Buckle Up for The Future

 “Shows like Westworld show a future world of interaction between humans and robots, which may not be that future-fetched, according to a social media marketer who recommends beginning to cope now for being replaced by a smart machine.”

“Shows like Westworld show a future world of interaction between humans and robots, which may not be that future-fetched, according to a social media marketer who recommends beginning to cope now for being replaced by a smart machine.”

If you are a Westworld fan, you already are steeped in the mysterious interactions among humans, robots and a clandestine corporation. The popular HBO show, which is starting its second season, is more like a video game than real life – or is it?

Larry Kim, CEO of MobileMonkey and a social media marketer, has identified six “massive issues in play” that will impact marketing, employment and possibly our everyday lives. Two of the most striking and perhaps oppositional trends are people living longer and the rise of smart machines that can replace a lot of the work humans do now. It could mean more time in life to be unemployed.

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Kim’s futuristic trends led him to create an infographic listing 10 “critical skills” that he says people will be in high demand in workplaces as early as 2020. One of the most important skills, according to Kim, will be the ability to come up with solutions.

Other skills Kim identifies include cross-cultural competency, new media literacy, adaptive thinking and an ability to work productively in virtual collaborative settings. These skills reflect a more diverse, global economy, a rapidly changing media and information-sharing environment and a premium on getting results. You may be working in your bedroom or at Starbucks, but you will be part of a virtual team.

Apart from noting the need for computational thinking, being trans-disciplinary and having a design mindset, Kim doesn’t offer anything more specific about surviving in an emerging age of artificial intelligence, smart machines and robotic companions (and, eventually) overlords.

Which brings us back to Westworld.  Its co-founder, Jonathan Nolan, calls the show a “metaphor.” Humans show up at a theme park with naughty intentions in which they indulge with robotic hosts. But beyond the sci-fi drama and “evolution of sin,” the underlying question posed by the show deals with human interaction with smart machines that can do more than control the temperature in our houses or alert us when we veer out of a highway lane.

Part of the appeal of the show is that it doesn’t show a static future. Both humans and machines are evolving. Women gain more power and machines become more capable. There also is an intensifying degree of violence.

Kim’s recommended work skills are pitched more for the near term, which is itself fairly unsettling. Westworld casts a glance further into the future, though who knows how far in the future. Between Kim and Westworld, we should get the picture that change is coming, and the changes wrought by artificial intelligence could profoundly affect human life, for good and not-so-good. Westworld may not turn out to be a theme park.

 

 

Another Rebranding Apology; Another Marketing Misfire

 Uber joined the corporate rebranding apology tour with a new 60-second TV spot. While striking a sincere tone, the ad still falls short on specifics and direct outreach to the customers and stakeholders most affected by the scandals that provoked the need for rebranding.

Uber joined the corporate rebranding apology tour with a new 60-second TV spot. While striking a sincere tone, the ad still falls short on specifics and direct outreach to the customers and stakeholders most affected by the scandals that provoked the need for rebranding.

Like Wells Fargo, Uber faced a tough 2017. Unlike Wells Fargo, Uber has launched an ad campaign that offers a more sincere-sounding plan on how it plans to clean up its act.

In a 60-second TV spot called “Moving Forward,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowhahi, who was hired in the middle of a series of scandals, walks through the actions the car-hailing company is taking. Keeping in mind it is a TV ad, not a consumer bill of rights, Uber says it will enable in-ride reviews of drivers and promises to improve the culture at Uber headquarters.

“Moving forward, it’s time to move in a new direction,” Khosrowhahi says in the ad.

Advertising observers have panned the Uber ad as “vague” and another corporate entry on the “apology tour.” That criticism is not invalid, but the Uber “apology” strikes a notably different tone than Wells Fargo’s ad that says the iconic company that began in 1852 is re-establishing itself in 2018.

The Wells Fargo ad started with historical footage and references to its gloried past before getting around to the one specific it announced – eliminating sales quotas for brand managers and instead emphasizing customer satisfaction.

The Uber ad comes across as less flashy and a bit more on point. Instead of a narrator, the voice you hear is the CEO who promises continuous improvement to make things better for riders, drivers and, presumably, Uber staff.  The ad also shows Uber riders and drivers.

Organizations that face rebranding challenges following scandals or product failures should study and learn from the Wells Fargo and Uber ad campaigns. Drawing on history and letting the CEO do the talking are just tactics. But rebranding strategy should center on specific action steps. If the digital age has done nothing else, it has made promises less important than actual improvements. Flash and CEO sincerity aren’t substitutes for on-the-ground change.

It isn’t a knock on advertising to observe that it may not be the best medium to convey the substance of a rebranding effort, as both the Wells Fargo and Uber ad campaigns demonstrate. Often, direct outreach to affected customers or stakeholders is the best path to successful rebranding. Convince them your change is real and meaningful, then let them talk about the change in unscripted ways on social media and, eventually, in an ad campaign featuring consumer reaction to your change.

We talk a lot about customer engagement and building trust. TV ads, regardless of their quality, push a message, but don’t engage. That can have the unintended effect of deepening cynicism and mistrust.

Wells Fargo and Uber deserve credit for undertaking rebranding. They both would have been better served by launching their rebranding in a less splashy – and possibly a lot less expensive – way by reaching out to their customers and telling them directly about the changes being made and asking for their reaction. That kind of engagement may not fit in a 60-second TV spot, but it is likely to provide a more satisfying and durable outcome.

 

Fight Fake News with Validated Data in Story Pitches

 As skepticism grows about fake news, false claims and the news media itself, PR professionals and brands need to make it a routine best practice to provide credible third-party validation along with their story pitches, promoted content and op-eds.

As skepticism grows about fake news, false claims and the news media itself, PR professionals and brands need to make it a routine best practice to provide credible third-party validation along with their story pitches, promoted content and op-eds.

Fears of fake news are making journalists even more skeptical of press releases. Credible third-party validations of claims are the best available antidote.

Traditional media outlets and social media platforms are stepping up their defenses against fake news. Those defenses will naturally spill over to evaluations of public relations pitches, promoted content and op-eds.

PR professionals and brand managers are tasked with communicating commercial messages, often including claims about quality, value, safety and unique features. Watch just about any episode of Shark Tank to see entrepreneurs make claims that often wither under questioning by the investor sharks. Expect reporters, editors and influential bloggers to perform the same critical role.

Instead of viewing this as an impediment, consider it an opportunity to differentiate your new product or bright idea by supplying credible reinforcement of your claims. The reinforcement could be test results from a recognized laboratory or research group, endorsements from relevant experts or testimonials from actual consumers.

Avoid any temptation to juice up or tamper with your third-party validation because savvy journalists will verify it. Even online reviews are getting increased scrutiny to ensure they aren’t plants or faked by competitors.

Celebrate the awakening awareness to fake news, phishing and hacking. Take the consumer’s side on privacy and verification. Model behavior that sets market benchmarks and builds trust. Guard that trust with vigilance so you don’t slip into bad or sloppy habits in validating what you claim.

Experiment with video featuring real customers or an expert using your product and attesting to its quality, value, safety and environmental friendliness. These can be 90 to 120-second mini-ads that can be posted on social media and websites, as well multimedia content to include with media pitches or as newsjacking opportunities to earn media coverage.

