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The Right Discount Dynamic To Preserve Brand Equity


It's the classic branding problem:

  • The better your image, the better your brand equity - the higher the margin between your stuff and a commodity. 
  • But if your merchandise isn't moving, offering discounts is a short-term fix that leaves you leaking brand equity like the Titanic.

So how do you offer a markdown without seeming "cheap?" Target the method of discount to your audience. As follows:

  • Premium: Distribute fancy print cards, in person, to the luxury shopper who has already paid full price; provide fee-based credit card with discounts to loyalty club.
  • Semi-Premium: Mail "specials" to members of your loyalty club; provide no-fee loyalty card enrollment program
  • Mass market: Leak promo code virally, online; offer app-based discounts
  • Neighborhood market: Print coupons in the Sunday paper and/or neighborhood newsletters; tear-offs in the local Starbucks

The bottom line: Discounts are not inherently deadly to your brand. But thoughtless discounting is. If you customize the discount in a way that looks well-thought out and even exclusive - not desperate - your brand desirability may even increase.

In addition, as Killian Branding points out, if you have to do a discount, "avoid getting into the cycle of frequent deep discounts" and "if you are in it, get out." It's one thing to generate excitement with a promo. It's another to live your life waving people down from the clearance aisle.





Government Critics: A PR Opportunity



If you haven't heard of Alex Jones before you probably know the name now after the epic TV battle between him and Piers Morgan.

As of today,

4,684,171

people have watched Piers Morgan and Jones go at it over gun control.

I've been reading Jones' and similar blogs for a few years now, roughly since the Fast and Furious scandal broke (2010).

As a Homeland Security component employee working in public affairs (I joined another agency last year), this should have been laudable. After all from a communications perspective there were so many factors involved that almost required such attention:

  • An agent - a fellow employee - murdered, and deep concern among the workforce
  • Relatively closemouthed agency - information shared internally based on "need to know" culture 
  • Insistent and persistent criticism from the blogosphere 
  • Speculation on public but not publicized employee social media boards about what was happening
  • Relative silence in the mainstream media

While the subject matter was very complicated, it was clear to me that there were opportunities for government to say more, and I urged them to do so. As the communications expert Shel Holtz once advised us in a training class (paraphrasing):

"Your job as a communicator is to go to the very edge of what you can say, and then say, I really can't say any more - then hold the line."

Nevertheless, the people at Homeland Security hadn't taken that class. The overriding impression that I got was:

  • Silence feels safe to leaders, but it creates the impression of guilt to one's audience
  • In the void created by silence, people are driven to tell a negative narrative, if only to self-soothe
  • They will use whatever documentation they have (or think they have) to develop that narrative
  • Social media has a way of attracting voices of negativity, drama and conspiracy theories
  • There is a self-fulfilling cycle at work where criticism from the public creates fear and the urge to "hunker down"
 Moreover:
  • Law enforcement culture is deeply hierarchical (obviously) and therefore averse to upward feedback (e.g. criticism from the bottom of the chain upward)
  • People who speak up (internally or externally) are seen as troublemakers
  • Real communication seems to take place informally among peers
  • Written communication is perceived as potentially litigious
  • Culture change is incredibly slow, almost glacial.
If these observations are accurate it would follow that external critics of the government would be considered troublemakers. If you don't let your own employees have their say, then why would you welcome negative external feedback at all, especially from someone who is not fully aware of the facts?

I worked for a component of DHS for seven years. I worked in Public Affairs. I did not see a vast conspiracy to strip people of their rights. I did see the normal politics and infighting. I also saw people who were beyond dedicated to their mission. I interviewed an officer who had nightmares about being the "weak link in the chain" - the cause of another 9/11.

I travel frequently enough to deal with the Transportation Services Administration (TSA) with some regularity. I don't see them doing evil things. Well, once I saw them pull aside a pretty girl in a short skirt for questioning. Stuff happens, people are stupid, and some are even criminal. But the reality and the paranoia are two very different things.

