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On madness, models of failure, and the mythology of past successes

I have been thinking a lot about success and failure in business this past week, and about behavioral patterns and common cultural factors I invariably find in organizations that breed either one outcome or the other. I will dive deeper into this topic over the coming weeks, but for now, today, I want to show you something. Something that, at first glance, I found funny. Not knee-slapping, LOL-inducing haha-funny, mind you. Something funny yet tragic, because it illustrates not only the stupidity of the way some organizations cling to anachronistic models of failure, but the absurdity of it in its whole.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s just say that what I received today, what prompted this post, made me wonder about the sanity of the person who thought it wise to send it to me. And this made me think about why some managers insist on never letting go of strategies and tactics which they know don’t work.

Point #1: Knowing full well that a method, tool or model no longer yields the desired outcome (assuming it ever did), some organizations will continue to bet on it, in the hopes that the laws of the universe will shift in the night and miraculously turn a completely ludicrous project into success.

The partial email I will share with you may make many of you chuckle, as I chuckled when I read through the first few sentences, but in truth, there really isn’t anything funny about it, and here’s why: As extreme as this example of stupidity may seem, the principles which guided the hand of a business to drive this campaign, to assign resources to it (writers, staff, computers, software licenses, chairs, desks, office space, electricity, lights, etc.) are no different from the principles that guide tens of thousands of companies to also cling to their own proven methods of failure.

That organizations, then, would cling to such ill-advised models in the face of logic, in the face of common sense even, I can almost understand. Not every organization or department is helmed by the sharpest mind of its generation. I get that. But more shocking to me is that this type of absurd behavior – this level of abject stupidity when it comes to discerning between effective and ineffective models – occurs in face of facts, and by that, I mean hard data and history, ignored, pushed aside in favor of a mythology of past successes.

Let the notion sink in for a moment. Mythology of past successes. The myth that the organization was once successful, and the further notion that the methods it employed then, if employed now, will restore it onto its successful path. A past success, mind you, that more often than not only exists in the minds of those who cling to its dream, therefore invalidating the very methods which they so revere.

Point #2: Imaginary past successes and glories are potent illusions – they aim to set the stage for future ones after all – but as poisonous and lethal as memories of painful lost loves: Embellished over time by the mind’s gentle healing hand, polished to a high sheen that grows brighter in magnificence with every passing year.

A man, in the embrace of weakness, can find himself trading the inconvenience of reality for the comfort of such an illusion, and as the mind is trained to do in order to help us survive tragedy, begin to turn the pain and reality of failure into something seemingly beautiful and pure. Faced with the prospect of further failure, facts go out the window. Reality seeks to be disproved. The mind begins to look for safety and comfort.  All that eventually remains is the legend of “the good old days,” and the notion that a higher power (even in the form of abstract “business cycles”) will come and make things right if only one perseveres in holding on to the past long enough.

Fisher Kings, organizational dysfunction, and engineering cultures of failure

This is something a C.E.O. told me years ago, when he and I were discussing the future of his company: “This is how we’ve always done it. It’s always worked for us. We’re not about to start doing it differently now.”

Except it hadn’t worked in twenty years, everyone knew it – as I suspect he did as well – yet there he was, defending the sanctity of a model that had already begun to fail a full generation ago and showed no promise of deliverance whatsoever. Embattled and failing, the company yet refused to let go of a past it had turned for itself into legend. Religion, even. This man, this grown man, clung to the safety of a myth of success the way an anxious child in the face of uncertainty clings to the hand of his mother.

The reality of the company’s past “success,” (the basis, in his mind, for the inevitable return of fortune as foretold by his internal narrative – the myth he created for himself over years of wishful thinking) was that the company had never, in fact, been all that successful. It had struggled, as all companies do, for market share, for growth, for loyal customers. What success it had enjoyed for a time had been hard-earned and modest at best.  There had never been glory. There had never been true sustained market leadership. The man sitting across from me was operating under a spell of denial which he had – over time – infused into his organization. The Fisher King retold.

