Friday, December 21, 2012

Pwned.


Sweetie has a charming way of describing the feeling you get when someone is about to make a terrible mistake and you can’t stop them: She says it’s like being in the audience at a play in which we see a clown poised with a cream pie on one side of a door, and an unwitting victim reaching for the knob on the other. I’m feeling a bit like that about branding these days. And the consumer, in case you were wondering, is that clown. To wit:

In the marketing world, we’re trained that the secret to prosperity is to follow popular culture. Stay as close as you can to the front of the zeitgeist – without getting ahead of it – and the cash register will ring. It’s usually a pretty safe policy. In fact, in Consumer Republic, I exhort consumers themselves to understand their role in this dynamic and use it to influence the path of capitalism. Regardless of the fevered conspiracy fantasies of the No-Logoists, that’s the dirty secret of branded marketing. It follows. Only very, very rarely does it get away with leading, and even then not for very long.


But every once in a great while, the zeitgeist will make a sudden turn, without even signaling. One minute the marketplace is trundling along, digesting fashion like a big, happy python, and the next, boom! You’ve got a warehouse full of unsold Hammer pants. It happens. And I think it’s about to happen again, especially to brands who might be putting too much stock in social media as a proxy for that zeitgeist.


I’m not talking, here, about social media’s uneven record for predicting market behaviors (it’s sometimes been spectacularly wrong, about everything from election outcomes to the iPhone 5), or even its still-elusive value as bellwether for consumer sentiment. I’m talking about something more basic, about how we are there. In a year of highs and lows, humanity as we observe it on Twitter and Facebook seemed to reveal itself as quick to anger, shameless in its rhetoric, irredeemably cynical, and having the attention span of a hummingbird. In stark contrast to social media’s giddy dawn, humanity in 2012 seemed strident, sarcastic, hopeless and nihilistic, and unable to turn off its caps lock key.


Woe betide the marketer that thinks this is an insight to build a brand on. It’s questionable whether humanity’s online voice ever really spoke for everybody. But even if it did, I think in about ten minutes humanity is going to get sick of what it’s seeing in Facebook’s mirror and either smash it to pieces or make changes. And if those of us trying to sell small appliances or snow tires or packaged vacations or microwavable pizza pockets decide that the way to connect with people is to share in their nihilism, we’re going to get the biggest almighty pie in the face marketing has seen since Gloria Steinem.


So, just this once, I think we marketers should ignore the meme of the human condition, and focus instead on the real thing. I think we should operate as if consumers – people – are generally good and intelligent, and that they prefer to be hopeful. Those things haven't really changed, regardless of how it seems in your Twitter stream. They’re just vulnerable right now, and that’s put brands in the improbable position of deciding whether to be part of the problem or part of the solution. I think we should pick door number two. Just in case that clown gets there first. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The beautiful flaw.


Recently, I had the chance to spend time with some people who market a product I admire and, frankly, lust for. The things they make are widely regarded as the best of their kind, famous around the world for no-compromise awesomeness. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to get so close to the flame. I just somehow romantically assumed these guys would be their brand incarnate. You can probably sense that things wouldn't work out the way I'd hoped. You're right, they didn't. These folks weren't one bit like the product they sold, at least in the ways that matter. I didn't enjoy my visit at all, and I doubt we'll cross paths again. Apparently, when a product is so good it practically sells itself, you don't have to be.

But it got me thinking about what we become if we don't have to try. About whether perfection, for a marketer, is ultimately a curse. Consider, for the sake of argument, the concept in Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which has to do with accepting that things are transient and imperfect, and that these are essential qualities of beauty. I wonder if maybe they aren't also marks of a great brand, or at least of the culture that drives it. I wonder if maybe the flaw in a product, the imperfection that's the consequence of pragmatic compromise, doesn't protect a brand from complacency. And even define it.

Examples as proof are almost too easy: Consider Apple, whose history was written by the struggle to overcome its own tiny walled software garden. Or Porsche, whose determination to deny the essential flaw of a rear mounted engine produced both its culture and its cult. Or ING Direct, whose lack of branches and, for a long time, even of payment accounts, produced an exuberant customer service culture. Or Southwest Airlines, whose pay-for-peanuts policy merely reassured people they were getting the lowest possible fare. Or Buckley's, the Canadian cough syrup brand whose horrible taste was elevated to being a point of pride, becoming synonymous with efficacy. Or, much more subtly, Toyota, whose determinedly dull product aesthetic whispers reassuringly to owners every day, "you can count on me."

It's inarguably true that our flaws shape us more than our gifts do, if only because we're more invested in them. Gifts are dumb luck (and thus often squandered), whereas flaws build character. I think that might be true of brands, too. I think that if you look hard enough at a brand you love, or the one you work for, you'll find that its very best qualities trace eventually back to some quirk, some shortfall, some flaw, the overcoming of which made it what it is today. Writing this, I realize how often in my own strategic work, I find myself starting with a flaw and finding the virtue in it. How often that's where the soul is.

