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Archive for the ‘competition’ Category

Call me lazy, but instead of writing something insightful for you guys today, I’m going to share some of my favorite finds from my morning’s croissant-induced online browsing.

All quotations courtesy of Pulled Quotes.

On finding out what works:

“I have no earthly idea what really works. I don’t know if it’s lunch or that powerpoint or the Christmas card I sent last year. But you know what? You have no clue what works either. I’ll keep experimenting if you will.”    –  Seth Godin


On why blogs work:

“Bloggers drive blogs, share price drives traditional media. Blogging is personal, traditional media is corporate.”    – Mark Cuban


On remembering what creativity really is:

Creativity is an act of open disobedience against the norms. Creativity is an act of courage.
–     Chris Bailey


On innovation, grabbing life by the horns, and not pissing your life away:

“Do things that are gaspworthy.”

That was one of the main messages delivered by Tom Peters, the influential business thinker and management guru, in his speech yesterday at Epsilon’s Integrated Marketing Symposium 2006 at the Quail Lodge in Carmel, CA.

Do cool stuff that make people gasp,” said Peters, who looked older and angrier than in his “In Search of Excellence Days” (the book he co-authored with Richard Waterman in 1982 that was hailed by NPR as one of the Top Business Books of the Century). “Don’t piss away your life.

He changed his speech at the last moment after having learning this week that one of his best friends has a terminal illness, Peters said.

Also noted

Innovation comes “not from market research or focus groups, but from pissed off people.

DM News


On passion and work:

“Whether you are Jack Welch or the Dalai Lama, it is dangerous not to do what you love. If you don’t have a level of passion that drives your thinking about what you’re doing day in and day out, there will be others out there who are passionate who will overtake and outrun you. People who care will take the initiative away from those who are half-hearted. So loving what you do is a competitive imperative, not simply a nice thing to have.

Knowledge @ Wharton interviews Mark Thompson and Stewart Emery, co-authors along with Jerry Porras of Success Built to Last

On retaining talent:

“One of my favorite cliches is “there is no such thing as indentured servitude”. I use that line to talk about the fact that talent can’t be bought and sold. It must be retained with something more than money.”    – Fred Wilson

So there you go. Now we’re all on the same wavelength. Have a great Monday!

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Via the SwampFox Insights blog:

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”

—Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises

The man has a point.

Check out this brilliant website.

A lot of people don’t think of “design” as being all that important, because our daily interactions with “design” are limited to gadgets like the iPod or the latest pair of Oakley sunglasses, or maybe a faucet or something. Maybe we think of design when it comes to cars and clothes and furniture. But smart design can also save thousands of lives every day. Yes, something as seemingly superfluous as “design” can change the world. (Starting with the first tool, taking a detour via the wheel, and fast-forwarding to the millions of things we now take for granted, like the plasma TV, the hybrid automobile, the artificial heart, and even the ubiquitous bottle of Coca Cola.

If you aren’t the humanitarian type and couldn’t care less about saving lives, bear in mind that design can also create entirely new markets. (We just talked about getting there before the herd, so your ears should be perking up just about now.)

How can smart design can create new markets? According to this article in the New York Times entitled “Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor” (annoying subscription required):

“A billion customers in the world, are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house.”

For starters.

That’s something to think about. Not in terms of exploitation, but in terms of wealth and opportunity creation. (The development of the easy-to-use, virtually crunch-proof windup $100 laptop – specifically designed to introduce computers and the internet to 3rd world children – is probably among the most ambitious of these types of endeavors, but also a great example of how we can start to create opportunity in regions of the world in which mere survival is still the order of the day.)

While everyone else is trying to appeal to the richest 10%, maybe, just maybe, the real opportunities are elsewhere. Maybe the time to get into these markets is before they even exist. The seeds are being planted now. The herd is starting to gather. Maybe by the time the market exists and the pastures are green and lush, you’ll find yourself in the back again. Maybe you’ll kick yourself in the butt for not having made a move sooner. (History repeats itself.)

What if you could create one of the most lucrative companies of the 21st century AND save tens of thousands of lives at the same time? What if you really could be enormously successful AND help save the world all in one fell swoop? What if you could have your cake and eat it too?

In this economy, perhaps these are questions worth asking yourself – especially if you are a US or Western European manufacturing company looking for a reason to go on.

