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Archive for December, 2008

Buying a product. Bringing it home. Taking it out of the box. Pressing PLAY. Turning the first page. Pulling the cork. Clipping-in. Hitting the ignition. Biting into the first slice. Slipping into it. Walking into the new store. Spraying it on. Plugging it in. Connecting the pieces. Reading the owner’s manual. Shifting up. Writing your name on it. Clicking SEND on the order form. Taking it for a spin. Just looking at it. Sharing it with a loved one. Holding it in your hand.

It should always feel like this.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a restaurant, a store, a website, a bank, a doctor’s office, a manufacturing plant or a creative firm; ask yourself this: Is the work you are doing today going to have that kind of effect on your customers? On your clients? On your fans?

Is your work really going to connect with the people you are doing this for?

Are they going to fall in love with it? Is it going to impact their lives? Is it going to inspire them? Make them smile? Wow them?

When they talk to their friends about you, will it be with awe? Will they be singing your praises?

Are you a lovebrand? (Incidentally, check out Lovemarks.com. Interesting little concept.)

If not, stop what you’re doing. Put your pen down. Look around you. Think about why you’re there, sitting at your desk. Think about the project you’re working on. It could be a product launch. It could be a new menu. It could be a new floor display. A promotion. A party. A speech.

It could be anything.

Remarkable always hits the mark. Lovebrands always win.

The key to becoming a lovebrand is simply to love your customers first. I mean… seriously. Love them. Fall in love with them.

I’m not kidding.

Read Peter Drucker’s words in yesterday’s post about purpose.

If you’re a coffee shop, love them enough to give them the best cup of coffee they’ve ever had. If you’re a retail outlet, give them the best shopping experience they’ve ever had. Love them like you love a best friend. Do what you know will make them happy. Get to a point where you truly feel joy and pride when they love what you’ve done for them. When it enriches their lives. When you truly become part of it in some way.

Everything you do should be for them, not for you.

What you do, what your company is about, how you design your products, how you interact with your customers, none of it isn’t about like. It’s about love.

Either you’re involved in a wonderful love affair with your customers and clients, or you aren’t.

That is what fundamentally sets great brands apart from the rest of the crowd: Love.

Talk to a graphic designer about their Mac. Talk to a driver about their BMW. Talk to a photographer about their Canon lenses. Talk to a foodie about their favorite dessert. Love.

So, once again…

Buying a product. Bringing it home. Taking it out of the box. Pressing PLAY. Turning the first page. Pulling the cork. Clipping-in. Biting into the first slice. Slipping into it. Walking into the new store. Spraying it on. Plugging it in. Connecting the pieces. Reading the owner’s manual. Taking it for a spin. Just looking at it. Sharing it with a loved one. Holding it in your hand.

It should always feel like this.

photo copyright olivier blanchard 2005

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As many company execs become more and more distracted by how external factors like the economy, Wall Street, bailouts and… essentially a whole lot of uncertainty might affect their business in the coming weeks and months, I thought today might be as good a time as any to discuss internal factors that they (you) can actually control. It may not be entirely clear to everyone yet, but there are only two types of business problems: The ones you can actually fix, and the ones you can’t. Spending any time at all worrying about problems you can’t possibly impact is a complete waste of time and energy. Time and energy you could have spent on fixing problems that are actually within your control. So today, snap out of the doom and gloom of Wall Street, Detroit and the world at large and refocus your attention on what you can have a direct and immediate impact on. Like, for example, making sure that your community of customers continues to grow even in this economy. To help us with that, let me call upon our old friend Peter Drucker:

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

I would go a step further and say that the objective, not the purpose of a business is to create a customer. The purpose of a business is actually to earn a customer by somehow improving the life of that customer. Businesses can create products, markets, trends, technology, industries and lifestyles, but their aim is not to create customers. That type of model is too one-sided to be sustainable. (Once you have created a customer, you want them to a) keep coming back, and b) recruit other customers for you. Your purpose then is to create unique and compelling value for your customers.

In other words, don’t create customers. Create for customers. Cue Peter:

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself. “

Amen.

“Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it.”

That should be a T-shirt or a poster or something.

So put down the newspaper for a minute, mute your TV or your radio, and think. Think not about the economy and layoffs and bailouts. Think about YOUR business. Not your business vs. its competitors, not your business vs. the economy, and certainly not your business vs. the uncertain future. Think about your business in a vacuum. Think about its purpose. Think about the very specific value it provides to your customers. Today. What is it?

Being able to answer that question clearly and without hesitation lies at the heart of your ability to recruit new customers, retain existing ones, and survive even in a recession. Heck, not just survive but thrive.

