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Branding & The Office Of Enterprise Risk

Branding and reputation are integrally related. The one is built on the other. And when your organization operates in an "at risk" way for an extended period of time, you can be sure that both will falter.

How can you prevent such a crisis from occurring? Thinking from a branding point of view, you want to make sure that your organization has someone in charge of constantly keeping watch over its reputation.

UPS teaches us this principle neatly in its new television commercial. It states:
"Everything your customer sees tells a story."

As a private individual, you've lived this a thousand times. When you argue, you close the door and make sure nobody else is around. For your story is told not by you, but by the people who witness you, in your orbit.

We all know this and yet somehow, incomprehensibly, it appears that many businesses do not operate by this principle. Their actions speak louder than their words, and as a result the customer experience is miserable. For example:
  • They Tweet at the customer about the latest "improvements," "happenings" and "updates," but don't offer clear, well-researched answers to the customer's most frequently asked questions.
  • They do not offer a consistent promise or experience, so that the customer feels jittery and anxious about whether it will be good or bad to deal with them that day. The store, or website, is difficult to navigate. The product quality is uneven. Their service level seems to be excellent one day and terrible the next.
  • They talk about how important people are, how people are "everything" to them, but they overwork and underpay employees, sell inferior products or services, and they don't refund a dissatisfied customer's money easily.
  • They have a CEO, a CFO, a COO and CIO and maybe a CMO - but there is no Chief Brand Officer in charge of the overall brand image and customer experience.
If I were to walk into your organization today, would it seem like a country at war with itself, or like a finely tuned, well-calibrated orchestra?

Don't ask your executives that question. Ask the people who work for and with you. Ask the people who interact with you. Ask your customers. (Or just observe them and record what you see.)

Notice as you do this that there is no neat line between the different types of "stakeholders" you serve. In a typical wheel chart showing such a schema, these groups are neatly divided from one another--e.g. customer, media, employee, etc.

Rather, your stakeholders (also known as "audience segments") tend to cross over from one category into another. Today's customer is tomorrow's employee. That employee may leave the company and be a partner of some kind in the future.

Or maybe they will be a competitor. What weaknesses might they use against you?

People talk, and when they talk it's often about the "little things." You therefore want to make sure that you control the image of your organization -- preferably by doing the right thing! -- at all times.

But since we live in the real world, and people don't always do the right thing it is important to remedy risky situations as soon as they crop up.

This is why every organization should have an Office of Enterprise Risk.

"Risk" from a branding standpoint -- stated in its most minimal terms -- is anything about the functioning of your business that, left unchecked, has the potential to harm your reputation.

As you do this, it's important to avoid a common misconception. Because often people think that having a good image literally means telling a positive story, hiring employees who will accept unquestioningly everything you say, etc. etc. and so on.

Nothing could be further than the truth.

Having a good image means understanding from the get-go that it is literally impossible to have a good image unless you are constantly on guard for, and correcting, the problems that arise in the normal course of business.

To establish an Office of Enterprise Risk:
  • Designate someone to serve as your Chief of Reputation Risk. This is not the Chief Brand Officer, but rather an individual who heads up an Office of Enterprise Risk. "Enterprise risk" includes cybersecurity, product quality, accounting best practices, physical facility hazard management, and so on.
  • Explicitly empower employees to tell you when something is wrong.
  • Offer a real way that employees, customers or other stakeholders can report problems anonymously.
  • Establish a reputation council, comprised of the risk officers heading up each unique type of organizational risk. It should convene regularly and investigate and responds to the reports that come in -- referring the issue to the appropriate party when necessary (e.g., sometimes reports involve the need for legal counsel). At times it might be necessary to hire an outside entity to conduct the investigation.
  • Report out regularly, and publicly, on the activities of the reputation watch-guard and council, including a quantitative report at the end of the year that describes the number and types of incidents reported and actions taken.
The notion that "someone is always watching" may be frightening, but it is also an unavoidable fact. Ignoring this fact poses a risk to the organization's reputation. And without a strong reputation, obviously, marketing and branding efforts will inevitably fall flat.

Think about it from a strategic point of view. Proactively managing your reputation is a smart investment. Rather than waiting for a crisis to blow up in your face -- an expensive, chaotic proposition that will inevitably take you away from your core business -- invest in preventive maintenance in advance.

Having an Office of Enterprise Risk supports your reputation, and your brand, by engaging trained professionals to monitor and mitigate the most common presenting risks. When they work together, in concert with your Chief Branding Officer, you can communicate in a credible and consistent way about unavoidable issues.

Think about risk -- in advance -- then mitigate it. Don't live in fear of surprises.

That makes you a company people trust, and ultimately that they vastly prefer to do business with.


All opinions my own. Cover photo by Ben Stephenson via Flickr (Creative Commons). Color wheel image by Pete Linforth via Pixabay (Public Domain).

