Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Managing Little Miss Chatterbox in Your Communications

There’s a new phrase that’s going around and I’m not convinced that it’s a good thing.

“That’s my personal view”.

I choked on my coffee when I heard a very senior and very experienced public relations practitioner use the phrase on a political panel discussion over the weekend.

“The organisation’s position is x, my personal view is y”.

The PR guy that triggered my gag reflex was in-house, skilled, and in a very high profile and politicised role. He was a guest on the show as a representative of his organisation.
To be fair to the PR guy, the interviewer accused him of fence sitting, and he replied that he wasn’t because, “ The organisation’s position is x, my personal view is y”. Basically he tripped over his ego.

Once upon a time, this would be considered dissent in the ranks and you would be packing your desk. So why has this become acceptable and, more importantly, should it be?

Tools of the Cat Herding Trade

I’ve worked in both corporate and public sector communications (brand and media) and the ‘herding cats’ metaphor is still the most accurate. Communications plans, key messages, brand guidelines, protocols, sign offs and media training of approved spokespeople. All tools to retain control so that some wally doesn’t say something that they shouldn’t. Singing from the same songsheet and being ‘on message’ and all that. One message/in volume/over time. I’m sure you’ve sat through that PowerPoint presentation.

Work Life Balance Has Changed to Work Life Integration

Our job is part of who we are and social media tools such as blogging, FaceBook and Twitter have given employees a soapbox to preach from. As we take increased ownership over brands at a personal level, it’s hard to leave out the place where we spend 40 plus hours per week. We have plenty to say about our employers and inside information is valuable currency in social media transactions. Personal views are given more credibility and perceived as being untainted by paid media and organisational spin.

“ I work for Japasonic and I’ve spent all day processing returns of the Japowave 3000-the doors all fall off LOL!!!”

There goes your 600k ad campaign. And aren’t you pleased you hired that PR company to write key messages and press releases about the Japowave 3000?
It’s a complex area and over the next few months, I’m going to attempt to come up with some practical ways to minimise the risk and disruption that social messages can cause to your top-down messaging. In the meantime, make it very clear to employees that:
  1. There are certain areas of the organisation that they are not suitably skilled or do not have the authority to comment on,
  2. Approved spokespeople are in place (or should be!) to provide comment for the organisation,
  3. Public comment whether in mainstream media or social platforms that the company deems to be inappropriate will result in disciplinary action or possible dismissal.
Big guns. Yes, but necessary. I’ve seem some very well intentioned individuals create huge public relations disasters simply because they didn’t have an organisation-wide view. It’s easy to get out of your depth. It’s easy to unravel all the good work that the rest of your teams are doing positively representing your organisation.

Individuals can’t get bigger than the organisation they work for and represent
Suitably experienced people should be trained as ambassadors. In my personal view, ‘in my personal view’ has no place in relation to organisational comment and needs to be stamped out.

If you’re wondering about point 3 ‘deems to be inappropriate’, don’t worry, so am I. This is where things start to get ethically very complex! More to come!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Four Reasons Why First Mover Advantage Won't Give You Brand Leadership

I'm going to disagree with Jack Trout, the Godfather of brand strategy. I don't think first is best anymore. I think it used to be. Planning to be the first won't give you brand leadership. Here's four reasons why.

1. Savvy Consumers

As the shopping-scape gets more complex and cluttered, consumers try to regain control over their purchase experience through information gathering. They want to see catalogues, comparison shop online and read consumer reviews. They want to be in control. If you go shopping for a laptop, you are asking questions such as 'can I burn a DVD? how heavy is it? how long will the battery last?. I don't think you are asking 'who invented the laptop?'.

2. Information Transparency

I sat down to write some ad copy for my online store selling home-wares. I posted the copy. My copy and layout was far better than any of my competitors. Within the next 48 hours, all of my competitors had copy and pasted my ad and updated their sites. The years I spent in ad agency meetings, marketing lectures and sales workshops all handed over to my rivals. Blue-sky thinking has to provide a return on investment. I spent too long on the ad for the benefit it provided and the sales it transacted.Copyright, trademarking and intellectual property is very hard to protect. Speed is everything. Copy/paste is very effective.

3. The Early Bird Doesn't Always Catch the Worm

The first time I saw an iPhone the proud owner was so eager to show me the horizontal/vertical view. Big deal.
I was one of the first people in New Zealand to buy a Palm LifeDrive. 4GB hard drive, mp3/mp4 players, removable storage, WiFi AND horizontal/vertical view. It was like a new creature from outer-space. The Palm LifeDrive turned out to be a terrible product for Palm (and me) and was killed off quite quickly by Palm (and me). Palm couldn't get all the innovation into a product that was also a phone, so they left the phone functionality out.