Perhaps more importantly, discovering how your customers answer that question may be even more valuable. Is the value they find in doing business with you aligned with your vision? Do they find value in places you hadn’t really considered? Do they find very little value at all? Are you 100% aware of which of your products and services are doing great, which ones aren’t, and most importantly why? I am not asking you if you know which ones are the most profitable, mind you, but the most popular.

Believe it or not, focusing too much on the numbers, on your P&L, on the financials of your company can be as counterproductive as focusing on the news. I equate it to spending more time with your eyes on the RPM gauge of your dashboard or listening to your XM radio than focusing on the road ahead.

Focus on what matters: Customers. They are your lifeblood. They are at the center of every single business objective you will ever devise. The value that you bring to your customers is the only thing that will ultimately save you or sink you as a business. Growing your customer base, making your existing customers come back again and again and again, and creating the kind of value for them that will prompt them to – on their own – recommend you to their peers and friends is the one thing you should be focusing on now. Today. Tomorrow. And every day after that.

Read Peter’s words again. And again. And again, until they sink in.

This is the essence of all great enduring brands. This is the foundation upon which every successful business is built. Find your purpose. Find your place. Stand for something specific, that your customers want or need or crave, and be the best at it. Period.

Refocus that lens, grasshopper. Turn away from the distractions and the noise. Focus on what truly matters, on what you can have an impact on, and what will ultimately save you.

A quick illustration:

Two men on a life raft, floating in the ocean. The raft springs a leak and starts to take on water. Both men notice it and panic. One of them looks out at the vast ocean threatening to swallow them whole. Gigantic. Cold. Uncaring. Cruel, even. He holds on to the side and starts to pray. “Will we ever get rescued,” he wonders, “will we starve out here? Will we shrivel up and die? Will a wave come in the night and sweep us away? How can we survive out here without a raft… or even with the raft,” completely oblivious to the fact that the other man has already found the leak and is patching it up.

Which man are you?

Your world isn’t the ocean. Your world is the raft. Focus, and you’ll be all right.

If you still can’t get beyond the doom and gloom, if you still don’t know how to fix your leaking raft, you have two choices: a) Shoot me an S.O.S. (and I will either help you myself or hook you up with someone who can) or b) get inspired by reading about someone who succeeded against far more difficult odds than yours: Sir Ernest Shackleton (I suggest both a and b.)

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”
“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself. “

And again: “Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it.”

Focus.

Have a great day, everyone. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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orangecoat-olan-mills-style-holiday-postcard-2008-small

Sorry folks, I know this has nothing to do with brand development, marketing or social media, but… oh wait, it does! (I’ll come back to that.)ย  Truth is, I wanted to post this because it made me laugh outloud. And I laugh every time I see it. If you don’t know these guys, it probably won’t be as funny to you, but if you know them it’s priceless.

Check out the full post here.

Oh, and about the brand/marketing/social media thing: One of the many things that sets Orange Coat apart from other web design firms is the fact that they can blend humor with flawless design better than most, and this card is a testament to that. They may make it look easy, but trust me, it isn’t. Turning ideas (yes, even goofy ones) into reality is easier said than done, but not so much for them.

I love it: Taking the most boring, cliche Christmas season tradition in the world and turning it into a conversation-starter? Brilliant.

And as for the Social Media angle, the post has all of Orange Coat’s Socmed particulars (yay Twitter).

I don’t mean to shamelessly plug my friends today, but after seeing this, how could I not? ๐Ÿ˜€

Transparency Note: I do not currently receive any remuneration from Orange Coat or any of its agents, but this post may earn me a beer or two. Or three.

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guy-kawasaki-package-1

A week ago, Guy Kawasaki issued a quick little challenge on Twitter: The first person who could guess what UFM means (as in “I’ve been UFMed”) would win a free copy of his book, Reality Check. Luckily, I happened to see his tweet come up as it posted and immediately replied. Having just read his latest blog post moments before, I was pretty much in sync with his frame of mind, so the mysterious acronym made perfect sense to me.

There may have been a tie – Guy, after all, has about 25 gazillion followers, most of whom can type faster than my two pecking fingers ever could – but Guy, true to his word, rewarded my speed with a free copy of his book. It finally arrived yesterday and I couldn’t be more psyched about it.

