Wednesday, June 24

The Most Powerful Brands Have Always Been Agile

Marketing and communication has a way of being reinvented over and over again, with each new and unapologetic rendition billed as a break from a seemingly blind and rigid tradition. Except they're nothing of the sort. Despite keeping things feeling fresh, most reinvention is historical revisitation.

Take some of the recent discussion revolving under brands, with the key concept being that a brand must be agile, adaptable, and seek out opportunity as opposed to a voice as personified by a logo. The argument makes sense, until you consider that the definition isn't accurate and the new idea not fresh.

The agile brand concept has been around about a century. 

Brand is not an identity, even if some marketers confuse it as such. Brand is (and has always been) the relationship between a product and its customer, as Phil Dusenberry, former chairman of BBDO Worldwide, once described it. And just like all relationships, they have to change with the times.

Oversimplified, this has always led organizations to make one of three choices. They can either adapt the relationship to meet the changing needs of aging customers; attempt to confine their relationship to a specific demographic, hopefully capture new customers to replace those who no longer identify with the product; or find new customers with whom they hope to define an entirely new relationship.

This is why (until recently) Revlon matured its brand (adapt), Nike rarely wavers in hitting the sweet spot between emerging athletes and professionals who know (demographic), and Volkswagen traded in its cool for mainstream (new relationships). It's also why RadioShack continues to struggle as a brand despite the buyout. The marketers on that team continue to mistake identity for brand, which consisted of a DIY crowd that the chain had long ignored and neglected. They want a second shot.

It also explains why entire markets can be disrupted like Zipcar, Uber, and Airbnb have done to the car rental, taxi cab, and hotel industries respectively. When organizations adopt an industry standard over a true brand relationship (e.g., airlines, fast food, grocery chains) then the customers will eventually begin to make purchasing decisions based on price or convenience instead of any relationship. Or, as in the case of the examples cited, look for someone to shake things up.

How to build an agile brand that keeps pace with change. 

The modern brand model isn't "modern" as much as it's a time-tested revisitation of a proven model. A successful brand fulfills its relationship with a customer based upon its ability to deliver on a brand promise that the customer values. As long as the organization delivers on that promise (and the customer values it), the relationship will be strong enough to weather any short-term challenges.

In addition, the organization has to be prepared for change: poised to change with the customers it has acquired or be prepared to let them go while acquiring news ones or being ready to reinvent its brand promise for a different kind of relationship with (possibly) different customers. And in every case, the value of a brand promise will almost always be based upon the organization's willingness to find contrasts between its products and services and the competition, giving customers a real choice.

And if some people don't like your contrast? No problem. Not everyone needs to be your customer as long as those who are your customers remain satisfied loyalists. They'll work hard to help you find like-minded customers — the single most valuable reward any organization can hope to earn.

Wednesday, June 17

Five Practices To Put Some Strategic Back Into Social PR

Public relations is in a self-selected state of change and the driving force is clearly social media. As many as 81 percent of communicators now believe that public relations can no longer operate without social media despite 64 percent considering it more superficial than traditional media. Wow.

Many professionals find those statistics frightening for two reasons. As social media consumes more and more of a public relations professional's day, the more those pros feel as superficial as their task work. And as more public relations professionals include social media as part of their primary practice because they must, more of them break away from the tenets of public relations in favor of measures that are much more akin to tactical marketing. Some, arguably, have become marketers.

While there is nothing wrong with that per se, the emphasis on tactical work has consequences. I've warned about several such problems many times before. But more than that, the way social media is being practiced tends to take public relations practitioners further way from strategic thinking, which was the quality that provided the profession real substance.

How can public relations channel strategic communication again?

1. Refocus On Relations. With all the pressure to increase impressions or go viral via social media, it's all too easy to forget the real stakeholders. By crafting communication with particular publics, special interests, or industry influences in mind, you can make deeper, longer lasting impressions.

Sometimes the best content isn't designed to generate leads as much as to deliver value to niches that have already expressed an interest in your products and services. If they appreciate it, there's a good chance they'll share their experience or your story— referring qualified leads to you anyway.

