Showing posts with label core message. Show all posts
Showing posts with label core message. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 15

Rebranding: Inside Out Or Outside In?

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

I cannot seem to share this quote enough. Advertisers, marketers, public relations pros, and social media gurus are continually trying to change the way we define branding. In the process, sometimes they abandon one of the most basic branding principles.

Inside Out As The Key To Rebranding?

Jay Ehret, chief marketer at The Marketing Spot, seems to understand this. A few days ago, he likened most rebranding efforts to an attempt to put a new dress on the same tired body. He's right. When most people rebrand, all they change is their spots.

Instead, Ehret suggests that rebranding can only take place through actions. He cites a post by Jason Miletsky, at Mango! as inspiration. Miletsky makes it pretty clear that the change hinges on product offerings and customer relationships, which are conveyed by the new identity and message.

Their ability to deliver on those core values, translated into actions, will dictate the success or failure of the new brand. Actions, more than anything else, are the fundamental determinant in establishing the relationship between a product and its customer. Everything else is merely the symbol of that relationship.

As an analogy, you might say that a caterpillar has emerged as a butterfly and now its actions — fluttering about — will be instrumental in how people relate to it. The wings, colors, etc. only serve to remind us of what it is.

Outside In As The Key To Rebranding?

Interestingly enough, Brian Solis, principal of FutureWorks, shared his take on rebranding a few days later. He shares an edited passage from his book, Engage, which presents a brand reflection cycle.

When Solis talks about the brand, online, he suggests it can be shaped by developing persona through introspection. In other words, you pick important attributes you want and they, in turn, shape your company. The model even conveys the point by nestling the brand within core values, which Solis says are dictated by the audience, environment, and circumstances.

This is a remarkably dangerous approach. It has caused the failure of more rebranding efforts than I can count. Not all of the thinking is wrong, per se, but the application imagines that a company can be whatever it wants to be by the force of will alone.

Unfortunately, persona through introspection teaches a caterpillar to act like a butterfly, even though it is just a caterpillar. Even if you attach fake wings to fool some people, it will not fly.

Rebranding Starts With The Core.

There is no other way to explain it. Core values that exist within a company set the foundation for branding. While you can better communicate what those values are or establish what those values will be, they are what they are.

A caterpillar is a caterpillar. A butterfly is a butterfly. Neither can pretend to be the other because it's not in their nature.

You can see it in the Gulf Coast playing out daily. A few years ago, BP reinvented its identity to be green, following a process not unlike the one Soils prescribes. For the most part, people believed it until its true nature — dictated by recent actions — uncovered the ruse that the green logo represented. The company might have wanted to be the alternative energy butterfly (and maybe one day it will be), but all it really is may be just a petroleum addicted caterpillar munching its way through natural resources.

Actions, not image, dictates brand relationships. If you are not willing to change those (or are unable to do so), you are certainly better off being whatever it is you are. Your core values — which do not change because of the audience, environment, and circumstances — are who you are or what your company is. How you communicate that makes all the difference.

If you want to understand why the core message belongs dead center, review my presentation Simplifying Messages: Why SWOT Is Not Enough. The takeaway couldn't be simpler.

If you are a caterpillar, it's best to put your energy into being the best caterpillar you can be. And with the right message, people might even prefer you over a butterfly.

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Saturday, March 13

Writing For Public Relations: Why SWOT Is Not Enough

You've heard the old saying and so have I. You can't compare apples and oranges. Yeah, sure. All that is fine and good, unless you happen to be in business.

In business, being an apple among apples leaves sales to nothing more than random chance. So, to help distinguish people and products, many agencies invest a good deal of time and client money in developing unique selling points. Sometimes they use SWOT.

As a strategic planning method, SWOT can be very useful. Except, it tends to be too introspective. And therefore, it's not enough.

The above deck is a supplement deck for Writing For Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The intent of this deck is to provide students with an understanding of SWOT, but then demonstrate how CORE message systems further help identify people, products, services, and companies in the marketplace. You can find a written comparison between the two here. Enjoy.

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Thursday, July 2

Messaging: What Is It Anyway?

Any time Geoff Livingston writes anything about "messaging," I had a tendency to put my cup of coffee down. I'm likely to burn my lip or stain my shirt.

So back on June 16, coffee in hand, I started to put it down shakily as I read the headline of a Livingston post. "Conversation Starters: A Modern View of Messaging." Oh boy, I thought, it's still early here on the West Coast.

But as I read on, I stopped short of the coaster. His post wasn't to point out the evils of message control (as some people use interchangeably with message management), but rather the prompts for companies to reevaluate their messages. It wasn't too early after all.

A Modern View Of Message Management

I'm not really sure where message management became entwined with guarding company secrets or spinning away questions to avoid pertinent answers, but what Livingston describes as the modern view of message management is what I always believed it to be. Externally, it's fluid and responsive to the public. Internally, it's just a way for everyone to be on the same page.

After all, it takes 80 impressions (some say as many as 240 impressions) before a message begins to stick. So, simply put, if Bob says the best feature is price, and Sally says the best feature is quality, and Fred says the best feature is delivery, then the consumer — much like reading 20 bullet points in a newspaper ad — won't remember any of it. And frankly, chances are that two of the three are wrong anyway. Who knows? Maybe they are all wrong.

