29 December 2010

The Forgotten Half of Brand Management

Source: TIME magazine
No one takes organizational alignment as seriously as the Army.

When the going gets tough and lives are at stake, you want to be sure that everyone's focused on the same objective, pushing as hard as you are, and that your buddy's got your back.

Achieving this state of operational nirvana doesn't come easy.

Earning the right to become an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces cost me 9 months of intense physical and mental effort in a previous life.  Even basic military training today takes up to 4 months of (arguably inhuman) drills designed to deconstruct individualism and resistance to authority, then reconstruct thinking soldiers to form a cohesive unit that acts as One.

Now the commercial world is not so cut and dried. You may not get your head blown apart by a 'frenemy' in the jungle out there.  But the consequences of a lack of internal alignment can be just as crippling: Low morale, fuzzy roles and responsibilities, squabbling factions, measly pockets of excellence, lackadaisical purpose, petering productivity, poor time-to-market.

Which is why I'm amazed when companies on a rebranding run think the heavy lifting is done when their corporate vision, mission and core values are articulated and the brand strategy is defined. That's all well and good; but in fact, it's only half the job done.

You need to activate the whole shebang. Induct employees in the game plan.  Cascade all that good stuff down the ranks 'til it seeps into the frontline troops -- your brand ambassadors at the coalface, who are consciously or unconsciously building or breaking your brand at each and every customer touchpoint.

Organizational alignment doesn't just happen on its own. It needs the visible endorsement of senior management, and their demonstrated commitment of funding and resourcing appropriate programs to give employees a clear line of sight between their on-the-job actions and the resultant impact on company performance.

That's the only way we'll bring down the damning statistic that says 4 out of 5 workers are not engaged in doing the things that drive business results.

What causes this misalignment?  Cumulative missteps, large and small, that include:
- senior executive behaviours that don't match the message;
- complicated and lengthy approval processes that prevent timely
  distribution of  information;

- employees who don't get to hear things before the outside world
  does -- resulting in a loss of faith; and conversely,

- too much communication, such that more important messages are
  lost in the clutter.

But is it really worth the effort to pursue organizational alignment?  It's too idealistic, I hear you say.  It takes too much effort.  So what if a few people are off doing their own thing?

Well, consider this:  A recent Towers Watson study found that companies with highly effective internal communication practices have a 47% higher shareholder return than companies without such disciplines in place.  An informed, equipped and inspired workforce can truly achieve great things.
As for a team that's not? Well, like the recruits struggling to lift their log in the photo above, you ain't gonna get anywhere fast.

25 December 2010

The Most Popular Christmas Dish in Japan

I've just returned from a family vacation in Japan. One of the intriguing things I noticed on my last day in Tokyo, was a long line forming outside -- of all places -- a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.  That night, my curiosity was further piqued by an incongruous TV commercial that caught my eye, touting KFC -- of all things -- as a signature Christmas meal.

Curious, I poked around the Internet today, and discovered an amazing story: that KFC has found significant success in Japan by communicating the simple, single-minded message for over 20 year-end seasons that a KFC meal makes Christmas.

Consider these stats: Same-day sales in the week leading up to Christmas are about 500% more than average daily takings. And KFC stores apparently start taking Christmas orders in October. In a land that offers the world's best sashimi, teppanyaki and sukiyaki, I'm amazed that anyone would prefer a bucket of trans fat-laden fried chicken ... 11 secret herbs and spices notwithstanding.

As a student of strong brands, I can only conclude that when you take the long view, when the art of brand management is applied with discipline and consistency, anything is possible.

And on that note of optimism and hope, I wish my sole follower (and all other anonymous readers) a merry Christmas and finger lickin' good year.

26 November 2010

The Risks of Clock-Watching

Source: www.tonystone.com
You've gotta hand it to the Aussies.  They've honed work-life balance to a fine art.

A recent study by The Australian Institute has unearthed a shocking statistic: every year, Australian workers are 'donating' more than A$70 billion (no typo here) to their employers in terms of unpaid overtime.

"That's a very generous gift," observes Dr Richard Dennis, executive director of the think-tank, "and our employers have taken, gotten into the habit of accepting it."  He goes on to say that slashing overtime would create some 400,000 extra jobs in Australia -- and improve the health of workers.

According to the study, some 80% of Australians who work overtime want shorter working hours.  Since full-time workers want to work a lot less and part-time and casual workers want to work a lot more, the study explores the idea of capping the working week at 35 hours, and recommends sweeping changes that would better match the preferences of employees and employers alike.

Which is all well and good for hourly-rated workers.  If you're flipping burgers or are a brick-layer or vehicle mechanic, you deserve an honest day's wage for an honest day's work.

But what if intellectual capital is your stock-in-trade?  What if you're a legal intern, an advertising copywriter, or industrial designer?  What if your job can't be easily confined to an 8-hour window?

Are only 20% of the jobs in Australia of this variety?  What does this stat say of the chances of companies retaining a competitive advantage?

Fact is, organizations live and die on the strength of the talent coursing through their corridors. What then can organizations do to ensure their employees are engaged, energized and equipped to succeed?  A few pointers come to mind:

1. In an age where roles and management structures are loosely defined, jobs are dispersed and alliances keep shifting, brands are emerging as the most significant spiritual, emotional and cultural glue that an organization has remaining to stabilize, focus and inspire an educated workforce.

2. Recognise that different skills are needed to lead and motivate a geographically dispersed, remote workforce than those required for close-quarter management. The more dispersed your team, the more directive you should be.

3. Organizations are traditionally good at doling out responsibility -- but chronically deficient at taking it away. Don't just focus on what your people should start doing; dig deeper to define what they should stop doing as well.

4. Find out what turns the crank of your employees.  It might be an inspiring credo like "Do no evil"; free perks like day-care and laundry services, and the best employee cafeteria on the planet; or the permission to spend 20% of your working hours on pet projects which may not yet have proven commercial viability (all of which, by the way, describe the cocoon of the Google employee).  Or, as Google as effectively admitted by giving employees across the board a 10% salary increase, it might come down to pure cash.

