Extracurricular Activities – Burnishing Your Brand

Wrapping up this week’s examination of Back-to-School season and the opportunities for renewal this time of year presents for businesses and their brands, let’s conclude with what for many are the defining experiences of academic life: Extracurricular activities.

Athletics, music, theatre, dance, technology, science…even chess, the passions and relationships we chose outside the classroom all had an enormous impact on our community, our satisfaction as students, our sense of self and on our reputations. The lessons we learned in these environments were often more valuable than anything taught in the classroom. It is in this context that many people finally figure out who they are, or want to be.

Group Hug

For me, it was theatre. Not being a particularly talented athlete, all of my forays into team or individual sports were frustrating if not disastrous. As a little kid, I had seen a few children’s theatre productions, and I still remember how enthralled I was seeing real people be something and someone they were not. It was magical to me then, and to this day a great play or movie still energizes and inspires me.

I was always a big fan of popular music and I knew I could keep a tune because I sang along with the radio constantly. In high school, I took choir but blended in with all the other baritones. I was destined for anonymity until auditions for “Carousel” were held during my junior year. Standing in front of an audience for the first time, I trembled as the choir director, orchestra director, drama teacher and my peers listened as I sang “If I Loved You”, the beautiful Rogers and Hammerstein ballad sung by the lead, Billy Bigelow.

I got the part.

I was told after the fact that my choir teacher said, “who is this guy and where has he been?” It was a good day. That was my first experience in a discipline that continues to inform who I am as a person and businessperson: a storyteller and communicator with a strong sensitivity for audiences, a good listener, a patient leader.

In business, the things we and our companies do outside the everyday also help define us. These activities do not directly reflect our capabilities, products or services – yet our customers and employees care about them. Importantly, they can also be a source of inspiration that energizes and strengthens your organization.

Considering your brand’s extracurricular activities, I want to focus on three areas Advocacy, Activism and Philanthropy, which often overlap.

Advocacy – Every company has at least three key constituencies: its customers (and prospects), its employees and its shareholders or partners. The people who populate these groups are, of course, interested in your business (the products you make and services you offer), but as a group they have other needs, interests and issues. You and your company are in a position to advocate for one or more of these groups by devoting time and resources to helping overcome common challenges faced by these groups.

For example, in the wealth management industry, it’s pretty safe to assume that people are interested in growing and preserving wealth. Advocating for this group can be achieved by supporting programs that promote strategies for reducing expenses or improving financial literacy.

For employees, advocacy may be wellness programs or retirement counseling.

For shareholders and partners, advocacy may come in the form of activism (below). What’s important here is the idea that you and your company care about something not because it has an immediate impact on the top line, but because it is important to the people you care about.

Activism – The interests of our persons, companies, communities and customers are affected (sometimes deeply) by government policies. We’re blessed to do business in a democratic republic. As citizens, we have a responsibility to understand and act upon policies that threaten to harm our ability to operate profitably, and to advocate for our customers (see above) when their interests are threatened. Through direct participation in the legislative process, and your influence among constituents, your positions can make a profound impact on your reputation and solve real world problems.

Philanthropy – Sometimes referred to as simply Corporate Giving, or more broadly Ethical Corporate Social Responsibility, how you give can have a huge impact on the way your firm is perceived. Large companies often have foundations with professional staffs, endowments and missions to guide their operations, but even small companies can be strategic about giving, both to make a difference and to accrue reputational benefits. I recommend having a formal giving policy that reflects your individual or collective values, and exploring methods to engage employees or customers in the effort. This is another very big topic I will address in a future post.

 

Which company’s extracurricular activities are you most aware of? How do you feel about the company as a result? Are there companies who you believe should do more?

 

 

 

 

 

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Clubs, Cliques & Community – Companies are known by the company they keep

The concept I am exploring with this week’s unusually ambitious schedule of daily postings is this: Just as the beginning of each new school year gives students the chance to, in effect, reinvent themselves – this annual season of self evaluation and self improvement can also apply to businesses and their brands.