2. Stop Dialing Up Content. Sure, automation has its place across public relations and social media, but absenteeism can cannibalize your budget while eroding brand equity. Status quo, especially with an increased frequency or to mass media over niche, will eventually kill the communication program.

Stop setting a news release quota and select only the choicest news over the wire services and then repurpose the release for direct-to-public content with a twist for whatever audience has been assembled there. The same can be said for content marketing. Strive to elevate over educate.

3. News Wants Multimedia. Given the outpouring of studies that support the growing impact of visual communication, news releases need to do more than deliver words. Photos, videos, audio files, interactive graphics, graphs and illustrations are all worthwhile accompaniments for any release.

You don't have to include them all in your pitch or press release: A well-organized landing page or digital press kit makes everything easier, especially when it includes vertical photos for mobile. And what if the story you're selling doesn't merit multimedia? Then maybe it doesn't merit being shared.

4. Inspiration Beats Interruption. While people still consider the Oreo cookie blackout advertisement a classic case study, the novelty of news jacking and link bait is wearing thin. Simply put, the frequency of interruption — and distraction — has outpaced its real-time marketing merit.

Yes, there is still room to be timely on a topic. Successful advertising, marketing, and public relations campaigns have always been tapped into the current culture and current affairs. But with consumers growing wearisome of messages that follow them around (privacy pushback) and interrupt conversations in an attempt to change the subject (ad blocking pushback), it's time to think long term. Ensure those real-time marketing opportunities lend something to the conversation.

5. Be First For A Change. Years ago, I used to tell public relations students to not only know public relations inside and out, but also the industry or industries in which they work in as well. Doing so meets one of the criteria related to traditional public relations, which is to research trends within the industry and marketplace and determine what impact they may have on the organization and its publics.

Nowadays, I tell students that technology needs to be included in the research mix too because we're only a few years out from another disruption in communication. So instead of being reactive to things like social networks and search engines, public relations professions need to be proactive in determining how to apply cutting edge technology to their communication mix with an expressed intent to strengthen the relationships between their organization and those publics it needs to survive.

And if it doesn't? Then the bulk of the profession will eventually be absorbed by integrated marketing communication, with a handful of practitioners remaining to denote some specialty skills such as media relations, crisis communication, and public or government affairs. Who knows? Maybe that won't be such a bad thing. Or will it? I'll leave that one for you to decide.

Wednesday, June 10

How Future Communication Will Dictate Customer Experience

future communication
If you're looking for the next disruption in marketing, consider how technology is positioning communication as the primary driver in the customer experience. The change will be truly astounding.

Marketers can no longer be satisfied with the traditional five-stage buying process model: problem recognition, information research, alternative evaluation, purchase decision, and post purchase behavior. They must shift toward a model that is more robust, considering every consumer touch point prior to problem recognition and through the life of the product (and into the next purchase).

This is especially true as communication becomes an inescapable part of every product, with communication-centric technologies baked into them or as communication-based networks are developed around them. In some cases, communication is part of the product and customer experience, influencing the buying process every step of the way.

Five areas where communication is becoming critical to the customer experience.

Ferrari
1. Environmental Content. The performance sports car that emerged from its historic factory entrance in Maranello, 1947, has long been regarded for its innovation, passion, and diligence. In keeping with tradition, Ferrari showrooms have added augmented reality to the small screen, allowing patrons to match up digital content to the physical vehicle in front of them. Along with scan highlights, patrons can add features and change the colors on the screen with the swipe of few fingers.

Communication that integrates seamlessly with the environment becomes part of the experience.

Skully
2. Enchanted Items. Skully caught my attention some time ago when it unveiled its future concept to eliminate the motorcyclist's blind spot with a rear facing camera and change the experience with an interactive and transparent head's up display. This technology isn't built to distract drivers but rather eliminate distractions with an assist from augmented reality for GPS convenience and the safety of situational awareness.

Communication applications built into the helmet become an integral part of the product itself.