The bottom line is this: When you're really into something, you don't notice the (passing of) time. It behooves employees to find some purpose in their profession. And it behooves employers to give them a reason to do so.

31 October 2010

The Quagmire of Low Price

A tech giant has just made a huge U-turn.

About a week ago, Dell announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new global advertising campaign.  What makes this new push radical -- for Dell -- is its stated intention to move away from price-focused, transactional advertising to a strategy that is more focused on the brand.

I wonder if it's too late.

Dell became the #1 PC company in the world on the back of its 'direct' model: a revolutionary, 'just-in-time' manufacturing process that dramatically lowered inventory costs, cut out the middle man, and served up huge profits in an industry infamous for its razor-thin margins. The pace of obsolescence in the PC industry is unforgiving -- so inventory management is critical. While other players typically struggled with weeks of supply (WoS), Dell counted its inventory in terms of hours. (At its brutal best, it even boasted 'negative' inventory -- it collected your money before it started to configure your purchase; and stretched out rebate payments.) For the longest time, no one could touch its supply chain efficiency.

Then the competition wised up. HP and other contenders got their act together and reduced their WoS -- but they also offered consumers the choice of buying from the retail channel, the sensory experience of physically interacting with the product (and bonding with the brand) before buying it.

Dell's competitive advantage was no longer so.  The only other residual impression it had registered, was low price.

Source: www.tonystone.com
But price is not a strategy.  It is the quicksand of a brand -- drop your price, and you will almost never be able to claw your way back to a firmer footing.  It is indefensible (sooner or later, someone is going to drop prices lower than you can afford to), and the only connotation that keeps it company is the wrong one -- poor quality.

Dell has finally wised up, too.  But it has a mountain to climb.

Paul-Henri Ferrand, its Chief Marketing Officer, has acknowledged that they "need to invigorate the brand".  It's about time.  But when he says that "there's a real space for us to become the most-loved PC company in the industry", my skeptic antenna starts twitching.

The campaign theme says, "You can tell it's a Dell."  With due respect to its creators, I believe it's the worst possible thing Dell can tell.  If all you've got is a much-eroded competitive advantage, and the double-whammy impression of low price / poor quality, don't wave a red flag in front of a bull. Remember the concept of 'credibility snap'. You need to work your butt off to prove you're a different company, then let your audience ascribe to you that compliment. In other words, don't say it. Just earn it.

I hope Mr Ferrand has deep pockets.  He's going to need them.

05 October 2010

Audi: Giving Virtual Advertising A Whole New Spin

Source: www.fastcompany.com
Talk about seismic shift.

This past weekend, car-maker Audi raised the game to a whole new level, with a trail-blazing article in Fast Company which touts their latest planned campaign.

"Planned" is the operative word -- because the campaign hasn't really run just yet.  But -- in a move resonant with today's bare-all social media generation -- Audi has apparently allowed its agency, a creative shop called the Access Agency, to publicly share the creative rationale behind this admittedly compelling concept: “It is a display of four life-size Audi cars, suspended inside the silver rings of a massive Audi symbol attached to an iconic bridge structure or in front of landmark spaces — the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, Tower Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge. The rings rotate around, light up at night, and move up and down the bridge. Against the backdrop of spectacular urban architecture, the Audi installation reflects Audi’s continuous challenging of the status quo, its capacity to innovate, and its ability to avoid the bland and the ordinary.”

The agency goes on to say that real brand value will delivered by the process of getting the iconoclastic idea built: the “manufacturing and transportation of the gigantic rings, the installation of the rings, the hoisting of the vehicles, the first test of the lights, the rehearsals of the launch.”

Source: www.fastcompany.com
Is the idea compelling?  Pitted against much of the dreck that's out there, I'd definitely say, Yes!  But is it 100% original?  I know, from a previous life spent in Canada, that the Engineering students of the University of British Columbia (UBC) had an annual tradition of hijacking a lecturer's car and installing/suspending said vehicle in all manner of incredible positions (including one memorable year in the early 1990s when I lived there, when they suspended a tutor's car from the Lion's Gate Bridge -- all in the name of demonstrating engineering prowess). Adidas' "Vertical Football" human billboard and Esprit's vertical catwalk show down the exterior wall of an Esprit building are two other well-known examples of the human installation idea and its product installation cousin.

But here's where I think the real genius of this Audi campaign lies: (Did you pick up on it?) Here is an advertising campaign that hasn't yet run, but which has garnered the kind of publicity one should only hope to achieve if a campaign was actually out there.  No actual executions in sight -- yet a few well-timed 'leaks', the offer of an 'exclusive', a well-written rationale, and voila!  Thanks to the wonders of PhotoShop, a launch campaign is yours without having to actually produce an ad. Gives virtual advertising a whole new spin, don't you think?

Source: www.fastcompany.com

Source: www.fastcompany.com
 Access Agency seems to be milking this approach for all it's worth.  Its big idea for the Nike swoosh apparently hasn't seen the light of day -- yet it might as well have done, considering the buzz it's generated and downloads it has inspired.  They've latched on to the insight that people pass on and share stuff they think will awe or entertain their friends -- casting themselves as purveyors of cool in the process.  It's easy to see how this can make sense for a shrewd client and sharp agency -- you get a lot of bang for little buck.

If this trend catches on, I daresay ad agencies will rediscover the lost art of writing a creative rationale.  And as for media agencies?  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

26 September 2010

Incredible India! For All The Wrong Reasons.

With seven days to go before the curtain lifts on the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the city is scrambling, day and night, to get ready for the 7,000-plus athletes and officials expected to arrive for what was originally touted to be India's coming-out party ... but which has unfortunately become a source of national shame.

Several star athletes have announced their withdrawal from the Games, citing health and security concerns. Advance teams from Canada, Scotland, New Zealand and Ireland have lodged complaints about the accommodation allocated to them.  Site workers have been using the unlocked flats. Toilets are stained. Fixtures haven't been installed, don't work, or are broken. The first batch of UK athletes and officials arrived on Friday, but tellingly checked into a 5-star hotel -- and brought their own sanitation team.