Build your credibility components into your basic media outreach strategy so it is routine. Start with a clear, compelling news hook, briefly tell your story, then provide your proof. Providing validation in the form of expert findings, real testimonials and video explanations will lend credibility to your pitch and pique reporter interest. Don’t hesitate to point out that validation is – or should be – a new best PR practice in the battle against fake news and false claims.

Cision’s 2018 State of the Media Report, which surveyed 1,355 journalists across six countries, reveals concern about fake news and public trust in the news media. As a result, journalists are asking “PR professional…to provide accurate, newsworthy information.”

Do yourself and legitimate news media outlets a favor by following that advice.

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Thoughts and Tips on Good Writing

 With diminishing attention spans and exploding communications channels, good writing has never been more important – or more daunting. The secret to improved writing skills may be simpler than you think – read, study, write, edit, then edit some more.

With diminishing attention spans and exploding communications channels, good writing has never been more important – or more daunting. The secret to improved writing skills may be simpler than you think – read, study, write, edit, then edit some more.

Good writing is essential to effective marketing. Blogs, video scripts, ad copy, promoted content and email subject lines demand an informed literacy – you need to write in ways your viewers will read or listen.

Bryan Hutchinson, founder of PositiveWriter.com, offers suggestions on how to write better. They include reading a lot, studying the techniques of good writers and writing. That’s right, you can get better at writing by actually writing.

The one caveat to writing better is a personal commitment to edit more. Editing is not a form of self-flagellation or an expression of self-doubt. The most gifted writers in history have been craftsmen with words. They didn’t consider what they wrote down as gospel; they viewed what they wrote as the first step toward something better after the hard work of editing.

Hutchinson encourages writers to have passion. I agree. But passion can blindside a writer, allowing them to fall in love with his or her own words. Writing is not about romance, even when it is intended as romantic. Writing is about craft. If you must, fall in love with the process of producing words that speak clearly to your readers. That’s especially true if your mission is to write marketing copy.

As a college student, I deeply admired e e cummings who broke conventions of form and grammar to create a distinctive personal style. Commendable, but not always readable. Since Shakespeare, no English-speaking author has written with more boundless scope than James Joyce, another personal favorite. Yet few people even attempt to tackle Joycean prose. Cummings and Joyce would have made poor marketers, even though they are great writers of poetry and prose because both were relentless editors of their own writing.

In addition to writing and editing, good writers also need to empathize with their audiences. Cummings and Joyce didn’t write for their readers; they expected their readers to meet them on their terms. Modern writers, especially those in the field of marketing, don’t have that luxury. They need to write in ways that audiences will want to read. You can make fun of romance novels, but they can be page-turners because they give their readers what they want.

Learning your audience isn’t purely instinctive. It takes discipline to research and understand an audience. For marketers, this requires intentional research, often in both qualitative and quantitative forms. But novelists often do much the same things by listening carefully to how people speak so they can capture their words and cadence in the characters they create. This is what make characters seem real, just like market research makes product appeals familiar and realistic.

Many of the barriers to good writing – or writing at all – are psychological. One of the biggest bogeymen is “writer’s block.” Any writer can be stumped on the journey to a final script, short story or op-ed, but it isn’t because of writer’s block, which is a state of mind, not a road bump. Writers must have determination to power through road bumps by writing, rewriting or rethinking a key passage. Another phony ruse is waiting for inspiration from the muse. There are plenty of great places from which to gain inspiration without waiting for a mythical voice to whisper in your ear.

Even the phrase “gifted writer” is misleading. If you struggle to write well, you can blame it on your genes. The truth is that some people have better verbal skills than others. So what. Authentic writing comes as much from the heart as the brain. You can write what you feel with a ferocious genuineness. Writing that is genuine can be compelling and sparkle, even if the grammar is fractured.

The most existential part of writing is developing your own voice. Being unique is a hallmark of good writers. Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo writing style is about as far away from John Milton’s classical style as you could get, yet both are viewed as excellent writers. Your style should match your message, but most of all it should reflect your mastery of how you compose words and tell stories. Good writing never goes out of style, even when styles of writing change.

Don’t let writing be the bane of your life. It can be a great stress reliever and outlet for self-expression. It also can be a trusted conduit to share information of value to family and friends and to customers, and constituents. 

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

The Marriage of Brand Personality and Consumer Personas

 There is no better example of brand personality married to consumer persona than the Apple ads that personified a PC and a Mac. Today, marrying brand personality with consumer personas is critical to create and sustain an association that supports buying decisions.

There is no better example of brand personality married to consumer persona than the Apple ads that personified a PC and a Mac. Today, marrying brand personality with consumer personas is critical to create and sustain an association that supports buying decisions.

Consumers choose brands as a form of self-expression so it is important for a brand’s personality to match its consumer persona.

It the past, buying decisions were heavily influenced by location and price. You bought groceries, shopped for clothes and dined out at establishments that were nearby and offered good prices.

In the world of digital commerce, buying decisions have more to do with convenience, value and brand personality. Purchases can be made online and shipped to your door. Products are judged by their value, not just their price. Increasingly, consumers prefer to buy brands with compatible personalities.

Marketer Angela Hausman writes that contemporary consumers gravitate to brands with characteristics common to them. “Basically, consumers think about brands,” she explained, “the same way they think about their friends, celebrities, coworkers and public figures.” That is, as an extension of themselves.

Brands today market, you might say, to their respective tribes. One of the best examples of brand personality tribal identification is the series of Apple ads from a few years ago. The Mac was represented by a casual, hip-looking young guy, while the PC was cast as an older, stodgy guy in an ill-fitting suit. The point of the ads wasn’t to say which computer was better, but which computer “looked” more like Apple’s target consumer persona.

As consumer expectations of corporations and brands have expanded, many companies use marketing to strengthen their association with consumers. Anheuser-Busch paid for an ad during the last Super Bowl showing how it converted beer production lines to produce 3 million cans of water for emergency relief efforts in Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and California. Other beverage producers stepped up, too, and Procter & Gamble sent a laundry truck to hard-stricken areas so people could get their clothes cleaned at no charge.

Brand archetypes have been created to express the universe of brand personalities, ranging from conscientious to neurotic and dreamer to seductress. While these archetypes have merit, they fall short of capturing the specifics of a brand’s actual consumer persona. A consumer may buy a can of soup with less sodium because it is healthier or because it comes in a container that can be heated in the office microwave. The soup company should know whether its consumer persona is primarily making a healthy choice or a choice of convenience – or whether they are too lazy to choose something else to eat.

Consumer personas are the most reliable for marketing purposes when they are based on actual consumer contact.  Even though it doesn’t take a magnifying glass to see loads of families go to Disneyland, it is still useful for Disney officials to find out what prompts family trips at specific times to the Happiest Place on Earth.

As we are continuing to discover, social media platforms have become gold mines of personal information that help marketers to track psychographic patterns. Demographics identify who your consumer is; psychographics explain why they buy your product by assembling a picture, sometimes literally, of their attitudes and aspirations. Brands covet that information to direct their marketing – and adjust their brand personalities.

