Is Santa the best marketer ever? Perhaps.

Consider the evidence:

Long-term reputation management. No steroid use or bogus investment schemes here.  Ever.   

Take Coca-Cola with its 80-year investment in the big guy.  Do you think that Coke worries that a YouTube video will surface, showing 7-year-old girls making lead-laden toys in the Korean outpost of Santa’s Workshop Inc.? Not likely. 

And then there’s the third rail: do you think that Mrs. Claus has ever found “hundreds of texts” between Santa and that dumb blonde the Easter Bunny married? Or that’s she’s had to accompany her husband to the hospital for alcohol poisoning (paging Charlie Sheen – again)?

No, no and no.  Santa is one reliable dude. And he appears to do what’s right even when no one is looking.

Brand promise and the “continuous connected experience.” No matter where you go, you get the same reinforcing message from and about @SantaClaus.  Movies, television, email, social media, online video, radio, snail mail, retail – it doesn’t matter.   He has a booming voice, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he brings good stuff. 

And the other thing is… even if you bop from one medium to the other, you won’t lose your place.  Forrester calls this the continuous connected experience.  Santa is suggesting you be prepared to deliver your own in 2011.

Engagement.  Is there any experience more anticipated than Santa’s arrival?  And how about expectations met and exceeded? That’s unless you’ve been bad, of course, in which case you should consult the Terms and Conditions.

Accurate, On-Time Delivery.  Neither WikiLeaks, nor Chilean mining disasters, nor 0% interest rates will keep Santa from delivering the goods on Christmas Eve.  Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24.  Every year. And the idea of getting your neighbor’s gift by mistake is simply inconceivable.

Supply Chain Management.  You have to admire the man’s ability to manage his vendors, handle inventory, move the merch and turn on a dime.  Your kid decides at the last minute that she wants a Wii instead of the bike that Santa has already bought and loaded on the sleigh?

The Wii will be under the tree, for sure.

Never any hidden charges. There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers. There are no pending FTC rules in the pipeline. No small print.  Just because you get one set of skis, doesn’t mean that you’ve “agreed” to receive a new set every month (along with the bill). No nickel and diming. No charge for the second bag.

Santa’s pricing policies appears just perfect, in every product category ever invented.  And shipping is always free.

Brand advocacy. Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa and tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents.  Even adults will sometimes tell each other what they want from Santa.  The dude’s got an army of advocates carrying his message each and every year, and everyone’s happy to do it.

Wow!  That’s gonna be a lot of “Likes” on Facebook.  A lot.

No invasive pat-downs.  Do you remember leaving cookies and milk out for Santa, and then sneaking down the stairs just in time to see him putting your presents under the tree? Well, when he saw you, did he beckon you over, force you through a machine and feel up your naughty bits?  Or when he came down your chimney, did your parents do these things to him before letting him into your living room?

TSA does not stand for “Total Santa Aggression.” Personal respect is important to ol’ Kris Kringle.

Returns and Exchanges.  No problem.  While one of Santa’s elves may ask you to accompany him to the mall, that’s a small price to pay for better loot.

Long-term view of the customer relationship. Santa is committed to lifetime value.  If you’re a kid, he wants you to tell your parents and your grandparents and your teachers all about what you want.  He wants you to post what he gave you on Facebook.  He wants to take a picture with you and your friends at the mall.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.

Santa: the ultimate “circle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization. If you ask Santa for an iTouch, you’re going to get an iTouch. You might also get underwear and dental floss (paging my childhood), but he will be sure that your music itch is scratched. And if you state a preference, Santa is also highly likely to deliver an iTouch in the color of your choice. With the accessories you mumbled something about last March.

He invites you to be a vital part of his brand and help make the world a better place.  Be nice, get your gift. Be naughty, and you’re on your own. No anonymous troll behavior on the Web, no TMZ stories, no threatening or yelling. Everyone knows the rules, the rules don’t change and there are big rewards for all. Or not.

Brand benefits powerful enough to overcome controversy. Santa has a problem that few other brands ever experience: that is, some people don’t believe he exists! You may not like Red Bull, or Microsoft, or Kim Kardashian, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet.  And yet, Santa transcends even this existential challenge. Even those who say they “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand. Name me a pizza chain or a department store or search engine who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, customer service support…), but you get the idea.

I did think of one problem area this year: money management.  In his zeal to delight his customers, Santa does sometimes buy things he can’t really afford.  His heart’s in the right place, though, and I think a little executive coaching might do the trick.  I am confident that he will want to change once he understands the problem.

And so, as yet another December passes, perhaps we should all look to #Santa for guidance in the coming year. After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and a new, devoted customer is born every minute. I think most of us would be happy with that.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Marketing Executive Networking Group’s blog, MENGBlend.

