Monday, February 28, 2011

Why High-Tech Companies Have Low Brand I.Q.’s

Famous Female Inventors: From an early age Amanda Theodosia Jones  showed great promise. Among other things she devised a motivational method to dramatically speed the learning in young children to ride a bicycle.
Source: Flickr - Caption: "Famous Female Inventors: From an early age Amanda Theodosia Jones showed great promise. Among other things she devised a motivational method to dramatically speed the learning in young children to ride a bicycle."

I will admit it. I am a geek.

I get obsessed with little technology things.

Often I have big tasks to complete. But I postpone those tasks so I can do things like install Chrome add-ons.

Even more frighteningly to those who know and love me, I can go on and on about these little technology things. (Strangely it seems to get worse the more I know someone doesn’t want to hear it.)

For example – and I don’t work for Google nor am I paid to promote their products - I have been proselytizing for Google Voice for weeks now. Even though the voicemail transcription is bad. Even though I can’t get the conference calling feature to work. Even though I don’t do anything with it, usually, except make phone calls. I just love tinkering with Google Voice.

So it is with great empathy that I reach out to the technology community to say this:

Most of the time, your branding s***s.

It’s not like techies don’t have possible mentors. Look at Google, one of the world’s top high-tech brands. Microsoft. Oracle. IBM. Intel, Dell. Not to mention Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

No matter how you feel about any of them, all have built up awesome brands. All have that communication edge. If you put any one of them up against a no-name competitor, the war is basically over.

How is it that a few tech companies can brand themselves so well, while so many others struggle?

More than that, how is it that technology professionals – innovators by trade – have so much trouble explaining why their creations are unique, different, and on the cutting-edge?

The answer is that technology people and branding people, as a rule, think in completely different ways (don't ask what kind of odd exception I am):

  • Technology people see the world as full of unlimited possibility.
  • Branding people try to reduce things to their simplest possible form.

This leads to scenarios like the following:

A technology and a brand person walk up to a tree.

The techie looks at the marvelous myriad of functionalities that can be created out of the tree. The wood can help build a house, or construction projects of every kind; the leaves can be turned into medicine, or decoration; the earth beneath the tree can be replanted to grow vegetables; and so on.

The brand person sees the same tree and thinks: “Of the million trees out there, how am I going to sell this one at a premium?"

The brand person concludes, to give just one possibility: "Everybody's buying granite countertops these days. I think there is a real market for vintage-looking, gnarled wood."

G-d help us if these two get into a conversation. Because the technology person owns the tree company.

So the brand person asks the technology person to describe the tree, so she can sell it, and the techie is dumbfounded. How can just one selling point be isolated? There are so many! And thus she gets a lengthy speech about the 5,000 benefits associated with investing in that particular tree.

The brand person's eyes glaze over. Nothing is holding her attention. Because to her, the techie is in the weeds: focused on too many possibilities and too many details. No matter how interesting.

Most people, fortunately or unfortunately, think like the brand person, and they are going to be the ones to buy the product. If you're the techie, find a brand-er you can trust. (Preferably who doesn’t know beans about technology.)

That’s the person who will tell your story.

That's the person who can find the money.

So that you can go back to the tree, the garage, the lab or the basement, and plow your profits back into R&D.

Conversely, if you’re the brand person, show a lot of respect. The money is in the technologists’ unending passion for their products. And one day, one of those so-called "crazy" ideas could very well be the next big thing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Value from the Customer's Perspective

Photo: Flickr

Someone left a flashlight in the recycling room yesterday. Sort of gross, but I decided to try and rescue it. It was just so Jeep-looking (yellow and black).

Plus it was free.

I sprayed some Fantastik on it, replaced the batteries and voila! It was clean and it worked.

That flashlight was a value.

Sat on the train the other day and looked up at the advertisements. There was the one for McDonalds' dollar menu. It said something like, "You're a great negotiator. We'll give it to you for only $1.00."

Pictured up there was: coffee that tastes watery (I've tried it); a processed white biscuit with sausage inside (I eat kosher but even if I weren't – just the sight of it made my arteries scream for mercy); and other stuff loaded with simple carbohydrates and sugar.

The kind of food that makes you get fat and go flying.

The kind of food that wouldn't be worth it even if they paid YOU to eat it.

McDonald's dollar menu is not a value.

Another food example.

Whole Foods had organic red peppers for $2.99 a pound. Yes, they overcharged me $3.99. But those peppers – man they were out of this world! The sweetness! I know I'm on Atkins induction forever, but those were the absolute best vegetables I have ever tasted.

I think I paid about $1.75 per pepper. I got two. And you know what? It was worth it! I felt terrific after eating them. I would gladly buy again.

So value does not equal cost.

What matters is really your frame of reference around value. What are your goals in life? What is important to you?

Then you decide if the cost of Item A or B makes it worth your while to purchase.

Let's flip this around and look at it from a marketer's point of view. Recognizing that we are all marketers of one kind or another, in that we all try to sell things, services, ideas, and so on, to others who have the power to help us stay financially afloat.

What is critical for you, as a marketer, is to understand very well what it is that your customer values – over the long term and over the short term. If you only understand part of the picture, you may be successful for a short time, but ultimately the relationship will not last and some other vendor will take your place.

An example. How this can play out, and not in your favor.

You are hired to be the social media director for a national brand of banks. Obviously their culture is traditional.

