Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dennis, They're Trying to Kill Our Airline!

In the 90s, my colleagues and I had the pleasure of working with Dennis Nourse, who was then CEO and principal owner of Kelch Corporation. Kelch was a contract injection molder that primarily manufactured fuel tanks, caps, gauges and other plastic components for leading Lawn & Garden industry OEMs like Briggs & Stratton and John Deere.

Nourse believed that building a strong, clearly differentiated brand was an important part of increasing the value of his enterprise. So he enlisted our company to position Kelch’s brand in a way that captured the essence of what made the company special. He also wasn't afraid to invest in communicating that essence at every opportunity to all audiences, internal and external.

An Unparalleled Experience
A frequent business traveler, Nourse was an enthusiastic customer of a newer airline called Midwest Express. Back then, Midwest Express was a small, regional carrier attempting to gain share by offering direct flights from Milwaukee to a host of cities across the U.S.

The real story was what Midwest did to create an unparalleled customer experience. First-class seating at coach prices. Gourmet food. Free, hot chocolate chip cookies on every flight. And flight crews who actually seemed to enjoy their jobs. Over the years, these attributes have been support points for a masterful brand campaign featuring the tag line “The best care in the air.”

Once, Nourse had to cut a meeting short to catch the first leg in what sounded like a hellish itinerary. When I said as much, he replied “it’s okay—I’m on Midwest Express. And every time I know I’m going to fly that airline, I’m in a great mood about having to travel.”

Please Don't Go!
All of this is a long introduction to a story that’s been playing out in Milwaukee for the last month. People in our city know full well that our hometown airline—now called simply Midwest Airlines—is facing the threat of a hostile takeover from the airline formerly known as Value Jet (sorry...couldn’t resist that one).

I’ve flown AirTran a fair amount. And as the recently departed Lloyd Bentsen might have said, it’s no Midwest Airlines.

As a business traveler, I’m painfully aware of what I’ll lose if AirTran gobbles up Midwest. As a marketing professional, I’m clear that Midwest has done an exemplary job of building a brand. Indeed, Midwest’s focus on its brand has been instrumental in not only helping the airline survive tough times, but in allowing it to command a premium from suitors like AirTran. For proof, see Rich Rovito’s recent piece in The Business Journal, Steve Jagler's guest article at or the glowing references to Midwest's branding efforts in books like Differentiate or Die by branding legend Jack Trout.

In 1999, Dennis Nourse sold Kelch. A few years later, he moved his family to the California desert. Word has it he’s having a ball in his latest pursuits. I have Dennis to thank for some of the most important and enduring lessons I’ve learned in business—not to mention the chance to have a hell of a lot of fun along the way.

So I can’t help but think of Dennis as I think about the prospects of losing the airline that’s somehow managed to make business travel not only tolerable, but actually enjoyable.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Before You Bash B2B...

I know, I know: in the wrong hands, business to business marketing can be about as stimulating as...well, name something that's not at all stimulating. But lest we lose hope in the face of yet another B2B company positioning itself as a "solutions provider," it's heartening to ponder some of the more vapid marketing campaigns and product ideas from our brethern on the consumer side.

No doubt some of these gems have made the cash registers sing like Pavarotti. But that doesn't them hurt any less. To wit:

1) Airborne Cold Remedy - The campaign for this miracle drug was impossible to miss a couple years ago—and impossible to fathom. Tell me again why it's a good thing that this product was invented by a 2nd grade teacher? I know my family doctor—and for that matter, my cardiologist, proctologist and dentist, too—won't prescribe any drug that didn't come to life in Mrs. Crabtree's R&D lab. Who needs Merck and Pfizer anyway?

2) NASCAR Cologne - Mmmm, smell the vapor lock. What woman can resist a man who smells like he's been in a fireproof jumpsuit for two hours in 120 degree heat? So what's next? NASCAR tomatoes? Wait...they already have that. My bad.

3) Kiss Wine - Before you can rock n roll all nite, you must party every day. And nothing gets the party started like something from the casks of America's premier greasepaint-wearing vintners. Wine Spectator gives Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter a 90 for their pyrotechnics and platform shoes, but a mere 34 for their Pinot Grigio. Don't despair, though: the bottle features the image of their classic 1976 LP Destroyer. Hard core stoners will want to check out the Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon wine, while those still feeling randy in the 47-65 demo can sample a glass of Rolling Stones or Madonna.