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

We Are All Connected

October 15th, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

Overused phrase #535,285: “Our best asset is our people.”

We’ve all heard and/or used this phrase forever, but… do we actually behave as if it were true?

Lately, I’ve noticed an “us” vs. “them” tone creeping into some of my own professional reading from people who ought to know better – and it worries me. Two examples:

From the 9-27-10 issue of Fortune: “Secrets of an Undercover Boss” is an article in which the four CEOs that participated in CBS’ television show, “Undercover Boss,” share their observations after concealing their identities and spending some time doing non-managerial jobs inside their companies. The firms are all large professional concerns in the food and media/entertainment industries, and these are all educated, experienced executives.

To a person, all of them said that what surprised them was how hard their employees work: how hard their jobs are. This just knocked me out. In the context of business leadership, this has got to be one of the most fundamentally abhorrent things I’ve heard in some time.

“I thought it would be simple to do,” said one of the execs after driving a forklift around a warehouse. “What I learned is that it’s very hard to do. It was taking me forever… and I broke my pallet. My supervisor took me off the forklift.” You can read for yourself how well he did at a job that required him to experience actual weather.

And speaking of weather, one of the other CEOs remarked that, “When I was out… in 98° heat, I was struck by how hard these employees work.” Or a third, who thought she “knew the jobs and would be really good at them” before having ever actually done them. “They were a lot harder than I thought,” she says. “The amount of personal attention we give our [customers] blew me away.” So she is, to some extent, as disconnected from her customers’ experience as she is from the employees who create it?

And last but not least, the fourth: “I didn’t have an appreciation for how hard these guys work.”

I think one of them, though, put his finger on a critical factor underlying all of their stories: “the employees I met had incredibly different life experiences than I’ve had, and yet with every person I found amazing connections.”

In other words, the employees doing real work were “different than” which – in this context and by implication – I believe is code for “less than.” Less educated, less intelligent, less sophisticated… and therefore capable of performing tasks so simple that anyone could do them well (why, it’s SO easy, even a CEO can do it!)?  There is no logical connection between an individual’s economic circumstances and how hard he works or how much pride he takes in doing a good job.

I mean, the idea that an executive for some reason thought that she’d “be good at” any field job before she’d ever tried it shows not only a lack of awareness but a lack of respect for her workforce. Then again, this is also the individual who says, “It’s amazing how much more you can learn when you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room.”

Amen, sister.

A 2009 professional profile tells us that this CEO “takes the occasional water thrill ride herself just to demonstrate to potential investors and VIPs how much fun it really is.” I might suggest that she spend some time cleaning and maintaining such a ride so that she gets a full sense of the experience.

From the 9-30-10 issue of the Wall Street Journal: I stopped to read a column because of a large photograph of a woman I thought I recognized. I did know her – the photo was of the woman who shines shoes at my neighborhood shoe repair shop.

What I did not know about her is that she came to the U.S. from Ecuador eight years ago to earn money to support her family. She earns $20/day plus tips. She rents a room in Queens and works six days a week. She talks to her family, but has no money to travel and has not seen her husband or two daughters since leaving Ecuador.

Here’s how this WSJ column began [hang with me here]: “If salary were the arbiter of excellence, the most excellent people on earth would be hedge-fund managers, CEOs and, perhaps movie and TV stars. While experience has proved that not universally to be the case, most of us buy into the notion, myself included. So it sometimes comes as a surprise when we run across an individual barely scratching out a living whose drive and discipline and sense of excellence rivals that of those our culture celebrates with fat bonuses and fetes at charity galas.”

I am not certain who “most of us” would include but, again, we have the opinion (“myself included“) that compensation somehow equates to performing exceptionally well on the job. More money = a better job done.

This to me is hugely destructive, offensive and a whole lot of other things that a lady does not say in public. And as for fat bonuses and charity galas, does the Madoff and Kozlowski families’ ability to get and give away money equate to “excellence?” If any of us were going to resort to stupid stereotypes, in fact, wouldn’t it be the other way around? That the “regular joe” works harder than the ivory tower-encased senior executive? I guess the answer would be no… if the question was being asked of some senior executives.

We decry the fall of the American worker, and yet these are the true underlying opinions some business leaders and opinion-makers have? That “real people” are not as good, not as capable, not as useful, not as… worthy? Even when these leaders are talking about their own employees?

Go back to what we were all taught about true leadership and respect from Tom Peters and others. Be conscious of your thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, by the way, just think about what’s truly in your best interest. Most of us will get to the same place.

