now who might think little about putting ethics aside to make a quick buck off this suddenly popular “movement”:

1) Instead of wasting precious time and resources on crafting bogus WOM campaigns, listen to your customers. Find out what they like and dislike about you. Then give them what they want. Let them help you make your business better. Create REAL brand advocates. Become the truth behind the lies of your bogus campaign.

2) If you lie to one of us, you lie to all of us. You will be exposed to the world faster than you can say “retraction”. There are thousands of bloggers and hundreds of journalists just waiting for you to give them something to talk about. It isn’t worth it. Trust me. You don’t want to go down that road. Nobody likes to be lied to. Nobody likes to be taken for a fool. Remember that.

Be authentic. Be legit. Be trustworthy. Be the real deal. It’s easier than you think.

… Or watch your business (and career) die a humiliating public death.

Your choice.

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What a brilliant idea. Seriously. This rocks.

I expect to see a lot more sites like this one pop up in the next week or so, so if you run into one, share it with the rest of us. (If you’re able, make sure to post links on your blogs and websites to increase their visibility.)

If you can’t drive down to the affected areas to help, and if donating food or funds to the relief effort leaves you wishing you could do more, this is a great way to help.

Also check out Greenville, SC-based Brains On Fire’s offer to help displaced creative agencies.

If your powers of observation are as keen as I expect they are, you will also notice the new “I’m Okay” button in the right-hand margin. This will redirect you to a great site that lets you both search for friends and family and leave a message for them. Again, pass it on. Word about resources like these need to spread as fast s possible, so tell everyone you know.

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Doing It Right

image copyright 2005 olivier blanchard

Still doubting the power of WOM? Still coming up with reasons why you can’t design the best possible product?

If a used car dealership can do it, surely anyone can. Case in point: Carmax. (No, it isn’t stylish or sexy, but it works:)

“I don’t know of any other dealership where you can test drive a used car, in excellent condition, and not have to go through a hard sell sales pitch, or a torturous bargaining phase when you decide to purchase it. The no-bargain price is right on the vehicles, and is often quite a bargain.
“Additionally, if you decide within five days of your purchase that it was not the right car for you, you can return it for a full refund, regardless of how much you drove it (and yes, I have actually tested this out) with no reason needed beyond simply that you didn’t like the car.
“Their Service Centers also seem to be squeaky clean and very impressive. They seem to be the elusive Car Dealership with a Conscience.”

Check out the full story here.

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One of the missing – Image copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard

People looking for missing friends and family members in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation have turned to Craigslist.com to post their messages. How cool is that? One of the internet’s top wanted-ad sites gets retasked to help thousands of displaced hurricane victims reconnect with their loved ones… not by the government, not by a relief agency, but by people.

Internet tracker technocrati.com hooked up with flikr and buzznet to let amateur photographers and camera phone users share their images of the chaos with the rest of us (though very few actual photos of the hurricane’s aftermath are being posted yet).

Thousands of private and public sites have joined in the relief effort in some form or another. From office space offers and housing relief to general relief organization info, the web is turning out to be a fantastic tool for anyone not only looking for information but help and relief. In addition, a database of victims and other sites is being created here.

Too bad the craigslist postings couldn’t be hooked up to the Superdome’s jumbotron or printed and posted outside its gates… but it’s a start. A very good start.


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Ground-Zero Brandbuilding

image copyright 2004 Olivier Blanchard

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 (or T&S’ upcoming drink dispenser… ahem). 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 you 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 you 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? 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? So 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…

Well, 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. Blah blah blahblah… The truth is that your product is more like the epicenter of your brand. Why? 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 get 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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Ethics 101?

image copyright 2005 olivier blanchard
Former Ogilvy executive Shona Seifert (whose role in an alledged scheme to overbill the Office of National Drug Control Policy has recently given her more media and legal attention than she probably ever wished for) made ammends this week by submitting to U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman a code of ethics for the advertising industry.

While the document isn’t much of a code of ethics at all, it is telling of Ms. Seifert’s perception of the conditions that eventually (and alledgedly) led her down the wrong path.

The thing about ethics is that there is no gray area. Either you do the right thing or you don’t. Whining about why you made bad choices and chose to play a part in ripping-off a client sounds kind of hollow once you’ve done it… and got caught. It doesn’t matter how much pressure your bosses put on you, Shona. You didn’t have to go along with it.


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