So what Livingston proposes in his post is quite simple. What do the customers say it is? Unless they are factually wrong, that is probably what the message ought to be.

Of course, that's not to say that companies can't start somewhere. Propose any authentic message you want. The lesson here is just don't marry it. Hmmm ... I'll drink to that. Next cup is on me, Mr. Livingston.

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, July 8

Thinking About Socialprise: Geoff Livingston

Have you ever joined two different forums on the same topic and had different experiences? Most people have, but few ever consider the reason.

Both forums create their own unique cultures, which is largely dependent on preexisting but unwritten guidelines within those forums. You know, the communication that takes place there.

In most cases, it’s defined by the participants. In some cases, it’s defined by volunteer moderators. And in a few cases, it’s defined by the developers who interact with the population. But what most people do not realize is that the forum owners, even if they do not know it, have a choice.

Communication defines cultures, online and off.

It’s not just forums. Walk into two convenience stores with the same name, and you might have two different experiences. Walk into some coffee shops with the same name, and they feel somewhat the same. It has nothing to do with proximity, and everything to do with the communication structure.

Geoff Livingston touches on this in his newest white paper on social enterprises, which is very close to being right. The next step goes well beyond implementing two-way communication models across multiple departments.

The suggested shift swings too far.

It seems to me that the only real challenge is some people apply too much prevailing social media think, which was largely driven by Shel Israel and Doc Searls, on a model that was meant to be two-way communication, but not customer-driven one-way communication. As Livingston points out...

… “Shel believes that companies need their people to act as individuals on behalf of the corporate entity in socialized worlds. Because of the very nature of social media, it will be much harder for companies to diffuse their messages as an entity.”

… “In the “Cluetrain Manifesto,” Doc Searls said there’s no market for messages. Ten years later this still holds true. Canned messages meant to manipulate customers into buying bad product are disregarded.”

Because these ideas are only half right, it’s driven some to conclude that the customers always need to drive the company. And a lack of messages will surely help drive a company in that direction.

Can messaging work in the world of two-way communication?

It’s essential that they do. No, I do not mean “canned messages meant to manipulate customers into buying bad product are disregarded.” But messages that provide a context for the culture they hope to create are vital to a vibrant company. When it’s done right, it’s natural — not necessarily top down, but always from the inside out.

If more companies realized that they can have the best of both worlds — authentic two-way communication between top management, departments, and the company and its customers as well as a manageable (not controllable) message that helps define the company — then social media might not seem so unmanageable. At times, it can seem like a free for all, but it does not have to be.

The challenge isn’t so much controlling the message. It’s defining “what” or, more precisely, “who” the company is to its employees and customers. If a company can get what I call its core message right then the rest is much easier. As authentic messages move from the inside out, it can help create a culture for the company internally and externally.

With such a center — a properly (and accurately) defined company — then the rest is always easier. Ironically, most companies, even Fortune 500 companies, don’t really have one. In fact, it’s one of the very reasons the top five toughest interview questions remain “what does your company do?” and “why should anyone care?”

Don’t believe it? Go around the office today and individually ask several employees those two questions. At most companies, you’ll find as many different answers as the number of employees asked.

Socialprise, as Livingston has adopted it, is worth taking a look at. Yet, until companies have a working definition of “what” or “who” they are, the concept falls flat (but not because the concept is flawed). Why? Because it’s not just the conversation or the engagement alone. It’s also about the context in which they occur.

Wednesday, October 24

Increasing Traffic: Magazine Publishers

“The advertising dollar has never been more scrutinized, measured and quantified than it is today. What was once a bottomless pit of marketing capital emptied into the hands of advertising mavens, today’s advertising dollar is being doled out with expectations for a tangible return on investment.” — Thomas Banks, CEO, FlexSCAN, Health Business Week

You know the Internet is having an impact when Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) compiles independent research that documents how various online and offline media influence consumer behavior online.

The research, which includes third-party surveys and new quantitative analysis, is aimed at the role of media in driving online traffic, search, and purchase behavior, as well as the role of media in driving consumer response to online video ads. The conclusions, published across several reports, demonstrate the significance of an integrated communication. Here is a sampling:

• Offline media perform well in driving Web traffic and search — often better than online media, even when URL addresses are missing or not prominent.

• Media synergy is important, although each medium influences online behavior differently and plays a distinctive role.

• Looking at qualified search—those consumers ready to make a purchase—paints a different picture of media usage than total search, which is most often the focus of advertisers.

• When looking at the role individual media play in driving Web results, magazines most consistently drive Web traffic and search.

One must-read is How Media Drives Online Success that includes the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) study. It looks at which media performs best at influencing consumers to start a search for merchandise online.

Another must-read is a two-part report, Accountability and Accountability II, that also looks at consumer online behavior. One of the most significant findings from my point of view was the impact of integrated communication or what the MPA calls "media synergy."

Media synergy: more media gets better results.

While we were not surprised that integrated communication had a better impact across all measures than one medium — brand awareness, advertising awareness, message association, brand favorability, and purchase intent — we were taken by the extent. Print (magazines), television, and online advertising, when used together, delivered 2.5 times to 4 times more impact than one medium alone.