I am a contributor to the Marketing Executive Networking Group’s blog, MENG Blend. A version of this post was originally published HERE on the MENG site.

Stretching More Than Dollars

October 1st, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

It’s true that people love certain brands, and it can be awfully expensive to launch new ones.  I started thinking about this after seeing some slightly off-kilter commercials: could it be that established brands are trying to extract value by presenting new uses for existing products?

Witness the following:

* EGGO ON THE GO-GO.  Working three jobs to pay the mortgage? No time to sit down for breakfast? No problem – take Eggo waffles with you! Last I checked, butter and syrup are a real pain on the subway, so this ad shows kids and adults running out the door with waffles in their hands.  A kid is just running with – you know, a plain ol’ waffle – and a woman says that she takes hers with just a “smudge” of (what looks like strawberry) cream cheese.  A smudge? What’s a smudge? And is that waffle toasted? Because raw would be gross, but cold and toasted and hard would be, well, gross… And then you’ve got the smudge… Eeeee!!

* I LOVE THE SMELL OF ASPIRIN IN THE MORNING. Then there’s Bayer A.M. A television ad features a working dad moving in slo-mo while the voiceover asks whether you’ve ever needed a little get-up-and-go in the morning. He takes Bayer A.M. – “an extra-strength pain reliever with alertness aid specially formulated to fight morning pain and fatigue” – and suddenly he’s racing out the door. Specially formulated! My goodness, what is this magic drug?  That would be caffeine – 65 mg of caffeine in each tablet. Less than 1 cup of coffee. So much for pharmacological breakthroughs.

* GOOD DIGESTION FOR DESSERT. Lastly, there’s Yoplait positioning yogurt as dessert. This was new to me, but apparently Yoplait actually sold “dessert yogurt” back in the 80s.  I don’t know – it’s hard to ponder “dessert!” when all I can think of is Jamie Lee Curtis and those animations of little microbes floating around in my gut.  Maybe it’s just me.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these, of course; one could say they actually represent the creativity of the folks behind these brands.  But there are limits: when they start suggesting that we use Stayfree Ultra-Thins as shoe insoles, I’m outta here.

 

 

Two Small Moments, 9 Years Apart

September 16th, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

I opine regularly on customer service because for many businesses – particularly service businesses – the phrase is almost a misnomer.  Call it what you will: the employees who take calls, live chat with a shopper or interact in person are the brand.  No amount of ad dollars or coupons or general cajoling can overcome a bad experience(s) long-term.

For me, it’s almost a transcendental point.  Brands are about emotion. They’re about warmth, connection and a true, deep understanding that we must reflect back to the customer in order to create preference and earn loyalty. The sad fact – and opportunity – for businesses today is that it really takes so little. Consumers feel so beaten down by lousy service that the tiniest bit of helpfulness and sincerity has a magnified impact that radiates the brand message back out to the marketplace.  But for many companies, it’s not in the DNA: it can be more comfortable to advertise, fool with pricing and open mega-call centers, because that’s what we’re taught.   Then you get out into the real world and discover that, essentially, the golden rule is everything.

Go figure.

So let me tell you about two small moments that had a big impact.  They are certainly on a different scale, but I think they have something notable in common.

Moment #1:  September 21, 2001 – New York City.  I am a long-time New Yorker.  I don’t think it’s the only place in the universe to live, but it’s my home and I’m proud of it.  No matter how long I live here, the New York skyline still gets me every time I return from somewhere else.

On September 11, 2001, I was somewhere else and the flight freeze meant I couldn’t get home.  It sounds ridiculous, but I felt as though I should have been there. It’s my city.

I wasn’t there when it got hurt. I wasn’t there when friends died.

When I finally did make it back, I took the 6 train down to the Financial District.  I think it was September 21. When I climbed out of the subway, I found a planet I did not recognize.  Crowds were everywhere.  The sidewalk was thick with people, milling around, shouting to get each other’s attention, taking pictures and generally contributing to the chaos.  I took five or six steps out of the subway stairwell and and froze.  When I stopped, I noticed some gray particles floating in the air, landing on me.  It took me a few seconds to realize what they were.  

It was the end of the world, and all I could do was stand there under a big scaffold, staring in the direction of a still-smoking hole in the ground.

I don’t know how long I stayed immobile, with the flakes wafting down on my sweater.  It must have been a minute or two because suddenly a cop emerged from the sidewalk mosh pit.  He walked over to me, put his hand on my arm and said, “Are you ok, miss? Do you need help?” And then he stood there, waiting for the answer.  From me. One little person. He maintained eye contact and just waited, with the kindest look on his face.

Snapped out of my daze, I immediate said I was fine, embarrassed that I’d taken this guy away from the melee.