Consumer personas can evolve over time or as a result of technology changes. Women who once loved to shop in their favorite department store now prefer to find what they want online. Instead of using mannequins, stores need to display their apparel on models and in settings that resonate with their target consumer personas. They also need to project an appealing vibe. It’s as if the new challenge is to make consumers want to dress up in your brand personality.

Try as they might, brands can invent their personalities out of whole cloth. Their sense of personality is shared with their consumers. You may see your brand as bright and peppy, but consumers may view it as dull and wimpy. Cadillac has had this problem for years, pushing out cars to compete with German luxury models, but bogged down by a reputation of a living room on four wheels. If brand personalities don’t match with consumer personas, you have a problem.

In previous posts, we’ve encourage companies to picture their consumer (or client) personas, listing their key characteristics and the associations they value. This post urges companies to go further and see if their brand personalities align with their consumer personas. If not, why not? If there is alignment, what do you need to do to maintain the attraction between what your consumers want and what you offer?

Even if there is alignment, what will you need to do to sustain a relationship that extends past location, price, convenience and value to something more basic – do your consumers want to be associated with you. It is not a trivial question. But it can be an energizing one that helps a brand stay fresh, relevant and desired.

Whipped Cream and the Value of Visual Explanations

 A visual explanation can be worth a lot more than a thousand words to show how a product works, steps for a DIY repair or proving cream always rises to the top.

A visual explanation can be worth a lot more than a thousand words to show how a product works, steps for a DIY repair or proving cream always rises to the top.

Neil deGrasse Tyson tells a story about an experience in a Brooklyn coffee shop that provides all the evidence you need of the value of visual explanations.

A non-coffee drinker, Tyson ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream. However, his drink showed up on the counter with no whipped cream on top. When Tyson told the barista he forgot to add the whipped cream, the barista said he did add it, but it must have sunk to the bottom of the cup.

That explanation might have been enough for some customers to shrug off the visual absence of whipped cream, but not an astrophysicist. Tyson told the barista that unless the laws of physics were suspended in the coffee shop, whipped cream doesn’t sink.

That might have been enough for most baristas to grab the whipped cream dispenser and shoot another dab in the cup in the customer’s hot chocolate. Instead, the barista sought to prove the whipped cream sunk, as he said it did. With an I-told-you-so expression, he made another hot chocolate and, in front of Tyson, plopped the whipped cream on top.

The whipped cream didn’t sink.

Tyson didn’t say whether the barista apologized or offered a free drink on his next visit. At that moment, the barista may have wished he had paid attention in his high physics class or milked cows on a farm. But whatever his educational or experiential deficiencies, the barista now has a visual tattoo on his brain that cream rises, not sinks. That’s the power of visual communications.

 Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is known for his cosmic-cocktail ability to explain  complicated subjects simply , used a visual explanation to school a coffee shop barista about the properties of whipped cream.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is known for his cosmic-cocktail ability to explain complicated subjects simply, used a visual explanation to school a coffee shop barista about the properties of whipped cream.

Visual explanations can show how a new product works, steps in a DIY repair or where to get a Passport. They can help walk someone through a complicated procedure or demystify a commonly held perception, like how baffling it is to assemble IKEA furniture.

An underutilized benefit of visual explanations, as Tyson demonstrated, is convincing skeptics. Demonstrations can do away with doubt about product utility or safety. Think seat belts in cars, which are ubiquitous today, but were viewed skeptically by automakers and motorists when they were first introduced. Pictures of people hurled through windshields contrasted to people wearing seat belts surviving serious crashes changed minds – and policy.

Proving someone is wrong is a touchy subject. You can say they are mistaken or ill-informed, but that is apt to make them mad. Showing that a proposition is true (or false) leaves little room for doubt without words. That “proof” can be a critical moment in closing a sale.

Visual explanations can take the form of a short video, animation, infomercial or infographic. Visual content can perform like a chorus. Well-designed print instructions can be enhanced by a video with troubleshooting tips.

The seeming simplicity of visual explanations belies the work it takes to create them. Effective visual explanations reflect successful simplification by their creators. Observing consumers interact with a product can provide clues about what confounds them about it, which can be ground zero for a visual explanation. Lots of technology companies, for example, would benefit by carefully showing how users can take advantage of their features through clever and entertaining visual explanations. 

Infomercials may lack creative flourish, but they specialize in showing how a product can stop a leaky gutter, make a perfect omelet or prevent a deadly slip in a bathtub. That can make something seem irresistible. It also can do the same thing as plopping whipped cream in a cup of hot chocolate.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Small Business Use of Social Media Continues to Grow

 Small businesses follow trends of increased social media presence and promotion and use of visual content such as infographics, images and videos.

Small businesses follow trends of increased social media presence and promotion and use of visual content such as infographics, images and videos.

Despite its problems with preserving user privacy, Facebook remains the dominant social media platform for small businesses, but Instagram, YouTube and Twitter are catching up. LinkedIn and Snapchat are in the race, too.

More than 70 percent of small businesses with fewer than 500 employees use social media promotion, according to a recent survey of more than 350 US small business owners conducted by Clutch, an independent research firm based in Washington, DC.

Small business presence on social media platforms has risen in step with increasing user engagement. Clutch says as many as 24 percent of small businesses now posting on social media started as recently as 2017. More than half of small businesses with an online presence post something daily.

Women-owned small businesses tend to rely on social media more than businesses owned by men. Millennial-owned small businesses are more likely to use social media than older business owners.

Fifty-four percent of small businesses post images or infographics on their social media sites, adhering to evidence that visual content draws greater attention than text.

Of the small businesses surveyed by Clutch, 16 percent said they planned to become active on social media, while only 13 percent indicated no interest.

Eighty-six percent of small businesses surveyed indicated they are on Facebook, which isn’t much of a surprise given its overall social media market dominance with 2.13 billion users across multi-generations and the ability to target audiences.

A little more surprising is that Instagram logged in as the second most used social media platform with 48 percent of small businesses. YouTube (46 percent), Twitter (44 percent), LinkedIn (31 percent) and Snapchat (25 percent) also attracted substantial small business usage. Only 12 percent of small business social media users rely only on Facebook.

A social media presence for women-owned small businesses is a virtual no-brainer because women outnumber men as social media users. The same holds true for small businesses owned by Millennials and targeting Millennial consumers, who grew up surrounded by digital media and can’t imagine life without the internet.

Generational preferences indicate Gen X and Baby Boomers are more likely to prefer Facebook and LinkedIn while Millennials gravitate more to Instagram and Snapchat, creating at least a crude form of social media segmentation.

The Clutch survey showed 52 percent of small businesses post something daily on social media, 70 percent post weekly and 94 percent monthly.  Images or infographics (54 percent) are the more popular type of content posted by small businesses, followed by offers or promotions (52 percent), reviews (49 percent), videos (44 percent), blog posts (40 percent) and research data (33 percent).

 

Leadership is at the Core of Corporate Culture

 Some leaders scoff at corporate culture. Others regard it is fluff or overhead. But whether intentional or not, corporate culture exists, usually in the shape of the corporate leader. When corporate culture is healthy, it can give a company a competitive edge in the marketplace for customers and talented workers.

Some leaders scoff at corporate culture. Others regard it is fluff or overhead. But whether intentional or not, corporate culture exists, usually in the shape of the corporate leader. When corporate culture is healthy, it can give a company a competitive edge in the marketplace for customers and talented workers.