Don’t even approach the problem from a humanitarian standpoint if you don’t want to. Approach it from a business standpoint. Here’s the problem you need to solve: 90% of the planet’s population wants something that they probably can’t get very easily. All you have to do is figure out what that is, how much they’re willing to pay for it, and how to get it to them. It could be a mode of transportation. It could be a light source. It could be a sanitary product. It could be food. It could be a garment. It could be knowledge. It could be something as simple as a tougher bicycle wheel. It could be anything.

There is no single answer. There are probably thousands upon thousands. And that’s exciting.

Whatever it is, it could also have applications right here, where the richest 10% of the world population lives and eats and shops 24/7/365.

It might even be a better option than trying to become the next Google.

Food for thought.

So… what are you working on right now?

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twitter-reality

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

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

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

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

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

Fascinating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sampling of major brands with a presence on Twitter:

Whole Foods

Starbucks

The North Face

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

Jet Blue

The Wall Street Journal

Trader Joe’s

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

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

Triathlete Magazine

Fast Company

CNN

Dunkin Donuts

Zappos

The Home Depot

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

Southwest Airlines (Just added.)

WOMMA (also just added.)

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

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

Baskin Robbins (late add as well.)

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

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

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

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

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

Harley Davidson

Apple’s iPhone

GU

Air Canada (just added)

West Jet (just added)

Zellers (just added)

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

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

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

Coca Cola

Pepsi

NBC

Colgate

Chevrolet

Gatorade

Visa

Mastercard

Sears

3M

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

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

Mitsubishi

Toyota

Audi

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

Lysol

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

Verizon

Jeep

Kenneth Cole

Adidas

Budweiser

Jiffy Lube

Crocs

Land-Rover

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

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

Disney

Nike

Snickers

Sharpie

Levi’s

Crayola

Tropicana

Nivea

Hummer

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

McDonald’s

Burger King

Evian

Casio

Wal-Mart

Kmart

Staples

American Express/Amex

Mattel

Nikon

Yamaha

Reebok

sony

DKNY

Nokia

Doritos

Vicks

Ironman (Triathlon)

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Have a great Monday, everyone. 🙂

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

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

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doug-benc-getty-images-b

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on adopting a leadership attitude. (If you can’t see the above image on your RSS reader, click here. The picture pretty much IS the post.)

Okay, so… Check out the two boxers in the image. Which one do you want to be? Which one are you most acting like today?

Be honest now.

I know that everyone wants to be the guy on the right… but are you actually acting like the guy on the right? Are you thinking like the guy on the right? Are you running your business like the guy on the right? Have you connected the dots between the image and the words?

I received a lot of emails, tweets and comments about this yesterday, many from business owners who were a little stressed out by the outcome of the presidential elections, so I think it is important for everyone to take a deep breath and take inventory of what is and what isn’t: Fear of what may come – any kind of fear for that matter – is not something business leaders can afford to fall prey to, especially now. Fear is distracting. Fear distorts reality. Fear immobilizes. Fear is the enemy of progress, innovation and growth. Fear is the enemy of success. Your success. Don’t let fear, especially fear of the unknown creep into your brain. Just don’t.

Repeat after me: “Fear, go away! Go on now, shoo!” 😀

When in doubt or cornered, focus on what you can control. Focus on what you know. Focus on what you can see and affect NOW: Bringing more value to your customers. Increasing traffic to your website or stores. Improving customer service. Improving employee morale. Building strong user communities. Finding better ways to engage with your customers, boost customer loyalty, and build the foundations of a stronger brand. There are ways you can cut costs without cutting corners. There are ways to cut costs and keep all of your staff employed. There are ways to cut costs and actually grow your business. Find them. Every problem facing your business today is either an opportunity for you to leap ahead tomorrow, or an excuse to fail. Do not let your fears and worries distract you. (And if you have to stop listening to talk radio for a few days, by all means, do.)

Keep your focus. Feed your confidence. Dare to be bold. Take all of the things that have made you successful until now and use them: All of your strengths. All of your skills. All of your knowledge. Making your business successful in the coming year is going to require the kind of commitment, focus and courage that turns ordinary people into champions, soldiers into heroes, and managers into leaders. This is your challenge, and as long as you truly embrace it, you will not fall short. I promise you.

