Brand Police: When Brands Go Horribly Wrong…

I doubt it's a 'Chevy'

There was a time when the marking teams held sway in organizations. When Nike was rising to the top, selling bits of rubber at 5x the competition’s prices, it seemed that a simple logo and marketing campaign was the key to success. But, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The marketing teams –drunk with this power– started enforcing brand etiquette, like some kind of secret police: “Our logo should never be used on a blue background!” or how about “You should never say Chevy, but ‘Chevrolet’!”

The latter isn’t some throwback to some corporate debate from the 80’s, it happened TODAY.

One of the biggest signs that a company is on its last legs (and I, unfortunately, have first hand experience with this), is that it starts flagellating wildly trying to do anything that will right the ship. Some marketeer has convinced the top executive at GM that it is somehow important to call their ‘Chevrolet’ brand ‘Chevrolet’ instead of ‘Chevy’.  It is under the auspice of ‘reducing confusion’ in internal communications:

“I get calls from international colleagues asking me ‘What is a Chevy,” said German-born GM spokesman Klaus-Peter Martin. “It takes quite a long time to explain to them.”

How long does it take to say “You know when you call Alexandre ‘Alex’, it’s like that.”

Instead they waste the time and energy of their employees bringing attention to this ‘issue’, instead of focusing on the key elements of building a brand. I can just imagine the remaining employees of GM rolling their eyes en-masse when –those that still read corporate communications– review this corporate memo. Basically, your executive is telling the world that its employees are too stupid to use your own company name.

Remember guys, your ‘brand’ is your promise to your customer, so how about you quit navel-gazing and BUILD SOME BETTER CARS!

So before you hit ‘send’ on that next company-wide memo, ask yourself: “Is this helping us build a better car?”

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The Media Buffet – At One Reasonable Price

Early adopters experience new market opportunities before the rest of the market. By trying something new, they get the benefits of a new service or technology earlier than the rest, but they also experience the gaps that are inevitably created by the new thing.

We will soon have the iPad to add to the already large number of means to experience media that includes:

  • eBook readers like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader
  • Digital audio players like the iPod and Zune
  • Smart phones (Blackberry, iPhone)
  • Desktop & laptop computers
  • Internet capable set-top boxes (AppleTV, PS3, XBOX, Wii)
  • Traditional print media

Here is the gap: I am sure many other early adopters are finding it useful –but expensive– to purchase all the various potential forms of a piece of work.  For example, I may purchase an audio-book to determine if I like the work (and it allows me to read it quickly), then purchase the eBook version on a Kindle because I want to be able to highlight the material and look at diagrams, and even purchase the printed copy of the book if I want to share it with others.

Hopefully there soon will be a time where a content publisher will offer the “One Price Media Buffet” where one price is paid to access to the media regardless of the desired format.  Alternatively, an initial price can be paid, with small incremental fees for alternate versions.

You might wonder what is in it for the content publisher? Unfortunately, the current attitude of many people towards DRM (digital rights management) is quite confrontational. Users don’t see the DRM as a way to protect the artists that produce the media, but rather a cash grab reminiscent of the music business who would release a new format every 5 years to get you to buy the Beatles White Album again. This confrontation allows people to rationalize making illegal copies of media. This is money lost for publishers and artists alike. There is no DRM that yet exists that can keep motivated hackers breaking it, and the internet makes it very easy for hack to be propagated to less-tech savvy users that feel enough frustration to make illegal copies.

Here is a new opportunity for content owners to develop a more positive relationship with their customers and their artists by offering new innovative solutions instead of more complexity and frustration.

Is it possible? I can see at least one company who could offer a very good start at this: Amazon. They already offer content via audio book, print and eBook (which includes access via PC & iPhone, and in the future likely the iPad & Mac).  The only reasons for them not to offer the ‘Buffet’ would be existing contracts with rights holders (good reason) and the opportunity to charge their customers multiple times for the same content (not so good).

Come on publishers, surprise we early adopters in a GOOD way for a change! There is a WIN-WIN scenario.

Success at NORTEL

Now there is two words you probably haven’t heard in a the same sentence for a while!

During a presentation to a large consulting firm on Chip & Dan Heath’s ‘Made to Stick’, things got rather casual/direct and I ended up presenting some of my challenges at moving forward with my next career (which we’ll call ‘management consulting’ for lack of a better term):

  1. How do I package the ‘Made to Stick’ principles for my purposes?
  2. How do I translate this information session into a consulting opportunity for me?
  3. And the biggie… How do I address the fact that the last 12 years of my career has been with a company the public associates more with management ineptitude, than an environment that could foster an effective ‘management consultant’?

