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Archive for the ‘brand erosion’ Category


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By Geoff Livingston and Olivier Blanchard.

The Personal Branding Trap

by Geoff

Everyone in life wants to be loved on a personal basis, and received well professionally. When feelings of inadequacy arise — self esteem — it’s natural to look for solutions to improve a sense of worth. The most disturbing (and the least talked about) aspect of the personal branding movement is the promise that it can increase self worth through the intentional manufacture of an image.

Personal branding remains a popular individual career and online promotion strategy (as evidenced by the top of the Blog Tree by Eloqua and Jess3) in spite of significant criticism from the marketing profession as well as many employers. When a solution for such a soul-touching problem arises, it’s bound to become popular. And in that sense, personal branding is an idea that preys on individual pain and suffering.

Personal brand leaders offer plenty of justifications for their tutelage. They get paid for it, and receive national attention. In this sense, because the theory preys on the weak and is inherently flawed, their actions exploit people who want more in their lives, and want an answer.

This type of exploitation — intentional or as an act of innocent zeal — is no different than the quick road to riches offered by the likes of Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi pyramid scheme. It’s not OK to say, “it’s just a job.” Taking advantage of people in this manner at a minimum lacks mindfulness and its worse can only be described as malevolent.

For a variety of reasons already stated in other blog posts, personal brands provide employers dangers, and offer individuals band-aid solutions for deep problems. Whether it’s personal self esteem or professional reputation, actions demonstrate worth. Mood and worth follow action! One cannot think one’s self into feeling or doing better, they have to act their way into right thinking and feeling.

From a professional standpoint, that means stating what you want, going out and doing whatever it takes to get an opportunity to do that work and learning the craft. Then excel at the craft. Demonstrable experience (and a little luck) builds great careers. Presentation matters, but wearing a tie and understanding the nomenclature of a profession only provides an opportunity. Excellence in action preserves the opportunity and provides new ones.

Everyone wants to feel and do better. In 2011, let the marketplace and individuals turn their focus on substantive solutions that garner great opportunities and real experiences.

Read Geoff’s version of the post here.

The usurpation of the American Dream and other predatory tactics

by Olivier

The concept of “personal branding” finds its roots in the ambitions that fuel the American dream, appealing to the masses of individuals who desperately want to “be somebody” and see in the socialization of media a chance to have their fantasy become a reality.

There once was a time when being somebody meant actually… well, being someone of note. People became well known because of something they did or because of the role they played in their culture. Heroes would enjoyed fame because they saved lives and accomplished feats of bravery. Kings and queens knew fame because their faces were printed on their state’s money and they basically owned everything. Musicians, authors and artists enjoyed fame because of their work. Scientists enjoyed fame because of their contributions to science and human advancement. Movie stars were famous because they were glamorous and often became vessels for cultural archetypes that societies need in order to function properly.

I could go on, but the point is this: Fame and notoriety once were the result of accomplishment and achievement, and for good reason. The same is true today, though a growing movement made up of “personal branding” experts would like to sell you on the notion that you don’t actually have to achieve anything to be famous, even if only a little bit. All you have to do is will yourself there and follow some simple steps – which you will find if you buy their book or attend their seminars.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Polishing your resume, having your shirts and suits tailored and having a professional online presence all matter. And I understand the need for “self help” books as much as the next guy, just so you can feel good about yourself while you clean up your act. But the problem with this “personal branding” thing is that it is essentially a lie.

For one, it promises something it cannot deliver: We are people, not brands. Unless you are Sir Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, Tom Cruise or a celebrity whose image is bankable and worthy of being trademarked, you are not a brand, no matter how many times some consultant tells you that you are. You have no trade dress. You do not have a team of copywriters, attorneys, designers and marketing professionals crafting your every move. Ask yourself this: What are your brand attributes? Can you sell koozies with your face on them? Do you have a tag line? You are a person, not a brand. Be yourself. You can’t be anything else without bending the truth anyway.

If you want to earn respect and notoriety, turn your attention away from yourself. Go cure cancer. Go write the great American novel. Start a charity and work to put roofs over people’s heads. When it comes to building a reputation, the kind of self-serving digital navel-gazing encouraged by personal branding gurus is precisely the opposite of what you should be doing.

Second, if you aren’t that smart, interesting or even knowledgeable about your topic, all the blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates and YouTube videos in the world, all of the speaking gigs at conferences and events, and all the self-published e-books won’t change the fact that you aren’t that smart, interesting or knowledgeable. Lousy content doesn’t magically turn into gold just because you have built a “personal brand.” Along the same vein, calling yourself an “award-winning expert” if you in fact are not doesn’t actually make you an award-winning expert, no matter how much your personal branding guru insists that it does.

Third, the “personal branding” industry preys on the desperate and the gullible. It is no surprise that it shifted into high gear as soon as millions of people in the US started losing their jobs. What really fuels personal branding isn’t ego or vanity. The real culprits are necessity and despair. Why do people really fall for personal branding schemes? Is it because they are happily employed? Is it because they are happy with their careers or their bank account? Do you think that Steve Jobs and James Cameron worry about their personal brands? No. But Jack, a down the street neighbor who lost his job 14 months ago does. He buys all the books, attends all the seminars, takes all the online courses. There is no telling how many thousands of dollars he has spent on personal branding “thought leadership,” consulting and advice since then. Like snake oil to the ailing, personal branding promises career improvement and better opportunities to the disappointed and disenfranchised. In this, the personal branding industry reveals its true predatory nature.

