Branding Like A 2-Year-Old

“I help companies tell more exciting stories about themselves and the people they help.”

That is about as close to the explanation of what I do, created for a 2-year-old, that I can make.

I was thinking about this while looking at a picture of my nephew, who is literally a 2-year-old. He’s a genius in my book. But of course, even he needs some simple explanations some times about how things work in this new world he’s experiencing.

As a parent, a grandfather/grandmother, Uncle, Aunt, friend, etc., surely you’ve tried to explain something complex to a very small child. And in that instance, you know that making things so simple compared to how you’re used to describing them is pretty darn hard, isn’t it?

My college professor once told me over and again, “In Advertising, you never tried so hard to make something so simple.” He was right then and still is.

Whether you work on the client side or the agency side, whether you work in traditional media or online media, try this exercise: Think about explaining what you do to a 2-year-old. Or, if that’s too hard, think about explaining it to these kids in the latest AT&T commercial. Or the role of Aaron Rodgers in the latest State Farm commercial – the poor guy is having a hard time explaining himself to kids in a classroom and he plays football.

It’s a crowd you can’t use industry lingo in. You can’t speak jargon in. They won’t be impressed. They probably won’t even understand it.

Now here’s the crazy part:

It’s not all that different than the audience you’re trying to speak to. 

I’m not trying to be insulting in saying that whatsoever. I’m saying that speaking on our terms rather than trying to relate to their world is a recipe for the attention span wandering quickly.

Some call this Dumbing It Down. Whoa there. Not so fast. We can be clear in our storytelling without losing our sophistication. As I think about my 2-year-old nephew, he’s got a ton of books (yes, these things with actual pages in them, not an iPad) and the ones he chooses to have read to him are the ones that are the most magical to him. The story is captivating and easy to understand. The illustrations are unique. I like to think the tone in which it’s being read is important too.

I can hold his attention for a solid 3-4 minutes, which for that age is amazing. Imagine having that ability with your own audience. Anything over 30 seconds and you’re doing better than most TV spots.

“Are you saying I literally have to say things in their most basic form?”

No. I’m saying to think about how the human mind works. Think about how we make decisions. When we’re making purchases, even of the most complex variety, there is one gigantic motivator that strikes an emotional chord.

You can hide behind bullet points and machine specs and in-depth research that suggests a multitude of positives that should be listed.

Doesn’t matter. There’s just one thing that makes people want to buy. You either hit on it or you don’t. And when you do, it’s about eloquently and powerfully conveying how you have that one thing more so than the other guy.

Anything else that gets in the way of that one thing is a distraction. Which is why it’s so important during strategic planning to strip away all the other jargonistic industry lingo you could be saying and instead envision yourself having a real, honest conversation with that potential buyer.

I have seen respected CEOs have a hard time with this. I have seen those with MBAs and Doctoral degrees have a hard time. And people with 30+ years of experience in their industry. It’s not their fault, really. It’s what can happen when we get so insulated within our own company walls in what’s standard communication (think about how many abbreviations you use that are specific to your business or industry) that we forget there’s a level of Plain English that needs to be spoken in a captivating manner to the world outside.

Your customer may not be a 2-year-old. But you have to communicate company virtues on their turf, around their needs, on their time, in their tone. Not expect them to figure it all out on yours.

It’s that simple. And yet, just that complicated. Need a hand finding that insightful nugget and then explaining why your treasure is important to someone of value? Let me know.

When Social Media Channels Don’t Matter

If you don’t have a brand strategy and rich, compelling content to supply people on at least a semi-consistent basis, I don’t care how many social media channels are out there. You should not be on a single one of them until you figure out what your purpose is and what you’re going to supply in the way of content that people can benefit from.

Until you address that, you have no heart. No soul. No story. No brand.

“Should we be on Facebook?” If you don’t know what you’re going to say there? No.

“Should we be on Pinterest since there’s a lot of women on it and we’re a female-owned company?”
No. You should be on Pinterest if you see an opportunity for people to piece together what you believe and value  as a brand (or as a person behind that brand). The fact you share a gender has nothing to do with it.

“I have 25,000 followers on Twitter.” Am I supposed to be impressed by that, really? You could’ve bought those for all I know. Which, by the way, is really stupid and less than genuine. Now, if you were someone who got to that point of greatness through your constant back-and-forth interaction, I think you’ve got something. More than something, actually. You have a story to tell that provides a continuous stream of content that people can benefit from? You’ve got some meat to go with those potatoes. Some heart and soul. Some vision.

