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.

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.

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.

There’s a real reputation-meets-revenue battle happening online.

Today, any advertiser with a Google AdWords account can buy virtually any keyword to advertise its own goods, regardless of whether said advertiser has the rights to use the word.  This is particularly troublesome for companies that have spent decades burnishing brand franchises and consider the associated names and words to be reputational assets of great value. 

If you go to Google right now and type in “LVMH” (the owner of numerous brands including Louis Vuitton and Hennessy), one of the sponsored ads shouts “Designer Handbags 70% off,” with a URL that includes the Louis Vuitton name. That has LVMH steamed and the company sued Google in Europe for trademark infringement.

Well the ruling is in… and it’s a split decision, advantage: Google. Upon Google’s appeal of earlier rulings (that didn’t go its way) the highest court in the EU has determined that – on its face – the mere fact that an LVMH-protected word is available for sale by Google does not mean that Google is in violation of LVMH’s trademark rights.  stephanie-fierman-louis-vuitton.jpg

Specifically, the court has said that the search company is not violating trademarks if (a) its automatic ad system is judged to be “merely technical, automatic and passive” in its operation, and if (b) the company is not aware and cannot be expected to fully police all the words that advertisers purchase.

Since computers are programmed by humans, I would argue that the first point is debatable, but there it is.  It was not a flat-out win for Google, however, as the court also ruled that Google must remove said ads if the brand owner formally complains about an advertiser infringing on its marks.  If Google fails to do this, the court says it won’t be so helpful in protecting Google’s revenue stream the next time around.

The court also reinforced that Google could be held liable for selling keywords that openly encourage or facilitate counterfeiting, which is a win (or at least a booster shot) for brand owners.  And lastly, the court also clarified the responsibilities of advertisers who mustn’t, by “using such keywords, arrange for Google to display ads which do not allow Internet users to easily establish from which undertaking the goods or services covered by the ad in question originate.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m an advertiser that gets into hot water for legally buying a word that Google sold to me – and I’m not trying to sell knock-offs – I’m naming Google in my legal response.

stephanie-fierman-brand.jpgLVMH has been on the attack re. this issue for a long time all around the world, and must fight infringement in all possible sales channels. It has sued (and has won), for example against eBay in the past.  And  LVMH was front and center in the effective elimination of a thriving Louis Vuitton counterfeit trade on Canal Street in New York City.  After this ruling, the company will flood Google “Don’t Be Evil” Inc. with complaints until the search company will at least have to question what (and how much) it is defending by taking on massive legal expense (and bad PR) in order to make money from advertisers leeching off others’ trademarks.

And speaking of buying Louis Vuitton knock-offs on the street, a LVMH board member asks what may be the most probative observation yet: “Under trademark law anywhere in the world, brand owners have the right to stop third parties from using their names. “Why make an exception for the digital world?”

 As the division between online and offline “worlds” continue to disappear, why indeed?

Let’s talk about Audi and the choices it seems to have made regarding its newest advertising work.

Audi USA’s new campaign is based on the “Green Police,” a band of roving law enforcers who try to protect the environment.  “You picked the wrong day to mess with the ecosystem, plastic boy,” says a Green Police enforcer to a clueless grocery shopper in Audi’s Super Bowl ad. “A man has just been arrested… for possession of an incandescent light bulb,” says a reporter.  Here’s the ad:

There are even educational YouTube videos, like this one that tells you how many napkins to take per sandwich.

Hoo-HOO! Hilarious.


But if your brand had a history that was, you know, linked to the largest human massacre of all time, how funny would an ad have to be for you to go ahead anyway?


Audi’s problem is that there’s already one Green Police in history – a Nazi organization associated with the forced labor andphoto-original-green-police1.jpg extermination of millions of innocent people.  Audi is one of the companies that converted its factories to make automobiles and heavy artillery for the Nazis.  Both Audi and Volkswagen have been named in multiple lawsuits filed by Holocaust survivors and their families over the years.

So the social media campaign and the TV ad comes out… and some people are upset.  Others race to defend Audi’s advertising process, e.g. Audi did lots of research prior to launching the campaign, and it showed the ad to Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors who were not offended.


These comments just reinforce Audi’s deafness.  Did Audi know in advance or not?  Which would be worse?  And as for the defense that the company showed the ad to some Jewish people… there were thousands of people of multiple faiths caught up in what happened during WWII, and there are human beings of all faiths who could be offended by such a reminder.  We are all citizens of the world – and we are all consumers with money to spend on new cars.  And if I’m not in the market for a car, I can assure you that I talk to someone on Facebook or Twitter or at work who is – someone who values my opinion.

This isn’t about religion, it’s about brand.  It’s about judgment.  It’s about customers.

What was the judgment that Audi made here? As PR flak Melanie Lockhart says on her blog, “Lockstep on PR, “Even if you don’t personally think so, from a PR strategy perspective, it doesn’t matter.  As soon as someone takes reasonable exception to anything an organization does (and especially if that someone has an audience), you’ve got a potential issue on your hands.  Can you reasonably predict that a campaign with resonances of the Holocaust will offend people? I think so.”

green-police-logo-design11.pngOthers on the Web haven’t been so charitable.

Audi volunteered for a big kick in the gut. Why – for a social media campaign? To spend $3 million on a single :30 Super Bowl ad insertion, when said ad drags so much negative baggage with it?  If I were CMO, I’d like to think that I never would have seen the concept in the first place, because my agency would have considered and rejected it. But if it had gotten to my desk and I’d reflexively typed “[Fill in the Blank] Nazis” into Google, it’d have been lights out.  No chance to debate whether or not an ad may or may not offend anyone.  Why take the chance? 

