31 January 2010

A Safe Marketer is Not a Good Marketer

Every brand has a 'circle of acceptability': a mental corral within which the brand's advertising would be believed and deemed acceptable by the brand's target audience. By this, I mean the kind of advertising that is appropriate for a zit-faced surfer at Bondi Beach is not necessarily right for the 64-year old grandmother losing sleep over her medical bills in Ang Mo Kio.

Push beyond the cicle, and you'll end up with credibility snap.

In a previous life, I once had a manager who used a complaint about me to deliver one of the most inspiring lessons of my career. I was heading a regional marcom team at the time; and our legal team had just hauled me up for making one of these borderline claims for our product in an ad. I expected to get chewed up when my boss summoned me to his office. Instead he said, "David, if you're not getting hauled up at least twice a year by Legal, you're not doing your job!"

I knew from that day on that he wanted me to push the envelope, to stretch the boundaries of our brand's circle of acceptability with some edgy work, so that we'd get noticed, and gain a bigger bang for our buck. And I've nudged all my teams since then to do the same: Not to aim for the safety and comfort of the centre; but to skate at the edge without falling over.

Over time, your brand will loosen its collar; and your audience will become comfortable with different shades of its character.

Who dares, wins.

30 January 2010

What Price Do You Put On A Reputation?

If you're in the market for a car or currently drive a Toyota, you'd have to be blind or deaf not to be aware of the problems the car-maker has been grappling with these past few months.

When a few isolated accidents involving Toyota vehicles caused by accelerator pedals 'sticking' to the floorboard increased to a statistically significant number, Toyota swung in action, issuing a series of vehicle recalls from November last year.

In the latest installment of this unfolding saga, Toyota announced on Wednesday this week that it would immediately stop building and selling the Camry, Corolla and Avalon sedans, Matrix wagon, RAV4 crossover, Tundra opickup, and Highlander and Sequoia SUVs. Beyond the USA and Canada, the recall will be extended to China and Europe (though it is currently unclear which models will be affected).

The accidents, and the deaths and injuries they have caused, are truly tragic. The root cause, whether it's a broken accelerator pedal or floor mat interference (as documented in this YouTube video clip: http://youtube.com/watch?v=VTOxYFt1yT8VTOxYFt1yT8), needs to be fixed, and quickly. Toyota is doing all in its power to address the swiftly situation and stem the body blows to its vaunted reputation for product quality. (See http://pressroom.toyota.com/pr/tms/toyota/toyota-consumer-safety-advisory-102572.aspx for details.)

According to some detractors, the Toyota brand is now in tatters, and the business will never recover from this, the largest product recall in its history. The vehicles being recalled account for 57% of the company's US sales; and it is estimated that Toyota will haemorrhage some US$400 million a week due to suspended production and sales. I note with a trace of distaste, however, some telling observations:

1. All the eight affected models in this recall exercise are assembled at five plants in the USA and Canada, with what I must assume to be a predominantly local workforce.

2. In its bid to become the world's #1 car-maker, Toyota moved away from some of the business practices that had served it well for the longest time. One example is its decision to buy parts from companies around the world, rather than from a small group of Japanese suppliers that had been long-time partners. The accelerator pedals in the vehicles affected by the recall come from a supplier's Canadian plant.

3. US Transportation Department officials have taken pains to point out that they had advised Toyota to act quickly. "The reason Toyota decided to do the recall and stop manufacturing is that we asked them to," said Raymond LaHood, the Transportation Secretary. "We were the ones that met with Toyota, our department, our safety folks, and told them, you've got to do the recall." (Ouch.)

4. Journalists say Toyota is almost certain to face lawsuits soon not just from people who claim injuries from the defects, but also -- get this -- class-action suits on behalf of consumers who will claim the crisis has damaged the value of their cars. (Only in America.)

Is it just me, or do some of these news tidbits merely reinforce the quality of Japanese engineering vis-a-viz the rest of the world? Toyota is a savvy organization. Not by accident (pun unintended) is it ranked amongst the world's most admired companies and the world's most respected brands. Granted, the company has skated close to the edge by risking its core brand attribute -- quality -- in its fixation on growth. Toyota now has to reconsider the wisdom of some of the operational decisions taken in its quest for global leadership in the automobile industry. But it would have executed these recalls, LaHood or no hood.

This crisis will likely cost them untold billions of dollars; but a principle isn't a principle until it costs you something.

Chin up, Toyota. You're doing the right thing.

[Disclosure: I have never owned a Toyota, nor shares in the company. But that doesn't stop me from respecting the brand.]

25 January 2010

It's called Customer Service for a Reason!