A lot of the preparation for a new school year is naturally very deliberate. What you’ll wear, for instance, and the supplies you’ll buy. But another very powerful influence on our school experience may be given decidedly less thought. Our connections, the people we gather with, love, emulate, admire, and maybe even fear. As much as anything (probably more) the world (our customers, employers and employees) makes decisions about us based on the people and groups we surround ourselves with and the way we treat – and are treated by – those groups.

Flamingos gifThink about it. In school, were you a jock? A nerd? A stoner? A Goth? Were you popular or excluded? As individuals, of course, where we’re accepted is often subject to circumstances and biases outside our control. Even so, by deliberately changing the groups where we lead, follow or just hang out, we can change the way we’re perceived and treated.

For businesses and their brands, I think this concept of affiliation demands a more conscious conversation about your company’s relationship with each of the following four essential groups:

Your employees – Employee engagement gets a lot of attention these days, and it should. Employees who believe in your company and its mission can do more to promote excellence and innovation if they feel safe and appreciated. Empowered with your firm’s vision, they can act as brand ambassadors, recruiters and salespeople. An engaged workforce is more productive, less susceptible to turnover and generates more revenue and earnings. Of course, really engaging your workforce means a lot more than just memorizing names and sending birthday cards. It calls for a disciplined, multifaceted approach to management and sets high expectations for leaders from the CEO down. An interesting study about this topic was published by the Harvard Business Review this summer and can be read at   http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/07/your-bosss-work-life-balance-matters-as-much-as-your-own/

Your competitors – You probably already monitor your competition for their products and pricing. You check their adverting, social media and media coverage. When you’re honest with yourself, though, you may have to admit that there isn’t much of a difference between you and them. If that’s the case, then I challenge you to think bigger and with more determination. Think about companies outside your industry that are doing exciting things to differentiate and grow their businesses. Make a decision to be different, better in a way that matters to your customers. Then, make the hard choices and do the work so that difference is real, not just hype.

Your existing customers – In school, these were your best friends. People who were with you through thick and thin. They had your back and you had theirs. You cared about what they thought and went out of your way to help them out. In business, existing customers are gold. You owe it to them to make their experience with your company as rewarding and personal as your resources will permit. Today, that means personalization and segmentation, communicating in a way that acknowledges customers’ individuality. It means honoring your best customers with membership on advisory boards and in loyalty programs. A retained customer is your cheapest source of revenue and your best advocate. Engage your entire company in the business of making clients’ experiences a success.

Your desired customers – Earlier, I mentioned that by consciously changing the groups a student chooses, she can change the way she is perceived. In other words, change her “brand”. Your company can do the same. As you conduct your business analysis and strategic planning, ask yourself if there is a segment of the market that you should have a bigger share of. If so, what has prevented you from seizing that share? What changes do you need to make to compete successfully for this business? Whether it’s people, technology or infrastructure (yesterday’s post), are your investments likely to generate an attractive return? If, on the other hand, you are already in your sweet spot customer-wise, this is a great time to review and refine your marketing and sales/ business development function. Technology is making changes to this discipline at a dizzying pace. You can’t afford to fall behind.

By consciously and deliberately addressing the needs and expectations of each of these groups, your company will enjoy the good will of all and the many reputational and financial benefits that come with it.

Have you ever worked for a company that did an exceptionally good job of considering and serving any of the groups mentioned above?  

 

 

Great New Stuff: The Gear You Need for Your Brand’s Back-to-School

Back to school season has always been a time for checking out the newest, coolest stuff. Stuff to take notes, do homework, complete lab work, conduct research, compose presentations and papers, solve problems, communicate and recreate.

supplies

When I was a student (at school anyway. I’d like to think of myself as a lifelong student), the choices were a little less exciting technologically (what I could have accomplished with an iPad!) Nevertheless, the new gear I got for every new school year got me excited about the year ahead and gave me the leg up I needed to keep pace with even the most ambitious class schedule. HP Calculators rock!

Two posts ago, I suggested that the end of summer and the resumption of a more rhythmic, structured existence is a perfect time for companies to go “back to school” themselves. Just as each new school year gives students a fresh start, companies too have an opportunity to reinvent themselves, or parts of themselves, to be more attractive and relevant to their customers and prospects.