However, what the study does not include, is that magazine advertising (which the report says drives the most Web traffic and search) tends to be more in sync with accurate message delivery than television or online advertising. Television advertising tends to lean toward overly creative, sometimes convoluting the message, whereas online advertising, for the most part, tends to be devoid of message in favor of logo banners.

Until communicators sync messages, internally and externally, it seems likely that communication and marketing plans will continue to deliver mixed results. Public relations and social media practitioners would also be well served to be on the same page, shifting focus to stories and opinions about anything to get ink and toward reinforcing their core message.

What does that mean? It means to stop asking the majority of people to learn 100 things about your company on one medium and focus more on that one point across all media (as your budget allows). One core message across multiple communication streams will deliver better results than multiple messages across one stream.

Wow. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Tuesday, October 9

Listening To Tony:

When Tony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog, said he was going to have fun at BlogWorld & New Media Expo in Las Vegas, I told him to think again.

“What do you mean?” asked Berkman. “I thought you would take me to get a Nathan’s hotdog.”

“… a what?”

“They have Nathan’s hotdogs in Las Vegas, I remember …”

“Um, no.”

“So then what are we going to do?”


“What are we going to talk about?”

“You tell me.”

“You aren’t interested in talking?”

“I’m interested in listening.”

“Are you going to give us a ride from the airport? …”

I started working with BlogCatalog by accident a few months ago. It’s not always formal, but we do have a lot of fun. Sure, sometimes it’s work; other times it’s a partnership. We started a few months ago.

Berkman had come up with an interesting idea to ask BlogCatalog members to use their blogs for good and raise awareness and funds for education through an Omidyar Network sponsored non-profit called It seemed like a great topic for our National Business Community Blog; I e-mailed him and asked for a news release.

It was their first Bloggers Unite campaign, but it wasn’t called that yet. Since they didn’t have a release, I told him I’d be happy to write one up for the blog and he could use it.

The campaign was an interesting idea. With so many bloggers writing from a contrarian’s point of view, this campaign seemed to provide something that social media sometimes lacks. The outcome was inspiring: 1,000 children directly benefited though; and the non-profit organization received a tremendous amount of attention.

The second campaign was bigger. The third was even bigger. We haven’t calculated the outcomes yet. We’ll have a better picture starting tomorrow, after our post for hope competition closes. Even without the measures though, I already know the outcomes will be something worthwhile. BlogCatalog members are all that.

Beyond Bloggers Unite campaigns, we have been brainstorming with Berkman and the team about a couple of ideas related to They are some pretty big ideas; so I cannot post about them. But when Berkman told me he was coming to Las Vegas, I knew it would be the perfect opportunity to kidnap the team for a night and set some of these ideas in motion.

Most communication people like to talk. Unless I’m teaching or giving a presentation, mostly I don’t. I like to listen. Listening is the first step in a process we employ called a core message. I’m not going to write about the core message today (click the label if you want), but I will share one fundamental step: listening.

It makes me wonder. Maybe dialogue isn’t what people crave online. Maybe they want someone to listen.

“ … Did you hang up on me again?” Berkman asked jokingly.

Maybe that’s why BlogCatalog works. The BlogCatalog team over there listens to its members. Jeez, I hope it’s not a quiet evening.

If you haven’t heard about BlogWorld in Las Vegas this Nov. 8-9, Shel Isreal, Mike Arrington, Brian Clark, Arianna Huffington, and David Perlmutter are speaking. And more names that won’t fit in this post. It’s that big.

BlogCatalog will be at BlogWorld; I’ll be lending an assist. You’ll be able to find them at booth # 116 (members might want to watch for the announcement because it comes with good news). After hours, at least one night, the people behind the fastest-growing social network for bloggers will be with me. I'm putting them to work.


Friday, September 28

Thinking Arrows: CBS Corporation

Steven Mallas with the Motley Fool called it right. Les Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS Corporation, sees CBS as a content king.

However, Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, recently said, because of social media (Jericho specifically), “…So I think we are looking at a shift and a change." And with the EyeLab concept, which will give consumers the ability to create short-film clips by editing content from CBS shows, some insiders are calling CBS a “next-generation studio.”

So which is it? Consumers are asking. Some are speculating.

“I do not think CBS even has people in place to evaluate and determine whether or not an opportunity is good for them,” commented Jericho fan blogger Terocious in response to our Tuesday post. “I think the company's success with new media must be coming from a small minority within the company who sees the possibilities and is pushing for them.”

Small minorities who see possibilities and push for them.

I agree. This seems to be happening inside CBS. But will that work?

Let’s imagine Moonves as an archer. He wants to hit the bulls-EyeLab for viewers, critics, shareholders, and, well, lots of different publics. If he does, then he is an expert. The ratings come in. Fans love the company. The stock soars. Everybody makes money, a portion of which is invested to make even better content.

Of course, it’s not that easy. There are a great number of variables, just like archery. Maybe the archer needs glasses. Maybe the environment is bit windy and could blow some arrows off course. Maybe the best arrows are too expensive so some of his arrows are slightly inferior compared to others.

Add to all these challenges: arrows that have minds of their own. Right. Unlike real arrows, each CBS arrow represents a small minority of people within the company who want to fly in a slightly different direction because they see a better target or want to adjust for the wind or whatever the case may be. Well, your chances of hitting the mark are suddenly pretty thin.

