Who creates the brand - the consumer or the producer?

By now it is widely acknowledged that consumers and producers co-create brand meaning. But in Brand Hijack (2005), Alex Wipperfurth (see http://www.usatoday.com/money/books/reviews/2005-05-01-brand-hijack_x.htm) takes this a step further, arguing that for maximum traction, brand makers should let go of the brand entirely and let consumers appropriate, define, and sell it in their own ways. As Wipperfurth puts it:

"Consumers are in charge, and they have proof of their power....The next consumer will be an active participant in shaping brand meaning and marketing the brand to others. This will no longer be the sole responsibility of the marketing department." (p. 126)

The implication, at the extreme, is that marketers should stop trying to tell consumers what the brand is about and instead offer up a blank canvas that consumers can paint their own meanings on. But frankly, this approach just does not work for me. The marketplace is extremely crowded these days, and it is simply stupid to tell people that they should leave their products undefined and let the marketplace do that work. No, marketers have a responsibility to establish a meaning for the brand in advance of presenting it to the consumer. The consumer may appropriate the brand in different ways, may reshape and refine and rework its ultimate meaning, but the essence of the brand is, or should always be, in the hands of the marketer.

This is not to say that there can't be a happy accident, where the marketer has defined the brand one way and the market soars it to popularity along another track entirely. As Wipperfurth demonstrates in Brand Hijack, that can happen. But most of the time, it is the marketers' responsibility to study the marketplace, understand the target audience, and go forward with a brand proposition that speaks to them. Otherwise how can the brand even go to market?

Brands as families part 2

Continuing the recent post about John Deere and brands as families...

Great brands provide a respite from today's world of broken families and disconnected individualistic behavior. They create a sense of community that is so strong it feels like being part of a family. This is especially true within the branded organization. While it is a stretch to make customers feel like they are part of a close-knit family, it is very possible to draw in employees into a familial environment. If that is done successfully, employees will extend the family metaphor out to customers (as well as other stakeholders) so that at the very least they feel they are part of a closely knit community or "tribe."

Two examples from Creating Customer Evangelists by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba:

1. Build-A-Bear Workshop--Maxine Clark, founder: "Having a heart is more than a company strategy, it's a way of doing business. It extends to how people are treated in every aspect of the business. It is what excellent companies know is the core to success: treating vendors like partners, treating customers like guests, treating employees like friends and family." (p. 163)

2. Southwest Airlines--Colleen Barrett, president: "The Golden Rule is pretty important here." (p. 178) Barrett "despises empty walls, so nearly every square foot of company walls features framed pictures of employees in action at work, pictures of their kids and families, pictures in their high school cheerleading uniforms. Like a proud mama, the company even frames its employees' artwork and hangs it on the wall....Barrett chairs a committee of employees from every area of the company. Known as the Culture Committeee, its purpose is to build on the company's effervescent personality throughout the employee ranks. The results allow Southwest to retain a familial atmosphere amidst rapid growth."

5 brand lessons from Hillary Clinton

Whether or not she becomes our next president, with her distinctive look and style, Hillary Clinton can teach us a lot about branding.
1. Don't take criticism personally: I can't think of another political figure who stirs up as much emotion as Hillary does. But whatever people say, she seems to rise above it, even as she responds forcefully. Whether you are building a brand, sustaining it, or defending it, don't let your critics get your goat.

2. Know your subject matter: Say what you want about her, but Hillary knows her stuff. When you are promoting your brand, be a subject matter expert. Speak knowledgeably about whatever it is you're selling. Image alone is not enough.

3. Look the part: Again, say what you want about her, but Hillary looks like a president. Her hairstyle, her clothing, her demeanor, all bespeak presidentiality. When you aspire to promote a brand, it is critical that your look match the brand image.

4. Play to the center: Although I agree with the premise of Purple Cow by Seth Godin, that only remarkable products and services stand a chance of survival, I also see the merits of toning down one's distinctiveness to be acceptable to a mass market. Hillary has intelligently moderated her image so that she appears to be centrist rather than aggressively left-leaning. And I believe that has won her additional support.
5. Don't apologize, explain: She will not apologize for supporting the war. And she is right to uphold her actions, because she believed in them at the time. Remember -- unless the brand has violated its own promise, in which case an immediate apology is warranted, it is best to maintain an image of consistency by explaining where the brand is coming from rather than resorting to an apology for unpopular choices.
It has also been pointed out (http://www.russpage.net/the-hillary-clinton-brand-iraq/) that Hillary is consistent in her messaging: "Tell it again and again, and tell it the same way"--another sign of a strong brand.
For those who are interested, here is an article on Hillary's unique political brand: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050606/sargent.