I have never forgotten that moment, and never will.  That cop had everything more important to do, but he took a couple seconds to care.  He put a human face on the inhuman.  I think he saved me, in a fashion, right there on the sidewalk. 

I’m not saying that I having paid attention to reality in the last nine years, but that experience changed my view of the New York City Police Department brand, just a little bit, forever.  

Moment #2:  September 11, 2010 – a Target store in suburban New Jersey.  I might as well tell you that I’m addicted to online Target coupons at the moment, and had a fistful of them when I rolled my cart up to check-out yesterday.  Among my treasures were two units of the same product, so I had simply printed two of the same $1-off coupon.  I’d been wondering how Target controlled for one person printing the same coupon over and over, but hey: who am I to question a larger life force?  Plus, the last time I was in the same store, the clerk let me use both (yes, I’d done this before), so I thought I was in good shape.

Once this new clerk had scanned and bagged my purchases, I gave her the small pile of coupons.  I don’t think we’d made eye contact yet.  When she got to the two identical coupons, she handed one back to me and said, “Yyeahhh [pause] the story with this is [pause] you can only use [pause] one of these coupons.” Now I wouldn’t say she put her arm up to her face to block a strike, exactly, but she looked… uncomfortable.  It was pretty obvious that she’d said these words before with less-than-pleasant results and was bracing for impact.

Busted!  Darn it. In a split second I decided whether or not I was going to whine to get the second dollar (“But the last time you took them! Wahhhh!”), but it just seemed so not worth it.  She really looked pretty miserable and – as a result – any hissy-fit I might have been working up to just lost steam.

I just looked at her and said “OK.”

She looked back, startled, and thanked me

Odd. And now she was staring at me. 

As I began to wrestle with the bags, the woman said, “Let me see that other coupon.”  I figured maybe there was some other deal she was going to give me, or maybe she just wanted to throw it away, or whatever.

She took the second coupon, scanned it to give me the second dollar off and said [quote], “I just love how you handled that.”

After I pushed out a “Huh?” she just repeated herself, smiling and shaking her head, looking visibly relieved.  I made an off-hand comment that I’d been working on not sweating the details and she responded, “Well it’s great.  It’s working.”

Interesting.

By taking a breath for just a second and factoring in someone else’s vibe, I not only got better service but some seriously positive karma, as well.  The next time I go to that store, that moment is what I’ll be thinking about.

So this post, my friends, is about two things.  One, I wanted to tell a story in remembrance of 9/11 and what was lost.  Second, both stories (plus the one about the JCrew supervisor several weeks ago) are about tiny actions that made a big difference.  Moments in which someone acted human and kept the big picture in sight (when maybe we expected the opposite).  These are the interactions – the moments of truth – that are remembered and associated with your brand in the person’s mind.

If you have a business and/or nurture a brand, reinforce for yourself and your organization what you want that association to be and commit yourself to injecting these moments into the experience of your prospects and customers.  And as I mentioned earlier, the horrible condition of customer service is good for the rest of us: it means that you can create these experiences, frankly, without jumping all that high.

And away from work, I suspect all of us could use a few more of these moments for ourselves and others, as well.  Do something different.  The smallest kindness might produce something surprising.

In A Fog

September 1st, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

There’s been a bit of a scramble among brands seeking to leverage AMC’s popular series, Mad Men. BMW is one of the largest and most frequent sponsors, prompting an auto site to gush, “BMW’s underwriting for Mad Men is mad marvelous.”

Maybe so. After all, the series is about an advertising agency and the supposed glamour of the post-War period, all glowy and wistful. It’s an unusual opportunity to create a fresh and fun message… IF it makes sense for the brand.

BMW did two things right. First it aligned itself with the overall je ne sais quoi of the show: the ambience, the characters, their lifestyles, their appearance, their tastes, the physical environment. That provides a very broad base upon which to construct an association. BMW is already an upscale, luxury brand, so this association is more of a positive reinforcement than a flat-out creation.

Second, this attachment is even further strengthened because BMW’s ads run during the episodes themselves. As the show transitions almost seamlessly from content, to commercial, and back again, the company and its cars place themselves directly alongside the target of their (and your) dreams. The viewer sees both in the same sitting; the brain experiences both in the same moment. The connection is made in real time.

London Fog‘s new Mad Men-related ads, on the other hand, miss on both these counts.

Unlike BMW, London Fog’s owner, Iconix, chose to bet all its chips on one single character, Joan Holloway (aka Christina Hendricks). This demands a plausible or at least believable connection between what the product and the individual represent, which is not present here.