Successful communication requires one archer with great vision and unwavering arrows.

Companies that win have a quiver full of arrows that will always fly in the same direction. They will likely hit the mark, every time. Or, maybe they have an archer who is intuitive enough to listen to what the arrows are telling him or her and adjust. Either way, it works.

Some people like to tell me this is impossible, especially with big companies like CBS. They tell me that building internal consensus within a big corporation is an impossible task and maybe a waste of time. But that’s not exactly true. We do it all the time.

Teaching archers and arrows to work together and hit the mark.

A couple years ago, I was hired by a major utility to help create a graphic standards manual so its identity would always have some semblance of consistency (eg. no pink logos). The challenge, I was told, was that everybody — some 40 stakeholders within the company — all had different ideas about the company’s identity. (In other words, lots and lots of thinking arrows.)

What I really wanted to do was to use our core message process because one of the benefits is consensus building. But the utility wasn’t really interested because, they said, the geographical distance between several divisions was too far. So, even though we could not use a core message process, I applied a similar method that did not require all 40 stakeholders to be present at once.

I surveyed the arrows, um, stakeholders by e-mail; and then I followed up with interviewers. By the end of my research, I came across a surprising conclusion and laughed out loud.

All 40 stakeholders believed they were the only ones who understood the identity of the company. However, all 40 stakeholders had the same view. They just didn’t know it!

While that doesn’t always happen, it put us in the position to develop graphics standard manual that the arrows felt pretty good about. They liked the diection. Even better, the archer (the communication director in this case) felt very confident in being able to hit the mark every time, no matter who held the bow. They did.

The best external communication works from the inside out.

In sum, all this means is that for companies to succeed with communicaiton, the archer and all the arrows have to agree on the mark and the direction they must travel to hit that mark.

Or, in other words, if they can agree internally, then it’s easier to move a consistent message out into the mainstream. Unfortunately, especially with the advent of social media, more and more companies are sharing their internal opposing viewpoints with the outside world.

The result is mixed messages that leave consumers confused, frustrated, or worse, disenfranchised because nobody believes what the company is saying half of the time. From what consumers are telling me, that is what is happening at CBS, most major networks, and too many companies on or off the net.


Wednesday, July 11

Branding Public Figures: Tom Cruise

I’ve been working on a mathematically provable brand theory for the last few months and Nicole Sperling’s article on Tom Cruise that appears in the July 13 edition of Entertainment Weekly provided a pretty good public figure example of its most basic (but not complete) premise.

She points out that Cruise’s brand used to be all about his boyish charm turned “rugged good looks, flashy smile, and three Oscar nominations.” But then something happened, starting just prior to the release of Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds (photo above).

Cruise’s increasingly visible dedication to the controversial beliefs that accompany Scientology has produced brand instability and disastrous results. Most recently, on June 25, the German Ministry of Defense announced that “it did not want him to film United Artists’ upcoming WWII movie Valkyrie at the country’s Bendlerblock war memorial” because, according to ministry spokesman Harald Kammerbauer, Tom Cruise is affiliated with a cult.

The ministry has since backtracked, now saying their decision has “nothing to do” with Cruise being a Scientologist. Likewise, Cruise has made the case that he is always an actor first and foremost. Hmmm… neither statement seems very credible and there is a very simple explanation that fits in within the aforementioned theory, which we might call the “Fragile Brand Theory.”

The Fragile Brand Theory accepts the definition that a brand is the net sum of all positive and negative impressions of the subject, Cruise in this case, and then breaks it all down into something that resembles an atom.

Imagine Cruise (the person, not the brand) is like a nucleus that represents the reality of Cruise. It doesn’t really matter what this reality is because people will generally accept realities regardless of what they are, which is why very, very different public figures usually succeed (whether you like them or not): Rush Limbaugh, Paris Hilton, John Edwards, John McCain, Al Gore, etc. Really, it doesn’t matter who any of these people really are because while the nucleus is related to and can be impacted by a brand, it is not the brand.

Unlike the nucleus, brands are reliant on the collective public’s perception about people, products, and companies. As mentioned, they are the net sum of positive and negative impressions. Using the atom illustration, they might look like layers of electrons that circle the nucleus, with the strongest, most authentic electrons being closest to the nucleus, and those that are “made up” or “stretched” being the furthest from it. When too many electrons are too far from the nucleus, the more likely a brand will become unstable, collapse, or be ripped apart.

In a case study of Cruise, the 1995 off-screen Cruise brand came close to mirroring the image of the much-loved character Jerry Maguire (and most characters Cruise portrayed before that). He was a somewhat private but daring actor who, despite being overconfident at times (the classic pride comes before a fall syndrome so many of his characters endure), always managed to better himself and triumph in the face of insurmountable odds.

That is a very different brand than the post-2005 Cruise brand we see today. Now, most of his impressions seem to suggest an arrogant and impulsive actor who frequently uses his fame to argue controversial topics if not create controversy while promoting beliefs grounded in Scientology. Actor first? We think not.

