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Rule #1: Don't Make The Customer Think

Apple. Microsoft. Coca-Cola. IBM. Google.

As of October 2012, these were the world's 5 most most powerful brands, according to Forbes, drawing on research by Landor and Penn Schoen Berland.

You can get a glimpse of the methodology by which they made that call (they won't tell you everything of course) but at the end of the day it's not hard to see why you'd choose these.

They're very simple to choose.

All of them are almost a default when you're making a buying decision. As in, "Of course!"

There is a saying: "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM."

In Brand Simple (2006), Landor's Allen Adamson says:

"A brand should not be complex, confusing, or mysterious in any way.....A brand should be simple. People use brands as a shortcut to make business decisions."

Consider also that customers don't judge a brand by its own performance. Rather, "customer expectations are set by the best customer experiences." (This according to the ForeSee "e-Retail" customer satisfaction survey released in December of 2012.)

The principles of branding apply equally to organizations as seen by the customer, and individuals as seen by those they serve - or who depend on them.

So it does not matter if you're "doing your best." It does not matter if "our mission is complicated" or "there are politics to consider" or "we have many stakeholders."

Your best is only as good as your competitors' best. And with the Internet and widely available information about best practice, your competitors are EVERYONE.

You may say you're not a marketer. But every aspect of a business exists only "to create a customer," as Peter Drucker put it in The Practice of Management.

So many people do not get the very simple concept that they are the CEOs of their own lives. They are business leaders - and their customers are their bosses, their colleagues, and yes - their spouses, their children, their friends. 

And even - themselves. Ourselves. We are accountable to take care of our own health and happiness and meaning in life, are we not?

Yet people persist in making things complicated for those who deal with them. They have many "requirements" that go along with simple requests. Rather than making interactions easy, some people just make everything that much more difficult. 

And they have every excuse in the book for self-destructing, too - bad eating, toxic relationships, miserable job, the works. Whatever the problem is, they absolutely refuse to help themselves because a million criteria have to be met before they will take any action.

In his landmark article "The Brand Called You," (Fast Company, 1997), Tom Peters put it this way:

"Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in...our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You."

You may work for the government. You are a business. You are a stay-at-home parent? You're a business, too. You're unemployed - so what?

At the end of the day there is only one difference between people who succeed and who fail in life.

Winners take a good honest look at their lives, and take charge, and they make things as simple as possible. So they can function effectively and so that it's a pleasure to deal with them.

People who fail tend to throw up obstacles. Everything's an issue, everything's difficult. So that you think to yourself, if I have a choice, I will definitely avoid that person. So that they persistently find themselves in the same bad place, and no amount of money, advice or time can seem to "rescue them."

The thing about marketing, and branding is that its lessons are very applicable to life. Given how lazy and self-destructive many people are, it's not hard to succeed at all.

All you have to do is be simple. And be your own customer.

Set up your life and your business in a thoughtful way.

And then, don't make the customer think.

Working Together When You're Ahead Of The Curve

In the rush to get more and more credentials we sometimes forget one thing: it's mostly for the resume.

Because most organizations are not up-to-date with the training their employees have taken.

Across public and private industry there are scores of new-style workers ready to fly around on wings made of collaboration software, mobile apps, virtual work and of course the latest techniques for busting those stovepipes out the wazoo.

But then those same workers walk into the average workplace and can't believe it's not like the teacher told them.

A friend of ours told us that the kids in Florida now go to school with their iPads! While we are still learning to connect them to our networks.

Forget the training class: If you read the business journals, you might start to think that every company is like the ones profiled in those magical case studies.

But the reality is that we're sort of playing catch-up. In a world where some people are very advanced in terms of their technical skills, others in their managerial skills, and the rest in some middle area or not at all.

The task is to move the whole company forward together, not just glorify one or two at a time. But that's a tough ting to do when you are not necessarily the CEO.

Someone said to me yesterday, "D.C. is full of smart people. It's like, yes, you're smart, and I'm smart too. Now what?"

Another person said, "There's a lot of work to do that isn't necessarily exciting, but someone's got to do it."

In the real world, smart only gets you so far. The rest is finding a way to get things done. That's where the rubber hits the road and where all the training in the world makes no difference.

