Showing posts with label Fragile Brand Theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fragile Brand Theory. Show all posts

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, August 29

Branding Threads: How People Connect To Brands

Author Geoff Livingston wrote a great thought piece on brand relationships that might make you think. He said customers don't care about our online brand conversations. And mostly, he is right.

Why should they? Most brand conversations are being developed for the brand, not the customer. Many brand conversations, including offline word of mouth, don't happen with the brand as a participant anyway. And brand trust needs considerable reinforcement from peers to be believed. 

His point isn't to dismiss online engagement, conversation, and activity outright. It's merely a means to remind brand managers and marketers that short-sighted social media without integration won't do much to enhance the brand relationship outside of a few online loyalists, assuming the brand has any.

What struck me as especially savvy about his piece was how much more thought needs to go into how businesses approach social media (especially if a company keeps its social media efforts isolated from the broader spectrum of marketing, advertising, and public relations). It made me wonder who really owns the customer relationship? It's not always the brand. 

How branding threads are created and who owns the relationship. 

I have an appointment this week with my dentist. About a month ago, the practice called me to reschedule my appointment because my hygienist no longer works there. I was surprised to learn it. 

I was surprised because this hygienist and I had formed a relationship. We were partners on a project; the project is my teeth and gums. But this week, she won't be the person working on the project.

Of course, this relationship didn't always exist. When I first chose this practice, I did it because I wanted the best practice available to replace a practice that had broken its brand promise (and our relationship) after 20 years.

The decision to try the new practice was made based on its communication (which is how I found them) and reputation (online and offline recommendations, reviews, and news). All of it constituted a brand promise, even statements or opinions that might not have been their own.

The practice has exceeded the brand promise over the years, including one surgery. I trust the doctor implicitly. So why is there some trepidation about the upcoming visit? Easy.

My routine visits were scheduled on Fridays and the doctor didn't work on Fridays, the brand relationship was left to migrate from the practice (and doctor) to my most engaged point of contact — the hygienist. She earned it. 

None of it was intentional. Like many good employees, she created multiple threads to strengthen the connection whereas the practice (like most brands) maintained a singular connection (the ability to deliver on its brand promise). After three years, she knew me and I knew her. Beyond a casual interest in our respective families, the real deal was that she understood my project goals and could meet them.

There are finite possibilities to strengthen a one-thread connection. 

The point is simple enough, much like I commented on Livingston's original piece. There are finite brand possibilities associated with transaction-based connections. If you want to strengthen a relationship between a customer and a brand, then more threads need to be established beyond the transaction. 

If you don't, then the relationship could become diluted or migrate as more weight is given to other relationships — like a hygienist or perhaps other customers or maybe a news report and public outcry. Sure, those things could jeopardize the strongest brand relationship too, but maybe not to the same extent if the brand relationship is reinforced from multiple communication streams and third parties.

In other words, engagement can work but that assumes it is the right kind of engagement. If it only consists of a direct response message, then the relationship isn't strengthened. And, like many online connections are made and reinforced, those relationships can migrate to the individual making them if there is no other point of contact. Interesting stuff, these fragile brands.

Wednesday, May 23

Humanizing Business: Brand Research, Part 2 of 3

The Relational Capital Group (RCG) published some compelling brand research across seven different white papers in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. As a continuation of our RCG research review, which began with Four Brand Dynamics Every Marketer Ought To Know, we look to the extension published by Deborah MacInnis.

While the original research concludes that consumers judge and interact with brands in much the same way they do with other people and social groups, it also suggests that brands which exhibit warmth and competence have an easier time establishing trust and long-term loyalty. MacInnis questions that conclusion, recognizing that relationships to people and objects are much more complex than that.

In fact, she suggests that warmth and competence are not necessarily traits for brands to exhibit as much as they might be outcomes related to the people involved in the relationship. In other words, when consumers trust a brand, they may judge the brand to be competent (trusted to do the job) and warm (trusted to have my best interest at heart) whether the brand exhibits those traits or not.

Three Critical Questions To Ask About Brand Relationships.

How Impacting Are Relationship Types? MacInnis suggests that if consumers do develop relationships with brands like they do with people, then the varied degrees of relationships might apply. For example, some brands might secure a committed partnership (best friends) while others might be emotionally intense but short lived, like a fling.

If this is true, marketers might consider the true psychological weight of social media, which tends to create more intense but superficial relationships en masse than committed relationships. In fact, many online connections are causal in that people who are already committed to brands seek out online relationships with those brands. They also require significant affirmation that the brand can live up to the relationship that they have come to expect offline.

Are There Consequences In Relationships? In practical terms, communication professionals generally believe that brands which are more trusted, competent, and warm are more likely to survive a crisis than brands that are perceived as cold or less competent. But MacInnis suggests that this might not be the case. She surmises that  the more committed a consumer is to a brand, the greater the impact any infraction might cause.

This idea correlates well with our Fragile Brand Theory, which suggests that the further brand perception drifts from brand reality, the greater the eventual crash. Where warmth and competence might help facilitate forgiveness are likely confined to one-time innocent mistakes. BP provides an excellent case study in this area, given the company had established a trusted position as leading the way in green energy, which one careless accident quickly undermined and angered people.

Does Everyone Become Attached The Same Way? There has been other research conducted on how people interact with and attach to objects that might be relevant here. From those studies, researchers have noted that there are additional relationship influencers, such as the degree of relationship anxiety people have or the degree of relationship avoidance they may have.

In such cases, some might require reassurance of the relationship status while others might avoid such attachment all together. The reason this is significant is that it demonstrates how warmth and competence might appeal more heavily toward one personality type than another. "Specifically, whereas brand warmth may be critical to individuals whose attachment styles are characterized by high anxiety, it may actually be a relationship deterrent to those whose attachment styles are characterized by high avoidance," MacInnis wrote.

The takeaway here for marketers is that even if evidence suggests that brand relationships occur much like individual or group relationships, it doesn't mean that marketing will be even easier. If anything, the conscientious marketer will recognize that brand relationships are as challenging to maintain as any relationship.

From our perspective, the relationship does not always occur by a brand's ability to exhibit certain admirable traits, but rather its ability to do what it says it is going to do. Ergo, one would assume that if warmth and competence are always the advantage, then an airline like Spirit Airlines could not exist. Instead, what we learn is that Spirit Airlines sets an exceptionally cold expectation (in potentially charging people for bathroom usage) but consumers accept it because the company is up front about it.

To learn more about the papers and abstracts released to the study by RCG, visit their page dedicated to the research. The company specializes in the principles, process and science of lasting, mutually-beneficial business relationships. This study is groundbreaking in its ability to tie scientific data to long-standing theories within the fields of advertising, communication, and marketing.

Monday, May 21

Humanizing Business: Brand Research, Part 1 of 3

The Relational Capital Group (RCG) published some compelling brand research across seven different white papers in the April 2012 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. It was conducted in collaboration with social psychologists at Princeton University and University of Louvain.

The overall conclusion suggests evidence that consumers judge and interact with brands in much the same way they do with other people and social groups. As a result, brands that exhibit warmth and competence have a greater ability to establish trustworthiness and long-term loyalty.