Why customer feedback is critical to your brand

It can be tempting when one is building a brand to simply stick with the vision, and assume that your core customers will find you and follow along. However, this is not necessarily the best way to approach things. For you will encounter people who WANT to be loyal customers but have some issue with your product or service that they need to express to you in order for you to better serve them. In short, you need to hear what your customers have to say.
In Creating Customer Evangelists by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, the authors call this "Customer Plus-Delta." The Plus part is what customers like; the Delta is what they don't. They offer "10 golden rules" in this regard; they can be boiled down to the following 5 (quoted from p. 32 of the book):
"1. Believe that customers possess good ideas.
2. Gather customer feedback at every opportunity.
3. Leverage technology to aid your efforts.
4. Share customer feedback throughout the organization.
5. Use input to make change--and communicate changes back to customers."
What should you ask customers? The authors state (p. 34)
"1. Do they recommend your product, brand, or company?
2. If yes, why? What's the one thing they value most? What do they say when they recommend you to others?
3. If no or don't know, why? What must you improve to earn their recommendation? When was the last time you angered or disappointed them?"
As you gather feedback, remember not to change your brand to suit customer tastes; rather, use the input to make sure that you are delivering on the brand promise. To go back to the case of Disney, if I write and tell them that I find the brand "artificial," that doesn't mean that they should change anything--artificiality is part of the brand. However, if I write and tell them that the theme park is too crowded, they should do something about that--as part of the brand promise is ACCESS to the dream.

Are people loyal to other people or to brands?

In Creating Customer Evangelists (2007), Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba state:
"When we set out to understand what created evangelists for our case-study companies, we discovered a simple yet undeniable truth: People are loyal to people, not necessarily brands. That's the magic bullet about word of mouth and how it spurs evangelism." (p.3; emphasis in original)
The authors go on to describe how companies like Southwest Airlines, IBM, Build-A-Bear Workshop and others are enjoying the benefits of customer word of mouth.
While Creating Customer Evangelists is a great book, and I'll be talking more about it in this blog, I couldn't disagree more with the authors on their conclusions about branding. I say, people are not loyal to the customer service representatives they deal with. They are loyal to the BRANDS that those customer service representatives represent!
This is definitely true for consumer packaged goods, where there is no customer service aspect to the buying situation. And it is true as well for service brands, although trickier to see because you're dealing with service provided by people.
In my view, people REMEMBER a good customer service experience and ESTABLISH a relationship with the BRAND not the person they deal with. I'll go to any Starbucks coffee shop, not just the one on the corner where I recognize the people who work there. Every Southwest flight attendant has a humorous attitude; every Build-A-Bear workshop attendant provides a "heartfelt" experience to a child buying his or her bear for the first time. The service they provide is not spontaneous but BRANDED...and I think most people recognize that. You pay for the brand and expect the brand's promises to be fulfilled, whether by a product or by a person...that's it, end of story. 
Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, Google, GE, Nokia, Toyota,  Intel, McDonald's, Mercedes...people go where the product and service best suit them.
Believe me, all those little girls walking around in princess outfits at Disney are not loyal to a person, they're loyal to a brand fantasy that exists only in their heads.
Other points of view are welcome, of course.

Checklists are not a substitute for brand communication

The Wall Street Journal once published an article about people who keep to-do lists. It caught my attention as I am forever carrying around a list of things to do and consider it a small victory every time I check off one of those tasks as done.


One of the points the article made was that some people get neurotic about checking things off their list. For example, if they've done everything on their list, they will add a couple of things just so they can feel like there is something left to accomplish.


So checklists can be useful, but they can also be used in neurotic ways.


This brings me to the use of checklists in professional communications.


On the one hand, these checklists can be a powerful tool for getting things done, especially in organizations that are relatively undisciplined about project management, or that experience frequent misunderstandings about timelines and deadlines. Having a list that everyone can refer to reduces conflict in two ways. First, it keeps people focused on an external, objective task, rather than on each other (what she said or he said, who is supposed to do what, why they will or won't do what they're supposed to do, etc.). Second, it reduces misunderstandings by clearly documenting roles, responsibilities, and timelines.


On the other hand, checklists can actually lead to the organization avoiding communication. Because the communication team can easily set up a checklist that makes it look like communication has happened, when in fact nothing of any significance has taken place. (Remember, the message must be received and understood, if not acted upon, in order to be worthy of the term "communication.")


Here is an example of what I'm talking about:


Checklist for Project X Communication Initiative


__Send e-mail to all managers today

__Hold all-employee webcast next week

__Follow up with telephone recording of webcast a day later

__Post summary to intranet in two weeks

__Place article in employee newsletter next month


Let's say you accomplish all of these tasks, but people still don't know what is going on. How is that possible, you say? Well, in this fictitious example:


  • Most of the managers deleted the email without reading it.
  • Half the employees didn't watch the webcast, and the other half didn't understand what the CEO was trying to say.
  • Nobody ever goes to the intranet except when they are forced to visit a specific link for benefits information or something like that.
  • Most people read the humorous parts of the employee newsletter and disregard the rest.