One of the attendees said something which took the whole room aback: “Why don’t you use this ‘Sticky’ method to convince people that there was ‘Success at Nortel’?” After a pause, and about a minute of laughter from the room at what was clearly a joke, he says: “No, I’m serious, wouldn’t that prove your point?”

While others in the room suggested that the employee in question may be off some important medicine, I told him I really liked the idea, didn’t see a path to get there, but I would certainly give it more thought!

That challenge stuck in my mind until I had a lunch meeting with one of my previous Nortel managers (ironically).  I was discussing how my new venture was going to be focussed on a systematic process to increasing customer and employee engagement in organizations to boost productivity, boost profit and –in Seth Godin’s words– increase the level of humanity. He matter-of-factly said: “Wasn’t our network planning team exactly that [success via customer and employee engagement]?”

WHOA!

Some background: Network Planning is a function that exists in all companies that build telecom networks, but was rather unique at Nortel because we were a company that sold equipment to build telecom networks, and we offered this service for free. As a simple analogy, imagine an architect who works with you to help design your home for free, before you have have even committed to buy it.  Sounds like a bad business model doesn’t it?  Not so fast!

Vendor-provided network planning services started at Nortel (AFAIK) and became an industry table-stake over the years as clients clearly decided to do more and more business with companies that would help them design their networks, evaluate new technology and specify the equipment required. This was widely replicated by our competitors with all companies in our product segment –even the smallest startups– having this function in some way, shape or form.  Some will charge for it (a bad idea, but that is worthy of another post), others offer it as a free service.  I joined Nortel to become part of the planning team, stayed in it for 7 years, unable to find a more appealing job in the whole company.  Anyone who had experience in Nortel Network Planning will tell you how great a team it was, and most of its alumni have moved on to great success in roles such as PLM, market development, sales and planning leadership roles at other companies.

Gallup Research, in their fabulous book Human Sigma (little to do with Six Sigma by the way) identifies two hierarchical pyramids that characterizes what is required for customer and employee engagement to exist.  Gallup asserts, and I certainly concur, that companies that strive to engage customers and employees significantly improve business results. I am going to apply the elements of one of these two pyramids to Network Planning at Nortel to highlight why it was so successful:

Elements of the Customer Engagement Pyramid

  1. CONFIDENCE : Can I trust the company, and do they always deliver on their promises? The kind of business Nortel is in has long product lead-times and product cycles. It is often very hard to develop a rapport with key decision makers purely through standard interaction on products, especially since these decision makers are far removed from the products themselves (they may never actually see them). The planning function allowed for regular and deep discussions about what the customers problems were, allowing us to help them do their job.  By doing this with great competence, and to schedule, we could build trust and deliver on our promises in a parallel stream to our products. To perform this function needed great trust between the carrier and vendor, because we often had as much –or more– information on their network than they did to do our job well.
  2. INTEGRITY: Does this company treat me fairly? Again, planning was in a position to develop a rapport with decision makers that sales or operations could not.  Sometimes this was even taken to extremes: I can remember one case where the customer was under time pressure, and asked us to rework a network design over the Christmas break, which we did (it showed we had engaged employees!).  Reactions like this clearly showed the customer that we were committed to their business and –more importantly– to the individuals that were decision-makers.
  3. PRIDE: Am I proud to be their customer, do they treat me with respect? I think another company providing you with extremely bright and energetic people to help you do your work is a great sign of respect! The planning teams were often providing these clients with detailed network designs and studies which would in-turn be presented with great pride as their own work. In other cases, the planners themselves became an integral part of the customer’s team, even assigned their own office space in some cases.
  4. PASSION: This company is perfect for a person like me, I can’t imagine a world without this company. What more proof do you need of this than the customers hiring the planners to be their own employees? This happened in several occasions. Because the roles of the people we were interacting with were typically cost-centres (not revenue generating) they were often under-staffed and under-appreciated.  They were asked to evaluate many complex options of how their networks were to evolve, and had many potential vendors & products to consider.  Nortel would come in with great talented people and give them a helping hand, and make our customer contacts look like miracle workers with their own executives. If you had someone make you look like a star to your boss, could you imagine a world without them?

So according to Gallup, we had created a function that created a very high level of customer engagement!

