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You've been disintermediated (on the coming rise of of the alienated employee)

More than a decade ago, in May 2000, Married To The Brand author and Gallup researcher William McEwen argued in "It's The People, Stupid!" that marketers were getting behind the times in their reliance on the four "P"s - product, price, promotion, and place (distribution). 

As we moved from a product economy to a service economy, McEwen found, there was a fifth P that was getting neglected: People!

"People represent the Brand and people, on behalf of the Brand, touch the customer in any number of ways. These individuals...may well be the most powerful marketing resource available to build brand differentiation and enhance customer commitment."

McEwen's conclusions were based on objective research by Gallup; he wasn't an employee communicator advocating for people out of the kindness of his heart.

Gallup conducted a study at that time of 6,000+ consumers to find out how important each of the five "P's" was to them. As it turned out, the most important factor in driving brand loyalty was the employees themselves. Not the ads, not the discounts, not the availability of the product - people. And this held true whether they looked at hamburgers or cars or electronics or airlines or banks. Products you would think would be heavily price- and promotion-driven, ultimately had enduring value because people liked interacting with their employees.

A couple of years later, never having read McEwen's article, I wrote an article by the exact same name about the exact same subject, published on At the time I was working for The Brand Consultancy in Washington, D.C., which specializes in helping organizations align their external and internal brands. In fact we spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the critical role that employees played in building the brand. But very few companies, in my experience, really got the message, prompting me to write this;

"Despite the existence of many books about branding, not to mention numerous firms that sell it, the disappointing reality is that branding initiatives often fail. According to a recent survey of 700 business professionals conducted by Tom Peters, more than 90% said they did not understand how to effectively represent their company's brand; 75% don't support their company's branding initiatives; and over 50% say they don't even know what a brand means....

"All of this points to an unexamined 'failure factor' in branding as it is practiced today. Although companies are well-aware of the need to project the right brand image, they have paid little or no attention to gaining employee commitment to the brand at all levels....

"The conventional view is that branding is about creating 'image,' changing 'perceptions,' driving 'marketing and sales.' The emerging, more people-centric view, is that branding is about creating loyalty, motivation, and even missionary zeal among customers and employees alike.

Now comes the cover story of Forbes, September 26, 2011, "Social Power and the Coming Corporate Revolution."  It describes what has happened now that employees, in whom the power of brand is invested, have seized the reins away from their clueless bosses (sometimes "horrible bosses"). They are taking advantage of any and every technology at hand to connect in new ways. (The article's focus is on customers and employees alike, but for the purpose of this post the focus is only on employees.)

If you read the Forbes article carefully, you see that the changed economy, together with social media tools, have handed employees far more power than they ever had in the past - and how organizations disregard this power at their peril.

Here are some quotes from this excellent article, available online for free, which highlight the changes taking place right now:

1. "People are changing faster than companies...The elites--or managers in companies--no longer control the conversation."

2. "In this new world of business, companies and leaders will have to show authenticity, fairness, transparency and good faith. If they don't, customers and employees may come to distrust them, to potentially disastrous effect."

3. "Prospective employees don't have to take your word for what life is like at your company--they can find out from people who already work there."

4. "Longtime loyal employees now have more options to launch their own, more fleet-footed startups, which could become your fiercest competitors in the future." 

5. "Trust is built by sharing vulnerability....It's not about the top executive dictating what needs to be done and when, it's about providing individuals with the power to connect." (John Hagel, cochair, Deloitte's Center for the Edge, quoted in article)

6. "Many of your company's most valued employees now have CVs out on the street fulltime (on LinkedIn)--searchable by millions, including your competitor's recruiters. Do you want to take a chance mistreating or ignoring such people?"

7. "In 2009 one (YouTube video) appeared showing a Domino's Pizza worker putting cheese in his nose while making a sandwich, among other abominations. Its stock dropped 10% in short order. One employee's bad judgment damaged an entire company's reputation." 

8. "With the old way, all information flowed via e-mail. Now store managers and support staff all over the country can post on Yammer what they're doing, what they're proud of, or say, ‘Hey, I've got a problem. Does anyone know how to fix it?' "

9. "A little Toronto startup called Rypple applies social thinking in a different way--for internal employee management. Its social evaluation tool lets everyone in a company rate everyone else and gives people continuous realtime feedback. It taps social and peer pressure to make job evaluation more effective at driving future performance."

