Wednesday, May 31

Creating A Class For Everyone

One might think it would be easy, but they'd be wrong. Creating a skills-oriented university class from scratch can be a challenging exercise, maybe more so than applying communication practices on a daily basis and certainly more so than developing a program or workshop for working communication professionals.

The program, which I was recently asked to develop for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), is a skills-oriented class with an emphasis on improving written communication for writers, office managers, business professionals, and anyone who wants to enhance the clarity, consistency, and usage of personal or business correspondence. In sum, it's a class on how to be a better editor.

The most immediate challenge is in catering to a broad audience. Editing classes tend to attract a diverse group, ranging from people interested in self-editing manuscripts and essays to office managers and working communication professionals. One of the objectives in developing the class is to teach enough basic information to benefit everyone without spending too much time on subject matter that a portion of the participants already know. How much of a 4-hour class really needs to focus on basic English, defining nouns, pronouns, etc.? Do I really want to diagram sentences? Will fiction writers balk at AP Style?

The second challenge is in self-evaluation, an attempt to determine just what personal experience has made matter of fact to me but what might not be so matter of fact to other people. Sometimes it is challenging to educate people on the merits of AP Style, especially simple rules such as when to capitalize the title of the position and when not to. It's something I've learned to do without thinking much about the reasoning behind the rule.

In the end, with some input from Michelle Baker at UNLV Educational Outreach, I think we have the makings of a solid half-day fall program that focuses on editing essentials such as language skills, mechanics of style, and the importance of correct spelling and punctuation. Of course, the true measure of success will be derived, in part, from student evaluations.

Thursday, May 11

Meeting Matsuri Objectives

Just a few weeks before Matsuri, the number one show in Japan, would perform a limited engagement at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, we received a call from veteran show promoter and marketing director Jim Hoke. He needed public relations support and needed it fast.

Given the timing of the show, less than four weeks away, we quickly established two primary objectives that would drive Matsuri's media relations efforts: to create a consistent message that maximized earned media exposure in the local and national market (in order to reinforce the caliber of the show and increase ticket sales). And, to generate enough excitement about the show that a comparable or better venue would offer it an indefinite or long-term home in Las Vegas at the discretion of the producers.

To accomplish these objectives, we began by evaluating all existing communication material and then developed backgrounders, show descriptions, and a news release for the show's opening, knowing that some publications require up to four weeks prior to press time. The turn time was less than 48 hours.

After the initial rush, we shifted gears to build a low-cost, but effective media kit that included: a cast listing, fact sheet, show listing, photo call sheet, and supporting releases. One focused on two world cup winners in the show; another featured its uniqueness as the the first musical production to have ever originated in Japan.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, we spend ample time considering the contrast between one product and another. Let's face it. There are hundreds of shows in Las Vegas so patrons needed a good reason to go to this one, an afternoon show with ticket prices starting at around $60.

Overall, we concluded that the combination of extreme sports and the glimpse into Japanese culture was the best draw for American audiences. (The opposite holds true in Japan; they prefer American undertones). The results speak for themselves. The show quickly dominated the media, including Google searches, and became the city's best attended afternoon production, with an overall attendance average that outpaced any expectations.

While I won't share the entire media strategy, I will say that our solution proved two things: you don't need a huge budget or several months to develop an effective communication/media relations plan. At the end of the day, if you have a good product, all you really need is a solid message, sound strategy, and some media savvy.

In fact, the communication strategy we implemented achieved another goal. Matsuri will be back in Las Vegas this fall. It seems one major property has already anted up at least one offer.

We hope the fine folks at Matsuri take it. Our company enjoyed working with a Japanese-owned company. While it's not our first time (we've also worked with companies like Konami), it's always a good time.

Monday, May 8

Forecasting The Future

rPerhaps it is because I tuned into the show American Inventor, but I find myself wondering if business owners are forgetting that focus groups and customer surveys, while helpful, are not meant to be mini-product development sessions. Watching this show, you might think otherwise as the contestants, ordinary people with good ideas, strain under the advice of focus groups that, in some cases, aren't even representative of the right target audience.

