Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Data & The Truth

Photo by Theophilos Papadopolous via Flickr

We are so obsessed with "data." But too often we don't really know what to do with it, or how to evaluate its worth.

Sometimes we look at garbage and decide it's data. Because it kinda, sorta looks like data and is presented in a data-like fashion -- it is packaged or branded the right way, so to speak.

Data can be garbage on three levels:
  • The data itself - by which we mean the number, usually - it can be wrong or irrelevant.
  • The methodology surrounding the collection of that data - the "how" - e.g. biased survey questions, a non-generalizable sample
  • The social context dictating the methodology - the relationships that determine how "quality" data is defined, who is qualified to collect it, and so on - e.g. whether the research is "sponsored" by a corporate brand or whether the larger social structure is sexist or racist in its assumptions

We use junk data all the time to make judgments -- online polls of "TV viewers" and "American adults" and so on. How do we know who these people are, what their ages really are, what the randomization of the sampling was, and whose interest the results serve? We don't...and rarely does the average person check the fine print.

It isn't all that hard to manipulate data if you want to score points on a political issue. Just find a hot-button topic that you want to promote, survey people sympathetic to your point of view, and publish the results as "fact."

Discussions of data tend to make me think about gender, race and class, and how different the facts look depending on your perspective. Recent research shows, for example, that Holocaust researchers initially overlooked the mass rape of Jewish women during the war, and even now some still dispute how widespread it was, because women did not talk about it.

The problem has to do with methodology. Helene Sinnreich notes in her research article, "And it was something we didn't talk about" (2009) that in early interviews, female Holocaust survivors did not volunteer this information. However, when they were specifically asked about it much later on, they did. The women were shamed into silence, by their religious culture, by their families, and finally by their own personal psychologies. Some women told others what had happened only to face outright disbelief. The passage of time, the death of these women's husbands, a more supportive social environment, and the researchers' direct questions all led women to share the truth -- e.g., the methodology and the social context changed to yield better data.

I have been thinking about this question of data vs. truth for a long time and want to challenge the notion that the two are equivalent to one another. Data is only a fragment of a much larger picture, just like a leaf is a fragment of a tree. I can look at the larger picture and extract pieces of data, but I cannot look at data alone and assume that I know anything.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Internal Branding: Three Documents You'll Need

Most organizations inaccurately see internal branding as a process of indoctrination when in fact is is about leadership and management. They underestimate the employees' need and capacity to think and be engaged. In reality, internal branding should bring the following three things together so that employees understand how to work effectively:
  • Culture: All employees understand the mission, vision and core values and how these translate into the work environment.
  • Consistency: The operation runs according to a defined set of standards that all must adhere to.
  • Communication: There is a method of self-expression that is unique to the organization, e.g. you can tell the "brand voice" when you hear it.
For each of these elements the organization should have a defining document that employees can refer to, whether they're new to the organization or veterans; whether they're "clued in" to what's happening at the top or relatively outside the loop.

Most organizations have these documents but don't put them together. The culture document, if it exists, belongs to Human Resources and is part of "new employee orientation." The style guide belongs to the Public Affairs team or Corporate Communications. And the strategic plan - has anybody seen or used that?

The documents should be in writing but they would optimally be made available in a variety of formats including slides, videos, posters, wallet cards, and so on to enable people to access the information in the way that works for them. These are:

  • An Introduction to Our Culture (Culture): This document lays out the collective identity. It should include the mission, vision and core values as well as any norms of behavior that would not otherwise be clear. Examples: Valve Handbook for New Employees and "Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility," the Netflix handbook.
  • Annual Strategic Plan (Consistency): 
    • Consistency is not just about wearing the McDonald's uniform (so to speak) or saying "Have I offered excellent customer service" on every phone call. These are truly the most robotic aspects of the low-hanging fruit. Rather it is about helping employees sing from the same song sheet in terms of their actual work activities.
    • To support this, there should be a central document that lays out what the organization is trying to achieve, at least for the next year, and the basic strategies it is using to get there. This document helps employees align their day-to-day work activities to the more abstract goals.
    • It also keeps senior leadership in line in terms of the specific initiatives to be pursued, way in which initiatives are pursued, the kinds of technologies to be used and the approach to technology that will be incorporated, and so on.
  • Communication Guidelines (Communication): This document is a combination of messaging guide, style guide, and toolkit. It tells you "how we talk," what we talk about, what concepts to emphasize, and so on. The more context people have upfront, the more of a shared framework they can operate in and the more effective collaboration will be.
When employees have these documents available, they have a framework within which to make good decisions about the matters that can't be anticipated in advance. The point is that you do not want them starting from scratch on every project, but you don't want to overprescribe either.