1. It’s already turning out to be a GREAT book.

2. It came from Guy, not Amazon or wherever.

3. Guy took the time to autograph it, which was a very cool gesture.

Old school pundits may scoff at the idea that social media aren’t actually “social,” that webbies are shunning human contact in favor of superficial, sterile behind-the-veil internet connections, that we are in a sense antisocial geeks settling for faceless keyboard-and-screen dialog, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth: We are among the most social people on the planet Social media connects us in a way that no other tool ever has. For those of us who are natural connectors, social media eliminates geographic and other barriers that once prevented us from meeting like-minded people outside of our typical reach. Social networks allow us to take our social nature and very simply scale it. Many of my friends and clients today first connected with me via social media – this blog, flickr, Buzznet, Flickr, etc. This medium is a catalyst for true engagement between people. For real world connections. (Not that Guy sending me a book qualifies, but it does in its own way.)

Today’s social media users are curious about the world and everything in it. We want to spread our enthusiasm for all of the things that make us passionate about life, work and play. Products we love, ideas that flipped a switch, news we want to share, etc. The mere fact that Guy, business A-lister that he is, would a) bother to spend as much time on Twitter chatting people up, and b) take the time to send someone he has never met an autographed copy of his book just to be nice are testaments to the open and wonderfully inviting nature of social media’s core adopters.

We are social. The image of the recalcitrant, vitriolic blogger hiding behind a dimly-lit screen in some dark home office somewhere needs to go the way of Enron-style accounting, and for the very same reasons: Those standing on the outside peering in need to understand that the few unfortunate bad apples in the cart don’t represent the rest of our community. Guy’s Twitter conversations may be in cyberspace, but the autographed book came in the real world mail. He signed it with a real world pen held by real world hands. The real world ink from his pen dried on real world paper that I can touch with my real world fingertips. The veil is vanishing before our very eyes.

When I meet Twitter friends in the real world, as I seem to be doing a lot these days, I introduce myself as “Olivier Blanchard. You probably know me as @thebrandbuilder, the guy with the silly chihuahua for an avatar?” They reply in kind. We laugh about it and marvel at how equally silly and beautiful it all is. How fascinating and exciting it is that the internet and the real world are finally really coming together in a productive and almost seamless motion.

We’re coming full circle now, technology and real palm-to-palm handshakes blending into a complete social experience both in business and not. How can we not be excited about that? How can companies looking for ways to connect with their audience not be excited about that as well? The potential here – on both counts – is astounding, and the many ways such unprecedented connective channels can yield returns should be enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Have a great day, everyone.

Incidentally, “UFM” stands for “Un-Follow Me” (as in, “you silly fool, why did you unfollow me on Twitter?”)

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twitter-reality

It hadn’t occurred to me until late last week, but most major brands still haven’t figured out that Twitter is the fastest social media network (dare I say channel) in existence today. Not LinkedIn, not Facebook, not their own website or corporate blog, not anything else: Twitter is it. The conversations may start or end on blogs (corporate or not), but the conversations themselves, the dialogues, the real connections happen in real time on Twitter – which is to say that more and more of the discovery, recommendations and value-building that drive incremental transactions (basis points of growth for you MBAs out there) are taking place on Twitter.

Why are these conversations important? Why should brand managers care? Because the folks currently using twitter – the folks currently recruiting the next 100 million users – are the connectors, influencers and mavens of the social media world. They don’t have to be Social media superstars like Scoble, Brogan, Kawasaki or Lemeur. They don’t have to be high profile brand spokespersons like Ford’s Scott Monty. This is the long tail, we’re talking about. This is grassroots. The same grassroots web of networks that Barack Obama’s campaign leveraged to win the 2008 US Presidential election. And that is precisely the importance of the long tail: It’s about networks and relationships. It’s about dialog and trust. The long tail is simply the digital vehicle for word-of-mouth, the stickiest limb of the marketing world, where transactions are really born. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Twitter is quickly becoming the most effective long tail platform in history. More so than Facebook. More so than any other single digital Social Media tool.

To put the importance and effectiveness of Twitter in perspective for you, take a step back and stop thinking about it as an internet tool. In other words, stop thinking of Twitter as something people interface with on their laptops and PCs. Twitter is on people’s mobile devices as well. That’s right: The conversations and interactions continue outside of the office. They take place at the mall, in the car, at the coffee shop, on the sidewalk and at parties. Twitter isn’t just on a desk, it’s literally in people’s hands. 24/7/365.

The billboard, folks, is now in people’s pockets, on their belt, in their purse, and it gets to ask them questions and make suggestions all day long.

Yet, there still seems to be some discussion as to whether or not “brands” should start using Twitter at all.

Fascinating.

I find the question as elementary as “should soldiers be taught how to fire a rifle?” or “should lifeguards be required to be good swimmers?”

Read Mark Drapeau’s Do Brands belong on Twitter? and Jeremiah Owyang’s Why Brands Are Unsuccessful on Twitter.

