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.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The American Business Train Wreck (Chapter 1/7)

So, where is all this leading? This discussion about customer service, brand loyalty and brand communities? You probably don't want to know. But read on, Brave of Heart.

By the most recent numbers I can find (a US State Department report published in April 2008), our US economy's make-up is 67.8% services, 19.8% good producing, and 12.4% local/state/federal government. That means that over two-thirds of our economy is in the service sector and the ratio of service-producing jobs as compared to goods-producing jobs is more than 3 to 1. Thus, if you leave government out of the equation, what service-producers contribute to the US economy is more than three times what goods-producers contribute. If anyone still has any doubt about the importance of services to our overall economy, think about these numbers. I am not saying that the production of goods in not important to our economy but, clearly, services are more than three times as important to our financial health as a nation, as defined by gross domestic product (GDP).
Over two-thirds of our economy is in the service sector.

We have been reading for decades that the US is quickly evolving into a service economy, with the strongest areas in real estate, banking, insurance and investment. Other significant areas of growth are wholesale and retail sales, transportation, health care, legal services, scientific and management services, education, arts, entertainment recreation, hotels and other accommodations, restaurants, bars and other food/beverage services. Not a lot of surprises here, right? I am sure the large majority of us work in one of these industries.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Weeellllll, maybe.

At a time when America becomes more reliant on services to provide income to its citizens, it seems that the quality of those services in the minds of the Americans who buy these services deteriorates dramatically. Remember the research cited earlier in this book about how bad customer service has gotten? Well, if those statistics were not enough, I have more.

Dr. Claes Fornell, a professor at the University of Michigan's business school, has developed the American Customer Service Satisfaction Index (ACSI) and this index is based on regular interviews with 16,000 customers of some 200 companies in 33 industries. Everything Dr. Fornell has found suggests that customer service continues to decline in America at an alarming rate. In fact, the overall "grade" of American business' ability to provide good service is now 70.7 out of 100. That is down from 74.5 in 1994. Some specific industries look even worse. Hospitals have dropped from 74 to 67 in that time period. Airlines are down from 72 to 67 in terms of satisfaction with their services. The local phone companies are a bit higher having dropped from 79 to 75. Not exactly something to write home about. (Source: Daniel Pedersen, "Why the Service is Missing form America's Service Economy")

To make matters a bit worse, in the same article Dr. Fornell makes the point that poor customer service gives a false impression of our economy. Even if prices do not rise significantly, the huge decline in customer services suggests that inflation may be much worse than our economists would have us believe. If we are getting less but paying the same thing for it, we do have a problem with the devaluation of our dollar, don't we?

So, picture this. We are moving quickly toward an economy that relies more and more on American business being able to deliver valued services to its customers. At the same time, our delivery of all those services is in a terrible state of decline. This is not a train wreck in the making: the train wreck has already happened and the bodies are strewn all over America. You can blame some of it on the recession we are facing but, the truth is, many of those businesses were sick and dying before the recession even began. It just took this recession to topple already unstable organizations. Most were crumbling at a slow rate because, as the figures suggest, we have a customer service crisis in American business right now. That customer service problem erodes brand loyalty and that is what brought them down, not the recession.

Anybody afraid? I am. For this country, for businesses small and large, for what my family gets (or doesn't get) for the dollars we spend on all those services.
This is not a train wreck in the making: the train wreck has already happened and the bodies are strewn all over America.

It is a sad state of affairs, really. If your business is in trouble right now, do some research about your level of customer service. I will bet you that if that research is truly legitimate, you will see a problem. And if you have a problem with customer service, how strong can your brand be?

In Chapter 2, we will examine what can be done in the aftermath of this train wreck. Because there is a lot that can be done. But we need to get started. You can build a strong brand community around your brand but it takes work. Your customers can help you.

Thanks for reading! More to come.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What does all this mean for small businesses? (Chapter 1/6)

So, what can small businesses take away from this academic white paper? This was not discussed in Muniz and O'Guinn's work, but my perspective on their research is that each brand has a past, a present and a future.

The past is marked by rituals and traditions that have evolved to be part of the brand but that are celebrated in the present. This "past" comes from the brand's history and the stories about the brand that surface from the brand's past. Thus, brand owners would do well to consider their brand's past and determine what in the brand's history will make the brand more relevant to brand users today who might want to become part of the brand's community. And from this brand history, what specific stories detail the brand's importance to current users? Why would current users care about those stories as they use the brand today? Importantly, today's consumers want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves and part of something that is more important than their current problems and challenges.

The "consciousness of kind" marker can be viewed as the brand's present time perspective. In truth, what consciousness of kind says is "there are some of us here and now that are more alike than others of us (who are here and now)." And from this idea, brand communities develop their legitimacy filters and oppositional brand loyalties. The present is all about 1) "those who are as committed (here and now) as we are" and 2) "what brands threaten our 'here and now' because they oppose the brand (and brand community) to which we are committed."

That brings us to the future, right? And what better way for a brand to have meaning in people's lives than through moral responsibility? No one wants to be associated with a brand that has no moral responsibility for the future. I am not saying that every brand must be associated with a popular cause, but it must be thought of as morally responsible if it is to garner a large number of people who seek a strong association with it.

In their book, Creating Customer Evangelists, Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell discuss the importance of organizations being committed to something larger than themselves. They suggest organizations define some cause that allows them to rise above just pursuing profitability and growth. In essence, the most successful brand communities will grow because they are part of some idea much bigger than even their brand.
Moral responsibility says that the brand cares about the future.

Now this idea may seem a bit scary to the average small business because one must wonder how fragmented a marketing communications budget might be if it is trying to do too much. But Huba and McConnell are not talking about affinity programs that were the rage in the late 1980s and have continued to some extent until now: "Buy some of our product and we will donate money to..." No, that is not what the authors recommend. That is superficial and most customers see right through that one and the brand may end up looking worse than before it initiated the affinity program.

