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GenJuice just released its list of Top 100 Most Desirable Mentors, and… through either a) divine intervention, b) a computer glitch, c) a case of mistaken identity or d) a perfectly aimed envelope containing about 300 Pesos, I somehow managed to find myself in 81st place, squeezed between President Obama and American Apparel CEO Dov Charney.

My initial reaction, as you can well imagine:

  1. Wow.
  2. What the hell is going on over at GenJuice? Have those kids lost their minds over there? Did the computer go crazy? What the…

… But as it turns out, the process was completely scientific (as in completely human) and 100% legit. How did GenJuice come up with the list? By asking their audience. So there you go. Don’t blame dimpled chads and glitchy polling booths for this one. From the brains at GenJuice:

Who do you look up to? What movers and shakers take your aspirations to new heights because of everything they achieved? GenJuice spoke with young adults around the world to find out the people they most admire.

Today’s young adults have access to so many research and communication tools and resources thanks to technology, but one thing remains certain: mentorship is an irreplaceable asset for personal and professional growth. This is precisely why GenJuice spoke with young adults and compiled our first Top 100 Most Desirable Mentors. You will find pioneers in policy, technology, entertainment, media, and more.

The result was GenJuice’s list of a 100 most desirable mentors, and through some strange twist of circumstance, my name came up. To get us started, let’s take a quick look at my favorite co-listers in the top 20:

Not a bad start, but it gets better:

… and hotter:

(Update: Congrats to Natalie for now being ‘Academy Award Winner Natalie Portman!’ Well deserved.)

… and now things start to get really interesting:

Unfortunately, the editors of GenJuice stopped posting profile photos outside of the Top 20, but let me list a few more names I plucked out from the back of the plane just now:

21 Chris Anderson (Curator of TED)

23 Steve Jobs (from, you know… Apple)

33 Nelson Mandela (not to be confused with Morgan Freeman, and vis-versa)

40 Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park)

53 Colin Powell (Former Secretary of State)

58 Jack Dorsey (Twitter)

65 Bill Clinton (you know… THE Bill Clinton)

67 Sanjay Gupta (CNN)

80 President Barack Obama

81 Me (owner of Chico the chihuahua)

85 Bono (U2)

94 Brian Solis (who kindly wrote my foreword)

96 Annie Leibovitz (who inspired me to be a photographer)

98 MC Hammer (who inspired me to wear parachute pants)

100 J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter author)

Wait a second… I’m on a list alongside Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Bono?!?!? (Not to mention the delicious Academy Award Winner Natalie Portman.)

Best day ever. Thanks, GenJuice!

PS: I think my consulting fees just went up at least $0.03 per day.

Cheers.

… Oh by the way, did I mention I have a book coming out just in time for my spring European tour? You can pre-order it now and everything. I know, crazy:

 

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The unfortunate yet necessary business of getting punched in the mouth

You learn a lot about yourself during your first fist fight. Especially when you know for a fact that the other guy is going to mop the deck with your face just because he can.

And that’s just the thing: It’s one thing to get into a fight you’re pretty sure you’ll win. It’s another completely to get into a fight even though you’re pretty sure you’ll lose, and still find the courage to stand your ground and see things through.

Close your eyes and hold that thought. We’ll come back to this in a sec.

Okay, so I know… this may seem like an odd topic for a blog that deals mostly with brand management, social media, business strategy, etc., but as I found with my “21 things” blog last week, there is a deeply human side to making inspired business decisions that we need to start focusing on a little more (not just here – in general). Why? Because business decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. People make these decisions. Human beings, with good days and bad days, filled with courage and plagued by cowardice, swelling with passion and weighed down by apathy. People as imperfect and flawed and riddled with self-doubt as you and I. Yes, the Steve Jobs, Jack Welches, Henry Fords, Walt Disneys, Bill Gates, Richard Bransons and Julius Caesars of the world are just as human as the rest of us, with their own problems, their own doubts, their own insecurities and their own challenges to overcome. But one of the things that separates them from the majority of people is their willingness to step forward even when the odds are squarely against them, and risk taking a very public and humiliating beating if things don’t turn out as they had hoped. But even they can come to a professional impasse if their “education” along the way skipped the essential rite of passage known as the boyhood brawl.

The first thing you probably need to get from this post is this: Because decisions cannot be divorced from the people who make them, who we are as human beings impacts those decisions at least as much as what we do professionally: A CEO is a role, not a personality trait. A general is a rank, not an emotional profile. A manager is a job description, not an indication of natural leadership. In other words, don’t let the cover story fool you: a title printed on a business card doesn’t reflect an individual’s ability to lead, inspire and show cunning any more than the size of their bank account or the make of their car.

What does a title really tell you about someone? If you live within a regimented corporate or military culture, it tells you something about where they stand in the pecking order and what power they yield over you and others, but that’s really about it. In matters of leadership, courage, integrity and mental fortitude, a job title doesn’t really tell you a whole lot about someone’s mettle. More to the point, a job title doesn’t tell someone a whole lot about themselves and what they are capable of when the chips are down.

The importance of dangerous tests and contests

Back in not-so-ancient times, boys were routinely tested as they grew up: Going into the woods alone for the first time. Climbing the tallest tree. Swimming across the river. Diving to the cold dark bottom. Catching your first fish. Killing your first fowl. Standing your ground against the older village or neighborhood kids. Tribal rights of passage. By the time a man reached adulthood, he knew exactly who he was. He knew his own strengths and weaknesses.

And the rest of the community did as well.

Via regular social tests and challenges, stars rose, stayed stagnant, or fell from grace. There was no hiding from it. The pecking order in human communities was always in flux, with the smartest and strongest leading, and others following, hoping for their chance to prove themselves someday and improve their position.

Only now, it seems that such personal tests, the ones that cemented not only reputations but confidence, self respect, courage and wisdom have fallen mostly by the wayside. Just for the record, graduating from kindergarten is not a rite of passage. Landing a 20% off coupon isn’t either. Neither is unlocking a fifth level prestige badge in COD Modern Warfare 2 on X-Box Live.

Here’s an observation. It isn’t a judgment. Just an observation: None of the people I have ever worked with or worked for while I was in the corporate world had ever been in a real fight. None had ever fought back when the bully shoved them in a locker or stole their lunch money. None had ever stepped in to help someone being mugged. None had ever finished a fight that some drunk jerk forced on them or one of their peers. And… coming from France – a country where little boys haven’t yet been taught that getting into the occasional fisticuff is a sign of deplorable behavior – I found this both surprising and unfortunate. Not because I find fights to be particularly edifying (I don’t enjoy them a whole lot, especially since I am not Chuck Norris), but because fighting – which mostly amounts to dealing with fear, confrontation, pain and the social pressures not to quit or lose – has been part of young mens’ “education” for tens of thousands of years. Like it or not, fighting each other is baked into our DNA. Men need these types of experiences in order to move from childhood to adulthood. Sport can be a decent substitute for some time, martial arts as well, but ultimately, nothing can truly take the place of actual combat. By creating an entire generation of men who have never experienced the fight or flight gauntlet of a knuckle duel, I am not certain that we are properly preparing young men for the types of mental and emotional challenges required of them in high stakes leadership positions.

Asserting yourself in a business meeting, negotiating a settlement, managing a takeover, speaking to investors, presenting to a crowd of bloggers and journalists, convincing banks to back your next venture, these things don’t go well unless you have a certain level of quiet confidence about you, the kind of confidence that frees your mind to get the job done rather than worry about whether or not you’re up for it.

Reassuring the American people that the country is safe, customers that it is still safe to bank with you, drivers that your cars won’t accelerate out of control and explode, investors and employees that your company is still a sound bet, and the public that you have the oil spill under control can’t be left to folks who haven’t tested themselves to find out what they are really made of.

Remember Michael “Brownie” Brown, the guy in charge of FEMA during the Katrina crisis? His impeccably pressed, perfectly white dress shirts? Not a hair out of place while the people of New Orleans drowned and starved to death? Nice guy, I’m sure. Smart too. Probably great with the whole IAHA Arabian horse thing, and corporate luncheons and country-club brunches, before being appointed to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Except… Wrong guy for the job. Why? Hmmm. You tell me.

Now put a military officer – especially an Iraq or Afghanistan combat veteran – in his place to do the same job and see what happens. My bet: Night and day. The difference between both men? One made a point to put himself through the gauntlet time and time again. The other, not so much.

Rites of passage matter. They matter a lot.

Fight Club is only a novel. This is real.

If I am starting to sound like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, so be it. There is a reason why Chuck Palahniuk’s novel struck a chord when it came out. As much as the novel itself may be an unapologetic exaggeration of the death of masculinity in modern times, its message is dead on target. And the impact that a generation of untested men in leadership positions has already had on the corporate world may be in great part responsible for some of the trouble we are in: Enron. Wall Street. The massive oil spill in the Gulf: All arrived at by decisions made by not by incompetent men, but rather untested, socially and emotionally incomplete men.

Think this is a stretch? Possibly. But consider that mid-life crises tend to happen to men riddled with complexes and self-doubt. Far more than an overcompensation or an indulgence brought about by professional success. Any decent Jungian psychotherapist can explain the link between mid-life crises and a common mother complex in men: Adult in form but not in heart. Boys whose bodies grew up but whose souls didn’t. The erosion of significant, terrifying, often violent rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, particularly when it comes to my gender, is a problem that doesn’t only impact divorce rates and Porsche sales in the US, but also the business world and the economy as a whole: A man who isn’t whole cannot effectively lead. He is a Fisher King, an impotent, lame-duck regent whose wound infects his entire kingdom and drags it down with him. When captains of industry are drawn drawn from among the ranks of untested men rather than those who can and should lead, the system breaks down: Exploration, experimentation and progress come to a grinding halt. Strategic planning takes a hit. Appearances begin to overtake substance. Nepotism prevails. Good old boys networks take root. Mediocrity, hypocrisy and corruption begin to poison corporate and political cultures. The safety of artificial comforts replaces strife. Warm cocoons of denial begin to form and thicken.

There is something missing in a man who hasn’t pushed himself far beyond what he thought were his own limits. Something we look for in leaders. Something without which our faith in a man cannot ever be truly realized. We all felt it in the school yard. On the playing field. In boot camp. And yes, in the board room. A phony is a phony. The real deal, however, walks wrapped in the knowledge of who he is as a man, because at least once in his life, he walked deep into the dark recesses of his cave and found what really lurked there.

