Friday, June 11, 2010

Marketing = Building Relationships

Before we leave this section, let me offer one more perspective, perhaps the bird's eye view of brand strategy.

Broken down to its most basic components, marketing is really nothing more than relationship-building. Think about it. If we seek to build a long-term relationship, there are four factors that must be present if the relationship is to be successful over the long-term.

First of all, there must be a sincere desire for a mutually satisfying relationship. You must want to have this relationship even though you know the investment required.

Second, you must possess something of value to offer the other party. You have something that they might want and you are willing to offer this to them.

Third, you have a willingness to trust that the other will also provide value in the exchange. You assume that the other party is going to be fair as they enter into the relationship.

Fourth, you both make a commitment to communicate when the exchange is not mutually satisfying. You promise to let them know if things are not turning out as you planned and to give them a chance to correct the problem.

Does this sound like your marriage? Or your business partnership? Yeah, probably! And it is just this approach that every business must take as the seek to win customers and build their businesses.

Way too much marketing these days is about creating some facade around a product/service instead of accurately communicating how that product/service fits into the customer's life... telling truthfully what that product or service will and will not do for the prospective customer. And at the same time that the organization is having their ad agency create the facade, they are structuring their Customer Service department so that it will be nearly impossible for a customer to tell them when they are unhappy and don't find the relationship mutually satisfying. Then, they are shocked that there is so much churn in their customer base! That is why so many businesses are hurting right now. They did not take care of there customers' needs because they never really thought about marketing being about relationship-building.

Brand marketing (so that we build long-term relationships with our customers) is really simple, just like building any relationship that is important to us. Remember:
Sincere Desire/Offer Value/Trust Other/Communication Commitment
And if you forget any of these, ask your spouse what are the cardinal rules of making your marriage work. They'll tell you.

Thanks for reading. More to come!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Another Test for Brand Strategy (2/6)

Roy Spence has written an insightful book -- It's Not What You Sell, It's What You Stand For -- that every organizational leader should read. It is probably the best business book I have read in the last five years and I read a lot. In this book, Spence discusses why every organization must articulate their purpose clearly if they are to achieve extraordinary success. Spence explains purpose as "a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world."

Purpose should drive every strategic and tactical decision. In fact, decision-making actually becomes much easier when the organizational purpose is clearly articulated and understood by management and employees. Spence's company, GSD&M Idea City, has helped build some of the world's most successful brands including Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines, BMW, AARP, Charles Schwab, and John Deere to name a few. What the book does is tell you how GSD&M helped each of these organizations (and many others) determine their purpose.
Purpose: a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world.
There is a lot in this book beyond marketing. I enthusiastically recommend every leader (or those who want to lead) read this book because truly it is a book about leadership, first and foremost. But what Spence has to say about the value of being purpose-driven when it comes to building the brand and enhancing the brand experience is critical to where we are in our discussion and it will help you evaluate your brand strategy by considering Spence's steps to bringing your purpose to life in the marketplace.

1. Articulate your purpose so that you provide a clear and compelling statement about the difference your organization makes in the world.
2. Answer the question, What do we have that people want that the competition can't deliver? This is a key part of your positioning.
3. Get your employees to buy in so that your brand-building is inside-out and, thus, authentic.
4. Take another look at how your customers experience your brand. Can they understand your purpose when  they interact with your brand? You can't fix everything at once so prioritize and get the most important areas addressed first.
5. When time permits, have a good look at every customer experience. Is everything you are doing consistent with your purpose?

There is so much more to this book and I recommend you pick up a copy and dig in as soon as you can. For the purposes of our discussion on brand strategy, think about this: how is your organization changing your part of the world for the better?

If you can answer this question, you will have a brand strategy that can take your organization places that no ordinary business plan ever could.

More to come. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Evaluating Brand Strategy (Chapter 2/5)

All done? Nope. In fact, you are never done. But at some point you will have to set it all down for a while and work the strategy as best you can.

However, now it would be good to see how some of your best customers feel about what you have done. I would pick four or five of your best customers, organizations who buy from you regularly and seem to best understand what you are trying to do and like your original game plan. However, these people also need to be smart business people who will be candid with you.