Instead of wondering whether you should have a corporate culture, you should find out what your corporate culture already is. Corporate cultures aren’t invented. They are created by everyday actions – and inactions. You have the culture, as they say, that you earn.

Interest in corporate culture has grown because more employees are interested in joining a firm with a compatible culture.  There also is data showing that companies with strong corporate cultures can outperform their “culturally unremarkable” competitors by as much as 30 percent.

A lot has been written about what makes a great corporate culture. But let’s face it, what may be a great culture in an architectural firm may be totally irrelevant in a pizza parlor. One common element of corporate culture, for better or worse, is leadership.

A flesh-and-blood leader, by his or her attitude and behavior, influences corporate culture more than any aspirational slogans posted on a wall. It is hard to have a warm and fuzzy culture with a gruff and grumpy leader.

Leaders set the tone by what they prioritize. Culture tracks priorities. You can say you value collaboration, but if you only reward individual accomplishment, the crew will get the message about what really matters.

  The Conscience of a Culture   The late Doug Babb was an architect and the conscience of CFM culture’s. In a style at once direct and subtle, Babb asked tough questions and made thoughtful suggestions. He praised CFM’s profit-sharing policy, but suggested employees would be better positioned if they had regular financial updates. We started posting them quarterly. From its outset in 1990, CFM rejected any work to promote tobacco or related products. Babb said that worked for the company, but what if a CFM staffer objected to a specific client. That resulted in a conscience-clause policy that enabled any employee to be excused, without penalty, from a client he or she found offensive or in conflict with their personal values. In conferences to develop messaging for clients, Babb could be outspoken if we drifted into puffery and away from facts we could verify. That led to a corporate policy that clients refer to as principled advocacy. Babb was exactly the kind of colleague to hear out and heed to evolve and sustain a corporate culture based on values that coworkers and clients could trust.   

The Conscience of a Culture

The late Doug Babb was an architect and the conscience of CFM culture’s. In a style at once direct and subtle, Babb asked tough questions and made thoughtful suggestions. He praised CFM’s profit-sharing policy, but suggested employees would be better positioned if they had regular financial updates. We started posting them quarterly. From its outset in 1990, CFM rejected any work to promote tobacco or related products. Babb said that worked for the company, but what if a CFM staffer objected to a specific client. That resulted in a conscience-clause policy that enabled any employee to be excused, without penalty, from a client he or she found offensive or in conflict with their personal values. In conferences to develop messaging for clients, Babb could be outspoken if we drifted into puffery and away from facts we could verify. That led to a corporate policy that clients refer to as principled advocacy. Babb was exactly the kind of colleague to hear out and heed to evolve and sustain a corporate culture based on values that coworkers and clients could trust.

 

Leaders who are terrific in some settings may bomb in others. A leader who can motivate employees to become partners in a startup may be less inspirational and effective at a later stage of company development with scaled-up operations and employment.

Some companies try to shape culture through architecture. Open atriums, coffee bars, comfy furniture and group work tables affect how and where people work, but don’t automatically translate into cultural currency.

If corporate culture is important and a potential competitive advantage, why are there so few useful tips on how to create and a sustain a desired corporate culture? Perhaps it is because corporate cultures don’t render themselves very well to formulas. They are organic and fragile. They evolve instead of being mandated. They thrive by consent, not fiat.

That is not to say that corporate cultures can’t be intentional. A hard-driving restaurant manager who takes time every day to talk to each one of his employees to find out what’s happening in their lives outside of work is creating an intentional corporate culture. If the manager shifts a schedule or gives someone a day off to deal with a family issue, he or she is defining a corporate culture as caring.

Bosses would be wise to recognize cultural leaders in their workforce, who evidence the culture they want through their actions or who articulate cultural principles in ways fellow workers can embrace.

One of the strongest ways to portray and preserve a corporate culture is through storytelling. Stories can explain how policies came into being, evolved and became bulwarks of a corporate culture. Providing a narrative creates context for a culture, especially if told by workers who were involved in the policy evolution.

If a corporate culture is in fact critical to commercial success, then companies should evaluate potential new hires to determine how well they would fit with the culture – and think of it as a marketing strategy. Someone with great credentials, but no regard for the prevailing culture could be a toxic mixture that affects more than the culture.

In the end, what cements a corporate culture are the values of its leader. Not just the values espoused, but also the values practiced. Johnson & Johnson’s fabled response to tainted Tylenol bottles demonstrates both the power of values and leadership. CEO James Burke challenged his team to frame a response that lived up to the company’s expressed value of putting patients first. That value-driven direction led to a mass recall of Tylenol, thousands of one-on-one consultations of medical professionals, transparency in media communications and, within six weeks, the pioneering introduction of a tamper-proof bottle.  The company was rewarded economically by restoration and growth of its market share and a deeply loyal customer base.

Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol response is still regarded as the gold standard of crisis responses. It also should be viewed as an important lesson in corporate culture. A couple of decades later when Johnson & Johnson faced another crisis under different leadership, its response fell short of the gold standard set earlier, underscoring that above all else, corporate culture starts and ends with leadership.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

When Business Decisions Become Political

 Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian dropped a discount for National Rifle Association members following the Parkland school shooting and NRA’s controversial call to arm schoolteachers. When the Georgia legislature canceled a $38 million tax break for the Atlanta-based airline, Bastian held his ground and said the company’s “values are not for sale.”

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian dropped a discount for National Rifle Association members following the Parkland school shooting and NRA’s controversial call to arm schoolteachers. When the Georgia legislature canceled a $38 million tax break for the Atlanta-based airline, Bastian held his ground and said the company’s “values are not for sale.”

Fallout from the Parkland shootings has shown how business and politics can be like trying to mix flammable oil and water. At the same time, a number of businesses have surveyed the political commotion and taken stands they are betting will preserve their long-term reputations.

 Edward Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, set the tone by unilaterally deciding to stop the sale of assault rifles and raising the age to purchase a gun to 21 years old. Others followed his example.

Edward Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, set the tone by unilaterally deciding to stop the sale of assault rifles and raising the age to purchase a gun to 21 years old. Others followed his example.

Emotionally raw and articulate pleas to “protect your children” by Parkland student survivors have altered the normal arc of gun violence debates after a mass shooting. Edward Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, attributed his announcement to end sales of assault rifles and install a policy of only selling guns to persons 21 years or older to student outcries. “We love these kids and their rallying cry, ‘Enough is enough.’ It got to us,” Stack said.

Dick’s announcement led to similar changes at Walmart, Kroger and L.L. Bean. REI said it no longer would sell products distributed by Vista Outdoor, which owns gun manufacturer Savage Arms.

However, the real shootout occurred when a host of businesses said they were dropping their affiliation with the National Rifle Association after its response to the Parkland shootings, which include a call to arm schoolteachers. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines was among the first to dump the NRA and found itself immediately at odds with the Georgia legislature, which passed a bill to ditch a $38 million tax break for the airline.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline won’t be intimidated. “Our values are not for sale,” he wrote in a memo to Delta employees. Georgia House Speaker Dave Ralston confirmed Delta’s tax break was grounded because it ended its NRA-member discount program. “I hope they [Delta] are better at flying airplanes than timing PR announcements,” Ralston said.