"It turns out that recent efforts by brands and companies to digitize, automate and outsource their interactions with consumers are fundamentally at odds with the way humans perceive, judge and build loyalty to brands," said Chris Malone, co-author of the lead research paper and chief advisory officer of the Relational Capital Group. "As a result, consumers are more cynical, distrustful and disloyal toward large brands and companies than ever before." 

After studying the seven interrelated abstracts, I thought it might be useful to explore and highlight several of them this week in three parts, with the first abstract highlighted [Journal of Consumer Psychology 22 (2012), 186-190] written by Kevin Lane Keller, professor of marketing, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College. From the Keller abstract, marketers can extract four brand dynamics.

Four Brand Dynamics Every Marketer Ought To Know.

Brand Knowledge. It is broadly defined as all the attributes, benefits, images, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and experiences that become associated with a brand or, in other words, represents the collective exposure someone might have to a brand. As my firm has said before, it can be generally defined as the net sum of all positive and negative experiences as they are tied to brand equity.

Brand Functionality. One of the standout observations in Keller's paper notes that while some brands attempt to appeal to consumers by focusing on image, the most successful brands tend to first ensure that their products and services are made, sold, advertised, and discussed in a way that profoundly affects consumers in the head and the heart. It underpins what I call the Fragile Brand Theory in that everything begins with the product or service and not the "image."

Brand Credibility. Most brand credibility is established not by what brand says, but what it does (and what it says about what it has done). It is best established by their ability to provide products and services that fully satisfy customer needs (which is sometimes offset by the expectations they make); their ability to be honest, dependable, and sensitive to those needs; and their ability to be likable (fun, interesting, dynamic, or any other personality descriptor). For most brands, establishing credibility seems to be much easier than maintaining it.

Brand Resonance. Keller introduces the concept as it refers to the nature of the consumer–brand relationship and, more specifically, the extent to which a person feels that he or she resonates or connects with a brand and feels “in sync” with it. It conjures the words of Phil Dusenberry, former chair of BBDO Worldwide, who seemed to know this instinctively.

The Impact Of Duplicity Between Functionality And Resonance.

One of the most pressing challenges for marketers is operating within the confines of communication that makes sense for the individual brand. Ideally, as outlined above, the most successful brands develop specific products or services that meet customer expectations, and then communicate that functionality in such a way that it connects with select customers.

Instead, where some brands struggle is in their attempt to alter communication with the hope of reflecting a personality or image that appeals to the public (or segmented market) even if those qualities they communicate do not exist. Within social media, others adopt "popular personas" that appear to be successful on specific social networks, even if that image does not reflect their functionality of the brand.

As an illustration, imagine a mediocre technology company attempting to talk its way into being on the cutting edge of its field. While the "talk" might attract attention, it could also set expectations too high for a company more suited to push affordability. Another example might be how many companies attempt to create likability by being fun on a social network like Twitter, but then staffing their brick and motor locations with drones who would rather be somewhere else.

Unfortunately, such tactics tend to create the perception of duplicity between the brand functionality and its resonance, much like Malone pointed out. As a result, the brand continually loses credibility until it eventually collapses. Conversely, marketers that are able to address both their strengths and shortcomings in an authentic way that makes sense for their products, services, and culture stand to have an easier time connecting with consumers and establishing brand loyalty.

To learn more about the papers and abstracts released to the study by RCG, visit their page dedicated to the research. The company specializes in the principles, process and science of lasting, mutually-beneficial business relationships. This study is groundbreaking in its ability to tie scientific data to long-standing theories within the fields of advertising, communication, and marketing.

Friday, December 10

Being Yourself: An Anti-Personal Branding Introduction

shadow management
The usually adept Jonathan Fields wrote an interesting commentary inspired by a comment made by Paulo Coelho, which had attracted more than 37,000 "likes" in agreement.

Coelho had written "what other people think think of you is none of their business." Fields then contended it might be the opposite. In the real world, Fields says, what other people think IS your business.

The Paradox Of Personal Vs. Public Images.

In his book, Life, Keith Richards mentions that he is entirely aware of the image that is Keith Richards while still remaining true to himself, the real Keith Richards. Think about for a moment.

You don't have to be a rock star, especially online, to appreciate that many people have both. It's the core premise of "personal branding" and "image consulting" that if you look your best and project your greatness, you will attract greatness. The theory is sound and provable anywhere communication (verbal and nonverbal) interconnects — even politicians learn that there is a time to wear a suit and a time to wear a blue shirt, sleeves rolled, and khakis as if to say "I'm not with the suits; I'm one of you."

Working in advertising and communication is one of the best professions to see this stuff play out on a regular basis. People expect account executives to wear suits, creative professionals to be hip and cool (or unaware, almost anti-socail, and reclusive), public relations pros to be in between, and social media types to adopt something in between cool and tech. And, for the most part, many people dress the part.

We don't learn this stuff in college or anything. When you really think about it, we learn it in high school. At a certain age, our peers demand some semblance of sameness in sometimes cruel and unusual ways, reinforced by scads of ugly duckling movies that transform otherwise dismissed boys and girls into beautiful, popular people with a little makeup and a wardrobe change much like Ally Sheedy did in the movie Breakfast Club, despite the underlying anti-stereotype messages. A little bit of sameness can go a long way.

Sure, there is some truth to that. Not everyone can thrive in a lifestyle carved out by someone like Charles Bukowski and be happy. But neither should anyone expect to be happy putting on a mask every day because that is what people expect.

You don't have to wait for the world to catch up; it's really about you, anyway.

I appreciate that Fields says someday the world will catch up and allow people to be whatever they are, but I don't think they have to. There is a different dynamic at work. The world seems more than capable of accepting whoever we might be, as long as we're true to who we are.

It's the very reason someone like Don King can tease their hair up into a crown and make it work while other people would seem too buffoonish. Can you imagine Bill Gates sporting a King hairdo? But that is the point. Gates would look silly because it doesn't fit him as person.

Where personal branding people get it wrong is they often tell people to adopt stylings that reflect what's expected and accepted. Ergo, if you want to fit in, adopt the corporate culture, even if that isn't who you are. Hmmm ... is it any wonder the most extreme cases, musicians and artists and actors, are the most likely to suffer personality snaps and drug addictions?

Coelho is right; Fields only partly so.

Coelho provides some truth in less than 140 characters, but it's not enough to give people some indication of how to do it. It requires several steps, with the most important step being the one step that many people don't know. Be true to yourself.

There are a surprising number of people who don't know who they are, so they struggle with it. (That's okay. I did too, at different times, years ago.) But that is the first step. If you don't know who you are, then chances are nobody else will either.

Where I am sometimes disenchanted by personal branding experts or image consultants is because they seldom consider the first step. Instead, they tell people to imagine some famous fantasy as the end result. Business owners do it too, trying to emulate companies like Apple or JetBlue even if they aren't anywhere close to those companies.