You can take them through this process or show them the result of the work of your management teams. However you do it, I recommend having these discussions with each client separately in a one-on-one discussion to get the most from each participant. Importantly, expose the strategy as if it is work in progress so they are comfortable articulating concerns they may have with your brand strategy.
Is the strategy relevant?
As part of this exercise, ask them (and yourself) these six questions:

1. Can we deliver on the promises made in this brand strategy?
2. Does the strategy meet the needs of a significant segment of customers in the marketplace?
3. Is the strategy and its brand promise relevant to customers?
4. Is the strategy also differentiating vs. competitors?
5. Can a competitor easily transition to this strategy if it becomes well-known that our strategy is working?
6. Will this strategy deliver short-term sales, but more importantly, long-term brand growth?

Obviously, you and your clients will need to have some business facts available to you to truly answer these questions. But, if your strategy stands up to the test of these questions, you probably have something to work with. If it does not, you need to stay at the process. In truth, the best brand strategies evolve over time but do so in subtle ways that consumers do not recognize easily. And that is a good thing since a brand strategy that appears to change constantly suggests a schizophrenic company.

If it sounds like all this strategy development is hard work, it is. But, once the strategy is executed in the marketplace and shows signs of gaining traction, you will be glad you made the effort!

Much more to come. Thanks so much for reading.

Friday, November 13, 2009

SWOTting the Brand (Chapter 2/4)

If you really want to know what your employees think, it would be best to hire an outside researcher to probe for strengths and weaknesses in your brand. However, it can be done by the owner if s/he has the openness to hear things that may not be flattering. What I am recommending is qualitative research that will not only yield opinions but can also serve as a brainstorming session for new ideas. Regardless if you do the research or hire an outside moderator, you must make it very clear that candor will lead the day and that you will welcome, perhaps even reward, negative comments that are truthful. What I will discuss here is a very abbreviated version of what should happen but you will get the idea of what type of discussions need to take place.

Your first dialog is with your top tier management. Let's say of your 25 employees, you have five direct reports who each have four or five people reporting to them. Get your management in a room with blank sheets of paper on the table or poster board on the wall. The goal is to generate a brand SWOT analysis. I am sure you know the SWOT format: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and weaknesses are internal. Opportunities and threats are external. So, what are the strengths of your brand reputation? What are its weaknesses? It is critical that the data generated focus on brand image and perceptions about your brand. This is not a strategic assessment of everything about your company. It is about your brand reputation only. Optimally, you will generate no more than four or five strengths and fewer weaknesses, but candor is critical so list all you generate. Set those aside for now.

Next, tackle opportunities. What are the opportunities for your brand reputation? What can it be that it is not now? What preferred associations and perceptions are there available to you? What weaknesses are there for your brand? Weaknesses might be other brands that are close in positioning/strategy to your brand. If the claim you generate is already being used by a competitor and they have been banging that way for five years, that is a weakness that you cannot work around. That will not be your positioning. It would be good if you end with about four or five brand image opportunities/weaknesses total. If you generate more than that, prioritize the opportunities and threats.

What should be developing through this discussion and debate is a short list of brand strengths and perhaps some opportunities for the brand in terms of extending perceptions about the brand. The threats/weaknesses are important as "reality checks" as you build a brand strategy with the strengths and opportunities. Will the strengths and opportunities stand up to your weaknesses and threats? They better or you need another strategy.

Your emerging brand strategy should be two or three strengths with an opportunity thrown in. The strengths may be category entrance requirements (the price of entry in terms of features/benefits) and the opportunity may be a claim/promise that you can make with a small or significant change in the way you do business. The less you have as strengths, the more work you have to do in implementing your opportunities. Strengths are what you have already in your brand reputation. Opportunities are strengths you can have in the future with some amount of work beforehand. Mathematically, it may look like this:

Strength + Strength + Opportunity = Brand Strategy

What this process allows is both brainstorming and evaluation. You need both if are to achieve the result of clarification of the brand's true attributes. This will help with how you position the brand later.

But you are far from done. After this session has generated ideas about the brand from your managers, the process needs to be repeated with the teams that report to each manager, having each one follow this process. Let them work through the SWOT analysis on their own, ending with their own brand strategy.