4) Ask Lesko - It was bad enough having to watch the commercials. Imagine my horror at finding out he's a fellow alum of Marquette University. My personal issues aside, which is worse: the fact that apparently, zillions of government dollars are sitting there waiting for the taking? Or the fact that someone's making a living by publishing a treasure map to take you to the loot? Then again, given Lesko's slobbering enthusiasm, I might just go for the French chef certification, the PhD and the G.E.D!

5) Snuggle Bear - Admittedly, I was never the target audience for this one. And Unilever's no doubt been too busy laughing all the way to the bank the last 20+ years to give a rip what I think.

6) Earl Scheib - Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons meets Mickey the trainer from the Rocky movies. If this sounds to you like a formula for TV spot gold, head immediately to the front of your advertising class! If you didn't know any better, you would have thought Earl was just another local businessman who decided he wanted to be a local TV star, too. Gravelly voice. Frightening, manic demeanor. And a buzzcut like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. But this was no podunk pitchman: Earl Scheib was nationwide, baby! He would paint any car for $99.95 and then $109.95 and then $139.95 and so on, as time passed.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Yikes! I’ve Been WOMM’ed (or Have I)?

Yes, even executives of marketing firms can be the unsuspecting “victims” of novel marketing communication initiatives.

If you Google “word of mouth marketing”, you’ll get almost 1.3 million items selected. I was surprised to find out that there actually is a Word of Mouth Marketing professional trade association that I can join called WOMMA, that there are numerous articles being written about this "powerful" tactic (including the Washington Post), and that I can start practicing it tomorrow after I learn about the “five easy steps” of this practice, thanks to the article posted at

Maybe its me, or the combination of too many years and too little non-gray hair left on my head, but my skeptical-brain alarm always starts beeping whenever I am advised about something that someone claims is so revolutionary that over one million “Google hits” already exist about the concept. It’s probably a little of both.

In situations like these, I like to do a little more research and reflecting.

First, what actually is “word of mouth marketing”? When I went to Wikipedia, I found that on Monday, December 18, 2006, at approximately 3:30 PM CST, the "definition of word of mouth, aka Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM)” is:

the passing of information by verbal means, especially recommendations, but also general information, in an informal, person-to-person manner, rather than by mass media advertising, organized publication, or traditional marketing. Word of mouth is typically considered a spoken communication, although web dialogue, such as blogs, message boards and emails are often now included in the definition.

There is some overlap in meaning between word of mouth and the following: rumour, gossip, innuendo, and hearsay; however the negative connotations of these words are not included in the meaning of word of mouth.

Hmmmm, very interesting!

I work for a professional services firm, and we have several professional services firms as clients. Professional services organizations are notorious for leveraging the recognition of the high quality of their services and their people into their networking efforts, thereby increasing their capacity to obtain referrals for new clients from others who are already impressed with/satisfied by the services provided by their firms. This has been a standard marketing practice for these types of firms for decades.

Back in the early 1990’s, when “Total Quality Management (TQM)” was all the rage, I remember being advised that satisfied clients, on average, tell four others that they are satisfied, dissatisfied clients, on average, tell seven others that they are dissatisfied, and clients who are dissatisfied, but who have their problems resolved by you in a proactive manner, speak your virtues to, on average, nine others. Moral of the statistics: create a way for your satisfied clients to acknowledge their satisfaction, proactively identify which of your clients are dissatisfied, find out why they're dissatisfied, and fix it quickly.

Eighteen months ago, I began looking for an organization that could help me be a better CEO of a company. A mentor of mine referred me to an organization called TEC - The Executive Committee. I met with one of their chairs, sat in on one of their meetings, and spoke with another business leader (and TEC member) whose opinion I respect. The end result was I immediately joined a TEC group; I highly recommend TEC to whoever is reading this posting (hopefully more than four people!).