Growing up in France in the 70’s and 80’s – and having been raised in a family of combat veterans and citizen soldiers – making it to adolescence without a few black eyes and busted knuckles wasn’t an option. Not that I was pushed to go looking for fights, but let’s say that certain circumstances were occasionally brought up around the dinner table as acceptable reasons to find out what I was made of. For many little French boys, playing cowboys, cops and musketeers wasn’t just play. It was preparation for an inevitable school yard confrontation that would determine much about the types of men they would later become.

A quick word about the French and silly stereotypes

Not that the French fight a lot or win a lot of wars, or anything. Aside from the Foreign Legion (mostly composed of foreigners at that) and a few key Police and military units, French culture isn’t exactly known for its warrior spirit. The Gauls were pretty solid warriors, but the Roman legions dealt with them in the end. Twice in the last century the Germans cut through our borders like a warm knife through butter. So yeah, sure, we invaded England back in the day, we’ve had bloody revolutions, and Napoleon helped us unlock our very own bloody conquests badge on Foursquare, but in general, the French are relatively well-behaved anti-violent people. Even our soccer fans are pretty tame compared to England’s. We also aren’t particularly fond of violence in sports and entertainment (Americans, in contrast, like their sports and movie heroes to be full-contact – while tennis doesn’t exactly require helmet and shoulder pads). We don’t really like guns. The French, as people of the world go, are not high up on the socially violent list.

Yet, in sharp contrast with many of my American peers who grew up on violent entertainment and a glorification of rogue warrior tales, my childhood and early adult years were not without incident. Starting with a few kids at my school trying to work the pecking order to their advantage to street thugs in downtown Brussels looking to score my wallet, from angry boyfriends looking to save face to drunk French soldiers aiming to prove themselves by knocking out a few sailors, I’ve had to deal with unfortunate contests of the knuckle-to-face variety a number of times. Before I go on with my tales of clumsy hand-to-hand combat, let me make it clear that I didn’t always prevail. I am not Jean Claude Van Damme. Quite the contrary. My roundhouse kick is weak. My karate chop is clumsy. My punch often misses the mark. So by default, the lessons in this post have nothing to do with winning or beating the odds. We’re talking about something else altogether today.

Which brings us back to that mouthful of blood thing. You learn a lot about yourself, shaking off the pain of a punch to the mouth. It’s a simple fight or flight reflex: Stunned and dazed, your blurry surroundings spinning around you, searing pain flashing across your face and a dull ache spreading deep into your skull, you are at once confronted with two conflicting emotions: The first – back off and hope the punishment is over. The second – get back on your feet and feed the other guy a Royal McKnuckle-with-Cheese sandwich out of principle, even if it earns you another trip to the cold, hard deck.

Fight or flight: DNA, tens of thousands of years of evolution, and the importance of not running away

Fight or flight. It’s a simple choice. And, as my friend Ben Schowe would say, “it’s just science.”

In terms of personal tests, this goes well beyond the simple (yet grueling) act of surviving boot camp, completing your first 5K, passing the bar, or completing an Ironman triathlon. In fact, in a very real way, getting into a fist fight teaches you as much – if not more – about yourself as summiting Everest or swimming across the English Channel.

Why? Because there is a huge difference between walking to the sidelines and running from a fight. You can quit Ranger school. You can quit an Ironman. On a mountain top, you can stop and turn back to base camp. But walking away from a fight once the first punch has connected, that’s a very different thing. It’s fight or flight in its purest form. It’s the difference between a dog baring its teeth and having another go at some melee carnage… or lying on its back with its tail coiled up between its legs.

In war, you can hold your ground and engage the enemy or you can throw down your guns and run away. Same thing. Except for most people nowadays, at least in the Western world, war is something other people get paid to deal with. It’s something that happens overseas and on TV. There’s no draft anymore. Violence is being erased from “civilized” civilian society. It has become entertainment. A stylized fantasy. You get to see the moves and hear the sounds, but you don’t get to feel the pain. And yet the pain has something to teach.

Like I said, you learn a lot about yourself during your first fight. And your second. And your third. What you learn is – what you learn first, anyway, is – whether or not you have any real fight in you. When that first punch in the face hits you and your eyes flash just as what feels like a brick flying at 500 miles per hour turns the entire front of your skull into a flaring, throbbing strobe of pain, you get your first glimpse of who you are. Before you even land on your ass, your brain is already trying to decide if you will simply lie down and hope the fight is over, or spring up and hit the guy back twice as hard and see how he likes it.

What my first fight taught me

I remember my first fight vividly: Second grade. Parc Monceau. The biggest kid in my class decided he was going to use the smallest kid in the class (me) to cement his Alpha status for the school year. Words were exchanged, shoves ensued, and next thing I know, we were rolling around in the dirt, scraping our knees and elbows, trying land a solid hit on the other. Planting a solid punch at that age would have surely ended the fight – to the delighted cheers of our classmates – and would have secured immediate popularity for whomever emerged victorious. As it turns out, neither one of us did. But the other kid, desperate to break free from the scuffle, accidentally head-butted me in the face, knocking me clear off him. I remember hearing the ugly thud sound of his skull bouncing off my cheek, my head snapping back, and my little French behind landing squarely on the hard-packed dirt. The other kids immediately fell silent and stared at us to see what would come next. I tasted blood in my mouth, from where I had bitten my tongue. I was surprised by the taste… And by the fact that I was more excited than scared.

Up until that moment, I had imagined that being on the receiving end of a head-butt would be the worst thing in the world. Yet there I was, realizing that the other guy wasn’t as strong, as mean, as dangerous or as invincible as I thought he was. And, equally important, realizing that perhaps I had more of a fight in me than I originally thought. Fighting back tears of pain and fear, I got back up, swallowed a mouthful of blood, and threw myself at him. Though he was a lot taller and bigger than me, I tackled him and knocked him to the ground. The rolling around and wild kicking and punching resumed, but before either one of us could land a solid punch, the fight was broken up by our teacher. We were both sent to the principal’s office – the dragon-like Mme Gomez – and sat there for about fifteen minutes before she finally called us in.

Those fifteen minutes were invaluable: The entire time, not once did the other kid dare return my stare. After a quick inspection of my knuckles and clothes, and after having pondered what punishments would follow both at school and at home, I looked over at him and caught him quickly blinking away. Feeling that I was still staring at him, he didn’t look up again. It was at that moment, not before, that I realized I had won the fight. Not because I had beaten him, mind you – I hadn’t. What I realized was that, for me, the real fight wasn’t against him. It was against myself: Fight vs. Flight.  Flight lost. I wanted more. Test passed.

From then on, I knew I would never again be too afraid to stand my ground. That moment of clarity is something I have taken with me into every difficult, stressful situation since.

Going through something like this, as simple as it may seem, is a defining moment in a man’s life, and one that far too many boys today never get to experience, to their own detriment, and that of society as a whole when they eventually join the workforce.

To this day, I don’t remember a thing about what the principal had to say or what my punishment was. I grinned from ear to ear the rest of the day, beaming with pride and excitement at the realization that there was more to me than just pretend courage. Later, what I remember from being walked to my mother’s car by my angry teacher wasn’t the fear of punishment or the embarrassment of the public escort, but the looks of awe I saw in the other kids’ eyes. Still grinning at my scowling mother after my teacher explained what had happened, I hopped into her Autobianchi and told her my side of the story: He started. It wasn’t my fault. I was only defending myself. He got what he deserved. I took a skull to the face and it still hurt a lot, but it was okay. She lectured me all the way home, but I know that behind the stern threats of being sent to Jesuit boarding school if I couldn’t behave, was a quiet pride that I hadn’t punked out. Later that afternoon, my father  inspected my swollen black eye, obviously amused by the entire incident, and probed me for details until my mother reminded him that the brawl wasn’t something to be proud of. Yet it was, and all three of us knew it.

The kid never bothered me or any of my classmates again. I don’t even remember his name anymore. It doesn’t matter.

Contests of this type happened again over the years, each one teaching me a little bit more about myself, until I graduated to the more subtle and underhanded type of political combat favored by many corporate types.

Leadership from the outside-in: Understanding the mechanics of the pecking order

Here’s the thing, and be sure not to underestimate the potency of the metaphor: We are all either lions or lambs. Men walk into a conference room, a basketball court, a bar, a gym, the first thing they do is size each other up. Hierarchies are established before anyone takes the initiative to speak. Body language, stress hormones, eye contact and behavior help determine the social order in a matter of minutes if not seconds. Before the lions begin to fight for the top spot, the lambs aremarked and set aside. Few of us ever talk about it, and for many men, the process is completely subconscious, but it happens everywhere men go. This has probably been going on since long before we lived in caves.

Care to see a fine example of the process? Watch the first twenty minutes of Ronin, John Frankenheimer and DavidMamet’s tale of trust and betrayal among intelligence operatives. In any group of men, a pecking order must be established before the group can function. Though the process now takes into account job titles and artificial leadership, lambs are not lions. A leader in title only is a liability to himself and the group he is responsible for.

Riddle me this: How can you earn the trust and respect of a company of professional soldiers if even one of them thinks he is more qualified than you to lead them all? If he thinks he is a better soldier, a better leader? Stronger, faster, tougher?

While you ponder the question, here’s something to think about: How is a group of men in uniform any different from a group of men in suits? Each culture may emphasize certain leadership qualities differently, but the principles are the same: If a leader is imposed on the group rather than arrived at by mutual selection, then the leader must prove his worth, or his tenure is doomed from the start. If the guy in charge, when sized up by the rest of the men in the room is found… wanting, you are looking at a dangerous level of inevitable dysfunction that will result in disaster somewhere along the road.

The weakest guy in the room can’t be the leader. Regardless of what his business card says, it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t get rid of thousands of generations of evolution just because we’ve decided to trade spears for pens and caves for cubicles. It may seem silly, but it’s also true and well worth acknowledging.

The true value of a mouthful of blood

I know this is going to sound strange, but a CEO who has put himself through the gauntlet – whether it was a fist fight, a combat tour in Iraq or a wrestling match against a great white shark knows how to be fearless in the face of uncertainty. He can look his competitor in the eye, say “bring it,” and mean it. He can look at an economic crisis as an opportunity to prevail against adversity and cement his company’s reputation by taking market share rather than merely hoping to hold on to what it has.