Instead, what organizations must do is figure out what problems facing the world is their organization tackling? What does the organization really want to stand for because no one wants to be part of an organization that is merely trying to make more money for its shareholders. The good news is that our world has lots of problems and every organization can help make the world a better place in its own way. Without evident moral responsibility, how can a brand build a community of loyal users? It can't.

Muniz and O'Guinn found two benefits of moral responsibility: integrating/retaining members and assisting in the use of the brand. Depending on the exact nature of each brand, one can see how brand communities are strengthened when there is a clear role of moral responsibility. No one wants to be associated with a brand that does not care. Moral responsibility says that the brand cares about the future.

So, what is your brand's past and how can you leverage that to build a brand community around it? What are the "here and now" aspects of your brand and its user base? Can these help make your brand less vulnerable to your competition? Finally, what moral responsibility does your brand take for the future? Said another way, what does your brand hope for the future?

Thanks for reading. More to come!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

More on the Brand Community (Chapter 1/5)

Let's look a bit deeper into Muniz and O'Guinn's brand community concept.

Muniz and O'Guinn identify three markers of brand communities:
* Consciousness of kind
* Rituals and traditions
* Moral responsibility
and give some examples of each as they relate to the three brand researched, Saab, Macintosh, and Ford Bronco.

There are two ideas within the "consciousness of kind" marker, legitimacy and oppositional brand loyalty. With legitimacy, there is a ranking of brand users with some brand users feeling that they may be more "legitimate" than other brand users or that some other brand users may not be using the brand for the right reasons. In the case of both Saab and Bronco, Muniz and O'Guinn found that Saab and Bronco users questioned the motivations of some fellow brand users. The assumption was that current mass popularity of both brands may have caused some of their fellow brand users to choose Saab and Bronco, rather than a belief that Saab was very well-designed/manufactured (and should be owned for a long time to bear this out) vs. other automobile brands. Some Bronco fans felt that other Bronco owners had purchased the brand not based on its off-road heritage/performance, but more because the brand had become popular beyond the off-road enthusiasts. This issue of "legitimacy" was not present in Macintosh users.

Oppositional brand loyalty was present in all three brands studied and simply means that it is not enough for brand loyalists to love their brand, but with that loyalty comes a strong opposition to competitive brands. Examples include Mac users with strong dislike of Microsoft and PCs to such an extent that they feel threatened by the larger market segment. Saab users resent the comparison to Sweden's other car company, Volvo, and note that while Volvo may be as safe a car as Saab, Volvo also makes tractors while Saab also develops airplanes. This idea was reinforced on many Saab fan websites. Bronco fans did not assault any one SUV brand but generally chose to discredit the entire 4x4/SUV brands as a group.

Rituals and traditions were also noted in all three brands studied. The two ways this marker takes shape is in celebrating the history of the brand and telling brand stories. All three brands have colorful histories, with Saab's heritage in airplane design and manufacturing being touted quite a bit. All of the technological innovations of Apple and the fact that Bronco has been an off-road brand experience since 1965 were a part of many fan-created websites.

Interestingly, many brand stories may have gotten started from advertising or other marketing communication but this does not matter to brand loyalists. Not only do members of a brand community continue to tell their favorite brand stories, but the researchers witnessed other enthusiasts listening to stories they had already heard, adding the comments, "I really love that story" or "cool story" at the end of the brand storytelling. One interesting insight from the researchers was a fascination with older brand logos that may have been updated but with a reverence to the historical logo, too, even though it was no longer in use.

Moral responsibility is the third marker and strong brand communities have expectations of the brand and members of the brand community in terms of how they conduct themselves. Saab users told stories of stopping to help other Saab motorists who were in need. Some loyal Mac users actually felt betrayed by former Apple users who had moved to PCs, calling someone "a Mac turncoat." A Saab user referred to another Saab user who had left the fold by buying another brand of automobile as having "betrayed the brotherhood." An important aspect of moral responsibility is the recommendation of dealerships, parts suppliers and good sources for technical information other users might need.

One interesting insight from the researchers was a fascination with older brand logos.

Muniz and O'Guinn conclude their paper with an observation that "brand communities are largely imagined communities" that have become social gatherings around commercial ventures. While many critics of our free market system have argued that business commerce has destroyed much of traditional community, Muniz and O'Guinn observed three positive aspects to brand communities:
* Brand communities represent a form of consumer agency by nature of their ability to make brand users congregate.
* Brand communities offer a valuable way for important information to be exchanged by knowledgeable users.
* Brand communities offer social benefits to members in addition to voice and information.

How strong is your brand community? Do you recognize some of these markers? Add a comment here if you'd like.

Thanks for reading! More to come.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Toward the Brand Community (Chapter 1/4)

The subject of brand communities has been very popular in marketing literature over the last few years. The landmark academic white paper that initiated all this discussion was titled, "Brand Community" and first appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research. Albert Muniz, Jr. and Thomas O'Guinn authored that piece in 2001 and I think it may be one of the most important studies I have read in quite a while. Albert Muniz is assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University and Thomas O'Guinn is professor of advertising, business administration and sociology at University of Illinois. Numerous marketing writers have certainly written about the subject since then, but I thought readers might find it interesting to know more about the subject as it was discussed in that original white paper. I will be writing much more about brand communities in future posts.

Muniz and O'Guinn define a brand community as "a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand." In researching the paper, the authors studied three strong brand communities associated with Jeep, Macintosh computers, and Ford's Bronco SUV.

There are "markers" or essential characteristics of any community and brand communities are no different. They are: "consciousness of kind," rituals/traditions and moral responsibility. These markers must exist in any community, brand community or otherwise.