As alluded to above under "Annual Strategic Plan," optimally the documents are really just the end point of a management structure that is also built to support the brand. What this means is that:
  • Leadership from the top down behaves in a way that supports the organization's norms and values (Culture). For example, recruitment, promotion, and even removal from the organization are in line with the organization's values. The governing philosophy about leadership and what it means in the organization can be included in the cultural playbook. 
  • The strategic plan is well-thought-out (not just an exercise) and adhered to (Consistency). Strategic plans are notoriously shelfware because they are treated as an exercise and then abandoned for convenience. In a more helpfully managed organization, the strategic plan is the equivalent of the Bible, one year at a time (more than that is unrealistic). A single, clear, centralized policy supports a single, clear approach to the division of labor and responsibility. A philosophy of technology and specific goals are offered, so that all are collaborating maximally and on the number of platforms that work best. The organization may even be reorganized in support of the strategic plan.
  • Communication is clear, focused, simple and directed at appropriate audiences (Communication). There is sufficient investment in the communication function and it is centralized, rather than having individual communicators diffused among disparate points of contact. The strategic plan is diffused to all audiences in an appropriate way so that each can contribute to organizational goals. Note that this bullet point does not refer to the communication guide but rather to the overarching approach to communication itself.
The key thing to keep in mind in all of this is that you can't create a brand using a cookie-cutter, but it cannot be a free-for-all either. Additionally it is not necessary for everyone to "like" the brand. What matters is that they understand it, and can choose either to get on the train or leave the station.
Limiting choice is one of the benefits of branding that few understand but that the world's best brand consultants know is axiomatic. See Allen Adamson's Brand Simple or Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity by Siegel & Etzkorn.
  • Outer limits: Though we live in a world of unlimited choice and instant gratification, for the brand to be effective as an organizing principle it has to have boundaries that say what is acceptable and what is not. And those boundaries have to be very basic, compelling, unique, understandable and enforced.
  • Room to innovate: At the same time, when the brand is too prescriptive it becomes boring, stale and unengaging, with no role for the employee to add any value using their independent judgment and creativity.
  • Balancing act: Therefore, the balance occurs between a general framework or approach that everyone understands, and a set of limited choices that enable people to try new things and cope with the unexpected.
At the end of the day, the brand is not the goal in and of itself but an instrument through which organizational results are to be achieved. When you give people a framework within which they can achieve those results successfully -- without having to guess and without being micromanaged -- both they and the organization benefit from the efficiency and productivity realized.
Plus they go home from work a lot happier, and are less likely to kick the dog.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Power Of Hello

Saturday Night Live screenshot via TV Worth Watching

The other day an old friend and I were catching up and the conversation as always turned to work.

"I don't think much of the senior leadership where I am," she said. "They can't even be bothered to say hello."

The exchange made me think of the power of hello. How it really makes a difference to me when people actually take a moment to greet you. Putting themselves aside for five seconds.

How impactful it is when important people take a moment to do that.

If you want to assess someone's leadership potential, see what they do with the opportunity.

  • Someone I know of once shared an elevator ride with President Obama, while he was still a Senator. The President said hello.
  • Another person met Kourtney Kardashian in a backstage setting, and she was extremely nice and said hello. Khloe Kardashian, however, apparently did not.
  • Many, many years ago my daughter took a karate class with newswoman Anne Curry's child, of Today Show fame. We were startled when we saw Anne in the 23rd Street studio and said hello. She warmly replied in kind.

People tend to remember the smallest things about other people, because those details are so revealing about personality.

When it comes to judging a leader, a seemingly minor thing like a hello becomes a very big indicator of their character. We may not be able to understand the complex issues that leader faces, but we can all understand whether they act like a mensch.

Contrary to what many people think, leaders are not naturally comfortable interacting with others. For many of them, especially if they are introverted, it is actually incredibly difficult. 

In addition, the norms surrounding female leadership are still hazy. Where a male executive's greeting establishes a human connection, a female's greeting may serve to minimize her authority. As Harvard Business Review has noted, employees tend to respect "tougher" female executives more.

Regardless of all of this, rightly or wrongly, the feeling of being slighted can quickly lead to ill-will.

At the end of the day, the importance of "hello" to the well-functioning organization cannot be minimized. It is effectively the act of recognizing another human being. Saying hello means "I see you" - "it is important that I see you" - "you occupy space in this room and are as important as me."

Saying "hello" in a sincere way is an act of humanism. Instead of putting abstract ideals first, you treat people well and that is more important than pretty much anything else.

The basic "hello" in a work setting is part and parcel of culture. No matter what your values and beliefs are, they start fundamentally by acknowledging the importance of other people in helping the organization achieve its mission.

I think of branding internally as "the organizing principle around which we function." Branding is composed of communication, of course, and consistency, but both of these fundamentally rest on culture. The more cohesive the group and the stronger its norms, the more easily it can adopt consistent yet flexible methods of operation, and communicate these inside and outside.

When you do branding well internally, it produces your desired image externally. See my slide "The 3 C's of Corporate Branding," below.

You can download this slide at my SlideShare page.

Embracing the humanity of others is particularly important in the workplace today because it motivates people. At a time when we need the individual mind and heart more than ever, acting indifferent to the humanity of one's employees guarantees that they will do as little as possible and then leave.

Focusing on the wellness of one's employees mirrors the humanism that is taking hold of society on a larger scale, with more emphasis than ever on volunteerism and efforts to improve the lives of vulnerable populations around the world.

Humanism works as a social glue because caring for others is a uniting thread whether you identify with synagogue, a church, a mosque or a Buddhist temple, none of the above or several of them. It's about being part of the collective rather than isolating yourself.

Branding in the workplace is really just a transitional tool as we move to the cashless society. Over time, as technology becomes capable of handling most work, and of producing wealth sufficient to care for the global population, the workplace and money-earning as we know it now will become obsolete.

At that point humanism will become important to minimize the risk that bad actors will take advantage of technology to exercise power over most of the less-techno-literate world. To counter this excess of power, there must be an extremely strong social fabric comprised of people whose first ethic is to look out for each other.

