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Filed under Opinion.

I want to share a head scratching moment with you for a sec. See if you can figure out what’s going on over at Ferrero (the makers of my beloved Nutella).

First, this article/press release found in The Drum from 6 November 2011:

Ferrero is to launch a £6m campaign to promote both flagship brand Ferrero Rocher and the Ferrero Collection.

The 30 second ad, by RKCR/Y&R will launch today (6 November) during Downton Abbey on ITV1, with a second standalone film also set to launch on 21 November.

Entitled ‘Food of the Gods’ the new campaign aims to change consumer attitudes to the brand, to make its range more social, having established the brand as one of quality for special occasions.

> UPDATE (11/30/11): A Ferrero representative contacted me today to let me know that the above statement (“Entitled ‘food of the Gods'”) was removed from the article published by The Drum. The email suggests that The Drum made an error in regards to the campaign’s name. This change affects certain elements of this post as it was written before the change.

Both campaigns will run until Christmas.

Mauro de Felip, marketing director for Ferrero, said: “The launch of these new creative advertising campaigns provides us with an excellent platform to exhibit our market leadership in special sharing and gifting. Both creatives capture the ‘new’ special that is relevant to consumers, and demonstrates our ability as a business to adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.”   (Source.)

Let that soak in for a minute.

Now… I am a very big fan of Ferrero, and have been since childhood. As a little French boy, I remember their ads, I was raised on their products (my allowance went almost exclusively to Kinder Surprise eggs for many years), and if you have been following this blog and its twitter feed for the last few years, you know how much I dig Nutella – one of Ferrero’s signature products/brands. So you can be assured that I am not writing this post to bash the company or throw them under the bus. I want them to do well. In fact, I want them to do VERY well. Perhaps that is why I notice their mistakes more than  mistakes made by companies I don’t really care about: As much as it sucks to see companies do the wrong thing over and over again when you don’t care of they succeed or fail, it is terribly frustrating to watch a company you actually care come off the tracks again and again and again.

Okay. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, read Mauro de Felip’s statement again and let’s look at some of the things keeping Ferrero from being a lot more successful than it already is.

Note: If you are in a hurry, skip 1-4 and go straight to 5 and 6.

Error 1: Brand Identity Disorder.

The folks at Ferrero still think Rocher needs to be  a luxury or prestige brand.

Let’s think about what qualities are innate to luxury brands: One is price. The other is exclusivity. You can’t just go to your local CarMax and buy a Bentley. Target doesn’t carry Cartier timepieces. K-Mart doesn’t have a Gucci section.  The bakery at Publix, BiLo or Piggly Wiggly doesn’t sell Lenôtre confections.

See where I am going with this? Luxury brands don’t place their products in convenience stores and grimy old grocery stores. Where do I find Ferrero’s products? In the case of Nutella, between the peanut butter and the grape jam squeeze bottles. In the case of Rocher (the gold-wrapped nutty chocolate balls Ferrero considers ), somewhere between the beef jerky and the nail clippers, right by the cash register, or in the chocolate aisle at your local CVS.

Ferrero Rocher is no more a prestige brand than Toblerone. The emphasis of their marketing should be on letting consumers feel like treating themselves to something delicious (and as often as possible) rather than making them feel like they only deserve to enjoy them mostly on special occasions, or when they can afford to spend more on chocolate products than they really want to.

The lesson here is that when you position your product as a luxury product (especially when it isn’t), you screw yourself in 3 ways:

1. You create a socioeconomic disconnect between your market and your product. People can’t relate to it as well as they might a more “down to earth” alternative. That creates a barrier between your product and your market. Your job is to break down barriers between your products and your customers, not erect them.

2. Because your premium pricing can’t bridge the gap between image and actual value, it teaches consumers to look for more budget friendly alternatives. In other words, it makes them buy from the competition instead of from you. This is how you guarantee that your market share will remain stalled for years.