Regardless of how you feel about Cruise, Scientology, his relationship with Katie Holmes (including the Oprah brouhaha), or his war against certain prescription medication (which was at least half right as supported to the extreme by John Travolta), the Fragile Brand Theory suggests whoever the real Cruise is (1995 or 2005) doesn’t matter. What matters is that current public opinion is a reaction to the realization that the 1995 brand they loved is apparently very different from the reality that seems to be.

Generally, if the majority of all electrons remain close to the nucleus, they are more likely to remain in place, creating an extremely strong brand that can withstand anything. But when the majority of all electrons are revealed to be too far away from the nucleus (or in contrast to the existing brand), it becomes unstable.

In other words, if Cruise always acted like he has over the last two years, recent events would hardly be considered controversial let alone impact his career. But, since he has not always acted like this (at least that is the perception), he is suffering from brand instability.

Personally, I don’t really know whether the old Cruise or new Cruise is the real Cruise, but what I do know is that the Fragile Brand Theory demonstrates why a public figure like Britney Spears will always find public sympathy after countless train wrecks and public figures like Mel Gibson will always receive public scorn over a single drunken outburst. En masse, the public does not like it when public figures do not meet brand expectations. (Eg. the Paris Hilton brand can go to jail, but she’s not allowed to cry over it.)

Or perhaps this provides a better example: Rosie O’Donnell can run amok at the mouth because we expect it; Oprah, on the other hand, has to be a bit more cautious as she presents herself to be a grounded and trusted advisor.

In sum, one of the most basic concepts within the Fragile Brand Theory suggests it is more important to stick with your brand choice — whether you choose a halo or horns — than the choice you make.

Of course, you also might want to keep in mind that if your brand is more made up than real, sooner or later, it will collapse under the sheer weight of contrary actions or be pulled apart by unanswered accusations made by more credible sources. It also assumes you or your consultants know how to brand from the inside out; sadly, many say that they can, but most cannot.


Friday, April 6

Counting Casualties: DraftFCB

Of all the casualties related to the Julie Roehm vs. Wal-Mart legal battle, the quietest past participant seems to be nursing the largest wounds. According to Noreen O'Leary's Apr. 2 story in ADWEEK, DraftFCB is still in the shadow of scandal.

Although there is no public evidence that the agency's recent account woes are linked to Wal-Mart, O'Leary writes that some claim reviews of the $1.5 million John Deere and $3.5 Applebee's account may both be linked to the scandal. (DraftFCB will not participate in these reviews). Along with these accounts, Qwest Communications, a $95 million client that generates about $15 million in revenue, confirmed it is launching a creative review. The story also implies that S.C. Johnson and Verizon Communications are less secure.

"Whenever there's negative press, there's going to be short-term damage. But I don't think there's any fundamental damage to Howard or his agency," said Michael Roth, chairman of Interpublic Group. "In this business, you're only as good as your last account win. This model of the future, of putting these two companies together and winning Wal-Mart, proves the validity of it. I'm still very bullish about this (the DraftFCB merger)."

Others disagree. One former FCB employee described the mood at the company's New York flagship as "grim," according to O'Leary. "Everyone knew from the beginning that Draft would take the lead, but still, it's as if 100 years of FCB heritage is being shredded by Howard Draft."

I think Roth might be right. If DraftFCB can land a major account that gives it the opportunity to demonstrate creative result-driven work (which has not been easy for the Draft side, some say), it may be able to reverse its course. However, this is a very tall order and will require a sympathetic high-profile major account.

Part of the challenge will no doubt be reflective of the ADWEEK poll that revealed 29 percent of the 2,400 respondents said Draft fared the worst in recent industry scandals, second only to Roehm, with 46 percent. Although recent publicity that revealed Wal-Mart's past electronic surveillance and other espionage missions against employees was extreme, only 10 percent said Wal-Mart fared worst.

Here's my unsolicited take for the three most visible parties might consider for turnarounds and wins in the months ahead:

DraftFCB — Since you already made amends by supplying e-mails to Wal-Mart, take a page from the JetBlue crisis communication plan (sans apologizing forever) and create an agency ethics guide. Take a breath and consider some Ragan Communications findings that suggest: more than 60 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail to deliver the benefits that are promised—often because of the poor quality of communication. You need a message beyond picking up 90 smaller accounts worldwide. The message you have, Draft ROI with FCB creative, doesn't seem to be working. Spark up some integrated social media pitches and that will frighten other agencies, after they stop laughing.

Julie Roehm — Stop calling yourself a "change agent," drop the suit, get out of the press, take an extended vacation, come back refreshed (perhaps a bit remorseful), and start your own "marketing 2.x" firm, whatever that is. Your first few clients will likely be smaller accounts, perhaps in the automotive industry, but sometimes smaller accounts can turn into giants if your ideas really work. (Bonus tip for Sean Womack: stay away! Stay far, far away!) Marriage counseling wouldn't be a bad idea either, even if you didn't do anything as you said. (By the way, I'm married. Don't e-mail me!)

Wal-Mart — Sure, you asked Roehm to pass on perks from vendors and it didn't work. It's not your fault. But the time has come to give up on the notion anybody will make you happy with traditional marketing. You do need something new, but new doesn't mean Roehm's "progressive" and "sexy" that would have never reached your target anyway. So the best advice for the fine folks working on your next campaign is simply this: to get back to basics and rekindle that grassroots shopping for common people concept you once had before all the public relations nightmares and bad communication consulting distracted you. Who knows? Maybe what I call "income marketing" would be right up your aisle.