Tesco
3. Digital Storefronts. South Korea has created retail space out of thin air by installing display walls in its subways. The displays interact with mobile devices, allowing subway passengers to shop for groceries while waiting for their next connection. Once purchased with a point-and-click mobile app, the order is presumably delivered around the time the passenger arrives to whatever destination they preselect. Future applications could include interactive touch screens or the option to pick up any orders on the way home.

Digital content and communication is shifting toward truly functional customer experiences.


Corning
4. Portable Data. Originally envisioned by Corning, the world is not too far off from turning a wide variety of surfaces into digital interfaces that interact seamlessly with any mobile or portable data in design. If you can imagine an instructor or speaker presenting educational material on the big screen while participants capture the presentation on the small screen (and automatically receive e-handouts on cue), then you've only scratched the surface of what's possible and probable in the years ahead. The prospect opens up an entirely new canvas for graphic artists and communicators to consider.

Presentation displays and increasingly portable data will redefine what's possible for communication.

Microsoft
5. AR/VR. Microsoft, Sony and other companies are busily developing the next edition of what virtual reality and augmented reality might mean for gaming. Entertainment is only a starting point. Whether the experience is detached (virtual reality) or environmentally responsive (augmented reality), its applications will eventually grow exponentially into training programs, fitness instructors, and a variety of educational applications with virtual classrooms, holographic illusions, or immersive reenactments that provide people a perspective of what any time or place might be like.

Immersive and responsive communication will challenge professionals in unimaginable ways.

While these are just some of the ways that technology is working to change the interface, all of them represent the increasing impact communication will have on the customer experience. It will become an ever-present part of the environment and will sometimes be baked into the very functionality of the product.

But even without these advances and near future, communication is playing an ever increasing role in the customer experience. Every bit of content produced and shared by organizations today have positive and negative consequences to brand recognition and reputation. This includes customer service complaints that play out publicly online to the frequency of irrelevant interruption and value of the communication offered (as opposed to the value organizations sometimes think they offer).

And with this in mind, maybe it is time to stop thinking so much about a sales funnel but an experience  corridor that a company provides from its initial introduction though the life of the product and eventual replacement. After all, customer satisfaction, not sales, is a truer benchmark for longevity.

Wednesday, June 3

The Educational Ecosystem Plays A Role In Writing Challenges

Ever wonder why high school students struggle with college writing assignments and college students seem ill prepared for business writing as they enter the workforce? Me too, even if the answer turned out not to be much of a mystery. It's surprisingly simple.

Most people struggle with writing assignments during those transitional periods (between high school to college or college and careers) because they are neither prepared nor practiced for the style, form, and function they need to succeed. It's not their fault. Most are only taught how to write for one specific ecosystem.

In high school, this means sharing and supporting opinions, providing summations, and remixing content from a variety of sources. Most of it is in a short-format essay form, under five pages, sometimes conveyed in first person, and rarely seen anywhere beyond high school with the possible exception of personal blog posts.

College demands something different. Students are more often asked to define problems and propose solutions, conduct analysis and criticize arguments, and provide some evidence of original thought that is tied to quantitative and qualitative evidence. The papers they write are significantly longer.

After graduation, the specifications change again. There is greater pressure placed on writers in the workforce to write shorter format objective-oriented communication that considers industry standards, corporate filters, and greater sensitively to the needs of an audience — a consideration that is not always present in college papers. Even more challenging, for those who enter communication, recent graduates must navigate an entirely different set of organizational models, attention-grabbing introductions, and recapping conclusions that meet an objective and have a call to action.

Educational ecosystems play a role in undermining effective communication. 

Every year, I tell students who enroll in any editing or writing class I teach about the various pupfish that populate the least likely places in Nevada. One of them, the Devils Hole pupfish, for example, only lives in Devils Hole, a geothermal pool located within a limestone cavern.

It's the smallest population of desert pupfish species in the world and it is amazingly specialized to only live in this one location. As long as they are there (and there are no substantial environmental changes), they thrive. When they are removed, not surprisingly, they die.

When it comes to writing, students are very much like pupfish. We teach them to adapt to writing for  a specific educational ecosystem for four years and then marvel at their inability to conform to a new one. We don't do this one time. We do it twice or more, without ever revealing the process behind it.