None of us can afford to be distracted by negative thoughts about what may or may not happen a year from now. Be in this moment. Work in this moment. Kick ass in this moment. Then let this moment stretch into the hours, days, weeks and months ahead until either a) the economy is healthy again, or b) you’ve realized that the economy doesn’t matter because you are not at its mercy.

Look up at the boxers one last time. The choice you are facing is simple: Be the guy on the right side of the image, and you’ll do great. Be the distracted guy on the left, and you won’t. The choice is 100% yours: Stay focused.

Have a GREAT day, everyone!

Incidentally, for those of you who inquired over the years as to when the brandbuilder would finally become more than a blog, guess what: With so many small businesses reaching out these last few months, the time has finally come for me to roll up my sleeves and help companies build better futures for themselves full time. More details on the what, how and when very soon, but yeah, I am VERY excited.

My name is Olivier Blanchard, and I approve this message.

Original photo: Doug Benc/Getty Images

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obama-speech-b1

Republican business owners and managers, read this post. (Democrats too.)

Whatever side of the aisle you may be on, the die is cast. The democratic process has worked. Americans have elected the next President of the United States of America. #44, by last count.

Many of you are probably pretty excited that your guy won today. Many of you are probably also angry that your guy didn’t. All of you are probably worried about what will come next: The simple “okay, now what?” question. Will I still have a job in six months? Will my company continue to prosper in the next year? Will I be able to hire new employees this spring, or will I have to let people go? And on and on and on.

My advice to you: Chill.

If you are among the Obama/Biden supporters, I am going to guess that your outlook today is pretty positive. You’re looking at a bright 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the best time to start a new business venture, to travel abroad, to partner with great people and companies.

If you are among the McCain/Palin/Joe The Plumber supporters, your outlook is probably pretty gloomy. You’re looking at what may be disastrous 4-8 years ahead. In your mind, this will probably be the worst time to start a new business venture, travel overseas or partner with great people and companies.

Funny how your perceptions – and ONLY your perceptions – affect the way you envision your business’ outlook in the next few years.

So my advice to you again: Chill. Take a deep breath. Seriously. What happens next in Washington won’t affect you all that much at all. Relax.

Unless you’re big like Exxon, Walmart and at&t, whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office really has zero bearing on your business’ success. None. You may think it does, you may have come up with a list of reasons why McCain would have helped you be more successful and why Obama will kill your profits, but you’re wrong. The success of your company depends entirely on you: The CEO. The CMO. The salesperson. The customer service rep. The franchisee. The cashier. The designer. The IT guy. The PR manager. The product manager. The greeter. Success or failure are entirely yours to own.

Likewise, if you voted Democrat, having Barack Obama in the White House won’t make your business successful either. His presidency won’t miraculously cure the ills of our society and restore the market to its pre-crash bubble days. The truth is, regardless of who sits in the White House and who owns the Senate and House of Reps, we have some rough terrain ahead. We’re all going to have to be smart, innovative and resourceful if we’re going to be successful. Neither Obama nor Biden will do anything to help you make payroll, attract and retain customers, or launch the next game-changing product. They have bigger issues to deal with than you – even if you’re the coolest, smartest, hardest working person on the planet.

Reality vs. imaginary dragons: Focus on what you know, not on what you don’t.

What the next 4 years have in store, nobody knows. Higher taxes? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Best case scenario: Our taxes won’t change much. Worst case scenario, they will increase incrementally. As in: Not enough to make much of an impact on anyone, rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle. Even if I were in the $250K+ bracket (which I am clearly not), watching my taxes increase a little more to help ease our embarrassing trillion dollar deficit would be a small price to pay. What’s done is done. Let’s fix our mess, learn from our mistakes, and move on.

I only mention this to point out that whatever happens with taxes next year… or the year after that – or whenever – should be the least of your worries right now. Possible tax increases are not threatening your business right now, and won’t anytime soon. Get your mind back on the present. On what obstacles you are faced with today. There will be plenty of time to worry about next year’s challenges twelve months from now.

In other words, before we start speculating about the next four years, we might all want to start thinking about the next six months. What problems are you really facing between now and next spring? What are the immediate problems you need to find solutions to? These are the real questions you should be focusing on.