The unilateral policy changes of major gun retailers and the moves by a wide range of companies to disassociate from a lightning rod special interest group raise the age-old question of whether business should engage in politics. It also points out that business decisions can be political, whether intended or not.

Offering airfare discounts or special credit cards to an organization with a hefty-sized membership such as the NRA can appear at first glance like a smart business move. In reality, giving discounts to people associated with a special interest group has an intrinsic political connection, whether the group is the NRA or AARP. If a business didn’t want to become enmeshed in politics, it should have made that decision before offering special deals to groups deeply involved in politics.

The businesses that decided to distance themselves from the NRA did so because of its political stand in response to the Parkland shooting and gun violence more generally, even though many individual NRA members who stand to lose a perk may not agree with the organization’s controversial views. Those businesses will need to live with the economic consequences – lost sales and, in Delta’s case, the loss of a $38 million tax break.

In his defense of breaking ties with the NRA, Delta’s Bastian said the airline is reviewing all group discounts to “any group with a politically divisive nature.” Good luck in making those distinctions, but it is a start toward thinking about the reputation of an enterprise. Consumers expect businesses, especially larger corporations, to act with conscience, not just for profit. The Parkland shooting served as an inflection point for many business and organizations to rethink their own policies and associations. That took some guts and earned some goodwill.

A terrific byproduct of this latest business-and-politics go-round would be a widespread, sustained movement by businesses to assess how they can use their economic power and leverage to address significant social issues – from encouraging citizens to vote to taking the lead in harnessing the energy and experience of America’s older adults who have retired, but still have a lot to contribute. Incentives to encourage voting, promote the arts in school or capture the expertise of older adults would be tapping into pretty large pools of people. This kind of engagement may be centered more in corporate social responsibility than membership discounts, but the payoff could be larger, especially when it comes to reputation.

 

 

Sending a Message Through Messaging

 Content marketing and social media get the headlines, but increasingly direct messaging apps are getting the users because of their speed, convenience and personal connections. Businesses have noticed.

Content marketing and social media get the headlines, but increasingly direct messaging apps are getting the users because of their speed, convenience and personal connections. Businesses have noticed.

Direct messaging is rapidly emerging as a valuable channel to address service issues, support peer-to-peer communications and create stronger relationships with brands.

Often overshadowed by social media, messaging and chat have the benefit of establishing a direct digital contact between consumer and company, whether to deal with a cable outage, modify an overseas travel itinerary, notify someone a package arrived or pass along timely information to a colleague.

Email has most of the same virtues, but users associate messaging with immediacy. While people periodically check their email, they tend to respond more quickly to messaging apps. That explains why Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp both boast 1.3 billion monthly active users and Slack is used by 3 million people daily.

The evolution of messaging, including as a business channel, is evidenced by Facebook’s growing investment in Messenger, which is now host for 65 million businesses.

Dylan Sellberg of Hubspot in a blog post on Medium wrote, “2018 is the year for businesses to engage with customers through messaging. Because it’s not about what your business wants – it’s about what your customers want.” Sellberg shared examples of how companies are leveraging Messenger:

  • Sephora uses Facebook Messenger to streamline their booking process and secure more bookings.
  • Soul Space Media generated 11,000 Facebook Messenger subscribers for 13 cents each.
  • 1–800-Flowers found that 70 percent of its chatbot orders were from first-time customers.
  • Electro house DJ Hardwell teases new songs, livestreams events and engage with fans through Facebook Messenger, which is his brand’s top traffic driver.
  • Love Your Melon announced its new line of caps via sponsored posts on Messenger, and saw a 14X return on investment.
  • Hur Nusrat, a Bangladeshi fashion retailer running its business exclusively through Facebook, used Messenger to triple monthly sales in the course of a year.

The four assets Sellberg sees in messaging include speed, familiarity, convenience and industry forces, which he says are pushing consumers away from traditional channels such as disruptive technology, social media algorithms and concerns about false-flag players. Tine Thygesen, writing for Forbes, added that in addition to convenient, messaging is “inexpensive, personal and instant.” For businesses, it is also cost-effective.

“Offering messaging in service situations enables a customer service representative to answer questions pertinent to the purchase decision and give personal and timely response to time-critical questions,” according to Thygesen. “As the nature of messaging communication is to-the-point, it is much less time consuming than phone calls, also because they are able to communicate with multiple customers at the same time.” Increasing numbers of consumers regard direct messaging as an important service for brands to offer.

The immediacy of messaging matches well with mobile devices, which increasingly is the platform consumers use to engage with brands. Marketers can take some heart that messaging relies on direct contact, not fresh content.

“Messaging has arrived,” Sellberg advises brands, “and it’s time to determine how to leverage it to your business’ advantage.”

 

Marketing Principles in an Evolving, Disruptive Marketplace

 The 4Ps of marketing have been around for quite a while, but changing customer expectations, new technology and disruptive businesses demand adapting those principles to reach and persuade today’s consumers

The 4Ps of marketing have been around for quite a while, but changing customer expectations, new technology and disruptive businesses demand adapting those principles to reach and persuade today’s consumers

The 4 Ps have been the axioms of marketing for decades, but are they still relevant in the digital age? Sort of.

Product, price, promotion and place provide a framework for marketing plans – what are you selling, at what price, with what kind of promotion and through what channels. It is hard to get more basic than that.

However, the explosion of communication channels and the erosion of traditional media channels has made marketing these days anything but basic.

Jonathan Bacon, writing for Marketing Week, suggests the 4Ps have become more like guideposts than roadways to marketing success. He quotes one marketer as saying, “Marketing is no longer about what businesses want to tell their customers, it is about businesses listening to their customers and responding in a way that offers a meaningful solution to them.” Customer relationship management doesn’t exactly fit into the 4Ps as “promotion.”

Bacon notes that while “price” continues to play a role in customer decision-making, marketers must demonstrate why a product offers “value.”

Matt Barwell, consumer management officer for a beverage company, tells Bacon he has added two of his own Ps – purpose and penetration. Brands need purpose to exhibit consistency in product quality and their brand promise, which is emerging as a critical differentiator. Penetration is essential to the success of any marketing strategy, which translates into putting marketing messages in channels where intended customers are watching.

Ignoring the 4Ps can be risky, Bacon says, as many brands have discovered by chasing, but not catching fast-moving digital crowds. It’s like driving in a strange land without a roadmap.

The solution lies in adapting the 4Ps to the contours of a specific product’s shape or a brand personality. Offering free samples in a grocery store is different, but not that much different than providing samples to an influential blogger who will write a review. Both are promotions, and both seek to build a relationship.

New technology, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality, will profoundly alter the marketing landscape of the future. And that doesn’t take into account disruptive products and services. Who would have imagined Amazon in the food space or SpaceX in the colonization of Mars business? It will definitely make marketing even more challenging.

The 4Ps represent the established wisdom of marketing. Success these days doesn’t require rejecting 4P-principles. Instead, the 4Ps can be a compass of what to watch for in the marketplace so you don’t convince yourself that a low price, a clever ad or lots of followers on Facebook will take you to the promised land.

Marketing principles still apply. They simply have become a whole lot more complicated to apply.