If you need a better website, build a better website. If you need help cleaning up your CV, get help. If you have a book in you, write it. If you want to make a difference in the world, not just get praised for a lot of talk, go make yourself helpful. If you want to be known as an expert in your field, don’t just talk about it – go be the best in that particular field. It really isn’t brain surgery. But if your strategy for getting ahead is to build a personal brand based on the teachings of some “expert” in… well, nothing, perhaps you should consider the benefit of adding this tag line to your personal brand: “Part owner of the Brooklyn Bridge.” Now wouldn’t that be an achievement.

That is all.

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This. Is. Brilliant. Every time someone does a piece like this, I find myself grinning ear to ear.

First, some attribution: The piece, published by www.boredpanda.com is tagged as a guest post by Dario D., who first published his images on his own site www.alphaila.com. I recommend that you check them both out for the full feature. Well worth a few minutes of your time.

The premise (from Dario):

So, I went to some fast food places (I won’t say “restaurants”, just “places”), and picked up burgers/tacos, so I could compare them with the ads.

I brought the “food” home (different stuff over 3 nights), tossed it into my photography studio, and did some ad-style shoots (with pictures of the official ads on my computer next to me, so I could match the lighting/angles/etc).

The result, of course is a set of gems (go see them all) that includes this other killer side by side dose of reality:

Dario goes on:

Don’t ask me how this advertising is legal. […] I happily pitch the idea that lawmakers are committing a crime against us people by allowing us to be continually insulted by this advertising […]  in defiance of human perception.

He has a point. The pictures don’t lie.

Compare this kind of advertising to anything else: Cars, candy, clothing, drinks, watches, laptops, tennis rackets, video games, etc.. Most products, when depicted in photographs used for marketing purposes are pretty close to what you can expect to get. In this particular industry, however, not so much.

Remember the scene from the movie “Falling Down,” back in the post Reagan 1990’s, in which Michael Douglas’ character (as mentally imbalanced as he may be) throws a fit over this very affront to human intelligence. Fast-forward to 04:06, towards the end of the clip to see what happens. Take a look:

If you have time, watch the whole scene from the beginning. It’s a classic.

The lesson here isn’t that false advertising exists, or that fast food companies are sometimes unethical with their marketing. The lesson is this: Promises matter. The degree to which customers’ expectations are met is the currency by which a brand’s worth is measured. In the era of social media, global word-of-mouth, and in markets where the abundance of choices can send yesterday’s market leaders careening into a pit of obsolescence, the foundations upon which you build your brand’s future cannot be based on institutionalized broken promises. Breeding cynicism about your products is just not good policy.

Now apply this thinking to your business. Put your marketing through the same test. Does it pass muster, or like these images above, is there a gap between promise and delivery?

Now ask yourself this: Which do you believe is the better choice to build a sustainable brand: Disappointing customers, or delighting them?

PS: Social Media “gurus,” consultants and “certifying bodies,” take a long hard look at what you are selling, and how you are selling it.

Cheers,

Olivier

Additional resources: This post’s grandaddy (click here).

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Here’s a sobering little bit of reality:

“A study by Bain & Company found that 80 percent of companies surveyed believed that they delivered a “superior experience” to their customers. But, when customers were asked to indicate their perceptions of the experiences they have in dealing with companies, they rated only 8 percent of companies as truly delivering a superior experience (James Allen, Frederick F. Reichheld and Barney Hamilton, The Three “Ds” of Customer Experience, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, accessed Nov. 7, 2005). Do you sense just a little bit of disconnect?”

(Thanks to John Winsor for catching this some time ago on Seth Godin’s blog, who himself had wisely nipped it from Jim Barnes.)

8% vs. 80%.

… Which is probably the same percentage of companies thinking their advertising, marketing, PR or Social Media “efforts” are solid vs. what the rest of the world thinks of them. (What some of us like to refer to as “reality.”)

Delusion to the nth degree.

By the way, statistically speaking, if you are reading this, you are 10 times more likely to be in the 80% group than the 8% group. Don’t blame me for the bad news. It’s just basic math.

A few pointers to help you figure out where you stand:

If you haven’t seen continuous double-digit growth for the last three years, you are NOT in the 8% category.

If you don’t know at least 10% of your repeat customers by name when you see them, you are NOT in the 8% category.

If you don’t know exactly how many people mentioned your company’s name on the web since the start of this month, your are probably NOT in the 8% category.

If you find it painstakingly difficult to get trade publications to write positive stories about you, you are probably NOT in the 8% category.

If your customer service people yell or complain more than theysmile or laugh when they get off the phone with customers, you are NOT in the 8% category.

If your executives are not being invited to speak at industry events on a regular basis, you are NOT in the 8% category.

If your customers are increasingly pressuring you to lower your prices to match your competitors’, you are NOT in the 8% category.

Starting to get the picture?

Time to do something about it, perhaps? 😉

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In Part 1 of this series, we looked at what it takes for business managers and CMOs to come to accept that their brand is in trouble. We also discussed why it is often difficult for them to admit that they need help, and how to get over that fear-driven reflex.

Today, we are going to look at the next step in fixing a broken or distressed brand: Diagnosing the problem – which usually involves hiring a specialized firm, agency or individual with the skills, insight and experience to help you navigate through this crucial step. (If you screw this one up, everything that comes later is based on either false or incomplete assumptions – or both, so this isn’t a part of the process you want to entrust just anyone with.)

Priority Number One: Securing the right partnership.