If we did, then more students would be keener on the diversity of style, structure, and form while also adhering to the consistent application of editing rules and proofreading practices. By teaching students a variety of styles, structures, and formats, they will become better practiced in the presentation of the material and, in some cases, might have more fun doing it.

What do I mean by that? What if ...

1. History students had to write an infomercial on joining the Roman Empire?

2. The next report on Sylvia Plath was written in poetic form mirroring The Bell Jar?

3. Rather than an opinion essay, students wrote a short story conveying the opinion like a moral?

4. We skip the standard problem/solution paper in favor of a presentation deck that does the same?

5. Students chose two historic figures with differing viewpoints and compose dialogue between them in the form of a podcast?

My long-time friend and colleague Ike Pigott has a fondness for saying "good writing educates and great writing elevates." He's right, which is why it is so unfortunate that great writing is becoming so scarce that people don't even know to look for it anymore. They'd rather skip a sentence for the pic.

Or maybe not. Maybe writing is just like baseball in that it relies on youth sports. The more people who have had at least some play time are much more likely to appreciate it for a lifetime. I'd like to think so because pictures tend not to stick with us as much as words that ignite our imaginations.

It's one of the primary reasons that on Friday afternoon (June 12), I'll be investing a few hours to help students and working professionals brush up on some skill sets. Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a long-standing half-day program designed to help people understand the essentials of style, usage, punctuation, and other mechanics. Hope to see you.

Wednesday, May 27

What Could A Leaner P&G Teach Us About Marketing?

It's a new discussion that isn't new. Every few years, someone wants to break up Proctor & Gamble, which is the largest publicly traded personal products company in the world. With a market capitalization of $220 billion, it's also one of the largest companies in the United States.

Some of the reasoning is tied to sales. The company recently reported 3 percent growth in organic sales, but its CEO suggested that growth could have broken 4 percent if it had split off some brands. Specifically, the idea is to keep the top 70-80 products that generate about 90 percent of its sales.

About 23 of those top brands boast sales ranging from $1 billion to $10 billion, and 14 with sales of $500 million to $1 billion. All those would be kept, even if some stakeholders think the time might be right to break it up in bigger chunks rather than shed smaller assets like Duracell.

Some of the reasoning is psychological. Big companies rarely capture double digit growth rates. They are also prone to job cuts and restructuring, which can take a toll on employee morale. Most people see them as threatened by smaller and much more nimble competitors, especially those with a keenness for innovation — something P&G has tried to keep by developing a new model for R&D much like it did for marketing, which led the company to embrace digital at a deeper level.

How a leaner P&G could produce a better marketing model.

From a marketing perspective, breaking P&G into three or four big chunks doesn't make as much sense, especially after the company successfully retooled its marketing division to think more like brand managers and less like corporate number crunchers. The result has been mixed, with the lackluster launch of Tide Pods but the iconic #LikeAGirl campaign that people still talk about.


Perhaps all the company needs to do to reinvigorate growth is to even out those marketing efforts by reimagining a hybrid between its old and new models. Once the company successfully diverges some of its non-core brands, P&G could develop a brand partnership model that provides each brand manager more market insight, consumer data, negotiation power, and creative co-ops that cross over from one brand to the next. (e.g., #LikeAGirl might not be confined to a single brand.)

There are times where P&G succeeds in developing collaborative strategies. As an Olympic sponsor, the company successfully promoted several brands as part of one package. Its sentimental Thank You Mom campaign during the 2012 summer Olympics, for example, resulted in a $500 million sales boost and prompted an encore for the winter games. (The company was ready with 38 different YouTube commercials before the Olympics even started.)

Even better than the immediate return, any P&G converts will deliver a lifelong return for the company. It's this kind of forward thinking that continually leaves a positive impression. Now all the company has to do is start thinking beyond a singular event to bind its brands. Spontaneous crossovers could go a long way, especially for a company that reinvests more revenue into marketing.

Such a move by P&G could reinvigorate marketing. 