The Indira Gandhi Velodrome is flooded with rainwater, adding to the risk of mosquito-borne dengue fever. A bridge and the ceiling of one of the competition halls recently collapsed. Alarm and fire evacuation systems are yet to be put in place.  Obviously, no test events have been run to put the timing and measurement systems through their paces.  And the city is bracing itself for aggravated traffic jams as special lanes are going to be blocked off for athletes and officials hustling to their events.

The original budget of US$500 million has ballooned to nine times that figure, in a country where 800 million people live on less than $2 a day. While this doesn't condone the corruption that has largely caused the cost overruns, it goes some way to explain it.

Mike Fennell, chief of the Commonwealth Games Federation, has gone on record to say that he is disappointed with the Indian organizers and that the lack of preparedness for sporting event has hurt the reputation of the country. He flew into Delhi yesterday for crisis meetings with the Indian Prime Minister in an effort to conclusively determine if the Games should go on -- or be cancelled.

Whatever the outcome, some hard lessons are obviously being dispensed -- and hopefully internalized.  Among them will be some soul-searching around how a team of bright, intelligent and articulate people in positions of influence could have allowed Delhi's preparations to be in this sorry state at two minutes to midnight.

Organizational leaders can heed an important lesson here: Unless you make the effort to align individual and organizational goals, you are not going to achieve any significant forward velocity. In fact, you may wonder what's causing the drag on your efforts, not recognizing your uninspired workforce for what it is. This phenomenon is true of every company, but is especially evident in large organizations which have to consider not just individual aspirations but also cultural nuances and matrix reporting relationships.

India may be one country, but it practises an extreme democracy -- which is all the permission an educated population needs to make their feelings known.

One can only hope Delhi pulls together in this last crucial week to salvage the Games. The repercussions on brand India will be felt for years to come.

08 September 2010

Is Reputation Meaningless Today?

Mark Hurd's smug face looks out across reams of newsprint and computer screens today. The recently deposed chief executive of HP has just been appointed Co-President of HP's erstwhile partner and soon-to-be competitor, Oracle.

In an inevitable reaction, HP has moved quickly to file a lawsuit against Oracle and Hurd, citing the need to protect itself against the inevitable disclosure of proprietary information about his former company in his new role. Essentially, in the course of doing his job as Co-President at Oracle, Hurd would inevitably draw on information gathered while at the helm of HP. You can enforce limitations on what a man does; but you can't enforce restrictions on what a man thinks.

This is disturbing on several fronts, not the least of which is the topic of reputation.

Well-regarded companies generate reputational capital that gives them a competitive advantage:
Their products and services entice more customers.
Their stock attracts more investors.
Their employees are more productive and loyal.
Their job vacancies attract more applicants.
Their clout with their suppliers is greater.
They survive crises with less financial loss.

An individual's reputation can be equally potent. But -- as Mr Hurd is demonstrating -- just as transient and fragile. As Warren Buffet, chairman & CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has said: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation, but five minutes to ruin it".

Jeff Bezos, founder & CEO of Amazon.com, puts it just as vividly: "Reputation is what people say about you when you have left the room." Going by some of the comments posted here and here, Mark Hurd doesn't have too rosy a rep, Wall Street notwithstanding. Glassdoor.com gives him the lowest employee approval rating (just 34%) of any major tech CEO.
I have to wonder why Mark would make such a move, so soon after his stint at HP. It's not as if he needs the money.  He could have chilled out for six months, or until the proprietary secrets he carries around in his head lose their competitive edge with time. Either Larry Ellison was a persuasive man -- or he must awfully, badly want to stick it to his former company.

HP's Standards of Business Conduct (SOBC) recommend that employees pose themselves a simple question to decide whether an action is appropriate: "Before you make a decision, consider how it would look in a news story."  I served eight years at HP, and once turned down an all-expense paid trip to the Maldives offered by a media owner -- because it was drummed into us to avoid even the slightest hint of obligation in our transactions with suppliers.  After five years with the company, and barely a month after leaving it, Mark Hurd seems to have ditched those very same standards he swore to uphold not so long ago.

He may yet wring a bunch of cost efficiencies out of Oracle; but in my book, he starts in his new role morally bankrupt.

22 August 2010

FOUR POINTS: Why Nation Branding is the Toughest Task of This Decade

It’s been just a month after the final whistle, signalling the end of the World Cup, and already South African retailers are complaining that their business uptick has been short and swift to decline back to pre-match levels.

With respect, I think they’re quick to whine. Soccer has brought the country together like nothing else has ever done – and South Africa will see the knock-on effects in tourism and trade long after the incessant shriek of vuvuzelas is but a distant ringing in our ears.

But what of other countries competing to be successful in the 21st century? How will they vie for attention, investment, visitors and home-grown talent, and the allure of global events like the World Cup? Why should they care?

This issue of FOUR POINTS poses the questions: Do countries have the collective will to come together to build a brand that is believable and supported by its citizens? Or do they even think it’s worth the effort?

Here’s my take from The Little Red Dot:

Repeat after me: Nurturing. Transforming. Collaborative. Daring to dream. Got it? One more time.

These are the attributes that form the backbone of the new Singapore brand; the cornerstones of a new nation branding strategy led by the National Marketing Action Committee (NMAC) to shrug off perceptions of Singapore as a staid, sterile place.

Do these values propel us in the direction we need to go as a society? Sure, I’d say so. But do they resonate with each of us on a personal level? Hmm, let me think about that.

Singapore, you see, has always tried to be all things to all people. Well okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh; but when you have zero natural resources, a fairly short history, and a smidgen of land to call home, you bend over backwards, and do what you can to attract visitors, talent and investment. Our latest tourism campaign is a case in point.

But more and more, nations are going to have to compete on the singular value that they provide in terms of either their physical or service offer, their heritage, their ambition or their character. Imagine France without fashion, Germany without engineering excellence, or Japan without consumer electronics. We will have to achieve the same psychological shortcut to the consumer’s mind, if we hope to survive and thrive.

