January 2015

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Apple’s success can be boiled down to two guiding product development principles: functionality and desire. Steve Job’s was a big fan of design as you know. Creating products that perform valuable, needed functions was his first hurdle and he did it well. That by itself can create desire. But doing so with beauty, grace and artistry? Well, that warms the heart. And fires up the brain’s feelings sensors.

When I explain brand planning to people I say it’s the marriage of “what a product does well” and “what a consumer wants most.” In a sense, this mirrors Apple’s function and desire approach.

Many brand people like to talk about the culture of the company and the culture of the brand. As someone who studied anthropology for a number of years, I’m a big fan of functionalism; where institutions and cultures develop to meet the physical needs of the population. In brief, culture is an adaptation to reality. So rather than spend brand planning time over-analyzing symbols and cues, I prefer to spend time on product function. Things like status may be a desire, but they are certainly not functions. As you do discovery in your brand planning ops, make sure you don’t look past function and go straight to desire. It’s a fundamental part of the product story. Peace.

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If you are paying any attention to what’s going on in K12 education you’ll know many teachers are up in arms about the Common Core curriculum; a standardization of what and how students are taught. Teachers are particularly nervous about being graded on their performance against Common Core standards. Imagine — teachers upset by being graded.

Grading performance is as old as performance itself. It’s especially hard in marketing; the same place where it is especially lax. Just as teachers say, “It’s not my fault Dick and Jane aren’t performing, they come from difficult home situations” marketers say “It’s not my fault sales are down, the product isn’t great.”

Huge businesses have a hard time grading their marketing because there are so many moving parts. Small businesses have an easier time grading marketing but there is not much to grade; beyond the product, service and bottom line there is not a lot of spending or investing going on.

Mid-size business, on the other hand, is where grading marketing practices really falls apart. Marketing can have positive impact in mid-size businesses but $20,000 checks are hard to write.  Mid-size businesses are actually the ones most likely to benefit from grades but there has to be something to grade. In my work, I grade brand strategy. Why? It is strategic not tactical. A cume grade not lots of little grades.

I can go into a mid-size company, snoop around, review sales and selling materials, speak to 10 customers and know right away if there is a strategy. 70% don’t have one.

Mid-size companies are the ones who benefit most from marketing and brand strategy. Mid-size companies who grade themselves on sales alone are likely to stall. Return on Strategy is where they need to be. Peace.

 

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Critical to the success of social media or content marketing strategy is the concept of “motivation.” Borrowed from the acting world where a good actor uses a motivation to bring his or her character to life, motivation in social is meant to drive all that is posted and pasted.

Social media motivation is not random – it’s a direct outgrowth of brand strategy. Motivation must illuminate and demonstrate the claim and proof array that are a product’s brand strategy. This opens up and speeds up consumer understanding of brand strategy. It brings brand strategy out of paper mode and theory mode and into experience and action – creating muscle memory.

A customer care person on the phone who understands a company’s brand strategy can decide on the fly how to act. How to deliver. How to behave. This is where acting can turn into reality. And reality into culture.

Strategy is brilliant but until it turns into product, deeds and experiences it’s just ink on a screen. Peace.

 

 

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I attended Google Firestarters last night in NYC (thanks Ben Malbon), the topic of which was “constraints” and how they can fuel business and marketing improvements. Speakers included Adam Morgan (Eat Big Fish) and Mark Barden (ex-Guinness) co-authors of the smart new book A Beautiful Constraint. Firestarter panel 012215 In the morning I spoke at a great small business panel sponsored by Teacher Federal Credit Union on the topic of “Return on Strategy.”  One of my business constraints is that I’m a self-taught brand planner. Ada Alpert and other brand planning recruiters won’t touch me because I don’t come out of a traditional brand planning shop. I’ve also not been schooled by a member of the British Mafia. To overcome this constraint I’ve had to study hard from afar, creating my own syllabus and curriculum.

Return on Strategy is one of my self-taught tools. Here’s how it works: Measure your brand strategy (not tactics) and see if adherence puts more money in the bank. Period.

An example: Years ago, AT&T Business Communications Services knew if consumers 1. felt price was within 10% of its closest competitor, 2. believed they had a more reliable network and 3. provided innovative tools to help businesses grow, market share would grow. These became the 3 legs of the strategy. Perception of these things is what we measured through tracking research. So long as we maintained advantage in all three areas AT&T added customers. If we slipped in one area, we started losing customers. Gotta love science.

For my clients the search is all about finding the three key business-building strategies that help grow business. I call them proof planks. When I find the planks I help clients build and manage them. I also make sure they measure adherence and tie it to business gains. You have now attended What’s the Idea? 101. Peace.