A former competitor of mine in the agency business used to say that he preferred to do business with number two brands because they had something to prove. I think he was on to something. If you want to make a difference, avoid people who resist change. If you want to help somebody, avoid organizations that think they're perfect. Every great thing you ever do will start with a problem. Not screwing up is just a job. Making virtues out of flaws, well, that's a beautiful way to spend your days, no matter what business you're in.


Friday, October 05, 2012

Liked.


Back in 2007, weeks after Apple launched the iPhone, I wrote a cranky post about RIM, the makers of Blackberry. Permit me an immodest moment: I think it was kind of prophetic. My thesis was that they were headed for pain for the simple reason that they’d let their users define their brand, while they themselves had never seriously stooped to the fundamental act of marketing to Main Street. RIM considered their customers to be the wireless carriers, and most of our contact with the brand consisted of reading about what Jim Balsillie was going to buy next. This was long before the infamous service outages, the disastrous Torch and Playbook, the firing of its CEOs and the embarrassing delay of its new OS. Blackberry seemed to be doing fine, at the time. It just bugged me that they thought themselves above marketing, and I wanted to believe they would one day pay.

This all came rushing back in the past week or so, as Facebook announced its billionth user, and the company made an ad to celebrate. And what an ad. It’s the kind of branded communications I used to love, back in the age of mass media, and still miss sometimes. It’s epic, serious, sentimental, a little morally overreaching, the kind of thing that made brands like Nike great, back in the day. And not coincidentally, it was created by my one of my favourite agencies in the world, Wieden + Kennedy. Unlike a lot of recent attempts to rediscover sentiment in advertising, this one is pretty successful. Note for note, pretty great. And it’s built on the time-honoured proposition that if we can ladder a product’s benefits out far enough, we’ll discover how it makes the world a better place.

And yet it made me cringe. I’m not completely sure why, or whether it will end up having been a fair reaction, but two themes shot me back to those RIM days. I couldn’t quite reconcile the nobility of social networking as the ad portrayed it with the reality of life on Facebook, a parallel universe that is more often about narcissism and pettiness than it is about elevating humanity. And I couldn’t quite reconcile it with the company’s CEO, a character at least as publicly charmless as Balsillie ever was, the difference being that we used to read about the latter wanting to buy a hockey team, while we now read about the former shooting his own food. Wieden + Kennedy’s ad portrays the noble purpose of a company I don’t recognize, but wish existed.

I want to dismiss it in a hail of sarcasm. After all, that’s what sells these days, and it’s not like Zuck and Facebook don’t deserve it. But – speaking as a guy who’s trying to make a career out of rehabilitating branded marketing – I think that would make me part of the problem. Watching it again and remembering just how powerful a cultural force a brand can be, I think what I really want them to do is keep going. Make five more ads just like it, and then ten more. Create a hurricane of righteous rhetoric so relentless that Facebook won’t have any choice but to live up to it. And Mark the smugly reluctant capitalist won’t have any choice but to become Mark the principled leader. So, yeah, Facebook. Great work, well done. I can’t wait to see what you do next. RIM’s story is over, but you’ve still got time. To do the right thing. To make us feel good about being customers rather than coerced into it. To make us actually like you.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Heart of glass.


I’m such a doofus sometimes.

Believe it or not, it still surprises me when branded marketers behave badly. And not only for moral reasons, although those mainly. It’s also because it’s usually a threat to their own economic sustainability. Branded marketers can’t survive for long without goodwill, and that’s the currency they pay with every time they get caught lying, cheating or stealing. I can never quite get my head around willful self-destruction. You probably think that’s ridiculous, given stories like this one, in which a beloved and trusted brand like McDonald’s turns out to be (allegedly) collecting personal data from children online. It’s fashionable these days to roll our eyes and pronounce this kind of thing as “typical,” smug in the moral safety of our cynicism. But I wonder how much we really want to live in a world like we complain this one is. And I wonder if that smugness is part of the problem.

You no doubt recall the story of the ‘Broken Windows Theory’, which essentially holds that adapting to incivility gradually turns it into a social norm. Taking some liberty in interpreting this, it seems to tell me that presuming a civil world in how we conduct ourselves helps ensure that’s the kind we get. That’s how I look at bad corporate behavior. As a broken window that needs fixing, rather than as proof of some sanctimonious anti-capitalist bias. However bad a name capitalism may have these days, in actual practice, nothing else we’ve tried so far has managed to produce more social justice in the course of human history. That means it’s a neighbourhood worth trying to save from delinquents, and cynicism is just going to make it more dangerous. Dangerous because it licenses bad behavior. Dangerous because it makes good behavior seem futile and naive. Dangerous because it ultimately takes the risk of shame out of the culture altogether, which never ends well.