“Should we be on (insert any social media channel you want here) since our competitors are there?” No. At least not for that reason alone. Because all you’re doing is playing monkey see, monkey do and following their every move. Do you want to have a purpose or do you want to be a puppet?

Social media is the megaphone. But without knowing what to say and how to say it, all that comes out of it is noise.

For some of you, this may be elementary. If so, my apologies. But there’s still a lot of people out there who are putting up Facebook pages, Twitter handles, YouTube channels and Pinterest boards…without knowing why. Don’t put up a social media channel because everybody’s doing it. Be able to say “We put up a Facebook Page because our audience is there, it’s the best place for us to convey what our brand is trying to say, it’s where we’ve seen strong interaction, etc.”

It’s like buying a house and saying afterward, “Why did we buy that?”

Your spouse looks at you and says, “Well, because everybody said we should.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t fit with our life’s plan or our goals. I don’t even know if I’m going to like this neighborhood a few years from now.”

“Well, jeez. Why are you telling me this now after we just invested in one of the most important purchases of our lives?”

It’s not easy to walk away from that decision, obviously. Once you’re in, you’re there to stay for a while. It’s not that different from the social media commitment in a way. If you’ve already “bought” a place on social media, it’s hard to suddenly say, “You know what, online universe? We don’t want to be on this channel after all. Never mind.”

It’s not too late to turn that ship around. But take a look in the mirror and ask why you’re there and what you want to say. Everyone should do this self-check regularly, myself included.

The story of your brand can never stop being told. Don’t waste another moment finding out what yours is.

5 Ways To Avoid Social Media Fatigue

It’s not easy establishing our own personal brands in the world. You have to blog, tweet, connect, and like…let’s face it, it can be rather exhausting to keep up this kind of consistency. No wonder I hear the term “social media fatigue” used more often. Yet, if it’s a given we all have to build awareness of ourselves, aren’t we forgetting an opportunity right before us that might help share the burden of producing fresh content?

I’m talking about strategies to pool resources among like-minded people so you promote yourselves even farther. Here are a few great ones: 

1) Invite Them to Guest Blog
Coming up with content for a blog all by yourself is tough, no matter how many resources you have to help (thank you, though, Google Reader). So it’s a great relationship builder to invite someone you trust to provide a guest post for you. They’re flattered by it usually and it can be refreshing for your audience to hear viewpoints in a blog from a different voice outside your own. And of course, you can take a temporary break from blogging yourself.

2) Interview Them
Whether a blog, article, podcast or video, you’re enabling someone else to share their story or viewpoints by bringing them into one of the social media tools you’re using. I’d be sure to do some prep work in advance as far as ample questions to keep the conversation flowing, particularly if it’s video or audio content.

3) Build a Twitter List Around Each Other
Twitter Lists are an underutilized tool in my opinion, especially when you have potentially thousands of people to keep track of, that you’re following and following you. Build a list around certain people who have proven to be good referral sources for you so you can easily retweet their best tweets and they can hopefully do the same for you. Those retweets from the group can help get some extra mileage out of your next tweet.

4) Start A LinkedIn Group Based On Interest
Think of the common thread that runs among your group – it doesn’t even have to be strictly business-related – and start up a LinkedIn Group among yourselves. While you might have to be the designated discussion starter, if you have a lively group, these discussions can take on a life of their own. For example, a Chicago Cubs Group has a topic that’s been going strong for months now! That might be an extreme timeframe, but even if you can get the ball rolling with a compelling enough discussion topic to stir conversations for several days, the group keeps the momentum of interactivity going. All the while, who does the credit come back to for originating the discussion? That’s right, You.

5) Co-Present A Webinar or SlideShare Presentation
Why try to sell the same canned speech to the world when you can share the load in creating a new one with a related business? Both of you can then enjoy the credit for the joint presentation, wherever it would be given. If a webinar, your combined prospect audiences may be bigger than if just one of you had been presenting.

When it comes to new content, you just don’t have to always come up with one amazing topic after another by yourself. That leads to social media fatigue and eventual burnout. So join forces by using these opportunities and others like them to bring attention to both your name and someone else’s in the process. If all goes well, it’ll be both of you invited into a buyer’s office, simultaneously too.

Dan is speaking at the Chicagoland Chamber Nov. 3rd!