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I was reading the paper this morning on president Obama’s state of the union speech and realized the word “politics” has become a dirty word. “We can get things done so long as politics don’t get in the way,” the speech suggested. When issues are “politicized” there is gridlock.   (I suspect this isn’t too different from the word “religious” or “beliefs” in the Middle East.) In the U.S. the word “diplomacy” is not a dirty word. It still suggests gridlock but in a more positive fashion. Using tools to work together. Compromising. Give and take. The word diplomacy is more leader-friendly. I once read that America Indian chiefs were not the greatest warriors but the ones whose decisions were most likely to help the tribe. (A learning moment when I lost my fraternity election.)

Words are important. How the meaning of a word evolves is also important. Very important. When words are used as weapons, take note. That’s why brand planners make a living listening. Contextualizing. Truly hearing. There are hollow words. Words that mean the opposite, e.g., transparent, return on investment. And there are pregnant words, words layered with meaning — ready to be unleashed. The latter is where we play. Seek them out and let them sell. Peace.

 

 

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Amazon or Netflix?

I’ve paid a good deal of attention to two digital technology brands over the years, both of which are being double-tapped by the media: AOL and Yahoo!.  These tech icons have long been under financial pressures and lost tech cred.  They’ve peaked and are constantly searching for ways to reinvigorate. It wasn’t always like this. They were once killer brands.

Today, when I look at two ascendant brands, Netflix and Amazon, I see similarities with AOL and Yahoo on the way up. But history tells us it won’t always be that way. Great leaders need to see beyond today, into the future, and that’s what Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings are doing. So let’s take stock of Netflix and Amazon. Both are currently in the content business. Both are trying to be the next Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Both have creeped their vision toward the light of the video camera and red carpet. If we fast forward 10 years, which of this two juggernauts will be the winner? Wanna guess?

Here’s my guess. Netflix is more agile and focused. Amazon is a deeper thinker, willing to place more bets and lose more money. I’m thinking ten years out Amazon will be the winner. The journey will be fun.. Have you a guess? Peace.

 

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Next week I am participating in a small business panel sponsored by Teachers Federal Credit Union entitled “30 Marketing Ideas in 6o Minutes.” Panelists are from a number of marketing disciplines, mine is branding. My first tip will be the “Is-Does.” What a company is and what a company does. To find a company Is-Does look at the About section of their website or boiler plate on press releases. One of the biggest obstacles to great branding is a poor or vacuous Is-Does.

Here’s an example from a company called Express Scripts:

Express Scripts, Inc. is one of the nation’s leading full-service pharmacy benefit management (“PBM”) companies. The Company coordinates the distribution of outpatient pharmaceuticals through a combination of benefit management services, including retail drug card programs, Home Delivery services, formulary management programs and other clinical management programs. We also distribute a full range of injectible biopharmaceutical products directly to patients or their physicians, and provide extensive cost-management and patient-care services. We provide these types of services for clients that include health maintenance organizations, health insurers, employers, union-sponsored benefit plans, third-party administrators, workers’ compensation and governmental health programs.

Do you think anyone knows what a pharmacy benefits management company is? This “Is” is a show stopper. It’s hard to tell the target. Consumers? Businesses? Both? Good thing they are one of the nation’s leading companies.

You would think small companies wouldn’t have this problem. You would be wrong. Get the Is-Does right and you have a chance at getting the brand right. Peace.  

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Elon-ovation?

I don’t know enough about hydrogen cars to state that the pursuit of the technology is brilliant or silly. I do know that when Elon Musk calls hydrogen powered cars “silly” from a podium a podium at the Detroit Car Show, it feels like business as usual. For Detroit. Mr. Musk is nothing if not an innovator. Innovators get to make business decisions. That’s fine. But how dare Mr. Musk pooh-pooh a competing technology — a competing transportation innovation.  It smacks of protectionism.

In addition to the silly comment, Mr. Musk offered this “If you are going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is a dumb one.”  More than most people, he should know the “idea to have an idea is often better than the idea itself.” Belittling innovation is not something I would expect from the CEO of Tesla. (Also the CEO of SpaceX.)

So let’s all keep innovating our way to fatter asses and bloated arteries and put a car on every keychain. Doh! Peace.

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A couple of years ago I was bitten by the education bug. After spending time learning about ed tech and the ways it was being used to help students learn, I came to the conclusion that proper pedagogy is a fundamental to educational improvement; also, that no two students are alike in terms of their learning ability, attention levels and motivation. (Something I’ve applied to marketing and branding, but that’s a story for another time.)

Technology is a huge enabler of learning, once we get the pedagogy right. And so, I was quite please to read in yesterday’s NYT that venture capitalists are investing heavily in education. And where there’s money, there is innovation. I have a deck from a couple of years ago, the first bullet is which reads something to the effect that “there has been very little in the way of innovation in K12 education over the past 50 years. Chalkboard –> film projector–> overhead slides–>interactive whiteboard.

Now we have a new class of education-minded developers creating software tools, real time testing and assessment devices, and course-specific learning modalities the likes of which we’ve never seen. Too cool for school!

And I love that there is a goal for all of this innovation. Not the goal of ad revenue and eyeballs. Not the goal of creating friends or sharing pictures. The goal is to improve learning — the most human of traits. ‘bout time. Peace.  

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