It's one of the reasons we help companies (and sometimes candidates) develop core messages. We help them find out who or what they are, find the differences that make them unique, and then encourage them to stop trying to be vanilla because consumers (or employers) seem to have taste for that flavor. After that, it's a little bit easier.

So unless you're someone whose nature is to go against the grain, you can find ways to be yourself while demonstrating that you can meet the group or corporate culture halfway (a lack of empathy, after all, is a different sort of problem). In other words, embrace and promote your differences while demonstrating that you respect their sameness. It's a much stronger position, and allows you not to care so much what other people think about you.

You might even consider "anti-personal branding" of sorts. It's an awareness that character (who you are) and reputation (what people think you are) are two different things. If you want to succeed, all you need to do is diminish the space between the two.

Tuesday, April 13

Closing A Case Study: Tiger Remains Virtually Unchanged


Not everyone believed that Tiger Woods might escape relatively unscathed despite departing from the traditional tenets of crisis communication. But the outcome was already set. When one aspect of a brand is large enough, all other aspects can be spun away leaving the core unchanged.

At his core, Woods is a golfer. And as he walked from the 11th green to the 12th tee, men and women of all ages rose by the hundreds and greeted him with a warm, crackling roar in the backwoods. Never mind the back story.

All Woods had to do is prove he still had what it takes to put the ball in the cup at the 2010 Masters Tournament. And by all accounts, he did just that, finishing fourth along with K.J. Choi.

Suddenly, no one much cares whether the Rasmussen Reports found only 43 percent regarded the golfer's public apology as sincere. And hardly anyone will remember the creepily exploitive Nike advertisement that accompanied his return to the tee.



No matter what you thought of the affairs or how they came to light, Tiger Woods is still a professional golfer whose achievements to date rank him among the most successful golfers of all time. And since his other exploits are unrelated to his golfing career, none of what he did has any affect on that fact beyond changing how he is presented as a brand.

The loving husband image is gone, but the guarded golfer lives on.

If public relations professionals underestimated anything about Woods, it was how much his brand was related to what he did on the golf course as opposed to off of it. Sure, some people felt he was big on selling himself as a family guy. But most Americans only know him as a golfer who putted against comedian Bob Hope on national television when he was 2 years old.

For those preplexed by it, the Fragile Brand Theory sheds some light on the subject. Some people like Tom Cruise crash for far fewer transgressions while others, like Woods, won't.

Public perception plays the role of setting expectation as, for whatever reason, the public saw Cruise as a package with his boyish charm turned “rugged good looks, flashy smile, and three Oscar nominations.” Actor had equal weight or even less weight than all the other messages that revolved around him. Woods, on the other hand, had two huge attributes: private and golfer. As long as those remain in tact, Woods will remain in the game.

Sure, some brands bolted, but only those that enjoyed those lesser messages. Nike, on the other hand, had no qualms about keeping him. Woods is an athlete. Nike is about athletes. The only prerequisite Nike has is that the athletes are good. Had Woods finished 30th or if his infidelity had something to do with steroids or sports wagering, then they would be less inclined to stick with the cooperative brand relationship. It's about that simple.

That still doesn't excuse the ad as a "Just Don't Do It" moment.

Sure, it's creative. There is no mistaking it as divergent thinking. It takes a wild twist of thinking to get a golfer to surrender audio tapes of his dead father to overlay on top of his near expressionless, somewhat brooding likeness. I don't have any reservation saying it would have never occurred to me.

All that aside, it's an ad that only advertising and public relations professionals would like. For most people, they just walked away from it confused or disgusted.

THAT is the measure of an effective advertisement. It's never about what the ad gurus and communicators think. It's always about what the public, specifically the intended audience, thinks. The question isn't whether it's creative. Creative is easy.

The questions are: Does it make you want to like Woods and Nike? Does it make you want to buy shoes? Did Nike learn anything? I suspect it learned that other than the parodies, the Nike ad helped make the entire sordid affair seem old.

And if that was the intent, they did a fine job. If the intent was to sell Nike products, it fails twice. It doesn't make anyone want to buy a product. And while it shows Nike will stick by Woods, it disrupts the Nike brand in that no one ever anticipated the company would would fund the production of a tasteless, despite being creative, commercial. Yawn.

See what I mean. It's a tired tale. Case study closed.

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Tuesday, January 5

Talking Tacos: Christine Dougherty


"Over the years, we've heard stories from our customers who have lost weight by incorporating Fresco into their meal choices, and Christine had written Taco Bell a letter detailing her journey," Rob Poetsch, spokesman for Taco Bell to Adweek.

Taco Bell's new ad campaign by DraftFCB features a "real-life Taco Bell customer" who lost 54 pounds over a two-year period by replacing her usual fast-food lunch or dinner with an item from Taco Bell's Fresco menu. While consumer feedback is mixed and dietitians split, there is no debate that the campaign is a publicity win.

The Unique Selling Point

As laughable as it sounds, the Taco Bell "Drive-Thru Diet" is grounded in truth. According to an ABC affiliate, the Fresco menu that Dougherty dotes on features menu items with 20 to 100 fewer calories. In Dougherty's case, she dropped her calorie intake from 1750 calories per day to 1250 calories per day.

In fact, according to the dietician, the Taco Bell campaign is more honest than the Special K Challenge that suggests you can lose up to six pounds in two weeks. At six pounds per week, Dr. Lokken said the challenge is based on reducing calorie intake (whether or not you eat Special K) and borders on promoting malnutrition.

The Brand Disparity

The question for advertisers to ask isn't how to duplicate Taco Bell buzz. The question to ask is how do you introduce a unique selling point that is so far removed from the brand that people hate it.

Since launching the campaign, Taco Bell has scored on publicity and blog buzz, but consumer feedback is overwhelmingly negative. Before the campaign, Zeta Interactive noted that 73 percent of Taco Bell posts were positive, well ahead of Subway, Wendy's and Domino's. Following the campaign, the number of positive posts has dropped to 67 percent, dropping it below White Castle, Blimpie, and Arby's.

The criticism is especially harsh from women, ages 18-34, with negative sentiment from this segment climbing steadily. It's climbing fast enough that the Taco Bell campaign could feasibly face a boycott.

In contrast, when fast food chains like Wendy's and McDonald's launched healthier menu items, they received a surprisingly amount of praise. The difference is subtle, but underscores the fragile brand theory: Consumers equate cereal with healthy choices and fast food with fat. It's a difficult association to break, even when it's true.

The reason Wendy's and McDonald's didn't face as much push back is that both offered non-fast food menu items. Taco Bell, on the other hand, is marketing items that still fall well within the fast food category, despite lower calorie and fat counts. Add in the timing of the campaign, when people are most sensitive to fitness, and combining "diet" with "drive thru," and the result is a campaign that wins on attention, but falls flat on public sentiment.

Thursday, December 3

Mocking Tiger: Spirit Airlines & Everyone


"I think that the public is very used to it at this point, this happening, not only with athletes, but with people in general, from all walks of life. I think that infidelity is prevalent in all realms of society worldwide." — Rita Ewing

With almost everyone attempting to cash in on the Tiger Woods scandal, we almost passed until the Spirit Airlines advertisement landed on Adfreak. Saying the airline hasn't been "this inspired since holding its 'Many Islands, Low Fares' (MILF) sale," Adfreak featured the cheesy online advertisement of a tiger driving into a fire hydrant. The copy read...