That doesn't mean there are no problems - or that critics are wrong - or that any suspected wrongdoing should not be investigated. Only that in the absence of communication between Agency and critics, both sides get their hackles up, and mutual paranoia ensues.

Yesterday I met a veteran of the Customs Service - the agency that existed before U.S. Customs and Border Protection. We knew a lot of the same people. I stood in awe of the dedication of this person. I won't share the stories I heard. But again, the overwhelming impression was - the vast majority of government employees - civil service employees - are good people trying to do a good job under imperfect circumstances.

It's hard for me to understand the resistance to feedback that I see in government. It's like a terrible fear: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The worst kind of monster is the one that's hiding under your bed. Just talk it out, hold a town hall, let people share what's bothering them. At the worst you'll find out that corruption exists - but isn't that the best thing?

It's never a good thing to make situations black and white. Most of life is pretty gray. I'd like to see more engagement between people who hold diametrically opposing views. 

From the views of that YouTube video, it seems like many other people would, too.

*Note: As always, ALL opinions are my own.



10 Things I Love About America - The Scene At An Airport

1. Nathan's cheese fries (no bacon :-) and Dunkin' Donuts coffee with cream. Red Bull x 3 due to early morning flight.

2. Hasidim and Muslims crowding around the same gate, completely oblivious to each other. Hearing so many different languages.

3. Plug-vultures hunting for a charge and I got there first!

4. Watching "Homeland" with free airport wifi.

5. Reading "OK" Magazine.

6. Geeky sweatshirts and mug.

7. TSA explaining that Scotch is, indeed, a beverage and can't come through the X-ray scanner.

8. That feeling of adventure.

9. People-watching.

10. Appreciating home.

Right Person for the Right Job: There Is A Better Way



There are some "old-fashioned" Jewish traditions I agree with. One of them is the concept of a matchmaker.

This person knows the boy's family, knows the girl's family, interviews each, and by the end of the day can tell whether a first date would be worthwhile.

The matchmaker assesses whether boy and girl would like each other based on:
  • Status factors - rabbinic lineage, degrees, looks
  • Technical criteria - religious observance level and knowledge
  • Cultural criteria - "two Jews, three synagogues" means there are as many cultural combinations as for a Starbucks latte, and
  • Psychological criteria - if "he's nuts" and "she's nuts" in sort of a similar way it could work :-)
You may tell me that this sounds a bit obnoxious but I would counter that it's actually very rational to filter people on the factors that matter rather than the ones that don't. 
Imagine if people had to fill out a federal government application before they went out on a date:
  • Question 1. Have you dated this person or the equivalent for 1 year?
  • Question 2. Please describe your level of experience interacting with individuals residing in a suburban community of 50,000-150,000 in the state of New Jersey between the years of 2000-2005. 
  • Question 3. In the box below, describe in which relationship you obtained the above listed experience. Provide narrative that shows you have the following competencies: emotional intelligence, event scheduling, and dusting ancient window blinds.
Who exactly are you going to recruit but the person who left that exact job to go somewhere else because it didn't work?

Imagine we got a matchmaker/recruiter to fill jobs for us instead. But instead of having one person do the job, we'd always get a cross-functional panel - to reduce the likelihood of bias.
A system like this might seem complicated and unscientific, but I think it could actually work. It would be like The Walking Dead - we could pick team members that might actually help us survive a zombie attack.

Seriously - we do need to rethink how we approach government hiring. Because -- to put it in IT-speak -- if you can't be clear about your business requirements going into the hiring process, then you'll pay for it down the road with a project (employee) who can't do the job and who can't be gotten rid of all that easily.

Poor hiring practices lead to dysfunctional teams. Especially in today's knowledge and collaboration-based environment.