Today, London Fog is generally utilitarian, functional, male (androgynous?), classic (tired?) and generally unremarkable, while Hendrick’s Joan is nearly the polar opposite: voluptuous, sexy, powerful, womanly, stimulating. She’s brightly-colored cotton candy in a dress. When you watch the show, her sexual presence makes her nearly every man’s fantasy at one point or another. She’s unattainable, like a rare luxury item.

London Fog is the opposite. By its own admission, the brand has far-flung distribution and high consumer awareness: it holds little mystery, no magic, no unattainability. Mad Men‘s Joan would not wear a London Fog, and no woman (consciously or unconsciously) believes that she will be “more Joan” by wearing the brand. The effect is double-whammy, given that the clothes (which might look fine on “normal” people) appear boring, dull and awkward draped on Hendrick’s frame. The two zeitgeists are just too far apart.

Iconix may have thought that Joan’s essence would rub off on the product. And, prior to Hendricks, Iconix enlisted Eva Longoria and Giselle Bunchen for its ads, presumably with the same objective. The problem is that consumers cannot make brand connections that aren’t there or – worse – pulling in opposite directions.

Forcing an otherwise adequate brand into an environment that makes it appear inadequate is sad and unnecessary: an embarrassing kind of brand dissonance that can do the brand more harm than good.

Lastly, the Joan ads do not have the benefit of being absorbed in the same moment as the story itself. The connection failure is particularly dramatic when experienced in the middle of a fashion magazine, surrounded by circa 2010 fashions, photos and messaging.

Managing a brand – particularly one trying to meld a perhaps very different past with the present – is a fine art. The brand steward must have an unblinking grasp on what the brand is and is not, what it might become, how fast such a change in direction might be made and how to begin. If that direction is wrong, or the speed too fast, the desired messaging won’t find its target and you may needlessely displace the neutral-to-positive feelings most people have about the brand in favor of all the characteristics the brand does not possess. It’s work grounded in an almost DNA-level of understanding of brands, consumer desire and human behavior.

Most brands have positive if not wonderful attributes to emphasize. Show yours in its best light. Avoid whatever might be hot right this second if it just doesn’t fit, and create an environment in which the product can truly shine.

by Stephanie Fierman

I’ve been a passionate advocate of online personal branding and reputation management since 2007.  That was the year, as some of you know, that I had a personal experience with the power of Google – a “digi-mugging,” if you will.  Or maybe a “Web-jacking.”  

Whatever we call it, it was the moment that I came to realize that the game had started without me.   I started a blog, wrote a 4-part series on the topic (Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4) and never looked back.  I’d discovered that I would need to manage my own brand online – not just as good offense but also good defense – and wanted to help other executives do the same.

How much time are you committing to managing your own personal brand today, and – if asked – what would you advise the majority of businesspeople who are only now getting hip to the digital world?

The ball’s already in play. It’s just a question of whether you’re on the field.

Everyone already has an online personal brand.  It’s just a question of who the brand manager is.  The Web isn’t waiting with a blank slate until you’re ready to pay attention to your online persona. Everyone’s already out there – because of a wedding announcement (from your current or former marriage), past interviews, industrial gossip or rumor, quotes, political contributions, publicly-available legal filings. These are all examples of content that is already living your public life online.  Is that acceptable to you?

Your resume is no longer your resume.  Google is your resume. Google is da bomb.  Around 75% of global Internet users, or 943.8 million people, used Google services in June 2010 – more than any other Web company in the world.  In the U.S., 66% of the core searches in July (or 10.3 billion of the 15.6 billion total) were conducted on Google.  Yahoo is a distance 2nd with 17%. There’s a lot of looking going on. 

In other words…

It’s not about what you do when you’re ready: it’s about what’s going on when you’re not paying attention.  45% of employers, for example, are using social networks to gather information on job candidates, and 35% say they’ve dismissed candidates based on information found there.  Usages is even higher in the recruiting community: 85% use search engines to research candidates, and  45% say they’ve eliminated candidates based on information found on the web.  

And I’m not only talking about proactive job search (i.e., offense).  Successful executives, I believe, are accustomed to thinking about what they want, what they can do next – Master of the Universe stuff.  If I decide to look for a new job, then I’ll start paying attention to this stuff.  What I try to get across to people is that everything we’re talking about – in this particular example, the employment category – is about defense as much as offense.  What about the company that’s looking to fill a job paying 30% more than you’re making now?  Its head of HR has heard your name and does a Google search on a Sunday afternoon.  What might he find about you? 

Let’s use Facebook as an example. 