3. Even if your pricing is competitive, too much of an emphasis on building a premium image will give consumers the wrong impression. If consumers believe – before they even walk into a store – that they can’t justify the expense of buying your product, they will stick to more budget-friendly alternatives.  This is how you ensure that your consumers’ buy-rate will never increase.

Error 2: Chasing very bad assumptions.

Someone at Ferrero Rocher still seems to think that people feel better about themselves when they spend more money on chocolate than the average consumer. This is true of some consumers IF you are a boutique chocolatier or confectionary, but the moment you a) begin selling your products alongside commodity products in everyday grocery stores and b) try to appeal to the average consumer rather than an exclusive clientele, you’re in the weeds with that theory.

There was a time when it was cool to blow cash on flashy sports cars, mansions and champagne breakfasts just to show off. Here’s the problem: The 80’s are long gone. The average consumer is looking to satisfy a need for the best price possible. Strangely though, Ferrero Rocher ads are still clinging to the same outdated narrative as if the 80’s were still going strong. Only now, we have moved Rocher from the manor house to the outer reaches of Mount Olympus.

Here is a dose of reality the folks at Ferrero probably need to hear: Nobody cares that you are serving mounds of Ferrero Rocher at your house parties, just like the fantasy millionaire models in all of their commercials. It’s a chocolate and nut ball you grabbed at the local Walgreen’s, not caviar from Caspian Sea belugas.

This outdated world view has to be hurting the Ferrero business, especially in a market like the United States, where 99% of consumers look for value and flavor rather than the notion that a chocolate treat will make them look or feel like a billionaire.

As for that billionaire market, the 0.o1%, how many boxes of Ferrero Rocher is it really buying?

Ferrero should be focusing on fighting for relevance and wallet share rather than perpetuating an image that is no longer relevant in today’s world.

I am struck by Mr. de Felip’s admission that the company wants to change perceptions about the brand. That’s terrific. If Mr. de Felip has any hopes of changing perceptions, increasing both market share and boosting monthly sales volume (objective indicators of that change), he and his team need to drop their internal assumptions, go out into the world, and look very closely at how they position the brand from the perspective of 2011 consumers.

Error 3: Holding on to outdated business dogma.

Because it has always been strong for them, the folks at Ferrero Rocher still think the Christmas season is the key to boosting sales. Even today, Ferrero Rocher still places its bets on Christmas season campaigns.

Here’s the problem: Teaching consumers that your product is a seasonal treat is the best way to make sure they won’t think about you for the other 11 months of the year.

The term you are looking for is strategic myopia.

Fortunately, this is an easy fix. Even if Ferrero executives aren’t yet ready to focus on boosting sales for Rocher year round, other holidays can help spread the sales load to all fourquarters instead of just one: How does Ferrero leverage chocolate-rich holidays like Easter, Halloween, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day? Not well, if at all. My question is why? Time to spread the advertising budget to other holidays and look for alternatives in terms of consumer engagement. (If only someone were to invent digital social networks where consumer communities could be… oh, never mind.)

As for the other 7 months of the year, it isn’t so hard either. With Rocher being pretty much everywhere now, the problem isn’t one of availability or distribution. So what is it?

The answer might be found in the context of the brand’s narrative. It is still so deeply rooted in the Christmas season that Ferrero is simply not top of mind for consumers at any other time during the year.

Think of this process as an internal Google search. When you think about Easter in the US, you think Cadbury eggs and Peeps. Valentine’s Day: Russel Stover, maybe even M&Ms. Halloween: Reese’s, Kit-Kat, Snicker’s, M&M’s again, etc. If Rocher is not top of mind, your marketing isn’t working. It’s that simple.

Shifting to year-round relevance wouldn’t suck. What’s strange is Ferrero already knows how to do this with their other brands: Nutella, Kinder, and the ubiquitous Tic-Tac. Why not do it with Rocher as well?

Error 4: Thinking that buzzwords and wishful thinking will save you.