According to Simon Anholt, global guru on the subject, a place-brand strategy is a plan for defining “the most realistic, most competitive and most compelling strategic vision for the country, region or city”. Consider this: Most of us spend a few fleeting seconds each year thinking about a country on the other side of the world. So unless that country always seems exactly like itself every time it crops up, there is little chance that those few seconds of attention will add up to a preference for its products, a desire to visit the place, or an interest to go work and perhaps live there for a spell.

What do people think of when they think of Singapore? Efficiency, hopefully. Casinos, unfortunately. A clean and green city, perhaps. Michael Fay and the cane. Crazy car prices. No chewing gum. And a national trait (‘kiasuism’) that can only best be described as being ‘afraid to lose’.

Why is this so? I think it’s because we are, in a manner of speaking, an unforgiving society. By that, I mean we have literally no margin for error. Put a foot wrong, and everybody knows. (We’re packed like sardines in this island-nation.) Push a poor policy, and the whole country will feel the fallout. We simply don’t have the option of moving upstate and starting anew, or retooling the system in a few pilot districts and seeing if that will work better. As a result, we embody the mindset Andrew Grove famously spoke of (“only the paranoid survive”), but we’re off the pace when it comes to nurturing a true entrepreneurial spirit.

A good country brand can open doors, smooth relations, and make it easier for a government, companies or citizens to operate outside its borders. In this regard, Singapore has done rather well: I reckon we punch above our weight. This month's terrific National Day parade, and our performance to date as host of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, will go a long way towards embedding new associations whenever the Singapore brand is mentioned both at home and abroad. And the fact that we have good, clean government gives me hope that our nation will one day deliver on its brand promise.

We just need to rally behind what it promises to be ...

Point: Hilton Barbour
Location: London

Quick little game. Indulge me. Close your eyes. Right listen carefully as I read out names of places I have called home ... ZIMBABWE ... ENGLAND ... CANADA ... Okay, open them.

No doubt you got a quick mental image. Failed state. Economic collapse. Uneasy government sharing alliance. Run away corruption in Parliament. And don’t get me started on Zimbabwe or Canada.

The point being nation branding is fantastically difficult to do in real life. No brand stands still, but nation brands are perpetually buffeted by forces way beyond those of any other category in my opinion.  Some amusing examples...

Backlash against “French” fries after France refuses to join the Iraq war coalition.

Backlash against “British” company BP after the debacle in the Gulf.

Nation branding so often, therefore, relies on stereotypes (nice simple device that, aint it?) but those can come unseated very quickly.

Business example: For several years the City of London moved heaven and earth to unseat New York as the financial center of the known universe. This 2007 Fortune article eloquently describes the fight for brand dominance in the financial arena. A mere 3 years later and that brand is in tatters. A global recession driven (partially) by this need for “category dominance” has made the idea of London as the financial capital as a rather sick joke. I’m also not sure that any other capital city is rushing in to assume the mantle of “category leader”.

Social example: My adopted homeland of Canada does have IMHO a very established global brand. Expertly portrayed in this famous advertising example for Molson beer. So it was quite a shock for those attending the Vancouver Olympics to see the “laidback” and “relaxed” Canadians exhibiting such rampant nationalism and in-yer-face gusto. It has created a tremendous amount of soul searching amongst Canadians. It amuses me more that Canadians aren’t sure that their reaction to winning 14 Gold medals (including the prized Men’s Hockey) and being the “most winning host nation in Olympic history” is entirely appropriate or “Canadian”. Some worry we’ve become too American. Heaven forbid.

So what’s a “nation” brand manager to do? Be too successful and a global recession might put all your efforts in the toilet. Be too consistent and the natural exuberance of your countrymen might topple your well-crafted brand of “polite civility”.

But what you can’t do is stand still. Especially if you’re not one of the BRIC nations who are the current flavours of the month in every economic, cultural, sporting, tourism category known. South Africa is currently riding a wave of global brand awareness – how long before that awareness, empathy, equity fades? What are they doing to keep the flame (and appeal) of their brand alive?

In every category, the recession has caused a tightening of budgets. For holidays, for business investment, everything is being re-evaluated. If your nation doesn’t work even harder now, it really could be left behind.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m sure glad I worked in easier categories like Carbonated Beverages, Energy and QSR.


Point: Joy Abdullah
Location: Malaysia

“Global fund managers look to trim Malaysia holdings”

This was the screaming headlines a few weeks ago in KL. That article goes on to say, “Malaysia was the second-LEAST-favoured destination amongst global emerging fund managers according to a recent poll released this week.” Followed by an elaboration on how the Administration has been attempting to raise the country’s profile in order to be a competitive destination for global portfolio investment.

Unfortunately on the ground level, there seems to be a complete mismatch of intent and execution. It seems there is no concerted, strategic game-plan in place. The only “plan” that seems to be executed, year on year, without change is the “Malaysia. Truly Asia”– Tourism Malaysia’s hallmark signature line in pretty picture ads and TV commercials. So what has this brand community given back to the brand?

Annual tourism numbers and foreign exchange earnings. Good.  But has that translated back into Foreign Direct Investments in the form of attracting financial, knowledge and technological investments into the country?

NO! On the contrary Malaysia has been losing out to its smaller neighbours in this crucial area. With giants like China and India rapidly growing and countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam projecting strong brand attributes and developing a strong “nation brand” identities, using a singular identified competitive advantage such as outsourcing by Vietnam, BPO in India.

Malaysia seems to have lost its way in this battle.  The “brand management” of the country i.e. the administration needs to create a distinct, positive and professional brand identity for the nation in place of the current “sun, sand and blue skies” identity which Malaysia has. This is not a competitive edge as:

1 – It’s similar to many other countries communication—Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius etc;
2 – it only appeals to part of the global community (Europe& USA) , not the entire global community;
3 - it doesn’t communicate any key advantages that Malaysia offers in order to attract foreign investments.