You know, very generally (or think you know) that the customers of this bank would like to see it be more transparent.

You say to yourself, "I will add value to this bank by delivering transparency to the customer." You go about setting up blogging for the CEO, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, whatever social media you can get your hands on.

They are less than pleased. You last less than two months – and the first week was orientation.

In this scenario, you didn't understand the bank at all. You had no idea what their short- or long-term goals were, and thus what value meant to them. So your low- or no-cost social media campaign actually cost them a lot. Time, to hire somebody else who does understand their goals. And money, to undo the reputation "damage" they perceived.

You see, what they wanted – what was valuable to them – was complete opacity over the long-term. They just wanted someone to serve as a "cover." They wanted you to be their image of social media, so that they could stay quiet and blank. Maybe you could have launched a Twitter account to sell 6-month CDs, but that was it.

Sometimes the customer sees enormous value in things that have an exorbitant cost.

I'm still "kvelling" (Yiddish – marveling) over a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Who Buys These Clothes? They Do." It focused on women who pay thousands of dollars to buy couture straight off the runway.

This article was almost incomprehensible to me.

In a day and age when every fashion look can be knocked off and still look close to the original, why would you just hand over your hard-earned money for nothing? And yet these women do. They perceive value there. One woman said that to her the clothes were art, and that she felt like a museum curator building her collection.

Is she wrong? Of course not. She is telling us what value means to her. It pays for a marketer to listen.

Similarly, HGTV's "Selling New York" had a prospective apartment buyer who clearly had millions to spend, but found value in "getting a bargain." So he haggled over the price of marked-down properties to the point where he lost some serious good ones.

Think about a travel booking service. Sure you can get a flight booked for nothing. But would you pay a premium for a service that promised you no hassles? No overbooking problems, no luggage delivery problems, no long waits at check-in, just a smooth and relaxing travel experience. I bet you would find that valuable and worth the money. Even if you're thrifty like me.

What makes the whole subject even more complex is that the exact same person may be willing to splurge on some things, but pay almost nothing for others. For example, I won't set foot in Payless. I know their shoes are probably OK. But I have bad feet. I can never find shoes. So you know that only brand I trust? Nike! Those sneakers – that are made overseas – are the only ones that fit my feet right. The men's version. So be it – there goes $80 or more.

All of us are marketers. What is it that you sell? If you want your brand to be successful, think about value from the perspective of the customer.

Monday, February 21, 2011

New brand opportunities in the DIY culture

Do you subscribe to Lifehacker?

I do. I love that site. That's how I got to the truly idiotic video above (don't even start it until 1:20), which provides a short how-to guide on taking a 10 cent coffee cup and crafting it into a holder for a $400 smartphone.

Whatever! It's so stupid. But I love the thinking behind it. I love DIY culture. There are so many different ways to get through life easier, cheaper, and happier overall. As the New York Times reports, recent research suggests that ordinary individual people - not companies - are more and more innovative, companies less and less so. According to research at MIT:

"The traditional division of labor between innovators and customers is breaking down.....the amount of money individual consumers spent making and improving products was more than twice as large as the amount spent by all British firms combined on product research and development over a three-year period."

Lifehacker often has tips by such ordinary folks. So many that I can't even pick out one or two to share. And on so many different topics, too.

One time they had a post on do-it-yourself knifeholders. Another one, more recently, explained how to set up a free VPN so that you could browse the web in Starbucks (or wherever) hacker-free.

Fueled by a tough economy and the rise of self-reliant Generation X, do-it-yourself culture is becoming dominant everywhere as individuals:

1. Make their own news through blogging and popularize news through voting for others' news - e.g. Digg

2. Make their own entertainment - e.g. YouTube

3. Make their own political establishments - e.g. revolt in the Middle East; the grassroots creation of the Tea Party

4. Make their own medical care - the growing popularity of alternative medicine and natural remedies

5. Make their own support of every kind - from technical help to psychotherapy - through support groups, discussion forums, message boards, etc.

6. Make their own clothing - either literally or repurposing consignment, second-hand, or vintage clothes

7. Make their own food - from growing it to cooking it from scratch

8. Make their own education for the children - through homeschooling

9. Make their own technology - building their own computers and even "jailbreaking" machines to work the way that best suits them

10. Make their own forms of religion - not accepting the institutions of the past, but trailblazing new kinds of faith groups and forms of spiritual self-expression that break old and musty molds

In a DIY culture, brands have an opportunity to win customers over. But not in the old way - not by brainwashing them or providing a false sense of superiority or tribalism for buying a certain product over and over again. Rather, the new model is about being a trusted guide and facilitator of value.

The number-one company in the DIY world, from my perspective, is Amazon truly understands that its value proposition has to do with obtaining the customers' trust. So it will put up offers that compete with its own. It will allow consumers to rate merchandise badly. It will even suggest outside merchants. And of course everything is backed with the A-to-Z guarantee.

It is a tougher environment than in the past, to be sure. But it's not impossible to compete. The organizational cultures that are best poised to succeed are those that respect the customer and treat them as an equal. As ad guru David Ogilvy once said, "The consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife." (Today: or husband, or partner, or friend, or parent.)

New brand successes won't trick the customer out of their money. They'll create situations where the customer is only too happy to pay in, in exchange for offering a way to make life simpler, happier, and more carefree.