Like Iyanla Vanzant says, there is no thinking your way forward: "You have to do the work."

Administrative Assistants: An Undervalued Brand Asset

Awards and perks aside there is one simple way to tell how much an employee is valued: their salary.

Clearly, companies value their chief executive officers a lot. Last year the average CEO pay at a S&P 500 index company was $12.9 million, according to the AFL-CIO. By their calculations, that's 380 times what the typical worker makes.

Of course not all CEOs work for S&P 500 Index companies. According to, the median U.S. salary for the job title "CEO" is actually far lower - $732,744 per year.

But we still value corporate leaders much more than those who work for them. About 10.5 times more, in the case of administrative assistants who report to the CEO. According to the same site, the median salary for a "secretary to the CEO" is $69,854.

On the face of it you might say to yourself that a gap of ten times pay sounds just about right. After all it's the CEO who makes the big decisions, the CEO who takes the risks, and so on.

Plus so many administrative tasks can be automated, right?

But this view is shortsighted, particularly from a branding point of view. In fact, great administrative assistants contribute both intangible benefits and intangible assets to the workplace. (Intangible benefits have to do with perceptions and attitudes whereas intangible assets are cognitive, e.g. information and knowledge.) Examples:

  • Brand Consistency: Enforcing standard operating procedures - reducing duplicated effort, wasted time, stovepiping
  • Culture: Improving morale - improving coordination, enhancing retention
  • Decision Filter: Influencing key decisions - knowing the history and the informal culture, they have a radar for what will and will not work
  • Training: Using institutional knowledge to shorten the learning curve for new employees
  • Innovation and Product Development: Immersion in the culture leads to enhancing existing products or introducing newer ones that are more marketable
Yet unless an administrative assistant appears with the title, dress and demeanor of an executive their valuable contributions are routinely devalued. The movie Working Girl captured this nicely - the executive degraded her assistant and stole her ideas. The assistant, in turn, won a promotion by stealing the executive's identity and office (at least for awhile).

At the end of the day, organizations need to realize as much value as possible from all of their employees, not just the few who have elite status. Recognizing administrative assistants for their inherent and potential worth, training and engaging them to contribute as much as possible, is smart business and smart branding. There is no technology, ever - not Apple's "Siri" and not a robot - that will take the place of human intelligence and human interaction. 

We should value administrative assistants more.

Airline Tickets: A Functional Purchase With Emotional Expectations

A scene from the classic movie Airplane (1980). Screenshot via Movies and Improv

Over the past year I've flown a few different airlines - American Airlines, US Airways and JetBlue. Paradoxically, although I went into the transactions for rational reasons, I evaluated their quality based on emotional ones. In other words, satisfying the lower-level "promise" does not even merit appreciation - only scorn if there is a problem such as lateness, etc.

Reasons For Purchasing Tickets

Here were my criteria for purchasing tickets:
  • Nonstop
  • Lowest purchase price
  • Desired date and time 
They were purchased through a third-party online vendor that we "knew" enough to trust in case there was a problem.

Performance on Functional Criteria

Fortunately none of the airlines disappointed on serious grounds. However, a couple of things were annoying because they felt like broken promises. For example, one airline, claiming the flight was full, almost made us check our luggage without even having an opportunity to put it in an overhead. We also had to deal with an irrational "Zone 1, Zone 2" type system where "preferred" passengers boarded first - it seemed like we were in the millionth "Zone" - an elitist, irrational system since it makes more sense to board the plane from the back forward.