Case in point: one inventor was shocked to hear that a car seat capable of saving a child's life was not aesthetically pleasing enough to purchase. While the inventor couldn't believe his ears, I couldn't believe my eyes. This focus group participant was obviously single and without kids. Of course, from there, the product became fair game and every participant suddenly had two cents despite a lack of common sense.

Come on. Surely if you asked a focus group, let's say, whether they would buy water in a glass bottle for 4 times the amount of other bottled water, they would have laughed in your face. Yet, Perrier stands up as one of the best marketing success stories of all times.

So why does this happen? Simple. Evidence has always suggested that focus group participants lie. As Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman wrote in his book "How Customers Think:" The correlation between stated intent and actual behavior is usually low and negative. In fact, 80 percent of new products or services fail within six months when they've been vetted through focus groups. Hollywood films and TV pilots--virtually all of which are screened by focus groups--routinely fail in the marketplace.

First of all, they're usually volunteers, people predisposed to participate (not so ordinary consumers). Second, in a focus group setting, they are influenced by others around them. It only takes one seemingly confident person to sway the group. Third, they are often motivated to participate for reasons other than offering 'honest' opinions. Fourth, they are usually asked to make snap judgments. And fifth, most focus groups are not subjected to months of behavior-changing communication.

Right. Perrier was successful not because it had the best water, but because it entered the market at a time when consumers were status conscious and said: hey, this water is for people with status, thus the French name. Cool, eh? Cool enough that as the consumers changed their behavior (largely because of other great marketing strategies), Perrier can now be purchased in a plastic water bottle.

Don't get me wrong. Focus groups can be a useful tool. But, at the end of the day, they are only one tool among many. Not to mention, once all the data is gathered, assuming there was no bias to begin with, it needs to be sorted, qualified, and applied properly.

Polls are no different. As Joe Klein wrote for Time magazine a couple of years ago: The vast majority of Americans--as many as 90 percent, pollsters told him privately--refuse to answer questions when the wizard calls (although the number is marginally better this hot election year); people who use cell phones exclusively, mostly younger voters, are unreachable; and wizards frequently 'correct' for these things, by "weighting" their polls.

Wow! Does that mean polling is less scientific and more speculative than ever? Maybe a poll will would provide the answer. And if not, a focus group could do the trick. Ahem.

Thursday, May 4

Seeing A Successful Future

We recently provided public relations support and writing services for a two-month run of Matsuri, which is also the number one production show in Japan.

The show, which featured world-ranked professional athletes and Olympic medalists, combined athletics, extreme sports, dance, and Japanese tradition. While in Las Vegas, it scored a long list of positive local and national reviews. Not bad, considering we never had an opportunity to see the show prior to the public relations launch.

Sometimes our job is like that. In a city like Las Vegas, the vision of what's to come is all you can hope to communicate. We've worked on countless communication projects for shows, events, companies, and others over the years, ranging from The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain to New York - New York Hotel & Casino to Konami's entrance in the United States.

Next up is something I'm really looking forward to: The inaugural Concours d'Elegance Las Vegas.

Concours d’Elegance Las Vegas, an upscale auto show for legacy and select classic automobiles, will be held in Las Vegas, Oct. 20-22. It's already creating a preliminary buzz in the auto world after recently securing George Barris as honorary chairman. Barris, if you don't know, is the best-known designer of custom cars in the world.

In addition to creating thousands of custom cars, Barris’ work has appeared in custom magazines, books, television programs, and motion pictures since the 1950's. Much of his work has become an integral part of American culture, including the original Batmobile and latest James Bond car. Recently, he appeared on ABC TV's popular show ''Extreme Makeover.''

Beyond the Barris connection, we've been thrilled to work with Concours development veteran Elaine Sherer and retired Saatchi & Saatchi designer Don Lais. Both are great to work with -- Elaine because she immediately saw the value of implementing our core message strategy and Don because he has an uncanny ability to grasp a visual concept and bring it to reality.