In 2009, Facebook was the most popular online destination for snooping employers.  So what, you say, you haven’t done anything dumb.  You would never, for example, post some stupid photo to your profile (duh).  But are you tagged in photos posted by other people?  Has someone tagged you and two friends drinking at a party?  People drink at parties: you know you weren’t drunk and anyone judging one photo is an idiot.  Really?  Not to be paranoid, but… are you willing to gamble that a potential employer looking at the same snapshot would agree with you?  More than half of the employers who have knocked a candidate out of the running say that provocative photos are the #1 reason for doing so.

You’ve got to make sure that you have and keep a broad view of the field.

What about where you work right now?  What would your boss, your peers, your staffers or your HR department find out about you right now if they went to Google?  Ditto for clients, (current or potential) business partners, board search, trade associations and other entities you’re likely to care about.

If someone had been wandering my Twitter profile this past weekend, they would have found this attached to a tweet.  No context, just the photo.  Do I need this? What might it communicate to someone about this person’s judgment – or mine?

And P.S:  let’s remember that tweets are now searchable on Google.  I see some of the craziest… you get the point. 

How often do you check your Google results, anyway??  (Answer:  once a week, please.)

This is not to imply that everyone should have a presence everywhere.  Not all executives are good at stream-of-conscious thinking, or can shift from heavy issues to pecking out 140 characters on Twitter.  Additionally, many professionals will need to preliminarily determine what the online cross-over is, if any, between a “personal” voice and a professional one.  And lastly – cool factor aside – social media may not be the best way for a particular executive to attract desirable “followers” or “friends” at a particular moment in time.  I insist on good defense, but offense is in the eye of the beholder.

What play do you recommend, Coach?

When advising a relative newbie, here are a few pre-game thoughts:

Take time to understand the legal and regulatory environment that surrounds you, your organization (if relevant) and the content you may be publishing. Assume that what you say is discoverable in a lawsuit and subject to SEC and other requirements (like Reg FD).  Assume that everything is “on the record” and “in print” (and act accordingly).

Remember that what you say will last forever on the Web. One of my favorite quotes in this regard is “Tweet with caution, Facebook with care, 10 years from now it will still be out there”

Listen to the conversation about you and/or your company first.  Make your own observations before jumping in.

Find a safe place to practice like a Yammer. If you want to check out Twitter, consider signing up with a pseudonym first and tweeting about gardening or fly fishing or some other like topic. You must have your own account to read or follow a tweet stream; you do not need to expose your executive self  before you’re ready.

Once you’ve decided to put your helmet on, here are a few guidelines:

Musts:
* LinkedIn – Create a profile. You need one to study the site, and it’s the place right now for executives to find others

* Facebook – Create a profile if only to lay claim to your own name

* Use a single identifier everywhere. Stick to Matt Jones or Matt P. Jones or Matthew Paul Jones



Up a Notch:
* Twitter – Wander about after opening an account under a pseudonym, and use the site’s search engine liberally to get a feel for the ebb and flow of real-time business conversations

* Start a blog

* Register on sites that let you establish a PURL.  Such sites include Digg, FriendFeed, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, OpenSalon and Squidoo. Use them every once in awhile, if you can.

* Study the search engines and try things out; focus on sites that tend to rank highest


* Share content on community sites like Flickr and Slideshare


Advanced Techniques:
* “Syndicate” your blog on sites that aggregate such posts (and have their own Google rankings)

* Work on securing offline speaking engagements, and get the events promoted on the Web

* Create your own “online” speaking engagements – your own YouTube channel, podcasts, etc.


Now before I get a bunch of comments and emails, a disclaimer: in no way is this intended to be comprehensive advice regarding what you should pack for the big game or how to behave once you get there.  It’s really just a quick slap on the back before the coin toss.  But I’m on my high horse about making sure that everyone at least knows how to protect themselves so – whether you’re warming up on the bench or helping someone who is – these are few ideas that will help avoid a penalty flag on the field.

This post was originally posted here on the Marketing Executive Network Group’s blog, MENG Blend.

I have written numerous posts about the relationship between marketing and customer service. Plainly speaking, the former means zip without the latter. It’s at the front lines – at the point at which a customer is making a purchase decision – that a consumer will make his or her long-term choice (and, as a result, determine whether a company’s advertising is believable or laughable).

This is a story about JCrew.

I’m an active customer. I don’t often respond to emails, but I pore over the catalogs and either buy from there or go to a nearby store to check out the merchandise.  I do, however, keep an eye out for the end-of-season sale emails.

And so it was a couple evenings ago. I bit on a 30% off plus free shipping sale.  While watching TV, I invested maybe 30-45 minutes combing JCrew’s web pages, determining my confidence levels under the  final sale, no returns circumstances.  I finally initiated an online transaction which – before the discount totaled $149.98 – 2¢ below the $150 hurdle for free shipping. 