How do you find the right person or firm? Well, once you’ve established that they aren’t in the yellow pages, you ask around. If that doesn’t work, hit the marketing and brand development blogs. Find out who the practitioners are. It’s a small community. There may only be 100 such individuals or organizations in North America, so you won’t be overwhelmed with choices. Once you’ve narrowed down your search to this level, read their blogs and e-books. Look into what they have done for other companies, who they’ve worked with, and what they are saying. If they strike a note with you, then it’s time to make contact.

Ideally, they will be in your part of the country, but if they aren’t, that’s okay too. Business travel is a part of life nowadays, and collaborative tools make it easier than ever to work remotely as well. As the world keeps getting flatter, distance becomes less relevant each day. What is most important is finding the right fit.

Speaking of fit, here are a few questions you will want to ask yourself during the interview process:

  1. Does this person or firm know what they are talking about? Do they know what they’re doing?
  2. Will this person be able to work with my staff, my bosses, and our outside agencies (PR, ad, etc.)?
  3. Does this person or firm fit into my budget?
  4. Does this person or firm have a specific method for measuring R.O.I. right from the start?
  5. Does this person appreciate the importance of delivering short term results, not just mid-to-long term results?

I can’t stress this enough: You want every question to be answered by a resounding YES. If your brand is in distress, 3 out of 5 won’t cut it. Not even 4 out of 5. You can’t afford to settle for “good enough” with this type of project. Not if you want to get your brand back on track now and… well, actually save it.

This is your litmus test for separating a good firm, agency or practitioner from the right one for your current situation.

And if you’re lucky, the one you pick won’t already be booked solid for the next six months. (Cross your fingers.)

Beginning the diagnostic process: Finding out what is actually eating away at your brand.

Okay. Now that you’ve partnered with the right talent and everyone has gotten acquainted, it’s time to get busy. The process typically begins with an immediate 360-degree analysis of your business and of your industry: Who buys your stuff and why? Who buys your competitors’ stuff and why? Who loves you and why? Who hates you and why? How do you engage with your customers? How are you not engaging with your customers? Which marketing tactics work for you and which ones don’t (and why)? If you used to be the market leader once, what changed? What do your employees think about your company and your products? How does this impact core aspects of your business like innovation, talent retention and sales? The list goes on, but you get the idea.

The trick here is two-fold: 1) You have to know what questions to ask, which isn’t always obvious when you are knee-deep in running a business every day, and 2) You have to understand exactly how to measure R.O.I. and put the data in the right context for each one of these elements. This type of brand mapping is one of the key components of the diagnostic step. We’ll get more into some of these in Part 3 of the series. (Like a puzzle, the analysis is composed of MANY parts, but don’t worry: It isn’t that hard to put it all together fast if you know how.)

For now, let’s tackle the first layer of the onion. The question here is simple: If you could boil down your brand’s problem to a thirty-second assessment, what would it be? To make it easy on you, I have listed the four most common answers below. (Most people nowadays respond better to a multiple choice format.

Here, then, are the four most common scenarios that lead to the distress and eventual death of a brand:

  1. Fading brand Relevance: Many companies either go through severe downturns in relevance. Maybe you were the “it” company in your market ten years ago, but fresh newcomers have shoved you aside. Maybe you’ve grown too big and complacent. Maybe you have lost touch with your customers’ needs and fans’ expectations. In these cases, a weakened brand can drag a business down and kill it.
  2. Failure to achieve brand relevance: Many companies simply never manage to transition from being a business with a logo to being an actual brand. They just haven’t found their voice yet. Their purpose. Their place. They are little more than an “also in” company. They manage to scrape by, but with budgets shrinking and new players gaining market share, time is running out.
  3. Brand implosion: You talked a good game, created inspiring and engaging marketing and PR, got people all excited about you… but you didn’t keep your promises. Customers are outraged. Your name is mud. Your customers are leaving you for your competitors. Game over?
  4. Brand-rich, cash-poor: Everyone loves your products and what you stand for. Your customers (fans) have made you part of their lifestyle and you get fantastic reviews across the board. Still, the balance sheet is in the red and you can’t keep your business afloat. Maybe you’re upside down on business loans, or your next round of funding dried up. Maybe your P&L is a disaster, or your parent company has lost interest in you. Whatever the case may be, your business is dying in spite of having created a true lovebrand. How do you save yourself?

In some cases, a sick brand may be looking at more than one of the above problems (most likely a coupling of either #1, #2, or #3 with #4).

More often than not, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out which of the above issues an ailing brand is dealing with. That being said, beware the hasty assumption: One symptom or scenario can hide another and distract you from your problem’s root cause. (One of the most immediate benefits of a properly administered 360 analysis is that it will either confirm or re-frame that initial assumption for you.)

Example: Company XYZ’s leadership is convinced that they are in situation #1 (fading brand relevance), and at first glance, they appear to be right. But as the 360 analysis starts to take shape, it becomes clear that the reason why the brand’s relevance has been fading for the last six years is because their customers are angry about a number of things, like inconsistent product quality, lousy customer service and frustrating warranty/exchange policies. Brand XYZ is actually in a #3 scenario (brand implosion), not a #1 scenario. The message got muddled because company XYZ hasn’t done a very good job at listening to its customers’ opinions (which is a topic we will revisit in the next couple of installments). The lesson here is obvious: One very nagging symptom can easily distract everyone and hide the true cause of a brand’s woes. Fail to render the correct diagnosis the first time, and your entire treatment will be worthless. This kind of mistake so late in the game can cost a brand a lot more than just time and money.