Ferrero Rocher doesn’t need to “make its range more social.” It just needs to actually connect with its market. I am referring to this:

Entitled ‘Food of the Gods’ the new campaign aims to change consumer attitudes to the brand, to make its range more social, having established the brand as one of quality for special occasions.

Both campaigns will run until Christmas.

I have no idea what that first sentence is supposed to mean, so let me try to paraphrase it. Here we go:

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah social blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Ferrero, let me share a few very important market insights with you:

1. Just because you use the word “social” in a sentence or attach it to a campaign doesn’t mean anything you are doing is actually social. Say no to buzzwords. If indeed you have something social to offer your consumers, great. If not, don’t pretend you do.

2. Nobody cares how much money you blew on your upscale advertising campaign. This is especially true now, during a global recession. People are too savvy to be impressed by that, and far too cynical right now to find it charming.

3. The gods of Olympus don’t make your brand narrative more social. In fact, they do the exact opposite: How much more exclusive can you get than the gods up on their mountain, looking down on us mortals? Are the gods not the prefect metaphor for the super rich? At a time when income inequality in Europe and the US is at its highest, when movements like #OccupyWallStreet illustrate a growing disdain for the super wealthy, is it really intelligent to align your brand with that 0.01% of the population that the other 99.9% isn’t all that happy with? (Especially if your market is that 99.9%.) More to the point, can someone explain to me how the penultimate aura of exclusivity embodied by Mount Olympus makes a brand’s range “more social?”

4. You don’t have to be a trained Jungian analyst to understand that Ferrero Rocher’s ads are 100% about ego projection. They have nothing to do with the reality of the market, which is to say the experiences of the consumers they aim to influence. Whomever is signing off on these ads and the direction of the brand’s marketing might consider walking out of the palace gates, coming down from the mountain and hanging out with average mortals, if only for a few days. A recalibration might be in order. These choices are not happening in a vacuum. Someone’s ego is driving this trainwreck.

Back to the “social” thing: Being “social” is not the end game. Connecting with your audience, with your market, with the people who will make you part of their lives for the next 50+ years, THAT is the goal. Focus on creating that connection.

Making a brand’s “range more social” means nothing and accomplishes even less. Buzzwords can’t take the place of results.

Error 5: Believing your own spin.

Denial cripples brands and erodes their relevance with every passing day.

“The launch of these new creative advertising campaigns provides us with an excellent platform to exhibit our market leadership in special sharing and gifting. Both creatives capture the ‘new’ special that is relevant to consumers, and demonstrates our ability as a business to adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.”

No.

– Advertising campaigns don’t provide brands with a platform to exhibit market leadership. They’re ads, not annual reports. Market leadership is exhibited by numbers. If you really want to talk about market leadership, let’s see the numbers. What makes you a market leader? What does that mean?

– There is no “new special,” and even it there were, it can’t be “relevant to consumers” if those consumers have no idea what it is or what it means. If you really want to talk about the “new special,” it has to be understood by the market. It has to be real. It can’t just be the product of an internal memo.

– Spending £6,000,000 on an ad campaign in 2011 doesn’t demonstrate a company’s ability to “adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.” In fact, it demonstrates the exact opposite.

But none of what we have talked about so far is as tragic as my next point:

Error 6: Allowing bullshit to pile up in your front yard.

New is new. New is not old. When a concept has been at the core of an ad campaign for 4+ years, it cannot be refered to as “new.”

Here is the quote again:

“Entitled ‘Food of the Gods’ the new campaign aims to change consumer attitudes to the brand, to make its range more social, having established the brand as one of quality for special occasions.”

“The launch of these new creative advertising campaigns […]. Both creatives capture the ‘new’ special that is relevant to consumers, and demonstrates our ability as a business to adapt to current market conditions and understand shifting consumer attitudes.”

So the assumption here, or the message being conveyed by Ferrero, is that the brand is doing something new with these ads. They are “new campaigns” with “new creative” that aim to capture the “new special” and change consumer attitudes. One might expect, then, that these ads would be nothing like Ferrero’s previous ads. Right?

