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

Wednesday, December 2

Being Authentic: Demonstrated, Not Stated

One of the most common bits of advice bandied about social media is for companies entering social media to be authentic. And as a result, many marketers have listened, making the claim that they are practicing authenticity for themselves and their clients or companies. We're authentic, they say.

"What bothers me now is that every time I hear a marketing pro utter the word 'authentic,' I cringe," says Olivier Blanchard, brand strategist behind The BrandBuilder Blog. "It's become dissonant."

Dissonant indeed. Blanchard's point, punctuated by the idea that authenticity is an outcome more than a practice, not only resonates but has research to back it up.

Can companies and marketers practice authenticity?

Sam Goslin, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests the answer might be no. He and his team analyzed 236 profiles of college-age types in the U.S. and Germany (from Facebook and StudiVZ, SchuelerVZ) and then established a baseline personality assessment by sending questionnaires to the owners in order to measure actual traits that individual thought would be ideal for them.

By comparing the social network profiles with the perceived and actual personality types of their owners, Goslin's team was then able to work out if the profiles did a better job of representing the actual or idealized personality traits. According to the Fast Company article, people either weren't trying to idealize their online persona or they were trying and failing.

How to demonstrate authenticity without saying it.

A simple takeaway from the Fast Company article for individuals is that they might learn to be comfortable with who they are. The same can be said about companies, which tends to be at odds with most marketing positions as recently illustrated by Richard Pinder, chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide in the Guardian.

"Today's marketing imperative is to manage conversations about brands," Pinder said. "We are seeing a switch from being a brand manager to being a brand guardian and influencer. That is a very different place to be sitting."

As much as he is right, he is wrong. Attempting to be a brand guardian and influencer isn't sustainable unless the brand position comes from a place of authenticity. And for most companies, much like some people, they are not as comfortable with who or what they are as they might think.

Too many companies chase after digital tribes online, and then adjust their positions based on listening to those tribes in order to maximize their reach. The tactic, and it is a tactic, aims to create a package that appeals to a broad spectrum of prospects without considering that the contents might be more important to the consumer than the packaging.

That's not to say packaging isn't important. Packaging is important, but it requires some self-imposed constraints to ensure the packaging matches or is an extension of the contents. Nobody wants to open a diamond box and discover a rock. And most people would pass on opening a rumpled up newspaper, even if it contains a diamond.

This was the genius behind Gary Dahl's pet rock in the 1970s. It never needed to apologize for what it was. It was a rock and said so right on the outside of the box. It doesn't get more authentic than that.

And, as a result, pet rocks didn't need brand guardians or influencers. Dahl would have only needed those if he was trying to make the pet rock something other than what it was. Brand guardians or influencers, on the other hand, are most often charged with protecting the image of a company against the opinions of others, especially if those opinions are different, which is the opposite of authenticity.

Wasn't that the lesson Southwest Airlines once taught us? They didn't have to convince people or apologize for a boarding system that resembles cattle herding. They simply stated the organized chaos was reflected in the price rather than make claims it was a better boarding solution. Authenticity is demonstrated.

Tuesday, December 1

Opting Out: American Greetings

"... but what if people don't want to opt in your content? Wouldn't it be so much better to ask them to opt out? What do you think?" — Valeria Maltoni

Maltoni already knows the answer to the question she posed on her much more substantive post "Lists, Permission, and Content Marketing." American Greetings Corporation does not.

In 1996, at about the same time American Greetings launched its first site,, it also launched, and, concepts that were designed to capture consumers from different demographics. The classic marketing strategy seemed to be working. Between the three sites, the company boasts two million paying subscribers.

To help put that in perspective, the subscription rate for is $15.99 per year. However, to really understand the presumed success of the mom and pop vignette e-card shop identity propped up with American Greetings cash, you have to look below the surface and under a few rocks. It does not rely on quality content as much as sleight-of-hand marketing.

The enrollment process requires customers to provide all payment information prior to receiving a "free" 30-day trial. If you have any concerns, borrows the VeriSign Secured brand and Better Business Bureau (BBB) brand, pointing consumers to this BBB page.

However, if customers search the BBB on their own, leaves a different impression. The BBB processed a total of 301 complaints in the last 36 months (from people willing to take the time over $15.99). And of those complaints, only 198 were closed in the last 12 months. In fact, the subscription trap scheme was so disingenuous, the BBB contacted the company in April and sought cooperation in addressing the underlying cause.

The company responded in May, promising changes to be implemented by June. The BBB took the company's response in good faith, never realizing that American Greetings didn't fix the problem but rather elongated the process. No follow up by the BBB has occurred. So we followed up.

The American Greetings Subscription Trap Scheme

This morning, I received notification that would extend my membership for another year, at the new rate of $15.99. I originally subscribed to on a trial basis to evaluate its system and, like many consumers, failed to opt out in time because there was no prompt that the trial membership was expiring. No worries. I decided to stay with the system a year, promptly forgetting about it until receiving notification this morning.