You've probably heard about the "three moments of truth" for a brand: When you are first made aware of the product (or service); when you puchase the product; and when you first use it.

It's logical deduction, when you think about it. Yet too many brand marketers ignore the obvious imperative to focus their energies on delivering the goods at these three critical customer touchpoints. The consequences can be significant.

Numerous research studies have been conducted in this arena over the past two decades. While the findings may not be exactly similar from study to study, the correlation is tight enough to draw these conclusions:

20% of your customers deliver 80% of your revenue. (The Pareto principle.) 10% of your customers deliver 90% of your profit.

It costs 6 times more to acquire than to retain a customer.
It costs 12 times more to win back a dissatisfied customer.
98% of dissatisfied customers don't complain. They just leave.

A very satisfied customer, on average, will tell 6 other people.
A dissatisfied customer, on average, will tell 12 other people.
A very dissatisfied customer, on average, will tell 20 other people.

I'm going to prove this last statistic right now. This morning, I made a familiar trek to the Customer Service Centre of a top-tier technology company. My printer had conked out over the weekend, and I needed a functioning machine at home.

The customer service rep informed me that spare part support for this particular model had been discontinued. I could not get my printer repaired; but I was offered a trade-in promotion: $60 off the retail price of a newer model, which would be delivered to my home. Great! Except for one thing: Delivery would take up to 14 working days.

I made the point that as a freelance consultant, I needed a printer at home rather urgently; and asked if there was any way delivery could be expedited. I was told this was the jurisdiction of their Sales department, that I would have to contact them directly, and here was the toll-free number.

I stepped back from the counter, sat down, and made the call. Turns out the number connected me to a call centre rep in Australia, who had no jurisdiction over or interest in helping me further. I was directed to call another number; this connected me to a guy in Manila who, while more empathetic, could give me no real help. I was given a third number, unmistakably a Singapore line. Would you believe it: this connected me to the company's Singapore office receptionist, who directed me to contact their customer service centre. When I pointed out that I was sitting in the middle of said location, after having toured half the Asia-Pacific, I was finally given the number of their Sales department. I dialled the number, negotiated several automated menu options, was finally connected to a sales rep who was away from his/her desk and whose VM box was full. 45 minutes after I initiated the first call, I found I could not leave a message, and was cut off after a cheery "goodbye".

That company lost a customer today. The sad thing was that it was one of my former employers. What's even sadder, is that I'm sure numerous other organizations similarly fall by the wayside. They forget that their brand is porous; that without attention to detail, they can be left holding nothing of value.

How, then, can brand marketers avoid this 'leaky bucket' syndrome?

1. Integrate your brand strategy with the business strategy. Work to build networks of influence across functions and disciplines. You cannot hope to succeed by merely considering your own patch.

2. Don't just focus on the first 'moment of truth'; give due diligence to the second and third. This is especially critical if you're operating in the service industry.

3. Do all you can to build customer loyalty. Not just because of the costs of customer acquisition; but because loyal customers offer you a bigger share of their wallets, and often become your extended sales force.

Gotta go; I need to print something.

16 January 2010

Brands Should Go Back to School

Earlier this week, I sat at the back of my daughter's school hall while her principal extolled the performance of the 2009 cohort of the Singapore Chinese Girls' School's secondary 4 students in the GCE 'O' level examinations.

It was a remarkable performance by the girls (the best 'O' level results in the school's storied history) ... and a memorable experience for the proud parents in attendance.

But what struck me -- apart from the collective standout achievement of this batch of confident young ladies -- was the palpable support and team spirit demonstrated by the entire school. They cheered when slides flashed the names of the girls who'd scored six A1s or more. They screamed even louder when 20 students who had faced significant challenges through the school year were named and commended. And they brought the house down when the top two girls who scored nine A1s were named. Teachers were beaming as they were mobbed and hugged by appreciative students for their year-long gifts of insight and inspiration. The whole school celebrated as one.

It got me thinking: What is it about girls that makes them work and play together better than boys? Why didn't I feel that same sense of camaraderie, that esprit de corps, when I collected my 'O' level results? (Well, besides the fact that my results were decidedly mediocre.) And -- more to the point of this blog post -- how can companies nurture this same kind of culture?

Now, why is that important? Because organizations don't act; individuals do. What organizations do, is create cultures. Culture is the organizational equivalent of a person's character. Ingrain a character, and you'll establish a pattern of action. The behaviour that is modelled becomes the behaviour that is followed.

If we accept that the primary vehicle for delivering brand identity -- especially for a service brand -- is a company's employee workforce, then the company's culture provides the framework and the propulsion for its brand image to be kept consistent and visible in the jungle out there.