The most important of these is "consciousness of kind," according to Muniz/O'Guinn, with members feeling a strong connection to others in that particular brand community. Interestingly, the brand relationship is not dyadic (consumer to brand), but triangular (consumer to brand to consumer), forming strong human relationships around the commercial entity.

Rituals and traditions generally revolve around shared brand consumption experiences, according to Muniz/O'Guinn and serve to maintain the culture of the community. One common tradition of a brand community is the celebration of the history of the brand. Another is the sharing of brand stories with others members.

The third characteristic of the brand community is moral responsibility, defined here as "a sense of duty to the community as a whole and to individual members of the community." Moral responsibility achieves two functions for any brand community: integrating/retaining members and ensuring the proper use of the brand.

Another way of looking at these markers is from a time perspective: past, present, future. (This concept is not from the Muniz/O'Guinn paper but my own observation.) "Consciousness of kind" is a present perspective: "I am (here and now) with this group who feels the same way I do about this product or service." The rituals/traditions is obviously a past perspective: "There is a history to this product/service that I relate to and want to be a part of." The third marker, moral responsibility, is all about a future perspective. Responsibility, by definition, is concerned with what you should be doing in the future: "What must I be doing in the days to come if I am to be a responsible member of this community?"

Brand: Past/Present/Future

I will be writing a lot more about brand communities as we go forward. How to recognize or build them, what role the brand organization can play, how marketing can encourage a brand community to form. Most important, however, is to recognize that there is what Muniz and O'Guinn call a "social nature" to brands. And the stronger the particular brand community, the greater the likelihood that the value of the brand will be perceived as strong in its competitive marketplace.

Let me know what brand communities you belong to, why they are important to you and if you can relate to Muniz/O'Guinn's characteristics of brand communities.

Thanks for reading! More to come.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chapter 1/3

Another study by the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) Council in 2007-2008 titled, "Losing Loyalty: The Consumer Defection Dilemma," tracked 34 million shoppers and 685 grocery and pharmacy brands at 24,000 retail stores. The news is not good.

In that study, one third of those considered "brand loyal" actually switched to another brand during the study. About half that many again began switching to other brands from time to time, perhaps because of special promotions but, in any event, were no longer completely brand loyal. Combining these two groups, 52% of those thought to be loyal to the brand they were using at the beginning of the study had begun using another brand either exclusively or from time to time.

While this study was among consumer packaged goods brands, we see this trend in virtually every industry. And small business owners may want to think about their own customers as they interpret this secondary research and consider the implications for their own customer base.

Is customer loyalty dead? Not by a long shot. There are still plenty of businesses that have strong customer loyalty.

In fact, Bob Hill recently provided us with PeopleMetric's Annual Customer Engagement Study that named the ten companies that customers are most loyal to. Who are they?
1. Ritz-Carlton
2. Google
3. The Four Seasons
4. Netflix
5. Cartier
6. Armani
8. Wegman's Food Market
9. Coach
10. Costco

Now I have done business with seven of these companies and I can agree that my experiences with them would lay the foundation for loyalty on my part. But that is just one guy talking.

More importantly, Mr. Hill offers some insights into why people are loyal to these organizations/brands. What can small businesses learn from these organizations?

Mr. Hill observed that each of these organizations has something in common with all of the others and that, he maintains, is the crux of the brand loyalty that each of these companies experiences.

First, all ten of these companies treat their employees very well. These companies recognize employee contributions with bonuses and other incentives for those who go above and beyond the norm to demonstrate that they and their companies value customers' business. When employees feel valued, they will most assuredly pass that attitude on to their customers.

How valued do each of your employees feel? Well, that is about how valued some of your customers feel!

Second, when problems arise with either products or service, the companies resolve the issue immediately. There is not time for the customer to even wonder if they will be treated fairly. Or doubt their importance to the organization. Employees in these companies have authority to handle most issues to customers' satisfaction. As part of this, there is a strong "life-time value of the customer" philosophy operating to ensure that little problems do not become big problems for either the company or the customer. In addition, these companies are continually verifying that each encounter with the organization is a positive one for that customer.

How empowered are your employees to handle complex customer problems? If the problem has to go to the owner of the small business to be resolved, it has gone way to far in the customer's opinion.

When your employees feel valued, they will most assuredly pass that attitude on to your customers.

Don't for a second think that just because these organizations are large entities that their job is easier. No, in truth, the larger the organization, the harder it is to garner brand loyalty and customer satisfaction. With the addition of each new employee, any organization increases the risk of a bad customer experience. It is actually much more difficult to achieve the level of customer loyalty these larger companies have attained. Small businesses should find it much, much easier to build customer loyalty. But, do they?

Please post a comment to what you read. Thanks for checking in.

More to come!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chapter 1/2

Still need convincing?

In the September 2008 issue of Sales & Marketing Management, consultant Scott Hornstein further discussed this issue of American corporations' cataclysmic problem with customer service. Hornstein wanted to see what real, live customers thought about customer service so he sent out a survey to regular folks who deal with a variety of companies and their brands. Hornstein asked:

1. Of your current experiences, does customer service today meet your expectations? Please respond on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 1 being "absolutely not" to 10 being "deliriously yes")?

Average score: 3.7 (almost 20% of the responses were 1s)

2. How would you rate large corporations' commitment to customer service (on the same 1 to 10 scale)?

Average score: 3.0 (40% of the responses were 1s)

3. In general, what are your expectations of your initial customer service interaction? What do you expect will happen (with 1 being "absolutely nothing" and 10 being "thoroughly delighted")?

Average response: 4.6 (Ah, a glimmer of hope, on their part.)

4. How important is customer service to you when you make a decision to purchase from a company (with 1 being "no difference" and 10 being "nothing is more important")?

Average response: 7.8 (over 30% of the responses were 10s)

Now, Hornstein admits that his sample was not random and that some could fault his methodology. But is anyone surprised with the results? You don't doubt the projectable quality of Mr. Hornstein's findings, do you?