Reaction to Each Airline

The overall experience with each airline left me with a distinctive reaction. Here's what I said as I got off of each plane:
  • "I am never flying American again."
  • "I don't especially like US Airways."
  • "I would only want to fly JetBlue in the future."
What JetBlue Did Right
  1. Generosity: Unlimited drinks and snacks, and good ones yet. I am still recovering from having four packs of TerraBlue chips. And the Dunkin' Donuts coffee was actually drinkable. The crew offered me more, too - versus on US Airways where the person who gave me the drink acted really annoyed.
  2. Entertainment: Choice of TV channels on the plane - flying was fun! We laughed and watched different shows and didn't feel so disconnected from the real world. I didn't even mind the missing wireless.
  3. Jovial Crew: Crew seemed to want to be there - pilot actually stepped out and addressed the passengers jovially. Versus an American stewardess was screaming at us; a US Airways employee looked liked like The Walking Dead and spoke just as enthusiastically.
  4. Helpfulness: Crew went out of their way to help rather than be annoying - when someone's bag was bigger than its overhead spot, two of them got up and shoved it in there instead of making her check it.
  5. Welcoming Environment: Their signs were happy. I like the bubbly blue and white. The US Airways waiting area was completely depressing. I can't remember anything about American.
  6. Consideration: There were tons of plugs around in the airport to charge up. Their brochure offered a "never used" pillow - they get the germ factor. They had headphones available for a nominal fee.
  7. Communication: When the heating and cooling malfunctioned they kept telling us they knew something was wrong and they were going to fix it. And when I tweeted my appreciation for the great flight, they actually tweeted back a "Thank You."
Wish List

Here's what I wish every airline would offer included with the price of a ticket:
  1. Expedited TSA check-in: This is not universally available but it would be fantastic for members of points programs to be able to apply with the fee waived (assuming they were not a security risk).
  2. Connectivity: Free wi-fi on and off the plane.
  3. POINTS. Honestly, no matter how hard I try, I cannot figure out these points systems - how much you earn, how much you get, and no matter who I talk to they can't seem to figure it out either. 
The paradox of rational purchase versus emotional expectations has wider applicability than airlines. Logically, people will try to pay as little as possible for a maximally useful product. But they are influenced along the way by the quality of the purchase experience. Part of branding is making the purchase experience so smooth and enjoyable that you will gladly go back, even if it costs a little more, to avoid the pain of the hassle associated with the cheaper provider. 

Addicted To Your Own Misery?

Image by Lisa Jacobs via Wikipedia

The gift of a movie is that it lets you live someone else's life. Learn from their experiences, often sorrowful, without having to live them.

"Paradise Now" is out on Netflix. In a very matter-of-fact, wryly sarcastic, but empathetic way, it shows you how two ordinary young Palestinian men wind up drafted as suicide bombers. It's told from the perspective of Hany Abu-Assad, the Dutch-Palestinian writer/director. And it deserved the Academy Award nomination it got in 2006. Because after watching it I understood the culture - something  I could not grasp by reading words on a page.

In the movie the lone character who can see a way out of occupation is a woman, who rejects misery and embraces life. She chases one of the intended bombers...she loves him. The conflict in the movie is very much between her positive vision and the death-embracing terrorist one. The latter addicted to a never ending cycle of shooting, bombing and a sort of negative glory. Of course you can't really understand unless you're there. But the contrast between the two characters was very stark.

You can get a lot from a movie. It teaches you about life in general. One of those things is the insidious cancer that is misery. How it works its way into your brain and just sits there. You get so used to it, it feels like normal.

"Just let it go." A lot of people cannot do that. They don't know anything else.

The Israeli movie Kadosh tells about two women oppressed by ultra-Orthodox Israeli society. Each has to choose: stay or go. But that choice is so hard. Without giving the plot away, it is almost impossible to break free from the misery that feels comfortable, reliable, safe.

One of the characters says to the other, at some point: "We're not fine. Not at all." But you can see the walls of denial have gone up, to the point where the character has mentally turned her own eternal suffering into a mask of personal peace.

Depressing movies about the Middle East conflict and religious extremism don't apply to every person. The movie "This is 40," out now, shows how ordinary, fairly secular Americans confront it too. They're so used to being hassled and harried and stressed out - they don't know how to simply cut loose and be happy.

Life should be happy. That's a fact, not a dream. There are no bonus points for suffering. It's just the opposite, you're a fool if you go through life that way.

Being responsible, doing something good in this world, these are important things and I'm the last one to knock them down. But at the same time, at some point you wake up and realize - hopefully not too late - that it's okay to enjoy yourself a little bit too.

It's why G-d made chocolate chip cookies and ice cream, flowers and trees and grass, and the company of those we love.

This year, I hope you make every moment count - follow your passion - go for it - and LIVE.

Good luck!