Let’s see what Ferrero’s ads looked like in 2010:

(If the video doesn’t play, go watch it here.)

Wait a second… Aren’t those… gods? Isn’t the ad about Ferrero Rocher being the food of the gods? Wasn’t the ad campaign actually called “Food of the Gods?”

I’m confused. What’s so new about this year’s campaign then?

Here is another one, also from 2010, which features not only the gods but mythological hero Ulysses:

(If the video doesn’t play, go watch it here.)

Okay. Let’s go back a little further. Maybe that was just a glitch. Here is a 2007 TV ad from Ferrero:

(If the video doesn’t play, go watch it here.)

#Facepalm

I really want to ignore the fact that this 2007 ad is about the gods of Olympus inviting their “Nordic cousins” (Norse gods AND Mr. Santa Claus himself) to share with them their “Food of the Gods”. I really do. I really, really, really do.

Now you see why I find myself scratching my head at what Mr. de Felip is talking about:

What precisely is “new” about this £6,000,000 ad campaign?

How will using the same narrative and imagery (the Gods of Olympus) that have been used since 2007 somehow “change” consumer perceptions or give the brand a more “social range?”

The myth you might be searching for is The Emperor’s New Clothes.

If nobody cares, nobody cares. But… what if someone actually cares?

No matter how off-target a company’s ads may be, no matter how poorly devised that company’s product positioning or how outdated its brand narrative may be, no matter how disconnected from reality its marketing executives may be, a good product is still a good product. Ferrero Rocher is pretty tasty, and Nutella is simply one of the most delicious chocolate-related products on the face of the Earth.

Those of us who have already discovered these products and love them won’t stop buying them just because their advertising misses the mark or the company’s marketing executives spout nonsense at journalists through their PR teams. We will continue to recommend them and help other consumers discover them. So… does any of it matter?

Yes, but only if someone at a company like Ferrero wants to become the market leader they claim to be. Only if someone there wants to see high double-digit growth in sales, an acceleration in market penetration and a real, concrete, sticky increase in market share.

If the powers that be at Ferrero are truly happy with the company’s performance as it stands, then this is all moot. If that were the case though, would Ferrero blow £6 million on an ad campaign whose aim is to “change” consumer perceptions? That tells me that somewhere at Ferrero, someone cares. That’s good.

Ferrero vs.  Apple by the numbers: The importance of relevance.

Now, with €6.6 billion in global sales in 2010 (an increase of 4.3% over 2009), the Ferrero group as a whole is doing extremely well. But I want to throw a couple of quick questions at the Ferrero folks:

1. If the Rocher brand were managed better, could that €6.6 billion look more like €8 billion? Wouldn’t that be better?

2. Strong balance sheets aside, is 4.3% YoY growth for the entire group really all that stellar?

Every company I have ever worked for would have fired me if I allowed my growth numbers to drop that low. The most anemic of  my employers limped along at 6% growth YoY before they hired me out of desperation. 6% YoY growth was considered horrible.

Much to my chagrin, the jump from 11% to 14% I managed in my first year at another company still wasn’t enough to uncork the champagne in the CEO’s office, even though they had been stuck at 11% for half a decade.

It has always seemed to me that somewhere between 18% and 20% was the magic YoY growth figure for most executives and investors. I certainly never received any significant accolades if my numbers fell below 16% YoY growth.

Here’s a sobering little bit of insight: Most years, 4.3% barely keeps up with inflation.

For some context, let’s compare Ferrero’s 4.3% YoY growth for 2010 to Apple’s numbers for the same period:

87.2% YoY growth for iPhone and 24% for Mac.

Granted, using the incredible 87.2% YoY growth figure for iPhone might be a little unfair since the product is fairly new and cool and relevant, but… that is precisely why it matters: iPhone is exciting and relevant. Rocher no longer is, for the reasons outlined in this post. 87% growth vs. 4% growth. The numbers don’t lie. Ferrero needs to take a long look at their business and be realistic about what is happening to it.