 

Internet Deserts Text in Favor of Video, Audio and Animation

 The internet has swung from text-heavy to video, audio and animation. Have you kept pace or are you becoming a dinosaur when it comes to reaching your audience where they are watching?

The internet has swung from text-heavy to video, audio and animation. Have you kept pace or are you becoming a dinosaur when it comes to reaching your audience where they are watching?

Audio and video content are rapidly overtaking text as the internet converts into a dominantly visual media. Unless you aspire to become a modern dinosaur, take note.

Apps, podcasts and YouTube videos are supplanting web pages and blogs. Mobile devices have morphed into broadcast cameras and digital editing booths. Videos attract the most views on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Online gaming is ubiquitous.

But the trend runs far deeper. Realtors, among others, employ virtual reality to allow homebuyers to scout potential houses. Apple iPhone X recognize your face. Digital assistants obey verbal commands to surround us with our music playlists or uncover long lost recipes.

It shouldn’t be surprising because pictures have always spoken louder than words. Ex-presidential secretary Ron Porter’s record of spousal abuse was known when he was appointed, but didn’t become a disqualification for employment until pictures surfaced showing an ex-wife with a black eye.

A special edition in The New York Times recalled the internet began as a text-heavy communications channel. That was all the bandwidth of the time could handle. “Suddenly the script flipped,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, “Now it’s often easier to communicate through images and sounds than through text.”

Imagery pairs better with shorter attention spans – and with our intrinsic ability to see first. We remember more of what we see than what we hear or read. That’s just how our brains are wired.

Wider availability of audio and video editing tools means more people, especially more young people, are familiar with constructing visual and audio content. That influences and informs audiences to expect information packages with a higher degree of presentational values. Visual communications usually dress up better than text.

What you can’t photograph or capture on video, you can animate. Cartoon characters, special effects, visual origami and out-of-this-world imagery can captivate. Animation tools are increasingly available to ever younger designers. The art of animation also continues to arc closer to the science of computer technology.

Online advertisers are following the crowd, spending more resources on video, audio and visual content. Why not with stats like this: YouTube says viewers in 2017 watched 1 billion hours of videos, averaging two hours per day. About 70 million Americans listen to five hours of podcasts per week. More than 800 million people use Instagram for 30 minutes a day. Netflix plans to invest $8 billion and Apple $1 billion in original content.

The #MeToo movement has shown once again how powerful a social media hashtag campaign can become. President Trump parlayed his often audacious and politically incorrect Twitter feed into an election victory by rallying and activating a base of supporters. 

There are societal casualties. There are rising fears of online addiction. The line between fact and fiction, reality and alt-reality has been blurred, much like George Orwell predicted in his dystopian novel 1984. Images can easily be doctored, challenging viewers to detect whether what they see is real or fake. Virtual “reality” could take false imagery to a whole new level. But those challenges exist in text, too. Think Mein Kampf

All this should be enough to convince you to get busy about video and audio content. Right? Right.

What Do Super Bowl Ads Say About America?

 What will Super Bowl ads say about us when cultural anthropologists in the future view them? They will discover we love beer, cars and our digital assistants and don’t like the smell of poop.

What will Super Bowl ads say about us when cultural anthropologists in the future view them? They will discover we love beer, cars and our digital assistants and don’t like the smell of poop.

If future cultural anthropologists only have Super Bowl ads to analyze, they may draw some interesting conclusions about American lifestyles in the 21st Century. They might conclude we’re schmaltzy nut cases addicted to beer, cars and movies who fret over the smell of poop and when our digital assistant goes mum.

The NFL’s Super Bowl, despite concerns over concussions and players kneeling during the National Anthem, has achieved (or assumed) the status of a national gathering, celebrated with chips and salsa and spicy hot wings. Many people curl up on their couch to ensure the game so they can watch the commercials, which have achieved their own legendary status, at an average cost of $5 million per 30 seconds for advertisers.

While sports announcers breathlessly described each play, others were quietly rating the commercials. One team wins the football game. Five advertisers win the Super Bowl of ads.

Fans question officiating that can turn the fortunes of the game in one team’s favor. Judging Super Bowl commercials has some of the same subjectivity. Here is how CBS sports writer Pete Blackburn judged the winners and losers of Sunday’s big ad game:

Amazon may have scored the most game-day views on YouTube AdBlitz with its “Did Alexa Lose Her Voice” spot. CEO Jeff Bezos is confronted with the news Alexa, the uber-digital assistant, has lost her voice and his aides are ready to plug in replacements that range from Cardi B to Anthony Hopkins. It’s pretty funny, but also like a bad dream because Alexa returns by the end of the commercial.

Heartstrings were plucked by ads from Budweiser and Toyota. The “Stand By You” Bud ad starts with a company executive awakened from sleep to head to the brewery where he turns beer production lines into water dispensers to send to areas impacted by hurricanes, floods and wildfires. Budweiser says its Cartersville, Georgia brewery produced 2 million cans of water last year from people in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California.

Toyota’s “Good Odds” ad celebrated the perseverance of Canadian alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft, an eight-time Paralympic gold medalist, who was born without legs below her knees and only a partial left arm. No Toyota vehicles appeared in the ad, which instead leveraged the car company’s sponsorship of the upcoming Winter Olympics. “Stand By You” received the tenth most views during the game. “Good Odds” wasn’t in the top 10.

The other “winners” declared by Blackburn were Tide’s “It’s a Tide Ad” featuring David Harbour and the NFL’s “Touchdowns to Come” that starred Eli Manning and Odell Beckham. Neither of those ads made the top 10 viewership list.

Blackburn ranked movie trailer ads separately, and they were four of the most viewed. They included HBO’s “Westworld Season 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Infinity War” and Prime Video’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.”

Topping the loser list was the Ram Truck ad “Built to Serve” that used a voiceover from a Martin Luther King speech about the value of service. Even though the MLK Estate approved the use, critics said the ad was in poor taste and, ironically, exhibited the kind of “deceptive tactics by advertisers” that King warned of in the same speech.

The Bud Knight” was judged a jousting dud, with too little of Bud Light’s new “Dilly Dilly” slogan and an underwhelming amount of humor that has become the hallmark of its previous ads. Based on the comic reputation of earlier ads, “The Bud Knight” was the fourth most watched ad of the night.

Hyundai’s “Hope Detector” centered on bringing together car buyers and cancer survivors in what Blackburn panned as faux sentimentality. While Hyundai didn’t picture any of its vehicles, Blackburn said the well-intentioned ad turned people into props.

Febreze’s “The Only Man Whose Bleep Don’t Stink” ad, according to Blackburn, actually did stink. It could be Blackburn just disapproves of bathroom humor.

He also panned another car ad, Kia’s “Feel Something Again,” which shows Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler driving and aging in reverse, so when he exits the car he is greeted by an adoring groupie. Blackburn said the ad was creepy and promoted a lot of online questions on Google about how old Tyler actually is.

Other “insights” shared by Blackburn:

  • YouTube viewership of Super Bowl ads increased 16 percent over last year, but “viewership in the living room” popped up by 52 percent.
  • Justin Timberlake’s half-time music on YouTube peaked at more than 500,000 views per hour during the game. Timberlake also was the subject of many online questions, including about his age and marital status.