"It's a jungle out there! Make sure you avoid all the obstacles and get the lowest fares."

In terms of generating publicity, the advertisement worked. In terms of selling seats, it's hard to say. However, Spirit Airlines is one of the few U.S. passenger airlines generating a net profit during the recession, despite being fined $375,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration for violating consumer protection regulations .

Tiger Woods is big business, and perhaps even bigger business in a crisis.

The Ottawa Citizen published a top ten list inspired, in part, by the buzz up from comedians Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, George Lopez, and Wanda Sykes. It seems only David Letterman, not surprisingly, took a pass.

The same cannot be true for public relations professionals. Most of them are jumping in to rehash the classic bullet points, with the most obvious being that Woods waited too long to say anything at all. It's par for the course, they all say.

Or is it?

Sure, Ari Adler is right in that under most circumstances, crisis communication requires disclosure. Scott Soshnick is right in that a loss of privacy is often the price of being a public figure. Gerald Baron is right in his frame up of a fictional crisis communication conversation.

And yet, all three are very wrong.

In terms of personal branding, Woods is playing just below par. While this golf celebrity had gone to great lengths to preserve a certain image in the past, he has also passionately pursued keeping his personal matters out of the public spotlight. That much, at least, remains.

Woods is not Mark Sanford or Gavin Newsom or Michael Phelps or take your pick among those who demonstrated poor judgement this year.

Overall, Woods is a golfer whose image was created less by his own effort than those who wrote about him. He didn't market himself to earn endorsements; he played the game better to earn them. He didn't seek out publicity; the tabloids frequently sought him out. Nobody bought products because he 'endorsed' them; his presence merely made people more aware of them.

So if public relations professionals took a little more time to think before riding the Woods wave today, they might remember that crisis communication is situational. And this situation requires an accounting of key considerations. Here are some...

• Woods has set his priorities, and it does not include public discourse.
• Most of his sponsors support his decision, including Nike, Gatorade, and Gillette.
• It appears that the Woods family has yet to find resolution in what might come next.
• There was no risk of public health or safety in regard to a matter involving his family.
• His family has a long history of attempting to separate their private lives from public exposure.

How the Tiger Woods story could play out, depending on personal decisions.

The Tiger Woods brand will remain intact, though a little worn at the edges, provided his wife decides to work past present circumstances and if he continues to win tournaments in the aftermath of this personal crisis. It would have less chance to remain intact had he held a press conference, played victim of circumstance or ignorance, or suddenly tossed himself on the mercy of the court of public opinion. All of those options, for Woods specifically, would have been less than authentic.

Sure, there are those who are making the case that Woods is missing an opportunity to allow others to learn from his mistakes. I submit he has offered up a lesson that might help some people learn from their own mistakes. Perhaps we might even consider that transparency is a gift and not an expectation, under certain circumstances. What do you think?

"But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don't share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one's own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions. ... I will strive to be a better person and the husband and father that my family deserves. For all of those who have supported me over the years, I offer my profound apology." — Tiger Woods

Thursday, June 25

Flirting With Brand Damage: Mark Sanford


"When we do these kinds of things like what happened with Ensign and now with Sanford it hurts our credibility as a party of good governing and of values.” — Ron Kaufman, lobbyist

If anyone is wondering (and some people still are) why marital affairs seem to roll off some politicians and not others, look no further than the Fragile Brand Theory. It has much less to do with the personal lives of political candidates and much more to do with the personal brands they adopt.

Never mind that 90 percent of Americans believe affairs are morally wrong. Conservative estimates suggest affairs are commonplace, with estimates that 60 percent of all men and and women will have an affair. Quantified, that would mean infidelity impacts approximately 80 percent of all marriages with varying degrees.

As for politics, marital affairs became fair game in 1828, with Andrew Jackson's opposition wondering if his wife was legally divorced by the time they married. Since, Wendell Wilkie, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy all had affairs. And along with Bill Clinton in 1998, MSNBC reports there have been 23 high profile scandals in the last decade alone, which seems to coincide with increased public scrutiny over personal choices as well as the global trend to place less value on the definition of marriage.

Understanding marriage and extramarital affairs as a definition

While researchers generally break down extramarital affairs into physical and emotional attraction with the root cause being dissatisfaction with their partners, the real reasons are generally much more individualized. They could stem from any number of reasons, including low self-esteem, physical fantasy, geographical distance, pressure escapism, random encounter, intoxication, dissatisfaction in a marital role (with no bearing on the partner), and so on and so forth.

However, regardless of the reasons, extramarital affairs provide a stark contrast to the value most modern civilized societies place on a family to provide an intimate environment, mutual support, emotional security, and personal commitment. In simplest terms, and from a brand perspective, marriage is among the most prized of all partnerships.

Affairs, on the other hand, are generally regarded as the polar opposite, much more so than any other factor that could potentially estrange a relationship (e.g., poor financial management, the assumption a marital contract exempts poor personal choices, etc.). In simplest terms, and from a brand perspective, affairs represent selfishness and betrayal.

Understanding the public figure's ability to survive one

Why was John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton able to mostly survive extramarital affairs whereas John Ensign and Mark Sanford cannot (beyond the apparent hypocrisy)? They did for very different reasons.

Kennedy carried forth a suave and youthful image during an era well suited to ignore it. And Clinton's emphasis was on being human for nearly ten years, and thus more apt to make a human mistake. (Ergo, a man with a weakness for a Big Mac might very well have other weaknesses.)

Of course, there are other factors too. Any infraction made by a public figure is dependent on the company they keep and on how they handle the crisis once it surfaces.

In Nevada, the feeling toward John Ensign is one of disappointment after a somber but articulate press conference. In South Carolina, Sanford's bumbled press conference seems to be facing more backlash for breaking trust and betraying not only his wife but those he governed.

Multiple messages and brands dictate public figure outcomes

While predicting outcomes might be simple, any public consequence is a complex combination of personal branding, organizational (party) branding, definition (marriage) branding, current public sentiment, personal cause, and the ability to appropriately handle the crisis. Case in point, the public tends to see celebrity infidelity as vastly different — with more concern over who the celebrity has an affair with rather than the fact they had an affair.

In contrast, Republicans normally embrace certain core values, which generally reside too far away from the core of being human. And while I'd be the last to suggest Republicans sacrifice the concept of these values in order to curry the favor of more exceptions, they might consider whether it's time to reconsider the construct.

While striving (sometimes unsuccessively) for higher purpose is always admirable, current cultural trends seem to suggest that being human is all too common for any public figure to allow themselves to be placed on pedestal made of clay. In fact, the very dynamic of doing so might make one party seem overly selective (with greater failures), leaving the other to represent everyone else who is willing to admit they sometimes make mistakes.

After all, no one can really place so much emphasis on higher principles or moral ground at the risk of overriding the most admirable of all. Forgiveness.