A man who has the confidence to stand his ground in the face of adversity, a man who has learned the value and excitement of fighting for something he believes in, a man who knows that no amount of pain or fear will weaken his resolve, this kind of man can lead any company away from defeat, towards success.

The guy who has never been punched in the face doesn’t yet know how tough he is. That man doesn’t know if he should get up or beg for mercy when his lip gets split. He doesn’t know what he is made of yet. Take him by surprise, upset his routine, put him in the hurt locker, and he sits there wondering what he should do next. He sits there stunned, gagging on a mouthful of his own blood, wishing he weren’t in so much pain. For precious seconds, he hesitates, not yet knowing what to do. Indecision: The antithesis of leadership.

The CEO, the Senior VP, the Director of this and that, untested, are all liabilities. Lamb playing at being lions.

The truth of it is this: What you learn fighting off bullies in your childhood, learning to stand your ground and take real hits comes back to either serve or haunt you later in life, when faceless enemies set their sights on your endeavors. Knowing that you can overcome physical adversity and survive your fear of the unknown arms you with the ability to make intelligent decisions in the heat of the moment. It teaches you to keep a cool head when everyone else panics. It teaches you not to retreat unless you absolutely have to, but to instead make your way through the storm and find calmer waters waiting beyond it.

The real beauty of it is that once the people who look to you for leadership realize that this is the type of leader you are, they will follow you anywhere. Their loyalty, their dedication, their support will be assured. And that, when it comes to building strong brands, isn’t something you can either buy or do without.

So parents, teachers, law enforcement personnel and passers-by, consider this: Next time two little boys decide to brawl, don’t stop them right away. Let them throw a few kicks and punches. Let them sort it out on their own, even if only for a few seconds. What they discover about themselves in those short, precious, terrifying moments could help shape them into formidable leaders someday. I know it sounds pretty weird, but trust me: They need to put themselves through it, black eye, mouthful of blood and all.

Cowards make lousy leaders. Give your kids enough space to learn not to be.

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donaldson0012s

Okay, I don’t usually borrow post titles or topics from other people, but today I’ll make an exception. Amber Naslund (@ambercadabra in the Twitterverse) just posted a remarkably honest, human and pretty personal post on her blog in which she asked (and started answering) a very simple but important question: What won’t you compromise?

Well, I thought it would be fun to follow her example and a) pose the question to you guys (in case you missed Amber’s post) and b) answer it for myself, albeit a little more loosely: Instead of just things I won’t compromise, I also added a few things I won’t compromise on (which is a little bit different).

Here we go. In no particular order:

Professional integrity.

I have worked for two companies that employed deceptive practices. Once when I first started out in the business world, and again more recently. In both cases, the amount of time between the moment I was made aware of the shenanigans and my departure from that job was remarkably short. I don’t play those games.

I could have rationalized that the deceptive practices weren’t mine, that I didn’t even touch that side of the business, that it really had nothing to do with me. I could have also rationalized that I had mouths to feed, bills to pay, nice toys to buy, but excuses are just excuses. Excuses are compromises. You can rationalize your way into a world of shameless douchebaggery if you aren’t careful. Just don’t go there. Not even a little. Ever.

Trust.

Either I trust you or I don’t. It’s really that simple. I don’t have to like you, but I have to trust you. In friendship, in business, in cooking, in war… trust isn’t gray. Oh, and trust is always a two-way street. It’s the only way it works.

Sushi.

Old Japanese proverb: Beware yesterday’s sushi.

Loyalty.

I’m kind of like Amber on that one. I grew up watching musketeer movies and old Starsky & Hutch re-runs, so the buddy mechanics are burned into my brain. Loyalty is something I value above most virtues.

By loyalty though, I don’t mean easily given loyalties – like the ones expected of you by an employer or a coffee shop. I mean real loyalties. Ones that last. People looking after each other-type loyalties. I’ll come rescue you if you get kidnapped by the Taliban type loyalties. If you earn that level of loyalty from me, consider yourself lucky. I’ll never let you fall and I’ll never sell you out. There’s no compromise there.

Food.

You are what you eat. I’m not doing myself any good by putting crap into my body.

Effort.

I get paid the same whether I spend ten hours half-assing a project or ten hours rocking it like nobody’s business, so why in the world would I not go for the option that will produce the best possible outcome, make the client deliriously happy and make me look like a god? I have a reputation to preserve.

Heck, I have a reputation to purposely smash regularly and rebuild like Oscar Goldman did Steve Austin: Better, faster, stronger. If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing exceedingly well. (Or as Gary Vaynerchuck would say “crush it.”)

Clarity.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. That is all.

Manners.

Either you have manners or you don’t. If you treat waitstaff like crap, you and I aren’t doing business. If you are rude to me or anyone in my circle, ditto. If you make fun of the French (for real, not just to mess with me), d-i-t-t-o.

I am pretty uncompromising when it comes to people acting like self-important pricks. Manners matter a lot to me. It’s the little things.

Olive Oil.

Extra virgin. No mas, no menos.

Goals. Targets. Objectives.

Once set, they’re set. You don’t lower them. You don’t stop until you achieve them. When it comes to hitting a target, there’s the bull’s eye, and then there’s not. People who sold you on the bull’s eye but then tell you why less is just as good when they can’t seem to hit it are full of crap.

If this is an area of frequent compromise for you, either learn how to set them, or learn how to hit them. Either way, there’s no alternative to delivering on your promise once you’re in play. Compromise can’t live here. Ever.

Running shoes.

They either work or they don’t. I don’t care how cool they look or what logo they sport. Once you’ve developed ITBS, you learn not to screw around with running shoes. Even when that cool blue pair is 50% off.

Seatbelts. Helmets. Eye protection. Body armor. Brain-Mouth filter.

Taking risks doesn’t mean being an idiot.

The English Language.

If I can become fluent, anyone can. And should. Grammar and spelling are not optional. (Inventing new words though, is perfectly acceptable. Recommended, even.)

If a language is worth speaking, it is worth speaking well.

Jeans. Suits. Dress shirts. Overcoats. Couture of all origins.

They must fit just right. There is no compromise here. (Not just saying that because I’m French. Style knows no borders.)

Credibility.

Like your virginity, you can really only lose it once. Credibility is one of the most underrated and overlooked elements of a reputation, yet… without it, nothing else matters: Not talent, not work ethic, not intelligence. Once people start second-guessing your insights, your motives, your decisions, you’re done.

Quality.

If I pay for it, I expect it. Likewise, if someone pays me well, I fully intend to give them their money’s worth.

The family honor.

Many died fighting for it. It isn’t crashing and burning on my watch.

National security.

Note to the TSA: Boarding a plane with a 4.6oz tube of toothpaste doesn’t count.

The blood feud you don’t yet know about.

There’s no compromise in a blood feud. Only escalation and the sweet sweet taste of revenge. (Kidding!!! … But… maybe not.)

Knots.

If you’re a sailor and/or a rock climber, you know this too. You just don’t half-ass knots.

Toilet paper.

This one should require no explanation.

My good name.

Actually, no… wait… Scratch that. Everyone knows I’m a scoundrel.

Self respect.

No job and no amount of money is worth allowing someone to treat you poorly. Getting yelled at and dragged through the mud is fine if you’re in the military. You volunteer for that and it’s part of the fun. But in the business world, if someone treats you badly, don’t you dare let them get away with it. Once it starts, you’re screwed.

Success.

(See “goals, targets, objectives” above.) Status quo outcomes are never successes, no matter how many mediocre managers and business executives try to convince you otherwise. There’s no compromise here: Success has a smell, a flavor, a feel. Success rocks. Success feels like a million bucks. Success is a slam-dunk high-five that makes everyone look on with envy. Success makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Success is real and it’s earned and it doesn’t come to you without a hell of a fight. Compromise there, and you’re a chump. (One of the many reasons why measurement is important. It keeps bullsh*t at bay.)

Vision.

If you imagine the best, why settle for average?

Ever looked at the transition between concept cars and production cars and wonder… “what happened?! That concept car was cool! This thing looks nothing like it! “

Yeah, that’s the effect that compromise has on vision.

Do you think the iPhone’s design was a compromise? Do you think that a Canon L-series lens is a compromise? Do you think that a Moleskine notebook is a compromise? A Cartier Tank? An Yves St. Laurent blazer? A Cervelo bicycle? My grandmother’s chocolate mousse? The Virgin Airlines experience? The screenplay in a Pixar film?

Should vision be adaptable? Sure. Should it be fluid? Absolutely. But there is an enormous difference between fluidity and compromise. Some of it deals with the outcome, but a lot of it has to do with intent. And purpose. And relevance.

Compromise is sometimes necessary, even good – especially in matters of public policy – but in business, it often sucks. It’s interesting, when you think about it, that the larger the number of people affected by a compromise, the more benign its impact, but narrow your focus down to individuals, and compromise almost always ends up in the negative column.

A compromise basically means that you gave up on getting the full monty and settled for less than ideal. Next thing you know, your diet is a compromise. Your relationship is a compromise. Your job is a compromise. Your car. Your wardrobe. Your career. Everything from your Saturday afternoon to your political beliefs, they all become compromises.

Some things are too important. Some things deserve champions, not compromises. Some things deserve to be seen through all the way, no matter how hard, no matter what the obstacles. And yeah, everyone can be a champion for something. Everyone should be. An idea, a product, a virtue, a cause… It doesn’t matter. It’s up to you.

Cultures of compromise typically don’t breed much aside from maybe mediocrity.

Chew on that for a few minutes. It’ll be well worth your while.

So… what’s on your list?

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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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Please start the national panic now

Please start the national panic now

Raise your hand if the national epidemic of complete and utter stupidity around the “threat” of swine flu is making you shake your head. Yeah, me too.

Is “swine flu” real? Yes.

Do I want to get it? No.

Will I take precautions to try and steer clear of the virus as much as possible? Of course.

But will I hide in a basement for the next three months? No.

Why? Because with all the talk and hype of pandemics, “swine flu” is still just… well, the flu.

That’s it, people: The flu.