All that would be bad enough for a consumer. It’s worse yet if you’re a practitioner of branded marketing. To me, that’s like having corrupt cops on top of urban decay. But I see it sometimes, the feeling that people who do this for a living are somehow above their work. Or, as someone put it to me recently about a strategic planner he knew, enduring their venal day jobs as a way to finance their careers in electronic music. I feel bad for them. No amount of hipster cred can overcome the embarrassment of doing a job you don’t believe in. Snap brim hat or no, that doesn’t make you much cooler than a sullen, pimply teenager serving McWhatevers at a suburban drive-thru.

So I actually work at being a doofus. Improbable as it may seem, I still greet every new client opportunity with the callowness of a cub scout. I still meet every new corporation as if it was on some kind of passionate mission to save the world, every new marketer as if they were pursuing the Freudian imperative of work that matters. I figure a brand should be something a company has to live up to, rather than being the commercial equivalent of wearing a stocking over your face. More often than you might think, companies like this. Figuratively – and sometimes literally - they sit up a little straighter and look you in the eye when they think you think they matter. I think branding is a bit like parenting in this regard. You get a lot more accomplished when you start from the assumption of inherent goodness. Being wrong the odd time is a pretty small price to pay for what faith can do, even in the boardroom.

You should give it a try, this doofus business. Head to the office next Monday morning as if you worked on Sesame Street. ‘Good Morning Starshine’ and all that. Cultivated naïveté, you may find, becomes your secret weapon. Yeah, it sucks that some companies do bad things. But it would suck a lot more if they all decided there was no profit in doing good ones. Better to fix the window than lose the neighbourhood. Better to be happy than smug.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Spare change.


The final straw came during bookkeeping chores this week. I was taking care of some billing through the web-based accounting service to which I’m a paid subscriber. It’s not a chore I enjoy, but there is no business without cashflow, so I endure it. On this day, instead of my familiar dashboard, up popped a cheery little window in front of my data, breathlessly hailing the arrival of a new user interface. Yay! A new thing to learn! A fresh scoop of awesomesauce to distract me from the job at hand and introduce procedural risk to a critical task. And the best part was, I didn’t really have much of a choice. These guys have the billing and payment records for my consulting business. Short of jumping off a bridge, I have to do pretty much what they tell me to. They can still call me a customer, but instead of one who relies contentedly on their brand to make my business work, I am a reluctant, coerced one. For the moment, at least, they’re like the phone company to me.

As I said, though, this was only the last straw. It was not the only one, nor the most egregious. I have these feelings every time I have to go looking for my lists on Twitter, a feature that used to be right up front where I could check it routinely. Or Timeline, a UI train wreck that served to do nothing other than remind me that Facebook is in it for Facebook. Or the average of 20 iPad apps a week that demand updating, with the same sort of disingenuous cheer and vague promises as my accounting service (never mind trying to find one on my device, after some bored Chief Awesomeness Officer decided it needed redesigning). Or my online bank, who forces me to watch animated advertising tricks on their home page before they let me log in. I could go on. If you’re a non-nerd living the digital lifestyle, you’re already nodding.

We live in what is trying to be The Great Epoch of the Product. In some quarters, marketing isn’t widely regarding as a high level skill anymore, and branding is dismissed by digital carpetbaggers as yesterday’s game. What matters, say the vanguard, are awesome products. If you build one, they will come. Money spent on dev adds value, where marketing is just an expense, they intone between sips of Red Bull. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had to stand in such a hurricane of twaddle in my life. There simply could not be a worse time to make the product king.

There was an Epoch of the Product, mind you. It took place largely in the first half of the 20th century, when the financial barriers to R&D and manufacturing were so high and patent laws so effective that a company really could win on the strength of what it made. This, I hope it’s obvious, is no longer the case. Even for laundry detergent and televisions, differentiation is incredibly difficult to accomplish and harder to discern. And when it comes to digital things, well, to be digital is to dance on the edge of commodification almost by definition. Add in the fact that the development tools are so accessible – this is a point of pride in digital culture – and it seems like a narcissistic delusion to imagine that any product can be so good as to protect its hegemony on functional merit alone.

That’s what marketing is for. And the most important thing about marketing is that it demands you put the consumer at the center of your process. You will not deserve to get rich by showing off your killer coding skills. But you might if you give a fig about the human at the other end of that code, the one who is trying to solve a problem. You might if you’re empathetic about the place you have in their lives, and what “better” might mean to them. You might if you remember that a sustainable business revolves around a happy sort of dependency, the kind built on trust rather than on gotchas. Nor does the aspiring digital entrepreneur have to look back a half century for inspiration. The two darlings of this age, Google and Apple, are brilliantly slow, sensitive and careful about what they change. Google’s landing page is famously sacrosanct. Apple rarely, rarely compels you to change anything fundamental about your computing life, unless out of sheer lust for a new thing. They understand both the theatre of confidence, and the fact that change has a cost and therefore must have an ROI. Better is not always better, especially if every improvement is a destabilizing moment in the customer relationship.