When you have taken the time to objectively assess how your company looks and how well you are engaging your customers, as described in my post titled “Looking Good, or the Art of the First Impression”, the next step is to get the gear you’ll need to execute against the changes you have identified.

Depending on your conclusions, your shopping list could be a long one. The range of possibilities includes everything from complete rebranding along with everything that accompanies it (signage, collateral, advertising, digital) to more modest changes like frontline training to enhance the customer experience. But remember, don’t be discouraged if the list is too long. Make priorities and do what you can. Anything. Incremental improvements are better than no improvements at all.

At school, everyone needs the same supplies with some exceptions for certain specialized studies, but even then everyone in a particular specialty has the same tools. To a certain extent this also applies in business. Your best competitors are an excellent reference for the stuff you’ll need.

As you might imagine, it’s difficult to guess what any company’s back-to-school list will include, but there are a few items that I believe every firm needs to think about to remain competitive in today’s rapidly changing business landscape.

P    T    I

chicopee-office-1946

People: In business, some of the “stuff” you’ll need may also be competencies you lack and the strategic hires you need to make to enhance your capabilities or broaden services. Today, that means technologists and leadership that is skilled at inspiring and empowering a customer centered enterprise.

Technology: You don’t need me to tell you that technology touches nearly every industry and consumer. At the very least, you should update your website so you and your people can be proud about what it says about you. It must be optimized for mobile devices and have enough dynamic content to provide a worthwhile user experience and search performance. This is a huge topic I’ll be addressing in much greater depth for future blogs.

Infrastructure: I have talked a lot about making improvements and adjustments to the impressions your company makes on its customers and prospects, but of course it goes much deeper than that. The most engaging web user experience on earth will not compensate for delayed deliveries, dropped calls, shabby offices or poor service. Make sure your systems are all functioning smoothly to help you keep your promises.

What investments has your company made or does it plan to make to be more competitive and customer friendly? Which companies deliver a brand and customer experience you admire?

Looking Good, or The Art of the First Impression

macklemore-dancing-in-the-thrift-shop1Following this week’s Back to School theme, I think we have to start with wardrobe. Now, as the father of two exceptionally talented, smart and accomplished daughters, my personal experience suggests that the intricacies of image at back to school time were much more important to them than I remember them ever being with me or my friends. But, although we guys were not at all interested in our “outfits”, it’s fair to say we were very interested in having a “look” that said something about us.

It’s funny, really. How many new people does any new student see at the beginning of a new school year? Yet, each year students obsess about that all-important first impression. (Note: I am aware that this preoccupation generally lasts through high school only. Post secondary school attire seems to be designed to discourage attraction from any but the most determined.)

I think there is a lesson here and it’s pretty cool. In a very real way, and in direct contradiction to the axiom, we DO get more than one chance to make a first impression.

This applies in business and marketing too. The opportunity for students to reinvent themselves at the beginning of a new school year is there for us too. But, like students, the opportunity must be pursued strategically (what do you want the new look to say about you, and why), and deliberately.

I should elaborate here by saying that when I talk about the way a company or business “looks”, I’m really talking about all of the ways it makes an impression. The principles are the same, whether you have a great new storefront, a refreshed website or all of the many ways a client and prospect experiences your company.

Here are three practices that can help people and their practices, businesses or companies decide whether it’s time for a new look, and if so, how to use the opportunity to the greatest advantage.

bob-landry-dorothy-mcguire-gazing-into-mirror-hands-at-throat-on-staircase-in-scene-from-spiral-staircaseTake a good long look at yourself…

As part of your annual planning and budgeting discipline, ask yourself if you are looking as good as you should. How long has it been since you made a change? How do you compare to your competitors? What do business trends tell you about parts of your company that may no longer be resonating the way they once did. Try to put yourself in your customers’ and clients’ shoes and engage as many stakeholders as you can. You’ll get some great ideas from unexpected places.

