Archive for March, 2006

A brand is a promise. An expectation. To a great extent, it is also a reputation. As a company, you either deliver on this promise, or you get the boot from your customers. Plain and simple.

Years ago, Mercedes stood for quality. Wait, no… not just quality but superquality. Mercedes was a luxury brand, much like Cartier and Chanel and Hermes. To a great extent, this is still the company’s stance. Mercedes, BMW and Porsche form the great German Luxury Automaking triumvirate. When it comes to status and image, they still rule over all other “affordable” luxury car brands including Jaguar, Cadillac and Lexus. (Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari and the likes could be more accurately batched into a superluxury category.)

At any rate, the decision to purchase a Mercedes comes with a certain degree of expectation when it comes to the quality of the car, its design, comfort, performance, safety, etc. Along with that should come a certain level of service. After all, the experience of shopping for a luxury car (and owning it) should come with a few perks. You expect to be treated professionally. You expect to feel like you are receiving VIP treatment by a dealership’s sales and service staff.

You expect friendly, able people to smile, nod, and say things like “yes Mr. Skipsquat, we’ll take care of that for you right away. Would you like some coffee while you wait? Can I have one of our drivers take you back to your office? Would you like us to send a car to pick you up when we’re done servicing your car?”

Okay, maybe that last part is too much to ask… but we’re talking about Mercedes, aren’t we? No offense to Toyota, Dodge or Citroen, but… the Mercedes experience (yes, it begins when you first drive up to the dealership) should be on a whole different level than that of other, more budget-friendly brands.

At the very least, even f you aren’t taken care of like royalty, you should walk away from every Mercedes experience feeling really great about it. You should be wowed by the excelent level of service. You pay good money to be a part of the Mercedes world, and that world extends far beyond the confines of your car. If you wanted to buy a poorly-built car and get the runaround from the dealer and the corporate office, you could have bought a Ford, right?

Eh… Well… times, they’re a-changin’.
Apparently, Mercedes may be dropping the ball. Read Francois Gossieaux’s Mercedes horror story here, and find out for yourselves what might be wrong with what was once one of the most sought after luxury brands in the world. It’s a great read.

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Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog:

“Deciding: ‘Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.’

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly.”

(If you’re asking yourself… yeah, cool career advice, but… what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I’m getting to it.)

“It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation.”

Still not catching on? Okay… Let’s try one more:

“In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be ‘responsible’ and ‘stable’, indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, ‘Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.’ Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done.”

Still no? Tsssk… Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Substitute “brand” for “career”. Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands – from ‘brand you’ to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. They aren’t built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage… Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand’s attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So… don’t ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise…

… and read Dave’s blog. It’s a good one.

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Your customers are passionate people. They don’t like unfair labor practices. They don’t like laws they consider unjust. They don’t like paying more than they should for necessities. They don’t like being discriminated against. They don’t like being treated like cattle.

A hundred years ago, people didn’t ave much of a voice. Today they do. And they like it.

Every day, more businesses are launched. Every day, more new products reach the websites they visit and the shelves of the retail outlets they like to buy from. Every day, they are given more opportunities to choose whom to do business with, and whom not to do business with.

Gone are the days when the neighborhood butcher was really the only convenient place to buy meat. Gone are the days when watching TV meant choosing between four channels. Gone are the days when you either bought a Ford or a Chevy. An IBM or an Apple. Nike or Adidas.

The more choices your customers have, the more power they hold… and the least likely they are to choose you over your competition.

People work hard for their dollars, and they are becoming increasingly savvy about how and where to spend them. They’ve all been burned. They’ve all been lied to. They’re a lot more cautious now… and demanding.

The companies who will engage them, give them the value they demand, treat them well and make them crave more will earn their dollars… and their friends’ dollars, and their families’ dollars and on and on and on.

Other companies, those who fail to do this will see their revenue stagnate or dwindle. They will resort to expensive advertising campaigns and outsourcing and repositioning to stay afloat.


People hold the power. Your customers. They control where the dollars go. They control what is said about brand A vs. brand B. They control what products are hot and what products are not.

Look at “American Idol”. Look at the success of iPod. Look at the popularity of MySpace. When people are engaged by a product or brand, they contribute to its growth. If they aren’t, that brand gets ignored and dies.

Your customers decide if you are worth doing business with, or if you aren’t. All you have to do is listen and decide what kind of relationship you want to have with them. Do you want to be their first choice, or do you want to be their third or fifth or twelfth?

Do you want to be the one they spend their money on, or the one they don’t?