Anyway, I could rant about this all day, but I should probably sign off. Bouncing up and down on my dock is a little red Adobe logo, which is kind of distracting. Apparently, they think now would be a good time for an update to my PDF reader. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. I bet it’s awesome.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Phonies.

Sweetie’s cat knows it’s not allowed on our bed. Unless, of course, it sees me heading out the door with a suitcase in my hand. Then it’s there like a shot, curling up all pretty-like right where I’ll lay my allergic head when I return home. They say you can’t train a cat, but it’s not true. They can, in fact, train themselves. It’s just that they only learn things that are useful to them. The rest is mere noise. Where social media is concerned, I think the same might be true for more than a few brands these days, and it’s giving me the same sort of allergic reaction, if only metaphysically. Let me explain:

One of the things that social media’s first wave of experts understood very well is that they have to carefully manage their own narratives in forums like Twitter. They know that their streams become a record that reveals something about their personal brands, so they’re careful about what they say publicly. From early in the game, a lot of them, even while preaching the religion of engagement, wouldn’t even respond to people who had significantly fewer followers than they did for fear of bestowing the gift of their reflected influence too cheaply. Silence is the one thing Twitter doesn’t keep a record of, so it’s the tool they used to deal with dissenting views and social climbers. It still goes on, and the hypocrisy of it can be grating sometimes. Just this week, I tweeted a link to a piece of research to social media pioneer who shall remain nameless, a piece of research that conflicted with his point of view in a hashtag discussion (the study, ironically, showed that consumers were gravitating away from social influence and back to brands as guides for decision making). He waved it off with a single tweet and then simply stopped talking to me. Debate wasn’t going to make his stream look very authoritative. Okay, I get it. It’s not very brave, but it’s understandable.

The problem is that there are some brands out there who have been very quick to learn this trick, even if the rest of social media’s subtleties have eluded them. I’m a consumer just like the rest of us, but as you can imagine I also have a special interest in the democratizing power of social media in marketplaces. Or at least in its potential. So in the spirit of Consumer Republic’s broken toaster fable, I occasionally reach out to brands that way. Most of the ones that seem committed to public dialogue are. Some are crafty enough to take conflict offline so that all we can see on the public record is that they cared. But some are simply bloody-mindedly selective about whom they’ll engage with. In recent months, with brands as diverse as Air Canada, John Deere, Jawbone and the retailer Sporting Life, I’ve been on the short end of a few cases in point. Hi, there, famous brand. I have a problem. Can you help? Silence. Sure, maybe somebody had a bad day or was on a bathroom break, but it happens often enough that you know it’s as likely to be a tactic. Either way, I’m left to decide, before my overture vanishes from the browser window like a setting sun, whether I want to let it go or risk my reputation by fulminating about it to my own network. Nice. Not exactly the conversational utopia those Cluetrainers promised us.

In the long run, I think we’d all be better off if companies who don’t intend to honestly engage in these forums simply didn’t show up at all. In an ethical sense, it’s a pretty low thing to hang out your shingle on Facebook or Twitter, and then pantomime a fictional relationship with your marketplace. But, more practically, I think we need to remind ourselves – we stewards of brands – that consumer credulity is not an infinitely renewable resource. We’re operating in a world in which trust is the only real foundation for enterprise value anymore. I hate to think of what would happen if we fouled this nest, of what marketing would be like if we had to deal with a terminally cynical consumer. Sweetie’s cat enjoys the formidable protection of Sweetie, and an apparently unlimited number of second chances. We will not be so lucky. If we see the consumer heading out this door suitcase in hand, it may well be for the last time.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Can you hear me now?

A couple of weeks back, in my home province, a piece of legislation managed to make headlines despite not being stupid. The proposed new law is a set of rules designed to protect consumers from the marketing and billing practices of wireless service providers. It brought back a flood of memories for me. If I were to make a list of the most ethically challenging product categories I’d ever worked in, this one would certainly be on it somewhere. Though perhaps not for the reasons you think. From my experience, the industry wasn’t full of cheats and liars; it was just full of lousy stewards of the marketplace. If the wireless marketers of that era were running every consumer marketplace, we would by now be scrounging for nuts and berries and wearing raccoon pelts. It was an interesting laboratory for how what seems to be good business can turn out to be bad capitalism.

Nothing says failed marketplace like the law stepping in. If you’ve screwed up so badly that you can make politicians look like heroes, you may not have found your calling. Yet, in the words of the heretic John Bradford, “there, but for the grace of God…” There are cautions in this tale, temptations to which any marketer might succumb in a spasm of MBA cleverness. Fear them. They seem awesome in the moment, but are very likely to wind you up the same way Bradford did: burned at the stake.