 

TSA Uses Visuals to Convey a ‘Necessary Nuisance’

 The Transportation Security Administration uses a range of information and impish visual communications to explain the necessary nuisance of searching bags, confiscating disallowed goods such as fireworks and patting down passengers to ensure commercial airline safety.

The Transportation Security Administration uses a range of information and impish visual communications to explain the necessary nuisance of searching bags, confiscating disallowed goods such as fireworks and patting down passengers to ensure commercial airline safety.

If people who check your identity, scan your carry-ons, seize your water bottles and pat you down can generate smiles on Instagram, so can you.

TSA is the ultimate purveyor of user-generated content – from loaded guns and lethal knives to angelic kids and lovable dogs. What TSA sees and sometimes confiscates is eye-popping fun, which the federal agency shares on its popular Instagram account.

Hard to imagine a federal agency, especially one often under siege from air travelers and politicians, could have such an infectious sense of humor. But it is easy to recognize TSA uses quirky pictures on its Instagram account as part of its overall visual communications strategy.

 FEMA has developed an infographic that provides useful, easy-to-grasp ways to prepare your home for a major earthquake. It is another example of a visually appealing way to help people deal with a necessary nuisance.

FEMA has developed an infographic that provides useful, easy-to-grasp ways to prepare your home for a major earthquake. It is another example of a visually appealing way to help people deal with a necessary nuisance.

David Johnston is TSA’s social media strategist who helps travelers literally “get the picture” of what they can and cannot take aboard a commercial airliner at a US airport. Pictures are the best means to convey a lot of information quickly to people who speak different languages and have varying degrees of experience on air travel. Pictures also can be a powerfully passive way to explain controversial or sensitive regulations and avoid ugly confrontations.

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TSA’s visual communications strategy could be a case study for organizations and communicators that need to “speak” in the digital age. Infographics and videos show what can be taken on board in carry-ons and provide excellent shareable content for social media. Informative, well-illustrated blog posts provide timely information, such as how to pack presents for Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa.

Instagram posts aim to reach younger eyeballs and poke light-hearted fun at some of the stuff TSA confiscates, like fireworks and smartphones with built-in knives.

For an agency whose purpose is to be intrusive in the name of safety, visual communications are icebreakers. They subtly and successfully make TSA seem helpful – and friendly, even as TSA personnel check out your liquid containers and scrutinize your iPad for explosives.

TSA rarely has “good” news to tell or a two-for-one sale to promote. All it can do is strive to make airport security checks less of a necessary nuisance. This should be a light-bulb moment for companies, nonprofits and other public agencies that are in the necessary nuisance business. Visual aids can help.

Visual communications can deliver basic information quickly and often complex information simply. They can cut across cultural, language and age barriers. They can replace bulky text and substitute for lengthy verbal explanations. They can inform with some style and a lighter touch.

Protecting the safety of airline passengers is serious business and, for travelers, a frustration. TSA shows some moxie by relying heavily on visual communications to balance the two while proactively communicating with people who it will check, scan and pat down.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

Influencer Marketing Through Earning Influence

 Influence marketing goes beyond sending your product to a blogger and includes testimonials, third-party recognition, turning critics into advocates, thought leadership blogs, storytelling and authentic acts that build a reputation

Influence marketing goes beyond sending your product to a blogger and includes testimonials, third-party recognition, turning critics into advocates, thought leadership blogs, storytelling and authentic acts that build a reputation

Influencer marketing is popular, largely because it works. However, influencer marketing involves more than just pay-to-play engagement with bloggers.

Sending products to influential bloggers to try out and then promoting their positive reviews is a successful tactic. But it isn’t the only successful tactic. There is a more organic form of leveraging influential people.

One of the most tried-and-tried forms of earned influence is the testimonial. The consumer or client giving the testimonial doesn’t have to be a so-called influential person. They have credibility because they consumed your product or retained your service.

Another form of earned influence is recognition by a third party. This could be an interview, product review or op-ed. The content is fair game to promote, which is what Chevrolet does in its ads about J.D. Power customer satisfaction ratings.

An unsuspecting form of earned influence can come from turning a critic on social media into a brand advocate. What better way to demonstrate brand value than tracking the journey of someone upset at product quality or service who is impressed by a quick reaction and fair resolution of the problem. You couldn’t pay for this conversion – or duplicate it in a pay-for-play context.

Thought leadership is a powerful, but under-utilized form of earned influence. You can turn your expertise or special knowledge into influential currency if you share it. That’s the point of thought leadership blogs or asking for opportunities to submit guest blogs.

Reputation may be the most underrated form of earned influence. A solid reputation isn’t something that can be invented, minted or inherited. Reputation, by its very nature, is something that’s earned. The arc of a reputation can take years, but it also can accrete more quickly – and regardless of age – through innovation or a principled act.

Influence is not something you can proclaim. However, you can nudge along the process of gaining influence through storytelling. The stories about your brand or you that you share – or arrange to be shared – can influence key audiences and burnish your reputation.

There isn’t a formula to achieve earned influence. Thank goodness. That gives people a lot of latitude in pursuing paths to attract interest, build trust and earn influence, whether in the marketplace or on Twitter.

Professional assistance can help in the process of influence-development. But PR pros can’t counterfeit authentic influence that flows from expertise, innovation or principled action.

If you developed the best-tasting, heart-healthy donut, by all means put it in the hands of donut bloggers and circulate their mouth-watering reviews on your social media channels. Just don’t forget there are other avenues for influence marketing, many of which have longer lasting impacts and contribute to deeper consumer loyalties.

 

The Avoidable Dangers of Racial Insensitivity

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H&M entered the retailer hall of shame this week with a racially insensitive advertisement that featured an African-American youngster wearing a hoodie with the words, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.”

H&M apologized, pulled the product from its website and blamed its procedures for the misstep. That didn’t prevent a barrage of high-profile tongue-lashing from LeBron James, Questlove and Abel Tesfaye, a Grammy award-winning artist whose The Weeknd has collaborated with the Swedish-owned apparel retailer.

There also has been a call for a boycott and cynical social media posts like this one:

“I’m sure the apologies are a coming. And the ads will be pulled. I’m certain there will be media fixers and whatnot and maybe a grand gesture like a donation to some charity (donations under these circumstances are the corporate version #SomeOfMyBestFriendsAre move if there ever was one) all this tells me about @HM is that the seats in the boardroom lack something...wanna take a guess?”

Other apparel retailers have stumbled into equally thick quagmires, which should serve as a reminder to conduct a sniff test before unveiling a consumer-facing product or service to ensure it entices, not offends.

Some may dismiss dust-ups like the one enveloping H&M as “politically correct” controversies. A better analysis would be H&M’s product displayed a stunning tone-deafness. It seems inconceivable that a team of people – of almost any makeup, age and ancestry – couldn’t spot trouble on that boy’s chest, even in the so-called fast-fashion industry.

A quick Google search underscores why African-Americans are sensitive to any simian allusions, and not just because of some ancient, ante-bellum cartoons depicting blacks as apes. NBA star Michael Jordan, President Barack Obama  and First Lady Michelle Obama have been portrayed as monkeys. An anti-Obama campaign button in 2008 featured a monkey and a banana. The anger these allusions whip up is real, not manufactured. And the anger isn’t restricted to African-Americans.