Just like a good doctor makes sure to treat the disease rather than the symptoms, an experienced brand practitioner knows how to properly diagnose and treat the root cause of a distressed brand’s troubles as opposed to its more superficial problems.

Cause and Effect: Starting the process of connecting the dots.

As an added layer of complexity, brand practitioners don’t just have to concern themselves with the what and how questions, but also the why: “Why is this brand failing? Why are this company’s customers jumping ship? Why is its customer service so lousy? Why are its products not as popular as they once were? Why has the main topic of conversation shifted from design and user delight to price? This is the next layer of the 360 analysis: For every action, there is a reaction. If we can identify the reactions (sales slumping, customers switching to a competitor’s product, increases in returns or warranty claims), we can work our way back to the actions that brought them about. It takes a little bit of detective work, but the beauty of the 360 analysis mechanism is that it makes the process pretty swift.

As a bonus, the action-reaction relationships can be pretty easily mapped for the client. As we’ll see in Part 5 (making sure the brand doesn’t suffer a relapse), this mapping and clarifying process actually being delivered and taught to the client is absolutely fundamental to the success of any brand rescue endeavor: Once business managers fully understand the relationship between their customers’ behaviors and decisions made internally by their management team, they will be able to make inspired choices and effective course adjustments on their own once the brand practitioner is gone. A big part of helping a brand recover from a serious crisis involves teaching its stewards how to take better care of it in the future so it never happens again.

Far too many firms, agencies and consultants settle for a two step process in helping a client address a problem: Step 1 – Identify the problem. Step 2 – Address the problem with a specific solution: A new ad campaign. A new series of press releases. A new promotional campaign. Prettier packaging. A celebrity endorsement. This works well enough if you’re looking for a quick fix. A band-aid, if you will. But as soon as the campaign is over, as soon as the promotion ends, as soon as the big sale is over or the expensive celebrity spokesperson moves on to their next gig, what have you really gained? You may have enjoyed a spike in interest, a spike in sales, even, but you end up right where you started: Condemned to keep the campaign engine running constantly, which in your case may be little more than slapping lipstick on a pig. If your brand finds itself in a state of distress, chances are that you have already been playing this game for a while. We’ve already been over this in Part 1. More of the same isn’t what you want.

In order to see real traction, you have to go a step further in the process: Not just identifying a problem, but understanding what created it to begin with. Understanding the root cause. Understanding the why. Tracking the actual cause of that 7% drop in sales. That 12% drop in market share. That 30% drop in customer retention. You have to look deeper. You have to be able to map cause and effect, and answer not only what and how, but why. Then and only then, can you move on to the next step: Coming up with real solutions – the kind that will help your brand gain real momentum – rather than buying sales and influence for an all too finite amount of time.

Monday, Part 3 of this series will go over how to use the 360 analysis employed during the diagnostic phase of the process to a) develop a treatment to get your brand back on track, and b) prioritize the elements of this treatment to start enjoying results immediately.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 😉

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From Brand Building to Brand Rescue: What to do when things go very wrong.

Valeria Maltoni posed a great question on Conversation Agent last week: What happens when brands die?

The topic of the specter of brand death – which visits most companies in a state of distress – is one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, methinks. (Look around. Distressed companies and lackluster brands are everywhere, and they certainly need help.) Symptoms of a dying brand may come in the form of customer attrition, declines in sales frequency or (volume per customer), eroding market share, a negative brand image (as reported through consumer reports, customer feedback and market studies), or even decreasing investor confidence.

The question I guess isn’t so much “how do I make sure my company doesn’t end up in this situation,” but “now that we’re in trouble, how do we keep our sick company or brand from actually dying?”

BrandBuilder conversations usually focus on helping businesses improve their position and reach the next level in their evolution, but what we are dealing with here is an intervention. Emergency care.

In our current economic downturn, this type of discussion might be more relevant than ever: From past experience, I know that helping successful companies become even more successful is great, but where folks like us can really make a difference is in seizing opportunities to partner with businesses that REALLY need expert help today. Especially if you can generate measurable results quickly.

But before this type of rescue/turnaround partnership can take place, managers of distressed brands need to come to terms with reality: Accepting that their brand or company is in trouble. Most companies ultimately fail NOT because they couldn’t be saved, but because their leadership fails to admit that they are in trouble and need help before it is too late. This is the first step in the process.

How do you know when your company or brand is in trouble? Simple: When a preponderance of symptoms from the following list start popping up in your monthly or quarterly executive meetings. The short list:

  • Pricing pressures are eroding your market share (and you can’t seem to reverse the trend without lowering your prices).
  • Consumer preference data indicates that you are no longer either a contender for the top 1 or 2 choices in your product category.
  • Your quarterly net new customer count is either decreasing or stalled.
  • You are seriously contemplating eliminating 5-20% of your workforce to reduce costs.
  • Customer complaints about your brand are increasing. (Quality, service, delivery, etc.)
  • You have lost several of your best (historical) customers in the last 12 months.
  • Your competitors’ products are getting a lot of great press and attention. Yours are not.
  • Your best talent is starting to walk away.
  • You are having a very tough time recruiting talent.
  • You have cut costs by moving your call centers overseas, but now your customer service department is broken.
  • Despite spending an obscene amount of money on marketing, advertising or PR campaigns, your business barely matches your industry’s growth rate. (If you’re lucky.)
  • At least two out of the three cardinal measurements of your sales health (Frequency of sales, Reach of sales and average sales yield) show a flat or decreasing trend YoY.*

* Corporate lingo for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working on the client side: QoQ = Quarter over Quarter. YoY = Year over Year.