Friday, May 22

Misunderstanding Intent: Communication Today


There is a fascinating post over at The Notorious R.O.B. that discusses some initial reservations with Todd Carpenter becoming the social media manager for the National Association of REALTORS. In the post, Rob Hahn describes those early reservations as associated with what he believed would be an impending shift from open communication to message control.

For the controversy over the MLS data and Google, I highly recommend the read. It's one of the most pressing issues in real estate today. However, this time around, I was reading the post for another reason all together. Hahn goes into some detail regarding message control and openness that seems to be a reoccurring conversation in social media.

"The overwhelming temptation for any company or organization that suddenly finds itself in the middle of a brewing (or full-blown) controversy is to lockdown message control. One person, typically the person in charge of Corporate Communication, speaks for the organization, and all inquiries are referred to that person. Behind the scenes, PR consultants, staff, lawyers, and other executives get into meeting after meeting to work out what will be said, how it will be said, and by whom. Once the message has been polished to a high gloss, it is put out to the world with extreme care."

Message control? Not really.

One of stories I like to share in my public relations class recounts how a local homebuilder initially reacted when a news station called after a handicapped woman complained that the homebuilder had violated the American Disabilities Act (ADA) after removing a ramp near a community mailbox near her home. The owners, who were on vacation, gave very clear instructions to their marketing manager.

"If the media calls, say no comment. If they come by, lock the doors."

Fortunately, the manager asked for support instead. Within a few minutes, all the details of what seemed like a pending news story were laid out on the table. The homebuilder hadn't done anything more than temporarily remove the makeshift ramp at the request of the city to meet municipal codes. The builder had notified the homeowner on three occasions. The homeowner would still be able to get her mail, with an access point just a little further away.

When the marketing manager followed up with the reporter, they agreed there wasn't a story.

"We ran an ADA story the other day, which typically invites call-ins. Most them aren't stories," said the reporter.

There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about what constitutes message control and message management and open communication. The reality is that open communication can be managed. It's just the simple matter of everyone having access to the facts, as they eventually did in the story above. And yes, that did require various professionals to lend their insight.

The point being that open communication can often be successfully managed without control or spin. It doesn't require manipulation as much as it requires all communicating parties have the same facts. In fact, if they did, I doubt management would be so worried about employee communication online.

The reality is that there is no message control and there never really was. Lately, it seems, social media is frequently blamed when otherwise good brands get put in a negative light. But brands were being put in a negative light long before social media. The only difference was that the writers were journalists (and sometimes they still are).

If there is any takeaway today, it's simply that message control almost always consists of hiding the truth or deflecting from the facts. Message management, on the other hand, is a form of open communication that works to ensure the facts are considered in lieu of erroneous opinions. In other words, intent helps sort out the difference between authenticity (which Seth Godin mistakes as consistency) and transparency.

In fact, if more people understood the basic tenets of public relations and communication, there would probably be far fewer social media fails. Well, maybe.

Tuesday, May 12

Tearing Down Definitions: From Phelps To Prejean


Michael Phelps is an American swimmer. He has won 14 career Olympic gold medals and holds seven world records in swimming.

A few months after his most recent successes, he apologized for "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment" in response to a photo that depicted him using a Bong. The controversy cost Phelps a few sponsorships. And some former sponsors a few sales.

Now, the News of the World, which broke the photo, is trying to spark another scandal. This time the story is based on testimony from lap dancer Theresa White, who alleges Phelps is great at lovemaking but not much of a tipper.

"They were there a couple of hours and asked three of us back," White told News of the World. "Michael was a bad tipper but he was nice to me, although he was kind of mean and cocky to some of the girls."

What Is An All-American Image Anyway?

Who's to say? According to the outrage expressed over Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, the concept seems open for debate. She told the truth, and it took Donald Trump to set the record straight while smartly avoiding the issue all together.

Perez Hilton, on the other hand, has enjoyed a free ride calling Prejean the “b-word,” rescinding it, and then rescinding what he rescinded, adding that he was thinking of the “c-word.” Why? Because most people didn't hear Prejean's entire answer, which began "Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other ..."

Is Being All-American An Impossible Image?

Maybe so. After all, the all-American image cannot be lived up to because any number of definitions seem to supposedly disparage one person or another. Just as people are divided on a spectacular number of issues and tolerance just isn't enough, so too are people divided on whether or not anyone deserves praise for greatness.

When and where I grew up, the all-American image was pretty well defined — baseball, apple pie, and the red, white and blue — despite being imaginary. It was pretty simple. If Norman Rockwell might have painted it, you might be in the right ball park, even if such a ball park never existed, not really. Yet, the sentiment was there. We were taught to strive for greatness; not in fame, but simply trying to do our best at whatever it was we did.

Today, it's not always so easy. Baseball is supposedly tainted, apple pies reinforce stereotypes, and the American flag means different things depending on where you fly it or not. And greatness? Sometimes it's frowned upon as a badge you have something more than someone else.

You know, usually, when we talk about the The Fragile Brand Theory, we talk about why it is more important to stick with one image rather than the image one might pick. It's why Trump can be Trump and Hilton can be Hilton. But there is something more at work here than Phelps or Prejean failing to reach the unobtainable image that the public apparently sought for them.

It seems to me that Phelps or Prejean or anyone else who strives for greatness can never live up to an all-American image. Because most Americans no longer want one.

Monday, March 16

Measuring Communication, Equation Influencers Part 2


“Brand is the relationship between a product and its customer.” — Phil Dusenberry, former chairman of BBDO Worldwide

While more formal definitions might include "the assortment of qualities that differentiates the brand from other commodities, which translates into higher sales volume and higher profit margins against competing brands" or "marketing effects or outcomes that accrue to a product with its brand name compared with those that would accrue if the same product did not have the brand name," Dusenberry’s proposition defines brand equity succinctly.

Brand equity is derived from what people think and feel about a particular person, product, service, or company.

In recent years, an increasing number of people misdefine brand as an identity, image, mark, or logo (e.g., as in a cattle brand). However, it's none of those things. For the relationship between those things and their relationship to a brand, it might be worthwhile to refer to an older brand primer post, which includes a in depth comment from a trademark lawyer as well.

For the purposes of measurement, a better definition that reflects Dusenberry’s proposition is that a “brand” is better thought of as the net sum of all positive and negative impressions. For example, when people think of Apple, they have an immediate emotional reaction to what Apple represents as it relates to them. It may be positive or negative or neutral or degrees in between.

The impact of brand equity on the whole of communication can be extraordinary. Simply put, Apple has developed a brand that is powerful enough that anything it does is news. The same can be said about Apple CEO Steve Jobs. It's simply not so for the bulk of many of other companies.

Brands have a two-fold relationship to the overall communication strategy.

In the ROC equation, brand equity is demonstrated as a second influencer that impacts the whole effectiveness of communication. Specifically, Brand times Intent (message plus suitability times reach) divided by duration or B • I (m+s • r)/d. The more powerful the brand, the more people take notice.