Surely for 2¢, JCrew would see the sense in helping a loyal customer, if I were to just call and ask… 

Not so much.  The phone rep seemed confused by the question (um, uh, $149.98 is not $150 and that. is. the. rule), but this did not surprise me and I just asked to speak to a supervisor.  Unfortunately – after waiting for maybe 90 seconds, expecting to be rewarded by the supervisor I’d asked for – the same rep came back and suggested I buy a pair of socks to push me over the $150 limit. 

So now I’m mad.  I almost laugh after I catch myself shifting into Perry Mason mode: “So let me just be clear, because I’m going to tweet and maybe blog about this – the company is not going to waive a 2 cent difference for a frequent customer – is that what you’re saying?!” (Is that your testimony, M’aam!?).  Geez – you’d think that those ballet slippers meant life or death, but you know how these things go.  I insisted on speaking to a supervisor one more time because this just seemed so dumb to me.

And then the clouds parted and a supervisor named Nicole R. came on the line. She could not have been more pleasant or professional.  She ignored the 2 cent gap and gave me free shipping with no hesitation.  She offered to complete the online transaction over the phone, so we did.  All done.

So why is this blog-worthy?  It’s a great example of service recovery.  The concept of service recovery is that people and companies screw up.  Everyone knows it.  It’s how something broken gets fixed that can show how customer-centric a company really is. 

Nicole R.’s service recovery skills probably made me feel more positive about JCrew than I had when I started the transaction in the first place.

And then Nicole R. really took it way past the goal line.

Only after she had completed the entire transaction did Nicole mention (nicely) that – for future reference – free shipping offers apply to the purchase price after all discounts are applied.

My $149.98 was before the extra 30% off.   After the discount, I was $45 away (not 2¢) from the $150 hurdle.  Nicole R. had immediately honored my request, saved me $14.50 and made sure I was happy.  Only then did she point out this small fact.

Now we’re into “delight” territory.  For me, $14.50 (or $45, depending on how you see it) was a big deal.  Nicole at JCrew understood that this was a tiny investment in a long-term customer relationship.

Wonderful. Sensible. Amazing. Bravo!!!

It’s a shame that consumer expectations regarding customer service are so low, but it also gives companies an outsized opportunity to stand out.  And more often than not,  “standing out” actually happens in the everyday interactions you have with a consumer.  A lot of whiz-bang is great, but these small moments are what build lifetime relationships… and help marketing efforts look believable in the process.

Larry King held a 2-hour telethon on June 21 to raise funds for those impacted by the BP oil spill – Disaster in the Gulf: How You Can Help.

Maybe I’m missing something, but… am I the only one who doesn’t understand this?

The spill was caused by a commercial entity that the universe agrees is 100% responsible, the U.S. government has vowed to hold said entity to its promise of paying for the clean-up and for losses incurred by all affected parties, and BP itself has agreed to do same.

Now I’m not saying that BP will or won’t actually do this (or that its version of reimbursement would match yours or mine), but this telethon isn’t saying “We know BP’s 100% responsible, but we don’t believe it’ll come through so we’re doing this just in case” – it’s just your regular old telethon to raise money.

But why? Why are we raising money? Why are television watchers – many of whom cannot afford to donate – being asked to donate in the first place? Larry King said that “the point of this effort is to get immediate relief to the people and wildlife who are in urgent need,” and that “the telethon’s proceeds go directly to relief organizations.” Why isn’t BP being forced to provide “immediate relief?”

I worry that, in a perverse way, this kind of activity makes us immune – numb – to disaster and tragedy. Something happens? No need to look too closely: let’s just raise money. Let’s get a bunch of celebrities to look soulfully into the camera and ask for cash, while we view a dying, oil-blackened bird in split screen. I worry that this makes Americans feel as though we’re doing something – we sent in our $20 bucks, therefore we are good people who care and we can move on.

Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Mariah Carey and Jeremy Piven take donations at the Gulf telethon

But can we? Are we doing any of the heavy lifting that could actually change anything, or help people? Those impacted by Hurricane Katrina are still suffering and basic infrastructure remains thin in New Orleans: where are we? Where is the outrage about how deepwater drilling continues as we speak, with no specific plan for the industry to create tools that will help it avert and address disasters in the future? Where is the outrage that BP is trying to block journalists’ access to the beaches, or skimmer boats from other countries? Why is it acceptable that individuals appear to be picking up the slack for a global corporation? These should be the items we’re all talking about, not what Justin Bieber has to say over a cheesy soundtrack.