As my friend from the 'little red dot' has succinctly written –- each nation would need to have a 'singular value' which is what would be recalled when thinking about that country. Malaysia too needs to find its 'singular value'. It currently lacks this. As a result the recall for the nation is oft only for a holiday destination, but not as a business destination.

Point: Ben Gaddis
Location: Austin, Texas

As a marketer, and more importantly an American, I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never really thought about the idea of “nation branding”. The concept never crossed my mind until this post and I would venture to guess that most American’s would say the same. That being said, here’s my humble opinion from the States.

In the US, it seems we struggle when it comes to the idea of our “brand”. We face numerous challenges as we continue to develop and nurture “Brand America” (as I’ve deemed if for the purposes of this post). Let’s look at two:

Leaders of the free world
The idea of nation branding takes on new meaning when one is considered by many to lead the free world. Brand America, probably more than any other nation, is composed of not only the typical national branding elements (destinations, citizens, history, etc.) but also our foreign and domestic policy. With a constant spotlight on our policies, brand sentiment rises and falls with every political action.

Ex. –Ponder if you will all of the attention directed towards Arizona’s new immigration policies. I would venture to guess that many outside of the US, whether they have read the law or not, believe that we are less of a welcoming nation because of it. Right or wrong? Well, that’s another column……but I do know that it greatly affects the brand. Yet I doubt that many consider the immigration policies of the 23rd most populous state in other nations they are considering vacationing in.

We’re proud of our brand
Americans are a proud people. We take pride in our nation and in turn, our brand (whether we think of it as a brand or not). In fact, that brand seems to be performing pretty well overall when measured against typical brand metrics. I have absolutely nothing to back this up but I would be willing to wager that Brand America is probably the most recognizable brand in the world. Most Americans seem rather content with the status of the brand and what is stands for. In my personal interactions outside of the US, for the most part the idea of the US as land of opportunity still seems to shine through. Yet as Americans we become extremely defensive when our brand is criticized or challenged.

Like any large brand, our biggest challenge as a nation seems to be realizing that “success” is far from perfection. There is still plenty of room for improvement. The focus moving forward needs to be on understanding that we can improve our brand’s perception in the world without compromising the values and beliefs that make up our brand.

So how do you tackle the issue of nation branding? As my mate from Zimbabwe alluded to, it seems to be a problem best handled by those smarter than myself. I think I’ll go back to the easy stuff, like measuring ROI on social media or running PR for British Petroleum.

07 August 2010

A Great Brand Is Brought Low

The newswires have been humming all day with the revelation that technology giant HP's CEO Mark Hurd has been forced to resign on the back of a sexual harassment probe and his falsifying expense reports to conceal his relationship with a female marketing contractor.

As a shareowner, I'm disgruntled. HP's stock is down almost 10% from its Friday close. While investors blink from the realization that the departing CEO's shenanigans have wiped about US$9 billion in value off the company's books, it looks as though he is still going to make off with a multi-million dollar severance package.

As an ex-employee, I'm devastated.  I used to work for a great company that traded on the strength of a culture reflecting the values of legendary founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard -- and the morale of a 150,000-strong workforce that believed in the HP Way. (During my stint with the company, 90% of us once voluntarily agreed to take a pay cut in order to stave off otherwise inevitable layoffs.) Today -- judging by the vitriol obviously written by insiders and which passes for comments at the end of the news stories -- that esprit de crops is long gone from the ranks of a gripeforce gutted by wave after wave of reorganization and the seeming inequity of it all.

Finally, as a student of strong brands, I'm discouraged. A brand is a fragile, porous entity.  It can be punctured by all manner of barbs -- some from within, some from the outside. The result is the same: a leaky bucket oozing goodwill and equity built up over the years. Make too many holes, and soon the brand will be running on empty.

Of the world's top 100 global brands in the year 2000, only eight would have appeared on a similar list, if one had been prepared, in 1900. A great brand can't just have a scintillating decade before fading from the social consciousness; it needs to run the full race, and finish well.

HP is too strong a brand to keel over and die just like that, but it has taken a body blow. Whether it'll recover and finish well, will depend on the people of HP -- all 304,000 of them.  The twin peaks of history and destiny loom over their shoulders.  I pray they'll respond.

24 July 2010

FOUR POINTS: Will CSR Become Just Another Marketing Fad?

LEADER: Ben Gaddis
Location: Austin, Texas

Three months into the debacle that is BP/Deepwater Horizon and many questions still remain. Will this latest oil well cap succeed in keeping a lid on the spill? Will this event be the catalyst for a change in US energy policies? Have we fallen so far that Kevin Costner is our only hope for saving the Gulf Coast? I saw "Waterworld" and "The Postman". God help us. But as a marketer, what interests me most are the implications this disaster will have on marketing efforts going forward.

In this issue of FOUR POINTS we ask: Will the BP disaster cause companies to genuinely become more socially responsible, or will we see more short-term 'greenwashing' efforts?
Here's my take:

American consumers have a short memory. Marketers know that and will act accordingly. I predict that we will see most brands partake in somewhat half-hearted 'social responsibility' efforts over the next year, then shift their focus to the issue of the day. Why? Because American consumers are also fickle and the things that motivate their purchase decisions change faster than Joe Barton recanting his apology to Tony Hayward.

Here's an example. I live in Texas, and while the notion that everyone rides horses to work is far from the truth, everyone does drive a pickup truck. Everyone. Yet in the summer of 2008, as gas prices topped $3 a gallon, watching the evening news would lead you to believe that every rancher was trading his F-250 for a Prius hybrid. The media fuelled the flames and marketers followed. Every automotive advertisement focused on increased gas mileage, grocery stores gave away free gas cards, the travel industry panicked.

Then something odd happened. In the midst of the oncoming recession, the price of oil dropped drastically. All of a sudden, the media switched its focus from oil prices to jobless claims and sub-prime mortgages. And slowly but surely, those ads for trucks started to re-appear. Miles per gallon claims were replaced with the "Hyundai Assurance". Consumers had shifted their focus, and marketers followed.