Much like the company already directs regions and media, P&G could be on the verge of a much more versatile marketing machine, one that is worthy of a case study. Such a program could be built with individual brand campaigns with the most successful providing crossover opportunities and uniting themes (combined with bigger buys) for the others. It would reinvigorate some marketing theory, even for small companies willing to partner with complementing and non-competing businesses.

Such a move would also quell the idea that P&G needs to be broken up into three or four big chunks, given the resilience of flexible marketing comes from a bigger network of brands (not a smaller one). Sometimes the brand could market itself (with shared research, etc.) but other times build off something another brand has built or reinforce each other's reach by sharing a proven theme.

What do you think? In an era when consumers appreciate smaller companies rather than the giants of the past, some people believe it is too late for any behemoths. Others disagree. They see some of today's giants rewriting the playbook while their pockets are still deep and revenues large. And with the company vested in innovation, such as 3-D bioprinting, no one really knows what could be next.

Wednesday, May 20

How Social Automation And Social Absenteeism Are Different

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of social automation. I generally advise clients to mostly avoid it, with "mostly" being the operative word. There are opportunities when social automation can be effective.

So why do I advise clients to mostly avoid it? Because the advice isn't meant to frighten them away from automation. It's to make them keep thinking so their automation doesn't turn into absenteeism.

How social absenteeism made social automation a dirty word. 

Social absenteeism can be defined by all signs Danny Brown listed it in his article about automation. He included bots that burp out content followers, communication shifts from conversation to broadcast, and a constant number crunching addiction that appeals to less social savvy companies.

In all three cases, it isn't automation as much as it's absenteeism, with all of it disrupting the value of social media. But let's be clear here. It doesn't disrupt it entirely. Social still drives more than 30 percent of web traffic, with Facebook dominating the top platforms, while search continues to slump.

Those numbers provide a proof of sorts. Search used to be the go-to answer for everything, even finding love as illustrated by this classic commercial about an American finding love in Paris.


While this spot is fun and clever, it doesn't always hold true anymore. Nowadays, people want to be told what to find as often or even more than they want to find something. In essences, we've seen a  social shift that makes search the go-to when you know what to ask and social the go-to if you don't.

The point was punctuated in a modernized version of Parisan Love. It features a man who is stuck someplace for a few days. Rather than sulk, he asks his social network friends what he should do. They offer up suggestions and he loads clips of his daily adventures drawn from their ideas. It's a clever commercial, proving that even accidental vacations are more fun with input from friends.

The spot represents the best of social media: interaction, engagement, inspiration, reciprocation, and reward. Social absenteeism, on the other hand, would have produced something else entirely because absent automation has no context for circumstance. It doesn't know where you are, what you need, or what you are doing. It's scripted regularity that points to the same products or people or places.

Unchecked, you can easily consider it a cousin to black hat SEO and email spam in that the objective of the communication isn't designed to help anyone except the broadcaster. It's their method of getting clicks, capturing followers, maintaining a presence, and executing content formulas. What's in it for the customer or consumer? Not too much. It favors a marketing agenda over customer experience.

Absenteeism doesn't require automations. Humans can be boring too.

There is a sandwich brand that asks its followers what sandwich they like (or some such variation of the question) every day. No matter what anyone says, the brand affirms they made the right choice. It's monotonous. Most people only follow the account for coupons. The rest they put up with to get them.

Most people would be surprised to find that the account is managed by a human, given that there is nothing human about the communication. It's shallow and empty, celebrating the brand not the fans.

It's not all that different from sending out blind pitches to journalists or sending out a discount on jeans just after the customer bought five pairs. Both examples are empty actions, contrary to some of the suggestions offered up by Brown. Content testing to improve communication, scheduling tests, action tracking, list culls and dead account purges are all smart automation tactics because they are all designed to enhance the customer experience and not detract from it. The difference is in the intent.

It isn't even confined to social media. Automation runs the risk of becoming absenteeism across all communication disciplines with content formulas, empty actions, and unjustifiable frequency. And in a world where the communication has become part of the product, for better or worse, you can't really afford to cheapen it by thinking the solution to every problem is an apple just because you sell them.
 

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