In short, the simple power of "hello" is its symbolic meaning as a prosocial act. In the past, antisocial tendencies -- the willingness to kill rather than die -- were adaptive because they helped the individual consolidate power in a hostile world. In the future, helping behavior will become more important as it is the networked individuals who always have a community. This means a place to live, food to eat, clothing to wear and people who can comfort them through life's many bumps and bruises.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Department of Crazy

Thanks to Vine, Porschia Coleman and Jezebel we get to witness the meltdown of the day. Apparently a woman did not have an appointment at the Apple Store and really needed to have that appointment. Or perhaps a therapy appointment.

It is hard to watch this video mainly because I feel bad for the kid sitting in that stroller as Mom slaps away on the handlebar.

Secondly I feel bad for the adult Apple store employee at whom the woman is yelling.

How much do employees get paid to hear rants like that? Probably not enough. But they are trained to deal with disgruntled customers.

Most employees are not trained to deal with crazy behavior in the workplace.

The term "crazy behavior" goes beyond mere "failure to follow procedures," although that is undoubtedly stressful. The question has to do with workers whose behavior stretches if not breaks the bounds of normality as most of us understand it.

A blogger at "Untemplaters" writes:

"It’s really freaky how some people can completely change personalities from super manic to extremely apologetic within the same conversation. And it’s intimidating having someone start yelling over the phone over the smallest thing and hang up on you. And then other people are hypocritical or super quirky." 
In 1956 Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, working out of the VA Hospital in Palo Alto and Stanford University, theorized that schizophrenic symptoms could be the consequence of individuals having to deal with crazy behavior.

According to their theory, the person is "stuck" in the relationship, the message is contradictory, and they cannot talk back. This is called a "double bind" and it has three criteria:

  • Important To Stay Connected: The connection is "intense," meaning the person believes it is "vitally important that he discriminate accurately what sort of message is being communicated so that he may respond appropriately."
  • Contradictory orders: "The individual is caught in a situation in which the other person in the relationship is expressing two orders of message and one of these denies the other."
  • Can't talk back: "The individual is unable to comment on the messages being expressed to correct his discrimination of what order of message to respond to, i.e., he cannot make a metacommunicative statement."

One can easily see how this can happen in the workplace. Most people work because they need a job and therefore the relationship with one's supervisor is intense. They must understand what is wanted or be terminated. Imagine the distress if they are confronted with arbitrary orders or processes, and do not feel empowered to question or resolve them.

A related phenomenon is "learned helplessness," which may not appear as "crazy" but which nevertheless reflects the individual out of touch with the laws of cause and effect. Experiments with rats showed that when they received random shocks, they learned that trying made no sense.

Creatures with learned helplessness show evidence of depression, whether they are as big as a person or as little as a fly. (Yes, flies get depressed.)

People often question why sometimes it seems that workers act "lazy" or generally they want to know "why this organization can't seem to accomplish anything." If you really look at it, it is possible that the social structure, due to its contradictory demands, itself creates a kind of crazy. There are so many stakeholders, each with their own agenda, and the worker is caught in the middle. Lacking clear direction, or penalized without a clear cause and effect, they can and do break down, and become demoralized and disengaged.

There is a way out of this situation. One is to formally institutionalize structures within the organization that are dedicated to monitoring employee engagement and responding to their concerns. Examples include Google's "People Operations" department and Southwest Airlines' "Culture Committee."

Another, perhaps related way is for the organization to promote informal norms related to feedback. This has to do with righting a key aspect of the "crazy making" equation, the worker's inability to talk back. When the employee can reach out to other individuals within the organization, including their supervisors, to talk about seemingly contradictory demands, this alone can alleviate stress and return them to a calmer and more engaged state of functioning.

Every organization is composed of people, which means there will always be "assorted mixed nuts." The key to harmonizing them is to plan in advance for what happens when the cashews start going after the pecans.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Four Success Factors For The Human Economy

People want to do business with people they know, people who make them feel comfortable. Photo by José Maria Silveira Neto via Flickr. No endorsement for Heineken or any product expressed or implied.

The company of the future is Airbnb. Some high points from Thomas Friedman's article in The New York Times, 7/20/13:


  • Origin: Roommates desperate for cash rented out air mattresses in their apartment to people who were also desperate, to attend a 2007 conference. Read the story in their own words here
  • The Name: It stands for "Air Bed & Breakfast."
  • Success: Six years later, competing in the big leagues: As of July 12, 2013 they have 140,000 guests in 34,000 cities and 192 countries.

4 Success Factors That Translate More Broadly
  • Trust: Before Airbnb the concept of blindly renting a room out to a stranger, or of renting a room from one, was alien to most people. Yet as Friedman points out the founders created "a framework of trust" fueled by technology. Buyer and seller are not anonymous to each other and the rating system ensures that your reputation follows you for better or for worse.
  • Comprehensiveness: You can rent more than a room from AirBNB. There is a whole "ecosystem" of "ordinary people" who will take care of everything associated with rentals. This makes it easier for the customer to use the service.
  • Humanization: The customer does not deal with a nameless faceless corporation but rather another regular person just like themselves. It should be clear that this person is a brand -- that the future is about establishing one's personal reputation -- rather than acquiring any particular credential. This is especially true because it is almost impossible to be the best at anything. Friedman phrases this well: "In a world where, as I’ve argued, average is over — the skills required for any good job keep rising — a lot of people who might not be able to acquire those skills can still earn a good living now by building their own branded reputations, whether it is to rent their kids’ rooms, their cars or their power tools."
  • Customization: No two properties are the same, no two owners are the same, and so every journey is really a singular interaction -- a memory that cannot be replaced. 
All of these concepts together are really about something more than sharing - it's humanity. About getting back to a more natural way of life. One in which people do business with each other without having "Big (Corporate) Brother" get in the way. Cofounder Brian Chesky is quoted in the article:

“It used to be that corporations and brands had all the trust,” added Chesky, but now a total stranger, “can be trusted like a company and provide the services of a company. And once you unlock that idea, it is so much bigger than homes. ... There is a whole generation of people that don’t want everything mass produced. They want things that are unique and personal.”