Were the results of having the planning function directly measurable? Unfortunately not*, but here is a few data points:

  • The function still exists to this day. It would seem obvious that functions that do not directly contribute to revenue were great opportunities for trimming in a company with severe financial trouble, especially after >80-90% of the workforce has been cut! The function had such a reputation in the industry, and was so leveraged by other teams like market development, sales, R&D and PLM, that I don’t think it was ever considered for the chopping block, even while many other valuable functions were thrown over the side.
  • Alumni of this function were heavily recruited by established industry players and start-ups because of the relationships these people had made with customers, and their broad network & business perspective.
  • As already mentioned, planners were regularly imbedded as key members of the customer’s own organizations or even hired by our customers.
  • Many of the networks in existence today were designed by planners from Nortel with Nortel equipment (the latter was the big payoff).

If I need to make a case for ‘Success in Nortel’, I would have no trouble positioning the network planning function as a great success story that was about engaging people and not technology.  It built stronger relationships with our customers, allowed a deeper understanding of the customer’s challenges and requirements, and helped Nortel build better products while creating a large pool of Nortel employees who could speak the customer’s language.

So now I have the content of the presentation, now I just have to go put it together.

*I have since figured out a way to do this, but you will have to drop me a line for that advice.

Those That Get ‘It’ Don’t Need ‘It’

But that isn’t what this post is really about, that was just an attempt at a catchy tag-line. Also, this post is also not about those that don’t get ‘it’. But first, what is ‘it’?

‘It’ is the value of the knowledge and skill that you offer as a service.

Consider the following diagram:


On the left hand side of the diagram (around ‘A’) you have the people that really don’t get the value of what you are offering. They don’t get it because their experience has never told them that it might be important, or they have never seen it done successfully. Unfortunately those that really don’t get ‘it’ are often the ones that need ‘it’ the most.  Don’t let this make you think this is a valid use of your time to try and convince them directly*.

On the right hand side of the diagram (around ‘C’) you have the people that really get ‘it’.  These people only need you if you want to be another set of hands to implement their plans.  If they get ‘it’ they don’t need ‘it’.  You don’t consult for these people, you get a job with them (if that is what you want).  Your skills and talents will be leveraged daily.

You’ll notice that there is another variable plotted: The chance of success.

Imagine you are providing a consulting service to an organization that involves the organization actually changing what they are doing <GASP>.  [Note: If you are the kind of person that doesn’t care that your service actually has impact as long as you get paid, you can stop reading here… oh, and sometimes I wish I were you. -ed.] The chances of the initiative having success is directly related to how much the organization (top to bottom) is likely to get ‘it’.

At point ‘A’ they will never get ‘it’ and the chance of success is zero.  At ‘C’ they already get ‘it’ and it is probably already being done well by people in-house.

So, where should you focus your energy? Where do you add the most value?

You’ll notice we haven’t talked about point ‘B’ yet… the golden pentagon of ‘it’ opportunity.  Here there is enough get ‘it’ to ensure that the services offered will have some traction, but still enough need ‘it’ so that the organization needs your help to implement the goal of the service. And there is a reasonable probability of success, which leads to the *other way to get those that don’t get ‘it’ to realize that it might be important for them to do so:

Success breeds success, and it is one of the main things that diffuses ‘it’ (by word of mouth) from the few early adopters into the mass of the early majority.  Once those that don’t get ‘it’ start to see this success, they want to get some of that action. Some time after this point you write a book, get on Oprah, a million other consultants try and copy what you do, ‘it’ gets diluted and gets piled on the heap of discredited quick-fix fads. Why? Well, many of those that don’t get ‘it’ only try ‘it’ because they are desperate and/or have run out of ideas… but they still are unlikely to get ‘it’ and the chance for success stays low. [Hey, don’t complain, you got to meet Oprah. -ed.]

So the moral of the story: If you are developing ‘it’, and you want to be in business for yourself, the best return-on-investment comes from that golden pentagon of opportunity.  Ask yourself honestly, does your client (and their organization) stand a reasonable chance of getting ‘it’?

Who Killed Nortel?

James Bagnall of the Ottawa Citizen has been covering Nortel for a long time, much longer than my time with the company.  It was with great interest that I heard from a co-worker that James was doing an 8-part series called “Who Killed Nortel?”.

Would it tell me things I didn’t know?  Would it point the finger at people I respected?  Would it conclude the collapse was due to bad luck, incompetence, or something more sinister?