To ensure that you enjoy uninterrupted access to the heartfelt cards your friends and family have come to expect from you, we'll continue your eCards Membership for the next year at $15.99 as your current eCards Membership was scheduled to end on 12/15/2009 00:00. It's automatic -- we'll simply use the payment method we have on file, unless we hear from you. The charge will occur on the date of your expiration noted above.

It went on to say that if I wanted to cancel my membership, I could find the instructions in their Help section or simply click on the link. It seemed easy enough, even if I had to retrieve a long-forgotten password. Here is what the Help section said:

To request a cancellation of a subscription, please contact our membership support center by calling 1-888-254-1450, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 8 p.m. EST

Since customers outside of the U.S. and Canada are allowed to cancel online, I decided to submit an online complaint and cancellation request anyway. Within minutes, BlueMountain customer support sent me notification that said "For security reasons, we are unable to process cancellation requests via email," which was followed by Terms of Service outlining customer obligations.

The explanation defies logic.

American Greetings wants consumers to believe that an online service enrolling members online and accepting payments online cannot accept membership cancellations online for security reasons. But more than likely, American Greetings wants to prevent cancellations. And if there is any doubt, the call confirmed it.

Customers hoping to cancel their memberships are greeted by an automated recorded call service with voice recognition technology. My first thought was that the technology belongs to a union, given the set hours of operation.

My second thought was that it is disingenuous that the recording requires a membership number, last name, and the original phone number to verify the identity of the caller. ( doesn't tell customers to have any of this information prior to calling.)

If you miss any of the questions or if you do not speak slowly enough for the machine, you cannot proceed or cancel your membership. If you do answer all of the questions, your name is likely added to a marketing list that will be sold at some later date. We suspect that to be the case because once you answer these questions, you are transferred to a live scripted customer service representative who has to verify the identity of the caller.

The scripted customer service representative then asks for your membership number, last name (to which she verifies the first name), and a mailing address before asking why you are calling. Except, the customer service representative is not interested in helping you. She has a script to read.

The script is designed to prevent your cancellation, offering a reduced subscription rate or reward. And, even after the cancellation is confirmed, the representative asks you to hold for a bonus offer. A bonus offer for canceling? As tempted as I was to play along for this post, even I couldn't justify wasting another five minutes for what seemed like a 20-minute process.

Twenty minutes is longer than most customers will sacrifice for $15.99. American Greetings knows it.

Does The American Greetings Scheme Pay Off?

It's a valid question given the brand value. How can American Greetings, even if it is hiding behind the brand, justify the considerable risk associated with a subscription trap scheme for $15.99 per year? Or, perhaps more appropriately, was this the model Jacob Sapirstein, a young Polish immigrant, envisioned when he set out to achieve the American dream with ambition, ethics and hard work?

That seems doubtful. It doesn't even seem to be what shareholders expect since the company's first public offering in 1952, but it does seem to fit the pattern of progress since Zev and Jeffrey Weiss were entrusted to oversee the varied brands in 2003.

Since 2004, American Greetings seems to have headed in the wrong direction, delivering an increasingly diminished return when compared to the S&P 400 and its own self-defined peer group. Last year, in fact, the company experienced a net loss of $227.8 million. It was the worst performance in the last five years of diminishing performance.

If there is an e-card for karma, someone might consider sending them one with a bit of marketing advice. Q: Wouldn't it be so much better to ask them to opt out? A: Only if you want to follow in the footsteps of what used to be one of America's best-loved and most trusted greeting card brands.

Monday, November 30

Engaging Consumers: Retailers Use Social Media

Deloitte’s annual holiday survey results provided the first glimpse of what some retailers already knew. Social media works.

With more than half of all consumers using the Internet to search for discounts, research gifts, and ask friends and family what they might like, retailers that engaged consumers via blogs and social networks are realizing a return on investment despite tighter budgets.

Some, like Toys "R" Us, launched their own apps to offer a sneak peek of the chain’s in-store Black Friday specials. Other retailers, like Staples, used social media to advertise price cuts of nearly 50 percent for Nov. 27 on certain laptops, GPS devices and computer monitors. A few retailers employed best practices to help consumers do everything from debug a new purchase to finding parking spots while independent sites offered shopping round ups, online and off.

The Three Phases Of Retail Engagement

For companies still hesitant to embrace social media on some level, there is a lesson to be learned. The flexibility of communication intent works on multiple levels — before, during, and after a purchase. The online environment intersects and overlaps the offline environment.

• Before The Purchase. Consumers tend to research products and services online, forming a composite from multiple opinions: manufacturers, retailers, reviewers, friends and consumers. Depending the approach, social media provides an opportunity for discovery, education, and comparisons.

• During The Purchase. Consumers, especially those with smart phones, are increasingly likely to use social media tools and technologies to locate where a product or service is based on proximity, price, or even to find specific information. While some companies still make the mistake of thinking consumers relate online sales to online stores, an increasing amount of customers use social media to decide which offline stores they might visit.

• After The Purchase. Consumers not only provide feedback and reviews, but also have an opportunity to engage retailers with questions and direct feedback. Retailers with an online presence can engage a percentage of consumers who are interested in receiving future announcements, special appearances, incentives, and/or discounts.