However, planned communication can also negatively impact a brand. For example, Pepsico's Tropicana package redesign had a dramatically negative impact on the brand relationship between the product and the consumer. Interesting enough, the Arnell Group didn't change the brand as much as they changed the identity of the product, which came to symbolize the relationship that consumers felt toward the product.

What the Arnell Group never seemed to consider (or Pepsico, which seems to be redesigning its entire portfolio of products for the sake of change), was that its most loyal consumers identified the orange with the straw imagery much in the same way Coca-Cola has infused itself into the psyche of American culture and around the world. In sum, the package redesign diminished the brand equity.

Over-reaching creative, erred publicity stunts, and forced viral campaigns all have a tendency to diminish brand equity. Why? Such efforts tend to push for frequency and reach at the expense of the value proposition and message, which are critical components in establishing a brand promise.

An interesting side note about brands and their meaning to people.

We've had a laugh or two over the Microsoft Branding Parody that pays homage to Fred Manley's “Nine Ways To Improve An Ad.” However, there is something else to think about.

Over time, Microsoft's brand became so entrenched with a "generic" identity that it became difficult for the company break away from it, even with the help of Jerry Seinfeld. However, as Microsoft recently learned, even a generic brand might avoid lowering the bar too much as it did with Songsmith video.

The reason this is relevant is because of another theory we've had in the mix for some time. The Fragile Brand Theory suggests that it is less important to stick with your brand choice (innovative and elusive like Apple or a generic giant like Microsoft) than to switch and swap identities that confuse your publics. In general, people develop relationships with the sustainable familiar, regardless of the brand that people, products, and companies try to project.

If there is a distinct takeaway separate from the measurement abstract, it is that as much as brands influence the impact of communication, communication tends to influence brand over the long term. Dramatic juxtapositions of established brands, regardless of what they are, do not end well.

Download The Abstract: Measure: I | O = ROC

The ROC is an abstract method of measuring the value of business communication by recognizing that the return on communication — advertising, marketing, public relations, internal communication, and social media — is related to the intent of the communication and the outcome it produces. Every Monday, the ROC series explores portions of the abstract.

Friday, February 6

Getting Personal: From Phelps To Psychology Today


"Like most Americans, and like Michael Phelps himself, we were disappointed in his behavior. Also like most Americans, we accept his apology. Moving forward, he remains in our plans." — Subway

The statement reportedly came late today after speculation that Subway intends to drop Olympian Michael Phelps' sponsorship deal. Apparently, Subway is simply pushing back promotion plans until the smoke clears.

Kellogg Co. (Kellogg's) was less understanding. Yesterday, it said it would not renew its sponsorship because of the photo. However, some speculate it was Honey Nut Cheerios that did him in last December.

Should Kellogg's Have Dumped Michael Phelps?

For all the kudos we gave Kellogg's in its handling of the peanut recall, it seems this one wasn't handled with the same crisis communication savvy. Regardless of how one feels about the Phelps photo and subsequent apologies, the Kellogg's contract was coming to a close anyway. It would have been best to let it close quietly.

Instead, the company's reaction to the photos has made Kellogg's the story. And I mean that very literally. Psychology Today made John Harvey Kellogg the story, apparently asking if Kellogg was consistent with the company's image.

Obviously, Kellogg's missed the research that suggests an image isn't what you say it is, but rather what other people say it is. They also missed that celebrity endorsements have always been a mixed bag. Now they've lost on this one, twice.

Meanwhile, comments of support continue to be left on Phelps' Facebook account after he posted his appreciation today:

Hey guys - thanks for your comments. I really appreciate you standing by me…this has been tough…I meant what I said, I made a mistake and I’m sorry. And for those who are mad at me or no longer support me, all I can say is I'm sorry.

This is in no way an expression of support for Phelps' actions. As our Fragile Brand Theory suggests: it is always more important to stick with your image — whether you choose a halo or horns — than the choice you make.

Tuesday, January 13

Commercializing The President: Everybody


First it was Ben and Jerry's "Yes Pecan,” and then it was Pepsi. And now, according to Brandweek, Ikea is jumping on the Obama brand wagon too.

Ikea's newest campaign includes out-of-home billboards featuring the "Embrace Change ‘09" slogan on local buses and trains. Ikea is also holding a "mock motorcade," touring the D.C. area Jan. 15-16, which includes strapping "furniture fit for a president" on top of vehicles. From Ikea's point of view, it's simply a good branding opportunity.

"We have never had an opportunity to do anything surrounding the message of change from a national standpoint," Marty Marston, public relations manager for Ikea told Brandweek. "[Obama's] notion of change and his commitment to fiscal responsibility match the Ikea philosophy of practical and affordable home furnishings for all."

But is it really a good branding strategy? Marvel Comics seems to think it's smart for Spiderman. And although BlackBerry didn't ask for an endorsement, it sure did appreciate it. But is it really a good thing? If you consider the fragile brand theory, then only if the original brand holds.

Wednesday, August 13

Closing Campaigns: Francis Allen


Many local stations and newscasters attribute former Assemblywoman Francis Allen’s primary loss to her domestic violence charge that was dropped after her soon-to-be former husband recanted his police statement. In reality, it was near constant credibility erosion and inconsistent communication that killed her career.

Here is a truncated hot list from various political mailers and news reports:

• Promised to be strongly opposed to taxes, but would not sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in a district that expects it.

• Was engaged in several ethics complaints. The most recent was filed by a florist after Allen cancelled a check for more than $5,000 for wedding flowers. The business never recovered.

• Sponsored several questionable bills, including one that would have allowed homeowner’s associations to raise fees without resident approval. But Allen was not familiar enough with the bill to address the section that caused it to be vetoed.

• The mailer that claimed an erroneous endorsement that she didn’t have. This was not the first time it occurred during her political career. It was the second.

• The political mailer that seemed to exploit her martial problems after the stabbing scandal and included disparaging remarks about her husband despite the fact he had recanted his story.

There are almost a dozen more, which was my point in a post several days ago. While there is rarely a silver bullet, the daily wear and tear of individual brands will eventually be unrecoverable.

While Allen would have faced a challenging race, the difference between winning and losing came down to a few bad communication choices and an unwillingness to apply the better remedies:

• Allen could have ended speculation about the Taxpayer Protection Pledge by either just signing it or addressing her reasons for not signing it.

• Allen could have offered full disclosure on the complaints, her views, and their outcomes. While voters might not have agreed with her, they may have dismissed some of them.

• Allen could have explained her reasoning on the passage of certain bills, but only attempted to claim she didn’t sponsor them.

• Given the circumstances, Allen should have never claimed the endorsement. At minimum, she should have double-checked with each association.

• While most of the candidates avoided discussing the stabbing scandal, Allen seemed to bring it up frequently. Her decision to run to the problem with a political mailer was ill advised. However, if it did need to be addressed, it needed to be addressed differently and should have avoided any opinions about her husband or whether or not they would be divorced.

Unfortunately for her, communication never seemed to be a strong point. In her concession to challenger Richard McArthur, Allen claimed to have run a positive race. Some people might not agree with that assessment, including voters.

