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Here’s the question that most companies still don’t ask themselves at the start of a project: what problem am I trying to solve?

Start with that, and you’re 80% of the way there. Blow it off, and you can be sure that you and your organization will waste a shit-ton of time and resources on something that won’t yield any concrete results.

For instance: discussions at planning & management meetings increasingly point towards three “projects” that seem increasingly inevitable – Your CMO wants to revamp the logo. Your CEO wants to get into social media. Your SVP Digital wants to redo the website.

Now what? Well, now begins the process of getting the projects approved. What questions will be asked? Well…

Why are we doing this?

How much will it cost?

Who will be in charge?

Who will do the work?

And that’s about it. That’s as far as it goes.

Why are we doing this? Because it’s been a while. Because it’s time. Because we need change. Because our competitors are doing it. Because it will improve our image.

How much will it cost? Somewhere between $x and $y.

Who will be in charge? Fill in the blanks.

Who will do the work? Fill in the blanks.

Except here’s the problem: companies have limited resources. When you think of resources in terms of money, talent, technology and man hours (and you should), you quickly come to realize that focusing a significant percentage of those resources on Project A rather than Projects B, C, and D means that you’ve just introduced an opportunity cost into your planning. In other words, choosing to monopolize these resources on Project A could limit your ability to really kick ass with Projects B, C and D.

If Project A is necessary or really smart, that’s probably a good thing. You’ve prioritized possible outcomes and you’ve decided that Project A has a high potential for ROI or impact on x, or whatever it is you’re after.

But of Project A isn’t necessary, what you’ve done is you’ve just taken essential resources away from essential projects… to feed a wasteful endeavor that won’t yield a whole lot of benefits to your company.

You know what question helps determine whether or not a project is worthwhile? This one: what problem am I trying to solve?

A practical overview: new logo.

We need a new logo. 

Yeah? Why? What problem are we trying to solve?

If you can show that your old logo is hindering your sales, you might be on to something. Do your customers complain about it? Do your competitors’ customers make fun of it? Okay. Time to consider an upgrade. In your considerations, ask yourself this: will the new logo solve a real problem for consumers? Will it solve a real problem for us?

If the answer is yes, and you can identify these problems clearly, move forward.

What problems will the new logo aim to solve?

If the answer is no, or you can’t quantify the “problem,” consider what else you might be able to focus on this quarter or this year that will solve a real problem. (Like customer service, R&D, packaging, messaging, shopping experience, etc.)

A practical overview: new website.

We need a new website. 

Yeah? Why? What problem are we trying to solve?

If the answer falls along the lines of “It looks like it was designed in 1995, the UX is horrible, it uses flash, it’s horrendous on mobile devices, our customers complain about it all the time,” then you’re good to go. Dig deeper and move forward. What is it that your customers complain about? What can we improve in terms of user experience? What do we wish the site could do that it can’t in its present form (and why)? What kinds of functionality would we like to build into it (and why)?

What problems will a new website aim to solve?

If the answer falls along the lines of “It’s been two years since we redesigned it, and I want to rebuild it in Drupal,” then that meeting is adjourned. (No offense to Drupal. I just needed to throw something in there real quick.)

A practical overview: new social media strategy/program.

We need a social media strategy. 

Yeah? Why? What problem are we trying to solve?

If the answer falls along the lines of “we physically can’t continue to do business without it anymore,” then you’re on to something. Dig deeper. Your next conversation should include items like these:

47% of our customers prefer to engage CSRs through Twitter and Facebook than by calling a toll-free number now. We can also serve 5x more customers per hour via these channels than we can via traditional call centers, so we’ll even save money that way.

We’re losing traction in category and keyword searches because we have no fresh content for the Googlenets and the Bingwebs to index. If we had a blog and some social media properties, we could potentially double our web traffic and digital exposure.

We can’t really get into mobile commerce without it. It’s already costing us $23,000,000 per quarter, and we’re even losing customers and market share as a result. if we keep operating like this, we’ll be out of business in 5-7 years.

We’re spending $12,000,000 on outsourced digital marketing research every year that we could do ourselves if we just assigned two people to monitor the web using social media monitoring platforms.

Our PR department can’t anticipate, monitor, respond or manage PR crises without it. The cost to the company each year in lost revenue is $x, and our brand image is suffering more and more each year as a result.

40% of our net new customers leave us after 12 months. We think we can use social media to engage them, find out why they’re think of  leaving, and give them a reason to stay. Potential impact on the business: an additional $xM per year.