Talk to your customers…

If you have the resources, you should also ask your customers what they think. Only be specific. Don’t ask “How was your experience with our Help Desk?” No one is going to give you the kind of critical feedback you really need unless they know precisely what you’re looking for. Instead, try “Our help desk has a mission to resolve client issues completely during the initial call, and within 24-hours if an immediate resolution is not possible. Did we meet these goals during your last call? Is there something more we could do to make your experience better?” You get the picture. Wherever your clients touch your company, figure out a way to ask the customer if it makes them happy. Ask. Don’t assume.

Alright already. Make the changes…

Back to my daughters… both have a very well-defined style, however any resemblance ends there. My older daughter’s self expression in clothing can best be described as thrift-and-hardware store chic. She is the only woman I have ever known who can pull off shorts and (I swear) crab boots.

My younger daughter on the other hand has high fashion sense. Throughout high school she had an uncanny eye for fabric and color that was unique, attention-getting and trend setting.

The point is, they are both true to themselves and unapologetic about expressing it. You and your business should do the same. Ask yourself who you are and what you stand for. Then make sure your identity is authentically expressed by the way you “look”.

As an individual or business leader, have you ever made a big change in the way you looked? What was the result? What lessons would you share?

 

 

Back to School Time…For Your Brand

school-profit-47Among the transitions we experience each year, the end of summer seems to me to be the most pronounced. It makes sense, really. Since we were kids, the end of summer and the beginning of school has signaled a new beginning, or at least a chance at one.

I remember going to the store with my mom and little sister and actually being excited about three-ring binders, college-ruled paper, no. 2 pencils and a package of ball point pens, all of which were completely free of teeth marks (however briefly).

I labored over the design and color of folders and tried to decide which NFL team had won my inestimably valuable endorsement for the coming season (in Montana there are no local teams, so allegiances were either inherited or up for grabs).

We worked out who would be walking with who, where we would meet after school. Even made plans for the games and dances we knew school would usher in. Setting the right tone and making the right impressions were critical.

It was a time when we could resolve to repeat our successes, to be better at the things we did well; and to apply the lessons learned from past failures to rise above or minimize our inadequacies.

Honestly, compared to the critical life decisions we made in early September, New Year’s resolutions seemed pale.

This is true today too and just as applicable in business. As the distractions of summer once again give way to the earnest pursuit of our plans, there is no better time than right now to size up your company, your performance and your brand.

I’ll be posting every day this week, focusing each day on an activity that aligns with Back-to-School season:

  • Defining and achieving your look – The style that reflects your firm inside and out
  • Supplies and materials – Do you have the people and systems you’ll need?
  • Clubs, cliques and communities – We’re known by the company we keep. How does that play in to your business strategies?
  • After school & extracurricular – The best lessons are often learned outside the classroom, or the boardroom. How do you institutionalize innovation?

What are your most vivid recollections of back to school? How could this annual “season of reinvention” be valuable to you or your company today?

 

Turn Employees into Brand Ambassadors

 

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I’m a marketer, yes, but I am also hung up on the client experience. I guess I have always been obsessed with walking the talk. You know… meaning what you say. Saying what you mean. Being truthful. Being open.

Fortunately, it turns out that markets reward these behaviors in the form of more, and more loyal, customers. So, for example, when I am working on a campaign strategy to introduce a new product, I really care about the performance of that product. After all, my (company’s) word is my (company’s) bond. There is a lot at stake.

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s not just about the product or service. It’s about the infrastructure and the people that deliver and support it. Think about it. Whether you are dining out, buying a car, choosing a financial advisor…you name it, your experience extends well beyond what you bought. In my book, people are the key.

Well-intentioned, well-trained people make so-so products good and great products even better. By paying attention to the three principles below, companies can enhance the probability of success while preserving and polishing the brand.

 

Make sure everyone in your organization knows she or he is in the customer service business.

It doesn’t matter if they are customer facing. Everyone is involved in activities built around one thing – delivering something customers want and keeping them happy with it. In this kind of environment, “that’s not my job” is heresy. Everyone owns the success of the customer’s experience.