Businesses face a terrible crisis right now and it is far more serious than the economic recession in which we find ourselves. There is a huge recession of customer confidence in businesses' ability to meet their service needs.

Do your own research. Not on your company (yet), but on other brands in the marketplace. People are fed up and they will do anything (including constantly switching brands) not to have to take it anymore. What I hope you also take away from this is that whether you sell products or perform a service, we are all in the service business! In fact, many businesses complain that they find themselves selling commodities where price is the sales-determining factor when great customer service could distinguish them to such an extent as to take them out of a commodities market.

One small ray of hope for the small business owner is that customers seem slightly more dissatisfied with how large corporations deliver customer service than they do with businesses in general. Hey, its a start.

There is a huge recession of customer confidence in businesses' ability to meet their service needs.

As a small business owner, you must recognize that the chances are pretty good that your company may not be delivering stellar customer service, either. In fact, it is rather probable that your company is not, if you just play the odds here. But you can find out for sure and that is what we will talk about soon.

Before we do that, be thinking about all that money you spend in advertising that brings customers to your door only to be mistreated by your organization's customer care because the advertising told them one thing and their customer experience told them another. Talk about a disconnect.

Thanks for reading. More to come!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Chapter 1: The Road Less Traveled When Marketing The Small Business

What's Wrong with Business?

Just for a minute, forget you are a small business owner or business person and think about how satisfied or dissatisfied you are with the majority of companies that you do business with.

What are you coming up with? It is not that much to write home about, is it? And that is a problem for every one of those organizations. You just don't like them that much.

Now, some of the people who are reading this right now may be thinking of organizations that are operated by other readers of this same blog. Scary, huh? Someone is really thinking about why organizations like yours just don't make them feel valued.

Hornstein Associates, a marketing firm in Connecticut, conducts a survey each year and rates how companies respond to inquiries to their Customer Service departments. From the response rate by the organizations solicited, the results can give us some idea of how these businesses (and business in general) are responding to stated inquiries by customers who ask a question of them.
At your next cocktail party, solicit stories about bad customer service: everyone has a nightmare.

It works really simply. Hornstein Associates sends an inquiry to the Customer Service departments of some of the largest and most successful organizations in the world: Financial Times' "World's Most Respected Companies" and to Fortune's "Most Admired Companies" with a question about their customer service. The goal is to see whether the organizations will respond within a 24-hour period, the expectation of most consumers when they contact a company's customer service department. The question is "What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for emails addressed to customer service?" A simple question for an organization who makes customer service a true priority, right?

What Hornstein has found since 2002 is a shocking decline is customer service among organizations that most of the world thinks of as great organizations. The percentage of organizations that responded within a 24-hour period in 2002 was 63%. In 2003 it was 59% and in 2004, it plummeted to 37%. 2005 and 2006 rebounded somewhat and leveled at 42% for both years. Then in 2007, the number dropped to 33%. Last year, we hit an all-time low of 31%, just less than half of the response in 2002.

Is anyone surprised? I doubt it. We have become so accustomed to bad customer service that this sort of thing doesn't surprise us at all. In fact, at your next cocktail party, solicit stories about bad customer service: everyone has a nightmare.

So, what's to be done about how our organizations serve our customers? Something had better change, huh?

Thanks for reading. More to come.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Table of Contents (for Your Brand Reps eBook)


Chapter One ... The Road Less Traveled When Marketing The Small Business

Chapter Two ... The Vertical Relationship Channel

Chapter Three ... The Horizontal Relationship Channel

Chapter Four ... The Circular Relationship Channel

Chapter Five ... When It All Comes Together

Chapter Six ... Is That All It Takes?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Introduction (to the eBook)

Today marks my 29th year working as a marketing professional. I moved to New York on Sunday, June 1, 1980 and started work at NW Ayer the next day, June 2. It has been a fun 29 years, I’m happy to report. It has also been a very educational 29 years.

In truth, I have been a student of marketing and advertising a bit longer, having fallen in love with the advertising goddess in 1976 as a junior in the Grady College of Journalism/Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Three years later I was a graduate assistant in UGA's MBA program and became a small business consultant with UGA’s Small Business Development Center, at the time the largest small business development center in the country. I mention this because I have felt for many years that smaller businesses continue to struggle as they try to implement marketing strategies and tactics that were more appropriate for larger businesses. Many of those strategies and tactics just don’t work for small businesses.

Small businesses (those with less than 100 employees) have distinct advantages over many large businesses. Critically important is their ability to develop and manage their brand reputation much more easily than larger businesses can. But no one ever tells this to small businesses. Instead, almost every consultant or agency tells them that they must play by the rules that large, multi-national businesses pioneered and follow to this day. Not only is this inaccurate, but it is a major time and money waster for the small business. There are many strategies and tactics that small businesses can and should use to compete with their larger competitors that their larger competitors would have trouble emulating. And that is what a distinctive marketing strategy should be: a direction that not all can follow.

Small businesses have distinct advantages over many large businesses.

Read on, especially if you own a small business. This book will explore ideas that made large businesses successful, but also other strategies and tactics that larger businesses cannot implement because, frankly, they have just gotten too big to do certain things.

And that is good news for small businesses everywhere.

Thanks for reading. And, please comment on ideas that move you.

More to come.


June 2, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

What's Great About This Recession...

With all the doomsday talk these days, I thought I would offer a bit of contrary editorial for your reading and consideration.

What's good about this recession? This recession, more than others I have seen, is really cleaning house with businesses that did not make marketing and customer service a priority. Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that any company doing badly in this recession was poorly managed before the recession. What I am saying is that a key marketing strategy in any recession is customer retention. And customer retention can only happen if customers truly value the brand. If you go into a recession with your customers placing a high value on your brand, then when push comes to shove and those customers must decide how to spend their fewer dollars in uncertain times, there is a greater likelihood that they will continue to spend their money on your brand and you will retain them as customers.