Now this is far different from greenwashing. Those automotive advertisements were responding to a consumer backlash against price and not environmental issues. Or were they? The average consumer who switched from a truck to a hybrid stood to save a whopping total of ... $500 - $700 a year. That doesn't take into account the fact that a hybrid typically costs 15%-20% more than a standard vehicle. In fact, many of those consumers were reacting to their surroundings and what was being portrayed on the evening news. The media had essentially taken an issue that needed to be addressed -- sustainable energy -- and blown it out of proportion. They attributed the backlash against gas guzzlers not to price sensitivity, but to a concern about global warming and our dependence on foreign oil. A year later those problems still exist and yet we don't hear nearly as much from the media, and even less from marketers, about them. I believe we will see much the same scenario come from the BP event.

Over the next 6-12 months, consumers will face a deluge of advertising from companies touting their 'commitment' to social responsibility, and it will be effective ... for a while. The Dial commercial with the man in the white coat cleaning off an oil-soaked pelican will sell more soap. Oil companies, led by BP, will remind us that they are more focused than ever on preserving the environment and providing cleaner energy. Then the next big event will come along and consumers will shift their focus ... and most marketers will follow.

Most companies will take advantage of the short-term benefit associated with being 'socially responsible'; but few will truly embrace the idea. I believe those that do will reap the benefits for years to come.

POINT: Joy abdullah
Location: Kuala Lumpur

Given the controversy and online mileage generated for BP, the question that's begging an answer is, will most companies talke advantage of the short-term benefit of being socially responsible, or will they approach it from a longer-term, truly socially beneficial point of view?

A rise in global consciousness about our earth has come about. Just see the human chains of linked hands across global cities for the recent Earth Hour initiative, as cities around the world in diffferent timezones switched off their electrical apliances for an hour. This is the power of social connectivity.

So to the point of my post: What are the Islamic-based organizations, in spite of having an in-built shariah system of ethics and values, doing with regards to social responsibility? Given the prime importance of Shariah in Islamic finance, social responsibility is a commitment to moral standards as well as social norms. In essence, this means that Islamic financial institutions have a greater purpose than merely having Shariah-compliant products. Instead IFIs should be engaging in a higher proportion of productive profit and loss-sharing investments, and attempt to rebalance wealth distribution by investing in projects and countries with the greatest social and economic need.

The question still remains: Like their conventional counterparts, would they view social responsibility as a strategic growth driver, or would it just be part of being a 'greenwash'?

POINT: Hilton BarbourLocation: London

To my mind, the worst label that any marketer can be branded with, is the one of superficiality. Where our efforts are so blatantly without brand authenticity that they become nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

While many in the UK have jumped to BP's defence in some misguided nationalistic fervour, some punters have pointed out that merely truncating your name from British Petroleum, liberally using the colour green in your logo, and splashing out on potted plants in your reception area, doesn't make you an environmenatlly conscious organization. Espcially when the company commitment to exploring alternate energy sources has never been financed beyond a pitiful 4% of annual expenditure. Kinda makes a mockery of the "Beyond Petroleum" tagline doesn't it? It lacks, ahhh, what's the word? ... oh yes, authenticity.

But enough about BP. Five months ago we were all haranguing Toyota for their pathetic safety record. A decade ago it was the financial toomfoolery of Enron and WorldCom. Let's admit it, the pursuit of profit will always provide incentive for companies to cut corners. That's not cynicism, that's just human nature.

But as marketers, where does our accountability begin and end? Would you counsel your C-suite colleagues to run a bunch of quality-focused TV ads like Toyota has started doing in the UK? Or would you refuse to do that until the quality control issues that landed you in hot water to begin with, had been addressed and those changes had been independently verified? Tough call with an annual bonus hanging over your head, isn't it?

Mark Ritson recently wrote a fantastic article, and follow-up, in the UK magazine Marketing Week on the differences between repositioning and branding. His point being that brands should concentrate on brand revitalization instead. A sage point. Look for the core elements of the brand (its history, its secret ingredients, its customer service) and find ways to contemporarize them. That, to my mind, has credibility. That shows authenticity.

In the UK, retailer Tesco is the most oft-cited example of a company genuinely committed to going green. This 2008 article from CEO Sir Tim Leahy unravels the motivation behind a total restructuring of the company's operating principles. Point being that marketing isn't leading this charge with some ads and PR releases, it is happening across all parts of the organization.

Therefore, unfortunately I have zero expectations that the BP debacle will lead to any genuine long-term environment CSR initiatives. Not without legislation, not unless the ultimate cost of the clean-up causes BP to collapse, and the potential for similar collapse causes real rumination amongst the Fortune 500. The reality I fear most is that most corporations will merely let out a sigh of relief, and thank their lucky stars it didn't happen to tem. Or, more pitifully, start running advertising campaigns lauding their CSR commitments.

However, I do have a more modest wish.

That is for marketers to see the BP rebranding exercise for the total BS it evidently is. And to ask themselves, when confronted by the desire to launch the next 'green', 'quality is our priority', 'we care for the future', 'we recycle because we care' or any other trendy new positioning, is it authentic? Is it true to the way our company actually operates, or is it just papering over the cracks?

If the answer if a resounding NO, I would hope they put the lipstick down, step away from the sty ... and make a stand for authenticity.

POINT: David Shaw
Location: Singapore

It's a strange world.

As recently as 10 years ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a green company operating profitably anywhere in this part of the world. When home is an island-nation with absolutely zero natural resources, you quickly grow a pragmatic perspective. I recall once wanting to print a brochure in bulk using recycled paper; when my boss realized it would add 50% to the printing costs, he nixed the plan. Tree-huggers were a foreign species back then. Business in Singapore was based on a 'deal' mentality. Capitalism was the order of the day.

Today the pendulum has apparently swung. Movies like 2012, Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and assorted angst over global warming have all served to raise the awareness of our fragile planet to tipping-point levels. Singaporean companies are much more inclined to wrap their brand and their product in a green sheen. You could easily be lulled into thinking it's St. Patrick's Day.