Asymmetry. This is what happens when, by statute or by chicanery or even by marketing brilliance, an industry becomes so concentrated that consumer choice, in practical terms, disappears. Banks are like this. Airlines are like this. Cable companies are like this. A lot of the product categories people most hate doing business with are characterized by asymmetrical power relationships between the marketer and the consumer. When it happens, marketers don’t generally intend to become evil, but they do take consumers for granted, investing a lot more time in operational efficiency, government relations and other back room stuff. People feel neglected, as if they know your business will be fine whether they like you or not. They seethe. And by seething, they soak your customer service infrastructure as much as they can. And then, one day, a choice comes along, and they flock to it. Just to teach you a lesson. No, even if a category is asymmetrical by nature, a smart brand pretends otherwise and acts as if its life depended on an empowered consumer. RIM is reaping this whirlwind before our eyes. Apple might want to give it a think now, while love is still in the air.

Displaced value. One of the major features of the new law I mentioned earlier is a significant reduction in the cost of getting out of a contract with your wireless provider. But here’s the thing: Those contracts are the only reason your carrier could afford to sell you that snazzy new smart phone for $99; the other $300 it cost to build it is baked into those 36 months of payments you signed on for. Under the new rules, your phone could be a liability for the carrier. If you were the CEO, would you let it ride? Probably not. You’d increase your rates, or you’d charge more for the phones. That will make people mad, because they’d never understood in the first place what that phone was really worth. Angry consumers destabilize businesses and, eventually, cost money. Imagine if the industry had marketed itself by putting its pricing where its costs were: We’d buy phones less often, and we’d be paying less for our airtime. Earth and bank account would both be sustainably happier. Something to think about the next time you’re railing at the price of razor blades. In the long run, we're all better off if we know what things are really worth.

Taxing the gormless. There is, believe it or not, a business out there that will look at your wireless bills and figure out which plan you should really be on to pay the least. You pay them by diverting the first few months of your savings to them. This shouldn’t even be possible, right? I mean, there is no way that providing wireless services is so complicated and so user-specific that it needs so many ‘plans’ or that it should be possible to so expensively pick the wrong one. Yet we do. Some people shop like predators, and they get to pay less. That means that we, the gormless, must end up paying too much for long distance or wireless services or plane tickets or mortgages and chequing accounts, or we put premium in our gas tanks without knowing for sure if our particular car needs it. We – and I’m the worst for this – end up being taxed for being too trusting. This doesn’t end well. Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes a consumer more wildly angry than being made to feel stupid. Someday, Mr. Bank/Airline/Wireless/Gas Station Chain, someone will come along and stand up for we, the gormless, and all you’ll be left with are the mercenaries who learned how to game your system. There is, you’ll learn, no profit in them.

Maybe I spend too much time around farmers, but I’ve come to believe that stewardship is how we should run marketplaces. If a marketer focuses on extracting value without regard to the consequences, he’s just strip mining. Eventually, all he’s got left is an ugly hole where the money used to be. But if we treat the marketplace with some respect, it will keep happily producing for a thousand years. Here in this new, low-growth world, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t want that. We corporations, we shareholders, we consumers. I can’t imagine.

Friday, April 13, 2012

My uncle's got a barn. Let's put on a brand!


“Wharton crowdsources its branding message.” To be honest, I was already apoplectic just reading the headline. The rest of the article sort of faded in and out of a red mist. There was a lot of WTF-ing, some wisely aborted tweets, and a futile attempt to enlist the cat in my outrage. A legendary Ivy League business school, one of my least favourite 21st century verbs, and the word “branding” all in the same sentence. I briefly considered driving down there and occupying something.

With dawn came sober second thought. Now I just want to yell stuff in their general direction. These three things seem like a good start:

First, branding is a marketing discipline, not a creative game. It’s not a vanity, or some kind of pretty ribbon we put on a product, nor is it – shudder – a slogan. A brand is the strategic bridge between positioning and the marketplace, and by positioning I mean in the real, original, technical sense of the word. The sense that specifically interacts with a business model. Branding isn’t the fun part of marketing. It’s the test of whether you have a real business or not. To believe otherwise betrays a shockingly Industrial Age culture. It seems like these guys looked at it the way I might look at picking a tie. The way Justice Potter Stewart looked at pornography (“I know it when I see it”). It’s no wonder that the branding business is becoming such a magnet for amateurs and adventurists.