It isn’t the zombie flu, okay? I know watching “Twelve Monkeys” sends a chill down a lot of people’s spines, and we’ve all had nightmares about the zombie virus from “28 Days Later” or Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of The Dead” taking us down… But this is just THE FLU. That’s it.

Yet here we are, in a state of complete and utter panic, shutting down entire school systems, buying surgical face masks by the box-loads, walking around with boxes of sterile wipes, and avoiding handshakes and people altogether. Last week, China considered a ban on all pork imports from Mexico. In Egypt, pigs are being slaughtered en masse… even though this strain of “swine flu” is a human-to-human virus. (You cannot get this strain of swine flu from eating pork.)

This kind of mass hysteria is embarrassing for the human race. Seriously. Stop it.

Everyone settle down for a second, take a step back, and take a deep breath: Every year in the united States, over 35,000 people die of the flu. Really. 35,000+. That is A LOT of people. Way too many, in my book. That number is tragic. And most of the victims of the flu tend to be small children and the elderly.

Yet, as tragic as this may be, no one freaks out. No one panics. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News don’t report on every single new death. The CDC doesn’t hold press conferences to keep people abreast of the spread of the flu. People don’t walk around wearing face masks and carrying sterile wipes everywhere they go. Countries don’t impose travel bans or mass livestock slaughter. School systems don’t shut down and send every kid home for weeks just as a “precaution”.

From November to March, when “flu season” is in full swing in the US, are we supposed to shut everything down and hide in our basements now?

Now that we’ve gotten a bit of perspective on the flu, doesn’t the panic over swine flu seem a little ridiculous? Worse than our overreaction to previous “threats” like African killer bees, West Nile mosquitoes, Avian flu andthe anthrax mailer?

As it turns out, the current strain of “swine flu” doesn’t seem to be all that virulent or particularly easy to pass on. It is no more contagious than any other flu strain, and doesn’t seem to be as potent as other strains that you or I have had the displeasure to run into at some point in our lives.

This is not the bubonic plague, people. It is just the friggin’ flu.

And it has absolutely nothing to do with bacon either, so stop freaking out about the pigs. Maybe we should have called this “CNN flu” instead of “swine flu”. I think that we would all be much better off. Surely, pig farmers and the grain producers who depend on their success to stay afloat would have had a much better week.

So in protest of this complete and utter nonsensical panic over the flu (as if we didn’t have better things to worry about, like… the pirate problem and injuries on “Dancing With The Stars”), some of us have decided to start a little protest of stupidity movement on Twitter. And just to be on the safe side (in case Swine Flu goes viral on the web) we have added face masks to our avatars, effectively turning them into “maskvatars” or “maskatars” (depending on whom you ask) – a term which I think was coined by Columbia, SC’s Mandi Engram – @mandiengram on Twitter (below, bottom right).

Note: As far as I can tell, either @ManFmNantucket (below, bottom center) or @SWoodruff (below, bottom left) were the first Twitterati to done maskvatars. Ther rest of us are just proud copycats.

A few #swinefluwknd participants

A few #swinefluwknd participants

Fellow blogger Kristi Colvin (@kriscolvin on Twitter, top right, above) gave our little movement its own clever little hashtag/thread: #swinefluwknd on Twitter. (Implying that the maskvatars will disappear on Monday… though they may not. We’ll see.) If you are on Twitter, please consider joining us. 🙂 (And yes, we will be playing with this until the swine flu terror goes away.)

As for the term “Hamthrax“, I am not sure who came up with it first, but I have Kristi Colvin and Mandi Engram to thank for introducing me to it. It gave me a good laugh last night. Thanks to them, I will no longer be referring to Swine Flu as “swine flu” starting today. Hamthrax seems a whole lot more appropriate.

Oh, and if you need me for anything, I’ll be hiding out in my underground African killer-bee and zombie-proof  fallout shelter until CNN tells me it’s safe to go outside again.

(Oh and yes, there will be a part 2 to this post.)

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nov082001gh

I was chatting with a friend about budget-conscious brand revitalization strategies, the importance of creating employee-friendly corporate cultures and how to drive more passionate employee engagement today, and I was suddenly reminded of something John Moore – over at Brand Autopsy – wrote on his blog back in 2007:

“Astonish employees and they will, in turn, astonish customers.”

Simple enough, right?

Yet so rare.

Most companies have fallen into a little bit of a rut when it comes to doing something special for their employees, except around Christmas time or when they’ve had a decent quarter. And even then, we are talking about a $25 gift certificate to The Home Depot or your choice of a company pen, T-shirt or flashlight. Nice, but not exactly stunning.

The term John used is “astonish,” which implies a little more effort and attention than just giving your employees an empty token of “gratitude” that is as bland as it is… (well, let’s say it) kind of insulting.

Note to all department managers: If you’re going to reward your staff with T-shirts, make them the types of T-shirts that you want your employees to actually get excited about. (Hire a hot local graphic designer to design something unique or fun or cool . It’s cheaper than you think, and the impact will be pretty phenomenal.)

But enough about T-shirts. We’re talking about “astonishing” your employees – not merely giving them a perfunctory nod, which is exactly what the folks at Macintosh did a while back when they surprised all of their US employees with a brand new iPhone.

In John’s words:

“Giving every full-time employee a $600 (retail value) iPhone is an astonishing act that will only help to feed the already vibrant evangelical corporate culture within Apple. (…)At Starbucks, we would also spend marketing money on employees. We knew if we could get Baristas jazzed, they would get customers jazzed.”

Think back to an experience you’ve had recently (or not so recently) when you walked into a store or dealt with someone who was absolutely in love with either their job or the company they worked for. How was your perception of that company affected by their enthusiasm? (How likely were you after that experience to a) recommend that business to friends and peers, and b) do business with that company again?)

Now think back to your last experience with a bored, apathetic grocery store cashier, or with an unqualified telephone customer service rep, or with a passive-aggressive waitress who REALLY needs a vacation. How different might your perception of that company be? How likely is it that you will make that business your first choice? How likely is it that you will speak well of this business and recommend it to friends?

All things being equal: Pricepoint, quality of the work or food or product, product performance, cool packaging, etc. – the quality of the experience surrounding human touch-points becomes primordial.

Two average grocery stores can have a radically different image or reputation based SOLELY on the way their employees behave. The same is true with any business in which people (employees) interact with other people (customers): Restaurants, banks, retail establishments, medical offices, auto mechanics shops, etc.

Employee behavior can be radically impacted by their managers’ positive or negative treatment.

Therefore, customer experience can be radically impacted by the way a company treats its employees:

Average treatment of employees = average customer experience.

Good treatment of employees = good customer experience.

Great treatment of employees = great customer experience.

… And so on.

So rather than tossing the occasional cheapo bone to your employees to maintain morale (or whatever,) start thinking of ways that you might make them feel special. Think of ways of rewarding them, or of saying “thank you,” or making them feel truly appreciated that kind of… well, stand out. Get them jazzed about working for you. Make them feel proud and excited and vibrant.

The point here isn’t to bribe them or buy their loyalty with expensive gifts. The point is to show genuine, profound, unmistakable appreciation for what they do and for the importance of their daily contribution. If you don’t have a budget for something like this yet, get creative. Give them Friday off, out of the blue. Give them an extra vacation day, on the house. Mail them a thank you card with a real message inside, not just some cheesy drugstore quotation. Offer to introduce them to people they don’t normally have access to. Bring them into projects they aren’t senior enough to have a voice in.

Though fancy electronics like iPods, Zunes, Flip cameras and the likes usually do the trick as well.

This isn’t “team building,” mind you. This is just saying thanks. This is just giving them a hug and a pat on the shoulder, looking them in the eye and saying “We’re really glad you’re here.” And meaning it.

Every once and again, you have to stop what you’re doing, put off fighting your daily little fires, and remember to make your employees feel that they aren’t just easily replaced pawns. (And if you’re hiring intelligently, they are most definitely not easily replaceable pawns.)

Make your employees realize that you truly understand their value to the success of the brand they help shape in the public’s eye every single day.

The way you treat your employees is the way your customers will be treated.

Perhaps this should be the very first rule of management.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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giant snowball, by olivier blanchard 2009

Today’s bit of Marketing, Customer Experience, Design & Product Development advice comes from Kathy Sierra‘s awesome old blog:

“Your job is to anticipate… To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it – to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind, or too far ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time.”

Walter Murch

iPod wasn’t designed by users. It was designed for users. No… wait… it was designed to be loved by users.

This seems really basic and simple, right? Just plain old common sense… Yet how many companies do it? Very few. So until every single company figures this out, it is worth repeating, even if it seems like a no-brainer.

If your job deals with customer experience design, (product, web, retail, customer service, touchpoint ideation, advertising, etc.) print either the sentence that came just before this paragraph or Walter Murch’s bit of wisdom, and pin it to your office wall. Either one can (and probably should) become your new mantra.

Technorati Thingamajingies: , , , .

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SMC Greenville, Olivier Blanchard

Hey look, it’s me! And a fully stocked bar! (Thanks to Jim O’Donnell for the awesome photo.) More photos from Richard Peck here and here. Awesome.

So… A quick recap: This presentation took place at Greenville, SC’s 2nd monthly Social Media Club meeting early Monday morning.  About 150 people from the Greenville-Anderson-Spartanburg area showed up to enjoy a great breakfast provided by our host (Soby’s Restaurant/Table 301) and hear me talk a little bit about what social media is and isn’t. (Probably more the breakfast, but that’s okay.)

I will be posting the presentation soon, but for now, here are some of the main takeways fom my little show:

It is easy to get bogged down with tools and platforms and technologies when it comes to Social Media. Relax and take a big step back: All we are really talking about here is people talking with people. Remember that.

If we dig a little deeper, we don’t have to go far to see that people are using Social Media to (re)connect with one another, create communities on their own terms, and share what they are passionate about.

Social Media as we define them today may be new, but people have been connecting, creating communities and sharing their interests for thousands of years. We are deeply social creatures. We love to share experiences – food, entertainment, art, stories, etc.

But the complexity of our lives have forced us to disconnect from one another. Greater distances separate us. Our busy schedules make it difficult for us to connect with each other regularly through traditional means.

But we NEED human interactions. We crave them.

Social media help us reconnect in spite of our busy lives.

The relationships people want are meaningful. They are based on affection and trust, from parents at an early age to friends and extended family as we grow into adulthood, and eventually outward still to our community.