Regardless of whether you are currently employed or not, you have an opportunity to watch how virtually every organization you may have been previously interested in working for is handling these challenging economic times. And, while almost every business has been hurt by this recession, there are some number of companies who are still doing well. Pay attention. Watch closely. Some are actually prospering, and a larger number are getting by, turning a profit and taking care of their customers and their employees during all this mess. Those companies should be the ones you want to work for when times are better or they start hiring. Don't be surprised if they are not hiring long before most companies are, too.

To illustrate my point, let me offer for your consideration a local business that I frequent and think is faring quite well when many others are not. The Pita House, located on Pleasantburg Drive in Greenville SC, is a family-run business that offers a variety of foods from the Middle East. It is managed by Ziad with the help of wife, Ikhlas, children, cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and friends. The place is always full. In fact, several weeks ago another customer surveyed the crowd that day and remarked, "There's no recession at the Pita House." Indeed, there is not.

Now, Ziad will tell you that he is blessed and he is. But he is also a great marketer because great customer service is one of the smartest forms of marketing and the Pita House makes great customer service a top priority. What can other brand-builders learn from Ziad for the future?

1. Be consistent in your quality. In my 500+ meals at the Pita House, I have never had a bad one. Neither have any of my take-out orders ever been inaccurately filled. Never.

2. Make loyal customers feel special. Many times, when I am in that restaurant eating with someone (rather than doing take out), Ziad has brought us a small dessert free-of-charge. This makes me feel appreciated but it also sends a message to my guest that I am a regular, someone special to Ziad and his family and perhaps they will be appreciated in such a way if they return.

3. Distinguish your brand in product and service. While there are a few other restaurants that offer similar cuisine, the Pita House distinguishes itself as much as a family business as it does with its cuisine. When I first went to the Pita House, I left a tip on the table, but John, another manager, followed me out that day and gave me my money back, telling me they were a "family restaurant," meaning that everyone was well-provided for without my tip. The fact that they had so much pride in their "family business" status to refuse the tip left an impression I did not forget.

4. Remember good customers' preferences. Many days I order the same meal because it is the cheapest on the menu. Most days when I walk in, they ask, "The usual?" and I nod my approval. Every now and again, I mix it up and they actually tease me when I do. It is another way they thank me for being loyal to them.

5. Don't let anything come between the brand and its customer relationships. Visit the Pita House tomorrow or in a month or in a year -- you will find the same people at the counter: Ziad, Ikhlas, John, and Manal. They do not vary who meets the customers and who services them. Pita House customers feel valued with the familiarity and that is another reason why they keep coming back. Familiarity doesn't really breed contempt, it breeds comfort. So many organizations change sales reps on their customers all the time. How valued does that make your customer feel? Or the company tries to use some form of technology to distance themselves from their customers. Not smart.

6. Consistently offer good value. The Pita House is by far not the cheapest lunch you can get in Greenville SC. In fact, most diners are paying between $6-8 to dine with Ziad and family. Why? Consistent product and service makes a strong restaurant brand and that is valued by today's consumers when so many others are inconsistent.

Now, I doubt Ziad will have a job for you now or after the recession is over. But others will be hiring and during these bleak times, take a good look around. Where are the great brands of this recession? Some companies are still prospering because they have created highly-valued brands. Those are the companies you will want to work for in the years ahead.

Great customer service is very smart marketing.

This recession will not be our last. In years to come, we will have others and the actions of organizations in this recession can tell you a lot about who you will want to work for in the next recession. Look for businesses and brands that don't just talk about how they value customers... look for the ones who are demonstrating it. Every day.

Thanks for reading.

More to come!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Process of Building Brand Loyalty

What does it really take to convert the Unbelieving to the Loyal? Isn't that what smart organizations are trying to do... if they take marketing seriously? 

Of course that is what they are trying to do! Even if we were not waist-deep in a recession, that should have been the motive all along. And, it may have taken this economic climate to convince some organizations that what they were doing before this wasn't working. Hey, wake-up calls hurt, but only fools don't answer the ring.

There are three parts of this brand conversion process: 
* Experience
* Acknowledgement
* Articulation

First, the person being converted must have a positive brand experience that is real. And by "real" I mean representative of the brand experience in most situations. The experience cannot be a best case scenario. It has got to be able to be replicated most times. That means that the organization must be organized and managed so that a quality brand experience happens far more than it does not happen. 

Second, the customer (or employee) must acknowledge the experience as a positive one. What I am talking about is a sincere acceptance of the experience by the one doing the experiencing. And that probably tells you a bit more about how positive that experience needs to be. 

Third, the convert must articulate what has happened. S/he needs to do this for themselves, first and then for your prospective or other current customers. The reason this needs to be done is that, many times, only when one can talk or write about a subject are they able to crystallize what the subject (and experience) really meant to them. Most times, consumers do this naturally. We love to talk about the brands we love! And, the more we talk about them, the more we love them. Just human nature. 
Hey, wake-up calls hurt, but only fools don't answer the ring.

Now, where traditional marketing still has a role is in providing the brand cues that help in that articulation of the experience. Today's smart consumer may use these cues differently than their parents did, but they still use them. There are too many consumers using brand descriptors straight out of advertising to deny this. BUT, the advertising must be far more relevant than marketers got away with 25 years ago. 

So, think about it. Make the brand experience real. So real that it is sincerely acknowledged by the customer. And help (via a variety of marketing communications) to provide assistance in how consumers articulate that brand experience.

It goes without saying (but I will say it) that this important process can and should happen with your own employees before you try it on your customers. Remember: Brand Representatives determine Brand Reputation! 