Where did they end up? Probably not exactly where the management team did and that is fine. The people in the trenches probably see things differently than owners and managers. That is to be expected. But you must resolve as much of this as possible.
The threats/weaknesses are important as "reality checks" as you build a brand strategy.
Once each team has made their suggestions regarding strategy, the management team needs to meet again to refine what each manager's team developed. Unless a company has a serious disconnect with its employees, there will be more similarities than dissimilarities. The management team will then come to some decision about what the brand strategy needs to be. Once that is resolved, they must meet with employees as a whole and inform them of where they ended up. They may not end exactly where everyone wanted, but everyone will know they had input into the brand strategy and this will be important in building consensus for future implementation of that brand strategy.

A critical part of this process is to also keep track of named weaknesses and threats as these serve to tell management what to worry about. There is always something to worry about. And what may need fixing. It is a natural phenomenon of business that believes in continuous improvement.

I encourage small business owners to try this process so that everyone who is representing the brand at your company (your brand reps) has input into what the brand is that they represent. As I mentioned above, the real process is more complicated that described above but if the small business owner is committed to building a strong brand, following this process to the extent possible, will yield some progress in meeting that important objective.

Thanks for reading. More to come.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reconciling the Brand Between Owner and Employees (2/3)

The title of this chapter section may surprise you. If you are the owner of a small business, you might assume that your employees will accept the brand just as you have presented it to them. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Unfortunately, you probably don't present the brand consistently any day of the week and you are not unlike any small business. In fact, it is darn hard to present any brand consistently. And if you think it is hard to be consistent in how your brand is presented, imagine the impossible problem that major corporations have. Every employee they have (and every customer contact each of those employees have) offers a huge opportunity to present the brand in sharp contrast to how the company would like it presented. But that is life in business. Advertising can influence perceptions about the brand, but an unpleasant experience with one of your employees will undermine all that advertising quickly.

Let's say you have a small service business with 25 employees. If you asked each one of them to pick three words that best describe your company, how many different words would you get? 75? I hope not but I also bet you would get more than 50. And if they could submit those words anonymously, would all of the attribute words be positive? Would any be positive? Now, remember, these are the people who represent your brand each and every day. Scary, huh?

If you are not sure how your brand would be described, I hope you realize that you need to have this discussion soon with your employees. Very soon. No telling how many customers and prospective customers they may each speak with tomorrow and miss an opportunity to represent your brand more consistently.
After all, your brand is not just what YOU say it is.
If you want to have this dialog with your employees, they must be able to respond without fear of reprisal. That means that their responses must be completely anonymous. At some point, employees may feel that they can be candid without fear of hurting their career prospects but, at first, you need to take care not to make them feel threatened in any way. Because you need their honesty! The whole process is futile if they are fearful of losing their jobs. You need them thinking, not worrying.

Understand, this is not an evaluation. Instead, you are beginning the process of rebuilding your brand. More than anything else, it is a reconciliation. After all, your brand is not just what YOU say it is. Rather, it is what everyone who represents your brand says it is. And who represents your brand? A whole lot of folks. And that can be very good news if that group grows at a nice pace.

Think about this dialog. It needs to happen and happen regularly -- not just once. I will tell you more about the reconciliation process in the next post.

Thanks for checking in. More to come!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Authentic Brand (2/2)

Much of modern marketing over the last few decades tried to create facades around brands. Unfortunately, sometimes it wasn't that the brand offered a benefit that was truly unique but that the brand was only positioned that way.

Positioning is merely creating a frame of reference for the consumer so they can more easily understand what a brand stands for. The term was coined by Jack Trout and Al Ries in their book, Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind, in 1981. Truly, it is the best book ever written about branding. It is sad that too many marketers used the concept to create facades for brands that only discussed less-than-significant brand differences rather that trying to create a brand that was actually superior to other brands in the marketplace. But organizations are lazy and risk averse and they play it safe far to often. Few will swing for the fences in an effort to offer a blockbuster brand that consumers will rave about.

All this change will not be good for every business.

All that being said, everything in this e-Book is about building an authentic brand, a brand that is refreshingly candid about what it will and will not do. Or, if it is trying something that might work but is not sure yet that it can do it, that it will inform customers of this so that they are not persuaded to buy something that is not yet proven. If your plan is to create a facade or to only build a brand that will be at parity with others in the marketplace and will not seek to be truly distinctive because of a real benefit, stop reading right now. You have wasted your time thus far and I hate for you to waste any more of it. The approach of Your Brand Reps demands authenticity and you will be easily found out if brand authenticity is not in your plan. This is not simply an ethical issue, but the approach we will discuss can only be achieved if small business owners are completely candid about their brand's value in the marketplace. Only then can a successful and authentic brand be enhanced.