But okay. To be kind, let’s instead compare Rocher to Mac, since the product was launched in the 1980’s, which was Ferrero’s heyday:

In an economic downturn, Mac is still seeing 24% YoY growth. Ferrero is only seeing 4.3% YoY growth.

What is going on?

Ferrero vs. Hershey by the numbers: Why Ferrero should be seeing double-digit growth.

If you feel that comparing a candy/chocolate company to a technology company isn’t fair, fine. Compare Ferrero’s growth to Hershey’s for 2010, and what you will find is a near stalemate:

Hershey’s 2010 YoY growth was 7% (source, source).

Ferrero’s 2010 YoY growth was 4.3% (source)

Now consider that Hershey is a far more established brand than Ferrero, especially in the US. Let me illustrate:

Ferrero owns Nutella, Rocher, Kinder and Tic-Tac.

Hershey owns… well, all of the Hershey bars, Hershey syrup, Hershey’s Kisses, Twizzlers, Reese’s, Kit-Kat, Almond Joy, Mounds and Ice-Breakers mints.

When was the last time you bought or enjoyed a Hershey product?

When was the last time you bought or enjoyed a Ferrero product?

What does this illustrate? An enormous gap in market penetration and market maturity between Hershey and Ferrero, at least in the US. As an established brand, Hershey’s market is relatively saturated. People already buy Hershey products regularly. EVERYONE has heard of and tried Reese’s, Kit-Kats and Hershey’s Kisses. How do you squeeze 20% growth out of a fully penetrated, mature market? With a lot of ingenuity. (Probably more emphasis on Frequency and Yield than customer acquisition.)  I am amazed (as in impressed) that Hershey still manages to score 7% YoY growth, honestly. Someone over there deserves to be paid some big bucks.

Ferrero, on the other hand doesn’t have Hershey’s problem: Nutella, Rocher and Kinder are outliers in the US market. They haven’t really been discovered or adopted by the average American. Only Tic-Tac has seen real penetration. Ferrero still hasn’t connected with that market. Unlike Hershey, which finds itself forced to focus more on influencing buy rate and yield, Ferrero can focus on not only buy rate and yield but good old customer acquisition. The market is wide open for its products to be discovered, adopted and shared by delighted consumers. Once customer acquisition is in full swing,  it becomes a question of positioning products so consumers buy more of them and more often. Addressing the 6 mistakes outlined in this post would certainly be a good way to get things back on track.

If Hershey can manage 7% YoY growth with virtually no new markets to conquer or customers to acquire, surely Ferrero should be able to see double-digit growth in markets where most consumers are not yet their customers.

4.3% growth is indicative of one thing: A company running out of ideas and losing touch with its market. Time for a reboot.

PS: Start with the basics.

Here’s a little bit of analyst insight – based on the numbers rather than internal “brand-driven” assumptions – that Ferrero needs to pay attention to:

“Despite economic woes, Hershey sustained its top-line momentum with consumers preferring moderately priced candies compared to premium ones.” (source)

Ferrero, here’s hoping that you will start turning it around in 2012.

All the best,

A  fan.

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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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I wanted to write an epic post about my experiences in Dubai last week (and I may yet), but instead let me just say this, because it’s on my mind:

It’s a big world out there. Those of you trying to be the next Seth Godin, the next Tony Robbins, the next Peter Drucker, you’re wasting your time. They’re all great people. They know their stuff. And they are very good at being Seth Godin, Tony Robbins and Peter Drucker, but you’re chasing the wrong dream. You’re wasting your time. And you’re acting like a complete jackass trying to be something (and someone) you are not.

Let me explain. I spent last week listening to two three types of people:

The first had problems they needed to solve – How do I get more customers? How do I keep my customers from abandoning me? How do I grow my program? How do I bring more investment into my country? How do I secure 5% more market share? How do I change perceptions? How do I accelerate adoption of my technology?