The answer to Mark’s question is “of course.” The answer to Jeremiah’s rhetorical question is “because most brands aren’t even there yet,” although he seems to cover that quite well in his own post.

The thing is, some brand have embraced the Twitter “experiment” and are doing quite well. Several of them are listed below, and by clicking on their name, you will get a chance to see exactly how they are leveraging the tool. Will some make mistakes? Maybe. Probably. But that’s okay. Live and learn. At least, they are engaging us, their public, which has a dual effect: Broadening their reach, and deepening their connection with us – the consumers. As a Twitter user, just knowing that The North Face has a genuine Twitter presence makes the brand more appealing to me. Somehow, it seems to fit in with my lifestyle a little better than before, when I saw it simply as another drop in the brand name ocean. Same with Jet Blue. Same with Whole Foods. Same with Starbucks.

Locally, Liquid Highway has managed to market itself so well to Twitter users that they in turn used their influence to give their business a hefty boost outside of the twittersphere. The cost of recruiting the same amount of net new customers and then retaining them somehow through traditional media marketing and promotions would have been hefty and probably short in returns. Their Twitter strategy achieved in weeks and for almost no cost at all what a traditional media strategy would have taken months and tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps with less success.

Fact: Brands that tweet – large or small – have an advantage over brands that don’t. Period.

Even without the Twitter kinship element I just mentioned (The whole North Face thing), the very act of using Twitter as a channel to inform the public as to press releases, events, news stories and promotions would be better than not being there at all. Social media purists may shake their fists at CNN and WSJ for broadcasting rather than engaging, but in the end, Twitter can be used in a variety of ways. Not every brand needs to generate buzz of “engage”. I wish it were so, and in an ideal world, yes, all brands should strive to seek a deeper connection with their audience, but that isn’t always the priority.

In light of this basic realization, simply standing on the sidelines of a channel of Twitter’s potential magnitude without at least testing its waters seems completely absurd, especially when all data points to the fact that traditional advertising channels are losing their effectiveness.

And especially as marketing budgets are getting serious buzz cuts. (No pun intended.)

Twitter, along with other key social media platforms and channels, thus makes sense. Yet here we are, with only a small fraction of major brands actually getting involved. Curious. To illustrate the state of things, I have put together a quick list of some of the most obvious brands I could think of and went on Twitter to see if they were there. The results may surprise you. This is what I found:

Major Brands which have picked up on the importance of a) Twitter and/or b) customer engagement as a whole:

A sampling of major brands with a presence on Twitter:

Whole Foods

Starbucks

The North Face

IKEA (Not actually an IKEA-managed account. Evidently, this little project is 100% fan-created. Even more impressive on so many levels!)

Jet Blue

The Wall Street Journal

Trader Joe’s

Ford (Ironically, Ford is also in the highjacked category. Look for the “*”)

Correction: Ford’s Scott Monty explains how Ford is getting into the Twittersphere a little more formally in the comment section.

Triathlete Magazine

Fast Company

CNN

Dunkin Donuts

Zappos

The Home Depot

Kodak (Just added. @Kodak looks like it is occupied by a squatter but @kodakCB is live and rocking it. Also browse the comments section for more Kodak execs’ Twitter info. Thanks, Jenny!)

Southwest Airlines (Just added.)

WOMMA (also just added.)

Hertz (also just added.) This is not Hertz’ main brand connector though, but its new ‘Connect’ service. Pretty cool concept.

Microsoft’s Windows Mobile team in the US and in Australia, for starters.

Baskin Robbins (late add as well.)

GM Trucks (Brand new. Still has that new truck smell.)

Molson (the beer) has a whole team of Tweets: @Moffat, @MolsonFerg, @toniahammer, @molsonbryan.

These are the companies that get it. They tend to fall into two categories: The first (Whole Foods, IKEA, Jet Blue) actually engage with their followers/customers/fans on a personal level. These companies use Twitter as a true social platform. They talk, their audience listens. The audience talks, they listen. It’s nice and it works.. The second category (CNN and WSJ) use Twitter purely as a broadcast channel. While purists will frown at broadcast strategies being used in social media, it works for these types of outlets. (One more channel is one more channel.) What might get missed via overflowing RSS readers might not via an active channel like Twitter.)

Take some time to monitor the flow of conversations happening at The North Face, Ikea and Jet Blue. This is the model most companies should hope to adopt.

A very small sampling of major brands with a footprint on Twitter but not much activity:

Harley Davidson

Apple’s iPhone

GU

Air Canada (just added)

West Jet (just added)

Zellers (just added)

At least, some brands appear to see the value of claiming their Twitter footprint, even if they haven’t quite figured out what to do with Twitter yet. Not great, but still way ahead of the curve. You have to start somewhere.