One doesn’t have to be clinically insane to act like a madman but this one, afflicted as he was by his fears, by his bitterness, by his anger, by his own inner demons of self-doubt and shame, in retreating into a world of make-believe, was in fact acting like a madman: Working against all reason and common sense. Rather than steer his ship to warmer waters and favorable winds clearly discernible just ahead, he chose to keep to the murky, brackish waters he now believed had once been a glorious ocean. He painted himself the C.E.O. of a successful company, whose brand would someday regain dominance. A dominance to be regained again as its birthright, or so the tale went inside his head. This in spite of inaction, of denial, of stupidity and a surprising level of arrogance.

The places we allow ourselves to drift to and die, out of fear and out of shame. Both one and the same.  (If you hate your job, consider this a tap on the shoulder: How long do you intend to wait there in misery?)

This was the company I had been hired to rescue. I almost did, but only almost. I don’t always succeed. I managed to drag it back from the brink, to show them the way, even to pave it for them, but the last step, they had to take for themselves: Making the decision to change. To let go of their ghosts and commit to a fresh start.

Not everyone, though, has the courage to unfurl their sails.

The Greek perspective, and methods of failure

If I were an ancient Greek, I would talk about fear and anxiety in terms of spirits and possession. Not spirits as in demons, the way we think of them now, but the spirits of love, anger, hatred, fear, cowardice, envy… Emotions given life and will and power over our lives by us, their willing vessels.

The Spartans believed that blood lust in the middle of battle, for example, was possession – and something to avoid at all cost. Despair can be possession. Fury. Jealousy. Terror. Love. Enthusiasm. Every type of feeling can take us over. Overwhelm us. Crimes of passion are the result of possession. Brawling with fans of a rival football team is the result of possession. Understanding this is understanding something about human behavior, not just 3,000 years ago but today as well. Perhaps especially so.

We yet have much to learn from the Greeks.

Looking at human behavior from that perspective, whatever spirit possessed this man, this unfortunate C.E.O., I have met many times since. Different offices, different cities, different letters on the doors and the lobby walls and the business cards, but always the same madness. The same visceral need to create then cling to myths of success, and along with them proven methods of failure: Decisions and actions that led to their ship remaining in irons, year after year, in the false safety of a cove that in fact had become its grave. Cultures of failure start here. In this manner. Engineered by the dysfunctions of an individual ill-suited to lead an organization.

When mediocrity and failure are hailed as glory and success, take a bearing: Relativism doesn’t apply to victory. It only serves to paint defeat into something more palatable. It is the fuel of denial. Flipping success and failure on their heads so that one suddenly becomes mistaken for the other is madness as well.

Point #3: Failure in organizations, in business, in projects and campaigns isn’t always the result of luck or fate or circumstances. Sometimes it is (though I would caution against looking at obstacles and challenges, even the most seemingly insurmountable odds as anything but opportunity), but just as often, failure is engineered, constructed from within, given birth to and shaped, fostered, nurtured, encouraged and fed daily – like a creature.

The truth of failure, true failure, is that it lies not in circumstance but at the intersection of weakness and method. In the weakness that drives some men to shun the fight and the challenge which are the price of both success and victory, and to instead embrace illusion, relativism (characterized by endless strings of excuses) and the type of insanity that makes them act against their own best interest: Ignoring facts. Declaring success when none exists. Continuing down a clear path of failure. Adopting failure as a method.

Symptoms vs. Disease: Digging beneath superficial absurdity to find its cause

However extreme the following example may seem to us, scores of companies insist on clinging to equally ridiculous and completely ineffective methods of conducting business, albeit not quite as spectacular in their awfulness. Yet… outside of execution – or the manifestation of this type of nonsense, as seen below – compulsive adherence to methods of failure is in no way different in its path to what led to this example, and remains equally absurd.

Here it is, the first paragraph from an email like millions of others just like it, which we consider spam, yet someone, somewhere considers marketing:

I sincerely ask for forgiveness for I know this may seem like a complete intrusion to your privacy
but right about now this is my best option ofcommunication. This mail might come to you as a
surprise and the temptation to ignore it as frivolous could come into your mind, but please
consider it a divine wish and accept it with a deep sense of humility. This letter must surprise you
because we have never meet before neither inperson nor by correspondence, but I believe that,
it takes just one day to meet orknow someone either physically or through correspondence.