Even knowing the series was on the Ottawa Citizen, I found it horribly hard to find the articles and then to navigate them (its improved a bit now that the series is complete).  To save you the same frustration, I collected them here:

I found the series very enlightening.  It points to leadership apathy, a board that lacked knowledge of the telecom industry, bad luck, incompetence, and -of course- the well known financial scandals as contributing causes.

Now that you have seen the ‘balanced view’, you may want to check out the ‘unbalanced’ view for a laugh: Nortel’s Downfall – The Mini-Series

TED: A Great Resource for New Ideas!

Want an opportunity to see videos by some of the biggest thinkers in the world for free?  My friend Catherine tipped me off to the website TED.com.  “TED” stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment & Design’ which was the original scope of the conference when it started in 1984, but since has become much broader.

The concept of the talks is that each speaker is given 18 minutes to give the talk of their lives.  Here is a description of the conference from TED:

The TED Conference, held annually in Long Beach, is still the heart of TED. More than a thousand people now attend — indeed, the event sells out a year in advance — and the content has expanded to include science, business, the arts and the global issues facing our world. Over four days, 50 speakers each take an 18-minute slot, and there are many shorter pieces of content, including music, performance and comedy. There are no breakout groups. Everyone shares the same experience. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It works because all of knowledge is connected. Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole.

Here is a selection of some of my favourite videos so far:

Malcolm Gladwell on why you can’t just listen to your customers (or where chunky spaghetti sauce comes from):

Stephen Levitt on why crack dealers still live with their moms:

Tony Robbins on ‘Why We Do What We Do” (he actually steals an extra few minutes):

Martin Seligman on positive psychology:

Finally, Sir Ken Robinson asks “Do Schools Kills Creativity?”:

And there are 100’s of others! Enjoy!

Building a Brand Identity: Watch Your Language!

When you discuss with people the idea that a company should have a strong brand, you often get knowing nods and agreement that yes, this is very important for businesses, and people either laud or complain about their marketing departments for their success, or lack of success, in this area.

I think this is very indicative of the attitude of many companies (especially companies not involved in the consumer market) that ‘brand’ is marketing’s job.  I believe that this is fundamentally a language problem; a problem of what words you use to engage each employee in helping to build the brand identity and making it consistent throughout your company or division, not just the marketing department.

You would probably agree that a company that can produce products and services that are consistent with what the customers actually value, has a much better chance of success than one who is inconsistent, or even worse, has lost touch with its customers.

So how do you ensure that 1) there is consistency, and 2) you remain in touch with what your customers value?

In this article I want to try and tackle the consistency challenge, and propose it has a lot to do with the language you use outside of the marketing department.

Talk to most technical folks about ‘brand’ and I guarantee you will see some eyes gloss over, other eyes will avert, and some folks may even run for the door.  It isn’t a word that really resonates well outside the cubes of the marketing department; it is a very right-bained word.  So how do we translate it?

Brand Identity: A unique set of associations that the brand strategist aspires to create or maintain. These associations represent what the brand should stand for and imply a potential promise to customers. It is important to note that a brand identity refers to the strategic goal for a brand; while brand image is what currently resides in the minds of consumers.

Wow, even my eyes are glazing over!

What if we tried translating our ‘Brand Identity’ into the following words:

  • In the Research and Developmet lets call them our ‘Design Principles’
  • For customer support lets call them our ‘Principles of Customer Service’
  • Sales might call it their ‘Elevator Pitch’
  • Portfolio management would say it is our ‘Common Value Proposition’
  • Strategy and Architecture teams would call it our ‘Strategic Vision’
  • Product test or verification would define their ‘Priority Test Criteria’
  • When you get up to the executive ranks, you could talk about the company ‘Vision, Mission or Core Values’

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, as I am sure you can think of other areas, and other even better words to capture what the ‘brand identity’ is to each group above; in fact I encourage you to do so in the comments below (I am looking for ideas)!!

But, by using this more functionally-sensitive language, and defining what the brand identity means for each functional group, great strides can be made to create the alignment between the efforts of various parts of an organization, and what their customers experience.  This helps every employee understand  how they contribute to “the promise to customers”.

You might ask ‘who’s responsibility is this’ to drive this alignment?  I can offer you little help here.  I have heard some arguments that claim this kind of messaging must come from the very top of the organization.  But a more pragmatic side of me sees how this can be a very improbable suggestion, especially in companies where marketing is considered a tactical, not strategic function:

All I can offer is, If this post resonates strongly with you, it might just be yours!  🙂

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