Social media can help drive word-of-mouth recommendations. We want to use social media as an in-network lead generation engine. The impact we expect: a) more leads. b) more qualified leads. c) a higher conversion rate (prospect to customer).

It will help us recruit better talent. Period.

It will amplify our advertising’s reach and make it stickier. Look at the numbers that Coca Cola, Pepsi, Ford and Old Spice have been getting against companies that only use traditional (paid) media.

If done properly, engagement = loyalty. Right now, only 23% of our customers consider themselves loyal. We want to bring that up to 60% over the next four years. Some of it will be offline, but we need an online piece as well.

69% less expenditures on each new product launch.

Etc.

All of these suggestions solve one or more of the following problems:

1. Not enough leads? Doing this will attract net new potential customers.

2. Not enough new customers? Doing this will convert net new prospects into net new customers.

3. Short term customer attrition? Doing this will develop net new customers into returning customers.

4. Long term customer attrition? Doing this will develop returning customers into loyal customers.

5. Budget cuts getting in the way? Doing this will cut costs while delivering equal or better outcomes.

6. Frozen budgets getting in the way? Doing this will keep costs level while delivering better outcomes.

7. Wasting money on outdated services you feel locked into? Doing this will help you free your operation from unnecessary burdens.

8. The chasm between you and your customers has been widening? Doing this will shrink it.

9. Feeling less relevant than you were 10 years ago? Doing this will help you find your way again.

10. Shrinking profitability is an increasing concern? See 1-9 (above), particularly 5 and 6.

11. Not reaching enough potential customers? Doing this fixes that. See 1 (above).

But if the answer to “what problem are we trying to solve with a social media program” is never asked (or worse, answered incorrectly,) then you will basically end up with an endless churning out of cheaply produced, keyword-optimized “content” that will vaguely boost web traffic and online mentions without ever yielding particularly helpful results. Say hello to crap metrics like “likes, Return on Influence, and all of the rest of the bullshit that still plagues the digital world and social business these days.

Because… we need to be on Facebook so we can engage with people and have conversations.

Because… we have to have a social media strategy.

Because… “content is king.”

Because… our competitors are doing it.

Because… our agency told us we should be in social media.

Because… something about owned, paid and earned media.

Because… we need followers and likes.

Because… we don’t know, but we’ll eventually figure it out.

Okay. Good luck with that.

The reason why snake oil, incompetence and irrelevant metrics are still so prevalent in the social business space is because they fill the gap created by the absence of proper questions and answers at the start. Starting with: what problem am I trying to solve?

Which is to say: what is the purpose of doing this in the first place?

New product feature? What problem am I trying to solve?

New packaging? What problem am I trying to solve?

New logo? What problem am I trying to solve?

New branding strategy? What problem am I trying to solve?

New campaign? What problem am I trying to solve?

New Facebook page? What problem am I trying to solve?

New blog? What problem am I trying to solve?

New hire? What problem am I trying to solve?

Don’t just go through the motions of doing something or going somewhere just because the rest of the herd is shuffling that way. I know it might make you the annoying guy in the room to be the one who asks the question (so… do so judiciously), but the question MUST be asked by someone. And more importantly, it must be answered. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting resources and a chunk of your potential for real success.

Cheers,

Olivier

*          *          *

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organization was written specifically to teach managers and executives how to build and manage social media friendly business programs and incorporate social technologies and networks into everyday business operations. The book is divided into four parts: social media program strategy & development, social media program operationalization, social media program management, and best practices in measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, fix that too. It makes for a great desk reference.

(Now available in several languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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Vintage Coca Cola mural in Greenville, SC

Vintage Coca Cola mural in Greenville, SC

The topic of “what is a brand” or “what do we mean when we say brand” comes up pretty often, so I am always on the lookout for a clear explanation of the term… or at least an explanation that can help frame it for people who aren’t 100% clear what brand really is. (Is it a logo, symbol or mark? Is it a promise? Is it a marketing gimmick?)  Depending on whom you talk to, you might get a completely different answer.

This time around, let’s have Tom Asacker share a few insights on the subject:

A brand is not a logo, and branding is not a communication strategy. A strong brand is a strong bond, and branding is your business.”“To those with a dated, mass-market mentality, branding is still all about image and awareness. It’s about tag lines, logos, cute little animal mascots or clever jingles. It’s about spending megabucks on Super Bowl commercials, hiring celebrities to sing your corporate praises, and covering cars with advertising banners. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that awareness is unimportant. (…) But, does well-known equal strong? Not any longer. The rise of the global economy [and] the rapid adoption of the Internet have ignited commercial innovation, and put an end to those days forever. Today, like just about everything else, brand logic has been turned on its head.”