You may not be completely aware of it, but your emotional outlook impacts your success. Yeah, I know, it sounds like I’m spewing self-help bullshizzle right now, but it’s a fact: Believe in success, visualize it, map it out, and you will have a much greater chance of making it happen than if you instead convince yourself that your business will fail. Positive attitudes win races, win deals and win business. Positive attitudes win.

Negative attitudes don’t.

Have you ever been around someone who is just soooo negative? The sky is falling, nothing is going right, the world is coming to an end? After a few minutes, you start to feel the same way. Their negativity starts to affect you. It’s a natural thing. We all feed off each other’s moods and dramas. In the same way, as a CEO or business manager, if you’re negative, that mood affects everyone you come in contact with, starting with your employees and ending with your customers.

Consider this: Your positive attitude can infect your customer touchpoints in such a way that one short encounter with them tomorrow morning could set the stage for an afternoon of wonderfully positive interactions with hundreds of customers. Like the happy cashier at the checkout who makes you feel great about your shopping experience, because their day started with a wonderful experience at work. Likewise, your negative attitude might affect your customer touchpoints in such a way that a brief, negative encounter with them tomorrow morning might make them worry about their jobs, about whether or not they are seen as valuable employees and whether or not they even enjoy working there. What kind of interactions do you think they will have with the hundreds of customers they touch that day?

Your attitude affects the direction and success of your business every single day.

What’s interesting is that most of the time, positive an negative attitudes are entirely self-created. The world around you is the same from day to day. You make the choice to see it either in a positive light or a negative one. Whomever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office, the world essentially is the same today as it was yesterday. Only your outlook has changed. If you have concerns about your business, if you have real problems to solve, then focus on finding solutions for those specific concerns and problems. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about “what if” questions that may never turn into real issues for you. Even if you are a hard-core Republican, understand that President-elect Obama’s policies, beliefs and actions will not have a direct impact on your business anymore than if you had voted for him. Unless you are a Fortune 100 company, the who the President of the United States happens to be has pretty much zero impact on your business. Your fears in regards to what Obama will do in office are still in the realm of imagination. Until something actually happens to affect your business, you are worrying about nothing.

It’s kind of like this: You’re a knight and around you is a small band of foot soldiers looking to you for leadership. Ahead of you is a dark forest you have to cross. You’ve heard that the forest is teaming with enemy soldiers and ambushes, but your mission is to get to the other side. What do you do? Do you figure out the best way to deal with the problem at hand, or do you sit there and worry about other things that may or may not come to be someday that have zero bearing on your immediate situation? You’re letting dragons and ogres (imaginary creatures) distract you from your real issues. Pretty silly when you look at it that way right?

Focus on what you can control. Focus on what you know. Focus on what you can see and affect now: Bringing more value to your customers. Increasing traffic to your website or stores. Improving customer service. Improving employee morale. Building strong user communities. Finding better ways to engage with your customers, boost customer loyalty, and build the foundations of a stronger brand. There are ways you can cut costs without cutting corners. There are ways to cut costs and keep all of your staff employed. There are ways to cut costs and actually grow your business. Find them. Every problem facing your business today is either an opportunity for you to leap ahead tomorrow, or an excuse to fail.

There will always be obstacles in your path. The odds will always be against you. The world will always conspire to make you fail. Cheaper imports, bigger competitors, better tools somewhere else, better tax breaks across the river, lower rent down the street… There will always be dark woods ahead filled with unseen enemies. Get used to it. It’s just how the world works. New elections, the economy, competition, new technologies transforming your industry, all of these things are part of the game. Your attitude will determine whether or not these obstacles and challenges help you build the next chapter in your company’s fascinating success story, or its sad conclusion.

Leadership Lesson: Taking the initiative always gives you a tactical advantage. The alternative (letting someone else decide your fate for you) is no alternative at all.

Great leaders aren’t usually characterized by uneventful tenures and comfortable lives without challenge. Great leaders are people like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi and Susan B. anthony, who in spite of overwhelming odds, in spite of the entire world conspiring against them, in spite of being faced with very dark moments of self doubt and despair, managed to embrace the impossible challenges of their times and come out of the woods transformed, cleansed of their fears, and most importantly: victorious.

