Monday, August 23, 2010

The Value of Values

I don’t think anybody would question the significance of our personal values in the way that we connect with and relate to other people. We constantly apply our super sophisticated perceptive capabilities to measure and compare other people’s values to our own. The more values we share with another person the more we resonate with them and the more likely it is that we will choose them as friends, partners and so on.

Well it’s really no different with your corporate values. They are of HUGE value to your business and if you haven’t defined them they will be invented for you based on whatever passing impression you make on whomever you come into contact with. Here are a few of the reasons values are so important:

1. They bring clarity to your offering because they are the uniting factor in everything that you do. That creates coherence and scalability in your brand.
2. They are a critical component of your central value proposition to your customers. That gives you a laser focus on what it is you are really selling.
3. They engage your employees in something more compelling than the day-to-day execution of your business and improve individual productivity.
4. They give you a benchmark against which to assess decisions within your organization.
5. They make it possible for you to share clear values with your customers and illicit much greater engagement and loyalty.

That’s just for starters. You might feel that your values are apparent or implicit in your brand but if you can’t say what they are, quickly and concisely, how can you expect your customers to recognize them?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Is There An Ambient Brand?

I have been thinking about this question for ages. Trying to weave together ideas and observations from branding, cultural change, economic transformation, consumer trends and shifting values. Just about everything really. It is all starting to come together around the idea of an ambient brand.

The branding community has come to accept the idea that brands are no longer fully owned or controlled by corporations. That they have drifted away into social, often virtual communities that have a say in forming them. If that is true, then brands have become social and there is a need for a new paradigm through which to understand and leverage them.

An ambient brand, according to me, is a virtual space, defined by social needs and values, and occupied by a community of like-minded people. Unlike a traditional brand, it is entirely independent of products and their parent corporations. Instead it exists as a shared values space where consumers gather, converse and ultimately transact with organizations that are in alignment with the values associated with that community. The label "brand" is justified by the fact that the ambient brand is a distinct identity to which products and services can attach in order to attract the engagement and loyalty of customers.

Corporations do not create ambient brands. They must qualify for inclusion within them by demonstrating that they share the values and will service the interests of their associated communities. The brands develop organically as a result of emerging social and cultural codes and are materialized through people’s ability to organize around them through the use of mainly virtual communities on the web.

Ambient brands literally turn the traditional concept of branding on its head and put people, in place of products at the heart of campaigns. This makes for an interesting set of opportunities from the perspective of companies looking to develop relationships with various communities of consumers. It begs the question “what is an ambient brand campaign and how do you execute one?”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Eco-Something is Better Than Nothing

If you take the long view, social responsibility and sustainability are an imperative for all our future economic activity. The truth about the alternative is becoming increasingly evident and incredibly alarming. In the short term however, the reality is that most consumer product companies are unable to immediately make the changes necessary to fully transition into new and better practices. They either don’t know what to do or the logistical and cost implications are prohibitive. Workable, affordable solutions for sustainable sourcing, manufacturing, packaging and so on are still largely a work in progress, as are the services that would support businesses in making the transition.
Most companies understand the importance of change but face obstacles in execution. This is inevitable and will be resolved over time. The problem is that an eco-elitist atmosphere around the issue of change creates an all or nothing reward system that recognizes grandiose gestures but ignores the slower, more incremental reform that is the only realistic option for most companies. This may seem like a pretty small complaint in the overall landscape of eco-reform but I think the implications are pretty huge.
Many companies are understandably intimidated by reform in the absence of sustainable alternatives that fit their cost and revenue requirements. The danger here is that rather than think about what they can do, they focus on what they can’t and decide that this revolution is not for them. They do nothing rather than coming up with the something that they can manage today. Even worse, they fail to embrace the corporate mindset that commits them to change moving forward. That’s a terrible waste of the low hanging fruit of sustainability that most businesses could and would do if they were rewarded for it.
Another outcome of not recognizing and rewarding incremental change is green-washing. Social responsibility and sustainability are amongst the most powerful brand attributes a consumer product can carry in today’s marketplace. Setting the bar to high for access to this kind of brand equity is a mistake because it makes misleading marketing more beneficial than meaningful change. If companies knew that their brands could benefit from a reasonable, good faith effort to get on board with a slower but steady transition to sustainability then it is likely that they would do more to change. This is what I call “Eco-Something”. It may not seem like much but it’s better than nothing and all business should be rewarded for taking this first step towards sustainability.
This is the thinking behind Good Citizen Brands. The basic premise is that in every business there are, be they large or small, opportunities to reform. By taking advantage of those opportunities and committing to greater awareness and an ongoing process of transition into sustainability, a company should be able to distinguish itself as a Good Citizen Brand with the associated brand equity and competitive advantage. Do what you can today and keep changing until you get there. If this seems like setting the bar too low, think back to your first consciously green purchase. It probably coincided with you redefining yourself as green but, just as probably, didn’t catapult you into an entirely transformed and sustainable lifestyle. If eco-reform is going to be more than a marketing narrative between businesses and consumers then business must be judged, labeled and rewarded for incremental change in the same way that consumers are. Those market forces will provide a greater impetus for change than even the scariest of inconvenient truths.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dog is the Ultimate Brand