Thanks for checking in. 

More to come. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Advertising in a Swimsuit: What's right and what's wrong with the ADDY® Awards

(This article first appeared in GSA Business in 2002 and generated quite a bit of controversy. I thought readers might enjoy seeing it again.)

On February 15, the Greenville Advertising Club hosts its annual ADDY® Awards show at the Hyatt. If you have anything to do with advertising or marketing in your job, you’re probably going to this event. There are not many events that I attend in a year that are as much fun as ADDY Night.

The American Advertising Federation (AAF) co-sponsors the local contests with local advertising clubs throughout the country. According to the AAF, the ADDY Awards competition is "the industry's largest and most representative competition for creative excellence." Before you assume that I take advertising awards seriously, let me say that I don’t. With the exception of the Effie® Awards, a national competition that evaluates advertising on the basis of increased sales, I don't put much stock in creative contests or the awards they generate. If the evaluation isn't based on whether the work made the cash register ring, the award show is nothing more than a beauty contest. Advertising should produce sales. If that's not the primary criterion for any evaluation, why bother?

But that's not the point, says Laveda Miles, GAC President (and staunch defender of our creative brethren), "The ADDY competition is a creative contest. Can't we for one night let the folks who actually create the ads be judged and rewarded by their peers? After all, advertising is an art. The competition is not intended to be another Effies."

Jim Henderson used to say, "It's not creative unless it sells." And there are still a few of us who view the creative product as only a selling function of advertising. Any other way of looking at it is self-indulgent, irresponsible and wastes the client's money. Should there be a desire to evaluate ADDY submissions based on whether the creative was effective, we’d need another approach to the selection of the judges who evaluate the work. As it stands now, ADDY judges almost always come exclusively from the advertising industry’s creative side of the business. Rarely are clients, marketing researchers, account planners or ad agency account executives added to the mix of ADDY judges. Yet each of these disciplines contributes to the development of advertising in the Real World.

Unfortunately, what the ADDY Awards suggest is that it's OK to evaluate ads solely on their “creativity,” as if creativity could have another goal other than selling products and services. This kind of thinking takes us down the path of applauding work that may be outrageous, clever, and entertaining, but not necessarily effective. The advertising community undermines its credibility with the business community as a whole with this “let’s pretend” approach to a serious business discipline. Sales effectiveness should be the only criteria by which we evaluate each advertisement in the ADDYs and in our daily jobs.

So, what's good about ADDY Night? Everything else. It brings out virtually everyone associated with marketing and communications in the Upstate and western North Carolina. The few who don't show probably can't attend because of court-ordered curfews. But most will make it. They love the night as much as I do. They'll party hard and generate an enormous amount of good-natured competition for our industry. What most attendees don't know is that ADDY Night is the largest single revenue generator for the Greenville Advertising Club. I've seen the club operate in the red until ADDY Night, when a good turn-out pushes it back into the black.

It's important that the Greenville Ad Club not lose money. GAC sponsors two paid internships each summer for deserving college students. In addition, GAC adopts one non-profit organization each year for a pro bono ad campaign. A good ADDY Night pays for some of these important efforts.

There is another good thing about the ADDYs. It is a contest that allows underdogs to look as good as their larger rivals. Last year, Copia Design, a two-person design firm in Greenville, won 5 ADDYs and 3 Citations for their work, garnering more awards than many larger agencies. Susan Kines GAC ADDY Judging Chair, maintains "The ADDYs may be the only opportunity for a small agency to strut its stuff."

And strut they will. Attendees will be decked out, the awards will gleam and the egos soar. But let's not forget what Jim Henderson said. "It's not creative unless it sells."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Are the Four P's of Marketing Still Relevant?

David Meerman Scott is a business author I think has some wisdom to share. His book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, had some great ideas to make organizations more successful in their use of the Internet. I liked his book so much that I subscribe to his blog. One of his most recent blogs raised the question of whether the Four P's of marketing are still relevant and Mr. Scott does not think they are. I would like to offer a different point of view.

As students of marketing know, the four P's are product, price, place (of distribution) and promotion. Let's discuss each of them and draw our own conclusions as to their relevance. And, I think it important to acknowledge that each of the four P's is a strategic discussion in itself. Following that, I would like to introduce a fifth P for your consideration.

The Product (or service) any organization decides to market needs to be thought out significantly before introduction. What buyer needs will it meet to ensure success? How will it differ from competitive products already available? Will it be better or merely different? How will it be formulated or delivered to the market? Will it developed in-house or will the product be manufactured by someone else and then sold under another brand name? What will be the level of quality of this product? Acceptable or of the highest level possible? This is important because the pricing structure will be influenced by decisions about product or service quality. I can go on and on, but I hope I make the point that no one can market any product or service successfully without thinking about issues like this.

A pricing discussion must closely follow the product discussion. Product quality and features will dramatically impact the pricing model. An organization cannot introduce a superior product without it usually impacting their pricing substantially. They must decide what the market can bear from a pricing standpoint and make their product decisions based on that. Or, make the pricing decision based on the product quality level they want to introduce. Either way, they must carefully consider the ramifications of both issues and their inter-relatedness.

The decision about Place (of distribution) is also a critical component of any marketing plan. Will the product only be available in a traditional bricks and mortar retail location or will it also be available via the Internet? Most consumer businesses now have a web component to their marketing and any marketer would have to give me a darn good reason why they did not want to market the product via the Internet before I advised against it. And even with the explosive growth of brands available on the Internet, we marketers still have to be thinking about a variety of distribution channels. But let's just think retail bricks and mortar for a moment. Will the product be available at only one location or several? Where would those locations be? Would network marketing also be utilized? Would the distribution of the product include wholesalers? More complex distribution channels? Somebody better be thinking about this stuff!