Ridiculous? Of course it is. It’s spam – and bad spam at that. But you know what?  The company that paid for it thinks this works, that this utterly ludicrous bit of email content is the best way to get me to click on a button or surrender personal information. And while we laugh at the stupidity of it, wondering in the backs of our minds what kind of manager or business owner would believe, in this day and age, that something like this is a method of success, it is in no way different from a manager or business owner in Kansas City, Charlotte, London or Chicago believing that their own brand of ineffective, outdated, business development method will somehow yield better results than it has until now.

Point #4: The absurdity of embracing methods of failure is not measured by the depth of stupidity characterizing their execution – like really awful copy, as seen in the above example,- but rather by the fervor with which failure-blind managers cling to their own delusions in spite of everything they know.

It’s tragic.

I don’t say this lightly. It is soul-crushing to see professional men and women – not organizations but human beings of flesh and blood, like me – so blinded, so possessed by layer upon layer of bullshit that they are no longer able to tell up from down, right from wrong, smart from stupid. Confused and lost in the wilderness of a world that has outpaced them, they cling to a made-up version of it, one they can feel comfortable and safe with, even if it doesn’t actually exist.

In this world, what they know, what they believe, even if it is completely absurd, holds more truth for them than the reality they refuse to accept. This shielding mechanism, this search for comfort and security in an idealized version of the past, of the “good old days,” makes every new idea alien and dangerous. A threat. They begin to regard progress at best as suspect, and at worst as a betrayal of their “ideals.”

In the same way that children invent for themselves imaginary worlds in play, adults sometimes invent for themselves worlds in fear. We see this with religion and politics, with extremism. We also see it in the business world: Some of these adults apply this mechanism to their professions, often with dreadful consequences.

When I hear a C.E.O. scoff condescendingly at Social Business, aiming to belittle and ridicule it as “something the kids do,” something legitimate businesses don’t need, a waste of time, a fad, a pile of crap, I don’t feel frustration anymore. I feel pity. Pity for the man, pity for the organization, pity for its future. Hell, I feel sadness because I know the fear that lives at the heart of the attitude that nurtured the opinion behind the comment. More importantly, I know instantly that the organization “led” by this person is crippled by methods of failure. And because the pattern of such dysfunction doesn’t deviate all that much from company to company, I can start mapping it out on paper without having to hear another word.

Point #5: When you understand a leader’s weakness, you know how his organization is failing.

Organizations that shun rather than embrace progress, whose default position is to embrace new ideas in meetings but somehow never manage to implement them, organizations that refuse to acknowledge or enable change from within or without, these organizations are all the same. Every single one. Identifying them is the first step. Understanding them follows. Beyond that, expect a bumpy ride.

Word to the wise: Not everyone is cut out to be an agent of change. If you can visualize your career, imagine the path of least resistance. Now imagine the complete opposite. More often than not, change is war.

Time to revisit the definitions of insanity and failure

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again, expecting a different result each time.

I disagree.

Perseverance, then, would be insanity. Tenacity also. I reject that definition. Conditions change: The same action repeated enough times can and often does yield different results, and we intrinsically know it. From adaptation to probability, we know that results may vary. We put it in fine print on just about everything.

The exact same spin of the ball in a game of roulette will have it land on a different number each time. The same lotto numbers played week after week will yield a different relationship to the winning numbers arrived at elsewhere. The same degree of effort on the field of practice will result in physical and mental changes over time. And so it goes. Because conditions vary, repetition in the face of failure alone does not constitute insanity. What I propose instead is this, that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action you know cannot yield the desired outcome over and over again, expecting a different result.

Insanity is deliberately choosing a method of failure over a method of success (or even an infinite range of experimental methods) because in spite of all logic, it fits within a world view -an ideology – borne out of anxiety and false nostalgia rather than experience and reality. THAT is insanity.

Failure – systemic failure, that is – is engineered. It is built from the ground up, much like success, one broken brick at a time.