As a business leader, you will be tested in the coming months. No question. The coming year will probably be the most trying of your entire career. You may work harder than you ever have before, risk more than you ever have before, and want to quit more often than ever before. But you know what, as long as you keep your wits about you, keep your focus on addressing your immediate challenges and keep your eye on making it through, you will. Not only that but you will come out ahead of your less focused and enthusiastic competitors. When you’re old and gray, you’ll be able to look back on this time and understand how it helped define you as a human being and as a leader. And chances are that every ounce of success you enjoy once the economy recovers will lead straight back to the decisions you made during this challenging time in your career. This moment in time WILL define you. How is up to you.

Now that the election drama is over, it’s time to get your head back in the game and give some serious thought to how you can turn immediate challenges into serious opportunities. If you didn’t vote for Barack Obama, don’t let yourself be distracted by negative thoughts and irrational fears. Your future and your company’s future are 100% in your hands. Not Washington’s. Let’s all put politics aside now and get back to the business of getting the economy back on track, starting with you.

So tell me: What is the biggest problem facing your business today?

How can those of us who know how to help businesses grow and prosper (my blogroll is only the tip of the iceberg) help you get through thee challenging times? Come on. Talk to me.

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Ever noticed how positive attitudes are infectious? You walk into a store, and everyone who works there is jazzed and happy to be there and energetic… and by the time you leave, you have completely adopted their mood?

Ever noticed that the opposite is also true: Walk into a business where everyone is negative or apathetic, and you find yourself feeling the same dread and negativity?

Sitting in Houston’s Toyota arena with thousands of the world’s most innovative Microsoft partners, I was reminded of the power that other people’s attitudes and moods have over our own – and remembered a post that Kathy Sierra shared many moons ago on her brilliant but now sadly defunct “Passionate Users” blog. It talked about happy vs. angry people, emotional contagion, and the role mirror neurons play in our involuntary tendency to be drawn into other people’s positive or negative attitudes. Very cool stuff, and particularly relevant to some of the discussions I have been involved with in the last few days with some of my international peers. I did some quick digging to find it so I could share it with you. Here are some of the highlights:

Mirror neurons and our innate tendency to pick up other people’s behaviors, good and bad.

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of “mirror neurons” found in monkeys. It’s what these neurons do that’s amazing–they activate in the same way when you’re watching someone else do something as they do when you’re doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that…

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn’t need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

“Choose your role models carefully.”
“Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better.”
“You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd; they’re a bad influence.”
“Don’t watch people doing it wrong… watch the experts!”

We’ve all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone–we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you’ll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we’ve spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session–despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.

Why choosing who you work, play and hang out with matters.

When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I’m not suggesting that we can’t or should’nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don’t want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations–where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror–we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcoholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around “happy people” and keeping his distance from “deeply unhappy” people, he’s keeping his brain from making–over the long term–negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

“If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.”

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it’s his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help–it’s simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion explained.

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak’s book:

“Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions,” according to Stonsy. “If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior–resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage.”

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

“…social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on “mirror neurons” helps explain the underlying cause. But it’s not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:

“When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines – social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology.”

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven’t experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven’t felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we’ve watched it happen to someone we care about. We’ve noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We’ve all known at least one person who really did seem able to “light up the room with their smile,” or another who could “kill the mood” without saying a word. We’ve all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren’t able to articulate.

Happy People are better able to think logically

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain’s fear system–one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure–when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there’s no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn’t pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

“Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people’s ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. “

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

“Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.”

And while we’re dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let’s look at a couple more misperceptions:

“Happy people aren’t critical.”
“Happy people don’t get angry.”
“Happy people are obedient.”
“Happy people can’t be a disruptive force for change.”

So can Happy and criticism live happily together?

One of the world’s leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe–with laughter–some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn’t believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can’t be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

“The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.”

And among the “happy people”, there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

The argument for and against anger

But then there’s the argument that says “anger” is morally (and intellectually) superior to “happy”. The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

“People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.”

Of course it’s still a myth that “happy people” don’t get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there’s a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there’s this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation–“if you can’t say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can’t be authentic and honest.” While that may be true, here’s what the psychologists say:

“Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.

It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.

Strong organizations and communities are able to harness the power of emotional contagion to create engaging, productive and extremely effective collaborative ecosystems. The truly exceptional among them also manage to extend this collective positivity to their human/customer touchpoints (retail outlets, salespeople, CSRs, etc.). Obvious examples of this are Starbucks (except in airports), Mac Stores, and Whole Foods grocery outlets.