Second, branding and leadership are inseparable concepts. To debate who “owns” a brand is ridiculous. In the first instance, a brand is owned by the organization that wears it; its reputation simply reflects that. But more fundamentally, a brand is owned by whoever is ultimately responsible for the promise it’s making. To turn custody of it over to the workforce is to invite a solution that is both less challenging and less distinctive, by definition. Brands aren’t canvasses on which “communications directors” get to make their marks, nor should they amount to whatever everybody could agree on. They’re organizational standards that are supposed to be challenging and exclusionary. So much so that they actually shape culture. Leadership that delegates this is either avoiding responsibility or declaring its disinterest in customers. In a competitive marketplace, these should be hanging offences.

Finally, branding takes guts. There were no guts in evidence here. “Knowledge” for a university? (There are six other variations besides the “… for action” master tagline, so even this tiny edge was forsaken). So, did someone think that knowledge was the one thing that Wharton offered that nobody else did? Did the august team there determine that business’ need for knowledge was the one profound insight upon which the school could uniquely connect with the world? I don’t mean to sound pedantic – I realize there are already enough branding pedants to go around – but come on. This kind of thing is supposed to scare an organization a little. Be a bit difficult to live up to. Make competitors shake their heads in wonder. Even if I believed a tagline was a brand, I would have started with something like “Stupid people will destroy capitalism and only we can stop them,” and worked back from there. The quixotic idea of trying to make people happy with a soft drink or set them free with a computer, these are branded promises, stronger for their audacity. The idea that you can get actionable knowledge at a business school is not.

In the end, consumers look to a brand for signals about what a corporation values. If you get it right, it will attract people who share those values. This creates a sort of infinite feedback loop that makes a business sustainable and gives commerce a conscience. That’s what drove me so crackers about the Wharton story. It’s not just that the bar was set so low, but by whom. This kind of thinking teaches everybody – marketers, consumers, the press - to be left-brained and cynical about brands. That never ends well, and I can’t imagine a worse time in our history to be proposing it as a mission for tomorrow’s corporate leaders. It was a terrible example to set. And the worst part is, it will pass unnoticed. Unlike poor Gap, say, or Tropicana, Wharton will escape the public mocking it so richly deserves.

Which, I guess, means that it was never really a brand in the first place. Okay, wow. Good thing I slept on it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Brother, can you spare a 'digm?


This weekend, I had one of those steering wheel-pounding “Yes!” moments while out running errands. I was going to the hardware store to get hooks for hanging garden tools in the garage. The mission was a success. The validation was just a bonus, and a nice reminder that there is still a place in the world for serendipity, even if it’s only on public radio.

It was some sort of smartypants current affairs show, and the topic of discussion was LinkedIn and the new realities of job hunting. They’d found an expert (imagine that), and she was explaining why people often don’t get any kind of response from prospective employers when they declare their candidacy for a job opening. The problem with it being so easy to submit resumes, now, she said, is that people submit a lot more of them. Without the burdensome steps of printing, addressing and stamping envelopes and finding a mailbox, people are scattering their CVs around like autumn leaves. As is often the way with these things, that has spawned a secondary industry, namely one that offers electronic screening of those resumes. Keyword-based electronic screening. In other words, no matter how what sort of skydiving gourmet/blogger/secular humanist/renaissance-person you may be, no matter how natively talented and self-actualized, if your resume does not contain the words ‘experienced transmission repair specialist’, you’re not going to get called back for that job. It’s like that.

And so is branding (this is the part where I pound the steering wheel). As breathlessly modern as the world has become, certain things endure. Fire. The wheel. William Shatner. And positioning. In the branding business, positioning is still the minimum condition for viability, despite its bell-bottomed origins. Before you can engage a consumer in anything resembling a branded transaction, holds the theory, they have to be able to clearly discern whom your brand is for, what it’s one of, and that it’s somehow different. It’s the middle part that spells trouble for an aspiring transmission mechanic, or anybody else with something to sell. It was true before there was cable TV, and it’s infinitely more so now in a world where less and less is shoved down our throats or discovered by accident, and more and more is found by specifically looking for it.

And yet we resist. Personal branding experts promote describing oneself as absolutely unique. Marketers gag at the idea that you should navigate by the lights of passing competitors’ ships. Consultants bridle at limiting their potential by defining themselves too narrowly. Tech startups – by the score – get drunk on their newness and don’t bother thinking about the real-life problem they’re trying to solve (it is, from my experience, the single most reliable predictor of failure). But algorithms still need to know where to file you. If they have to fight their way through a vain thicket of slashes, it’s likely you’ll end up invisible. And consumers still need to know what they’re supposed to compare you to, and substitute you for. The human animal’s tendency to think paradigmatically has not been altered by the internet; in fact, it defines it.

Or, put another way, the transmission repair guy gets the gig. The windsurfer/haikuist /ferret breeder/jedi of motive power does not.