Point #6: Just as surely as a culture of success can take root in a company (Zappos, Apple, BMW, Google, and many more) a culture of failure can take root as well: Characterized by internal dysfunction, the utter absence of loyalty among its staff, low morale, a poisonous work environment and an absence of fire and passion even at the helm, cultures of failure are tough to turn around. And you know what? they are as tough to rescue as a drug addict who, while begging for help, still clings to the needle and the gutter as if his life depended on it. It’s heart breaking.

What I do: Light, shadow and the need for both

Helping businesses succeed is often a lot of fun. It can be easy. You come along at the right time, get to know them well, give them a little push, and there they go: Back on track, rocking it out. Those are the good ones. The ones that make me feel like a million bucks. The ones in which everyone clicks and has fun. It doesn’t even feel like work. I secretly wish that all of my clients were like this, but I know that this is weakness as well. For every perfect client, I need an imperfect one. We all do. We wouldn’t be professionals if all we did all day constituted play.  We wouldn’t learn much. We wouldn’t improve. Delight is possession as well.

Just as often, helping a company succeed begins by teaching its management to stop failing. To stop mistaking mediocrity for success. To stop acting against their own self-interest. In some cases, the process boils down to dragging them out of their predicament, kicking and screaming the whole way. I’ve been insulted, threatened and even fired by clients who promptly offered to re-hire me the next day, only to fire and rehire me again. I’ve endured abuse at the hand of awful little children in adult bodies. What I do isn’t always pretty. It is intervention, pure and simple.

Dealing with a C.E.O. or manager possessed by the form of madness we’ve discussed today is no different from dealing with an addict fighting for his soul.

Point #7: Whatever we like to call “personal demons,” they destroy businesses too. As surely as what brought about a mid-life crisis can destroy a marriage or career, so can it shatter a business. It isn’t something we talk about much, but we should.

We can’t not talk about this. Companies don’t get fixed. Companies don’t win or lose. People do. What I end up doing, more often than not, is fixing people. Helping them find their way and be whole again.

Bad marketing and bad business decisions often find their roots in more than incompetence and accidental human error. In order to make sure they don’t happen again – or never happen at all – you have to go a little deeper than that. “Best Practices” are only the surface. Stopping there isn’t enough. You can’t stick to the edges and hope for the best. Sometimes, you have to go deep. Sometimes, you have to go all in.

What has been on my mind lately: Some clarification before we continue

I’ve been giving this and a dozen other related topics a lot of thought this past week, and how my chosen profession fits in all of this. How experience, knowledge, talent and insight have led me to become not only an advisor and educator, but also now a confidantz and a friend to individuals who don’t understand why their companies are stuck, unable to move forward as quickly and fluidly as they know they should. The human element to it above all questions of processes and best practices and clever ideas. How important to me this has become. The problem with becoming emotionally vested in something like this, in trying to effect real change, is that it consumes you. Theres no way around it. You have to let it.

While it sometimes seems that my job consists of coming up with cool ideas and helping companies divine insights from the fog of business, the reality is that I am more often than not a therapist. A business therapist, one might say, but there is no such thing: A business is a dream brought to life by a company of men and women who form its limbs and organs, and whose love for what they do is its lifeblood.

When I am called upon to help a company, an organization, a business, I end up helping people. Why? Because every dysfunction at the root of a problem with a business invariable finds its own roots in a personal dysfunction – sometimes, clusters of personal dysfunction.

In order to do what I do – and do it well – you have to be ready for that. You have to be ready to know when to bear the weight of it all, and when not to. You have to know your way around the human mind and the human heart. You have to know exactly what to do when someone with a serious problem tries to draw you into their drama. It can be emotionally exhausting. This line of work is not for everyone.

And I guess that is why I don’t like to call what I do “consulting.” Now I know why the term never sat well with me: “Consulting” is only a small portion of what I do, just like R.O.I. is only a small aspect of what I help shine a light on. Calling myself a consultant just doesn’t work. I don’t yet have a name for what I do, and I’ll admit that it’s a bit annoying.