Good luck!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Sloppers, Supersloppers, Slimers, & Sponges": Get Creative Now - Or Technology Will Eliminate Your Job

If you are doing anything repetitive, it is susceptible to automation.

Automation means the machine does it, not you, and you can find a job somewhere else - involuntarily.

The divide between employees who add value ("creators") and those who don't ("servers") was highlighted in this week's Wall Street Journal in an op-ed by Andy Kessler, author of Eat People: Unapologetic Rules for Entrepreneurial Success, where he breaks down "servers" into four categories.

(Lest anyone think that I am standing on a soapbox, I read this and winced because branding professionals are one of them.)

1. Sloppers - people who move information or things from one place to another without adding any value - e.g. I send the form to you, you send it to someone else, it gets approved. Not brain surgery, that.

2. Supersloppers - people who add an illusion of value to products through branding.

3. Slimers - people who earn their living in finance - because it's getting easier and easier to eliminate the middleman.

4. Sponges - people who rely on certifications to establish their worthiness for a job - because computers can do so much of the work nowadays (e.g. paralegal research, computer-aided diagnostics) that "sponges" aren't needed to do everything associated with their specialization.

I personally don't agree that branding inherently adds no value - it's the practice of providing an illusion of value that is going to be useless.

Nevertheless, whatever you do, it's time to ask yourself whether you are a "server" who adds no value. If so, get out of denial (if you're in it) and face facts about the state of the economy. There is no refuge from the budget axe, whether you work in government or the private sector.

Are there parts of your job that are mundane and repetitive? Automate them yourself - and find something else to do where you are a source of unique, creative value that cannot easily be duplicated by a machine. Even if you have to pursue training in subjects you're not familiar with. Do what you have to do.

In this process, don't let the fear of change stop you. We're all going through the same thing, and most of the time these kinds of challenges make us stronger down the road.

Don't be afraid to share your situation with others. Get support! And practice self-compassion as you make the transition to the new economy. Maybe even help someone else, too.

Americans are strong and we will get through this time - but the first step to take is to face reality.

Good luck!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thanks to Google, I Remember Their Names.

These are some of my relatives, on my father's side, who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Thanks to several visual and content databases created in partnership between Google and Yad Vashem, I finally learned what names were. After an entire life of not knowing, because it was considered something we should not talk about - should move on from.

The photo database was announced on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

My father's family was from Romania. They were (are) Hasidim. A sect called "Satmar." They keep to themselves, mostly, and are very religious.

I still don't know much about why they do the things they do. I just know that they were nice to me when I spent time with them.

I would like to know more.

Due to Google's efforts, there is a YouTube channel dedicated to testimonials as well as a searchable photo archive online.

I couldn't find them there, they were listed in a database on Yad Vashem's site.

Sometimes I hear the anti-Semitic accusation that Jewish people "relive" the Holocaust over and over again, "beat it to death," as a sort of political trump card.

The truth, in my experience, is that the victims don't like to talk about it.

I for one wish that my grandparents, when they were still alive, had told me more. Or that I had a list or a photo album.

Sadly, sometimes when you go through a painful experience, you have to name it and talk about it even though it hurts you, so that you can help others who have suffered or prevent something similar from happening again.

I am grateful at least to know some of their names.

And yes, I am grateful that there are brands. Because without names I know and trust, I wouldn't have found my family. Google provides searchability. Yad Vashem preserves what happened. And The New York Times reports accurately, timely, and in a way that I appreciate.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Wounded Child and The Personal Brand

Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver in one movie - a good reason to watch "You Again," out on Redbox this weekend, and it was worth the price of "admission." Painfully I laughed and winced as well as the ensemble cast, led by talented Kristen Bell, conveyed the secret struggle many of us go through as we overcome the petty, constant emotional scarring that was high school.

The opening sequence of the movie hit especially close to home. When Bell tells a group of PR trainees that "You can't control what others do to you, but you can control how you react to it, and that is the essence of public relations," I literally felt like she had reached into my high school yearbook. (I mean, it wasn't that bad, but let's just say there's a reason why the tome isn't coffee-table reading in my living room today!)

Aside from learning that my life is a Hollywood cliche, I gained some insight from the movie about a topic that has been percolating in my head for some time. That is, I think there is a connection between the intense interest people have in personal branding nowadays, our earliest experiences, and the pernicious threat posed by crimes where people are bought and sold like cattle.

To be very direct about it: I am not a psychologist, but from my own experience I believe that the effort to "brand" oneself can stem from a rational, logical place (make money, compete successfully) as well as an irrational one (recover self-esteem eroded a long time ago).

If the former, fine.

If the latter, hold on a minute.

Because if you are looking at yourself through the lenses of a time when you were made to feel "not good enough" - no amount of image-building is going to make you feel whole. Which can lead you to make bad choice after bad choice in an attempt to feel successful.

So it pays to have some awareness into this whole area, if only to have a measure of control over your own life.

As I think about the connection between the wounded child and the personal brand, it strikes me that there is more than high school bullying that can cause someone to be intensely interested in image building and image control.

Again, not that I am a psychologist or psychoanalyst, but it seems logical to me that there is a relationship between one's upbringing and the way one would use personal branding.

Meaning, if your parents or caregivers were there for you, supported you, and validated your worthiness no matter what, you would be less likely to need a brand to give you self-esteem.