So I have a really cute dog. Her name is Rosie. I am not one of those fawning dog owners who thinks they have the best dog in the world but this dog is really something. People literally flip over the way this dog looks. Little kids shriek when they see her because she looks like a cuddly toy and she has these freckles on her nose and patterns that make her look like she is smiling all the time. Then there is the perky strut and the fluffy tail and it's just more than most people can handle. In good old British tradition she is also very well trained and rarely on a leash. She strolls along by my side or a few feet ahead and gives out a strong air of knowing exactly where she is headed and why. You can see the whites of her eyes when she looks around which gives her a whole range of humanesque facial expressions and make her appear super smart and responsive. She is pretty smart but lets not forget that she is a dog.

So it occurs to me that Rosie elicits the exact response that I spend my time trying to inspire in the potential customers of my clients consumer products.

  • People are drawn to her on sight - Brand attraction
  • Ooh and aah over her and want to touch her - Consumer engagement
  • Talk about her to me and then to their friends - Word of mouth marketing
  • Inquire about her breed (main brand attribute) - Brand identification
  • Want to take her home - Consumer capitulation
  • ...and, in place of doing so, go home and become a fan on her facebook page (Rosie Posey) - Brand loyalty creates brand community or tribe. Social media, viral marketing, hyper growth...

You get the picture.

Should I ever be feeling lonesome we just "trail up" and the the whole world welcomes us with happy smiles and endless opportunities to engage and connect. Pretty powerful stuff in the land of the brand. My only fear is that she will get swiped by some unscrupulous low-life who recognizes her huge brand potential and wants it for themselves. I have had her chipped and tagged and am looking into trademarking.

So what can be learned here? Can we take the Rosie Posey brand magic and attach it to other stuff? I don't know but check it out...

1. The Wag Factor - Rosie is an Interactive Brand. When somebody says hi to Rosie - she wags her tail. She does this every time. She is really great at acknowledging the positive attention that she receives and always has a positive response. Companies can do this using interactive media so a proverbial pat on the head by a customer is rightfully rewarded by a good wag. Interaction is a key so brands have to be able to respond.

2. You Name It - Rosie is a Custom Brand. A mutt. I have no idea what she is exactly but everybody seems to have an idea about it. This is how it goes.

Them - What kind of dog is that?
Me - I don't know
Them - Oh... she is an Ossie Shepard crossed with an Akita
or - she is a Healer crossed with a Chow
or - she is a dingo or a fox crossed with a dog and where did you find her...
Me - Yea..OK!.. Cool!

She is something different to everyone who meets her based on their experience of her and in context with their own preferences or ideas. If I was more prescriptive or rigid about how she should be defined, people would not get the sense of ownership that identifying and naming her gives them. I think that is really interesting and can be replicated in other brands.

3. I Like What You Like - Rosie is an Lifestyle Brand and illicits emotional engagement. She reflects and amplifies the values, preferences attributes that people project towards her. If your happy to see her then she is super happy to see you. If you like to run she will race around with you all day. She is interested in everything that you have to say and she shares all your interests. It's easy to get attached to something that positively affirms your choices. You have SO much in common and how can you not love that?

Just some thoughts and a fun exercise. Try taking a look at your dog... or your pet or your kid and figuring out what makes them the perfect brand.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fired Up

"Your Fired!"

It's just not as much fun when Donald Trump is nowhere to be seen.

Tons of my friends are getting laid off. My networking groups are spawning off shoots with names like Fired Like Us. It's a catastrophe to be sure, but I have to admit to being kind of fired up.  It seems to me that many of these highly capable and qualified ex corporate souls are going to prove out the time tested adage that says "Necessity is the mother of all invention".  Invention is exactly what we need right now to solve the staggering array of social and environmental ills that are plaguing our everyday lives and threatening our very existence (if you want to be dramatic about it.)  I am interested to see if there will be a measurable increase in entrepreneurial innovation in our economy over the next couple of years.  All those great ideas that have been playing second fiddle to 6 figure corporate salaries may now be given a chance to fly.  Lemon's to lemonade as it were.  Let the innovation begin!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Semantics for Real

I recently listened to a presentation by Steven Pinker on language and the human brain. He is a neuroscientist who has specialized in the way people use and respond to language. There are some very interesting, innate behaviors associated with this that transect race, class and culture. I was there because I had a sneaky feeling that the subject would shed some light on the changes going on in the world of branding right now. My hunch was right and this is what I came away with.

People engage in different types of relationships and, for the purpose of linguistics, these are divided into 3 categories.