Soon after September 11, 2001, I began hearing "authenticity" mentioned as a driving force in Americans' lives and their relationships. I am an avid reader of business publications, both periodicals and books, and don't recall hearing much of authenticity as it relates to business and marketing discussed before that fateful event that challenged much of what Americans appreciated and valued in their lives.

I am far from the only marketer talking about authenticity. Last year, Time magazine labeled authenticity of the "10 ideas that are changing the world." Writer John Cloud attributed this movement to consumers' "longing" for things real in a world of pretenders and shams.
Strategic Horizons' Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, who wrote The Experience Economy, encouraged companies to think about the experiences customers had with their brands and how they could actually create favorable and memorable brand experiences. They recently followed up that best seller with Authenticity:What Consumers Really Want. In their book, Pine and Gilmore actually offer a process for achieving authenticity.

Suffice it to say that marketing is changing, changing quickly and, for the most part, changing for the good of consumers. However, all this change will not be good for every business. I hope your small business heeds the call and realizes that marketing in the future will not be "business as usual." Consumers will increasingly demand authenticity from you and your brand.

What does this mean for small businesses? It means under-promising in your marketing communications and over-delivering in your customer service. It means staying in touch with your customers when it is good for them, not just to your benefit. It means pricing your brands fairly and not trying some promotional stunt that makes your customers worry about what your brand is really worth. It means making your brand available to your customers in ways that really make their lives more convenient.

In short, get real and stay that way because authenticity is a hard thing to fake.

Thanks for checking in. More to come!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Vertical Relationship Channel (Ch. 2)

Some time back I asked a teaching colleague, Marty Flynn, what book he thought was the best book he had read or taught from on customer service. Without hesitation, Marty recommended, The Service Edge by Ron Zemke and Dick Schaaf. It is a great book and I can understand Marty's support of it. By nature of the fact that it was published in 1989 and is still considered by some to be the bible of customer service may be a comment in itself on the value of some of the books written more recently to provide business guidance. My big issue with so many authors is that to sell their books, they have to disparage any book written over ten years ago. However, I have made that point before and will not dwell on it here... at least not right now.

Now, you may be asking, what does a book (even the best book ever written) on customer service have to do with branding? Everything. Simply everything. And let me tell you why.

Remember in Chapter 1/3 ( we talked about the top 10 strongest brands in the world? What did they have in common? One thing they each had in common was that their employees simply loved working there. Many of these companies consider their own employees as the first group that needs convincing of their value as a company and brand. These companies (Google, Ritz-Carlton, Netflix, Costco) know the value of treating their employees well. And when employees are treated well, they treat every customer they come in contact with well also. Makes sense.
What's customer service got to do with branding? Simply everything.

The other characteristic each of these strong brands have in common is that their employees are empowered to solve customer problems as they surface. Three out of four service issues are solved by the person who initially hears the problem. There is very little "Let me speak with my supervisor" or "I'm sorry our policy..." In short, the large majority of issues that can detract from the brand reputation are handled immediately by the first employee who hears of the problem. Smooth, huh?

So, how do organizations that work this well in brand-building by providing extraordinary customer service accomplish this task? Zemke and Schaaf noted five factors present in organizations with exceptional customer service:
* They listen to, comprehend and act on the evolving needs and changing expectations of their customers.
* They establish a clear vision of what great customer service is, communicate if to all of their employees and ensure that the quality of service is personally important to everyone who works there.
* They establish firm standards of customer service and regularly measure themselves against those standards.
* They hire good people, train them adequately and then empower them to work for their customers.
* They acknowledge and reward customer service "wins" when they happen, ensuring that everyone in the organization understands the priority that customer service has in the organization.

That's commitment, isn't it? Does your small business follow this 'best practices' model? As I have detailed in Chapter 1, most organizations do not or the state of customer service would not be in such sad shape. You better just hope that your competition isn't using this model, either.

In this chapter we will talk a lot about how your employees can build your brand in powerful ways.

Thanks so much for reading. More to come.