Assuming anyone in your company is actually keeping an eye on any of this. You would be surprised how many companies’ sales managers don’t measure F.R.Y. or monitor historical new customer trending, how many marketing managers have absolutely no idea what is being said about their brands or where, and how many HR managers have their hands tied even when they it becomes clear that they are not winning the talent war.

Some of this can be attributed to managerial denial, sure, but a lot of the blame can also be attributed to two other factors: a) a lack of training or sophistication when it comes to establishing adequate, actionable metrics, and/or b) a lack of resources when it comes to managing these metrics with an eye towards regular course correction.

In order to connect the dots, you have to know how to identify the dots to begin with.

Getting help isn’t about admitting defeat, it is about getting results.

In order to climb out of a hole, you have to realize that you are indeed in a hole to begin with… and that you probably need help getting out. If you can’t think of a solution on your own, it’s time to get someone who knows how to help you dig your way out.

This topic reminds me of the scene in the 1998 movie “The Edge” (“The Wild” for my European readers) in which Anthony Hopkins’ character gets stranded in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness with two companions after a terrible plane crash. Alone in the wild, the three pampered city guys find themselves in an against-all-odds survival situation. The question the three characters keep asking each other – and themselves – is simple: How in the world are we going to survive out here? With no rations, no weapons or tools, no winter gear and chased by a relentless man-eating Grizzly, the three men have to rely on each other to make it back to civilization. About mid-way through the story, as their situation seems hopeless, Anthony Hopkins’ character explains to his lone surviving companion something that is absolutely relevant to today’s discussion of brand survival:

– You know, I once read an interesting book which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame.

– What?

– Yeah, see, they die of shame. “What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?” And so they sit there and they… die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.

– And what is that, Charles?

The answer in the movie is “Thinking.” The answer in the case of of rescuing a brand is the same: Thinking. The one difference being that brands don’t die because they get lost in the wilderness. They die because their stewards create an imaginary wilderness around themselves. If you’re a CEO or CMO who hasn’t figured out how to rescue yourself or your brand by now, it’s time to break out the emergency radio or start sending smoke signals. If someone doesn’t come help you get back on track soon, your brand will die, along with your career, and the only reason will have been that you were too ashamed to admit that you needed help.

Yes, brands can and do die of shame as well.

Reaching out for help is a tough sale for a lot of managers and business leaders. It requires them to admit two things they would rather not: 1. This brand is in serious trouble, and 2. I can’t fix this on my own.

The trick is to realize that asking for help is not the same thing as admitting failure. Quite the contrary. Hiring someone to help you fix something for you – or with you – is no different from hiring the best copywriter, salesperson or office manager you can find.

Here’s the thing: We are all too happy to turn to specialists when we need help in every other area of our lives: If we are sick, we go to a doctor. If we have a tooth ache, we go to a dentist. If we are out of shape, we hire a personal trainer. If we have psychological or relationship problems, we hire a therapist. If our dog misbehaves, we hire a dog trainer. We all hire people who can help us improve our lives or who can somehow help us do things we can’t do on our own. Landscapers. Attorneys. Consultants. Mechanics. Dry-cleaners. Interior decorators. Plumbers. Electricians. Life coaches. Nutritionists. Masons. Carpenters. Party planners. Accountants. Financial planners. Repairmen. Whatever. Specialists are there to fill our knowledge and skill gaps. Helping you fix a brand in crisis is no different. It’s just that there isn’t a section in the yellow pages for “brand interventionists”.

Hint: Looking for a brand specialist or marketing firm in the yellow pages is a lot like looking for a job in the wanted ads. Unless you happen to live in 1986, you are looking in the wrong place.

Likewise, looking for traditional marketing firms and ad agencies to fill your needs when it comes to the relatively new problem of brand erosion in today’s complex business world can be a risky endeavor. Old tactics don’t necessarily address new problems – at least not on their own. The toolkit has evolved. If your new advisor’s “ideas” sound awfully familiar, it’s okay to get a second opinion. Even a third. We’ll go into what to look for tomorrow.

Okay, so my brand is failing. I have to do “something.” What are my options?

While many marketing firms and departments are great at building strong brands, many fall short of expectations. It happens. Sometimes, they get too close to the company or the product and lose their ability to look at the big picture. Sometimes, they have been doing the same things for so long that they have lost touch with their customers, with new marketing tools at their disposal, or with consumer trends and tastes. These things happen. It’s just part of doing business. If – not when – this happens to your company and you find yourself in trouble, you basically have four options at your disposal:

  1. Fire your CMO or Marketing department (pretty drastic and rarely the right solution).
  2. Spend more money on the same tactics that have failed, but pretend that you are doing something different (the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time).
  3. Drastically cut your marketing budget. Marketing doesn’t work anyway, right? (You might as well update your resume while you’re at it. This is the worst possible thing you can do in times of crisis. Even worse than firing your CMO.)
  4. Seek professional help to assist your CMO. Not just from a firm or agency that will gladly take your money to take approach #2, but from a firm, agency or specialist who will actually focus on getting measurable and immediate results for you, AND educate you in the process. Rescuing a brand needs to be as much a learning experience for your organization as it is an intervention.

The correct answer, of course, is option #4.