McArthur, a United States Air Force veteran and retired FBI agent, comfortably beat Allen by a 2-to-1 margin in the four-way primary. He had been campaigning door-to-door for 10 months. In addition to some signage and an extensive grass roots campaign, he sent several introduction and contrast mailers that resonated with registered voters. Tomorrow, he’ll start again.

In contrast, Allen relied almost exclusively on name recognition (signage) and direct mail (one-way communication). Case closed.

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Monday, May 5

Challenging Good Deeds: Fragile Brand Theory


Unilever, maker of several leading consumer products including Dove soap, recently learned that no good deed goes unpunished. They now know better than most: attempting to maintain a brand as a good corporate citizen and environmentally friendly company is a tricky business these days.

Despite scoring at the top of global ethical and sustainability indexes during the last year, and being considered a company that takes environmental issues seriously, Unilever continues to be the target of Greenpeace because it buys palm oil from other companies that are destroying the rainforest, which is also endangering Indonesian orangutans.

Unilever is not alone. According to Greenpeace, the world's largest food, cosmetic, and biofuel companies are driving the wholesale destruction of Indonesia's rainforests and peatlands through growing palm oil consumption. In a report, Greenpeace predicts the demand for palm oil will double by 2030.

For an Advertising Age article, Greenpeace said it did not single out Unilever because of its high-profile environmental and social stances, but added that there “was an element of greenwash there.” In fact, he said, Proctor & Gamble and Nestle may be the next targets.

”Most activists of whatever persuasion on whatever issue tend to believe that they get most traction (and news coverage) by aiming at the biggest name rather than the biggest challenge," a Unilever spokeswoman e-mailed Advertising Age. "In most instances, it seems that the biggest 'name' tends to be the one that has done the most to attack the ... problem."

From a communication perspective, the spokesperson’s e-mail interested us the most because it supports our fragile brand theory, which suggests: the further perception travels from reality or the more unsustainable it might be, the greater the potential for brand damage. Overreach too much and, eventually, the brand might face total collapse.

It doesn't always matter that there are companies with much more environmentally or socially deplorable practices than Unilever. However, those companies do not receive a brand boost from the perception that they might be green.

So maybe it’s not always that activists are after the biggest names. They are after the biggest contrasts between perception and reality.

Our environmental policy sets out our commitment to meet the needs of consumers and customers in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner, through continuous improvements in environmental performance. — Unilever

In reading through the company’s environmental policy, it does seem to achieve some goals (packaging reduction, for example) better than others. Specifically, the policy states that the company aims to “ensure the safety of its products and operations for the environment” and will be “exercising the same concern for the environment wherever we operate.” If they are enabling foreign suppliers to do the opposite, then Unilever is not meeting those standards. That’s a problem, but not only in action.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a case against Unilever as much as I am making a case for communicators to resist messages that overreach. The truth is that relatively few companies (and even fewer people) can produce a perfect environmental scorecard.

All I'm suggesting is that we don't claim to be avid recyclers if we’re sharp on putting newspapers in the bin but shoddy on plastic bottles (because they have to be rinsed out). Authenticity simply suggests that we stop at touting our efforts at paper products if that is the case.

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Monday, April 14

Writing Accidental Books: David Vinjamuri


After reading a few chapters of “Accidental Branding” by David Vinjamuri, I was perplexed. Could it be that a former brand manager at Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola and marketing guru for recent Google-acquisition DoubleClick and Save.com, wrote a book that is both gratifying and grasping at the same time? Exactly so.

“Accidental Branding” is gratifying in that the research and interviews are worthwhile; the writing is vivid and engaging; and the case studies — John Peterman, Craig Newmark, and Roxanne Quimby (among them) — timely. The modest cover price of $16.47 for Accidental Branding via Amazon works.

Without question, Vinjamuri succeeds where so many other business writers fail — by bringing passion to pages of businesses. He does it with flair and style, creating case studies that you actually care about. I love that about the book, enough so to recommend it. Chances are that you will love the book, enough so that you might fall in love with it like Diane K. Danielson did.

But there is something troubling too. “Accidental Branding” seems to drift into a trend that is becoming troublesome. In attempting to dispel the myths of what they teach in business school as being wrong or incomplete (which is largely correct), the author presents solutions that are not strong enough to unseat traditional teachings despite finding case studies to back up his argument.

It makes me wonder. What are we doing nowadays, anyway? Social media is becoming the boom and bane for business in ways that very few have ever expected. And when books are written with the Internet communication in mind, they tend to forget their intent and fill pages with more inspirational ideas than concrete solutions in the way that books like In Search of Excellence used to do.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes one wonder if the next wave of entrepreneurs are somehow missing out because the business and marketing books being written today are chock full of case studies designed to prove some clever ideas. For example, Vinjamuri presents six: sweat the small stuff, pick a fight, be your own customer, be unnaturally persistent, build a myth, and be faithful.

The fifth is especially interesting to me because Kevin Goodman recently asked me about how viral marketing myths might mirror the urban legend phenomena, something Chip Heath, associate professor at Stanford University, wrote about four years ago.

“Creating the mythology for your brand means that you have to understand both
the narrative and how it will be spoken and shared…,” writes Vinjamuri. “… By crafting this story carefully, you will make a better case for your business than
any presentation or advertisement possibly could.”

While there is certainly some truth to the concept that storytelling works (better than bullets anyway) because it’s memorable, creating a mythos for your brand can have some unintended consequences that run afoul in what I call the Fragile Brand Theory . Specifically, a mythos can sometimes overtake the sustainability of the brand and when that happens … they risk collapse. And yet another pitfall that can transpire a well-positioned myth comes straight from the urban legend department: over time, the point of origin becomes expectedly fuzzy and may even be stolen away by someone who demonstrates your story better then you do.

“Mary Worth … Mary Worth … Mary …” ... You get the idea. The story variations have overshadowed the point of origin.

Sure, I suspect Vinjamuri might think I’m missing “rule six,” which reminds entrepreneurs to remain faithful to their brands. He’s right, but sometimes brand busting moments are not manageable as several dozen companies can attest. Brands are much more fragile than that.

Even so, and I cannot stress this enough: where I part ways on some conclusions presented by Vinjamuri, I can appreciate excellent storytelling around some very interesting break-the-mold brands. They are often not covered enough, and Vinjamuri presents those as masterfully as one might suspect from someone who works on Starwood Hotels, among others.

Now the only question that remains is whether his “Accidental Brands” can move beyond the moment and capture its own mythos. We shall see. I hope so.

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Monday, February 18

Missing The Real Deal: Presidents Day

Last year, President George W. Bush traveled to the Mount Vernon estate of George Washington in honor of Presidents Day, which was chosen as a date to honor the birthday of President Washington.

In truth, Washington’s birthday is Feb. 22 (Feb. 11 if you consider the Julian calendar used when he was alive). Along with Washington’s birthday, many consider it a celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday as well, which is Feb. 12. A few even consider it a celebration of all Presidents.

Of course, nowadays, today is best known for retail advertising campaigns and a growing number of newspapers that lament how Presidents Day lost its meaning.