"Income Marketing" is marketing that generates income instead of simply producing expenses so that even CFOs might like it. Sure, it sounds like something that goes against my shell game post, but one of my colleagues told me to call it something. Besides, that was part of Amitai Givertz's excellent comment at

Have a nice weekend and happy Easter!


Friday, March 30

Playing Shell Games: Communication Experts

All you need to play a shell game (or Thimblerig according to Wikipedia), is three shells and a pea. Sometimes it is portrayed as gambling, but it is often an illegal confidence trick used to perpetrate fraud.

Now, I am not saying that most people in communication (marketing, advertising, public relations, and related fields) mean to do it (oh, a few of them do), but social media has accidentally unmasked the communication shell game with industry buzz terms and gibberish.

For example, and I cannot be clear enough, social media cannot replace reputation management. Reputation management is a strategy. Social media is a tactic. For the most part, strategies are not measured. Tactics are measured. But the tactical measurement can influence the strategic direction. Confused yet? It gets better when shell gamers get hold of it.

You see, there are plenty of firms who agree that social media is a tactic, but then they try to sell social media "strategies" complete with analytics (the fancy name for Web tracking), saying "never mind the reputation management, because everybody knows reputation management cannot be measured by click-throughs."

Oh gosh. So now it's all about click-throughs? Stop. You're killing me. What about those folks who don't click-through? I see those people all the time who mysteriously find their way to the exact page they want on my blog because those sly little Internet savvy voyeurs don't click ... they re-input the Web address. Darn you. You know who you are (and I'm joking ... come here any way you like).

Or how about those experts who damn traditional media, er, mainstream media, er, MSM, er, whatever, because blogging, er, social media, er, SM, is so powerful that businesses just don't need traditional media anymore. (By the way, they say, did we mention that we are so right about this ... that we're being interviewed by a major print publisher? Egad! I thought you said it didn't matter so why brag!?!)

Or maybe, if you're very lucky, they'll invent a whole new term to explain what other people are already doing, just so they can look like experts. It works like this ... today, I'll call social media, um, a social computing network. Then, when competing firms come knocking, I'll say "Naw, they are no good, I bet they don't even know what the social computing network is." (I don't do that ... as I have said before, I'm happy to speak any variation of English, having already learned if the client wants to call a brochure "chicken soup," then I'm all in for chicken soup. Why split hairs?)

Recently, a self-described student of social media (I love his humility, considering he's more an expert than some experts), Amitai Givertz unmasked one of them on a slide show at Blogversity Blog. At first, it gave him pause.

There's nothing wrong with that. And then, when I hinted that the entire slide was baloney, he was all in to be more specific in what he was thinking. And, not surprisingly, we agreed.

The presentation said things like this (no order):

"Blogging changes the writer’s behaviour more than it changes the readers’ behaviour."

"If your brand is going to blog you need to understand what you want to change about it."

"Social media demand that you trade control for influence."

"Brands only have a role if they can make the conversation more interesting."

"We have to get comfortable with managing the immeasurable."

"Maybe media agnostic would be a better term."

Media agnostic? Remember what I said about inventing terms. Yeah, now you're seeing it.

This is all utter nonsense. Twenty-six slides that smack of a shell game. For instance, if your blog controls your brand and affects your behavior more than than the consumer, you've got real problems.

However, as I pointed out at Blogversity, there is an erroneous assumption that brands can be controlled. It only takes … one tanker spill in Alaska … one tire recall … one bad bunch of spinach … to see how fragile brands can really be.

Givertz goes on to point out some of the flaws in the slide (there are too many to correct in a single post; each slide could be a post in fact). One of my favorite slide rebuts from him reminds us that the brand and its message to communicate and stimulate emotional attachment and identification of the subject with its consumers must somehow correlate with the medium, when in fact, whether the medium is a billboard, blog, or urinal splash-mat ... it is nothing more than a means to an end.

Yep. The medium is the messenger for your brand, but not necessarily the message. Or, in other words, your brand and message should dictate how you use any number of tools at your disposal, including blogs or social media or whatever the term du jour is.

Hey, I'm coming dangerously close to touching on the validity of strategic communication, something I know a lot about. But I don't want to do that today so here is a nutshell version...

Strategic communication is the best method of thinking to align strategies like reputation management, mission statements, corporate values (and whatnot) AND integrate marketing, advertising, and public relations to deliver a core message (not key messages) interwoven in multiple mediums like blogs, ads, direct mail (and whatnot) to change the behavior of consumers, specifically to get them to buy your product as opposed to someone else's product and, at the same time, make them feel good about their purchasing decision so they'll tell other people to do it too.

Wow! That's an awfully long sentence and here is the rub: anything can influence strategic communication at any level, but the control is best preserved by the executive management team with consult from your lead communication expert (provided they know what they are doing).

Ironically and unfortunately, a good number of communication experts know that strategic communication (meaning all communication within an organization) can be influenced by any department or subcategory or tool to such a degree that it places a stranglehold on the entire organization and forces them to move in a direction that does not make sense for the company (Ah ha! That IS what Julie Roehm tried to do to Wal-Mart!). And THAT is also the communication industry's shell game.