I cannot stress this enough: Do not hire a specialist, firm or agency that will take option #2 to get you back on track. I have seen it happen too many times, and it is the easiest trap to fall into. This will solve nothing, and waste precious resources on your end. Don’t do it.

Tomorrow, we will go over the second step in your brand intervention: Hiring a practitioner or specialized firm, and letting them help you diagnose and clarify the problems facing your brand.

Part 3 of this series will focus on developing a treatment for your brand.

In Part 4, we will go over how to best administer the treatment, and we will wrap it all up in Part 5 with long term strategies to kill the possibility of a relapse.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2: Methods for diagnosing and understanding what is killing your brand.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone.

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Hey everyone, I have been working on a presentation which outlines how to identify and rescue distressed brands, and I figured with the economy being a little scary right now, the timing might be right for me to turn the concept into a series of blog posts. I will be posting part 1 tomorrow, which will touch on two essential topics: Identifying symptoms of a distressed brand… and most importantly ACCEPTING that a brand is indeed in a state of distress.

All too often, brands fail not because their problems are too complex to fix or their obstacles too great to overcome, but because their stewards fail to accept that they are in serious trouble and need help.

Fact: Distressed brands – like countries, like sports teams, like economies, like people – can be nursed back to health. Under the right care, they can make complete recoveries. They can even come out stronger than they would have been had it not been for the crisis.

This type of rescue can be done quickly, fairly painlessly, and even on a budget… But the first step in the process is acknowledging that a) treatment is necessary, and b) that this treatment needs to begin immediately, not three or six months from now.

Let’s see if we can spend this week going over the process of saving a distressed brand. I invite everyone to comment, offer suggestions, share past experiences, and weigh in with whatever opinions you may have. If we do this right, this series of posts alone might help a few companies come up with ways to improve their condition and get their brands back on track. (If we can collectively accomplish that with just a few blog posts, we’ll have accomplished something pretty special.)

Have a great evening, everyone. We’ll see you guys here tomorrow. 🙂

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An astute brand valuation reminder from Tom Fishburne today:

“If you act enough like a commodity, sooner or later consumers will treat you like one.”

(Yes, even in uncertain economic times.)  BOGO isn’t for everyone. Don’t fall into that trap.

Read his post here.

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The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other. The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles and care for our comfort and experience. Over time, we start emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another.

Thus, an industry (in this case the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, can in effect change the very mechanics of human interactions.

Cause and effect –

It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve had the joy of flying from coast to coast via the friendly skies, and I wasn’t exactly complaining about it. Still, I kind of dig the left coast, so whenever work or pleasure give me an opportunity to check out the Pacific Ocean from our lovely shores, I usually jump at the chance.

So here I am, in San Jose/Fremont/San Francisco (yes, all at once – or something like that) after a relatively uneventful three-airport hop-along that started at 4:00am Monday morning in Greenville, SC, and ended on time (surpisingly) in in sunny San Jose, CA.

That’s right: On time.

I experienced exactly zero delays. Sure, the planes were ridiculously full, but I guess that’s good so I can’t complain about that.

And we didn’t crash, which is always nice too.

All in all, I have to say that Delta Airlines – which I’ve had a tolerate-hate relationship with for years now – did better than I expected. They even kept me hydrated and snacked (“fed” would be pushing the semantics) throughout my impossibly uncomfortable flight over these beautiful United States.

And that is where I have to hit on a cliche of air travel, but dammit, would it hurt commercial aeroplane designers (yes, I’ve decided to spell it the British way) to develop seats actually DESIGNED FOR HUMAN BEINGS? Let’s go through this again: I am 6′. I weigh 165lbs. Compared to most American men I share a pressurized cabin with, I am nowhere near “big.” Yet, my seats today were so small and caved-in that I couldn’t find a comfortable position for even ten minutes. (My neck is killing me.)

And this comes from a guy who spends upwards of 3 hours on a time-trial bicycle, mind you.

Aside from the lack of comfort (or should I say – complete victory of discomfort-inspired design), there is the issue of space management: It’s bad enough that seats are designed to keep you awake for the entire trip and ensure weeks of headaches and neck pain, but they’re also too narrow and close together. It is physically impossible to do anything with your elbows except a) shove them violently into your neighbors’ skulls in a snarling fit of air rage, of b) hunker down and curl your spine into a crooked little ball so that your elbows may rest peacefully on your thighs.

For five f#$%ing hours. Great.

“Would you like crackers or peanuts, sir?”

Ungh… As soon… as… I… uncurl myself…

But that’s nothing new. The comfortable coach seats of the Super Caravelles are a thing of the past, so there is really no point in dwelling on the instruments of torture designed to keep us “safely” secured during flight while maximizing passenger volume per flight – which, after all, is all that matters: Get as many of us sorry saps on a plane as inhumanly possible.

Trust me, if airlines could find a way to stack us on top of each other to double a plane’s capacity, they would. (Hey, if that meant having a cot instead of a seat, I’m all for it. Strap me in!)

No, what’s new is the apathy I ran into today. It was kind of a numbness to things which, as someone who grew up in a big crowded city, I find a bit odd. Typically, a person reacts in some way to unpleasantness, like getting bumped by someone on the street for example… but I find that human behavior in airports now no longer answers to the same set of rules that we normally live by out here in the real world.

Next time you’re in an airport (or on a plane,) try this little Fight Club-ish experiment: Bump into somebody. Bump into them hard. Hard enough to knock them forward or back or sideways. Bump into them so they have to take a step to keep themselves from falling – and keep going. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t apologize. Just go about your business as if the person you bumped into didn’t exist.