You see, it was really intended to celebrate Washington’s birthday as the first President of the United States. President Lincoln had earned his own day. That is, until HR 15951 was passed in 1968 in an attempt to simplify federal holidays. But that’s the thing.

Representations don’t always have as much value as the real thing.

We learned it here in Nevada too. Ever since the state moved Nevada Day from Oct. 31 to the last Friday of the month, it too has lost some luster. Lighter events are now scattered throughout the long weekend, which is used by Nevadans to prepare for Halloween as much as anything. I guess it seems fitting that this year’s theme has something to do with aliens. The outer space kind.

This year, President George W. Bush is in Africa. And, when you look at the newspapers, there seems to be much less about a national celebration than some other topics, including political endorsements and recognizing new nations, which has drowned out most mentions, even the laments.

Not so much for me. It still rings true as George Washington’s birthday, honoring the first President of the United States. Even while writing about why Benjamin Franklin would have made a great blogger, it didn’t hit me to post it (maybe sometime in the weeks ahead).

Today belongs to Washington. Another founding father, who despite little formal education, would have likely participated in social media, writing what would one day be public letters to his colleagues from Mount Vernon. Oh right, he did do exactly that.

Maybe that’s why we should remember him today, and our founding fathers more often. These people weren’t trying to be “anything” like we sometimes see in politics today. They were trying to do something. But maybe that’s the point. Representations don’t always have as much value as the real thing.

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Monday, January 7

Defusing Perception: Naked Communication


It might seem odd to some people to draw a comparison between Lifetime’s new makeover show, “How To Look Good Naked” with Carson Kressley, and business communication. But the analogy might be compelling for some.

Most business owners and/or executives have a perception about their companies that will never match marketplace realities. Many market themselves based upon what works for competitors, resulting in some disastrous advertising and marketing campaigns, because one size does not fit all.

“We want to do this,” they say. “Because it works for our competitors.”

On the premiere episode of “How To Look Good Naked,” available as a free download at iTunes, Kressley asks his guest, Layla, to identify where she “thinks” she fits in a lineup of women with hip sizes ranging from 40 to 50 inches. She places herself between 47 and 48 inches. In reality, her hips measure 43 inches — the complete opposite end the lineup.

Imagine how this impacted her life. For 20 years, she had been making fashion decisions based on her perception that her hips were 6 inches larger than they were. The result: she looked heavier in clothes she chose than she ever looked naked.

Companies often do the same thing. They apply erroneous perceptions to their communication strategy. Early last year, we were contracted by a water purification company to script three :30 radio station-produced spots because the owner wanted to mimic the market leader’s buy. He had already ordered a 32-spot buy based on the urging of the station’s account representative.

Never mind that the market leader was already running 240 :60 second spots a week on the same station, compete with exclusive endorsements from the most listened to talk show hosts on the station. We did everything we could to convince the company to rethink its decision. But sometimes, people have already made up their minds when they call us.

“You’ll never look good in a size 6 when you’re a size 12 company.”

It’s something you learn working with the best of the best, let alone covering the fashion beat in Las Vegas for several years. Yep, even I know that size 6 women don’t always look good in size 6 outfits. So much depends on the designer, cut, and pattern. (Not to mention how important underwear can be.)

Sure, we did everything we could to convince the company to rethink the decision. But in this case, their minds were made up. Despite being station-produced, one of the spots even won an award. But in terms of results, all they really did was reinforce the need for water purification, prompting listeners to call the competitor whose brand dominated the station.

Sometimes perception is like that. You think your company looks one way, even reinforced by misapplying SWOT. But in reality, it really looks like something else in the marketplace.

Much like Layla, they attempt to mimic the identity of their perceived competition by wearing several sizes too small (because they refuse to wear a size bigger) or settling for cheaper, baggier clothing to hide perception rather than embracing their best qualities in reality.

In terms of Kressley’s show, no doubt some people will have mixed feelings about convincing women to parade around naked for a photography shoot. But if you can get past that little bit of Lifetime novelty, I suspect it stands a good chance of delivering on the promise of a perception revolution for women looking for a self-esteem boost. You can look successful and beautiful at any size.

Of course, the same thing can be said for companies, which brings me to the takeaway. Communication plans don’t work unless you know what you look like naked. And most companies have no idea what they look like because they rely too heavily on looking in the mirror. Don’t they know? Mirrors only show you want you want to see, and almost never what is reality.

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Friday, December 7

Saving Face, Sort Of: Mark Zuckerberg

Everybody likes talking about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. And what’s not to like?

As a Harvard student in 2004, Zuckerberg founded the online social networking Website Facebook. As a young entrepreneur in 2006, he passed on a $1 billion offer from Terry Semel, then CEO of Yahoo! A year later, Microsoft infused $240 million into the social network, putting the 23-year-old on the fast track.

Never mind all that other stuff. Never mind the old ConnectU controversy; it was tossed out, um, for now. Never mind the lawsuit against the Harvard alumni publication for invasion of privacy over an article (irony). Never mind he basically lied to Louise Story of The New York Times about opting in to Beacon, which gathers up information about you on Facebook and away from Facebook.

Never mind. Never mind, because Mark Zuckerberg is sorry.

He’s sorry because “the problem with our initial approach of making it an opt-out system instead of opt-in was that if someone forgot to decline to share something, Beacon still went ahead and shared it with their friends.”

In other words, he’s sorry that you, and me, and probably Louise Story are too stupid to opt-out on his terms and that’s much more important than what he told The New York Times anyway. After all, Facebook, by slurping up our online lives, is only trying to make it easier for us to share with our friends, Facebook, and anyone who might happen to ask. If only we would all see it his way.

Most people do see it his way. Even Brian Solis, who I read regularly, seemed to take one look at Zuckerberg, smile and write “His words, most notably, his apology, humanize the company.”

Sure, Solis also noted the apology was less than perfect, but this sentiment represents how badly people want Facebook to be what it could be and not necessarily what it is.

Solis is not the only one. According to Forbes, everyone from MoveOn, which called the change "a big step in the right direction," to Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who said "Facebook is learning that privacy matters. It's signaling that it does care about how it's viewed and how important trust is to online businesses," has accepted.

But, what did Zuckerberg really do? If he were a pickpocket, the Beacon fiasco might be likened to stealing a Jackson from your wallet and giving you back a Lincoln with a song, dance, and smile. Zuckerberg is one of the few who can get away with it.

Why? Because many people feel that they need Facebook more than Facebook needs them. And as long as this “feeling” remains, and some people treat Facebook as if it is the air we breathe, then we can expect more creepy than cool for a long time to come.

Far, far fewer people have put any real thought into what is actually occurring beyond the apology. Wendy Grossman is one of them. Brian Oberkirch is another. Jack Flack is yet another.

But in the great game of public relations, where perception and reality don’t always intersect, a few voices can often be outweighed by the many. And that means sincerity matters less than presenting yourself as people expect you to.

So when it comes to Zuckerberg, it seems to me that the world expects everything, except for Facebook being a responsible corporate citizen. Thus, as long as the traffic continues to surge for Facebook, “sort of” sorry will be good enough. Hmmm … no wonder Zuckerberg usually sports a boyish smile.

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