Do you want to be the first name they think of when it comes to buying a cupof coffee, or a new car, or a computer, or a pair of shoes… or do you want to be an afterthought?

They have the power. They decide your fate.

Whom do you think you should be courting today… and tomorrow… and the day after that?

Who do you work for?

(See where I’m going with this?)

Every customer is your boss. My boss. Our boss. Every single one. From the kid who spends twenty-five cents on a piece of gum to the VC who comes in to drop seven figures on your latest project.

Your job, whatever and wherever it may be, is to make sure that your customers choose you over everyone else.

Something to think about.


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Stand Out

Word to the wise: If you don’t stand out in some way, you’re done.

You might be able to exist, you might manage to survive, but that’s all you’ll ever have to look forward to. You can be a one-man show and still be corporate. Don’t do it. Don’t waste your time being just like everyone else. Don’t waste your soul on being average.

Give yourself more credit. Everyone has strengths. Everyone has talents and abilities. Not using them every day even in some small way is such a shame it ought to be a crime. (And it’s bad business to boot.)

Whether you’re a photography studio, a web design firm, a sports magazine, a sportswear company, a triathlon shop or an antique furniture store, you either stand out, or someone who does will come along to wow your audience and steal your business right from under your nose.

Trust me on this: you can’t afford to be average. Even if you’ve based your entire business model on the lowest pricepoints, on bare-bones bottom-line imports, you have to take your uniqueness as far as humanly possible… and then some.

Yes, even accounting and financial services firms can stand out. Restaurants. Retail outlets. Breweries. Day care centers. Schools. Law offices. Graphic design firms. Janitorial services agencies. Manufacturing plants. It doesn’t matter. Your industry and specialty are irrelevant. Anyone can stand out.

Here’s a tip for you: The best way to stand out in a crowd is simply to stand for something: Producing the most useful online content for your users. Making it easy for your customers to get information on products before they shop. Providing your clients with the best after-sale service in the industry. Brewing the best cup of coffee in the world. Turning boring shopping experiences into something fun and enjoyable. Returning calls faster than anyone else. Being the easiest company your customers have ever had the pleasure to do business with.

Business models are just templates, folks. They’re the framework. Marketing, advertising, branding, PR, all of these things are great, but remember that you can customize your business all on your own too. From packaging to billing to the way you answer the phones. From the grade of toilet paper you stock in your bathrooms to the way you hire new talent. From the corners you will never, ever cut to the crazy ideas you decide to put stock into. From the stand you take on community issues to the tone of the dialogue you foster with your customers. It is all in your hands.

Stand for something. Stand out. Be extraordinary, if only for a year, if only in the eyes of a handful of customers. If only during the course of a single phonecall.

Be memorable.

Be worthy of note.

Don’t ever, ever, ever settle for safe or average or just good enough. Not in the big things. Not in the small things.

Know who you are and who you want to be as a person, as a company, as a brand, and just do it.

No one – let me repeat this – no one is standing in your way.

Now go out there and concquer something. (Yes, right now.)

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Once upon a time, Blockbuster was as big as Starbucks in the US. Strong brand, great customer service, unrivaled market ownership… Blockbuster was virtually untouchable.

Admit it: You had a card too. You rented stuff there. Yeah. We all did.

But then, something happened. The world changed… and Blockbuster found itself completely unable to deal with those changes. VOD (video on demand) and Netflix, more than anything else, shanked Blockbuster silly while it was looking the other way.

Sure, it tried to hold on to its fleeing customers by abolishing late fees… kinduv… but it was too little, too late. Driving to a Blockbuster was still a pain. Rental fees had doubled since we’d all first become members there, and we weren’t happy about it. Somehow, we all got the sense that Blockbuster could have – should have – done a whole lot more.

Personally, I think that Blockbuster should have come up with something smarter and more engaging than its half-hearted capitulation. (I don’t care how excited the people in the ads acted. It was a weak program and you all know it.) I never cared about late fees anyway. Yeah, they were a hassle, but not a deal-breaker. Abolishing them… kinduv… wasn’t enough to convince me or you or anyone to rent videos there anymore. We needed a real reason to shop there again. Blockbuster failed to give us one.

The issue was mainly one of convenience. Why should I drive to a store twice (rent and return) and spend thirty minutes picking out a movie, when I could just order one right from my living room? Cable and broadband internet access have made movie rentals a commodity. Blockbuster failed to anticipate the change… and respond to it. It got left behind.

Sure, adding video game rentals to the mix was a good idea, but poorly executed. Blockbuster stores became a weird hybrid. The brand lost some of its relevance. The smell of desperation was in the air, and we all caught a whiff.