Conversely, if you were ignored or mistreated, you may very well turn to a product to give you substitute love.

In the sentence that follows, I am not (!) blaming anyone here for working - please don't get me wrong. But it strikes me as no accident that just in my generation, where divorce became ordinary and staying at home to raise the kids became less and less the norm, we saw the rise of the pervasively branded culture.

More than the Baby Boomers, my generation was disconnected from solid, rooted families; raised on TV; cared for by daycare givers and later, peers; and divided into tribes based on the logos we displayed on our clothes. Perhaps lacking in validation from a solid unit of caring people at home, we validated ourselves by buying things, and as adults we reassured ourselves for leaving our kids at home by buying them Einstein videos and just the right kind of organic baby food. Not to mention expensive nannies who we could order around in our absence (a form of depersonalization right there).

If you take this line of thinking a step further, it is not a very far leap to see why social cancers like human trafficking are such a threat, if we ignore them. Because if we have made it acceptable to view ourselves as products, then we have become de-sensitized to our own uniqueness, and we are less likely to value the humanity of others. We understand that we must sell ourselves, in a way, and so why is that such a far leap from accepting the reality that others get sold?

In the brand-based global economy, we are socialized to accept that it is not our inner worth that matters but rather what others think of us - this is after all the very definition of brands. And we are savvy enough to know that in a world where every product is reducible to a commodity, manufacturing is not the basis of value. Rather, marketing is, because it is only the illusion provided by the brand that gives anything any value at all.

This is a lot to overcome. As individuals, how do we overcome the painful past, and deal with a challenging present, without losing our humanity in the process? Here are some suggestions.

1. Practice "self-compassion": There are a few books with this name floating around and they all center on the same concept. Rather than trying to achieve things by putting yourself down (e.g. the "drill sergeant" model of self-improvement), you take the opposite path and re-parent yourself in a loving way. You pursue an inner journey to value yourself separately from your paycheck, your weight, your social status, or any other irrelevant external marker.

2. Validate others: Do for your family, your friends, and your co-workers what you should be doing for yourself. Encourage them to value themselves as three-dimensional people and not for their "marketability."

3. Practice "mental environmentalism": Basically, take some time each week to unplug from all the marketing crap. All the TV, the magazines, the everything. Disconnect and get back to yourself.

4. Find your passion: What do you love to do in this world? Find a way to do it, either on the job or in a classroom or as a hobby. Get in touch with your true self no matter what you have to do to earn a living.

5. Volunteer: The act of helping other people whom you don't know puts you in touch with both their humanity and your own - and the fact that all people have an essential self-worth despite their life situation.

You may be wondering how all of this can help. For on the surface, doing the above gets you out of business mode and perhaps off the professional "success track" that you may have been chasing.

In a way, that is true. You're not as single-minded anymore.

But on another level, if you do all these things and have a more balanced life, you may actually be more valuable as a professional. Because when you are fully self-validated, you are not looking to your image to shore you up as a person. You are simply looking at personal branding objectively, as just another tool to help you achieve your goals in a rational way.

And when you are calm and your mind is centered in this way, you stand a greater chance of not only achieving your professional goals, but sustaining them over the long term in a balanced way. As a thinking person. As someone who cares.

That is something that really puts you on the success track at work, and in life - a potent contributor to both your own personal economy, and to society.


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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Personal branding tip: 10 Ways To Make Sure Your Voice Is Heard


Lately The Huffington Post has been posting some great blogs on communication by psychologist Robert Leahy (@AICTCognitive).

It's funny how most of us are so bad at communication yet we think we are so good at it and there is "nothing new under the sun" to say on this topic. So untrue!

For example I am paid to communicate. And yet I have learned that I can sometimes be vague when I communicate verbally. That is a big deal!

I've also learned that there are times when it is more efficient for me to communicate in person (brainstorming sessions can't be done by email) while other times writing is much better (strong opinions are good in blogs, but sometimes off-putting in person).

Obviously understanding where and how you communicate best has a major impact on your personal brand. Although the proliferation of social media encourages us to think that everyone is interested in our every little thought, the opposite is actually true. Sometimes the more you say, the less people want to hear you.

I got a dose of this one when I started blogging more frequently, and participating in discussion groups more. It was the Law of Diminishing Returns. I noticed that people were less interested in what I had to say. Whereas they continue to comment voraciously on bloggers who post relatively infrequently (to me) - say once a week or so.

In any case, the first Leahy post that caught my attention offered 7 reasons "Why Men Don't Listen to Women." A "grabber" headline so I read it. What an original and convincing argument. While usually these kinds of articles put the onus on women to be less emotional, Leahy explains why men have trouble with emotionality, period. His explanation is convincing: It makes them uncomfortable both psychologically (power dynamics) and physically (literally, emotional conflict causes their pulse rates to rise and "they find this unbearable.")

What a helpful article to read. Because it's not about being "right" or "wrong" about how you communicate. It is about understanding your audience and making sure that you have a fighting chance, given their predispositions. What matters isn't gender, of course - anyone can have "male" or "female" characteristics when it comes to communicating. And the setting doesn't matter either - home or work. You can be the best speaker in the world, you can be completely "on target," but if you're very passionate and emotional and your audience is moved by facts, figures and a monotone, you will be out of luck. And vice versa.