If you have time, read the analysis in full. It is a prescient view into the future.

* As always all opinions my own.

Friday, July 19, 2013

5 Brand Killers & How To Fend Them Off

X-Men Photo via ScreenSlam.com, "Top 10 Best Superhero Costumes In Film"

Brand equity means that I will pay more for Tide detergent than a no-name.  This could be because "I know Tide cleans better" or because "I know good mothers would not skimp." Either way, Tide commands more money.

If I am like most consumers, I develop these perceptions based mostly on fantasies rather than on what is real. I have not tested Tide against the other products available, nor do I want to. If I have a choice, I choose Tide because it leaves me feeling secure.

Why would that be? My own mother uses Tide and she also takes a lot of pride in laundry-doing: it is a show of love. Tide advertised on TV a lot when my kids were little and I watched the daytime soaps. It has amazing packaging. It seems to dominate the laundry aisle. 

Except that I don't need Tide, and frankly it costs more. So I buy the no-name, but feel guilty about it.

Clearly, fantasy is critical to brand value - to all marketing: "A business exists to create a customer," said Peter Drucker. Destroy the fantasy and destroy the brand.

Lots of people nowadays have the potential to do just that. Specifically:

1) Sheldons: The individual is data-driven, swayed by rational arguments. They take joy in obtaining maximum utility for minimum price. This is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, my Dad bragging that he got a great deal at Micro Center.

2) Freethinkers: This is the rebel, the person who sees the crowd doing one thing and instinctively walks the other way. So many actors tend to play this type, from Bruce Willis (RED, Die Hard, Moonlighting), Claire Danes ("Carrie Mathison," Homeland), Kiefer Sutherland ("Jack Bauer," 24) and more.

3) Hackers: This person does not need a monstrous corporation to think for them, rather they would rather build it themselves from parts. My friend's husband has a man cave where he builds see-through plastic computers raw from parts. The site Lifehacker.com caters to these types, who love to figure out how to turn a plank of wood into a customized home office. Go to Home Depot on the weekend and catch all the people lingering over packets of seed, or better yet they save the seeds from the fruits and vegetables they eat, and plant them.

4) Crusaders: This person is socially conscious. They are sensitive to harmful practices on the part of manufacturers and service providers. It could be harm to the buyers (bad ingredients), the workers (abuse and exploitation), the environment (toxic emissions), what have you. But they don't stop at refusing to buy the brand. They actively engage others, bringing attention to bad behavior for the purpose of achieving reforms.

5) The Marginalized: This person is outside the marketplace for one of a many possible reasons. It could be poverty, or student debt, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and so on. It could be unemployment, illness, a prison term. Whatever it is, they perceive themselves as outside the social "norms" and so they will act in ways that a corporate marketer is unlikely to be able to predict.

Brands themselves, and their fantasies, are not inherently good or bad. As long as nobody's getting hurt, it's all about what the customer wants. At the same time, social trends and the rampant abuses of the marketing system can definitely bring brands down. Here are some thoughts on how to bring each potential brand-killing type above into the "system":

1) Sheldons: Logical individuals want point-by-point comparisons between your product and competitors. They can understand anything as long as it is presented in some sort of tabular format that is easily verified. You may think that you have to be the lowest-cost alternative but this is not necessarily true. If you can demonstrate objectively higher quality, or that you pay suppliers an extra fee to ensure fair trade (which is reflected in the price), they will understand this. The key is to provide as much data as possible, well-organized, easily accessible, upfront.

2) Freethinkers: The key with this person is to keep the brand small, alternative, and to exchange it on a person-to-person basis. Freethinkers do not trust the system. They like to buy from sellers who appear to be outside it in some way. Place product on Etsy, or a small shop on Amazon, or eBay. You can also offer them products to pre-test, and engage them that way in serving as an opinion leader. (Of course you should make their comments widely available, unedited.)

3) Hackers: The hacker is innately curious and so can be an excellent partner in co-creating brands that people want. I have found that Google for example offers products with enormous value, without exactly telling the ordinary person how to use them. The hacker can be invited to break apart a brand and put it back together in ways that customers will pay for. The key is to ensure that they are fairly compensated for their work.

4) Crusaders: The strategy for working with crusader types is to engage them at all levels of the brand, internally and externally, as watchdogs. They will do what they do anyway, so it makes sense to work together with them to hold the brand accountable to a set of doable ethics standards with regard to all aspects of operations. People will trust these observers more than they trust you, so it could wind up being a good investment in PR funds you would have spent anyway. There is also potential for partnership here between brands in the same industry, to demonstrate broader commitment and lower the costs for each participating partner.

5) The Marginalized: This last person is perhaps the most difficult to deal with because they are so many reasons for marginalization. It is a dangerous problem not only for individual brands but society at large when so many people simply cannot participate in the system. While the answers may vary due to the individual, there are a couple of strategies that make sense here. One is to simply reach out at the community service, as Panera Bread and Starbucks do. Another is to do targeted hiring. A third is to provide seed funding for entrepreneurs who would then pay back a portion to the larger organization.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Much Trouble Can One Employee Cause?

Image source: CaptainComics

Please tell me you remember Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine or I am truly, truly old.