Let's have the guts to admit pseudoscientific initial screening makes no sense. And instead replace it with a system based on initial resume screening followed by intensive and wide-ranging peer interviewing. 

Committed relationships are the basic building blocks of society. This is true at home and at work. We ought to respect the reality of the situation, and not throw imaginary criteria at the wall and hope to emerge with winners.

How To Get Out Of Your Own Way


The other day I spotted a friend, standing a few feet away. She was just past the security turnstile at work. So happy to see her, I practically ran through.

Only problem - the two or three people right there. Who I was blocking with my big hug. They couldn't exactly squeeze by.

Politely my friend pulled me over. A pitying look on her face.

"Sorry," I imagined her saying to the ebb-and-flowing crowd, "my friend has no spatial perception."

It's true. Getting out of a cab, I'll hit my head. I do bump into people, trying to figure out which way to walk in oncoming foot traffic.

Sometimes I have trouble getting out of my own way too.

As a little girl I said once, to my mother, "I'm happy." My dad and my aunt were in the room.

Immediately three forefingers stood poised at attention, slicing at imaginary oncoming swords.

"Shhhhh," they collectively said. "You're going to bring on an ayin hara!"

In Hebrew "ayin hara" means "evil eye" and my parents disagreed about everything except precisely this: G-d's punishments come to those who are happy. There you are, swinging on the swing at the playground, then thwack! 

Just because you laughed, you'll break your ankle.

Post-Holocaust, they told us, just keep everything to yourself for good measure. The sticking-out nail gets flattened.

Happy, sad, good, bad, trouble, not trouble - whatever. Don't make noise. Just keep it down. (It's like we're all Anne Frank, still hiding in the attic from the Nazis.)

In eighth grade we took a class trip to Monsey. We were studying the religious way of life.

The only thing I remember? No pictures in the house. "We don't take photographs - of anything."

Photos were a form of idol worship, they said. Where you stared at the image endlessly.

Thirty years later I know the problem: Photos make us happy. And the fear is that when happy, we will forget to think about and serve our Creator.

How many times has this happened to you? A friend says they have had it:

"I'm going on a diet right now," they will exclaim. "I mean it. I'm gonna keep it off."

Literally - sequentially - directly after the previous sentence, a pause, and then:

"I could really use some ice cream right about now."

Most of us are scared of formal public speaking. In my version I get a frog in my throat.

It seems the more I look around the room and realize I'm next, that the microphone is headed my way - the worse that very real croaking.

But if you get me to talk on the spot, it's fine.

A really good childhood memory is skiing.

Disembarking the ski lift, I panicked at first. To the instructor:

"I changed my mind. Next ride down please."

Laughter, immediate. "There is no way back down."

"Go!" my classmate said.

And she pushed me, just like that.

Yaaaaaaaa!

The feel of the wind. My freezing face. The silent clacking of skis against snow.

Joy.

It's 2013, for heaven's sake. Doomsday can still come. Lots to worry about for sure.

But worrying isn't the solution.

Tonight if you can't sleep, try this instead of solving problems in your head: Just do nothing. 

Before you know it it's the morning.

And you can choose to have any mood of your own making.










The Art of the Question - The Art of Listening


"Good questions can move your business, organization, or career forward. They squeeze incremental value from interactions, the drops of which add up to reservoirs of insight. Of all the skills innovators can learn from journalists, the art of the expert Q&A is the most useful." - Fast Company, Dec. 17, 2012
According to Shane Snow at Fast Company, questions are "the one conversational tool that will make you better at absolutely everything." He offers this advice for asking the kind of questions that yield insight:
  • "Don't ramble on--terminate the sentence at the question mark."
  • "Get comfortable with silence."
  • "Start with "who, what, when, where, how, or why" for more meaningful answers."
  • "Don't fish for the answer you want."
  • "Stop nodding if you don't understand--ask a follow-up instead."
  • "If you get a non-answer, approach it again from a different angle."
  • "Rephrase the answer in your own words."
  • "Don't be afraid to ask dumb questions."
Most of us probably know that questions are important yet do we really use them to the fullest? Often our ability to listen is blocked by:
  • The tendency to "wait for our turn to talk" rather than to interact
  • Approaching dissent as a threat or attack
  • Tuning out before the other person has finished speaking
What are some ways you've learned to increase your effectiveness as a questioner, and/or as a listener?  