This week, a very large scale example of this (and the trigger for this post) was Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, TX.

The complete opposite of this might be, say, the checkout at Walmart, Home Depot or Taco Bell, a prison ward, or an Vietnamese sweat shop.

Success breeds success. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Professionalism breeds professionalism.

Likewise, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Apathy breeds apathy. Negative attitudes breed negative attitudes.

Now you know. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. For me, the choice is pretty simple. Always has been.

Have a great Friday. 😉

photo credit: Christopher Wray McCann

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image by ilisu

Something Seth wrote quite a while back that still resonates with me today:

“As soon as they start using the tactics of the other guys, playing the game they play, they become them. As soon as they decide that they can buy (not earn) attention, it all changes.”

Chances are that you’ve forgotten what made your company or services or products so different. So unique. So good.

Chances are that your success has driven you away from those early days, when being different from everyone else, when being better was what it was all about.

Back when taking care of every new customer was like going out on a first date.

Chances are that you’re more focused on aligning your pricing to that of your competitors now than you ever were.

Chances are that you’ve started to copy their every move. You advertise where they advertise. You offer the same services they offer. The closer you get to beating them, the more like them you become.

Chances are that you are slowly becoming a clone of the very people you once thought sucked.

“As soon as they start using the tactics of the other guys, playing the game they play, they become them. As soon as they decide that they can buy (not earn) attention, it all changes.”

Stop.

Take a breather.

Go back to the start.

Are your products still the best? Are they still unique? Is your company still unique? Are you who you promised yourself you would be when you started?

Are you still earning attention?

If the answer is yes, congrats. You’re one of the rare few. I hope you manage to keep it up for decades to come.

If not… well, maybe it’s time to get back to basics. What do you say?

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Tom Asacker brings us another priceless bit of insight about building brands in these chaotic times:

“And so I was wondering: what’s new about this economy. A lot. But not everything in this new economy is new. Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama: Information technology is ubiquitous and rapidly advancing. Global economies are opening up. Legacy businesses are transforming before our eyes. But when it comes right down to the essence of business, it’s the same as it has always been – understand what drives a customer’s behavior and provide an experience which will attract that customer’s behavior over time. It’s still all about building reciprocal relationships. The issue today is one of emphasis.

“In the old economy, business altering technological advancements were infrequent. In addition, consolidations, due to mergers and acquisitions, were relatively rare occurrences. The competitive playing field was fairly stable. But today, new ways of doing business – of providing unique and valuable customer experiences – are springing up like weeds in a field. This increasingly intense competitive activity creates a huge sense of confusion. The good news is that when business conditions get chaotic, your customers inevitably face the same inextricable conditions. They are also overwhelmed with choice, drowning in information, time and attention starved, and therefore, confused, skeptical and frustrated.

“Remember too, that today’s global glut of business model choice has created an explosion in expectations. Customers are demanding the same value propositions across product categories. You can almost hear them asking: “Why can’t I configure my new car (build-to-order) the way I did my computer?” “How come I can’t get my hamburgers delivered like I did my pizza?” “Why can’t I do an on-line search at the hardware store, the way I do at my desk?” What they’re asking for is growth in the relationship – growth that will allow them to either maximize pleasure or minimize pain.

“The companies that prosper in this new economy will therefore be those with business designs that are defined by customer motivations and redefined to address their rising expectations. Think of it as incremental relationship development. The key to your success is to truly understand and empathize with customers’ “feelings”, and to increasingly delight them with what Tom Peters has described as the ‘look and the feel and the smell and the taste’ of doing business with you.

“Let’s face it. Customers now insist on high quality, quick delivery, consistent service and relatively low prices. These “pleasures” are expected, and as such, are not relevant differentiators. The competitive environment has made marketing and selling much more challenging. Customers can compare suppliers in real time and at any time, which places them firmly in the driver’s seat. To stand out and build a superior brand in this new “customer-controlled” economy, you must give up the need to be in control of your situation, and instead, be other-focused and help customers improve theirs.”

Read the full piece here.

Read this post again and again and again until it sinks in.

Read it every day, until your company has been infused through and through with this simple precept, from the bottom of the corporate ladder to the very, very top.

To leave comments (and read previous, related posts) hit the brandbuilder’s main page.

pomegranates by Matt A.

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