Similarly, the other post I recently read by Leahy, "How To Talk So That Your Partner Will Listen," had much good advice for all contexts. If you don't have time to read the whole thing (it's well-written and worth the time, if you have it), here is the "Cliff's Notes" version. Some of this is new, some of it is old but sound. Taken together it's a good mini-workshop on personal communication effectiveness. Here goes:

#1 - Preparation: Based on your knowledge of the person you're trying to talk to, when are they most receptive to listening to the kind of thing you want to talk about?

#2 - Say it the Twitter way: Don't go into a whole "shpiel" (Yiddish for lengthy diatribe). Get to the point fast.

#3 - Stop, stop: In the middle of what you're saying, ask for some kind of reaction before you continue

#4 - Balance, be objective: Don't make things more extreme than they are - "if you make too many things sound awful you will lose your credibility"

#5 - Be positive toward the listener: No matter how strongly you feel, no matter how just your cause, no matter how wrong the other person may seem - do not criticize them at all. Just talk about what you would like to see changed, and thank them in a realistic way (it has to be true) for the good that they do.

#6 - Clarify what you want from them: Generally if your audience is higher-level than you they will think you want problem-solving. Lower-level and they think you want to vent. Is that true? Maybe not. State what you want from the outset - support, suggestions, or help in solving a problem.

#7 - Expect another opinion even if you're just venting: The listener is not your robot. They are a thinking person. So expect them to offer you their own perspective, not just to agree with you. If you don't want input you can talk to a pillow, or the wall.

#8 - Be respectful of the advice you get: Similar to the above, but it's about your attitude when they start spouting. Maybe you just wanted to vent but you got advice instead. And you really don't like the advice or don't think the person is qualified to give it. Doesn't matter. If you want them to listen next time, be grateful.

#9 - Be constructive: Even if you just want to be heard, people like it when you come in with a possible solution rather than just griping. You don't want to end up with a Pavlovian situation where the very sight of you is associated with negativity.

#10 - Thank the listener: You've taken up their time, and their time is precious: They get paid X number of dollars an hour. Be grateful and tell them so.

Better communication, better brand, better chance of success. And a more harmonious world, too.

Don't you think?


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Thursday, February 10, 2011

The financial benefit of diversity as a strategy

It has been my observation that companies treat diversity as a compliance tool rather than a strategic one. Legally they do what they must, and culturally they box it into the "defensive measures" category of reputation management, doing just enough so that people can't say that they are biased.

Wow is that shortsighted (dumb).

Real diversity would stomp out all the meetings where homogeneous (or brainwashed, or intimidated) people talk about the weather and vacation, drink coffee with packets of Equal and those too-little half-and-half cups, stuff their faces with muffins and bagels, then "debate" and "settle" on the equivalent of junk-food ideas before heading off to the next meeting, then lunch and the gym.

The cost of a wasted meeting = hourly salary x # of people. Imagine $50 an hour x 10 and you have $500 right there. Was it useful?

The cost of a poorly thought out initiative or program, of course, can run into the millions, billions, even trillions if you imagine the scale on which groupthink can produce bad ideas.

The real definition of diversity is NOT, as has been pointed out many times, skin color or gender or the hiring of people who have clearly visible disabilities. Diversity is in the brain. And it takes many different kinds of brainpower to run a company. To create ads that symbolize diversity by showing smiling people who look different with their arms around each other isn't just misguided, but tired, cheesy, and misses the point.

The bottom line is, we aren't in kindergarten anymore. We are adults and we must learn to tolerate and eventually encourage constructive, open disagreement about important things.

To my mind, then, a really good diversity poster would resemble something like Apple's "Think Different" campaign - focusing not on looks, but on what's inside.

Good diversity communications sells the concept to the audience in terms of what it can do for them. Not by appealing to sentiment or morality. Because self-interest is a primary motivator - survival - while morality is seen as a nice-to-have in comparison.

For example, from an internal communications perspective, people are at work to work - and we are all diverse. We want to know that our jobs are secure. We feel more secure when we are valued for being ourselves. When the company doesn't squash individuality but leverages it to contribute to the bottom line.

From an external communications (PR) point of view, companies that use diversity strategically are simply more valuable than those that don't. That makes them attractive to investors.

This doesn't mean you can't talk about the softer side. People want to work in a welcoming place, and in today's transparent world, diversity will also appeal to customers interested in patronizing socially responsible brands.

It is a challenging environment we live in today. But we do have the brainpower to overcome our challenges and thrive. A good way to start is by encouraging and sustaining dialogue between people who think different.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

10 Amazingly Simple Ways to Brand Your Company Effectively

If you know what you're doing, branding doesn't have to be complicated or even expensive. Here are some ideas to consider:

1. Buy 10,000 rubber bracelets in your brand color, promoting a cause, "sponsored by [you]" Obviously you should also promote the cause on your website, in your literature, and even donate money to the cause periodically so that the promise is real. The smart thing about doing this is that you associate your brand with social responsibility, you make your employees (that includes you) feel good about working for you, and you get 10,000 people to wear your bracelet. Plus, once the bracelet is printed, a few thousand more isn't going to cost much more at all.

2. Sponsor home parties promoting your brand. They had an item in the Wall Street Journal the other day about home parties that go way beyond Tupperware. You can look it up if you want but the point is, people are social, word of mouth sells things, and nobody has any money these days. A perfect storm that can help you move merchandise on a Sunday afternoon. Pay people a commission to host events that give people something to do, a way to connect and network, and also make some money at the same time.