Dominant relationships are ones in which one person is clearly in control. It could be your boss or the maitre de at the restaurant you want to eat at. Reciprocal relationships are transactional; you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Buying a used car from a stranger or chatting with a store attendant would fit here. Finally there are communal relationships. This would be your spouse, family and friends.

So, not surprisingly, there are a completely different set of linguistic rules and norms at play in each of these categories. You wouldn't adopt the same conversational style with your brother as you would with a colleague or a server in a restaurant. In fact, we experience discomfort and unease in situations where the conversational style does not fit the relationship type. Have you ever been made to feel uncomfortable when somebody you had a reciprocal relationship with started talking to you about a personal problem? That conversation is out of place outside of a communal relationship and it makes you feel weird.

This starts to be relevant to consumer behavior and branding when we look at the history of marketing over the last 50 or so years. People used to look up to corporations and trust them. Corporations basically told people what to do and they did it. Marketing messages were directive and commanding. Buy Clorox! Drive a Chrysler! This is language that is associated with dominant relationships and worked at a time when people were comfortable being led by corporations. As consumers evolved they moved into reciprocal relationships with brands and the messages became more of an appeal than a command. It was a case of persuading the consumer to enter into an exchange. The language of branding moved into the category of the reciprocal language that we all innately use to communicate within this type of relationship. This is definitely simplistic but you get my drift…

Now this is where things get really interesting. I would suggest that what is underway right now is a transition towards communal type relationships with brands. We want to know who companies are, if they share our values, if they conform to our perspective on the world and so on. We are demanding relationships with companies and brands that go far beyond the transaction, and a level of engagement that is more akin to what we expect from our friends. We expect honesty and openness. Demand responsiveness and recognition of ourselves as individuals. We seek engagement through dialogue of some kind and a collaborative environment in which to explore our options. Basically we are looking for communal relationships with all the complexities involved.

In order to survive this shift, companies need to understand the semantic and linguistic rules that define communal relationships and employ them in the way that they speak to their customers. People are a long way from wanting to be told what to do and traditional, persuasive branding that has no relationship with the actual values and behavior of the company is wearing thin. Communal relationships will only be fostered by companies able to speak the language that engenders them and then ensure that they have an authentic and sustainable engagement with their customers. We, as humans, innately sense deception within communal relationships so they can't be faked. This is the reason for the growing emphasis on authenticity in branding. Nobody woke up and decided it was time to get real. Companies are unable to practice deception in the context of a communal relationship without coming across as insincere and tinny. The best thing about all of this is it's science. It's measurable and quantifiable and easily demonstrated by everyday examples to which we can all relate. It's also a great argument for the huge importance in continuing investment in marketing strategy during this time of transition. Mr. Pinker has written a couple of pretty popular books on the subject if its something you want to know more about.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Pick a Pole or Take a Stroll

Does the polarization of wealth in the US spell the demise of, not only the middle class, but the middle class brand?

We hear a lot about polarization in this lead up the the '08 election. It shows up nicely in politics because of the necessity of picking a side, and then voting towards a presidential outcome. But polarization in politics is simply the most obvious manifestation of a more pervasive phenomena that is impacting all aspects of our culture and economy and defining our behavior within in.

Polarization of wealth is an ever more apparent. Marx, in his capacity as an economist, rather than political theorist, was right about a lot of this stuff. The latest $700 billion bailout marks the latest and greatest march north of what used to be middle class tax payers money. According to the New York times, a mere $153 million would put you on the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list in 1982. Today the number is $1.3 billion. It would appear that the future of the monetary north pole remains rosy while the actual North Pole melts into the sea.

Down at the south pole things are getting a little busy. A population explosion of unprecedented proportions is swelling the ranks of the poor poor, poor working class, poor middle class and all poor buggers in general. The chances are, if you were any where close to, or south of the financial equator a year or two ago, you are now migrating south towards the 'no disposable income zone'.

So the question becomes............ Who's left in the middle?

Well hardly anybody really. The middle class will remain intact from the standpoint of being an identifiable group, but what it means to be in that group is going to change drastically. It's going to be bitter medicine for a while until the absolute necessity of adopting a more sustainable model of consumption becomes de rigor. The epiphany that we should have had a decade or so ago, grew up and became a cataclysmic wipe out. Oops.

Basically the middle class is no longer a screeching gannet with an insatiable appetite for garbage. The brands that have been selling average quality goods to Joe Average (six pack), based on his very average expectations are taking a hit. Business Week's report on the top 10 best, and worst performing brands lists The Gap and Ford in the losers column. (The other three are banks). The real tell here is Gap. Friend to middle America for so long and now abandoned. What did they do wrong.

I would suggest that they failed to pick a pole. They are neither the cheapest or the best and they offer no compelling experience or point of emotional engagement for their customers. Every body just kind of wandered off and decided to spend more (or nothing at all) and hang out on the sofas at Anthropology.

So what is the future of the middle class brand and what adjustments must they make to remain in business as their customer base redefines value in the way they spend their limited cash?