In this case, there simply isn’t enough funny in the world to balance the scale. It’s not as if there’s “another side” to the Holocaust.  This isn’t the same as being “offended” by a bunch of guys farting in a TV ad.  Even if you are one of these folks – in the words of Help A Reporter Out Founder Peter Shankman on Twitter, “Nothing good can EVER come from a PR campaign involving Nazis.”  

In a world where trust is a brand’s greatest asset, one’s very first filter has to be good taste.  Audi had no reason to take this kind of risk.  It makes cars that people love – one guy calls  his Audi TT “lovable and charismatic.” The company doesn’t have any controversial point to prove, and the brand doesn’t need shock value. Why take this road?

And in case you think I’m being overly sensitive, or perhaps that killing the campaign would have been tantamount to censorship, you may have a tin ear.  It’s not about us.  It’s about the audience and the message you want them to receive.

Be tough.  Put ideas to the test.  If one person can “reasonably predict” a problem, don’t hogtie the work and your reputation by asking for a punch in the face. There are plenty of great ideas out there that won’t generate over 100,000* negative mentions on Google.  Go find one.

* On February 14, 2010 a Google search on “Audi Nazis Super Bowl” yielded 107,000 results.

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

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

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

So I walked around all last week, turning the Tiger Woods debacle over in my head, wondering if I had anything to add.  Hadn’t everyone already piled on?  Probably.  And even the thoughts I want to share with you aren’t particularly new, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth saying.  Again. And again.tiger-woods-stephanie-fierman.jpg

Thought #1: what should be public is now private, and what should be private has been made public.  This is an expression borrowed from Ellen Hume, currently an Annenberg Fellow and a world-renowned journalist, teacher and television commentator, among other things. 

Ellen was also the founder of PBS‘s Democracy Project, which focused on citizen involvement in public affairs and was, in part, an effort to more fully leverage all the channels beyond television (that were available even in the late 90’s) in ways that tapped in to those channels’ special capabilities.  The Web is great for providing more in-depth detail than one can deliver on television, for example.

When Hume made this public/private statement, she was making the point that we seem to prefer using 24-hour channels, like the Web, to dredge up every salacious, personal detail about everything and everyone, no matter how ultimately truthful or additive to the story such details may be. By the time we beat said details to death, who even knows what was true or not but, man, what a ride.  Think Tiger here: private details that are now gruesomely public, like a neighbor claiming the golfer was snoring on the lawn and the 911 call heard ’round the world.

Contrast all this with TARP.  Could you explain what TARP is in 25 words or less? How many beneficiaries can you name? How many of them have paid back the money? What is the name of the popular American economist and Nobel Prize winner who has been particularly outspoken and critical of the program? Do you know approximately how much the U.S. government has handed out to date?

I could not answer all of these questions, but I do know that Tiger Woods’ wife used a wedge to smash in his car windows.

After you include Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the U.S. government has doled out over $1 TRILLION in our money. The state of the financial markets has an impact on this country, and an impact on you.  Tiger’s mistresses? Not so much. But dang it all if some knucklehead isn’t updating this story every 20 seconds. 

What is public is private and what should be private is public.  Conduct yourself accordingly.

Related Thought #2: The math doesn’t work anymore. Once something is brewing you can hope for the best, but act, please, assuming the worst.

Just this past week, a smart person I know looked at a situation in which it was possible that Company X might encounter negative press if information having nothing to do with the company was misinterpreted in the media. So this smart person did what smart people are trained to do: s/he attempted to thoughtfully quantify Company X’s exposure – for example, how many individuals might actually be impacted by the event. Everyone comfortably concluded that the answer was not very many.

That used to be a good answer. Not anymore. Now it only takes one person with a high-speed Internet connection and a beef to let millions of people know what he knows or what he thinks he knows. Dell poo-pooed Jeff Jarvis.  United ignored Dave Carroll. Comcast disregarded Mona Shaw.  One blogger with an agenda attempted to trash a model’s reputation.   An anonymous jerk on JuicyCampus.com started a vicious tirade about female Yale Law School students.  Are you next?

devil.jpgIt takes one person to start a fire you will not be able to control.  And some form of this content will remain on the Web forever. For-e-ver.

Forget about intelligent, rational assessments of how big something might become.  By the time it’s big, it’s too late.  It could be one anonymous email, or an angry spouse or a dissatisfied customer.  Move quickly when a crisis arises, or else.

So what I hope Tiger, you and I now have in common is an understanding of the gigantic reputational risks that now exist, given the Web and a 24 hour news cycle.  My advice to normal people is to build a positive reputation online before something happens, so it’s there as a counterbalance to any threat that might arise.  I never thought I needed to recommend that one should also attempt to avoid totally avoidable, stupid acts that could unravel everything a person has built, but hey – a fresh reminder never hurt anyone.

Mojo readers know that I truly enjoy the work of two wonderful marketing/business cartoonists and like to share it now and then.  On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David JonesAdland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp. 

I have to say that  ever since I found out that tweets carry a number of legal risks  I’ve been waiting for someone to deliver this painfully true characterization of what a meeting between Marketing and Legal just might be like… Enjoy!

stephanie-fierman-tom-fishburne-twitter-legal.jpg

Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today?