10. "What many companies get wrong when they think of ‘social' is they think of it as a marketing ploy, rather than as just a way of extending what you already really are as a company or a brand,"she says."If you do care about your employees and your customers, it allows you to show it and extend your reach." (Gen Y author Nadira Hira)

The change we are seeing today toward the empowered employee, in charge of the brand, weaves together trends in the economy, technology, culture and psychology. It may look like there are no jobs and that employees are at the mercy of their organizations. But actually nothing could be further from the truth. What is true is that employees are looking around at the landscape and making choices. If companies look around and change the social contract at work, there will be a basis for renewed bonds and the corporation can go forward as we know it today. If not, employees will leave their companies, probably with friends, and start new organizations together to compete with them.

And that, in the end, could change absolutely everything.

Personal Disaster Wash, Rinse, Repeat: Penelope Trunk's Brilliant But Dangerous Personal Brand


Penelope Trunk has written extensively about her own history of abuse,  institutionalization, depression, getting fired, and more.  But her latest blog went a lot further. In it we read about her experience with domestic violence: how during one of their fights, her husband shoved her to the floor as her six-year-old watched.


Penelope Trunk is a hugely successful personal brand. She writes articles about career development mingled with anecdotes about her crazy personal life. Her problems are her props.


Yet beneath the surface, underneath all the unpredictability and self-destructiveness and rebuilding, there is a certain consistency. Even manipulation. She knows her audience’s hot buttons, and she pushes them. If it’s Penelope’s blog, you know that one week you will read about her starting a goat cheese company, and the next week about homeschooling her sons, and then the third week about getting shoved to the floor. Her blogs are just – like that. Which is why she gets so many comments, and I think so much press. (Or maybe it’s that her advice is pretty useful.)


Penelope Trunk is also, hands-down, the best writer I have ever come across. She has the gift; she is beyond gifted. I don’t know if it’s the Asperger’s Syndrome that makes her as honest, but endearingly puzzled at the things other people take for granted – like social boundaries and inhibitions. It might be the child abuse. Whatever it is, I can’t stop reading.


I don’t agree with everything Penelope says; in fact her views, no matter how well-researched, are often infuriating and offensive to me. She tells women not to report sexual harassment, and argues that Veteran’s Day should be “cancelled.”


After the Veteran’s Day blog, I decided to stop reading (I work for the federal government and that one particularly got to me; of course I only represent myself here.) But I went back. Because Penelope, unlike most writers, has no veneer. She doesn’t shy away from complexity, she doesn’t exaggerate it. She simply presents it. She lives it. Right in front of you.


Penelope Trunk is a brand. But she is very, very messed up as a person. I worry one day they will find her dead. Forgive me for bringing marketing into this conversation, but what makes her so valuable– so relevant for this day and age as we learn our way around social media and how to make money from it – is that she so consistently lives her life on the edge, on the ledge, in front of all of us.


Lots of people lack ego. Lots of people do research and share strong, but unpopular opinions. But what makes her so worthwhile, if she could get her act together just a little more – is that she has the personal brand ingredients that few can aspire to:


1)   Authenticity and originality

2)   A born entertainer

3)   A moral cause

4)   Focus

5)   Lack of ego


Most important, Penelope Trunk is both both unpredictable and utterly consistent.


So this is the dilemma: The best brands, using buzz-worthiness as the metric, are people whose lives are perpetually, but predictably, out of control:


·      Amy Winehouse

·      Britney Spears

·      Charlie Sheen

·      Elizabeth Taylor

·      Eminem

·      Kim Kardashian

·      Marilyn Monroe

·      Michael Jackson


All of these personal brands live (or lived) unpredictable personal lives. And they share them: Penelope Trunk tweeted about her miscarriage, and caused an uproar. The excitement, and the controversy, is why we watch them. And, like Penelope Trunk, when their lives get stable they will be boring, and we will stop.


The smartest thing a personal brand (the manager or the person themselves) can do is isolate the internal consistency behind the brand, and then engage in creating an evolving story that hooks the audience on the next installment. A great example of this is Britney Spears, who went from bizarrely shaving her head in 2007 to Femme Fatale this year. A bad one is the painful public breakdown of Charlie Sheen.


To brand well, you do have to be healthy. Unpredictable might work for a time, but without any checks and balances, there’s only one way that can end. And while some people might want to go down in the history books as brilliant but tragic, the greater victory is to stay alive – dancing, as they say, on the head of a pin.



Image source here 

Branding for Generation Z: Making the Most of Our Time On The Planet

“Till The World Ends” (Britney Spears). “Give Me Everything Tonight” (Pitbull). Catchy songs with a message – the future is uncertain. Live for today. Enjoy.