Give Power to the People

Your company’s mission, vision and values should be forefront in your employee orientations. They should be reiterated and demonstrated frequently by all levels of management. When behavior doesn’t align with the company’s values, everyone should feel safe pointing it out using forums you provide and publicize. Don’t just tell your employees what. Tell them why. Share success. Analyze failure. Truly be all in it, together.

Praise with Purpose

It turns out there is a lot of science around praise and recognition. To optimize the effect, the experts say, you need to be precise with the praise. Instead of simply saying “good job”, you can promote right behavior by saying “Thanks, Rachel and Dan, because you stayed late to finish the clients’ paperwork, they were able to complete the transaction on schedule. I know the clients were happy, and we are grateful for your teamwork and initiative.” Be specific.

Celebrate Strategically

Company events and honors are a great way to energize and inform your people. As with praise, use the occasion to specifically describe the qualities, attitudes, behaviors and outcomes you want to promote. Make it crystal clear what the company cares most about and be sure it aligns perfectly with your values. If that’s not the case, then you have a lot more work to do.

It’s a big topic, but by consciously including your entire workforce in the customer service business and celebrating excellence you are building an army of brand ambassadors. Imagine the impact that will have on your business.

Where are you most impressed with the treatment you receive as a customer? How has poor service affected your impression of an otherwise good brand?

 

Inside Out – Building Better Brands

“Brand” is an often misunderstood and increasingly prominent concept in conversations surrounding companies (this post’s topic) and people (a later topic). We are all encouraged to

  • Develop our brand
  • Be “on-brand”
  • Keep our brand promise
  • Work diligently to “build and defend brand equity”.

It’s important to know what these concepts mean and take practical steps to help make sure that you and your company are deliberately and thoughtfully “branding”.

To begin with…whether you know it or not, your business has a brand.

brand inside out image

Here’s a test…

Ask the person nearest you to name a person or company (store, restaurant, etc.) that she knows you know. When you hear the name, what’s the first thing you feel?

That’s right…feel.

Even before you consciously process your overall experience or impression of the company, there is an initial response that is either yes, no (maybe hell no) or “meh”.

From then on, everything about your relationship or experience with that company has been colored by this initial impulse.

How people who know your company feel about your company is the essence of your brand. Everything you do and everything you say – from the first impression to every interaction that follows – either supports or refutes the initial impression, the feeling a person holds for your company.

Think about some brands you know: Nike, JP Morgan, Disney, Charles Schwab, Apple, Google, Goldman Sachs, Samsung.

For most of us, these companies strike us as being good, maybe even great. They may not be universally loved (some far from it), but millions of us transact business with these companies because we expect to be happy with the experience and the outcome.

Before any of us interacted with these companies, we already had a preliminary impression about them. What’s particularly fascinating about these preliminary impressions is that a lot of them were not created with any direct input from the company.

Sure, we are all exposed to the brilliant marketing each of these companies conducts. But just as important, our feelings have probably been heavily influenced by our community and the experiences of people whose style, status or behavior we admire. This is especially true today when social media makes it so easy to share our feelings about the companies whose products and services we use.

Because brand is essentially the feeling or regard that people have for our companies, and because this feeling is informed by influences we can’t control directly, I contend that the best brands are an honest reflection of a company’s character at its very core.

The significance of this phenomenon is hard to overstate. In this light, your brand means a lot more than how cool and memorable your logo is, or how clever your ad and social media copy is. It means that principles, mission and execution matter.

It demands purposeful attention to your values and motives and a deliberate, consistent style that reflects your love for your customers. For companies, it means quite simply that “substance rules”, a topic I’ll be addressing in future posts.

Think again about the great brands mentioned above or the company your neighbor named. If you had a good feeling about the brand, it’s probably because the initial impression the company made was positive. That’s because they have legions of customers whose experiences have been shared or are easy to see (how many iPhones are within your field of view right now? how many impressive global deals has Goldman done?). This is all possible because these companies approach branding from the inside, the core that drives strategy, policies, behavior and ultimately the customer experience.