But peel away the patina, and you'll find few companies tracking sustainability metrics to purposefully position themselves for the future. Beyond token attempts to impose emission controls or measure a corporation's carbon footprint, there are precious few efforts to reduce the energy content of its products or raw material consumption; no investment in more fuel-efficient company vehicles; little reduction in energy consumption using motion-sensitive lighting in warehouses, solar lighting in lots and yards, and so on.

Yet a corporation's commitment to creating a sustainable workplace is probably the best indicator of its sincere effort to 'go green'. (While vehicles get the most attention, buildings actually use more energy -- and contribute more to global warming -- than cars, trucks and buses combined.) Make no mistake: Singaporean consumers want corporations to do the right thing -- it's just that, right now, they don't want to pay for it. Deep down, Singapore hasn't really changed that much. We're still the little red dot, striving hard to survive.

Will BP's oil slick lubricate any lasting mindset shift? At the risk of sounding callous, I suspect not. BP, its sub-contractors, federal and state governments, environmental activists, injured businesses and their insurers will all spend decades suing one another. The US Supreme Court, after all, took almost 20 years to settle the punitive damages arising from the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989. But Exxon's stock price quickly recovered from that accident. (You didn't stop filling your gas tank at Esso now, did you?)

Countries, like traffic lights, turn green when it's time. You just can't rush these things.

10 July 2010

Just How Passionate Should You Be?

At 211 degrees Fahrenheit, water is very hot. At 212 degrees, it boils.

Just one degree can make all the difference.

When water boils, you get steam. And with steam, you can power a train.

That's why business and branding gurus will have you know, 212 degrees Fahrenheit is the place to be. It's where inspiration ignites, and ideas combust spontaneously. It's where your passion comes alive for all to see.

Fahrenheit 212 is making the most of this sweet spot. Part consulting firm, part product lab, part ad agency, the New York-based company is scorching the landscape with the buzz generated by its business model, stellar client list, and yes, the work.

But let me be provocative, and offer this adjunct proposition: that on a personal level, Fahrenheit 211 is the place to be.

Yes, at 212, you get steam. And sure, you can power a train. But what happens is, your assets get vaporized in the process. You get hot air -- but nothing left for the long-term.

Business today is about passion. You'll need it if you hope to ignite your best self. You'll languish if you're lukewarm.

I'm passionate about what I do. And I believe my work for my clients is the better for it. But yesterday I learned that passion has a tipping point. A no-fly zone that, if indulged, can end in a nosedive off a cliff.

Yesterday I forgot that beyond people judgement and process judgement, I need to exercise engagement judgement: the deft skill of knowing who to engage, when to engage, and how best to go about it, in order to get a win-win result.

Yesterday, I let my passion for my work run ahead of my regard for people. And as a result, moved from 211 degrees to 212 and probably more.

That's the difference one degree can make. That's the difference between being on the leading edge of your craft ... and the bleeding edge.

Fahrenheit 211 is the place to be. The best players are those who can turn up the heat -- without getting burnt.

03 July 2010

FOUR POINTS: Heck No, We Won't Pitch!


Hilton Barbour

I am a sucker for a good manifesto. Who isn't? It worked for Lenin at the Finland Station, and it convinced a ragtag bunch of smelly Frenchmen to storm the Bastille. You could say the right manifesto, at the right time, can change history.

A friend shared this particular manifesto with me recently. I didn't automatically reach for my pitchfolk, but it did give me cause to reflect.

Blair Enns has been running his Win Without Pitching consultancy for almost a decade -- and making a tidy pile by all accounts -- so he's definitely on to something. Blair believes, and I agree, that pitching is often more harmful than good. That building a specialization, a zeal for continuous learning and a pragmatic, grown-up attitude to remuneration will set certain agencies apart.

So why is it that the entire idea of pitching is the one subject that rankles most? Recently the entire Belgian advertising industry banded together to enact a week-long boycott against client pitching practices, which they condemned as reckless and fickle. I must admit I was impressed by the unity they showed, but haven't seen evidence that the exercise did any more than get some added press for the agencies involved.

Like it or not, pitches are part of the fabric of the advertising industry. Or are they?


Clients say it's to get fresh thinking and insight on their strategy. That's valid. Sometimes it's a smokescreen to get 'free' thinking or to give the incumbent a kick up the posterior. That's BS. Some cover a portion of agency pitch time (good) while others don't (cheap). Some are genuinely looking for agencies that they want to build a healthy, respectful peer-to-peer relationship with, and will act accordingly. That's Nirvana and, like the five-leafed clover, they have been known to exist in nature.


Agencies will throw themselves into them, or not. I've walked away from pitches where you just knew a tsunami of pain lay in wait. But there have been other pitches more akin to BP's Deep Horizon -- capitalized all our resources, created sleepless nights and unbearable tension, and only succeeded in spreading toxic excrement everywhere.

So why, for the love of God and small children, does this charade continue?

The recession? Sure. Deperate times call for desperate measures. Every client needs to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency and fresh thinking out of their agencies, or find one willing to do the job for less that the incumbent. Every agency, especially those in global networks with scary bunches of shareholders, needs to show how they are going to get that elusive 15% annualized growth. I get it. I don't applaud it, but I get it.

Why is it that both agencies and clients can't move to a framework where common sense and business acuman prevail:

1. Do your research. Which are the agencies doing strong work that results in quantifiable results? Which are acknowledged masters in your sector? Start there.

2. Chemistry. Meet these guys, find out if you really like them. Our work can be bloody stressful, so wouldn't you rather be surrounded by people you get on with?

3. Stop the beauty pageant. Asking for strategy and creative from 15 agencies? You're having a laugh. That's merely a sign of laziness, or worse, arrogance on the client's side. You'll waste less of your own and your agencies' time if you pick just 4 who meet the criteria above.

4. Be quick in making a decision. Elephants have shorter gestation periods than some pitches. Repitching erodes goodwill (and the will to live) and starts everyone off with a pissy attitude. Stop it. Make your choices, make them quickly and then let the losers get back to more profitable things.