Washingtonian Magazine this week spotlights burned-out out private school kids. They and their parents alike are going nuts trying to keep those transcripts pure for the Ivy League. Educators and psychologists, confronted with their pervasive stress, are asking the question, Why? Let kids enjoy the time they have. They’re only young once.

I read this and thought, and let’s be honest – the economy isn’t exactly going to welcome these kids with open arms. What is the craziness around all this unnecessary busywork? Why does every kid have to be a 4.0, mountain-climbing bassist in an obscure rock band who volunteers 80 hours a week to be considered good enough?

Facebook has helped me to enjoy life more. At first I hated it. It’s just seemed so – open. I think I opened and closed my account twice before I figured out how to use it in a way I could be comfortable with. Now, it’s my real family and friends on there. It was fun to joke about turning the big 4-0. I like seeing my high school friends’ kids’ pictures. It’s nice just to savor the moment, and know that it is fleeting.

My friend posted a picture the other day of herself playing Uno with her kid. It is so nice. It’s just…peaceful. I think about it and I wish that I were so relaxed.

Yesterday we had a family lunch at our usual place. In the past we hurried up – “Where’s the menu?” “Gotta go!” But this time we just kind of…didn’t. I took some really bad pictures with my aging Droid. Maybe it’s the reflective time of year – the Jewish New Year is coming. I am not sure. But we just sat, talked, ate those fattening but delicious Chinese noodles they put on the table, and ordered a really bad cake at the end. And laughed at how bad it was.

“Speed kills,” an executive said recently at work. What a good saying.

Bringing it back to branding, especially for Generation Z (kids born between 1992-2010) - the children of Generation Xers like me.

Most of the brand advice I see about these kids, born and raised on brands, has to do with how sophisticated they are. They’re born brand creators with zero brand loyalty who use numerous technologies simultaneously to express themselves in hyper-individualistic ways.

But more potent advice has to do with slowing down. These are kids who use technology fast – in fact they are notoriously overstimulated – which is why deep down they want to take their time much more. Already in 2004, Gen Y started the trend (and was immediately named Gen Z, prematurely). Today parents are talking about letting their kids find their own way in life, and homeschooling - getting out of the rat race early, and defining your own race - is at the forefront of this movement.

Gen Z is the generation of Suri Cruise and the Brangelina kids. As Marie Claire magazine points out, though they may seem pampered and acquisitive they actually, deep down, want and need the gift of slowness:

“Experts point out many difficulties Gen Z face are redeemable, simply by parents committing to switching off TVs and computers to talk to children and spend time together in an unstructured way. Several told marie claire the greatest gift would be bringing back family dinners, where children could learn, among other things, vital life lesson skills, such as conversation, waiting until others have finished, serving others first and deferring gratification.

For any audience, building a successful brand has never been about rushing around, doing lots of different things, showing activity and quantity and volume. Racing around is for insecure people. People who feel better when they can look at a long list of communication activities and say, “I did that!”

No. Building a brand, like building a good life, is about proceeding thoughtfully. Sometimes that means moving fast, and other times it means slowing down. You have to be mindful about what you’re doing. Focus on a few things that make a difference. Talk about the message till you get it right.

I can see the desire for slowness in pop culture and I can hear it when I listen to today’s kids. Underneath all the talk about "apps," they’re tired of all the rushing and they’re sick of all the pressure. They just want to hang out with their friends, make a lot of money (they still think kind of magically about this) and have a meaningful life too. The brands that can package all these gratifying wishes together will win them over for life.


Image source here

Working on Federal Communicators Network this weekend

Blogging completely impossible right now...working on FCN stuff. 

When I read more about the origins of FCN in 1996 - Al Gore's "Reinventing Government" initiative - it made me even more determined to pick up the baton and help bring this organization into the future.

Because "Reinventing Government" is EXACTLY the same thing as Gov 2.0.

The text below is a cut & paste from that link:

"The Federal Communicators Network 
In April 1996, Vice President Gore asked the National Performance Review (now the National Parnership for Reinventing Government) to organize a network of editors of publications directed toward front-line federal employees. The Vice President's vision was to reach federal workers with important reinvention messages, promote a climate in which reinvention can flourish, and create a grass-roots demand to break down agency barriers to reinvention.

Since that time, the Federal Communicators Network has expanded to comprise more than 500 writers, editors, public affairs specialists, Internet/Intranet coordinators, and other communicators eager to spread the message of effective government to federal employees and share stories of reinvention challenges and successes."