I am telling you this because over the course of the next few weeks, I may write more about the role that human nature plays in adopting “best practices,” pursuing excellence and creating cultures of success than I have before, and I want you to know where all this is coming from, why these topics even matter, and how I came to want to discuss them from this unusual perspective. My mind is behind the curtain this week. Under the surface. I am looking directly into the nature of leadership, courage, curiosity, insight and the spirit of victory, which are at once timeless and very specifically connected. And if we are going to make any headway, it’s time we stopped focusing so much on the superficial aspects of business and brand management, and turned our attention to some pretty core elements without which Twitter, Facebook and all of the things we love to discuss here and on other blogs are little more than salon chatter.

And I hope this helps give you a tiny little glimpse into what makes me tick, why the way in which I approach certain topics might seem a little different from other blogs. Ultimately, everything comes down to people: Understand people, and you understand everything. It’s where every one of my blog post begins. At the core of every discussion we have here about brand management, Social Media, communications, R.O.I., etc. is human behavior in all its reality and relevance.

More to come.

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Time for your weekly BrandBuilder reality check.

There are only two types of businesses: The ones you know are the best in their category, and… everyone else.

Advertising and marketing are nice, but too many “also in” businesses waste money on marketing and advertising when they should instead revamp one or two elements of their business that would help them actually gain market share. (The most pleasant and efficient customer service experience in your industry, a perfectly designed user interface, a 100% uptime guarantee, stunning design, impeccable ergonomics, remarkable flavor, etc.)

Advertising is basically a load of bulls**t unless you have something worth advertising to begin with. (Otherwise, what are you advertising: Hey, come buy from us! We’re the thirteenth best shoe store in the 29601!) You’re either the best at something, or you’re just another voice in the crowd getting fleeced by just another run-of-the-mill ad agency or “marketing firm.”

Before you start spending money on advertising, ask yourself what your super-special value to your users/customers/clients truly is. Maybe you have the best prices. Maybe you have the most comfortable meeting rooms. Maybe you have the most square footage of any gym in your area, or the freshest produce, or the most knowledgeable staff, or the fastest check-out. It doesn’t matter what that something is as long as it is something concrete (as opposed to another lame marketing spinfest). Is that one thing truly hitting the mark? Are you really delivering on it as well as you could? As well as you should?

Whatever your value differentiator is, whatever your brand’s value advantage is (or should be), this is what you need to invest in FIRST. Once you have that aspect of your business nailed down, THEN and only then should you even bother with advertising.

About a year ago, Seth Godin posted some great advice to college grads on his blog: Only borrow money to pay for things that increase in value. A pair of shoes or cool clothes never increase in value. An education or professional experience, however do. Great advice, especially in the crux of our current economic/credit crunch. The same applies to businesses, which is why Seth’s advice is so damn relevant to the discussion today.

Perhaps more relevant to today’s topic is a slightly tweaked version of Seth’s advice: “only invest in things that increase in value.”

Like shoes and clothes, advertising never increases in value. With advertising, you are at best buying a small percentage of the public’s attention across a very narrow sliver of space and time (and paying a premium price for it.) Before you know it, your advertising budget is gone, and so is that very expensive bubble of attention.

Investing in better products/services, better people and better processes, however, makes a whole lot more sense as these things never lose value. Great employees, great products, great customer experiences and fostering a unique relationship with your fan base are the types of things worth investing in. These are the true foundations of a great brand. These are the types of things that will help strengthen your brand equity.

Advertising rarely translates into brand equity unless these foundations exist to support it. Even so, the more solid the brand’s foundation, the less relevant advertising becomes.

Starbucks doesn’t advertise much and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Whole Foods ad anywhere, yet millions of people drop solid stacks of greenbacks there every year. I don’t shop at Target, wear Rudy Project sunglasses, drive a VW or crave a BMW because of advertising. Other than creating awareness for a product that hasn’t managed to capture anyone’s attention yet (red flag), advertising does little to impact most companies’ growth. Do they create spikes in interest, eyeballs and sales? Sure. When executed well. But growth? Over time? Nope. Growth is a completely different animal, and advertising alone, boys and girls, won’t get you there.

Building a strong reputation by developing great products, buzz-worthy experiences and generally delighting customers/users is a much stronger strategy than paying loads of cash for advertising.