But have someone watch their reaction for you.

Bad mojo, and the tragic fate of manners –

What I found today is that in an airport or on a plane, people will completely ignore one another even if they bump into each other, kind of like the way cows ignore each other while they are grazing. I also never noticed how much people in airports and on aeroplanes (British spelling again) bump into other people. It’s insane. Traveling has officially become a full contact sport.

There’s the guy whose backpack collides with your shoulder as he tries to squeeze by during the boarding process (for whatever reason since his seat is already assigned and we aren’t leaving until everyone is on board – so what’s the rush?). There’s the guy who finds a way to kick you in the toes while walking up the aisle to go take a leak – even though your foot is safely tucked in under the seat in front of you. (How he manages to do this, I have no earthly idea. Retractable evil clown shoes is all I can come up with.) There’s the woman whose out-of-control waddling knocks your arm off your seat’s armrest just as you were finally drifting off to sleep. And then there’s the murderous snack cart of doom, with its blunt edges and 1500 pounds of hammered steel fury cold-heartedly coming down the aisle. Yeah. Getting smacked in the elbow by surprise with this infernal bone-crushing instrument of Hades is always the highlight of any cross-country flight.

But seriously: Put us (Homo-Sapiens) anywhere near an airport, and we start to bump into each other like Vista screensaver bubbles. Either – as a species – our peripheral vision is getting worse (in which case we need to get the human genome project working on that, stat!) or we’re turning into bumbling morons who can’t even stand up anymore without f%&#ing that up too. Who knows. It might be the next logical step in our idiocratic de-evolution.

What I do know is this: When I was but a wee little French boy, I was taught something called “manners.” Don’t ask me to explain what manners are. It’s too complicated… But they have something to do with being polite and considerate of others whenever possible. Manners involve doing things like saying “please” and “thank you.” They involve – at least in the Western world – not burping in the company of others, not being ruthlessly flatulent (especially in a car or an aeroplane), and not saying bad words like f%*k or s&!t around your grandparents unless they say them first. Manners are what keep you from chewing with your mouth open or cutting in line at the movie theater, or treating people like they are cattle.

Manners, as far as I remember (and I am not that old) also involve apologizing when you bump into someone. Here’s an example:

*Bump* *Eye contact.* *Embarrassed expression on your face* “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you.” *compassionate and apologetic smile* *exit*

That’s right: When you bump into someone, the civilized thing to do is to make eye contact, give the offended party a sad facial expression, and verbally apologize. Flatly, even, if need be.

You know that apathy I mentioned earlier? It apparently applies to manners as well: Not only do people seem to no longer try not to bump into each other in the first place, but they also don’t seem to give a flying monkey’s arse about apologizing when they do. They simply go on with their bumbling self-absorbed iPod-adorned biz as if the bump hadn’t happened at all.

At the mall, in the street, at work, people apologize to each other when they accidentally collide. Heck, they do all sorts of crazy things to avoid collisions in the first place. But in airports or at 35,000 feet, their behavior changes. Which brings me to this conclusion: If people’s behavior is impacted by their environment, what is it about our nation’s airports and air travel experience that makes so many of folks act like selfish apathetic oafs?

Cause and effect: Policies of dehumanization and the downward spiral of human interactions –

Earlier, I used bovine imagery to describe certain people. That was not an accident. Treat people like cattle, and sooner or later, they will start acting like cattle. Treat people like a commodity, and sooner or later, they start treating each other like a commodity. That’s just science.

The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other: The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles, and care for our comfort and experience. At some point, we started emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another to the point of being patently apathetic and rude… And we let it happen.

Thus, through a series of deliberate decisions regarding simple business functions like HR and customer service, an industry (in this case, the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, in effect began to change the very mechanics of human interactions.

The Silver Lining and a bit of common sense –

That’s scary and sad… but it’s also a little bit exciting because it means that the opposite can also be true: On the flip side, an industry (or a brand, if influential enough) can create an atmosphere of good will which will be contagious in the very same way.

An airline with friendly staff, comfortable seats, a painless back-to-front boarding process (come on people, is that so hard to figure out?!), in-flight snacks that don’t make us feel like we’re being nickeled-and-dimed, and maybe even flight attendants who don’t look like Wal-Mart greeters, don’t act like we spat in their ham sandwich, and (one can dream) actually treat passengers like valued customers instead of a pain in their arses might balance things out and restore civilized behavior in and around airports. Maybe.

An airline like that might even help rescue the entire industry by setting a shining example for everyone, and setting a new – achievable – set of standards.

Am I dreaming? Am I naive? Don’t even go there. Here’s my take on this: A smile doesn’t cost a thing.

Not

one

red

cent.

The lack of smiles across the majority of an organization, however, can cost you the death of a brand – at the very least.

It isn’t rocket science.

A smile is never a detail.

The value of vision, the role of standards, and what we should really worry about –

Fifteen years ago, I used to fly Sabena, Delta, PanAm, and British Caledonian between the US and Europe. Back then, flight attendants were good looking, friendly, professional, proud of their airlines and their occupation, and always willing to help passengers have a comfortable (if not pleasant) experience. Don’t even try to call me shallow for mentioning good looking as an element of my list. Airlines, just like the military once had standards which make sense in light of what they are trying to accomplish: While the military once had high standards in regards to physical fitness, the airlines had high standards in terms of passenger experience. Both made sense then, and still do now. Yet, here we are.