And I worry, too, about the effect on an organization’s sense of responsibility. How does this phenomenon impact a company’s commitment to building trust in the marketplace? If BP’s actions are acceptable – and we make them acceptable by dialing an 800 number flashing on the screen and putting $10 on our credit cards – why wouldn’t a company conclude that it will not be held 100% accountable for its actions? Whether willfully or passively, why wouldn’t an organization do the minimum, or something close to it, and wait for us to blunt or even wash away its responsibility?

It’s easy to pound one’s chest and demand that “those responsible” do more, but I would suggest that, by our own actions, we may be empowering these same responsible parties to do less. There’s no guidebook that tells an organization exactly what reputable and trustworthy behavior is – society does that. Stakeholders – like you, me and Larry King – do that.

Where do you want to set the bar?

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A version of this post also appears on http://reputationgarage.com.

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) “If you see something, say something” initiative may have more power than the average communications program.

On the day of the Times Squaif-you-see-something-stephanie-fierman.jpgre bomb scare last month, street vendor Lance Orton mentioned this exact phrase during a press interview and, as echoed by Advertising Age, this is the kind of unaided recall that “marketers and ad agencies dream of.”

And if you think about the fact that the campaign is as much a public safety announcement as anything else – not typically the kind of advertising likely to lodge in your happy-brain – the feat is even more impressive. High five, MTA!

What’s also particularly notable about this effort, though, is the largesse with which the city has handled it, agreeing to license the slogan… for free. Today, 54 organizations are using “…see something, say something” in public awareness campaigns all over the world.*

This action is somewhat refreshing, based on the State’s history of enthusiastically protecting its own intellectual property. New York State lawyers, for example, have reportedly filed more than 3,000 complaints over the past several decades against those infringing on the infamous “I New York” logo. That takes a lot of time and a lot of money.

But the “If you see something…” isn’t exactly a soaring homage to the State worthy of such rigorous defense – and maybe the State simply realizes there’s a lot more at stake today than ever before.

I also like to talk about the MTA’s openness because it reflects the reality of what I would categorize as today’s open source marketing environment. In all the scrambling companies are doing to get this on Twitter or launch that on Facebook, the most impermeable truth has yet to sync in with many: the Internet and – perhaps most profoundly, social media – is changing our world. The power to define and control a brand is shifting from corporations and institutions to individuals and communities.

In other words – if you want to view it “negatively” – you can’t keep a lid on anything anymore. And if you want to view it positively, what would happen if you made some of your brand elements “open source?” Could you benefit? Could your fans benefit? Could the world benefit?

There are very real reasons that brands need protection, but consider the massive exposure companies have received when they’ve “flipped the funnel” and handed over their brands to loyal, excited customers:

Frito-Lay first invited consumers to make their own Super Bowl commercials in 2006. Today, “Crash the Super Bowl” is a craze that’s generated hundreds of millions of impressions on its own and the commercials themselves are fan favorites every year.

Ford famously favored social media for the launch of its Fiesta to much fanfare. Fanfare in this case equaled more than 5 million YouTube views, 3 million Twitter impressions and 50,000 interested prospects, 97% of which did not own a Ford at the time. Numbers a CEO could love.

Coca-Cola invited global consumers to design their own Coke bottles on the road to the Beijing Olympics.

New Balance created an amazing digital campaign for its 574 sneaker collection. In every box of unique 574s, the purchaser would find a special Polaroid that s/he could then match to one of 480 mini shoe stories at http://574clips.com. Click here to watch one of my favorite 574 films embedded in the original post I wrote about the initiative. Oddly mesmerizing.

And of course, there’s the mack-daddy of them all, the Mentos eruption. First demonstrated on TV in 1999 and made famous by an NPR story in 2006, a Mentos eruption is what you get when drop some Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke. If you cannot view the video here in this post, click HERE to see the truly funny video of several Mentos/Diet Coke “experiments” conducted by two friends. This video became a phenomenon, with nearly 12 million views on YouTube alone. Mentos generated over $10 million in online buzz and a spokesperson said the brand was “tickled pink by it” (perhaps because they generated $10 million in online buzz…).

What would happen if you opened up your brand? Even B2B brands have fans: what positive outcomes could you create by inviting users to create something of their own based on your assets? Would they be impressed? Would they tell friends, and feel a unique and personal loyalty to you? And what’s the worst that could happen (paging Skittles…)?

Not a lot. Big upside, though. So think about how you might be able to draft users to carry your brand all over the Web and farther into their own lives. You may like where it takes you.

* But of course this IS New York, so even the most serious problems will be subject to some wise-guy behavior: check out the funniest “If you see something, say something” parodies HERE.