As carbon is to life, so positioning is to branding. Yes, ours is a business of glorious adjectives, but those don’t mean much without nouns to hang them from. That can be easy to forget. Except in my garage, of course. There, everything is right where I can find it. And while it’s true that I may miss the thrill of finding the garden weasel while I’m hunting for a rake, there is more joy in the certainty that no leaf will escape my attention.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Wages of Fear.


It’s a French film, from 1953. Existentialist, if you’re into that kind of thing. Spoiler alert: In it, a bunch of misfits get hired for a suicide mission to transport nitroglycerine through treacherous jungle to extinguish an oil field fire. All of them die trying, save for one. He collects the money, then dies in a car accident on his way to celebrate at a local pub (man, those existentialists…). I wouldn’t bring it up except that it happened to me, too, kind of. The pub part. And the you-don’t-always-see-it-coming part.

When Consumer Republic was published last year, I worried about two things. First, I hoped that my industry would see it as a defense of the system and not as an incitement to consumer rebellion. Second, and to the point of this post, I worried about the press. I’m a marketing guy who’s written a book defending brands. Journalists as a breed tend to be a bit suspicious of both of those things. I was afraid I might get eaten alive. To my eternal delight, that didn’t happen. But for one violently bad review in New Zealand (!?), interviewers and reviewers were open minded, balanced, and surprisingly intrigued. As my media tour disappeared in the rear view mirror last spring, I figured I’d survived the fire. No critic is going to be tougher on such a capitalistic premise than, say, The Georgia Straight. And that’s when, at a local pub last week, a dinner companion turned to me and serenely observed, “all you do is make people buy things they don’t need.”

Well, first of all, I hope it’s obvious that I don’t possess this power. If I did, my snowmobile wouldn’t still be for sale after a year. Plus, it would be gold plated and powered by unicorns. Let’s dwell, instead, on this idea of “things they don’t need.”

There’s no doubt that marketing subsists partly on what Charles Kettering called the “creation of dissatisfaction,” and on people’s freedom to act upon it. But Kettering’s assertion that industry can create dissatisfaction at will was as arrogant as my dinner companion’s was naïve. Humans have been dissatisfied for a lot longer than there has been a Madison Avenue. Our restlessness as a species isn’t new, and it’s not even an affliction, necessarily. It’s a natural resource. Like water, it can be life-giving, or implacably destructive. Which is a matter of choice. In other words, the world we live in is shaped by what we want, not by what we say. And the only thing that would scare me more than the improbable specter of industry telling us what to want would be some higher moral authority doing the same thing. I like my chances against, say, Walmart more than I like my chances against whatever marketplace Taliban we’d have to invent to legislate our urges.

It’s true what Jefferson said: the price of freedom really is eternal vigilance. Sometimes vigilance is as simple as knowing whom you’re eating with. Sometimes, it’s about our own wobbly convictions in the face of temptation. Either way, two things remain true: Our fate is in our own hands. And it’s always a mistake to let your guard down too soon.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Monkey Butt.


If you’ve remained alert during one of my recent speeches, you probably know that I consider pants to be the essential cultural bellwether. Here’s something you may not know, though: I have a thing for internet forums. To me, these primitive places are the real internet, where one ordinary person helps another ordinary person fix a toilet float, or convince her cat to eat dry kibble, or get chip dip stains out of a cummerbund. They’re the original social media, older than the web itself, the places where the communitarian voices of regular folks still rule. Whenever something new arrives at our house, the first thing I do is see if there’s a forum about it somewhere, and then lurk on it like an invisible tourist, soaking up the sounds and smells of a new place (I’m still a planner at heart). This year, it was a tractor that did it. And in my quest to unlock the mysteries of the three-point hitch on an agricultural equipment forum, I stumbled onto a thread entitled, “Which jeans do you use?” Irresistible. And not just because it involved pants. Irresistible because of the word “use.” The subject of pants was going to be argued by people who work with their hands, the culture that gave us blue jeans in the first place.

And that’s where I found the Duluth Trading Company. I’d never heard of it. Maybe you haven’t either, but I can tell you that there is a legion of people out there with dirt under their fingernails who, on this 11-page thread on this day, weighed in with conviction that they made the best pants for working in. Suddenly feeling like Cayce Pollard (except, you know, a guy. Bit older. Less neurotic. And real), I headed straight for their web site. And was charmed speechless.

Because here’s the thing: Yes, they have pants. Also shirts. Tool belts. Knee pads. And, um, t-shirts that cover your butt crack when you bend over. Pants that don’t squish your dangly bits when you crouch down (all the way up to 4XL). Non-chafing, odor-fighting underpants. Ointment for cracked hands. Sliver grippers. Powder to relieve monkey butt (don’t ask). And at about this point, it begins to dawn on you… the Duluth Trading Company doesn’t see itself in the business of making and selling things. It has picked a tribe of people with their own unique problems, and cheerfully gone looking for ways to solve every one of them. You look at what they sell, and you can see with absolute clarity the person whose life they want to make better (despite, rather brilliantly, a complete absence of photos of models, at least for the guy stuff). I might or might not get me some of those pants; to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve earned them. But it was a complete delight to see how lovable a brand can be when it defines itself by whom it serves. So I thought I’d share. I’m like that.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the writer said that maybe this whole idea of following our passions was bunk and destined to leave us feeling disappointed and directionless. Instead, he said, find a problem to solve. That will give you purpose, and purpose is the real secret to happiness. It seemed like good advice for a kid making decisions about her future. I think it might be even better advice for brands.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Pebbles.