For agencies, the advice is probably similar: Grow a pair. You know if you're getting messed around. Your agency reputation, staff morale and personal integrity have to be worth more than any pitch. And if you think you're going to change how you're treated after you win the business, you're too naive to have the job you do.

POINT: Kuala Lumpur

Joy Abdullah

The malaise of pitching afflicts the advbertising industry all over. KL is no different. In fact, given the industry size, there is a paucity of large-spencing clients which makes it a buyers' market: the clients call in all agencies, accredited or not. Some of the big agencies (nowadays) refuse to pitch without the pitching fee. To which clients pay the 3 or 4 top level agencies, call in other smaller ones, and have, at any point in time, a total of 8-10 agencies pitching for business that's worth approximately US$300,000 (in annualised billings)!

Pitching is expected and done in order to keep the agencies' lifeblood (revenue) flowing. Even on established contracts, clients call in others to pitch for sub-brands and in some cases for different communication channels.

So the million-dollar question is, can a service business succeed without pitching?


New business can be generated provided the creative services industry is willing to change. For change comes about if one believes it can be done and goes out to better oneself. Change to group together as an industry and have, for starters, one standard financial term.

Let's look at the business model differently. Take a leaf out of the books of the big management consulting firms and we'd note that most of the twelve proclamations in Blair Enns' manifesto are what make up their business models. They command respect and are sought after by the corporate and public sector for their specialized services.

So specialize, develpop conversations with prospects and current clients, present and discuss simplistically (be basic), listen to cliewnts' needs, have self-value and ask for the appropriate financial remuneration upfront. All of these will enable a company to develop a strong pull for its services.

At the end of the day it goes back to the fundamental ethics of benefitting the other person in order to benefit oneself i.e. when you help someone benefit, he/she develops trust in you and trust is a MUST in ensuring sustainable and profitable business.

POINT: Texas

Ben Gaddis

Mr Enns' manifesto is inspirational, aggressive and in my mind, a bit aspirational. As agency folks we know pitching is not ideal but in most cases a necessary evil. In my humble opinion, our aversion to pitching has less to do wih protecting the quality and integrity of our work and everything to do with resources.

Most agencies are fully tapped resource-wise and pitches constantly threaten to be the straw that breaks the preverbial camel's back. Yet some of the best work I've seen comes out of competitive pitches because they force us to be instinctive, react quickly and in the end, go with our gut. What are we to do then? Don't stop pitching. Pitch less.

My belief is mot agencies should pitch 1/2 to 1/3 of the business they currently do. Then in turn, focus those saved resources on proactive business development. Here are a few criteria to help determine when NOT to pitch:

No Access
Great creative solutions are built on the understanding of a business problem. You can't deliver those solutions without a true understanding of a client's business inside and out. If a potential client doesn't allow for an hour's Q&A session with the decision-makers, it's probably not worth participating, even at the RFI stage. If they're not willing to put in that short amount of time, chances are you're not the front-runner, it's a cattle call, or they're not looking for a true partner.

How many times have you heard, "we don't really have a set budget, so we were just hoping that you could tell us what this would cost?" Wrong. Every client has a budget in mind, and typically the ones that have enough money to accomplish what they have laid out in the RFP are happy to share. No budget, no pitch.

Three's Company
I hate giving away creative as much as Mr Enns, but clients buy ideas and they want to see them before they do. However, giving them away is not the answer. Don't provide creative if there are more than three agencies, At that point, hypothetically, you have a 33% chance of winning. Knowing the budget and having met the decision-makers should allow you to reasonably determine whether to gamble on spec creative.

Sidebar: Since we've employed the system, every pitch we've participated in had less than three agencies in the final round. And one didn't even ask for creative. Maybe clients are catching on.

Although they seem simple, when combined with a commonsense new business filter, these criteria will typically reduce the number of pitches an agency participates in. We have cut the number of pitches by almost 1/2 and it's been remarkable.

What now? Here'a a thought. Take the resources you've saved and direct half their time towards proactively pitching target accounts you know you want to work with. Direct the other half of their time proactively solving your existing clients' problems, outside of what the dedicated teams are working on. My money, and experience, says those efforts will pay off twice to three times as much.

POINT: Singapore

David Shaw

In my previous lives, I was an advertising copywriter, then a client marketer. Both gigs gave me the unique privilege of experiencing the thrill of the hunt, as well as the chill of realizing that yanking my account away from an incumbent agency probably meant someone's ricebowl would be shattered, someone's head would roll.

You quickly learn to be responsible once you recognize the ripples of your actions.

So do I denouce the whole notion of pitching? Perhaps surprisingly, not entirely. As an agency creative director, I could see the value of putting the agency through its paces -- much like office towers conduct fire drills -- to see if protocols are in place and everyone knows their part. It's good to stress-test agency assets once in a while; it keeps folks sharp, and can enliven a slow month. But that's the operative phrase ... "once in a while".

You don't see fire drills conducted at your office every week now, do you? Yet that's what heaps of agencies do ... piching anything that moves. Like the inveterate gambler who walks into a casino knowing the odds stacked against him, agencies push their luck, hoping to strike paydirt. But even if they do, the rewards can be fleeting. Look at what's happened with Enfatico and their Dell jackpot.

It gets better. FMCG giant Reckitt Benckiser this week rocked India's ad industry by requiring agencies to pay for the privilege of pitching its local media account. Up to 10 media agencies have banded together to boycott the exercise, declining to fork out the US$10,000 pitch fee. ZenithOptimedia is one of only a few multinational agencies thought to still be in conversations with the client.

So what's an agency to do? My FOUR POINTS pals have served up some pragmatic advice, so I won't play the broken record, other than to commend British agency BBH for turning their philosophy of never doing a creative pith into a competitive advantage. Mind you, it was a competitive disadvantage for 5-10 years before they turned the corner -- but a principle isn't a principle unless it costs you something.

We should all be so ballsy.