No wonder recruiters and executive employers always seem miffed when every interviewee is using terms that are alien. Worse, recruiters and employers become so entrenched in buzz words perpetrated by the last "expert," they begin to perplex the next interviewee with useless questions like how big is your Rolodex. Frankly, it gives the industry a bad name.

Here is the bottom line: If you're a recruiter or executive, don't be fooled by all this nonsense. At the end of the day, there is only one measurement. It's called SALES.

Sales and cost savings are the ultimate ROIs (not to take anything away from market penetration or market dominance). So if your communication is driving sales or at least helping your salespeople make sales — or some new communication tools are saving you money — then your communication is working, provided your company is reaching its full sales potential.

So the next time you meet with a communication expert (marketing, advertising, public relations, social media), ask them what are the quantitative and qualitative (measurable) results of their work. If they cannot tell you, keep your eye on the pea ... 'cause they might start talking about click-throughs and being comfortable with non-measurements.


Wednesday, January 17

Asking Strategic Questions: Maister

David Maister recently posed a great question over at Passion, People and Principles: what does a company need most? And then he lists: mission, vision, values, direction, culture, rules and obligations, or purpose.

Since I have two answers and needed additional space beyond the confines of a comment box, I thought I would reintroduce the question here.

Although I’ve worked with dozens of start-ups and venture capital companies, one of the better models I’ve seen was not presented by a client. It was presented by L. Robert Kimball & Associates, an architectural and engineering company, who lent it to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) a few years ago. The graphic on this page provides the basic concept, but I’ve adapted some terms to better suit my needs.

Anyway, NENA gave me this strategic plan model because I was about to conduct what I call a “core message system” session for the association, and several board members were unclear where a “core message system” might fit within the scope of a strategic plan.

So where does it go? I explained that it fits comfortably in one of two places: a core message system can be implemented as part of a communication plan at the strategic level (strategy). Or, it can positioned to precede values, making it the "foundation for the foundation." But the decision, where it fits best, is largely based upon where the executive team wants to implement it.

The difference between either location, in terms of outcome, is the potential benefit to the organization. Some companies prefer to limit the “core message system” to their communication plan while others want it to infuse into other aspects of their company or organization, ranging from hiring practices to product and service innovation.

After considering this, the board members commented that it seemed more fitting to call the process a “core values session.” With so many business terms being bandied about today, I agreed. For you, I said, it’s core values.

In all honesty, I probably would call it “core values” all the time if not for the simple fact that most business executives balk at the idea that some guy wants to monkey around with their core values. (It’s hard enough to add “strategic” to their “communication.”)

But then again, I never put too much weight on semantics. Instead, I listen to each company’s language and adapt. From what I’ve seen in the field, the difference between a purpose, mission, and vision is all in the eyes of the audience, which brings me back to Maister’s question.

Technically, you can’t choose just one because they are all interconnected. However, if I was going to force an answer, I would lean toward core values.

The only problem in doing so is that we fall into a trap of which comes first: the chicken or the egg?

More to the point, does our culture influence our values or do our values influence our culture? But what about our mission? Mission? Isn’t that dated? Everybody is using “purpose” nowadays. Dated? You mean like stone-washed jeans? I thought we were talking about business? You know, where are going? Ah, vision?

What a mess! I think this is precisely why I fell in love with what I call the core message (but you can call it something else if you like).

I have a much better definition, but for this post, let's say: It’s a process that pulls together key stakeholders (usually defined by the CEO), who are already immersed in the existing corporate culture, to reach a consensus about the company as it exists and will exist in the world. From this understanding, it's easier to establish values. And from values, it's easier to define a purpose, mission, and vision (or direction, I suppose).

Of course, this assumes we’re applying the core message as the foundation for the foundation. As I said earlier, you don’t have to. A communication department can limit a core message to communication with equal success.

So my second answer is a core message system, because it considers everything, including the environment in which the company operates and it's competitors. Of course, since few people have heard of it, I didn’t want to make it my first answer. Besides, it wasn't even on the list.

In closing, just to add clarity to the quick graphic I pulled together, think of it in its simplest terms, working up the pyramid: core values (foundation); purpose (why); target (where); strategy (what); tactics (how); timing (when); and accountability (who). Or, since this is about strategy as opposed to semantics, plug in your terms and see if it fits.

Wednesday, January 3

Managing The Message

“I still feel like a passenger on that JetBlue flight that's watching helpless on my seatback satellite TV as the plane I'm on makes a crash landing,” said one Jobster employee about the recent interest in Jobster, fueled largely by one of the most horrifically handled communication accidents in recent memory. Unfortunately, unlike JetBlue, not all passengers will be landing safely.

According to Jobster, the reorganization to better align its business to focus on the most efficient sales and support channels, as well as its Website, will result in the loss of 60 positions, primarily those supporting in-person sales and support efforts. From a communication perspective, Jason Goldberg and Jobster — which maintains their first priority was to inform affected employees who were left waiting for days to learn their fate in between ill-advised blog posts — lost much more than that.