The end result is an event that is already shaping up to be a huge success with more than 100 mint condition legacy automobiles featured, along with a special venue for classic cars, an automotive art show, live music, and gourmet food vendors. Ultimately, Las Vegas will become the most visiable and successful Concours location in the world with more accommodations, world class dining, fashion, golf, and entertainment than any previous Concours venue.

If you'd like to see the communication and news of this event unfold, visit . Right now there is a place holder for the Website, but we're expecting Don to resolve a nav bar issue soon so the rest of the site and event information will follow. In short, if you love automobiles, we'll be seeing you in Las Vegas this October.

Monday, May 1

Freezing A Crisis With A Frosty


That was my conclusion after reading about a marketing study, "Is That a Finger in My Chili?", as highlighted in a Las Vegas Sun article. Maybe the study's solution would have worked. Maybe not.

While Kathryn A. Braun-LaTour and her husband, Michael LaTour, are right on several points--giving away free Frosty milkshakes was a mistake, addressing a problem is a must when facing a crisis, and that emotional advertising can be extremely effective--the study reaches too far in suggesting that the best way to handle a crisis is to appeal to positive memories of that company.

The Wendy's case was much more complex as a study in crisis communication. First and foremost, the company was already suffering from an eroding market share, limited target audience (older baby boomers), and McDonald's ability to break into the chicken sandwich and entree-sized salad portion of the quick service market. That said, the finger incident, planted or not, was similar to pouring salt on an open wound. Second, the incident created an immediate negative and emotionally-charged impression (Wendy's=finger), not necessarily of the brand, but certainly an unappetizing image.

To their credit, the Wendy's team did a lot of things right in terms of crisis communication. Of course, the one thing they did wrong, to offer free Frosty milkshakes as an offering attached, unfortunately, to the one image they needed to erase from our short-term memories, had the most impact. The broadcast media play--complete with the finger image and Wendy's brand--outpaced their paid advertising and reinforced the unappetizing image all over again. Not to mention, a Frosty milkshake has a very limited appeal in that not many people appreciate a milkshake you have to eat with a spoon.

If the Wendy's team wanted to reward loyal customers for sticking by them during a crisis that was proven not to be their fault, an item with broader appeal and a better message may have helped. As it turned out, their message was nothing more than distress advertising, which generally produces mixed short-term results and few, if ever, long-term results.

Sure, the LaTours are right in suggesting that Wendy's needed to shift the focus from the finger incident to something positive. But false memories of a Wendy's that never existed? I don't think so. This is where I depart from their solution.

The study bases much of its claims around a survey filled out by university students, which are not representative of Wendy's traditional core audience. According to the story, the survey rated the students' emotional response to the Frosty ad vs. nostalgia advertising designed to appeal to their emotions. Not surprisingly, the students preferred the nostalgia advertising. It might also be worthwhile to point out that the test advertising had the benefit of being disassociated with the finger story in that the nostalgia advertising was not competing against daily news coverage of the incident at a 10-1 ratio. In short, given the same circumstances, the LaTours' ads would have been placed under similar scrutiny, with the public wondering if Wendy's was trying to make them forget recent events.

The bottom-line: the decision to appeal to a person's positive memories of that company during a crisis is a roll of the dice. It make work sometimes. It may not work other times. It depends on the specific circumstances of the event and the company. Sure, we all take comfort in believing communication formulas work miracles, but the reality is a sound communication process-not a formula-will guide you toward an effective resolution in a crisis communication situation.

So would the LaTours' ads have worked? Maybe, but I wouldn't have banked on it, especially if those ads contained images that never existed at Wendy's before. A better test of Wendy's ability to rebound in the face of changing times is just ahead.

Wendy's is working to broaden its audience by marketing to the 16-to-28 crowd. They finally have a clear marketing message, which they haven't had since Dave Thomas died in 2002. And, they're testing new Frescata deli-style sandwiches. Now that, my friends, is smart stuff. I look forward to seeing how it plays out for my former 'high-school job' employer.

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