Every time I look at this picture I have to smile and remember that classic line: "What, me worry?"

Back in the day, this being the late '70s, I would go to my grandparents' house in the Catskill Mountains. They had this candy shop, Joe Rota's a few blocks away. My mom would give me a couple of dollars and I would go to this fun place and get some atomic fireballs from the plastic jar, flip through a copy of Mad, and just laugh.

In any case watching the whole Snowden affair play out I have to ask myself how much time and money is being wasted, waiting and wondering about what this person could say, how to deal with it, what the timing ought to be, and so on.

Like so many of my internal communications colleagues over the years have said, if only the company would invest more time upfront in engaging people, in taking their pulse, they might have to spend less time down the road fixing up the screwups they delight in causing.

Look at how much airtime Snowden is getting. He's in Russia, he's not in Russia. They see his plane, where is his plane. He gave an interview here, he is flanked by security guards. Everywhere you go, there is Snowden having a grand old time, while the U.S. deals with the fallout. Think about it - we're the ones whose data got stolen, and we look like the bad guys!

To my mind all of this could have been avoided if only someone had paid closer attention to this guy and discerned what he was truly out for. Didn't he tell the South China Morning Post that he expressly joined Booz, then the NSA, so that he could gain access to data and then release it? If this is true (and who really knows what is true) this is not really a whistleblower but a premeditated act of theft. Whistleblowers join the organization in good faith, find out that something is wrong, and then tell. Either Snowden was very good at hiding his intentions, or nobody was paying attention.

Oddly organizations seem to have no trouble recognizing employees' potential to cause damage when it suits them. We saw this for example with the IRS and the "rogue employees" comment, the idea that they are "off the reservation." It turned out that there was quite a lot more going on, that in fact the use of employees was nothing more than a cheap way to deflect attention from cultural rot. But it worked for about two seconds. Which leads me to ask -- where is all this intelligence about employee engagement on the positive side?

Overall it has been my experience that organizations tend to be reactive in nature, paying attention to the worst crises first and ignoring or glossing over the need to prevent them, particularly where relationships are concerned. In this they are a lot like people in relationships, right? The partner who "seems to be doing fine" doesn't get much attention, while the one who is staying out all night or threatening divorce sure gets a heck of a lot. And similarly with kids.

It is a mistake to treat workers like they are invisible, but companies do it anyway. They spend a lot of time and energy on recruitment, but once there the employee is taken for granted. The value is extracted - it's "churn and burn" - "be grateful you have a job." Why bother to explain what you are doing or why - "they should look it up." Why tell them where to go when they have questions or concerns - "let's not stir up trouble." What is the value of helping them to manage workplace and family stresses that are getting in the way - "there's no time for that, they're adults." And why should we bother to mediate disputes as part of the ordinary course of life -- "we didn't do anything wrong, let them prove it."

It is so clear on paper that we screw up royally in terms of how we treat other people, isn't it? But that doesn't seem to make any difference in real life. Unfortunately it takes incidents that threaten our safety and our professional standing to make us wake up and pay attention.

Just like in real life, when the person in the nursing home says - "I wish I had spent more time at the baseball game with my kids, and less time worrying about the trophies I was chasing at work."

* As always, all opinions are my own.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

True Religion Jeans, Brand Value, & Invisibility

Ultimately, what makes a brand valuable to the consumer is the ability to buy their way out of personal insecurity. Whereas you are not good enough on your own, by purchasing the product, you take on an identity, and this gives you confidence.

By purchasing the product, you take on an identity -- a human identity congealed within a product. The product itself is just a thing, but you project meaning onto it. Another way of saying this is that you have a "brand fetish," or a psychological fantasy, in which you ascribe to the product properties that it really does not have.

This applies whether you're buying steel parts, consulting services, or a pair of women's jeans, but it's pretty easy to apply the women's jeans example and so we'll go with that.

Consider the following:

1) Women's True Religion jeans at Bloomingdale's, 1 pair: Reg. $176, on sale for $132
"Low rise and micro flare leg opening. The streamlined silhouette flatters the leg, fitting nicely over pumps or wedge sandals. Cotton/spandex. Machine wash. Made in USA. Zip fly with button closure, five-pocket silhouette, low rise. Contrast stitching, copper logo hardware, faded. 7.5" rise, 34" inseam, 19" leg opening."

2) Women's Riders By Lee jeans at Kmart, 1 pair: $19.99
"Simple yet stylish, these women's colored riders jeans from Lee go with any casual look. These bottoms sit perfectly just below the waist, and a tapered leg helps define your shape. Throw on your favorite shirt and prepare to be comfortable and look great! Single button closure. Zip fly. Five-pocket design. Sit at the waist. Close fit. Straight leg. Fabric: Cotton blend. Care: Machine wash. Imported."

Even at the discounted price of $132, the True Religion jeans command more money for what is essentially the same product. This holds true even on eBay where women's TR jeans are selling in the $80-$250 range.

Why are TR jeans worth more than Lee Riders? You may say that the style of the Lee Riders jeans is a bit fuddy-duddy. OK then how about Route 66 tapered jeans? Which also sell for $19.99, also at Kmart.

True Religion's company profile page says that it's all about a superior product:

"True Religion...was founded in 2002...with the intention of redefining premium denim through an emphasis on fit, quality and style....A pioneer in the premium denim market, True Religion has become synonymous with modern and distinctive product designs that stand for exceptional fit and styling details."