Something to think about as you prioritize items on your budget for H2.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 🙂

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J.T. O'Donnell speaking in Greenville, SC

J.T. O'Donnell speaking in Greenville, SC

Greenville, SC got a big treat today: Career expert JT O’Donnell was in town to speak at Linking The Upstate‘s inaugural event at the historic Westin Poinsett Hotel. Two words for you: Awe and some. I knew JT was pretty savvy when it comes to career advice, but I had no idea just how smart, engaging and approachable she was. If you guys aren’t familiar with her work yet, check out her website, her Careerealism blog, buy her book, and go ahead and start following Careerealism on twitter. And if you ever find yourself unhappy with your career or uncertain about your professional direction, do yourself a favor and reach out to her. You will look back on that email, tweet or phone call someday and realize it was one of the smartest things you ever did. Trust me on this.

By the way, if you missed it, you can check out some of the event’s coverage via Twitter hashtag #careerealism. Look for my avatar (ahem).

And as an aside, I have to give BIG kudos to Thomas Parry for launching Linking The Upstate so quickly… and so well. What a way to kick it off. Very well done. The group’s objective is to connect all of the 864’s business groups together (chambers of commerce, technology, HR, creative, networking, business groups, etc.) to leverage their collective economic, innovative and intellectual potential. A lofty and timely goal that I will definitely help support in the coming months.

Here are a few pictures from what turned out to be a pretty social day (even for me):

 

The pommes frites I ate

The pommes frites I ate

 

 

Thomas Parry, J.T. O'Donnell, Trey Pennington and Doug Cone at The Lazy Goat restaurant

Thomas Parry, J.T. O'Donnell, Trey Pennington and Doug Cone at The Lazy Goat restaurant

 

 

Yes, I take pictures of stuff I eat

Yes, I take pictures of stuff I eat

Thomas Parry at the Westin Poinsett Hotel introducing Linking The Upstate

Thomas Parry at the Westin Poinsett Hotel introducing Linking The Upstate

J.T. O'Donnell presenting at Greenville, SC's historic Westin Poinsett Hotel

J.T. O'Donnell presenting at Greenville, SC's historic Westin Poinsett Hotel

I don’t want to leave you guys with just photos and no takeways, so here are a few nuggets of information I grabbed from JT’s fantastic presentation:

 

 

4 out of 5 HR professionals will google an applicant BEFORE inviting them to interview. What will they find? (Hint: Have you googled yourself lately?)

The two worst things that can happen when a prospective employer googles you: 1. They find something embarrassing or not particularly positive (that may make them reconsider your application). 2. They find nothing at all. Lesson: Start managing your online presence better. Create a positive, professional, consistent and factual footprint for yourself online.

College students graduating this year will have an average of 9 different careers before they retire.

The average duration of a job in the US today  is only 18 months. (We are all glorified temps.)

Currently, 1 out of 12 Americans is either unemployed or underemployed.

Job boards are 60% down right now: The demand for jobs is so high that the volume of job applications via job boards is overwhelming HR departments. Result, they are turning to other sourcing methods to find quality applicants.

80% of open positions in the US are filled via referrals.

Whatever you may hear or believe, in this day and age, not having a blog and a presence on LinkedIn, FaceBook and Twitter can and will absolutely stall your career. (Management level folks.)

Tip: Don’t wait until you are unemployed to start building your networks. The sooner you start and the more you nurture them, the easier it will be for you to find your next gig when the axe finally falls. (Better yet, if you do this right, you will probably be recruited right out of your current job.)

Again: The easiest way to stand out from the crowd of people competing against you for your dream job is to have a well designed and solidly crafted blog. If you don’t have one yet, start. If you have one but it needs help, get help. (Incidentally, if you are in Greenville next week, we are putting together a WordPress Workshop specifically geared towards this. Check out www.wpgreenville.com to sign up.)

For more great advice, go check out the Careerealism blog and be sure to drop JT a note.

Have a great Friday, everyone. 😉

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

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

Priority Number One: Securing the right partnership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great weekend, everyone! 😉

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