Now back to the test at the top of this post – only this time with your company as the subject of the question…”What’s the first thing you think of when you hear (my company)”. This is a question executives and marketers must continually ask themselves and especially their customers.

By working to know and positively affect how the people you care about feel about your company, you’ll get the direction you need to keep your company relevant and growing.

In my next post, I’ll elaborate on ways to sustain a positive brand image as well as strategies and best practices for rescuing a struggling brand.

Let me know what you think about companies whose brand you love or hate. What brands do you admire? Why? How did they win your trust? How do they keep it?

Killer Events Rock!

Events are a common part of most companies’ marketing and communications mix, but how often can any of us say that an event we planned or attended was anything more than ordinary? Sure, it may have been good, maybe even great. But did the event surprise and delight the people attending? If you’re one of the fortunate few who has hosted or attended a killer event, good for you. Now tell me… how exactly did the firm hosting the event benefit?

Right off the bat, events are expensive. Whether you’re paying for transportation and lodging or just presentations, some meals and a few social or networking gatherings, you will be spending a lot of money. You need to know how that investment has performed. With careful planning and a deliberate focus on your audience, you can establish benchmarks for success that justify the expense and set the stage for consistently superior performance.

tugofwar

There are a lot of good reasons for hosting events…

Internal events for employees only:
• Good news about acquisitions, business results
• Bad news of any kind affecting multiple employees
• Company Honors/ Employee recognition
• Seasonal/holidays
• Policy change announcements
• Leadership changes

External events – for clients, prospects, friends & neighbors:
• Introduce new leaders or client facing associates
• Introduce and educate about new products or services
• Entertain and engage (should always apply to the above)
• Attract referrals
• Thank vendors and friends
• Build community and share best practices with fellow professionals, centers of influence and friendly competitors

All of these occasions present the event planner with an opportunity to build affinity and engagement with the event’s guests. If the attendee is an employee, success can be measured by employee retention, recruitment referral rates and their willingness to act as an ambassador for the firm. If a client or a prospect; then in assets gained, accounts opened, referrals and (again) ambassadorship. Here are five tips for making your event all it ought to be…

Honor the brand
If a senior exec will not be actively engaged in planning the event, use or hire an experienced event planner with a personal style that reflects the company’s brand and sensibility. Even if you have decided on an event that will be a little out of the box, the person who is making choices and directing providers will need to see the world the same way your company and its leaders do.

Really know your audience
Depending on your guests’ relationship with the firm, understand why they are there. Put yourself in their shoes and talk about ways to provide an experience that they might choose for themselves, whether it’s entertainment, education (a wine tasting or cooking class), or has a decidedly corporate agenda, look for ways to make your audience happier or smarter.

Don’t assume expensive means excellent
In season one of NetFlix’ excellent House of Cards, a formal fundraising dinner hosted by Claire (protagonist Frank’s wife) is unexpectedly displaced, pushing the elite audience of Washington dignitaries to an outdoor venue with last-minute catering provided by Frank’s favorite barbecue rib joint. The event is a smash. Of course, surprise was the key in this scenario. Whenever you can, look for ways to surprise your guests and don’t assume another expensive meal and open bar will do the trick.

Make your event providers your partners
Throughout my career, I have gone out of my way to know and connect with the people who will be bringing my event to life. It doesn’t matter how meticulously I have planned if the execution is flawed. Get to know the names and responsibilities of everyone who will affect your guests’ experience. Make sure they know you and give them the information they will need so you’re all in it together to knock your guests’ socks off.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Understanding that you have set expectations for the event (new assets, better employee engagement) all the event’s programming and presentations need to serve that objective. I recommend establishing a theme for the event that leadership and speakers understand and embrace. They should then organize their comments and visuals around that theme and make sure all presentations are polished and transitions are seamless. At this stage, you’ll be glad your “partners”, the Audio-Visual technicians, are standing by to make sure technology is not the problem it often seems to be.

Follow these tips and your next event will be the best you have ever hosted. More importantly, you’ll have more than anecdotal information to help measure the effectiveness of the event. With this in hand, you can confidently commence with the process of making each subsequent event better than the last.