Compare these meaningful relationships with the relationship you have with an outsourced cstomer service rep or a disengaged salesperson. Sharp contrast, right? Question: Can meaningful relationships be created through outsourced labor?

Question: If – as a business – you understand the importance/value of creating meaningful relationships with your customers, why shove your customers away to call centers and disengaged employees? How does that work?

What if you could turn angry customers into your greatest advocates? What if you made it your mission?

What if you invited these customers to call you back regularly to let you know how things are going?  (Start a conversation with them. Engage with them. Foster a relationship. Twitter is good for that.)

As a company, ask yourself what role you play in your customers’ lives today:Are you their partner in crime (in a good way) or are you just selling them stuff?

Communities: Knowing where we belong is as important as knowing how we belong.

Individuals are hard to hear. Communities are much louder.

People want their opinions to matter. They want to be heard. When companies refuse to listen, they build walls between themselves and the communities around them.

Not listening (to your customers) is expensive. It makes you ignorant and isolated.

How can you know what people are saying about you outside your walls if you aren’t out there listening?

How are you monitoring you reputation?

Listening makes you relevant.

Listening makes you part of a community. (So listen!)

Not Listening = Disconnected. Listening = feedback, insight and metrics (use tools like Radian6).

As people grow increasingly connected (via social media), companies are losing their ability to influence behaviors via traditional means and media channels.

The era of the monologue is dead.

In the US alone, people are exposed to 500-3000 commercial messages per day. PER DAY!!!

And the ROI of the most obvious advertising channel (TV) is estimated to be 1-4%. (Not exactly stellar.)

Meanwhile, recommendations by family members, loved ones and peers are extremely sticky. People turn to people they trust to help them discover products and make purchasing decisions. In other words:

People are increasingly tuning companies out, and tuning in to each other instead.

Traditional Media alone increasingly expensive and less and less effective. Social media can complement traditional media: Add relevance, authenticity and stickiness.

Q: What is the most important thing a business can do for itself? A: Create happy, loyal customers.

Engagement is not a campaign.

This conversation is not about Social Media adoption. It is about transforming the way you think about your business: You are not a B2B or a B2C company. You are a P2P company (people to people).

You must create ways to enhance or improve your customers’ experience in a way that matters. One way to put this into action is to ask yourself how do I get my customers to want to recommend us to their mother or child or best friend?

Ask yourself: How would you do business if your CEO suddenly decided that you could no longer advertise? What would you do? How would you engage with your customers?

More notes from the presentation tomorrow. 😉

You can also follow some of the Twitter threads at #smcgville and #smcgreenville.

smc-greenville

Thanks again to SMC Greenville for having asked me to speak at their event this month. It was truly an honor.

I want to send out a very special thanks to Richard Peck, Table 301 and the awesome staff of Soby’s restaurant for being such gracious hosts.

Kind thanks also to Business Black Box for covering the event with their video crew.

And most of all, HUGE THANKS to everyone who got up at the crack of way too early on a Monday to come listen to me speak. I was truly overwhelmed by the interest, kindness and enthusiasm you all brought with you. Pretty unreal. I’m glad to have met even more incredible folks this week, as well as seeing so many familiar faces. Orange Coat’s Bear Gautsch was there (did I also see Jimmy C?), Brains on Fire’s Robbin Phillips, Geno Church and Spike Jones were there along with Bounce’s John McDermott… Bobby Rettew, Doug Cone, Jon Evans, Amy Wood, Trey Pennington of course… And I hear that someone even drove all the way from Columbia! (Whomever you are, shoot me a note. I definitely want to meet you next time you’re in Greenville.) The list is waaaaaaaaaaaaay too long for me to go on, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for coming, everyone. 🙂

What a great way to start the week!

Greenville Social Media Club - Olivier Blanchardphoto by Doug Cone (@nullvariable)

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Grand Central terminal, NYC - photo by Olivier Blanchard

Forget Twitter. Twitter is completely irrelevant. What we are really talking about here is a community.

Fact: It would appear that I am completely addicted to Twitter.

Also a fact: I couldn’t care less about Twitter. Twitter is a means to an end. A tool. A platform. Nothing more.

Fact #3: What may appear to be a Twitter addiction is in fact a community addiction. Or rather a love affair with conversations, sprinkled with a penchant for establishing appropriately meaningful connections with people (many of whom I might not otherwise have the pleasure to meet or share ideas with).

So before I go any further, the distinction between the box called Twitter and the magic that goes on inside it needs to be super clear.

Right about now, you are probably asking yourself… why are we talking about Twitter? What is it with this addiction? Can we pleeeeease move on to a topic we care about? And I hear ya. I really do. But I feel compelled to clear this up once and for all if I can, with this little post. (Yeah. As if. You know me: ever the optimist.)

In truth, this post – or rather the idea behind it – came from Spike Jones’ rant this week about Twitter. Normally, Spike’s piece would have prompted a 30,000 character comment, but it occurred to me that the topic deserved its very own post. (That, and I figured that Brains On Fire’s servers would probably appreciate my not taking up 3 gig of space for nothing.)

So anyway… To understand where I am coming from with this post, go read Spike’s piece first, then come back here for further consideration on the topic. Here’s the link. Hurry back.

..

.

Welcome back! I’m glad you took the time to read Spike’s opinions – and if you haven’t done so already, be sure to add BoF’s blog to your RSS reader or blogroll. It’s always a good read.

Now… Spike and I have grown to be good friends throughout the years, and we see eye to eye on most things. I have a lot of respect for him and the folks at BoF – who also  happen to be in the 864, by the way. So a) I don’t intend to bash anyone or trash any of his opinions here, and b) you may be surprised to hear that I actually agree with most of the things Spike brings up in his post. That being said, I have a slightly different opinion of Twitter and feel the need to come to its rescue if just a little.

Let’s go over some of what Spike brings up in his post so everyone is on the same page:

Your Twitter is not my Twitter: Ask 25 people what they use Twitter for and you’ll get 25 different answers. Some use it to keep up with friends. Some use it to find inspiration. Some to find knowledge. Some for mindless thoughts. Some just for fun. And some for none of the above.

Absolutely.

Twitter is not a popularity contest: It’s SO EASY to get caught up in the “number of followers” game. Addictive, even. But who really cares? It’s not about how many people you can get to follow you. Any monkey (or bot) for that matter, can go out and follow 10,000 people and mindlessly they’ll get 4,000 followers back. It’s quality – not quantity.

Again. Right on.

If you’re on Twitter all day long, I really start to wonder how you get your job done. Seriously. If you’re updating 45 times an hour, I’m thinking to myself, “Doesn’t this guy have a job?” Or if you’re constantly Tweeting after hours I’m thinking, “Doesn’t this guy have a family?”

That’s fair. As a Twitter power user, I get those kinds of questions often. Truly being on Twitter all day long is pretty-much impossible unless you are a) jobless, b) hopelessly addicted, c) wealthy enough to hire folks to tweet for you, and/or d) paid to tweet.

The next best thing to being plugged in to the Twitter stream 24/7 is to use a service like TweetDeck (or even Radian6) that notifies you when someone addresses a tweet to you directly or talks about something you are interested in. Kind of like IM or an email. Same thing. Also, categorizing key tweeps in specific groups helps you filter content in a snap. It doesn’t take long to figure out how to integrate Twitter into your multitasking routine. Everyone has a method. It may not seem like it, but I sometimes go a day or two without tweeting if I am busy. Lately, I have settled into a schedule that severely limits my access to Twitter until mid-afternoon. Being self-employed helps. Having a plan and knowing how to manage a schedule/workload well helps even more. Being able to filter Twitter conversations quickly (with the help of TweetDeck) can also mean the difference between a day wasted on Twitter and a healthy balance of work and insightful conversations.

The key is finding a balance that works for you. That balance is different from person to person. Some people watch TV. Others read. Others do crossword puzzles or play World of Warcraft. And some do it all with twitter streaming in the background. As a guy with a crazy schedule, a job that doesn’t stop at 5pm or on Friday, a triathlon training regimen AND a family, I still manage to blend Twitter into the mix without it getting in the way, so it can be done. 😉

Twitter isn’t for everyone or every comany. There are people running around literally badgering companies, politicians and whomever will listen that they should be on Twitter. First of all, companies need a strategy before they are on Twitter and secondly, it just doesn’t make sense for some companies to be on there – because their customers aren’t on there. So whenever someone tells you that they are a Twitter expert you have two options: 1) Laugh your ass off or 2) smile politely, turn and walk away.

True: Twitter isn’t for everyone or every company. But rememberwhat I startedthis post with? The whole twitter is just a box and the real value is in the community thing? Yeah. That. Forget Twitter for a second. Forget the very name, and look at it as a community. Heck, look at it as overlapping microcommunities, even. When I look at Twitter, I see mothers, fathers, bakers, auto mechanics, CEOs, CMO’s, recruiters, teachers, military folks, graphic designers, dog lovers, athletes, foodies, musicians, restaurateurs, web developers, students, doctors, etc. Ergo: I see people.

No wait… I see people talking to other people. I see people making friends. Sharing ideas. Recommending products. Asking questions. Answering them. I see people helping each other. I see people creating value for themselves and for others.

In my very humble but professional opinion, there is TREMENDOUS value in that.  And as Twitter continues to grow in popularity and usage (let’s not forget that Twitter is also a mobile phone app, not just a computer app), that value will grow exponentially.

Now… if you look at Twitter purely as a channel – like YouTube, NBC, a blog or a specific NING community, you’re right. At little more than a million active users, Twitter is a pretty low ROI channel. Most people aren’t on it yet, so Twitter’s reach is still way too small to matter. True.

If you look at it that way, then yes: Anyone preaching Twitter to companies may seem like a lunatic or a fraud.

But remember: Quality over quantity. Meaningful over transitory. Personal connections over automated customer service processes. For a great example, look at what Jet Blue is doing with Twitter (sample tweets from the @jetblue stream):

@foodmomiac head to the North concourse at T5 – it tends to be a bit quieter over there for phone calls.

Travel Tip Tuesday: Slip on shoes make the trip through TSA faster – and it’s good to stretch your feet on a long flight.

Winter weather in the Northeast may cause delays or cancellations. For your flight’s status, go to http://www.jetblue.com/flig…

@shaxxon Sorry but you may still need to set your DVR – We’ve got 36 channels of @DIRECTV but ABC isn’t one of them.