What are you doing on the morning of Thursday, November 3rd before 9:00am? If you’re free and near downtown Chicago, I think you’ll walk into work energized and with a fresh perspective on how what you build internally can do a world of good externally in terms of your customer relationships.

I’ll be speaking at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce along with my colleague, management consultant Rob Jager, on:

Building The Brand Within:
How To Deliver Unexpected Surprises For Your Customers 

It’s a look at how content marketing can help you position your company as a thought leader in its industry, how to logistically put your people in a position to be better aligned with the company’s true mission, how to identify the best content providers within and what turning employees into brand ambassadors means for team loyalty and a healthier culture. If you’re a small business owner or department leader, I think you’ll get a lot out of our hour spent together.

7:45a.m.: Registration & Networking 
8:00a.m.: Presentation 
9:00a.m.: Q&A 

Location: Chicagoland Chamber, 200 E. Randolph, Suite 2200

Pre-registration for this FREE event is required on the Chicagoland Chamber’s website here:
http://www.chicagolandchamber.org/wdk_cc/events/eventDetails.jsp?cc_event_id=8afbc90d-a2de-473a-9ebc-8a026cd3e6b5

1st Gen E-mail Is Over – Does Your Marketing Reflect It?

“Wait – what do you mean? Are you saying e-mail is going away? No way does e-mail go away. Everyone uses e-mail.”

I figure that’s the response I’d get from a headline like the one above. But e-mail marketing in its 1st generation form should be history. E-mail in its next generation form is where we should be thinking and how we should be acting in our marketing efforts already. Right now.

Why? Spammers and Yammer.

1) Spammers are ruining e-mail as we know it for the good marketers who have valuable messages the recipient can benefit from. The filters of unsolicited mail will only get stronger so we have to make our messaging more simple to identify with, customized as well as equipped with subscription and link mechanisms so people can continue the relationship if they so choose.

2) People won’t need internal e-mail as much with services that enable them to communicate in real-time formats like Yammer. The speed of how we connect within the company is ramping up quickly. In this internal context, regular e-mail with its lag time and ability to clog in boxes looks like a dinosaur.

Knowing this, what do we do as marketers? First, we relax. Second, we adapt to this development by equipping our e-mails and e-newsletters with springboards. In other words, we stop doing e-mail that doesn’t give people anywhere to logically go from there. Otherwise what you’re sending out there is a lot like the direct mail issue I mentioned earlier. No links to more info? No landing page or blog? No place to channel the conversation further toward an appointment and hopefully a sale? No ways to become a Fan, Follower or Connection from there? No pictures they can share or video they can watch?

Then I don’t get it.

Closing a customer when the e-mail starts and ends with that message is hard to do. Even if you’re designing it as something to be read in 60 seconds or less, you’re doing so with the intent that the person subscribe to get more of those e-tidbits. Yet, strangely, some things get sent out without them.

We should incorporate RSS Feeds into our content, giving people the ability to subscribe to us or providing even the option to choose certain sections of content that’s relevant to their world. And while we have e-mail and people use it, we need e-mail subscription sign-ups. It means we have to be more visible than ever before when it comes to producing great blogs, great videos, great e-books, great social interactions that aren’t just about how we’re having 3 for 1 Bud Light Specials tonight.

If we’re going to do e-mail, let’s do e-mail that respects the person’s time by getting in and out of the person’s life in a reasonable period. If they want to spend more time than that with us, they’ll Like, Follow, Connect, Subscribe and Download. The first interaction should not be a company’s life story nor should next steps be just about only a phone call or e-mail. That’s done as far as I’m concerned.

If all this sounds like it’s only going to get harder for you as a marketer, well, you’re right. But I see this as a good thing. People still crave answers to their challenges as much as they ever did. We just have to get smarter and more sophisticated how we pave the road from them back to our solution. We can’t blast away at them with nothing but ads that have virtually no response mechanisms or only “old school” methods like dialing a phone number. We have to create online and offline channels that enable them to learn more about us and understand our offerings – on their terms.

TV adapted. Radio adapted. Newspapers and magazines tried to adapt but aren’t doing a bang-up job of it. Now it’s direct mail and e-mail’s turn at bat.

The way we market through the mail, both in direct and electronic form, needs to change. Or it won’t matter how many days the Postal Service trims from its schedule because we won’t be effective or appreciated in any of them.