Ah, 2011. Strange days. What with all the populist revolutions and lost icons, you probably forgot this was your humble scribe’s first year alone in the branding wilderness. It was at the end of 2010 that I forsook the comforts of agency life and wandered monkishly off in search of marketing’s soul. Promoting Consumer Republic and building my consulting practice, I probably ended up hearing more new voices in the last twelve months than in the preceding 12 years. The bad, if unsurprising, news was that the marketing professions are in a pretty deep funk right now (according to Forbes, marketing jobs vie only with IT jobs as the most hated ways to make a living). But the good news was that there are some people out there who are actually finding meaning in this work, and who see our current travails as a turning point.

Reflecting on this over the holidays, I realized they have some things in common, those fortunate souls. We should be more like them. And this, in case you still haven’t got around to making your New Year’s resolutions, seems to be the recipe for doing that:

Be in the world. Marketing is still a people business, and the inside baseball attitude some of us have about it is alienating. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever said, “Hey, Pookie, I’m-a go interact with some content.” Hang around with real people as much as you can, and pay silent attention to how they live, think and speak, not just how they buy. Their opinion is the only one that matters, in the end.

Listen. Marketing isn’t a stimulus/response game, and data isn’t just a way to keep score. Data is your customers trying to talk to you in a language you can understand. The harder we listen, the harder we try to read the consumer’s tea leaves, the less learning by mistake there will be and, in the long run, the more efficient marketing will become. Not to mention ethical. B. F. Skinner probably had great Powerpoint presentations, but those don’t make you a marketer. Listening does.

Don’t forget about reach. We don’t search for what we don’t want. We don’t want what we haven’t had presented unbidden to us at some point in our lives. Desire is where the whole thing starts. Desire is the zygote of free market capitalism. It makes everything else work, and advertising is really good at creating it. Give your agency a hug.

Quit changing everything. Anyone with even a slight understanding of how an adoption curve works knows that only the leading edge thrives on novelty, and there aren’t many of them. The rest of us are waiting until you get it right. Believe it or not – I’m kind of looking at you, right now, Twitter – constant ‘innovation’ isn’t the shining path to growth. Past a certain point, it actually freaks people out. Remember your brand is a narrative. Be a story of confidence and vision, not a story of trial and error.

Have some respect. The accessibility of modern marketing tools is illusory. YouTube doesn’t make everybody a filmmaker. Facebook doesn’t make everybody a public relations expert. Wordpress doesn’t make everybody a writer or, for that matter, a web developer. Be demanding about the credentials of the people you work with, but then show respect for them. We may all use the same tools, now, but that only makes competence more critical and more differentiating. (Here’s an example of what I mean: A while back, I donated my time to a community group to help with their web site. A new site was built by some super smart people who put extra effort into SEO because the client needed traffic but had no money to buy it. After a year or so, I did a little analytics presentation for them, the highlight of which was how – based on a Google AdWords valuation of just a single relevant search query – they had already recovered five times their investment in traffic value. But some of them didn’t like how the site looked. So last year they paid a graphic designer to build a whole new one, including the addition of a charming landing page built in Flash. If you didn’t cringe a little at that last sentence, you are part of the problem).

Practice empathy. One of the collateral effects of modern marketing is that it’s pulled us away from our customers as human beings. Yes, @garyvee, even in social media, where we’re so petrified of getting into a bun fight with them that we’ve started talking like robots. But it’s as true as it ever was that the beating heart of an enterprise lies at the place where its brand and its customer have something in common. If there isn’t something you and your customers are equally passionate about, then you are essentially adversaries. And possibly doing the wrong thing for a living.

Feel lucky. If you get joy out of making money by making people happy, that’s going to come through in your brand. People will sense it, and it will make them like and trust you. Three quarters of branding is imputed motive. But more than this, remember that what we do is important work, a sacred trust. The future depends on the sustainable exchange of value between people who make things and people who buy them. Sustainable economically, environmentally, morally. We’re custodians of that. I can’t imagine a better reason to get up in the morning.

Thus, the fruits of my peregrinations. This and a renewed commitment to flossing, and I think we'd all find ourselves well on the road to self-actualization in 2012, Grasshopper. Master Po would be proud. As for making us better marketers besides, well, that's just karma...