But here’s what sealed Blockbuster’s fate: It never reached out to us, the old core of once loyal customers. It never made us feel at home there. It never worked on making the Blockbuster experience a great one… or even a half-way decent one, at that. Actually, for the most part, it wasn’t all that pleasant at all.

No, instead, what Blockbuster did was try to sell us an additional membership. (Give us more money… and we’ll give you free rentals.) Bribes aren’t enough. Especially the kind we have to pay for. (Woohoo! A free rental each month!) Please.

The whole thing made me seriously consider the possibility that Blockbuster was actually run and operated by Uncle Scrooge (which I haven’t yet completely ruled out, by the way).

Now, I want you to look at the photo of my neighborhood Blockbuster (top of post). What do you see?

1) One car in the parking lot.

2) What happened to the movie posters in the windows, and the promos on the door, and all of the things that made the store inviting? They’re gone!!! Why?

3) Not only that, but the windows are covered by ugly rack butts and the backsides of posters. Beautiful and enticing, huh?

4) You can’t actually see it in this photo, but the “gaming” section of the store has its windows completely obscured from the inside by… wallpaper or something. From the outside, it looks like someone duct-taped giant rolls of dollar-store giftwrap paper over every inch of glass on that side of the store. Just beautiful.

Okay… Here’s a tip: It’s pretty basic, but I guess the marketing folks at Blockbuster must have been sick when we covered this in class – The outside appearance of your retail outlet is as important as the inside. Maybe more so. If your store looks like a crack house, nobody is going to want to come inside. (Go figure.)

Blockbuster used to do a great job of promoting to the outside world what was inside the store. Now, it just looks like a cross between a project in antisocial behavior and a foreclosure.

Something else you can’t see in this photo: The obnoxious staff.

My last trip to Blockbuster basically involved the following experiences:

– Three clerks playing pencil-tag (yes, it’s fun to throw pencils at each other when you’re bored). Even more so when customers are waiting in line and opening a second register might not be a bad idea. Extra-credit for hitting a customer in the head, and then just laughing at the fact that you did.

– Seventeen minutes in the checkout line. (Hey, at least there were customers there.)

– Oh wait… the couple ahead of me finally got tired of waiting and left without renting anything. Never mind.

– So did the family in line behind me. Tsssk.

– The sales pitch for Blockbuster’s special rebate club deal thingie:

The clerk: “Let me tell you about a super sweet offer blablabla…”
Me: “Um… no thanks, man.”
The clerk: “But you haven’t even heard what it is.”
Me: “Yeah I did. It’s a cool program, but not today.”
The clerk: “Pffft. Whatever. Your loss. Pay full price for your rentals then.”


– Sticker shock. Although… maybe if I had spent the extra nine bucks for the rewards program, the $5 rental fee and the entire hour I wasted driving there, picking a movie and waiting in line might have been easier to swallow. I don’t know. Maybe.

– Having to drive the movie back to the store a few days later was just the cherry on top. You have no idea.

*Sigh* And now, Blockbuster has finally decided to become a clone of Netflix. Better late than never? I don’t know.

It isn’t every day that you get to witness the death of a superbrand. It’s kind of sad in a way, because Blockbuster could have avoided all of this… and to be fair, it might bounce back. I guess anything’s possible… But… You know… I wouldn’t hold my breath or anything.

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Dear brilliant readers, you probably owe it to yourselves to add the business innovation insider to either your blogroll or your RSS feed. It’s a great resource for news, commentary,insight about our little world and everything it touches.

(And they were one of the first sites to adopt the BrandBuilder blog as a source when I first launched… which earns them some extra style points.)


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Faux Pas?

Um… Somebody who gets paid a whole lot more than many of us (and by the United Nations, no less) actually approved this ad.

For their next project, the team that put this piece together could slap a box of Trixx Cereal on an anti KKK poster. (I can see it now: “Bigotry comes in lots of fun flavors.”)



1) Denmark gets slapped in the face (as if the Danes needed any more negative attention).
2) Lego is stoked to find itself directly associated with racism around the world. (What company woudn’t!)
3) The UN now has to go through the process of having its giant foot surgically extracted from its own big mouth… But it’s hard to admit having made an error when you can only speak in vowels.
4) Money well spent rocks my world.

This is the Marketing equivalent of an oil tanker spill.

Read the whole story here
. (Thanks to Michelle Malkin for the great coverage.)

Now, let’s all go out and by some Legos. (Oooops… “Lego blocks and toys” is the correct nomenclature.)

International Tags Of Mystery: , , , ,

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