I wouldn't consider the iPhone a 'blue-sky' product. It's an evolution of existing technologies combined well. Apple is 'out-combining' other companies and is more relevant-for now. How long since you've seen a 'this site is best viewed in Netscape Navigator' web page? Make sure the worms haven't moved.

4. 'I Am the Greatest' Muhammad Ali Arrogance

I've seen too many companies dismiss competitor threats based on 'we're number one in the category' logic. Little guys are hungry and they're coming for your market share. Right now and from directions you don't expect. Competitors can find out who your suppliers are, what your trade terms are and what volumes you are trading with a few emails and an industry report or two (-either that or they'll ask their friends on Face Book).

Keep an eye on the outliers, not just your top two or three competitors. Look at other industries, other countries, other technologies for ideas. Then take them. Copy/paste. Tweak them and recombine them to stay relevant.

First mover advantage may be useful if you want into the Guinness Book of Records, but it won't give you brand leadership. Sorry Jack.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

People-Centred Sustainability: The Gospel According to Roddick

It’s very cool to have a ‘sustainability’ section on your website. It’s where you put your ‘sustainability statement’ and write some nonsense about carbon footprints and turning off your computer monitors at night. Some companies really go to town in the ‘sustainability’ section with detailed information about their compost systems and half flush toilets. Good grief.

And then there’s Earth Hour. Pull the plug on some stuff around your office and the planet will reward you with a big sloppy kiss and increased revenues.

I don’t think it’s wrong although I think a lot of companies are so busy copying each other's green stuff that they've missed the point. I would just like to get back to the pure, people-centred, gospel of sustainability pioneered by The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick.

Advertising has Bill Bernbach. Sustainability has Anita Roddick.
Read her book "Business as Unusual". I first read it in my graduate year at university after reading countless academic volumes on marketing ethics and triple bottom line audit reporting that was all theory and completely unworkable. Anita Roddick was living it out in dream-crushing UK retail.

Her unwavering faith in people, democracy and our role as stewards of the earth were not words of a businessperson. Yet she had a thumping retail empire that was taking market share of the giants of the beauty industry. She refused to advertise in paid media. She refused to prey on the insecurities of women about their looks and body. Business decisions were voted on and trading terms were designed to assist micro-enterprise in developing nations. Products weren’t tested on animals.

Tabloid journalists in the United Kingdom stalked and harassed Roddick to try and document her downfall. The Body Shop claims were revolutionary -the war cry was sensational. Anita Roddick and The Body Shop really were saving the world by caring for the people in it.

People-centred sustainability
The green movement seems to have turned sustainability into sandal wearing nature worship. Read any company website sustainability section and you won’t see anything about people. It’s a lot easier to put your paper in the recycling bin than be nice to your workmates (I’m speaking from experience here). Or wield power over junior staff when decisions don’t go your way.

Anita never abused her power, even as the company’s founder and major shareholder. Flexible working hours, ethical brand and corporate communications, 360 degree management reviews, employee share schemes-these should be the tools and language of sustainability.

We can’t get ‘greenie points for that’
It’s a point of contention how much The Body Shop tried to score greenie points versus how genuinely green the blood was that flowed through Anita’s veins. Her sale of the business and it's subsequent poor performance and loss of brand equity to me proves you can’t fake it.

Companies seem to have got meaner as they’ve got greener and end up spending millions on smoke and mirrors to try and maintain their image as whale-saving good guys. I see you through the smoke McDonalds and friends, and as social and personal media channels develop, it’s getting harder for the fakes to buy their way green. Your green audits might look nice in an annual report but your staff and customers won’t buy it. What are you trying to achieve?

Point your sustainability policies to people and communicate in people-centred language and your audiences will start buying what you’re selling. I would much rather hear that you have a wellness policy and daily fruit deliveries than recycled ink cartridges and double-sided printing. I would rather hear that you give excess stock to the local Salvation Army than that your executives drive hybrid vehicles.

Anita would have liked People Hour
Like Bill Bernbach, Anita Roddick had a magic that cannot be recreated and I don’t think we will see another like her. Sounds dramatic but I believe it. I think Anita would have liked Earth Hour. I think she would have liked People Hour a lot more.

"I am still looking for the modern equivalent of those Quakers who ran successful businesses, made money because they offered honest products and treated their people decently . . . This business creed, sadly, seems long forgotten.” Anita Roddick

Monday, April 6, 2009

Encourage the Inner MacGyver in Your Marketing

"Your radio ad on the weekend sucked. The chicken ad. Yeah, it sucked"
When the Big Cat from the Big Office rang and said that we were getting pasted by a competitor the sky was definitely falling in his world. Chicken sales were down.