How has your brand been adapting? Or have you not yet? 

3 Times When Social Media Isn’t Right For You.

I’m a gigantic social media fan, but I can never automatically recommend everyone be on social media. True, I could analyze a company from a brand perspective and I’ll invariably recommend social media channels for them. But as I dig deeper, I come to realize that there are a few cases that it’s not right for. Less because it isn’t right for their brand or because their audience isn’t living on any social media channels, more because their internal culture just flat-out isn’t ready for it or isn’t fully behind it when they do decide to go down that path. I’ll give you some examples:

1. “I’m afraid of what people will say about us.”
If your customer service sucks, it’s going to get talked about whether you like it or not. So you might as well create a centralized place where you can funnel these thoughts from customers and respond to them accordingly. The beauty of social media is that it causes you to take a deeper look at your operation and see where there might be cracks in your service offerings. News Flash: We all make mistakes. Still, an overriding culture of fear or lack of understanding of social media tools can lead to overreaction – “Someone said something bad about us! Take down the Facebook Page before the CEO sees it!” Well, maybe you should just sit social media out for a while until you’re prepared to be honest with your organization’s shortcomings. Again, we all have weak points. If you don’t want to address those weak points, there’s an issue there that you’re glossing over. And the more you do ignore it, the more people will talk about that issue online in various places anyway.

2.  100% broadcasting rather than interacting.
I actually wrote a post about how the Cubs and White Sox in their Twitter streams were doing this within a monitored period of 72-hours – broadcasting almost entirely about themselves and not interacting with their fans on Twitter. Seriously, you’re telling me that nobody behind a computer in either of these front offices can ask daily questions of their fans and then respond to those questions? Come on!

The point here is that companies who want to exclusively post without any kind of interaction with their customer and prospect base are essentially just advertising to people. There’s nothing wrong with sharing all the pertinent news of your company with the outside world, but doing that without demonstrating any type of care for understanding their thoughts, wants, needs and questions is defeating the purpose of why they call it SOCIAL media. There are many other options to consider along an advertising or PR route if you want to go that way instead.

3. Expecting it to do everything while you do nothing.
Well, I just did some posts. Why isn’t my phone ringing?
Because you’re expecting Facebook to run your business instead of you. What phone calls are you making? What events are you attending? What appointments are you setting up? What prospecting are you doing (which you can partly do through social media among other things, by the way)?

If you’re in sales, then be in sales and sell. Social media can shine a light on your authority in wonderful ways but it can’t make up for a complete lack of sales initiative on your part. I’m not the world’s greatest salesperson, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I didn’t need to press the flesh with real people as opposed to being behind a laptop all day. It’s when they have met me and then gone online to learn more (or perhaps done this in advance of the meeting – even better), that some solid credibility is hopefully built. If you don’t know how to get out there into the world or you’re timid about it, you’re not alone. Lots of people are not natural-born salespeople or networkers, yet strive to get better at it. Just don’t hide behind social media channels and then blame them for the weaknesses you’re not willing to address either.

Honesty. Transparency. Strong internal and external communication. Willingness to admit when things go wrong and a demonstration of what they’re doing to fix them. Taking action instead of merely planning and giving speeches. These are some of  the areas that can propel a company forward. It’s the companies that want to appear perfect, robotic and transmitting vs. conversing that probably want to take a long look at themselves before plunging into social media.

Fortunately, I’m finding those kinds of companies that have yet to understand the reality that they employ human beings and not robots are fewer and farther between. Innovation by its very nature is to say that what you did before was not as good as what you are doing today. So if we can be honest that we are getting better than we were before in product/service development, why can’t we be honest about how we’re striving to get better in other areas of the company? I think that’s a positive, rapport-building story waiting to be told with an audience. Not run away from.

How has your culture shifted from a closed loop to a more open style to your benefit? Share it! Or do you see challenges due to your industry that you’re not sure if you’re ready to be “social”? Let’s talk about them here if you’re comfortable sharing.

What happens when your leader IS your brand?

Most of us have bosses. Some of us have great CEOs. And a very precious few of us have what can only be referred to as a legend – the kind of iconic visionary who is responsible for making the brand what it is today in the eyes of many.