In their book, The Discipline Of Market Leaders, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema discuss three different value disciplines one of which every organization should adopt if they are to truly be successful. Those are 1) operational excellence, which usually leads to a low price strategy because the organization can produce the item for a lower cost; 2) a product leadership, which will offer a product that is superior to others in the marketplace; and 3) customer intimacy, which will deliver what specific customers want. While not exactly on target, the book closely mirrors the first three P's of the marketing mix.

Now to Promotion, the fourth P. I have never heard it discussed this way but I think it important to understand that Promotion is somewhat independent of the first three mix variables. What I mean by this is that Promotion, the fourth P, must promote the other three P's of marketing. And not just promote them, but every brand strategy should include a decision about which of the first three P's is most important. Thus, every strong brand will emphasize one of the P's more than any other (product superiority vs. price/value vs. availability/convenience) and all the fourth P (promotion) will do is promote that P to the greatest extent possible.
Promotion, the fourth P, must promote the other three P's of marketing.

To those who believe that because the Internet is now upon us, everything has changed with regard to marketing's four P's or even with just Promotion, take another look. Everything has not changed. A lot has changed, particularly in the area of marketing tactics, and we have a lot more opportunities (and challenges) with the Internet and other new media, especially in the area of promotion. But to say that everything has changed in marketing and that what any of us knew 10-15 years ago is of no value, throws the baby out with the bath water.

Before I let you go, one final point. I think there is a fifth P that should never be omitted in a discussion of the four P's of marketing. It is the most important P and I have never seen this P discussed with the other four P's. I maintain that the fifth P is the Prospect for the sale. We must always put that prospect in the center of this discussion. What does the prospect want from us? What is their need that we are trying to fill?

If we can keep the Prospect in mind, in the center of this intellectual debate (and in our marketing planning), we will ensure that our decisions regarding the other four P's have the best chance of being successful.

Thanks for reading. More to come.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Long-term View of Marketing Wisdom

I read a lot of books about marketing. My bookcase is full of them. And I have learned quite a bit from those who wrote those books. (My theory is that authors of marketing books have one really good book in them and, after that, they just re-hash that theory over and over.)

What bothers me about many books on business/marketing (especially more recent ones) is that to sell that book or at least to create greater awareness of it, the author had to bash all marketing approaches that preceeded their book. Most of us who have been in marketing for a decade or two have seen different philosophies come and go with respect to how to sell things.

My "marketing hero" was Rosser Reeves, who brought the advertising world the Unique Selling Proposition in his landmark book, Reality In Advertising. Rosser's philosophy of sticking to one relevant point and hammering away at it with as much TV as you could buy sold a lot of products. Smart marketers still think about Rosser's lessons when they review advertising.

However, in his day, Rosser debated relentlessly with his friend David Ogilvy and with Bill Bernbach, who founded Doyle Dane Bernbach and ushered in the creative revolution. The truth is, all of them had valid points about how to sell things and their philosophies, when implemented, sold a lot of products for a lot of companies. They all worked, to some extent, depending on market conditions.

Were any of these three thought leaders correct in every way vs. what their competitors believed? Of course not. Each had some wisdom and tried to apply it as best they could to create sales for their clients.

What is happening today is that virtually every book you read is trying to tell you that everything you ever learned about marketing is irrelevant in 2009. We all (ought to) know this is simply not true. They want you to think that their approach is the new (and only) way you are going to sell anything to anybody.

A lot of brand-building happens before the first word is spoken about the brand.

I am certainly not saying that there is nothing new under the sun. For sure there is. Consumers have a voice now that they never had. Smart organizations can listen to them much more inexpensively than they ever did in the past. And they can communicate back with with those consumers when consumers are not happy with their brands. And they better.

What are our clients to do? Should they be doing "experience marketing" or "word-of-mouth marketing" or building "brand communities" or what? The truth is, they need to be doing it all. Or at least most of it. Because most of it will work.

However, they also may want to think about continuing some of the other, more traditional brand-building tactics that worked for them in the past. If they don't know what worked and what did not, they need to find ways to determine that. New technologies have made it amazingly simple and inexpensive to measure customer attitudes about brands. No one really knows how we form our brand preferences. We sometimes think we do but those are secrets that marketers will not uncover for a long, long time.

So much of what is written these days has to do with reach tactics. But clients need to think first about why their brand is relevant to their customers. A lot of brand-building happens before the first word is spoken about the brand. There is so much up-front work to do if the customer is going to find satisfaction with the brand. And satisfaction is paramount.

So, go ahead and buy those marketing books and I will, too. There is wisdom in them. Combine that wisdom with what you aready know to be effective. The goal should be to add to that snowball of marketng wisdom that you have been rolling along for years.

Thanks for reading. More to come.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dismantling Critical Infrastructure

I recently heard the CEO of a marketing communications firm talk about the advantages to organizations of maintaining marketing budgets in the face of this economic crisis. While I agree with him philosophically, I think the issue is broader than just maintaining a marketing budget during these tough times.

What I am witnessing almost daily is the dismantling of critical operational infrastructure of many organizations. And, as these organizations know, the building of that infrastructure was not easy. It took time to design the processes that were needed and to build an infrastructure to support that process. Then, they had to hire all those people and ensure they were trained adequately to support the process. THAT was a lot of work!

Now, organization after organization seems willing to throw out that infrastructure for the sake of what? Profits? Or real survival? I think this is a key question every "for profit" CEO and their board of directors need to think about. If it is actually the survival of the organization, I support those decisions. But I am not so sure that is always the case. There is increasing pressure on every publicly-traded company to deliver profits every year. And, most senior-level executives will admit that sometimes future opportunities are sacrificed for present profit. Even when those future profits might have far greater potential than the current market situation might offer. That is a reality of our "give it to me NOW" society.