However it is not uncommon for brands to associate themselves with celebrities and thus to enhance their "street credibility," as at online fashion retailer CoutureCandy.com

Obviously, the customer is not paying an extra $112.01 (on a sale day!) for the fabric or for the fit. They are paying to feel like a celebrity.

However, if you were to see something bad that went on behind the scenes in creating those jeans, the fantasy would be ruined. 

Or if you were to work for the company that created those jeans, were mistreated, and told the whole world about it, the fantasy would be ruined.

Therefore it is in the company's best interest to have its own employees saying great things about the brand -- not only in terms of its quality but also how the workplace runs and how employees are treated.

(Note that True Religion is only a random example, and I am not implying anything about the company.)

So the job of a brand manager is to implant the fantasy in the consumer while maximizing worker engagement and output, and minimizing their discontent. All at the lowest price possible.

All of this is very oversimplified Marxian theory of how capitalism works. Essentially, you have to exploit the worker AND at the same time make them accept and even welcome their lot. Remember, the worker is also the consumer. And so they must idolize and crave the very products that their labor is being exploited to generate.

To understand how this is done in contemporary society, we can use the work of sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman wrote a phenomenal book called The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life which essentially laid out three principles of brand (quotes vi Wikipedia):

  • Image Control: "When an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner." 
  • Truth-Seeking: "At the same time, the person the individual is interacting with is trying to form and obtain information about the individual." 
  • Avoidance of Shame: "All participants in social interactions are engaged in certain practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others."

To conceptualize the above, Goffman looked at social behavior as if it took place in a theater. You can imagine the brand producer engaging in image control and avoidance of shame, while the audience engages in truth-seeking.

This is not the place to go into the broad historical background associated with branding, but we can look at what happened with the rise of the advertising industry in the 20th century. As the AMC series Mad Men captures well, there was a kind of "Golden Era" (although not so golden) of mass consumption when it was all about image, and very little about what was behind the curtain. We see it idealized as the 1950s-1960s, though I think this has fluctuated with times of greater and lesser consciousness of the plight of those on the margins - those whose labor was extracted with a maximum of exploitation, abuse, carelessness and so on.

What is happening right now -- no doubt due to the explosion of social media -- is a growing global decision to bring exploited labor out from behind the curtain and into the front of the stage. In my view these categories cut across both legal and illegal workers because both feed into the global economy in some way -- capital is spent because of them.

Think about all the marginalized people that capital entities extract value from, but do not compensate: warehouse workers, farm laborers, child labor of every kind, sex workers, drug dealers, gang members, forced organ donors, prison labor, embryo carriers (surrogate mothers), nannies, at-home parents, nursing home assistants, customer service operators, microtaskers, temporary assistants, and so on.

This is not to mention the everyday exploitation of people who work in ordinary office settings. They show up to work with minds rearing to go, producing knowledge and innovation for their employers, but more often than not go unrewarded at the level that their employers enjoy.

In recent years, academics, filmmakers and others have come to question what brands are doing to society.  Examples include Naomi Klein's 1999 book No Logo: Taking Aim At The Brand Bullies and the organization AdBusters. In his well-received documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011), Morgan Spurlock showed how large brands attempt, through product placement, a form of mind control - making us want more, more, more -- preferably without thinking. And there are many other examples, including academic studies of the sociology of branding itself.

In addition, the more extreme abuses of the branding system have caused outrage. One of these is charging exorbitant fees for products that are produced by poor people working for a pittance in miserable factory conditions. The recent collapse of a Bangladesh factory, the worst such incident in the garment industry's history, was a tipping point as people continue to follow the plight of the people who worked there. Brands understand that they must respond and are doing so with a variety of accords to prevent a future disaster. Consider that such an accord only became urgent after the collapse.

Under the microscope in an increasingly transparent world, brand makers themselves have come to realize that the jig is up. People are increasingly drawing a connection between the "invisibles" who produce and the corporate face of those who deliver. For brand producers to continue to be profitable and maintain the system, they will have to continually up their game in terms of compensating the worker fairly and eliminating the abuses that are built into the system. They will have to engage workers in perpetuating the system itself.

This could happen. What could also happen is that organizations realize that worker abuses are inefficient and cause too much bad PR, and simply eliminate people from the system as much as possible -- further widening the gap between rich and miserably poor.

My weathervane tells me that there is still time for brands to engage with employees and create value systems together. This could be profitable on a lot of levels and restore some economic balance to the system as well as the social stability that has been lost with the decline of the middle class.

If they do not, we we are headed toward a society in which brands as we know them today will become synonymous with systemic evil.

In the longer-term, I am hopeful that money as we know it today will be obsolete (see for example The Venus Project) and that capitalism becomes a different kind of competition. One in which we reward people who eliminate poverty, disease and antisocial behavior; one in which everyone has their basic needs met; one in which people enjoy relative freedom and non-interference in their daily lives.

In the meantime we have the now, which is far from the dream. But I do not think we can avert our eyes any longer from the people we don't want to see. Nor can brand producers pretend they do not exist...because when the invisible becomes visible, it affects the bottom line.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Response To Comments On "Supertemp vs. day laborer, brands & the broken circle of trust"

There definitely is an issue regarding "truth" here. Whose version of reality, is reality? My husband says to me -- you see the world through the lens of brand, but where is the brand relevance here? I buy a pair of jeans, they are cool, what does the worker have to do with it? If you want to talk about Bangladesh then do so, but explain it. (This I am planning to do, over time, more in the next blog on "invisibility" and the brand system.)