3. Visit people "in their hour of need" and offer them something for free. I know this sounds horrible and crass but it doesn't have to be.  CNN reports this morning that Disney is visiting moms in the hospital just moments after they have given birth, offering free merchandise so as to gain an entrée with the customer and hawk more in the future. I have long thought that the Disney brand was becoming irrelevant despite their efforts to create entertainment programming that is more up-to-date. This campaign is much closer to their brand essence, which is really the wonder and fantasy associated with infancy and early childhood. And you know what? If a mom doesn't want Disney anywhere near her, that's her choice. But she does have that choice, and meanwhile Disney has positioned the brand right in front of the target.

4. Recruit a unique voice – literally, a human vocal – to represent your brand. Done well this is a hugely effective tool to gain recognition with your audience, and if you hire someone who isn't well known they aren't going to charge you a lot of money because you are giving them the opportunity to become a recognized brand in their own right. If you don't believe me, listen for 5 seconds to TV chef Guy Fieri (of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network"). What a voice! It is that same voice that sells crackers in the grocery store. Seriously. I was walking down the aisle and heard Fieri blaring out of a speaker, and you know what? I don't eat carbs anymore but I did listen to the ad. And when I saw Fieri was selling a knife set, I seriously looked into it on a par with the other knife brands, made by companies that sit around hammering steel all day! Similarly, there is a narrator on TV whose name escapes me, but he always seems to work for shows that are at least passably entertaining. You've heard his shows, usually involving dumb criminals or crazy cop car chases, things like that. The point is, I don't even have to know the name to know that if this individual is narrating the show, it is going to be good. That is a worthy brand that doesn't even involve a visual.

5. Have a "branded" way that you handle customer service calls that is unique - but not robotic. I know that this can get cheesy and silly if it is done the wrong way. Keep in mind though that what you're trying to do is establish a consistency of high-quality service associated with your product. In a world where nobody trusts anybody (and frankly a lot of the time people are not worthy of being trusted), a vendor that backs product with a certain style of customer service has a tremendous advantage. One example is The Four Seasons brand of hotels. If you've ever stayed there, you know that there is nothing that compares to that level of attention. You literally feel like the Queen of Sheba (or the King of Persia) once they're through with you. Another example, don't laugh, is humble Puritan's Pride vitamins, of the "Buy 2 Get 3 Free" claim to fame. There have been a few times that I had minor glitches with my orders, either because I got the wrong item or because I wanted to add something to the order after it was placed. Each and every time I called up, I was spoken to by a human being and treated like a neighbor, not a depersonalized "customer." I didn't get condescending, canned phrases out of a manual like, "Oh Mrs. Blumenthal, I know how distressing it must be for you not to have your Omega 3." Instead I get, "That's no problem, Mrs. Blumenthal. I'll take care of it" and "I'm so sorry we messed up your order, I will send you a $5 coupon for the next one"  (and then they actually send it). And when you get emails from customer service, they are actually written by real people in real words. All of this makes the company seem real – all of it makes me want to deal with them and not "VitaminsRUs" with "LowLowLowest Prices on the Net" or whatever.

6. Do anything you can to get your product in front of the public - in an inconspicuous way. This is how I became sold on the Amazon Kindle, which I have no doubt I will buy over and above the Nook or any other e-reader, simply because I see people using it on the subway. I've also become interested in HP products by seeing "testers" using them in Starbucks. I am pretty sure that Amazon hasn't been giving away the Kindles but the fact that I see people using them makes me want one - and as people who know me know, I vastly prefer magazines to books. Similarly, people have asked me about my laptop computer – how it works, how good is it, "because I'm looking for a new one," because they've seen me carrying it around in public. I even became interested in net-books by helping a lady figure out how to use it in McDonald's "because my daughter bought it for me on eBay, I think it comes from China, and I have no idea how to use this." And all the women at work seem to wear Chico's, love Chico's, etc., prompting all the other women to wear it and buy it too. People are social, and products are social currency.

7. Create weird, poor-production, homemade-looking video. There is this restaurant in DC called The Mad Hatter that has been running absolutely crappily produced commercials running on local channels at odd hours, but their restaurant has an interesting name and the things they show in the restaurant – the ceilings, the interaction between the wait staff and the customers, etc. – looks interesting. Entire family wants to go. Even though we get the feeling it's an excuse to serve expensive breaded jalapeno poppers.

8. Use a foreign language to label your products - one in which you are fluent. True: There is a coffee storefront in the food court where I work where the coffee is expensive (illy), they don't take a credit card, and everything is labeled in Italian. The line is usually long. Always, always the line is twice as long there as at the storefront literally next door to it, even though they sell the EXACT same coffee. And I don't think it's an accident that people are constantly saying "Buon Giorno" to the lady behind the counter, who doesn't seem to speak English at all, especially when I ask for a refund because a particular pot of coffee is burnt. (Not only didn't she offer me a refund, but she told me never to come back again. I got that without her using a single English word. Prompting me to, of course, come back a few months later. Masochist.)

9. Find a way to make your product healthy. People (including me) are obsessed with health nowadays, yet relatively few products emphasize the health aspect of their offering. If you can show clearly how using your brand will help a person "hack life" better, you have an advantage.