The second had ideas, some of which might very well solve some of the problems brought up by the first category. These were smart, intuitive, compassionate, clever little entrepreneurs with warm smiles and dependable handshakes. People who watch and listen more than they speak. People who solve rather than sell. People who care more about results for their clients and customers than their own fame or status. I like those guys. We get along. We find in each other a common trait, and every meeting feels a lot like running into an old friend.

And then there was the third type. The salesmen. The people selling crap nobody needs. The guys who talk more than they listen. The guys who haven’t had an original thought in over a decade but still think their limited view of the world is more relevant than that of a 20-something tapped into his demographic. The guys who can step off a jumbo jet, spend less than 24 hours in a foreign country – most of which they spent hiding in their hotel rooms – and tell everyone there how to fix all their problems. The guys who think that because they wrote a book twenty years ago, they are now infallible one-man think tanks. The guys who start believing their own PR, or their own “press,” as they say. Here’s a reality you need to come to terms with: If you started off selling bullshit, your bullshit doesn’t magically turn into gold a few books and a couple of decades later.

Be careful what you decide to sell today, boys and girls, because you might still be selling it twenty years from now. And what you sell ends up defining you a lot more than you realize.

Don’t put all your eggs in the celebrity consultant basket. That gig isn’t what you think.  Don’t go there unless you want to reach the end of your “career” as a punch-line. There’s far less money in it than you think, and no dignity whatsoever. What’s worse is this: Instead of being the guy who spent his career solving problems for the first category of person I mentioned here today, instead of creating legitimate value, you end up spending the best years of what could have been a fruitful career selling something that people don’t need: Your “personal brand.” Put a lid on that little ego trip right now, before it swallows you whole.

What you should focus on is this: Being the second kind of person mentioned above. The kind that listens more and speaks less. The kind that cares about doing a great job. The kind with an eye for positive change. The kind that doesn’t spend every waking moment trying to sell themselves to conferences, to publishers, to CNN, to whomever might be dumb enough not to see through the shameless self-promotion. It doesn’t mean you won’t speak at conferences and won’t be published. It doesn’t mean you won’t get to travel to cool places every few months if that’s what you want to do. What it means is that if you focus on being that second type of person, if you focus on improving the lives (and businesses of others) instead of focusing on improving your brand, status and personal myth of success, you might actually get it all. Everything you’ve ever wanted. And as a bonus, you won’t spend the next twenty years being a parasite.

The world needs you to stop focusing so much on yourself and to turn that brilliant little mind of yours outward instead of inward. Every company in the world is struggling right now. Companies in every country, from the US to Senegal, and from Australia to the Emirates are looking for help, for solutions, for insights. The last thing they need from you or anyone else is more bullshit. There’s already more than enough of that for everyone to choke on ten times over. They need real help. They need that second category of person: Problem-solvers. Dependable helpers. True partners. Be that. That’s where the value is, not in selling your “personal brand,” your trademarked 10-rules or 20-step program, certification or cookie-cutter ROI calculator. The value of that is zero. Zip. Stop it.

Instead, try this on for size: Get off the “I want to be a social media rock star” train and start helping. I swear your career prospects will improve FAST. Not only that, but you will rediscover how good it feels to be part of something bigger and greater than “me, Inc.”, to see your efforts improve the lives of other people, not just your own. True success comes to those on this path, not on the other. Starting as soon as you can wrap your head around this idea, focus on solving real problems. If they involve social media, great. If they don’t, so what? It’s a big world out there. Social media and the US fishbowl are only a very small little sliver of it.

Think bigger. The world needs you to.

 

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I agonized for a few days over what kind of brilliant advice I should share with you on this 1,000th post since the launch of the BrandBuilder blog before finally realizing that no. 1,000 is no different from 999, 1,001 or 356. So no more pondering, no more worrying about writing an epic post (the time for that will come again in due time), and no more waiting around for inspiration to strike. Today, instead of talking about social media, brand management, who does what well and who does what poorly, let’s just talk a little bit about leadership. Corporate leadership, that is.