Major Brands which, strangely, have yet to hop on the Twitter Train:

And now, the really scary part of this post. Below is a sampling of major brands with no active presence on twitter (or at least none that I could find as of Dec 14, 2008):

Coca Cola

Pepsi

NBC

Colgate

Chevrolet

Gatorade

Visa

Mastercard

Sears

3M

Kodak (See the ‘good’ list above for Kodak’s real Twitter info.)

Home Depot
Update: My bad – The Home Depot actually has a presence on Twitter. Look for them in the “good section of this post (above). ๐Ÿ˜‰

Mitsubishi

Toyota

Audi

Microsoft (though some teams dohave twitter accounts – see “good” group above)

Lysol

Windex (Come on!!! No Windex? Didn’t you guys see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”)

Verizon

Jeep

Kenneth Cole

Adidas

Budweiser

Jiffy Lube

Crocs

Land-Rover

How many millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on marketing and advertising, on pull and push strategies, on websites and microsites and blogs, on promotions and coupons and direct marketing, on sports sponsorships, on the brightest and the best marketing minds money can buy, only to completely ignore Twitter? Really? What happened to customer engagement? What happened to connecting with your audience? What happened to Word of Mouth? What happened to common sense? You mean to tell me that no one at any of these companies thought it would be wise to at least take a look at Twitter? To – perhaps at the very least – claim their brand footprint and establish an official presence, if only to make sure that no one else will usurp their brand?

Speaking of which, below is a sampling of major brands whose Twitter footprints have already been hijacked (voluntarily or not) by individuals or companies which have nothing to do with them. This is a total and utter brand management FAIL. Disney, instead hiring an online community manager tasked with creating a Twitter presence for fans of its parks, cruises and other properties allowed an enterprising young lady by the name of Cheri Thomas to use the Twitter handle @disney to promote her website: cheridreams.com. (Great for Cheri, but not so great for the entertainment giant.) How things like this happen is beyond me. Some of the examples on this list are more entertaining than others:

Disney

Nike

Snickers

Sharpie

Levi’s

Crayola

Tropicana

Nivea

Hummer

Ford* (http://www.twitter.com/ford is obviously not Ford. Curious since @ScottMonty, head of Ford Social Media is one of the most followed accounts on Twitter. Oversight?) As mentioned above, check out the comment section for an update from Ford’s Scott Monty. Good stuff.

McDonald’s

Burger King

Evian

Casio

Wal-Mart

Kmart

Staples

American Express/Amex

Mattel

Nikon

Yamaha

Reebok

sony

DKNY

Nokia

Doritos

Vicks

Ironman (Triathlon)

All of these brands have had their name taken over by a person or other company on Twitter. Most probably don’t even realize it. Those that do probably have their lawyers scratching their heads trying to figure out how to deal with the problem, which probably won’t be cheap to resolve – and in turn won’t give these companies much incentive to enter the Twittersphere. Well played.

The damage being done to brands on Twitter via these “hijackings” may not ever overshadow the breadth of missed opportunities, but either way, being an absentee brand landlord on a wildly popular and exploding community platform like Twitter doesn’t look very good. “Asleep at the wheel” is the image that comes to mind, and that, my friends, is not the type of reputation I would like to build for myself as a brand manager.

Is it truly so difficult for major brands afford to pay at least one person to manage their digital presence? A community manager? An “online” community manager, even? A head of social media of some sort? If my realtor thought to do it, why not Pepsi? If the church down the street thought to do it, why not Nike? If my local news channel thought to do it, why not Nikon, Nokia or Canon?

The questions that I leave for all of you to ponder – and hopefully answer here today – are where do we go from here? How do we help major brands get into social media properly, meaning in a way that benefits us all (them and us alike)? And ultimately, should we even try? Many of us tend to focus on smaller, savvier, hungrier emerging brands because they move faster and truly embrace the potential of social media. If major brands can’t figure out for themselves that they should get into the game, is our time really best spent trying to talk them into it?

What do you think?

Have a great Monday, everyone. ๐Ÿ™‚

Update: Check out this fantastic post by Erik Heels which outlines the problem of cybersquatting as it relates to Twitter, and also provides a further list of which of the world’s Top 100 brands are on Twitter as of 8 January 2009 (or rather which 93 haven’t yet caught on). Click here for the post.

Update: Check out this post outlining the same problem in Australia: Click here.