10. Take advantage of product labeling. Is your product ethically sourced? Does it have an ingredient that other competing products don't? MENTION IT. Don't be afraid to be transparent – people actually prefer honesty, and to have a choice. Otherwise why would anyone buy the sugar poison that is Coca-Cola?

These are just a few ideas, and there are many more out there. Point is, branding runs throughout your organization and is not limited to any one department anymore, especially not the marketing department. If you are just a little bit savvy and consistent with your efforts, you have a chance to compete effectively, without hiring an army of consultants or spending a lot of money. Or even trying very hard, once you understand what to do and how to do it.

Good luck!


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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Right Way to Focus for Brand Leadership

Most people understand in a theoretical way that focus is important in order to build a brand. However, they don't always actually implement that focus because they are afraid of losing business.

The key mistake there is to confuse "focus" with "selling only one thing."

The fact of the matter is that the more focused your brand is, the more things you can actually sell.

This is because the narrower your focus, the more likely it is that you completely occupy a certain place in the customer's mind. Once you have "permission" to live there, you can become part of the customer's psychological life as well as their physical one, interrelate your functions with their other activities, and upsell from there.

In an ideal world, you start with a functional benefit offering - e.g. "Nike sneakers are better for running" - and then move on to an emotional one - "Nike = achievement." Soon everything stamped with the little Nike swoosh comes to mean "achievement," even if it's got nothing to do with the actions of the customer. Nike could sell business suits and they would make a bundle. Or even cars, maybe.

But you've got to understand your essence - the area the customer has given you permission to focus on.

Some other examples of brands that do this well: Google, Starbucks, McDonald's, Oprah, Microsoft, Conde Nast, The Kardashians, Tony Robbins, Harley-Davidson.

If you try to be "the everything brand" right from the beginning, ultimately you will go nowhere.

In the political realm, successful parties and leaders understand this principle. Not to leave anyone out, but two examples come immediately to mind: the Tea Party, which is associated with fiscal responsibility, and Michelle Obama, who is associated with nutrition.

Starbucks is losing its way because it has lost touch with that thing it owns in the customer's mind: a time-out with friends from hectic life. It isn't selling coffee or premium products at all. So in its quest for global expansion, the company is focusing on permission to sell ice cream rather than developing other experience-brands besides coffee shops.

If you own a business or are developing your personal brand, strive to do one thing better than anybody else, and then when you succeed, leverage that across expanded offerings.

Health Food Marketing Tip: Target Kids, Not Parents

A grocery store I go to recently decided to cluster together health food in a certain section of one of their stores, near the front.

This is a fantastic development both for me, because I know where to find it, and for the family, because they are becoming conditioned to understand that most of the time, healthy food is going to make them feel better than junk food will.

Thus they are beginning to demand it. And now, they know exactly where to go to find it - rather than the esoteric places I tend to haunt.

Here are 3 products that are specifically aimed at non-health-food types, that the family loves:

1. Morningstar anything
2. Gardein beefless tips (also the chicken tenders)
3. Nature's Path instant oatmeal with flaxseed

I'm sure there are others, but it's been an interesting progression to see how health food marketing only works when the family really wants it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Best SuperBowl Ad of All Time - Apple's "1984"

I can't wait to see what they roll out this year, but doubt that anything can ever top this.

As I watch the video I am thinking that there are some people in this country who are still enslaved - the victims of human trafficking. Help free the slaves today by reporting suspicious activity to 866-347-2423.

Personal Branding & Your Health: 15 Actions To Take Right Now - That Actually Work

  1. Talk to your doctor as you are working out your lifestyle routine, especially if you have any conditions, are aging, or are doing what you think you should be doing but it's not working for you. Sometimes a health condition can mess you up. For example, I recently read that if you have hypothyroidism, raw spinach, cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli can interfere with the functioning of your thyroid – that was pretty shocking! Or you may have insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, an endocrine imbalance, celiac disease or even food allergy. Many people crave bread and cheese because they're allergic to wheat and dairy.
  2. Totally love yourself, all the time. You may be fat and feel lousy. You may find yourself horrendous to look at. You may have tried, and failed, many times before. Forget all that and give yourself a big hug. Think about it this way: If you do anything in life as a way to punish yourself for "not being good enough," you can count on failing big time.
  3. Focus on action rather than deprivation. Exercise is action #1: Walk, run, bike, or climb stairs briskly ½ hour a day. "Briskly" means you're out of breath. You can cut the 30 minutes into chunks of 10 minutes each.
  4. If you normally hate exercise, that's probably because you think of it as something you're forced to do. Change that. Really it is a gift you are giving to yourself as a way to feel good, prevent illness, recover, lose weight, or simply to have a few minutes of downtime. If you are not convinced by this, visit any nursing home.
  5. Substitute better habits for worse ones rather than depriving yourself out of "willpower." I read an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago about how willpower isn't really effective for keeping New Year's Resolutions. (In contrast, immediate rewards for good behavior work very well – and every single thing you do to help yourself is an instance of good behavior.) Most important: If you are hungry, eat – just make better choices.
  6. Make a routine out of exercise and healthier eating. This will protect you from the "I don't feel like it" failure spiral and the "I messed up , now I'm a failure and may as well never try again" syndrome that happens to all of us.
  7. Prepare yourself for the inevitable cravings, headaches, irritability and other problems that will inevitably beset you when you change your lifestyle from unhealthy to healthy. The fact of the matter is that you are addicted to the very things that are harming you. These symptoms will pass.
  8. Don't believe anyone who says they have the "only answer." Everybody is different. That is why it's important to work with your doctor as well as to put up with a certain amount of experimenting till you find what's right for you.
  9. Accept that there are certain things you will have to give up because they truly will send you down a bad path. #1 on that list is sugar. Bury it.
  10. Visualize yourself eating healthy food and avoid looking at unhealthy food. That means: Don't watch the Taco Bell commercials on TV at night, don't stare at supermarket displays of Betty Crocker brownies on sale for 2 for $5, don't stand around the bagel platter at the office breakfast meeting, etc.
  11. If the idea of eating healthy food makes you feel deprived, consider that fancy restaurants routinely charge a lot of money for a plateful of greens & vegetables, topped with a protein of some kind, drizzled with healthy oil. If you eat like that, you are eating like a power player or a celebrity. In contrast, the dollar menu at any fast-food place is full of processed food and white carbs – the kind you are craving right now.
  12. If you don't like being hungry all the time, stop eating simple carbohydrates completely. This doesn't mean that you have to do the Atkins diet, but it does mean that you have to learn where the simple sugars are and stay away from them. Believe it or not, even fruit is not necessarily "safe."
  13. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. This is easier if you eat healthy, impossible if you eat junk.
  14. Eat actual food as opposed to manufactured food. For too many reasons to list here, but prime among them that you don't really know what's in them.
  15. Don't laugh at nutritional supplements just because they are sometimes sold by hucksters. These could be of help to you. Your doctor can provide you with information, you can consult with a natural health professional, and you can do your own research online. We live in a very odd world where the first course of action when there is a problem is routinely manufactured solutions, drugs and surgery when sometimes the natural solution is staring us right in the face
Whether you undertake a health program to improve your image, your health, or your BMI doesn't really matter. What does matter is that you start today.