I guess this is what happens when you allow your standards as a brand, as an organization, as the practical execution of someone’s vision, to go down the drain. Where flight attendants were once attractive, energetic, friendly, pleasant people, they now tend to be aging, bitter-acting, unpleasant air scrooges with a chip on their shoulder and a fading ability to smile.

Where air travel was once a glamorous, exciting, relatively painless experience, it has now become the absolute worst way to travel in the US. Taking the bus is more fun than flying, and that’s saying something because bus systems in this country aren’t exactly great.

But beyond all that, my saddest observation from this dull, uncomfortable, disappointing day of unpleasantness wasn’t the fact that the flight attendants were mildly ill-mannered old ladies with painted-on eyebrows and mismatched uniforms in need of a good pressing. It wasn’t the fact that the seats were three sizes too small. It wasn’t even even the fact that I got scraped, bumped, kicked and shoved without even the hint of an apology or acknowledgment from any of the offending parties. No, it was something infinitely more subtle than that – but much scarier in light of all of this, because it speaks to the depth of apathy that we are now reaching as an airport-dwelling society: As we were flying over some of the most breathtaking deserts and canyons that went on for miles and miles and miles – and I am talking National Geographic cover-worthy landscapes here; absolutely stunning stuff – no one on the plane seemed to care. People just sat there in their uncomfortable seats, eyes glued to their laptop screens or the latest exciting issue of Sky Mall or just staring blankly into space while these gorgeous landscapes glided by. I walked up and down the plane, looking for a better vantage point since I had an aisle seat, and watched as traveler after traveler, curious about what I was looking at through their portholes, glanced down at the gorgeous mosaic of colors and textures carved out by millions of years of planetary evolution… and looked away, bored and unimpressed.

That level of apathy and emotional disconnect surprised me… and made me a little sad.

It’s one thing for people to stop being cordial and compassionate towards each other. But when people start not caring about powerful, genuine beauty when it is right there in front of them, then I think there’s reason to worry.

We’re losing something here. Something we should fight a little harder to hold on to because we can’t afford for it to slip away.

What does any of this have to do with brands? I’ll tell you:

Brands do not reflect cultures; they affect them.

As brand stewards, give some thought to the impact that your brand (from a personal microbrand to a global megabrand) has had on people in the past, what impact it has on people now, and what impact you want it to have on people for decades to come. Is your brand contributing to a broken system and a downward spiral of apathy, or to an improvement in people’s quality of life?

This line of thinking may not seem as black and red as your P&L report, but it is well worth thinking about because it is at the core of everything your brand stands for.

And if your brand stands for nothing, it is nothing more than a complete waste of space.

So at the very least, try to instill in your employees, clients, co-workers, and customers a sense that smiles are contagious. That they are good for business in the same way that they are good for the soul. That without genuine human interactions, without emotional engagement between you, your brand, and your audience, you have failed not only as a brand steward, but also as a human being, which is a whole lot of failure.

In short, make us care – by showing us you do.

Smile. Say thank you. Say please. Say sorry. Chew with your mouth closed. Open the door for ladies. Give up your seat on a crowded bus. And perhaps most important of all, don’t squeeze out a toxic cloud of digested chili cheese taco in a crowded place without at least apologizing for your lack of manners.

It’s the little things, after all.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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Every company I’ve ever worked with (or for) that shifted its focus from innovation and market leadership to playing it safe and letting their competitors take chances with new technologies, designs or business endeavors saw their brands erode faster than beach-front property in a hurricane.

The pattern is always the same:

1) Decide that innovation is too risky or costly or time-consuming.
2) Settle into a reactive – follow-the-leader – mode. Let other companies innovate and test the market for you.
3) Find yourself playing catch-up (get used to being 6-18 months behind the market leaders for all product releases and rolling out new services). Lose relevance.
4) Within two years, watch your sales drop, your contract renewals crumble, and your margins erode.
5) Realize that the most direct effect of brand erosion is finding yourself having to compete at lower pricepoints (i.e. against those pesky asian imports).
5) Start discounting products and services to compete against second and third-tiered “competitors” you never had to worry about before.
6) To reduce costs, part ways with your best vendors and settle for cheaper ones.
7) Outsource manufacturing and/or other business functions – like customer service – to a lower bidder (usually overseas somewhere).
8) Start having to deal with lower and/or inconsistent quality: More returns, more complaints, increased costs of doing business – further margin erosion.
9) Start having to deal with inconsistent deliveries, back-orders, etc.
10) Erosion in customer satisfaction = erosion in customer referrals = erosion in customer retention.
11) Increase advertising and PR budget to counterbalance negative image and try to regain market share.
12) End up spending more on useless Marketing and PR than on actually building a better company.
13) After a few years of steady brand erosion, get suckered into spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to update your logo and tagline in an effort to re-brand yourself.

And so on, and so forth. The pattern is ALWAYS the same.


So… be careful. Don’t assume that innovation and great ideas are too expensive to develop or to complicated to put into action. That kind of thinking is not an option. Don’t settle for being reactive when you should be proactive. Don’t just hire people who will manage workloads: Hire people who will give you an edge over the rest of your industry. Change your mindset. Redefine your purpose.

Drive your company’s evolution – Not next week or next quarter, or next year, but today. With your next project meeting. With your next marketing campaign. With your next design. With your next hire.

It isn’t all that hard. It starts with the decision to just be better.

So just be better.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 😉

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