Of course, nobody is immortal. Time ensures we all move on, whether it is due to a new job, retirement or (not to be morbid), expiring. The challenge Apple faces today in the wake of Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO (but he is staying on as Chairman) is no different than what Chrysler had to face in the post-Iacocca era, Ogilvy had to face without David Ogilvy, Disney without Walt or what Virgin will face when Richard Branson steps away someday. These are imaginative, charismatic, exciting people who not only shaped the foundation of their companies but have had influence far beyond it for managers in all kinds of industries. They are not just people associated with the brand. They ARE the brand.

What do you tell the world when they aren’t around on a daily basis anymore? Do you regret having linked to one person so strongly? Do you pretend it’s business as usual and no big deal?

It’s not a catastrophe as long as you remember a few key fundamentals before, during and after that transition for the good of your brand.

1. You don’t replace genius.
The world knows that. You’re not fooling anyone when you pretend that the person no longer involved in your company is no big deal. “Oh, yeah, he left but we’re humming along.” Give me a break. It’s about saying, “You don’t replace someone like him. He was remarkable. Fortunately, we’re a better positioned company today because of everything he’s done.” You don’t have to say you’re devastated and don’t know how you’re going to go on either. Which leads us to #2.

2. Show what the legacy has brought to your business and culture.
The Chicago Bulls couldn’t replace Michael Jordan. Hockey itself couldn’t replace Wayne Gretzky. But as a testament to their influence, they had disciples and students of their genius and skill. Steve Jobs has had the same and I’m sure Apple will take great steps to show how Jobs’ principles are alive and well even as he pulls back from responsibilities at the company. For example, Jobs was a master of stripping away technical elements that the consumer didn’t necessarily need – I doubt that Apple will suddenly become a company of unwieldy designed products now. They’ll keep this legacy strong if they can continue to show how they produce not just great products but magical feelings that make people salivate over what’s next. Great leaders have great influence and great respect long after they’re gone – how often do we hear architects and city planners in Chicago invoke the name of early 1900’s architect Daniel Burnham in an effort to stay true to his vision of the city today?

But again you ask, “isn’t Steve Jobs the primary person who triggers the emotion behind Apple with every introduction?” Yes. But that leads us to point #3.

3. Terrific leaders don’t leave the skill set cupboard bare when they leave.
If you believe Steve Jobs is a great leader – which I do – you know that he has been preparing his internal team for a moment when he was going to step away for some time now. And if you have ever studied the succession plans of companies that tend to do well in transition, fortune tends to favor those who select leaders from within who have understood the culture for quite some time – not a hard and fast rule, but a trend. In that context, can you imagine anyone better prepared to take on this responsibility than Tim Cook, a man who has been at Apple for over a decade and has already had to step in for Jobs once before? What about the talented people who have an eye not just for technological greatness but artistic beauty in what they create for Apple? Steve Jobs is a great thinker but to say he was the one and only visionary behind the iPad, iPhone or iCloud is doing his team a disservice.

4. Perception is reality. Think about experiences and emotions, not just dollars and cents.
You can talk about dollars, cents and profitability until the cows come home. But there’s an immeasurable quality of captivating customers like the past leader did that should be your goal just as much as earning revenue. People who take their eye off that function of branding and try to say that the company is in an even better place are fooling themselves. And I’m not just speaking externally – what’s the chemistry of your culture post-iconic leader? Is it just as fun of a place to be? If you used to be a magical place to work and have become just a profitable place to work, something is lost. Sure, technology must evolve and ways of doing business must evolve. But the spirit and vision that is the company’s reason for being must be just as inspiring to its people from one leader to the next. If you don’t have that, the promise of what your brand is all about rings a bit more hollow. I don’t think Mr. Cook will make the mistake at the next big Apple event of presenting just about profit and loss instead of trying to excite people for what’s next. I sure hope not.

5. With consistency and focus, you ensure the iconic leader leaves his mark on the brand forever.
None of us may live forever, but the more our successors can use our principles as a guiding force for why they do what they do, the more they honor us. More importantly, they keep the brand strong. If those principles fade because some new CEO from the outside wants to put his own stamp on things and forget all the good things done in the past, well, chances are the company probably loses its shine as well.

Most of us may never know what it’s like to work for a person so iconic that they become synonymous with the brand. But their leaving isn’t the tragedy – forgetting how they made the company great in the first place is.

Can you think of instances of where greatness transpired from one leader to the next? What about stumbles that could have been avoided? Of course, if you have a bold prediction for Apple’s future in the wake of Steve Jobs stepping back, I’d love to hear that too.