In addition, I fear that businesses may be reacting like some of the journalists I have been listening to and giving in to a panic that only makes our situation worse. These challenging times call for courageous leadership from CEOs (and their boards) everywhere.

During the last recession, I owned a small consulting practice, which I sold in 2005. Near the end of 2002, I realized that I needed to revise my goals for that year and the near future ... that the ambitions I had entered the year with were not going to be realized. The insight I had at that time was that I needed to do whatever I could to make sure that my company made it through to the other side as unscathed as possible, regardless of what my personal lifestyle (that came from salary from the business) became in the interim. I knew that my company needed to be ready for that inevitable recovery when it did come.

What I am witnessing almost daily is the dismantling of critical infrastructure of many organizations.

Interestingly, I had witnessed three competitors close their doors and I did not want that to happen my business. So, I made the changes that allowed me to survive those difficult 18 months so that I could rise with the tide that came in 2004. And rise it did and my company did. But in those dark times, I made a decision that I would take very little income (and minimize my debt) so that I did not harm its ability to compete when things began to turn around. In essence, I sacrificed current profits for future profits.

As I look at these times, I cannot help but wonder if some organizations would not be better off if the shareholders made a decision to forgo profits in 2009-2010 for the sake of maintaining as much infrastructure as possible. To be sure, some cuts most likely have to be made. But there is also a sound argument for maintaining as many people, particularly in critical customer service areas, as possible. Every business owner will have to make this call themselves as they consider goals beyond our current economic conditions.

Thanks for reading. More to come.

[Photo used under the Creative Commons License courtesy of Flickr.]

Monday, January 19, 2009

Brand Relationship Channels (sm)

In tough economic times, it is even more important that organizations solidify their brand reputations with their publics. They just can't afford to lose a sale because of a tarnish to their reputation.

There are three key relationship channels that every organization needs to think about. Usually, they only think about one of these. The one they think about is the company's relationship with their customers. Actually, this is only half correct. The real relationship channel they need to develop and ensure it is managed well is the relationship between their employees (teams) and their customers.

But there are two other, equally important relationship channels that organizations should develop and manage. The first is the relationship management has with their employees (teams) that ensures the brand is understood and represented professionally. I call this the Vertical or "top-down" channel, but it is as much bottom-up as it is top-down.

In tough economic times, it is even more important that organizations solidify their brand reputations with their publics.
The second relationship channel is what I alluded to above: the relationship between employees and customers. The reason this is so important is that most organization CEOs and management don't have the time to spend with their customers so they better have confidence is what their employees are doing with them ... that relationship better be solid. I call this the Horizontal or "down and out" relationship.

The third relationship channel is Circular and I call it "out and around." This is the relationship between current customers and prospective customers. These prospective customers may be their friends, families, colleagues, etc. Or, they may not even know them. But current customers can still be a huge influence on prospective customers if this relationship channel is developed and managed well.

The crux of all this is that human beings are the most authentic representation of any brand. People who truly understand the brand and are committed to representing it well could be a powerful brand-building resource in an organization's marketing mix.

Maybe the most powerful resource in their entire arsenal.

Thanks for reading. More to come.

[Photo used under the Creative Commons License courtesy of Flickr.]

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The LIFE(sm) Approach to Brand-Building

Several years ago, I was helping some University of Georgia college students with job-hunting and I told them about a customer contact philosophy I use that has the acronym, LIFE(sm). Before I tell you what LIFE stands for, I want to discuss brand messages and a way to approach what organization say about themselves.

More than anything else, an organization must achieve a level of trust from those who will do business with them. According to Stephen Covey, trust is a function of two dynamics: competence (how well you do your job), and character (your integrity). I think there is a third component and I call that commitment (how much you care about your customers' issues). These three form the basis of trust and determine how much organizations are trusted by their customers. There are many ways to build trust among customers but each must be grounded with a genuine effort. Sadly, many organizations continue to market their brands without the authenticity that is always present in great brands.

Perhaps not as important as trust but also critical to success is defining the relevance a brand has in solving the problems its customers have. Great brands continue to be relevant in the lives of those who use them. Staying close to your customers' needs via quantitative and qualitative marketing research can help companies keep their brands relevant to their user base.
Sadly, many organizations continue to market their brands without the authenticity that is always present in great brands.
Once a company has crafted a message that is both relevant and genuine, the question becomes "how"that message is conveyed to the target. By "how" I mean in what ways and how often are customers reached.

Every time a prospective customer or current customer comes in contact with a brand, I call this an "encounter." This can be a call from a salesperson, a drive by the store, a call into the company's customer service office or actual use of the brand. Every one of these is an encounter and there are hundreds of other ways that customers and prospective customers have encounters with brands. Some of these encounters are controlled (outbound) and others are not as controllable. The trick is to control as many of these as possible and, if your brand is genuine in every way, your chances of having positive encounters between your customers and your brand are good.

Just looking at those encounters that you control, the LIFE approach says that you will need a frequent number of encounters to build a memorable reputation for your brand. As a point of reference, pharmaceutical companies tell their reps that they will need to call on physicians 9-11 times before the doctor writes the first prescription for the drug they are selling. Wow! An average of ten sales calls before the first prescription is written. Does that tell you something about the power of perseverance and the importance of frequency?

Now, if you need that level of frequency of sales contact to build a brand, then it stands to reason that those frequent encounters need to be of a low intensity, or you will turn off the prospective customer. Said another way, if you are going to be "in their face," you damn well need to be nice about it. Thus, your authentic and relevant messages need to be presented in Low-Intensity Frequent Encounters (LIFE) to prospective customers. While I generally have given this advice to those marketing professional and business services, in the age of the empowered consumer, the rule applies to about every industry.

In future posts, I will discuss this concept as it relates to brand-building via your own employees and customers. Thanks for reading. More to come.

[Photo used under the Creative Commons License courtesy of Flickr.]