Yes @danwebbage. Daily flights between JFK and Montego Bay, Jamaica begin May 21st. I may need to do a “work trip” for onsite coverage!

@Jonnelle Have no fear, we’ll continue complimentary snacks and beverages. These options are for those who want something more substantial

@gregverdino When were your flights? – we are waiving change fees for customers traveling through NY Metro area tomorrow: http://is.gd/Pjg

Travel Tip Tuesday: Beware of viral WiFi SSIDs. If you see “Jet Blue hot spot” not “JetBlue Hotspot” check further http://is.gd/hocL

@alexsteed what flight number? – follow us and I can get back to you with info.

@sarahbuhr Travel destination packages you ask? Take a gander at our Getaways: http://jetblue.com/getaways

Any Pittsburgh folks thinking about a trip to Tampa? Just for you we’ve got a direct PIT-TPA on Jan 29th and 30th and two back on Feb 2nd

@schvin Unless acting as a documented service animal, pets must be fit in a carrier with combined weight less than 20lbs http://is.gd/fI3x

How cool is that: Jet Blue essentially uses Twitter as a free concierge service. And a friendly one at that. This is an airline, for crying outloud. An airline!!! 😀 If even an airline can figure out how to enhance their customers’ experience with twitter, surely a retailer can. Or a restaurant. Or a car rental company. Or a realtor. Or a politician. Or a hospital system.

We’re only scratching the surface here.

The beauty of Twitter is that it is a) 100% opt-in and opt-out, and b) an all-purpose destination: a) We use it on our terms if and when we want to, from any device – portable or not. b) Twitter is Twitter. I don’t have to look for a website or a blog. I don’t have to hunt down the right url or rss. I dont have to search or click through a menu to find the right page. It’s simple. It does all the work for me. It’s a single destination for every topic or type of connection. Just follow whomever you want, let it do all the work, and engage at will.

And unlike most websites and toll-free numbers, a) the person on the other end responds pretty quickly, and b) they usually aren’t outsourced. There’s something to be said for that on both counts.

Twitter and Politics

Now… to address Spike’s question about whether or not politicians should use Twitter, again, let’s erase Twitter from the thought process: The real question is should politicians engage in live conversations with the people they represent? (Regardless of the medium, platform or tool.) In my opinion, yes. Absolutely. Is Twitter the most appropriate tool for the job? Maybe not. But used in concert with other tools, yes, Twitter can be extremely effective – not only around election time, but every day – or every week – as time permits and the situation demands. Ultimately, the level of involvement a politician has with their constituents is their choice. I can only voice a personal opinion on the matter. I won’t make a judgment call on that one. I certainly won’t fault anyone who supports the creation of new (and direct) avenues of communications between public officials and voters who expect to have their representative’s ear.

Influence, reach and rankings

And last but not least:

The other tangent on this is TwitterGrader and the rest of those “graders” – they’re gimmicks people. If you’re goal is to be in the top 10 in the city, state, nation or world on TwitterGrader, you have my sympathies.

Awwww. Come on Spike. 😀

There are graders for everything. AdAge has its Power 150. Mack Collier’s Viral Garden has its Top 25 list. Technorati ranks blogs by category also. Everywhere you turn is some kind of ranking system. A Top 10 list. A Top 25 or 50 or 100 list. It’s human nature to a) be competitive, and also to gauge everything’s relevance through popularity contests.

Is Britney Spears more relevant than you or I because she has over 13,000 followers on Twitter? I don’t know. I guess to those 13,000+ people, she is. You and I may not like it, but it’s a fact that popularity and relevance are subjective.

In the eye of the beholder, as one might say.

Regardless of the quality of your content, reach does equal influence. If I can reach 3,000 people daily with my advice, then 5,000 is better. Not because of latent ego trips, but because I reallywant to try and help (influence, if you will) as many people in the business world as I can.

Likewise, if growing my crowdsourcing pool to 2,000 people helps me find twenty great sources of information or insight daily, then perhaps increasing that pool to 3,000 people will speed up the process. There is value in that for me, and I have adequate filters in place that allow me to sift through that much info without getting a headache over it.

Whether we like it or not, being ranked in the Top 10, 25, 50 or 100 in any category can be a powerful thing. False humility aside, it does feel good to discover that you are ranked somehow, somewhere. It generally means that a number of people find value in what you are doing, and that always feels good. Beyond the pat on the back thing, it’s also a peer-based validation of your contribution, performance or value. Nothing wrong with that either. From a more pragmatic standpoint, being #1 or in the Top 100 in your city, state, country – or in the world can help validate your position in an industry or authority on a topic. (I said help validate. Popularity or rankings are not an indication of anything on their own.) Still, for businesses and consultants, that sort of thing can make a huge difference.

Just like I don’t see anything wrong with folks training hard to make their way into the top 10 in their age group at a local triathlon, I don’t see anything wrong with people working hard to boost their Twitter rankings. If that’s their trip, why not? I see no harm in it. In a way – depending on why they use Twitter – learning how to increase their relevance and influence there could be a good thing, right? Kind of like boosting website rankings with search engines, driving traffic to a blog or driving attendance to a conference? When you take a step back, it’s really all the same thing. If someone just wants to use Twitter to chat with people, great. If part of their goal is to increase their relevance with a certain portion of the Twittersphere, that’s great too. To each their own.

What’s to ‘get’ of not to ‘get’?

If folks don’t “get” Twitter, that’s okay. Months ago, I tried to get my brother to start using Twitter so I could feel closer to him. I figured that if he tweeted about going to the market or watching a soccer game on TV or working on a website, I wouldn’t feel like he was so far away. (He lives on Reunion island, so we don’t see each other very often.) His response after he took a look at Twitter was “Why would I want the world to know every time I take a crap?”

Clearly, he wasn’t in a frame of mind conducive to a rewarding Twitter experience. (It’s okay, we still have Skype.) The point being that he doesn’t “get” Twitter, and that’s okay. My parents aren’t on Twitter either. Neither are most people I know. No big deal. To me, it’s like people who don’t see the point of ever watching a Star Wars or James Bond movie. They just don’t see the value of it, and I guess I just have to shrug and let them live their lives the way they want to live their lives. Are they missing much? Maybe. Maybe not. Who am I to say?

With some of these folks, it’s a non-issue. With others, it becomes part of who they are: A sort of badge of honor. Not having ever seen a Bond flick is something that becomes more than just… not having seen a Bond flick. It’s a line in the sand. I know people who absolutely refuse to walk into a Starbucks or get behind the wheel of a Ford or leave the United States. My mother refuses to learn how to use email. One of my neighbors thinks that computers and the internet are a complete waste of time. I know a guy who swears that he will never own a cell phone. Okay. Who cares. Your life, your rules, right?

Over time, some of these people’s attitudes eventually shift from being neutral about their opt-out strategy to being negative and critical about the cultural object they refuse to participate in – probably in an attempt to defend or validate their decision. I don’t get it, but it’s okay. The beauty of it is, I don’t have to get it. It’s just the way it is and I am 100% okay with that. Not everyone gets Twitter. Not everyone wants to see a Bond flick. Not everyone wants to own a computer or eat grilled fish or travel to Europe. I shrug and move on. It doesn’t make people any less intelligent, relevant or worth hanging out with. Our differences shouldn’t divide us after all.

Just like some people scratch their heads when they see runners or cyclists glide by on a Saturday morning, some people look at Twitter with an equal measure of curious amusement and annoyance: What’s the point. Where’s the value. Why would you waste time chatting to strangers on Twitter. Don’t you have better things to do. How in the world can something like this help a business. Why would I want the world to know everything I do. I guess if you have to ask, don’t worry about it. If you don’t see the value in it, don’t force it. Nothing says that you have to use Twitter or be on Facebook or LinkedIn. Who cares? If you don’t feel that it’s for you, it’s okay. Really. We won’t hold it against you. It won’t make you uncool or anything. Different strokes for different folks.

Those of us who do get it however, those of us who see the potential, who have been creating conversations and engaging with (and in some cases building) communities will continue to use Twitter to connect people with one another – and to establish these connections for ourselves in the process. We will continue to expand each other’s networks, brain trusts and talent banks. You can frown at us, scoff at us, even shake your fingers at what may seem like bizarre behavior sometimes, but the simple fact is that we of the Twitter world are simply connectors: We create connections between people, businesses, ideas, skills and value sets. It’s part of the way we operate. We were doing it before Twitter (BT) and we will still be doing it (hopefully better) long after Twitter is but a faint memory (AT).

I’ve already rambled way too much, but if you will allow me one last bit of wisdom/advice/commentary/wrap-up, here it is: Don’t get sucked into conversations about tools and platforms and apps. What we are really talking about here is people talking and connecting with people. Twitter in comparison is absolutely, completely, utterly irrelevant to the conversation. Don’t get sucked into Twitter sucks vs. Twitter rocks argument. We might as well be arguing over the color of the microphones used by the United Nations. Totally worthless. Let’s try and move beyond that.

For another take on the subject, check out Doug Cone’s piece on this very topic – also prompted by Spike’s post. Check it out here.

Have a great Thursday, everyone.

PS: Spike, nothing but love, brother. I’m buying the next round. ;D

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pho4me-desert

The story of your relationship with your customers should read like what’s going on in Pho’s photo (above):

You found each other in the wilderness.

You connected in some way.

You liked where things went from there.

You made music together.

You had a great time.

You became part of each other’s worlds.

If you and your customers aren’t dancing, if you aren’t making music together, if you aren’t truly part of each other’s worlds, you should probably be asking yourself why.

Fact: You may be selling to customers, but you are still not connecting with people.

Reinvent the way you do business.

Get back to basics.

Get back to handshakes, smiles and conversations.

Get back to knowing your customers, not just knowing about them.

If your business isn’t touching people’s lives in a meaningful, memorable, deeply human way, your resources are being wasted on ineffective “business processes” – and the only thing you are developing is your own expensive demise.

Banks. Hospitals. Grocery stores. Software companies. Equipment manufacturers. Airlines. Retail spaces. Taxi cabs. Wireless providers. Repair shops. Restaurants. Hotels. PR firms. Universities. Manufacturers. Distributors. It doesn’t matter what industry or type of business you are. This applies to each and every one of you.