How To Know If You're Really A Writer: 10 Signs


Nowadays "everyone's a writer," and writing is available so cheap. (Cheaply, yes, I know...but it would have ruined the rhythm of the sentence.)

But having the urge to write, or knowing your way around Dragon Dictate, is not the same thing as actually having the bug.

In the end I'm not sure this really matters. We all do whatever we do. But it seems important to know. Because if you are a writer, you have no choice but to write and you will have to build it into your day.

Here's how I figured it out:

1) I am impossible to live with unless I write every single day. I'll get into a bad mood and not know why, and then I know - I haven't written. You might think that writing is an incredible joy all the time, but it's not, necessarily. It's more like a physical need. And when I have writers' block, better get the hell away because that is even worse. 

2) It's not about the money. In fact I worry that money would corrupt the writing. That's why the writing is personal, for the blog, and what I do for money is not at all synonymous with what I consider "my writing." I am obsessed with it and passionate about it for sure - but there is a clear and definite difference between my voice and the corporate one and I NEVER try to mix the two. 

3) Bad writing bothers me. Like I saw a poster at Giant supermarket the other day. It said: "Forgot something? Don't forget a reusable bag." It bothered me that a variation on "forget" was used twice. I got worked up about it. 

4) I argue with people who have a casual attitude about writing. I have had knock-down, drag-out arguments over web copy that was not clear. I have had year-long debates over the meaning of "brand" versus "reputation." It's a subject that feels very life-or-death. It is hard for non-writers to figure out.

5) A raccoon almost bit me because I wouldn't stop writing. We were on "vacation" but I was mad because I hadn't written so I took a time-out to do so. We were in the woods so I was sitting on a bench typing - alone. Suddenly I hear a scary croaking hissing noise to my left. It is that "oh s**t" moment you see in the movies. And realize I am about to get bitten big time. My first thought is, "G-ddamn it I can't finish my blog yet again?!!"

6) I'm jealous of people who I think are good writers. Penelope Trunk. Peggy Noonan. There are more. I want to be as good a writer as them. I feel inferior no matter what I write, because there are others who are better.

7) I have an easier time writing than speaking. People think that if you're a communicator you can communicate all the time, in any way, about anything. But the truth is that writers are better behind a screen. Writing.

8) I make a game out of subtracting words. There is nothing more irritating than the "500-word" requirement on many of my kids' class assignments. To me, it's so important to take words away. Say as much as possible in the least amount of time. This is a good part of the time I spend blogging. To do otherwise seems - well, inconsiderate and unkempt.

9) I observe the moment so carefully that I have trouble being in it sometimes. In my head I'm always taking notes for...something. So when I'm talking I actually am thinking about what I'm going to write later on. Not consciously but it's always there.

10) I worry that time is running out, and that I haven't written everything I'm supposed to. One day, when I'm old, I imagine sitting in Starbucks four hours a day and writing. Books, articles, blog, whatever...because I just feel like there's so much to say, and not enough time to say it. I worry about getting old and infirm before I can finish. 

The only other thing I'd say about writing, is that it's not necessarily synonymous with grammar. I am as bothered as anyone else about spelling mistakes, typos, etc. But what bothers me more is if something interrupts the flow. When I read it's as if I'm listening to a piece of music. You can break the rules of composition as long as the song works, in the end.

Here's hoping this blog helps you all out, as I know it's helped me...because now, like a mosquito, my writing bug has drawn blood. And I can do whatever needs to get done in my day.

Good luck!