Ethnic and religious stereotypes extend beyond African-Americans and can be equally ugly and insensitive. Brands, restaurants and service providers that dare dabble in this realm should beware. You may have no idea of where you step. What you think is a compliment could actually be an insult.

Ask around before you offer up products that are even borderline questionable. Consult friends. Show it to your spouse. Meet with those who might take offense. Run it by your investors or sponsors. You will reduce the odds of a “surprise” reaction by shopping your bright idea before you put it under the bright lights.

Better yet, avoid getting too close to the border of insensitivity. Think of something just as creative and less likely to ricochet off the wall and hit you in the foot.

Finally, ditch excuses such as “I never thought,” “that’s what we always used to say” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.” Those who are offended don’t buy it, and most of your customers won’t either.

You can be full-throated about your product without being foolhardy in how you present it. If you don’t know what’s offensive, get some street smarts. If you harbor ill will toward any group, keep it to yourself or get some help. Don’t enshrine it on a hoodie.

Brand Stories: Pets with Cancer, Shoes from a Waffle Iron

 A beloved pet’s bouts with cancer inspired one family to start a pet food company using high-quality ingredients. Blue’s story is at the heart of Blue Buffalo’s brand story that compels consumer interest and builds brand loyalty.

A beloved pet’s bouts with cancer inspired one family to start a pet food company using high-quality ingredients. Blue’s story is at the heart of Blue Buffalo’s brand story that compels consumer interest and builds brand loyalty.

Consumers are bombarded by brands, but most remain faceless without a compelling brand story. For companies with a story, it is an opportunity missed to build brand interest and loyalty.

I was reminded of this over the holiday break when I saw a TV ad for Blue Buffalo pet food. The ad was mostly about Blue, a large-breed Airedale that battled cancer and inspired its owners and pals to pursue a pet food company using quality, natural ingredients. A longer version of Blue’s story is on the company’s website.

Blue Buffalo is a now a publicly traded company. The young boy who fell in love with Blue as a puppy is the CEO. The company markets its higher-end dog and cat food around the BLUE Life Protection Formula®.  Dogs are everywhere at corporate headquarters and are treated like family, which led to the company’s trademarked cutline, “Love them like family. Feed them like family.” There is a Blue Buffalo foundation to raise awareness of pet cancer.

The Blue brand story has authenticity, even if the brand has faced a couple of accidents on the rug in its history. Purina sued Blue Buffalo, claiming its ingredients didn’t live up to its brand promise (Blue Buffalo blamed the lapse on some of its suppliers). Some pet owners say the food gave their dogs diarrhea, forcing them to switch to another brand. Despite these blemishes, the Blue brand story continues to attract consumer interest.

Brand storytelling has been used by many other consumer-facing companies, including Nike, which traces its birth to Bill Bowerman’s waffle iron used to mold shoe soles and continues with Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog. Along the way, Nike has employed stories to make its brand more than just about running shoes. Equality is one of its recent brand stories and new apparel lines, which “celebrates differences and inspires change through the power of sport.”

One of the most iconic brand stories comes from Burt’s Bees, whose founders (an artist and a beekeeper) met through a hitchhiking encounter. Burt’s Bees sells natural care products with a side of activism, including efforts to restore areas where bees forage. Its videos underscore the company’s philosophy of treating our skins and our planet with care.

Minnetonka, which makes comfortable and affordable footwear, touts itself as a fourth-generation family-run business dedicated to hand craftsmanship and sustainable employment practices. Part of its brand storytelling is interspersing pictures of stars like Cameron Diaz and Kate Moss with user-supplied pictures of everyday people wearing their moccasins, sandals and boots. Content on its websitedescribes when and how some of its famous moccasins originated

Digital marketer Sujan Patel wrote a recent blog describing seven brands that he says are “killing it with brand-driven storytelling,” including Nike, Burt’s Bees and Minnetonka.

“Telling your story is a critical part of building your brand,” Patel writes. “It helps to shape how people view you and enables consumers to begin forging a connection with you and your company.”

The trick, he adds, is making sure the stories authentic, not fabricated. “Consumers aren’t stupid. If they think you’re fabricating stories and falsifying your brand they will find out. At some point, the truth will come out and the ‘brand’ you built will be in need of some serious damage control if it’s to survive.”

As Blue pet food demonstrates, you need to do more than tell your story. You need to walk your talk and keep faith with your brand story.

Do you have an untold brand story? Do you need help telling or showing your brand story? Share your brand story with us. Maybe we can help. In any case, we would love to hear your story.

Meeting and Marketing to Your Buyer Personas

 Effective marketing isn’t about talking louder. It involves sharing smarter. Creating and interacting with buyer personas can help you put a face to your consumer, understand their pain points and follow their journey to your doorstep.

Effective marketing isn’t about talking louder. It involves sharing smarter. Creating and interacting with buyer personas can help you put a face to your consumer, understand their pain points and follow their journey to your doorstep.

In marketing, telling your audience what you want them to hear should take a back seat to sharing what they want to hear from you. It is a distinction with a definite difference. It is the fundamental meaning of the customer comes first.

Marketers aim to deliver a key message regarding their product, service or idea. That, after all, is the point of marketing. However, pushing a message is only part of marketing.

The other, equally important part is crafting a message that an audience will notice, care about, remember and act on. This part of marketing requires research and insight into what your audience is interested in, where it looks for information and who audience members trust.

Few products, services or ideas appeal to everyone, so one of the roles of market research is to pinpoint the target audience whose members would value, need and be willing to pay for what you offer.

Target audiences usually aren’t monolithic, which is why marketers develop (or should develop) buyer personas. These sketches – which can include fictional names, illustrations, hobbies, favorite brands, habits, motivations and pain points – turn a target audience into a series of human faces instead of rows of statistics.

Buyer personas also serve as a flight plan for messaging by tracing the consumer journey, so marketers know where to focus their energy, time and resources to connect with their intended audience – and how to close a sale. Walking in a consumer’s shoes makes it easier to identify and empathize with that consumer.

Developing buyer personas can be hard work, but it also can be fun. It certainly is useful. When you visualize your audience as people – even generalized types of people – you are more likely to think about what they want to hear, not just what you want to tell them. And that can make all the difference in whether a key message hits its mark or veers off into the vapors.

Many non-marketers (and perhaps even some professional marketers) may be unfamiliar with buyer personas. They don’t follow a particular formula. The best ones have a creative bent. The most useful ones derive from actual contact with consumers.

 There isn’t a formula to follow to create buyer personas. The only criteria that matters is your fictional buyers fairly represent your actual consumers.

There isn’t a formula to follow to create buyer personas. The only criteria that matters is your fictional buyers fairly represent your actual consumers.

Alexa posted a blog with 10 examples of buyer personas from a range of sectors, adhering to a wide variety of styles and formats. In some cases, consumer pain points were conveyed as consumer frustrations, but the variations prove the point that how you compose buyer personas may be less significant than whether you create them.

Unlike statistics that are spewed from an algorithm, buyer personas can be easily modified as experience dictates. You may get it wrong the first time. But the good news is you are focused on the right end of the marketing megaphone.

You are assessing and responding to where people are at and how to reach them. You have evolved from sending a message to sharing one. It’s a big difference, and an even bigger deal.