Take one step forward and have faith. G-d will guide you the rest of the way. As Martin Luther King once said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."


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Friday, February 4, 2011

It Takes A Dictator To Build A Brand


Great brands are not built by a committee of disinterested parties. They are hewn from the psyches of extremely obsessed people who narrate the story of their creation down to the smallest detail.

This is so obvious to me yet in real life many brands behave in such a way as to distribute the thinking. They think that they are companies, not brands (mistake #1); de-fang their leadership (mistake #2); try to ensure "buy-in" through numerous committees, working groups, and "task forces" (mistake #3) announced with grand fanfare yet destroyed by no follow-through (mistake #4); and jumble up their potentially powerful messages with corporate gobbledygook (mistake #5).

All of this is a huge mistake. Great brands are not about being politically correct. They are not about being all things to all people. They are about doing one thing inordinately, incredibly well. Usually because someone at the heart of the brand has an almost insane dedication to the brand as a personal cause.

Great brands reflect a kind of love affair between the founder of the brand and what they are selling. Brands-for-all-time have founders who are able to distill that brand into an essence and transmit the passion to the people who work for their company. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard achieved that, while they were with us. Steve Jobs has achieved that too - anyone who even stands next to an Apple store can feel the aura. Bill Gates did not, which is why even if you use Microsoft, you almost love to hate it.

The passion of the brand. The intensity. The obsession by one or two people who get it, and who have no compunction about literally forcing an entire organization to mold to their thinking. It is this thinking that is reflected in Google's decision to seize the reins back from Eric Schmidt and put the original founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in charge again.

I remember when they said that, the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, could never work because it made no sense to showcase your competitors. Now a lot of people don't trust any other Internet vendor except that one.

Donald Trump's brand may or may not be "devalued" right now due to over-extension, but clearly the businessman has been an "army of one" when it comes to creating a name out of whole cloth and selling it at a premium.

In the fashion arena, there is of course Ralph Lauren, who created a stunning brand story seemingly out of nowhere and who as sustained it for decades. (True: My mother remembers when Ralph Lauren was still known by his original name, Ralph Lifshitz. I still can't believe how his real-life persona is now the brand, not the reality of his heritage.)

And of course there is the Starbucks brand, built meticulously by Howard Schultz. If you follow my blog you know that Starbucks is a brand I love to hate right now, because Schultz has sold out the brand's original essence in pursuit of a "growth" strategy that dilutes it completely. That said, anyone who can steer a company from humble beginnings to being an instantly recognizable cultural icon, something that changed modern American history, has my respect.

What all of these companies, and all of their founders, have in common is a passion for the product or service that goes well beyond the norm into the realm of obsession. For other brands, it can be a single person or an army of people, but each one lives, eats, breathes, and you-know-whats an undying dedication to making every aspect of the brand absolutely perfect.

In my view, the way to gauge the success of a brand - the real metric - is whether there is someone behind that brand who sees it as a mission. Someone who will defend it, almost to the death, against the very thing that is normally taken to signal its success: money.

Which brings me to the #1 prime example of a brand facing such a crisis today: Facebook. It is well-known that Mark Zuckerberg has a clear passion and vision for the brand. He wanted to bring people together in such a way that their personal and professional selves were both in view, both integrated, and accessible for all the world to see. And he is deeply resistant to taking the brand public. But with Goldman Sachs investing $1.5 billion in the company, it surely seems headed that way. And once Zuckerberg loses that total control, we could well see the company head to its demise.