Out to please Big Cat in such a life and death situation I could hear the Macgyver music playing in my head. Reactive ad here we come.

It's Friday
"It's Friiiidayyyy", whined Agency. "We have no copywriters, the booth is booked and the voice over guy is REALLY inflexible. You've got no spots and we won't get it loaded at the station for Friday drive-home radio."

"It's Friday" was not a response I could go back to the Big Cat with and certainly not something that His Royal Hotness Richard Dean Anderson would say.

"OK I will write the copy, we'll just do a 15 second ad, I'll send it through," said I, in my best Swiss Army knife voice.

"Tell your sound guy. We can bribe him with the leftover Moet from the catalogue photography..OK and the voice guy...no they're not mine to give away..yes you can have one too."

I could only find Christmas radio copy on my computer and gave it a real dirty haircut, lawnmower style. It kind of made sense. It was all about the price and our chickens being bigger. Surely as long as that gets through?

I knew it was bad. I didn't even listen to the recording when Agency played it back to me. Best not to be haunted by the sound. Approved. Lock and load. 20 minutes and three bottles of Moet.

'Sales were better than if we had done nothing'
Macgyver would have been proud of my amazing resourcefulness and commitment to task.
Pity no one else was. After two days of mockery I finally got the Big Cat to concede that 'sales were better than if we had done nothing'. Isn't that the whole point? What was I going to say next time Big Cat called? It's Friday?

My half-baked something is better than your perfect nothing
Encourage getting your messages live and to market. It's much better to tolerate a few typos and some clumsy wording than lose speed and agility. Speed to market is increasingly important and my half-baked something is better than your perfect nothing. Yes my chicken ad did suck, but it was better than nothing. Nitpicking and criticism without listening to the constraints of your team is demotivating.

"The bag's not for what I take, Colson - it's for what I find along the way." Macgyver

Encourage the inner Macgyver.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"The Toby Effect" in Direct Marketing

I love junk mail. It's more exciting than the real mail and usually doesn't come in those unmarked window envelopes that give me palpitations.

I got a real gem the other night.

"Where is Toby?"

It was the most genius piece of direct mail design I've seen in a very long time.

The execution

1. A4 copier paper wonkily cut with scissors to approximately DL size

2. Headline handwritten in permanent marker across the top sloping downward. Child's handwriting " Where is Toby?"

3. Bad black and white photocopy of big fat, fluffy, tabby cat (Toby) on left hand side. Sellotape visible where the original photo had been taped to the backing.

4. Copy next to photo handwritten in pen "We've looked everywhere and we can't find him. He is a really good cat. I hope he's not hurt. If you have seen him call 655 8475. Thank-you for your help."

It nearly made me cry. The crying wasn't for Toby. Not that I wanted Toby to be AWOL. They were tears for the simplicity of a well communicated message that jumped out of a pile of catalogues and flyers that ad agencies and marketing departments had spent thousands designing and producing and 'triple-sign-offing' and fighting over in meetings. Sincerity and simplicity with a clear call to action. Not to mention the per piece production costs and speed to market.

On my next stroll up the road to get the paper I caught myself asking local cats "have you seen Toby?" The "Toby Effect" had me.

“Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.” Leo Burnett

Friday, April 3, 2009

English only rule should stand at Thorndon New World

A store manager wants his staff to communicate in one of the official languages of New Zealand and it makes the news. Slow news day over at TV One.

Let's get a few things straight. A supermarket is a workplace. Not a pub or a gym or a library. A workplace. You have to have 'an official language' to make things work. Larger stores employ up to 200 staff, many from other countries and who are non-native speakers of English.

My first job was as a packer at Hillcrest New World in Hamilton. I was 15, on $4.25 an hour (before tax), drove a red Nifty 50 and life was good. I was reasonably diligent although the store owner thought I was too thick to be promoted up to a checkout chick after I put pool chemicals in a bag with some one's silverbeet-that's another story.

After listening to 24 Anthony Robbins Cd's, I recovered from my pool chemical setback and worked as a grocery sales rep and a brand manager for one of the 'evil' supermarket brands.

I must admit, I too baulked after seeing a "please speak English only on the shop floor " sign in the staff room of a large Auckland store about four years ago. It sounds very 'Adolf'.

The department manager (not a native speaker of English) didn't mind at all.

"We can't have a couple of Indian guys putting out yogurts speaking Hindi and a Chinese guy standing next to them putting out cheese getting left out. Bad for the team," said the voice of reason.

The main motivation for the policy is to limit chatter between staff in other languages. You'll notice a number of stores have other languages spoken by staff advertised and encourage customer interraction in other languages.

It's very tempting to torch the supermarkets but this time, I'm with them. Put your posters back up Thorndon New World.