Imagine the benefits: No more 'off-the-reservation' forays into dodgy sponsorships. No misinterpretation of core brand values by employees at various customer touchpoints. No more 'silo thinking'; no more secret budgets siphoning funds away from global brand initiatives. Just a single, integrated go-to-market strategy executed by teams across the region or around the world with the Power of One.

Brands go further when brand champions work together.

09 January 2010

Quick! Spot the Brand Saboteur.

Can you tell from the photo here? Not easy, huh?

Employees of every stripe walk down the hallways of your company every day. Each with their own perspective of your company's brand, and differing degrees of willingness to do something to champion it.

How do you identify the supporters and put them to work on behalf of your brand and your business? (They are intertwined -- but more of that in a future post.)

And how do you isolate the detractors so that they do no harm?

In a previous life as a brand marketer, I used to conduct brand overview sessions as part of my company's employee orientation program. With each batch of newbies, it was easy to pick out potential allies. They were the ones who asked the most questions, who weren't thumbing their crackberries or multi-tasking on their laptops (this must be one of the most insiduous diseases of corporate life). I would recruit the most promising brand champions from each business function, and appoint them as group leaders during annual brand rallies when we'd break out by function to draft brand marketing action plans. One of our most heartening rallies was in Korea when the whole office shut down for the day to rally around brand planning. (Thank you Gina & Jae-Yong!)

As for the detractors, well, they're harder to spot. To be fair, I believe no one deliberately sets out to destroy their company brand. They're just not that passionate about it. They view any investment in brand-building as taking away from what could have been used to expand the sales force, incentivise the channel, or put into the discretionary bonus pool. They're inclined to focus relentlessly on the current quarter, protesting (with some justification) that "there's no use investing in long-term brand-building if we don't hit enough targets to still be around for the long-term!" They're the ones who insist that demand-generation ads be focused 100% on precisely that -- with no leeway for brand-building.

And what of the ones in the middle -- who are neither brand-led nor brand-dead, but simply brand-neutral? While that may be the dominant mindset in most companies, there is no corresponding middle ground in terms of effect on the brand. Everything we say or do either adds to or subtracts from the brand -- everything. Every day, whether they realize it or not, employees are making deposits to or withdrawals from their brand-equity piggybank. The employees behind the world's most valuable brands simply put in much more than they take out.

Why is all of this important? Because all employees are potential brand ambassadors. And a company's workforce is its primary vehicle to deliver its brand promise. People truly are an organization's best assets.

Classic brand management theory categorizes employees into four groups:
Brand Champions -- storytellers who proactively spread the brand idea
Brand Agnostics -- those who are interested in but not yet committed to the brand story
Brand Cynics -- employees who are not involved with, and not open to be engaged by the brand idea
Brand Saboteurs -- detractors who actively or indirectly stand in the path of advancing the brand strategy, within and outside the organization

The exact proportion of these groups within a company varies across companies and industries; but the spread typically follows a Bell curve.

Brand marketers, take note: Your job is to keep the Saboteurs away from the Agnostics.

Because in work, as in the rest of life: Some people quit and leave. (They're not whom we should worry about.) But there are heaps of others who quit, and stay.

07 January 2010

A Brand Marketer's New Year Resolution

A new decade brings with it a blank canvas on which to inscribe the building-blocks of your future success. (You are going to be successful and ace that next performance appraisal, aren't you?)

In order to do so, you're going to need to spring-clean your mind and methods. ("Insanity", according to Albert Einstein, "is doing exactly the same things you did before, and expecting a different result.") Because the market is changing while you're reading this post. The goalposts have been moved. What served you well before won't necessarily do your bidding again.

That said, some fundamental principles remain unchanged. The trick is to preserve the best, while reinventing the rest.

An ex-colleague remarked last week that he was struggling to lay down a personal manifesto in 2010 for himself, as a leader and team manager. So in the spirit of the season, may I offer some thought-starters to crank up the brain-cells -- or provoke some dialogue:

1. Bring in a new breed. Not confirming types who will succumb to the awesome power of the existing culture.

2. Seize control of the schools. Put your money where your mouth is, take a deep breath, and invest in training the young (as well as the not-so-young who've missed out on training all these years). They are tomorrow's leaders. Don't mortgage your future just to meet your targets for the quarter.

3. Keep score. Inspect what you expect. What gets measured gets attention. People are smart. They're going to focus on the things that count. (Well, most of them, at least.)

4. Change the reward system. Re-examine who you hold up as heroes. Take special care to commend calculated and measured risk (not the kind that brought down our global financial systems). By that I mean, embed a 'safe-fail' culture. Encourage your team to 'fail-forward', pick themselves up fast, learn from their mistakes, and move on.