Communication Is Love

I was in a meeting this morning and it seemed to go well. I think this is because we were all getting along today. Seems to me that most meetings go well or badly because of this.

Communication is love. I think about that as a parent. Sometimes I yell at my kids and they say, I can't hear you when you're yelling at me. In the past I would respond, Don't worry if I'm yelling, just do as I say. Now I know that was the wrong answer. I should have said, I'm sorry, I'll take a few minutes to calm down.

Communication is love. When you're in the Starbucks and that barista who is always rude, is rude again, you don't want to go back there. Conversely there is a Starbucks I go to, which I prefer, where the barista says hello and asks me how my low-carb diet is going. I do like to hang out there.

Communication is love. Do you know why I like to shop in Trader Joe's? Because they play music from my teenage years, the '80s. And when I hear I Ran by A Flock of Seagulls I remember laying in front of the TV on the floor and watching music videos all day. I remember Sundays, and no pressure and no errands to do. I am ecstatic.

Communication is love. I applied to the MBA program at the University of the People, which is accredited and "free." (They charge a small application fee and testing fees per class.) To which my husband said, What do you need another degree for, you have a PhD, and the girls are still in school. To which I replied, don't bother me, I don't have an MBA and I write about marketing, and the cost is truly minimal. Later I overheard him talking to my older one, saying with great pride, you can do anything you set your mind to, young lady, Mommy is going for an MBA after all these years.

Before "The Accountant" started playing at the movie theater, they ran the preview for Will Smith's upcoming movie, "Collateral Beauty." Will Smith is one of those people who can make a very bad-sounding movie actually work and in this film he is grief-stricken, writing letters to Time, Love and Death. Keira Knightley plays love and she says something to him like, "Love is all there is in this world, and when you understand that maybe you can start living again."

We undervalue communication so much. We can't admit how important it is, how badly we need it, how we feel starved without connection -- to ourselves, to each other, and yes, to some sort of meaning over and above all of that.

I think about those times when I've flown into a rage and regret them. My mother used to say, You have a tongue like a sword.

Wars are won and lost not by the sword, but through genuine love and its absence.


All opinions my own. Photo by via Flickr (Creative Commons)

How To Tell A Leader From A Fraud

This guy was talking nonstop.

I was sitting there trying to read but he would just not shut up. It got so bad I had to take a photo as if in protest.

(Yes, that's my photo and I've covered the faces in it so as not to imply anything about a random individual who just happened to be sitting near me in a coffee shop.)

The exchange between this man and his companions had something to do with a business deal.
  • "I know some people." 
  • "Sure, we can make that happen." 
  • "Let me put a few numbers together and get back to you." 
Not knowing anything at all, I could tell that this pitch was one gigantic snow job. When someone is really good at what they do, and can deliver, they don't have to say much of anything.

Last night I saw the movie The Accountant, with Ben Affleck. This movie is not to everybody's taste, but I liked it a lot because of how Affleck portrays an autistic man--Christian Wolff--a genius--whose father taught him to function in real life.

More than function. Dad taught his son to be a leader: to defend himself, to take care of his family, to live by a moral code.

In the movie Wolff says very little. As the character is a genius Affleck is equally a genius at his craft, and through the use of this minimal dialogue he telegraphs an important message: leaders are skilled, leaders are trained, and leaders act.

Fakers talk.

I am reminded of my childhood years, growing up in New Jersey (that's me on the right) when my mother used to take me to Shop-Rite to get my hair cut.

There was a small cheap ladies' salon in the back of the strip mall where the grocery store was. To my mother's thinking, the haircut wasn't worth it unless the lady gave me a real chop.

I forgive my mother today, I really do. My point goes back to leadership, and talk. Focusing on the image rather than reality.

Cutting off 4 inches when a trim will do.

Fakes tend to spend a lot of time talking, or controlling talk, to create the image of success. They do this by:
  • Bombarding the company with one-way, top-down communications that don't really say anything. Restricting what people say and write, overtly or covertly. 
  • Cultivating a culture of "yes-men," and women--and marginalizing, silencing, and eventually eliminating from the organization anyone who might make them look bad. 
  • Resorting to pat answers, talking points, rehearsed scripts and even lying outright when questions arise about how well the organization has actually done under their leadership. 
To support the talk they do things like:
  • Starting new initiatives when the "old" ones were just fine, but had the name-stamp of their predecessor. 
  • Making everybody document, document, document "success" through irrelevant and extensive "metrics"--or worse yet, cutting corners so that the "metrics" make them look like they've achieved something real. 
To sum it up: A real leader steers the ship. They spend their time getting stuff done. A fraud focuses solely on "optics."

If you really understand what branding is, you know that brand success is 97% great product, and 3% image and fluff.

Incompetent leaders reverse these proportions.


All opinions my own. Photo by Mike via Flickr (Creative Commons)