“And please, don’t get hung-up on the word brand. Today, the word brand is shorthand for the gut feeling people have about something, some group, or someone. It’s a kind of Platonic Ideal, which stands for the essence of a business, school, organization, person, or even place. If you add up the tangible and intangible qualities of something – the gestalt – and wish to represent the meaning and distinctive character this greater whole conveys to its audience, today we call it . . . brand.

“Think of your brand as a “file folder” in your audiences’ minds (not a perfect metaphor, since memory is malleable, but stick with me anyway.). When they’re exposed to you (e.g., through advertising, design, a salesperson, word-of-mouth, etc.), a feeling is immediately filed away in that “brand file folder.” As time passes, much of what your audience has filed away – the details – will become inaccessible. However, they will remember where they stored the folder: in the front (positive feelings) or pushed to the back (negative feelings). Given the sheer volume of brands trying to find a place in your audiences’ overloaded “brand file cabinets,” you must not only get their attention and be relevant (a file folder labeled with your brand name), but you must also get it placed in the front of their file cabinet (elicit strong, positive feelings of intense personal significance).

“(…) Despite what the Madison Avenue folks may tell you, the strength of your brand lies not in the fact that you own a folder with your name prominently displayed on it. Repetition does not create memories, relevance does. The strength lies in your folder’s position in your audience’s file cabinet (the emotions that linger in their memory). The strength lies in the bond! So make your brand about feeling, not just familiarity. Make it about shared values and trust. About honesty, vulnerability and presence. A brand is not simply a promise. How can it be, with everything changing at breakneck speed? A brand is a living, breathing relationship. Revel in the messy world of emotions and create a brand that’s about leadership and differentiation; about customer insight and radical innovation; and about clarity of purpose, passion and a sense of humor.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Wow. Is it really Friday already?

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New York City street, by Olivier Blanchard 2005

Jack Spade’s words of brand wisdom from an old issue of Fast Company finally made their way to me again last week when I found a box of old issues in my garage. Jack’s advice is as relevant today as it was then:

1. The bigger you get, the smaller you should act.
Even if you have 10,000+ employees and offices on all seven continents, never, ever start thinking or acting like a big company. Once you become corporate, you become detached from your customers and there’s no interest in that.

2. Never believe anything you have done is successful.
Challenge yesterday’s assumptions every second, every day. Understand that no matter how good they may make you feel, last year’s successes are in the past. Your job is to build your company’s next successes. No company stays relevant long by resting on its laurels, so don’t.

3. Brand consistency is overrated.
The brand doesn’t have to look the same, but it has to feel the same. An element of newness and surprise is important for any brand.

4. Brands should have some mystery.
Customers should never understand the whole picture of a brand.

5. Your people are your product.
They are the vehicle through which everything happens, and they define what you put out.

These five points probably aren’t the sort of thing being taught in most business schools. On the contrary, if these subjects are even addressed, I’ll bet that in most cases, the exact opposite is still being preached as gospel: Brands have to be consistent. Capitalize on your successes. Brands should be crystal clear. Yadayadayada.

The truth is that there is no cookie-cutter methodology. Look around. How many major brands are crashing and burning even though they play by the rules? (Perhaps BECAUSE they play by the rules?)  All you can do is build up your toolbox with old and new ideas, with conventional and unconventional wisdom… and learn how to use the right tools in the right circumstances in the right way. The rest is just about inspiration, vision, and fun.

Act small. Look forward, not back. Know exactly who you are. Make sure to always keep things fresh. Don’t lay all your cards on the table. Care. Focus on human needs.

Not a bad start.

Now take these little bits of advice and see if they apply to your company. Which ones apply? Which ones are you missing the mark with?

Welcome to a whole new work week. 😉

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Seattle, by Olivier Blanchard - 2008

Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog:

“Deciding: ‘Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.’

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly.”

(If you’re asking yourself… yeah, cool career advice, but… what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I’m getting to it.)

“It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation.”

Still not catching on? Okay… Let’s try one more:

“In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be ‘responsible’ and ‘stable’, indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, ‘Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.’ Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done.”

Still no? Tsssk… Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Substitute “brand” for “career”. Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands – from ‘brand you’ to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. They aren’t built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage… Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand’s attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So… don’t ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise…

… and read Dave’s blog. It’s a good one.

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