So you need more than just a checklist to make the communication happen.


What can you do?


I'd say, keep the checklist, but add four tasks to it:


  • Concept testing: Run the communication past a few people before you send it to everyone.
  • Refinement: Based on early feedback, edit the content of the message, or the style in which it is delivered.
  • Measurement: Find out 1) how many people received the message 2) how they understood the message and 3) whether they intend to act on it in the way you want.
  • Feedback sharing: Make the results of your measurement public. This demonstrates your confidence, builds your credibility, and motivates you to improve your performance.


Are you scared by the idea of really measuring the effectiveness of your communication, let alone making the results public? Of course you are! Traditional business writing (and speaking) is absolutely boring, not to mention difficult to understand. This is no secret to anyone, but the situation continues because communication senders stubbornly insist on ignoring how their messages are received.


As long as communicators fail to measure how their words are received, and pretend that checklists are a good-enough substitute, the people on the receiving end of their words will continue to ignore, misinterpret, and poke fun at the mix of buzzwords, clichés, and jargon that pass for the transmission of actual meaning from one human being to another.

Disappointment at Disney

Just returned from Disney Orlando. I had expected to be treated to a master class in branding. Instead, it was a near-total disappointment:
  • The parks were crowded beyond belief and we waited a minimum of an hour to an hour and a half for every ride. In general, as well, the rides were very short given the wait time to get on them. This is a far cry from the imaginary world of the brochure and Disney video that ran in the hotel, which prepares you for an action-packed day. If we managed a few rides in a day, that was a victory.
  • Customer service staff (greeters) were in short supply and they did not greet us with any kind of Disney "signature" hello. Though helpful when we could find them, there was nothing that set them apart especially as Disney employees. They also didn't seem to have a standard Disney uniform, which was surprising.
  • Animal Kingdom seemed dirty and the directional signs were incomprehensible. Moreover, there were few actual animals to be seen (we did see a tiger, an anteater and some bats). Other than the roller coaster ride, the rafting ride, and the jungle safari (which we didn't even attempt because we were told the wait time was too long) there was nothing to do that was of any interest to us. And although I paced around nauseously (from the roller coaster ride) looking for some regular food to eat, there seemed to be nothing for sale besides ice cream and sugar drinks (like I said, we couldn't navigate so if there was other food we couldn't find it.)
  • Epcot was by far the best park in Disney, but was also a shameless advertisement for a number of other companies that sponsored various presentations there including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Nestle. (I have to admit that the Soarin' ride, in which you seem to ride above the earth, was worth the incredibly long wait.) I was a little offended at the extent of corporate sponsorship of what should have been a "pure" Disney experience.
  • MGM was good in terms of having good stunt shows to see, but was also crowded and impossible to navigate.
  • At Magic Kingdom, which was flooded with literally a crush of people, we waited 1.5 hours for Splash Mountain then got thrown off the ride because it was broken. The railroad ride was also broken and the haunted mansion was closed, and the monorail that got us to the main part of the park got stuck in midstream. The worst part of it was when we tried to leave but were blocked by a Disney parade from getting through. They literally will not let you pass when the parade is in session.
  • The Disney theme park cards (the cards you use to gain entry to the park) didn't work and had to be reprinted. Further, the cards were keyed to each individual user by fingerprint but had no space to write our name on them - causing confusion each time we entered the park.
I still want to believe in Disney, even after this experience...but it is tough. I think it's still a great brand, but as far as the theme parks go, I did not have a good customer/brand experience.

John Deere and brands as families

On August 14, John Deere CEO was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, saying that the company and dealers of its farm equipment are "not a family. What we are is a high performance team....if someone is not pulling their weight, you're not on the high performance team anymore." The company is getting rid of some smaller scale dealers as part of its business strategy. This is not to debate the merits of that strategy but rather to note the danger of telling your business associates that they should not consider themselves part of your family, especially when they are fiercely loyal. In the case of Deere, the Journal reports, dealers have been known to say they "bleed green," the company's signature color.

In the book Creating Customer Evangelists, authors Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba note that people are loyal to people not to brands, and that top companies create a sense of family both internally and externally. (Examples are Southwest Airlines and Build a Bear.) The first part of
that statement is debatable, but what is clear is that by alienating its dealers from the family they once had, Deere is creating the risk that they will go elsewhere for business opportunities for themselves.

Smart brands create and encourage the perception that employees, customers, and other key stakeholders are all part of one big, happy, warm family. The high performance team aspect of that family relationship cannot be forgotten, but it is subordinate to the family relationship.

Do you think that brands can operate as families and high performance teams at the same time?

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