So generally I am trying to explain how the worker's personal truth coexists with the consumer's personal truth (remembering that the same person is both worker and consumer). Your truth, my truth, objective truth - a huge and growing gap between the haves and have nothings.

I am as bothered as you about those articles on working conditions in the U.S. I did not know either about these conditions, or maybe I did not want to think about it. Good old Amazon right? And everybody else. I too thought those days were over.

That will be part of the blog referenced above.

Back to the point about people in law enforcement and the truth. And people who get into situations where they mess up. They think about will I get caught, they think about how to dissemble and represent things to minimize trouble, they run from the truth.

There is something called the truth though. What bothers me personally about our culture is that we seem to have lost our grasp on the concept of truth altogether. Instead we are preoccupied with winning.

And this gets back to politics right? If we are honest we can admit that no party or ideology has all the answers. But if we are political we try very hard to fit the facts into the narrative.

Edward Snowden, George Zimmerman, gun control, healthcare reform, immigration reform, unemployment, and other issues become incendiary because they are argued from the perspective of ideology. If we could go back and create some safe space for mutual dialogue and rational, data-driven analysis, we could arrive at solutions that really work.

I am a researcher of brand, but this is really a problem that goes way beyond it. Where has our capacity for reflection gone? Why can we not speak our minds without fear? What has happened to rousing dialogue minus the accusations?

I happen to believe that answers come from people at the grassroots level working independently and in small groups. I inherently distrust big bureaucracies to get stuff done effectively. And this is precisely because once you create a monstrous system, it perpetuates itself and the people inside it stop thinking and stop taking responsibility for its outcomes.

One of which is that we have people sleeping on the street, in front of the White House, where just a few miles away other people are sleeping in multi million dollar homes and driving Porsches. That is a fact and not an interpretation.

If each of us stopped for even five seconds to think about how disgraceful that is, what would we do differently?

* All opinions my own.

** See:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Supertemp vs. day laborer, brands & the broken circle of trust

I took this photo outside a Metro Station near the White House.

In "The Divided Self," Dr. R.D. Laing explored how schizophrenic people are actually made that way by so-called "normal" people.

Schizophrenics experience a shattered sense of self. That is, parts of the personality are experienced as though they are external, distinct, foreign.

When the individual is pulled too far in contradictory directions, illness emerges in which they no longer know what reality is. 

We are living in an economy that exerts contradictory and fragmenting pressures on the individual worker. 

There is no longer a unitary, stable sense of "me and my job" in relation to "my employer and what they do," situated in "my hometown," surrounded by "my family," "church," "school," and so on.

Rather, there is only:

  • Labor, sold to the highest bidder for as long as they are willing to pay
  • Organized capital, in business and delivering only as long as the highest ROI can be extracted
  • Dwellings increasingly rented to stay close to fluctuating places of employment
  • Communities of migrants who leave their native culture desperate for a better life
  • Nuclear families unformed or broken because the physical and economic toll of earning a living is too high
  • Centers of spirituality where we can find them
  • Schools that function like holding pens, with normal kids drugged up to keep them in their seats 
In this culture the worker is motivated primarily by the need for survival in an economy with dwindling payoff. See for example:
Very few will achieve "Supertemp" status of the kind they wrote about in Harvard Business Review. 

Many will be riding in the back of vans to worksites where the pack free samples touted on Facebook.

You have to ask yourself, where is the identity of the worker as worker in this system? A system which offers no loyalty and much exploitation?

And why should anyone trust anyone?

The answer has to come back to some higher meaning.

Most people don't expect to get their life's true meaning at work.

Instead they are working to survive. Hoping that in the future they or their children will somehow have a better life.

So they suffer through indignity, inconvenience and often outright abuse. Knowing that they have to keep up with rent - food - car.

But there is an unspoken social contract in the workplace, too. That contract might be a load of b.s., or it might actually have some reality to it.

It says that you and I working here, together, are creating something more. That it's not only about efficiency, effectiveness, return on investment and maximizing profit. That maybe 5% of the time, we get to experience meaning.

The meaning that people need to experience at work is the brand. Brand is the vision, the mission and the core values all wrapped up in one.

When people go to work and experience no meaning, or even the opposite of meaning -- dystopia -- it sets the stage for the further dismantling and destabilization of society.

Trust between employer and employee is essential to maintaining order. One cannot benefit endlessly at the expense of another. The other cannot take advantage without some eventual righting of the scales.

Always, brands are a substitute for something, and I am consumed with understanding what they do for us now. I believe that in the workplace, the concept of the "brand" is like an organizing principle, a secular religion, that lends meaning to spending 40-80 hours a week earning a buck.

I can't tell you how we right the system. I do know that a pervasive lack of meaning in the workplace is a very socially dangerous thing. Pushing us further down a path of chaos and destruction, putting us in a rabbit hole where we hide because nothing is secure.

* All opinions my own. Thank you to my husband Andy Blumenthal for the encouragement and feedback.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Alienation, The Basis For Emotional "Bonding" With A Brand

It is going to be difficult to capture all the thoughts I want to share about branding now. 

In a sense this is a voyage of self-discovery. It is an attempt to figure out what this intangible thing called a "brand" -- a reality that is not real -- has done to my own mind and life.

I sense that the impact has not been overall positive, even as I rely on brand concepts for a living. One could say that I have become addicted to a toxin, and having been poisoned, must now find the cure.

Branding is fundamentally about alienation. To really understand this, you have to understand a little bit of Karl Marx.