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Before you get all wrapped up in social media strategy talk, stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. That’s right. Chill. SocMed will still be there when you’re done with our little minute of zen. Go ahead. Close your eyes. Breathe. Breathe deeper. Let the air fillllllll your lungs. Yesssss. Good. Now let it out slowly. Rock on. Do this for as long as you like, then read on.

First, let me just state the obvious: You’re probably over-thinking this whole social media thing. If you’ve hired an “expert” social media consultant, chances are that he or she is making a big deal out of what should otherwise be a very simple thing. (So simple that most American teenagers are at the wheel of personal social media portfolios that would make most Fortune 100 companies grit their teeth with envy. More on that in Monday’s juicy follow-up post.)

Don’t fall for the hype and the weird lingo and the hip factor. You are getting waaaaay ahead of yourself already, and that is completely unnecessary. Relax. Social media is simple. You just need to slow things down a little. Take a step back. Don’t think of it as something new. Don’t think of it in terms of Twitter and Facebook and Plurk. Don’t confuse tools with strategy. Don’t confuse objectives with human connections. Don’t confuse tactics with simple dialogue.

That’s right, breathe.

Before you start posting on Twitter, before you start creating online communities on Ning and building fan pages on Facebook, go back to the basics. Understand who you are as a company. As a brand. As a collection of people united by a common cause. Understand what you stand for, and stand for it. Loudly. THAT is the essence of a brand. YOUR brand. Some might call it “the elevator pitch.” That 30-second explanation of who you are. Nike. Apple. Volkswagen. Whole Foods. You.

“We make the fastest, baddest, loudest motorcycles in the world.”

“We have the best coffee on the East Coast AND we donate 100% of our post-tax profits to charity.”

“We make dictionaries for the blind.”

“We’re the best design firm in history.”

Reconnect with yourself before you even try to reconnect with your audience. Reconnect with your employees. With your staff. Articulate your sense of purpose clearly. Get them onboard. Get them jazzed about what you – what they – stand for. (Hint: Find something more relevant and engaging than your promises to Wall Street or your tired old mission statement.) Make something happen. Create an internal movement. A cause your staff can rally behind.

Then, in everything you do, from website design and press releases to product launches customer service training, take a page from Tom Asacker‘s book of wisdom:

Be passionate about your story.

Be obsessed with the details.

Experience the real world of your audience.

And make a difference in peopleโ€™s lives.

William James wrote:

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or the capillary oozing water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.

This is the process that will prepare you for the world of social media. Meetings in board rooms with social media “experts” won’t alone do it. Droning conference calls with consultants won’t either. Hiring the COO’s nephew to create a blog and post stuff to Twitter also won’t get you very far if you aren’t truly ready.

Before you even come knocking on social media’s doorstep, you need to have your house in order and your head on straight. You need to come prepared. Your identity has to be crystal clear to you and everyone around you. Your objectives have to be clear. Your business processes have to be in synch with the vision you have for yourself. Once you’ve reached this point, then and only then are you ready to effectively tackle a social media strategy.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton used to say, “Whenever you get confused, go to the store. The customer has all the answers.” Like most guys of his generation, Sam understood that common sense trumped almost everything else in business. All the fancy tools and the technology and the fads. All noise if you aren’t grounded in reality. If you can’t focus on what matters: relationships.

How many CEOs and other business leaders today actually spend time personally listening to their customers? (Isn’t it much easier to pay market research firms instead? They’ll do phone and email surveys and whatnot. They’ll set up elaborate focus groups. They’ll hand you a 40-page report! Yay!)ย  Fact: The more layers you put between users/customers and a company’s leadership, the more detached decision-makers are from the insights they need to make good business decisions… and the worse their companies perform. Look at Wall Street. Look at Detroit. Look at the businesses across the street.

Another thing to consider: More often than not, market research firms end up asking the same wrong questions to an increasingly jaded audience. Talk about laws of diminishing returns.

The reality of today’s world/marketplace is this: Your questions are irrelevant. Your questionnaire’s format is irrelevant. Your canned dialogue isn’t sticking. As a result, your market research metrics are wrong. You are making decisions based on irrelevant data and erroneous assumptions.

Sam Walton had the right idea: Just go to the store. Watch your customers. Listen to them. Mingle with them. Chat them up. Before you know it, they’ll open up. They’ll tell you everything you want to know. You won’t even have to cook up questions for them. By virtue of being there, inside their own brand experience with them, what needs to be done next will naturally come to you.

If you want to physically do this, bravo. Leave the suit and the ass-kissers at the office, throw on some jeans, and go mingle. It will pay off, I promise.