Tear down the walls, walk out into the world, and dance.

That is all. 😉

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Some recent discussions I have had on Twitter have directed me back to the relationship that brands have with archetypes. This isn’t a topic that has received quite as much attention as it should unfortunately… Ind I say “unfortunately” because the secret to creating dominant brands may very well lie in a brand strategist’s ability to combine anthropology, the human brain’s hard-wired need to interpret the world through symbolic imagery, and the relativity of relevance. Let me frame this: Whether we like it (or understand it) or not, the human brain needs symbolism and metaphor to function properly. The creation of archetypes helps us classify and make sense of aspects of our lives that would otherwise be too overwhelming or confusing to deal with on a conscious level.

Every ritual we have, every religious ceremony, and even every iconic figure, product or brand is tied to the hard-coded subconscious need to map and make sense of the world around us through the help of easily identifiable metaphors. These are complex systems, with simple interfaces which remain remarkably similar from age to age and culture to culture.  We use these metaphors as vessels for everything from love, passion and mercy to hatred, war and evil. This helps us put a face to values which otherwise be too complex to define and redefine on an ongoing basis: The Romans and Greeks had gods for every human trait. Christians have their patron saints. We have pop culture and brands… among other things. Pop culture idols (movie stars, musicians, sports heroes) are all vessels for us in the same way that Aphrodite, Hercules and Zeus were vessels for the Greeks. Same need, same structure, different packaging. Brands have now become part of this value-mapping system.
Filling The Contextual Void:

Ever since a friend convinced me to read Robert Johnson’s “He,” I have been fascinated by the role that archetypes play in the genesis of mythology, relationships, personalities, pop culture, and even brands.Given my profession of choice, perhaps especially brands.
I was reminded of this connection a year ago when I happened on John Howard Spink’sUsing Archetypes To Build Stronger Brands.
As John himself notes, surprisingly, not a lot of work is being done on this front. Knowing what I know about the role that mythology and archetypes play in cultural identity, it surprises me that very few brand strategists and Marketing thought leaders have made the connection between archetypes and brands – or at least that most have not worked to incorporate the notion of archetypes in their operational brandbuilding methodology.
Per John:

Though the development and management of brands is central and fundamental to everything we do, are the tools we use up to the job? Or do they do more harm than good? Brands are complex, abstract and difficult to pin down. However, in endeavoring to define them we often forget this. With techniques such as brand pyramids,we take something wild and untamed and attempt to constrain and control
it. Rather than trying to understand brands in their natural habitat, we put them in a zoo. I recognize that pyramids, onions and similar techniques can be useful internal disciplines. But do they really help define the unchanging core values of a brand? We spend weeks debating the nuances of synonyms, performing
semantic gymnastics to prove that Brand X is different from Brand Y, and agonizing over whether something is an Emotional Benefit or a Brand Value – a distinction we struggle to understand in the first place. At the end of the day, what does this get us? More often than not, a pile of disconnected words that
looks like nothing less than an explosion in a bombed thesaurus factory.

Unfortunately, having built our pyramid and agreed that our brand is contemporary, stylish, relevant, inclusive and other usual suspects, we fall into the trap of thinking our job is finished. Usually though, we are no closer to articulating ‘core essence’ than when we began – even if that particular box
has been filled in. What should be rich, complex and, by definition, hard to articulate ends up neutered and subjected to death by a thousand adjectives. Ironically, our supposed unchanging brand template is reduced to a fluid selection of meaningless or un-differentiating words that even those close to the
process interpret in different ways.

The result, to quote Shakespeare, is a brand which is ‘…a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.You may feel this is harsh, but ask yourself how many walking shadows there are out there, and if we struggle to find meaning, think how consumers feel.

Amen.
Enter the archetypes:
There are certain basic characters and storylines that appear regularly in myth, fairytale, literature and film; archetypes that represent core aspects of the human condition, and tap deep into our motivations and sense of meaning. When we encounter these, they resonate in powerful ways that transcend culture and demographics.
This is why, when penning the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas turned to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to help him understand the archetypal narrative structure and characters found in these mythic stories, and why these three films enjoy such strong and enduring appeal. Whether Luke Skywalker, The Man With No Name, Red Riding Hood, Harry Potter, or real people such as JFK, Princess Diana or Marilyn Monroe, there is something primal in archetypal characters and situations that stirs our emotions, stimulates our memory and sometimes changes lives. In developing and managing brands, are we really so different from George Lucas or a budding Barbara Cartland?
Ironically, in this postmodern age when people are supposedly no longer interested in meta-narratives with common understanding, brand development is nothing short of creating a story that people want to be part of; a character with values that have deep resonance which our target audience want to emulate or be associated with.
This is why a Harley-Davidson marketer can say: ‘what we sell is the ability for a 43-year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him’ Or why Scott Bedbury, in his time head of marketing at Nike and Starbucks, believes that: ‘a brand is a metaphorical story that … connects with something very deep — a fundamental human appreciation of mythology … Companies that manifest this sensibility … invoke something very powerful’.
Bingo. Right from the horses’ mouths.
What seem like “intangible” elements of a brand are really very precise sets of contextual values, emotions, aspirations and projections that can easily be not only identified but plotted, graphed, and inserted into a brand’s identity. (All you need is the key – the actual archetypes – and a clear understanding of the role they play in the psyches the folks whose culture you are trying to intertwine your brand with.)
This is actually VERY easy to accomplish. Some brands even achieve this without even realizing it. They instinctively tap into something primal and culturally relevant without really knowing or understanding why or how they did it.
Take Nike, for example: The Nike brand appeals to the “champion/hero” and uses sports as the medium for its allegorical language. The very choice of names – “Nike” the Greek Goddess of victory – has immediate Archetypal implications:
A) Nike is a Goddess. A creature straight out of Mythology – in which every character, god, human and everything in between is the embodiment of a specific human archetype.
B) Nike symbolizes victory. Victory typically comes from bravery, sacrifice, courage, strength… all being the attributes of the brand – or rather, the symbolism that the brand aims to help consumers project onto itself and every product it stamps with its sexy little swish mark.
Once the brand takes on the attributes of the desired archetype (or two, or three), then people begin a sort of projective identification dance. They first project their wants and needs onto the brand, in effect using it as a vessel for the qualities which they cannot articulate or completely manage on their own. They then become patrons of the brand in order to possess these attributes in a form they can understand, use, and express. Once a brand has achieved this type of relationship with the public, it becomes alive. It becomes part of pop culture. It becomes relevant on a level that surpasses traditional marketing, messaging and business-speak. It becomes a power brand.
Understanding archetypes and using this knowledge to build powerful brands is kind of a no-brainer… but still, very few agencies, marketing firms and brand boutiques use this simple tool. Strange.
I’m glad to see that John has tapped into this, and I hope that more of you will as well. Aside from the books mentioned in his piece, I also encourage you to read Robert E. Johnson’s “He.” It’s a quick read (less than 200 pages) that will help you not only understand the roles that archetypes play in our everyday lives, but also understand human behavior (particularly in the Western world) in a way that no other book or university course can. It is pure genius.
The Messaging Crutch:
About two years ago, I found myself having a conversation with a couple of self-professed “branding experts”. We were chatting about projects that I had worked on, and I sensed that the methodology behind the successes that I’d had in the last few years wasn’t clicking with them. Three or four times, they asked me about messaging.
“Yeah, but… what about the messaging?”

You might have thought they were asking me “where’s the beef?
“Messaging”… Hmmm… It hadn’t occurred to me until I was asked the question that “messaging” had stopped to be all that important to my process in quite some time. Messaging. Yeah. In truth, messaging seemed almost superfluous. I explained that with every single project I had worked on since 2004, messaging had been secondary at best. In most cases, when dealing with branding projects and even most effective marketing campaigns, the strength of the product, brand or idea was easier to understand viscerally than when articulated. The clever taglines, the tight copy, the words on the page or the poster or the screen were almost completely irrelevant.
What I found is that the strength of a brand often lies in its power not to have to be explained or articulated. In a way, defining a brand too well may actually hurt it.
No, forget that. Replace may with will. Does Apple need a tagline? Does iPod need messaging? Does Starbucks? Does Nike? Does Porsche? Does Halliburton? Does PowerBar? Does Disney? Ben & Jerry? Staples? Ferrari? Cartier? Target? Heineken?
Many PR pros will argue that they do. The reality is that they don’t.
If the brand you create is powerful enough – inside and out – then messaging is barely frosting on the cake. Heck, it’s little more than the colored sprinkles on the edges. The messaging is nice and it dresses things up a little, but… if you create a power brand or a love brand, it might as well be an afterthought.Using archetypes in your brand development process can help you tap into the raw nature and identity of a brand better than any brand pyramid, onion, pie chart or whatever cookie-cutter technique you are currently using. It’s okay if you don’t believe me. But… for your sake (and more importantly, that of your clients), at least look into it. It might be the one thing your practice was missing. At the very least, it will become a great new tool to add to your brand-building toolbox.
Breathing Life into the branding process:

I’ll let John make one last important point before we close the book on today’s topic:

I find it more exciting to think of myself as the author of eternal brand stories than as someone who writes strategy documents and brand pyramids.

Well, um… yeah. I can relate. I hope we all can.
Truth: Brands live out there, in the collective ocean of pop culture that we all share, swim in, and contribute to. (Wait… that sounded kind of gross. Sorry.) Where brands don’t live is inside agency meeting rooms or in the heads of creatives living in the ad world. They don’t live inside your market research or on pie charts or inside brand pyramids. They don’t live in your taglines or in your copy or in the dialogue of your spokespeople. Your brands live in the same world as Darth Vader, Ronald Reagan, Brad Pitt, Hercules, John McLane, Rocky Balboa, John F. Fennedy, James Bond, Paris Hilton, Rintintin, Britney Spears, Spiderman, Godzilla, Jack Bauer, Cinderella, and Tony Soprano.
Maybe it sounds like a stretch to some of you, but if you look into this a little more closely, you’ll start to see it. Some of you may have to look a little more closely than others… but it’s well worth the extra effort.
Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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For a little while, the folks at BrandPerspectives.com had a great little blog on Branding. They haven’t posted to it in a very long time, but some of the stuff they did post there is still up and well worth a look, so go check it out.