Marx -- who lived in the Age of Industrialization -- offered a theory of how the new world of the factory became acceptable to the masses. For unlike on the farm, they were not at all connected to their work, each other or even to nature. 

To vastly oversimplify, Marx said that a shift occurred in people's minds to help them adapt. To overcome a true lack of connection, of integration, of unity -- people turned instead to things.

This he called "commodity fetishism." Which is a fancy way of saying that the ordinary worker fantasized about owning things. Ordinary goods became invested with magical power.

And thus the brand. 

Marx said a lot of other things too -- like the famous "religion is the opiate of the masses" -- that explained why people did not rebel against their lot.

It was a lot in which a few very rich people took and exploited the labor of the many, and offered almost nothing in return.

The American capitalist dream depends on consumers' emotional attachment to brands. It depends on those brands being essential to their lives and identities. It also depends on their being able to purchase.

What is happening now? A steady disappearance of secure full-time jobs that pay a living wage. The growth of a shadowy "temp" workforce that is real and yet unreal -- oddly, just like a brand.

The fewer people are able to access commodity fetishism (e.g. join in the branding fantasy) the more that fantasy will break down. 

The question is how much of the stability of the social order goes along with it, and what will the transition to a different (hopefully better) kind of future economy be. 

* As always all opinions are my own.

Think Brand First, Moving Forward - Areas Of Focus

Volume I of my collected blog posts (July 2007 - April 2013) is available at the Internet Archive as a free download. It's available under Creative Commons so feel free to peruse and share, with attribution please.

Going forward (Volume II), I want to make clear my intention in writing about branding. Following are the basic areas of interest:
  • How branding works - essentially the principles or dynamics of branding
  • How branding creates economic value - the economic aspects of brand equity
  • How branding affects us psychologically - impact on consciousness as individuals, consumers, workers
  • How branding affects or could affect the work site - opportunities gained or missed, the interplay with organizational dynamics
  • Analysis of decisions that companies and other organizations make about their brands -- good, bad, or indifferent
  • Predictions about where brands are going, connecting with with social trends
  • The impact of communication technologies and trends on branding, particularly social media and transparency
  • The inherent contradictions and paradoxes that crop up with all of the above
  • Looking broadly, the big-picture connections between the topics above.
Should be an interesting journey. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Management Best Practice: Mystery Shopping

So I was checking out of the grocery store today and thinking what a pleasant experience it was to shop there.

Looked up at the community bulletin board on the way out and there it was:

"Mystery Shop Report"

...posted for all the world to see.

The one-page report ranked the store's performance on 5-10 factors and gave it an overall grade of about 80 percent.

It also showed that mystery shopping checks had been done at intervals throughout the year, so this was a year-to-date score.

What a quick, simple, no-cost and highly effective management tool!

If you knew that at any time you might be interacting with a mystery shopper, how would you behave?

How would your boss?

How would your weekly meetings run?

And how would your group act differently knowing that team scores would be posted on the wall -- for visitors!

Mystery shopping - a simple concept with a wide range of applicability. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Brand Is More Than Logo" - Convincing The Client

In the realm of brand, to get beyond logo, your goal is to show very tangibly that:

*  The "real" brand has to do with delivery not just image.

* Delivery occurs through employees.

* Employees therefore drive brand value.

The problem is that people convince themselves - rarely are we convinced by others. Pure "facts" and "feelings" are not enough.

Your job as the consultant is therefore to facilitate the process of self-convincing.

Generally there are 5 factors leading a person or group to shift their point of view or belief system. All go back to "WIIFM" ("What's in it for me?")

1) Biological incentive - The new belief system energizes me, makes me feel good

2) Financial incentive - I will make more money 

3) Psychological incentive - I will experience positive emotions or negative ones will be alleviated 

4) Social incentive - I want to be respected by my peers, I want to be "in the know"

5) Spiritual incentive - I want my life to be worth something, I want to make meaning 

Therefore, your job as the consultant is as follows:

1) Figure out which of these drivers of change is primary for the client.

2) Demonstrate how the client's primary driver is ill-served by current thinking, using:

--Benchmarking -- e.g. How others are winning 

--Gap analysis - e.g. client's perception versus stakeholder perception 

--Optimization analysis - e.g. a projection of potential improved performance 

3)  Providing a simple visualization of what brand optimization would look like and how YOUR team is best poised to deliver the custom work needed. (Most likely you will need to partner with others because no single firm can do it all and do it best.)

The specifics of this conversation and presentation vary from client to client because it has to be tailored to the factor that is most convincing to them.

At all times the constant is that clients learn through interaction with you. You are the expert facilitator of their enlightenment. Words on a page are not enough.

Good luck.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Don't Let Your Brand Become A Free-For-All

Free-for-all brands quickly become garbage dumps. Photo by McKay Savage via Flickr.

I used to support a Brand Enforcement Unit, client-side.

People tried to sneak stuff past us all the time, and sometimes they succeeded. We enforced external.

At every layer of the organization it happened. A pitched battle for independent symbolic expressions of brand.

Posters, brochures, websites external and internal, names and acronyms, even comic books and frisbees.

Watching how the battles went down you would think they were fighting for real estate.

Actually - yes they were. And often they got away with it due to lack of unified and enforced brand standards.

People understand that your name and the way that name is portrayed means everything. It is the beginning of organizational reality.

So even if something is "wrong" at the start, with enough repetition it becomes "right."

That is why there can be no exceptions when it comes to brand enforcement. 

The minute you open that door, armies invade.

* All opinions my own.

New Presentation at SlideShare: Branding & Compensation Strategy