If you can’t (too many things on your plate) then consider social media as the next best option. (Even if you can, SocMed strategies can help you be in more than one place at once, so use them.) Should you start a blog? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on who you have onboard who can really drive that project, what you want to accomplish, how open you are willing to be, etc. Over 80% of the public has a negative opinion of corporate blogs, so you may be better off not having one at all than having a bad one. (If you want a blog, you have to commit to being one of the rare companies who does blogging right.)ย  With or without a blog, should you have someone monitor what is being said about your company on other blogs? Absolutely. This is probably the most important element of social media: Listening.ย  Before you start talking, before you start responding or having conversations, LISTEN.ย  (It isn’t spying, don’t worry.) Find out what people are saying an writing about you. Find out what you are doing well, and not so well. SEARCH is your friend, so use it. Start taking notes. Learn how to truly see your company through the public’s eye, without the filter of a firm or agency whose retainer depends on not upsetting you, no matter what they find out.

Once you’re ready to engage the public, your public, then start getting involved with platforms like Ning, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you find that communities have already formed around your brand, introduce yourself to them and offer to give them support. DO NOT SUE THEM for using your logo without permission (as Ford tried to do this month), and don’t ever interfere with their affairs. Be polite. Be responsive. Be friendly. Be respectful. Be helpful. Always. No exceptions.

Understanding what Social Media tools and platforms to use and how is important, don’t get me wrong, but don’t put all of your focus into the vehicle without first understanding both the road and the destination – if indeed there is a destination, as you may find yourself on a very long and fascinating journey once you get behind the wheel.

Social Media involvement, in a nutshell, can and should be seen simply as an extension of your relationship with your customers and the public at large. Either you want true engagement or you don’t. If you don’t, then ignore this post and go back to doing what you have been doing for the last decade. If it works for you, great.ย  If you do, however, if you crave that feedback, that flux, that love, that relationship, then welcome to a whole new era of communications, collaboration, public relations and brand relevance.

Do the inner work first though. Read this post again if you need to. And if you have any comments or questions, as usual, you can either drop me a note in the comment section or reach me directly via email, Twitter, facebook or whatever other means of communications are at your disposal. (I still remember some Morse code.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. And seriously… Relax! ๐Ÿ˜€

Photo by Christopher Wray-McCann

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Back in the day, business cards were simple: Black letters, white background, one-sided. You went to the printer (or sent them off) and the guy made a point to print clean, simple, beautiful cards in some of the sharpest fonts known to man.

When marks and logos started getting popular (yes, that whole “branding” thing) they of course started landing on business cards as well. Coca Cola. Nike. Microsoft. Target. Joe The Plumber. (Oh wait… never mind.) This was kind of nice, but then again… not really. (Big difference between having, say, an IBM business card and a Brooks Brothers business card.)

And then colors started showing up.

And then photographs.

And glossy coatings.

And then pretty much all hell broke loose.

On the one hand, many insurance and real estate agents started going crazy with really awful designs, making everything glossy, plastering their “glamour shots” portraits all over the place, and essentially turning business cards into a pocket version of the coupon spam you get in the mail every few days. If loud was good, louder was even better. (Not all do it, but you know who they are. Nuff said.)

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On the other hand, talented designers started creating some incredible business cards – first for themselves, of course – and then for their clients. Case in point, I received a KILLER business card yesterday from Brady Bone, over at The Republik. The best way I can describe it is “Minority Report” meets Homeland Security meets New York subway ticket. It’s black on white, super clean, with bar codes, all kinds of cool little details and a magnetic strip. It even has Brady’s signature and an enigmatic half-tone shot of his face, which are both nice touches. Anyway, my point here isn’t to rave about Brady’s awesome card, but to point out that when it comes to blank canvasses, business cards are still one of the great frontiers when it comes to design.

And brand communication.

So you basically have three options when it comes to business card design: Good, bad, and boring.

Good can be this, this, this or even this. Good can be just a little good, or it can be Brady good. (Go here for a pretty sweet collection of creative designs- some better than others.)

Bad is just bad. I’ll just say this: If it looks like a car dealership ad, it’s probably bad. If it combines Comic Sans and gold/yellow, it’s probably bad as well. More often than not, bad very often looks like this:

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Boring is just… you know… a typical template (or as Rich Lafferty would call it, “corporate”) card: Logo, info, maybe a box of color here and there to dress it up, but zero personality. 90% of business cards I run into fall into that category. I’ll be willing to bet that most websites associated with companies with boring business cards are also based on unremarkable templates and don’t get a whole lot of traffic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re going to spend money on a website, money on business cards and letterhead, money on networking events and business organization memberships – money on marketing in general, why not make that money count? Why settle for boring or ugly or ineffective? Seems like kind of a waste, doesn’t it? Why not spend a little bit of time giving your image some thought? Your zip code is filled with graphic designers and creative agencies that could help you with that. Not help you just create pretty cards, but help you make your business more memorable and attractive – yes, even if it is only at first glance. (, you have to start somewhere.)