5. Crank up the communications. You probably belong, in these tumultous times, to a small, select group of talented but anxious and confused people. Be proactive, be transparent, be out there, accessible to your team.

6. Celebrate success. There's something attractive about the magnetism of momentum. Mark your successes, and use them as slingshots to propel your team onward.

7. Free the people. To win in the marketplace, you're going to need radicals, rebels, people who'll howl at the moon. How you're going to manage them, well, that's the subject of another post.

Once you build a team of brand champions with the right mindset, then you can build a champion brand.

So go on. Pull out that notepad or position that cursor. May your resolutions spark a revolution

06 January 2010

What Kind of Lighthouse Identity is This?

If December 31st marked the end of a decade we'd rather forget, then the official opening of the world's tallest skyscraper on January 4th seems intent on heralding the dawn of a decade to remember. (Watch a YouTube clip of the opening ceremony's awesome fireworks display by clicking on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe304CiT6zo&feature=related) The question is, for what will we remember this year and this decade?

Hold that thought for a second. First, the facts: Burj Khalifa, with its 160 stories served by 57 elevators, tops off at 828 metres, surpassing by far the previous tallest tower in the world, Taipei 101 which stands at all of 509 metres. (Wonder how much they have to pay window-washers to entice them up to clean the 24,348 external windows.) The building can accommodate 25,000 people at any one time. Five years in construction, it is a symbol of Dubai's endeavour to diversify from an oil-based economy to one that is tourism- and service-oriented.

Indeed, the world's tallest skyscrapers all seem to be built in tandem with a country's growing economic ascendancy and the local government's efforts to garner international recognition and investment. Just think about Taipei 101 and a previous record-holder, the Petronas Towers.

But here's the thing: The Burj Khalifa could not be launched at a more awkward time in Dubai's history. The city-state has fallen on hard times over the past year or two, caused by the twin torpedoes of the global financial implosion as well as the collective (over)ambition of Dubai's leaders and an expat community paying over-inflated prices for the good life. (You can read a vivid account of Dubai's troubles in a Fast Company article at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/38/exodus.html). This latest landmark had to be renamed (it was formerly known as Burj Dubai) in honour of the current ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates, which has had to inject billion-dollar bailouts at critical junctures to keep the project alive. The current massive real estate collapse means that the Burj Khalifa is likely to stay empty for the forseeable future.

I blogged in an earlier post about the competitive advantage of projecting a lighthouse identity -- so that others can know what you stand for, unequivocally. So what kind of lighthouse identity is this signature tower projecting? An iconic, aesthetically attractive and functionally superior symbol of a nation's stature ... or, as a recent Los Angeles Times article more bluntly describes, "the latest in a string of monuments to architectural vacancy"?

Two thoughts occur to me:
1. This is the perfect commercial address for marketers with a long-winded elevator pitch.
2. What are their contingency plans to evacuate someone from the 160th storey in an emergency? (Note to brand marketers: Have a crisis management plan in place.)

On a more grounded note, timing and credibility have as much to do as the nuts and bolts of brand identity (what you say and do as a brand, and how you say and do it) when it comes to crafting and communicating a sustainable brand image. On one level, I can empathize with the building's owners: What would you have done in their shoes? (Post a comment and share your views.) The Burj Khalifa would probably have been universally well-received five years ago ... but the brand story of the Burj unravels for me in these turbulent times; and I, for one, would not want it to be the posterboy for this new decade.

01 January 2010

Creating a Lighthouse Identity

I lived and worked in Canada for a time in the early 1990s. For over six years, Vancouver was my home; and for a third of that time, I used to commute to work, an hour each way, along a coastal road to my office downtown. A lighthouse dotted a rocky outcrop along my route; and I remember wondering what it would be like to trade places with the lighthouse master for a week. After a month or so, I stopped gazing at the lighthouse as I drove past: I knew it was there, and I knew that it signalled I was only 10 minutes from home.

As we put to bed a tumultuous 2009 and gird ourselves for the year ahead, we should give a thought ourselves to polishing and projecting a Lighthouse Identity -- for the brands under our charge as well as our own personal brands. We should strive to be -- and care for -- brands with a clear sense of who they are, and what they stand for. Brands with a true north, that aren't swayed by market forces, that compel others to navigate by them because they are anchored in constancy and consistency.

Adam Morgan lays out the credo of building a lighthouse identity in his seminal book Eating The Big Fish. It's very good; read it.

2010 will usher in a sea of change. To survive and thrive, we need a firm foundation, a bedrock of values for ourselves and our brands that will stand the test of time.

Happy new year, and may your light shine as you strive to 'keep it visible'.