Although it reads as one of the better posts ever presented under Goldberg's byline, one that causes me to sincerely hope Jobster's smaller and more focused vision for 2007 will return the company to the start-up success story it was in 2004, I wonder if it will be enough to erase the reputation damage it endured externally and employee morale flogging it weathered internally.

You see, reputation management, which includes crisis communication as noted in my last Jobster-related post, can be equal to if not superior to a successful product. When you lose control of it, which is relatively easy to do, it's difficult for anyone to believe your next message.

If we subscribe to the ideal that it takes 80 impressions to make a message stick (and that negative impressions are eight times more impactful than positive messages), Jobster's rebranding as a company and employer that can be trusted will be a difficult, though not insurmountable, task in the year and years ahead.

The reasons are simple enough. As much as we (especially those of us in the advertising and communication field) would like to believe that we control the definition of our company or clients' companies, we really don't most of the time.

Instead, companies are defined by everything executives and employees communicate about themselves daily (whether written, spoken, or by action); everything executives and employees say about the internal working environment; everything others (from members of the media and bloggers to customers and competitors) say about the company, whether real or perceived; and everything other companies (primarily competitors) say about themselves, which causes people to wonder if the company measures up.

At the end of the day, you add up all these messages and therein lies the "real" (not self-perceived) definition of a company. While there are strategies in managing all these messages, most companies or even advertising agencies do not know where to begin. I'll work harder at sharing some insight here and there for those who care to know; most answers take longer than the single confines of a post to appreciate (and that's not to say I have all the answers), starting with eight questions to ask yourself if you are managing your reputation, which I'll share tomorrow.

To all the other social media experts and bloggers who have contributed to (and will continue to contribute to) this living case study, my gratitude. To all the folks remaining at Jobster who read my posts, I sincerely hope you did not find my criticisms and comments too harsh, but an attempt to provide objective commentary. To Jason Golberg, I hope you keep up honest blogging, perhaps though, with a bit a more sensitivity to the message you want people to read. And to all those who are being asked to leave Jobster, this too shall pass. Good night and good luck.

Sunday, May 15

Crafting A Core Message

While I often advise clients that consistency remains the rule rather than the exception for a business blog, there are times when I place blog posting on the back burner for a few weeks at a time. It's par for the course. Like almost every firm in our industry, client communication needs supersede our own.

The pace we've set in May is partly attributed to integrating several new accounts into our schedule, but the primary reason I had to place posting on hold for a few weeks is because we've been implementing core message strategies for two different companies. The first is an innovative manufacturing firm that is continuing to capture a significant market share in the outdoor living/garden market. The second is a new national cable network that will break from traditional programming trends and provide viewers, particularly families, a true choice on television.

While I cannot share specifics on what we are doing with either company because it's our policy to never reveal work in progress until it becomes past tense, I can share some details about our core message system. Simply put, this strategic product is a process that extracts internal and external research, stakeholder information, and market knowledge in order to identify, determine, and develop specific key messages that can be clearly, consistently, and convincingly communicated to a variety of audiences under very diverse circumstances.

Upon completion, the organization benefits from a consistent message that can be employed in communication materials and one-on-one communication at every level to demonstrate a true contrast between the company and the competition, defend against critical review, and encourage a consistent message regardless of the situation, scenario, or circumstance. It moves beyond the traditional model of identifying the sometimes introspective benefits of a unique selling point and more toward an external view that discovers the primary contrast between a company (its philosophies, products or services) and its competition (their philosophies, products or services). We did not invent the concept, but we did refine the original model to work even better for companies and non-profit organizations than it does in the political arena. That's where the original model comes from.

I learned about contrasting messages a few years ago when a now-retired political campaign manager and dear friend of mine, Benay Stout, invited me to attend a grassroots workshop hosted by the Leadership Institute, a training organization for public policy leaders founded in 1979 by Morton C. Blackwell. One of the session segments included how to develop contrast messages for candidates (especially useful when two candidates seem to share similar philosophies on the surface). Shortly after this introduction, it occurred to me that businesses could benefit from such a process with some adjustment. Later, I discovered this process works better than I ever imagined on the front end.

To date, of more than three dozen core message strategies developed for clients and client accounts, we have a 100 percent track record. If the company embraces and implements a core message strategy, they will succeed. It's that simple.

With it, we've helped a tech services firm increase its client base by 720 percent in record time, a commercial real estate company move up two positions to be ranked number one in the market, a business philanthropy organization secure a national grant and increase membership by 80 percent, preserve funding for a state commission at a time when the state legislature had targeted it to be cut ... and the list goes on. In each case, every company and organization that has worked through the process and implemented the core message strategy has succeeded.

The businesses we work with direct love it because of its implementation versatility, making an impact on not only external communication but also internal operations such as human resources and product/service development. The agencies we work with love it for their accounts because the process not only produces results but also solidifies their relationship with the business. For internal communication professionals, it is one process I know of that permanently puts them at the table with senior management.

We love it because there is nothing more rewarding for us than to see our clients and our clients' accounts win. So sure, it might mean that we have to put our own communication strategy on hold from time to time, but then again, I never really set out to write about my own company. For us and those people who work with us, we find fulfillment that is best summed by a quotable I wrote a few years ago to help launch one of the most successful advertising agency starts in Las Vegas: ''follow other people's dreams, my friend, and you may just find yours along the journey.''

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