Think about the stacks of business cards yo come home with after a business event. Don’t you tend to reach for the well designed ones first? The ones with a little bit more personality or information? Of course you do. And what happens to retention when someone hands you a memorable card vs. a boring one? Don’t you have a tendency to remember the encounter a little better? The person’s face, your conversation, the context, etc.? Don’t you find that there’s value in using business cards to anchor contextual memories – which help cement what people and their companies do in your mental business mapping center?

So having a remarkable card (hopefully in a good way) makes good business sense. Having an unremarkable business card puts you at a disadvantage. (Think: lost in the shuffle.) Having an awful card might actually turn off prospective clients and partners if it is bad enough.

Card design is pretty important, then.

Naturally, creative agencies and freelancers will tend to have seriously memorable cards. Some are works of art in their own right. Others are just clever. Some are examples of flawless design. And then some pretty much turn into movements, like Hugh’s designs (below). There is pretty much a design range for everyone. Creatives will often lean towards graphic design masterpieces, while other professions (say, attorneys and accountants) will opt for more sober, less creative designs. And that’s just dandy. As long as the design is good, and as long as the design works for the person or business (fit, image, tone, message, etc.)

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I could yap about business cards for hours, but… I won’t. (Hang out here just a little while longer. We’re almost done.) The reason why I am obsessing over business cards today – as opposed to social media, the latest bailout or Pepsi’s latest can redesign (which sucks, by the way) – is that I have suddenly found myself in need of business cards.

As many of you probably know, the brandbuilder blog is finally becoming a biz in its own right (brand consulting, marketing management, online reputation management, and all that good stuff). Yep, little Olivier is finally all grown up and ready to go help cool businesses conquer the world.

Now that I’ve finally secured an address – which took long enough – I can at last get some business cards printed. No more “my cards aren’t printed yet” excuses during ritual business card exchanges at business events. No siree.

But first, I have to settle on a business card design. And as you may well imagine for a somewhat creative guy like me, picking the right design can turn into a dangerous exercise: On the one hand, I want to stand out a bit. On the other, I don’t want my designs to be too unique. There needs to be some measure of brand continuity between the blog, the site, the cards, etc… but also not so much that the design looks stale. The idea here is to strike the right balance. While I work with my fair share of creatives, I am not a creative agency, and I need to remember that.

Truth be told, my business card design(s) will probably change often. When a batch runs out, I will probably replace it with a completely fresh one. New look, new flavor, etc. Just to keep things interesting. But I right now, I need to settle on batch #1. The BrandBuilder, Inc.’s very first set of business cards. And for that, boys and girls, I need your help. Instead of picking them myself, I will let you guys (and gals) decide what my first calling card’s design will be.

Cool, huh?

Here are the three sets. By the way, the graphics and fonts got a little mangled when I shrank everything to size for this post, so my apologies if things look less than crisp.

Set #1. This one is a little tricky because you have to match front and back.ย  Combine your favorite front with your favorite back and tell me what you think works best. Feel free to print out the image, get your scissors out, and make your own little cutouts to see how they work together.

Because one’s backside should always come first…

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1.

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2.

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3.

And now for the front…

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b.

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c.

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d.

Set #2: The idea here was to create a simple and clean set of cards. Nothing fancy, just a clean design that can look pretty good in a card holder. In this set, the front (very last image, orange) stays the same while the back (all other images) changes. Each color/flavor has its own caption to help spread the message. (Why have only one tag line when you can have dozens?) The plan is to have all six versions printed.

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above: back side. Below: front side

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Set #3: This is the vertical set. Even more basic than set #2, it tries to be as clean as possible while asking some pertinent value-related questions. I call this the “what if…” set. The “what if…” questions currently on there are kind f lame, but the possibilities are endless. What if you knew how to leverage social media to make your customers love you? What if you didn’t have to spend so much on advertising? What if you could be the talk of the town again? What if your launch exceeded all of your expectations? You get the idea.

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See? I told you. Nothing fancy. I just want to create a visual bridge between the blog and the business via the card/letterhead design, so the creative only has so much rope to play with.

Feel free to vote, comment, etc.

And thanks for taking the time to give me feedback. (Even if it’s negative.)

And by all means, if you have a design concept you want me to see, definitely send it to me. I’m open to any and all ideas, as always. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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