And instead of doing all the talking, I will let people with a whole lot more experience than me give you some tips about how to become a better leader. Great stuff that transcends the typical leadership quotation mill.

Anne Mulcahy – Former CEO of Xerox

In a crisis, you have the opportunity to move quickly and change a lot – and you have to take advantage of that.

Change doesn’t happen if you don’t work at it. You’ve got to get out there, give people the straight scoop, and get buy-in. It’s not just good-looking presentations; it’s letting people ask the tough questions. It’s almost got to be done one person at a time.

There’s not a lot of room anymore for senior people to be managers. They have to be leaders. I want people to create organizations that get aligned, get passionate, get really inspired about delivering.

Stories exist at every level of the company. Whether it was saving a buck here, or doing something different for customers, everyone has a story. That creates powerful momentum – people sense that they’re able to do good things. It’s much more powerful than the precision or elegance of the strategy.

I communicate good news the same way I do the bad news. I thank people and make sure they feel a sense of recognition for their contribution. But the trick is always to to use the opportunity to talk about what’s next, to pose the next challenges. Where do we want to go? How do we want to build on it?

Margaret Heffernan – Author, The Naked Truth

Nothing kills morale like a staff’s feeling helpless. This often plays itself out when there are rumors of a new strategic shift or a major personnel move, or worse, when the papers are littered with bad news about your company. A big part of boosting morale is about constructing a haven of logic that offers individuals shelter from any storm. At its most basic, leaders have to communicate their awareness of business conditions and place their plans in that context. Each time [a CEO outlines] a future that comes true, he demonstrates his own competence and reinforces trust.

The happiest people aren’t the ones with the most money but those with a sense of purpose – a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. At least some of this has to derive from work. The purpose of a business, then, must be explicit and go beyond boosting the share price or fulfilling some bland mission statement. People want to believe that they are part of something meaningful. The sense of purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose or revolutionary, merely credible and anchored in values.

Purpose is achieved through goals, and the acid test for any leader is defining the appropriate ones. Too small, and celebrations soon ring hollow. Small goals breed cynicism. But too-big goals produce helplessness. Although it can be temporarily thrilling to rally around a big corporate slogan like “kill the competition,” the reality is that employees can’t do it alone and they can’t do it quickly.

Alignment between corporate goals and personal development has never been more critical. The more unpredictable the outside world, the more urgent the personal quest for self-determination. What employees look for in leadership is a sense that their personal journey and the company journey are part of the same story. When these goals aren’t aligned, employees tend to whine with others, eager to share their sense of anger and injustice, polluting morale. The only way to combat this and get back on track is proper feedback. Give employees the tools to influence their own fate.

Get a life. Keeping morale high is like being on a diet: It requires constant effort and is never over. New ideas, stimuli and motivation come from all around you. It’s the larger life, after all, that gives purpose to the climb.

Alan Deutschman – Senior Writer, Fast Company – writing about how IBM builds new businesses

Look for opportunities that can become profitable [billion-dollar] businesses in five to seven years. You’ll probably find them by talking to customers rather than to brilliant researchers in the labs, who are are looking further ahead.

J. Bruce Harreld – IBM

You want to celebrate failure because you learn something. You need some level of security to say ‘I screwed it up,’ and be comfortable that you won’t be fired.

Marcus Buckingham – Author, Break All The Rules

Turn anxiety into confidence. For a leader, the challenge is that in every society ever studied, the future is unstable, unknown, and therefore potentially dangerous. By far the most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear – to define the future in such vivid terms that we can see where we are headed. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.

Effective leaders don’t have to be passionate, charming or brilliant. What they must be is clear – clarity is the essence of great leadership. Show us clearly who we should seek to serve, show us where our core strength lies, show us which score we should focus on and which actions we must take, and we will reward you by working our hearts out to make our better future come true.

See? Told you these folks know what they’re talking about.

Thanks to Fast Company‘s March 2005 issue for providing much of today’s content. (I have quite the collection.)

Cheers.

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You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


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