One of their last topics dealt with Developing a Culture of Brand Performance Accountability (which… was actually the title of their post. Ahem.)

Here’s the meat of the post:


“Just as with financial performance, measurement is critical to
improvement for brand initiatives. Creating a culture of measurement-driven
brand assessments will help executives better understand how to derive the
greatest return from their investments. (…)

Simple steps based on increasing your understanding of your
customers, and their interactions with your brand, can be implemented through
ongoing research.

For instance, the ability to quantify gaps in organizational alignment
behind your brand, or discontinuity in the customer experience (including
metrics such as loyalty, drivers of satisfaction, service levels, etc.) by
segment, region or product, can – and do – have profound impact at the executive
level.”

There you have it. Too few companies focus on assessing where their brands stand… And it’s obvious which companies do it, and which companies don’t. For the first batch, think Starbucks, Whole Foods, Target, Apple and Virgin, for starters. In the other batch… well… throw-in the companies you’ve never heard of.

There is, however, one thing that struck me about the post. In its original version, it mentions (customer) loyalty twice. Hmmm… Loyalty… That tricky little word.

There seem to be two schools of thought in regards to customer loyalty, these days: The first believes in it. The second thinks it’s dead. Both sides have very smart and insightful things to say on the subject. But… who’s right?

Is there such a thing as brand loyalty anymore?

The answer is yes. Absolutely. Think sports teams. Think Ford vs. Chevy. Think Playstation vs. X-Box. Think Apple vs. Microsoft.

Think dog people vs. cat people.

Think Republicans vs. Democrats.

Yeah, brand loyalty is alive and well. But unless you have two superbrands battling it out and inviting you to take sides, forget it. There’s no such thing. It doesn’t exist.

Without the element of archetypal supercompetition, without a corporate nemesis, brand loyalty is simply irrelevant.

Here’s a simple example: Most people love Google… Most of the searches that lead people to this blog come from Google. But because Google doesn’t have an arch-nemesis, no one is driven to be loyal to it. People simply use it. Loyalty isn’t an issue.

What you might mistake for brand loyalty is a lot more likely to be about customers’ habits, penchant for convenience, and comfort.

Remember that customers are people. People like patterns.

Once customers find something they like, something they can incorporate in their routine, that’s exactly what they do. Even I, Mr. Agent Of Change, Mr. Try Something New, shop at the same stores regularly. I read the same blogs. Return to the same TV shows every week. Hang out with the same friends. I even like to get gas from the same places.

You get the drift.

We’re humans. Ergo, we are creatures of habit.

Here’s how it works: You have your routine. One day, your routine gets disturbed. You alter it and try something new. (The store was out of your usual brand of olive oil and this forces you to buy another brand. Your favorite airline doesn’t have any flights available, so you have to book with another one.)

Outcome A: You like the new brand better and adopt it.
Outcome B: You don’t like the new brand better and return to your usual one next time around.

In other words, it takes a significant event for us to CHANGE our habits.

It takes a catalyst.

That catalyst could be a glowing recommendation from someone we trust. It could be a really cool ad. It could be the result of an unexpected shortage in the original product. It could be an accidental discovery. It could be the influence of a cultural phenomenon.

Check out the wheel of brand interaction. What it shows is a complex but repetitive pattern of purchasing behavior. The slinky-like spiral is a brand exposure/interaction pattern we go through either daily or weekly. Some brands are closer to our comfort zone (and lifestyle) than others. (Some brands, we have only superficial contact with, while others we have regular contact with.)

Occasionally, a catalyst will force one of the tentacles of slinky-like spiral pattern to either shift, or reach out a little further than normal.

Marketers spend most of their time focusing on designing some of these catalysts: Think POP displays. Advertising. Package design. PR. Promotions. Coupons. “Branding”. “Co-branding”. Licensing. Sponsorships. Establishing a presence at trade shows and special events… or just across the street from your office. Sampling. Buzz marketing. Giveaways. Swag. New product features. New product styling. New technology. Special edition releases. You get the idea.

It’s kind of a three-tiered cycle:

Phase 1: Building the brand’s contextual foundation – The idea is that exposure to brands will make us more likely to incorporate them into our routine. Familiarity, after all, breeds trust and comfort. (As in “oh yeah, I’ve never tried it, but I know that brand.”)

Phase 2: Triggering the change in purchasing habits – Give people a reason to try your product, and make it easy to do so. (Note: Some companies purposely bypass Phase 1 and focus their energy on impulse buyers.)

Phase 3: Cross your fingers and hope the product is as good as you claim it is. You only get once chance to make a good impression. The best marketing in the world won’t save you if your product isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Read ground zero brand-building to know what I mean.

People buy what they know, like and trust. They also tend to crave what they think will make their lives better. (That could be a red BMW convertible or a chrome-plated iPod or a new pair of Rudy Project sunglasses.) More often than not, purchasing habits are based on perceptions, expectations and experience, not loyalty.

Put simply, we tend to buy what we know only until we find something we like better. Brand loyalty is really brand comfort.

So the question you have to ask yourself is this: What are you doing to make your customers not want to consider switching over to other brands?

(Or if you’re trying to attract new customers, what are you doing to make your competitors’ customers want to consider switching to you?)

Does your brand evoke the same level of excitement and customer comfort as Target, Starbucks, Apple, Whole Foods and Virgin?

If not, why not?

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guy-kawasaki-package-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great day, everyone.

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

guy-kawasaki-package-2

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Roger Waters crowd

Pete Quily just saved me a few hours of work by publishing a fantastic Presidential Election/social media scorecard that outlines how the Obama campaign took advantage of social media and the internet to supercharge his grassroots movement all the way to victory. Remember the jokes about his having been a “community organizer?” It appears that the ability to create, organize and engage communities is a pretty useful skill after all. Combine it with social media, and you can work some serious magic – both in the political world AND the business world. If the Obama campaign’s success with social media strategies don’t convince CEOs and CMOs across the US that this “search”, Facebook and Twitter stuff is serious business, I don’t know what will.

Here are the numbers:

Barack Obama Vs. John McCain Search Engine and Social Media Showdown

Internet Presence
Barack Obama
John McCain
% Difference
Leading
Google Pagerank
8
8
0
Pages in Google’s Index
1,820,000
30,700
5828
Obama
Links to Website
in Yahoo – Pages
643,416
513,665
25
Obama
Links to Website
in Yahoo – Inlinks
255,334
165,296
54
Obama

Search Engine Results for Candidates Names in Quotes & Social Media Presence

Google
56,200,000
42,800,000
31
Obama
Google News
136,000
371,620
173
McCain
Google Blog
4,633,997
3,094,453
50
Obama
Technorati
412,219
313,497
31
Obama
WordPress.com
19,692
14,468
36
Obama
Google Image
24,200,000
8,620,000
181
Obama
Flickr
73,076
15,168
382
Obama
Flickr Photostream* 50,218 No Profile 50,218
Obama
Flickr Contacts* 7,148 No Profile 7,148
Obama
Google Video
136,000
89,800
51
Obama
Youtube
358,000
191,000
87
Obama
Youtube Videos Posted*
1,819
330
451
Obama
Youtube Subscribers*
117,873
none listed
117,873
Obama
Youtube Friends*
25,226
none listed
25,226
Obama
Facebook
567,000
18,700
2932
Obama
Facebook Supporters*
2,444,384
627,459
290
Obama
Facebook Wall Posts*
495,320
132,802
273
Obama
Facebook Notes*
1,669
125
1235
Obama
MySpace
859,000
319,000
169
Obama
MySpace Friends*
844,781
219,463
285
Obama
MySpace Comments*
147,630
none listed
147,630
Obama
Twitter
506,000
44,800
1129
Obama
Twitter Followers*
121,314
4,911
2470
Obama
Twitter Updates*
262
25
1048
Obama
Friend Feed
34,300
27,400
25
Obama

The statistic that should sum it all up: John McCain’s social network page has only 3 suggested sites, Obama’s suggests 16. One side understood how to seed social media channels to foster grass roots movements while the other had absolutely no idea what to do with social media beyond the obvious (using YouTube as a broadcast channel, and probing the value of Facebook/MySpace communities).

The Twitter Factor

Take a look at the Twitter numbers (in blue): Only 25 updates for @JohnMcCain vs. 262 updates for @BarackObama.

Less than 5,000 followers for John McCain vs. 121,300 followers for Barack Obama.

Boiled down to the basics: 10x more updates for Obama = almost 25x more followers for Obama.

Note: John McCain’s social networking site sadly makes zero reference to Twitter. Missed opportunity? Probably: One of the most notable effects of the McCain campaigns lack of focus on Twitter was obvious during the final few weeks of the campaign: A significant pro-Obama bias which left many McCain supporters alienated on the exploding live micro-blogging service. Instead of feeding John McCain’s social-media savvy army of supporters on Twitter, his campaign left them with little to do but huddle together and stand fast against a deluge of pro-Obama chatter. Imagine what YOU could do with 5,000 organized followers/customer/fans rooting for you on Twitter. Not understanding the value of these channels most certainly cost the McCain campaign dearly in the final weeks of leading to the Nov. 4 elections.

Why should anyone care about Twitter? One word: Numbers. According to stats provided by compete.com last month, Twitter’s year-over-year growth clocked at 573% in September 2008 vs. Facebook’s very respectable 84% YoY growth and MySpace’s negative 15% YoY growth. (Yep, MySpace’s unique visits are apparently shrinking.) Twitter’s growth is staggering.

At this rate, it may take less than 3 years for Twitter’s estimated 2.5 million* visitors to reach Facebook’s current 100 million* mark. When you consider that presidential elections can be won or lost by just a few thousand votes, it doesn’t take a social media expert to understand the extent to which Twitter WILL play a vital role in the 2012 presidential race.

* Worldwide numbers. Not US numbers. It is estimated that approximately 40% of Twitter users are in the United States.

Below: Twitter demographics (usage by age and gender). If you’re a student looking for a cool project involving social media, overlay this data with voter demographics and see what you find out.

2510539719_6e0af78a8a

To understand the full extent of the Obama campaign’s digital and social media strategies in these historic elections click here: Blue State Digital’s case study on the Obama online campaign is pretty comprehensive. (Political science, communications and marketing students will be studying this for years to come.)

Read Pete’s full post here. Great stuff.

Have a great Friday, everyone! 🙂

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