While retailers are still rightly concerned about consumer confidence, social media is providing an essential economic connection. Sometimes it is less important to convince more people to buy than it is to find those people who are already buying.

Thursday, November 26

Going Savage: Thanksgiving

"I do not feel able to encourage your art. It revolts me and I do not understand it." — Roujon, director of Beaux-Art, to Paul Gaunguin

In 1883, Paul Gauguin gave up his job as a successful stockbroker to free himself from the trappings of French civilization and sacrifice everything for his artistic vocation. Although most people might not known Gauguin as well as his friend Vincent van Gogh, his witty, wide-ranging and aphoristic thinking made a lasting impact on Impressionism.

Side by side with art, he wrote,
And his critics could not prevent it.
He penned his words much like his art,
Daring amateurs to try, and not lament it.

Primitive art on burlap sacks,
Naked flames and blackened sands.
His quest for talent over genius fed
By trading etiquette for native lands.

It was under Temetiu
His friends and family far behind;
A painter’s heart breaks, so far away
From the café, on the Boulevard, No. 9.

— Richard Becker, from his Figment collection

At first blush, this might not seem very fitting for a Thanksgiving post. But I've always been fascinated by the undercurrents of culture and unseen influence at the hands of people so easily diminished by others with measures of popularity and a prejudice for rules. Paul Gauguin was one of those people.

So in searching for things to be thankful for this year, I decided to settle on the people who read, comment, contribute to not only this blog but also the various social networks, message services, and public gatherings I subscribe to and participate in.

You make a difference.

So thank you, as I'm grateful for all those seemingly insignificant moments that have made up an immeasurable amount of unseen influences that, in some cases, have and will span my entire lifetime. Happy Thanksgiving. All my best.

Wednesday, November 25

Understanding Economics: Recessions Are Optional

On the day before Thanksgiving, the National Association for Business Economists predicted real growth in gross domestic product for 2010 would be 2.9 percent, up from its October forecast. The forecast is cautiously optimistic, even if the association anticipates the jobless rate might hold at around 10 percent through the second quarter of 2010.

While the estimates seem promising, and mirror other economic data, public sentiment remains stalled. Even among the readers of SmartBrief for CFOs, 42 percent of those surveyed predict the U.S. economy will not begin adding jobs until 2011 or later and almost seven percent wouldn't even hazard a guess.

So who is right? Economists? Employers? The general public?

While it might matter, its significance is about as important as knowing that the sun requires 226 million years to complete one galactic orbit or that our galaxy also moves up and down on a 62-million-year cycle, with biodiversity increasing and decreasing in relation to where we might be. Abundant biodiversity as well as planetary temperatures have historic relevance to our planet and how entire civilizations rise and decline. The people who measure this stuff are astronomers.

How outlook and communication play a critical role in experience.

My grandfather once told me a fable about a gas station attendant and two road-weary travelers looking for a new town to open a new business. While they arrived at different times, both asked the same question. Do you think this town would be a great place to start a business and settle down?

"I dunno," said the gas station attendant. "What was the last town you lived in like?"

The first man frowned: "It wasn't very good for business. The people were lazy, and genuinely unfriendly. Unemployment was high, people wanted to be paid too much, and the housing market had bottomed out. I can't say anything good about it."

"Oh," said the gas station attendant before leaning over to whisper. "You wouldn't like it here then. This town, it's exactly like that. You'd be much better off continuing on and finding a better place than this miserable place."

"Wow," said the man, smiling. "You sure saved me a big waste of time. Thank you."

When asked the same question, the second man smiled: "The people were optimistic, and genuinely friendly. Even in a tight economy, people were willing to work hard, appreciated our efforts in the community, and were generally optimistic about the future. If it wasn't for our expansion, we would have stayed there for years to come."

"Oh," said the gas station attendant. "You'll love it here. This town, it's exactly like that. You can continue on and look if you like, but mister, I think you just found yourself a new home."

"Wow," said the man, smiling. "You sure saved me a big waste of time. Thank you."

When people ask me about what I think about the economy and our outlook, I have two different answers because they are two different questions.

The big picture is pretty obvious, I tell them. As long as employers are waiting for consumers to spend more, and consumers are waiting for better employment, the best anyone can hope for is slow growth through the first two quarters for 2010. And for the most part, that is in line with most economic forecasts.

Our outlook, of course, is different. Since the recessionary pressures took hold, I have always said participation is optional. It is optional because we can either fret along with those best described as the 42 percent who now predict the U.S. economy will not begin adding jobs until 2011. Or, we could invest in finding the 17 percent who predict the U.S. economy will begin adding jobs in the first half of 2010. I'm interviewing my first hire for 2010 next week.

The same can be said for individuals. As much as I think Pat Olsen's post on How to Survive in an Unhappy Workplace might help some people, his third point is the most important of all. With the exception of abusive leadership, workplaces and cities and economies and galactic positions don't make you unhappy. Only you can do that.

It might be the day before Thanksgiving, but it's never too early to be grateful. Until tomorrow then.

Blog Archive

by Richard R Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template