It now appears to me that there is the distinct possibility that WOMM is actually the early-21st century version of TQMM (Total Quality Marketing Management), with a pinch of referral-based marketing thrown in. On the other hand, I just might be the early-21st century incarnation of the former leader of the United States Patent Office who, in the late-1800’s, recommended that that organization be disbanded because anything that could be invented had been invented already.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Babes in B2B Land

Last month, a colleague of mine returned from an industrial show in the Midwest and reported seeing ample evidence that the “booth babe” concept is alive and well. For at least one exhibitor at this show, the acronym "B2B" clearly meant bikini-to-business.

Alas, this circa 1962 approach to marketing isn’t just a phenomenon of trade shows. Some B2B print advertisers still find the lure of hot babeage impossible to resist. Consider the following ads, all plucked from recent issues of trade publications.

Do ads like these work? A few of the ads shown here have been running for a while. So my guess is, they must do a fair job of generating leads, or the advertisers would pull them and do something else. The middle ad featuring the Heather Locklear-lookalike scored highest in the latest readership survey for one book in which it ran.

But if you owned one of these companies, or worked there, would you be proud to show these ads to someone you know? I know I wouldn’t.

More important, I have a hard time imagining a top executive or engineer seeing one of these ads and thinking, “now THAT’s the kind of company I want to work for!” With recruitment and retention of top people quickly becoming priority 1 for growing businesses, the last thing you need is for prospective employees to get the wrong message about your company.

The good news is, this dinosaur may finally be nearing extinction. Before posting this, I thumbed through dozens of B2B print publications in a variety of industries and found only a handful of similar bimbo eruptions. And that includes publications in industries that would probably be considered the usual suspects for the hot babes in print approach: trucking, construction, maintenance, etc.

And therein lies the quandary: stopping power is fundamental to effective print advertising. So the relative absence of hot babes in a B2B book admittedly creates an opening for an advertiser to use Baywatchesque imagery to get the reader’s attention—more so, say, than would be the case in Maxim or GQ or some other vehicle where titillating ads are SOP.

But does stopping power always trump other business concerns? If you’re National Lampoon and it’s 1973, stopping power has you laughing all the way to the bank.

If you’re a B2B company in 2007, my hope is, you'll choose a more dignified path to print advertising ROI.

Friday, December 8, 2006

B2B Branding Gets All Scholarly Journal-like

Just read something frighteningly close to how me and my firm think about nearly every facet of business-to-business branding. And I must admit, I'm torn between the ecstasy of someone else validating our thinking via a case study in a top scholarly journal, and the agony of thinking "damn, why didn't we write and submit a paper like this sooner?"

Professional envy aside, I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in B2B branding to read Ariel Goldfarb's bang-up article in the just-out Journal of Intergrated Marketing Communications (from Northwestern's Medill School). In "Making Brand Happen: Branding in the B2B Marketplace," Goldfarb does a nice job articulating a number of the market drivers, fundamentals and foibles of B2B branding. He also provides a host of do's and don'ts that my experience tells me are right on the money.

While the case study is long on summary and less so on details (perhaps due to the proprietary nature of the client's information), the piece still packs a wealth of insights into a mere 5+ pages.

Tasty nuggets abound. There's this one, which flies in the face of those who believe that the only legitimate function of a marketing department is to promote product:

Commoditization is forcing companies to shift their value propositions and basis for competitive differentiation away from product towawrd other aspects of the brand-customer relationship such as support, partnership, process, trust and alignment of values.

As for the role of employees in B2B branding:

Because of the degree of interaction between customers and different employees in B2B firms, successful implementation of a brand strategy will rely heavily on aligning individuals' behaviors, which is much more difficult than, say, chaning a logo.

And then there's this beauty on the importance of saying "no":

In a sales-driven culture that is common to many B2B categories, sometimes the hardest thing to do is say no. Companies build strong brands by focusing on a set of customer needs that they can serve better than anyone else. Customer segmentation, target audience definition, and customer filtering and measurement processes improve marketing efficiencies and effectiveness by focusing business development efforts on high-value opportunities and avoiding opportunistic behavior.

Good stuff, available for free via PDF download at JIMC's web site.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Wilson, Carroll and Other New Members of My Spamily

Someone allegedly named Wilson Becker, with an email ID of PattoniSalvatoreketchup, sent me a nice note the other day (FW: Hi!). The opening line:

“When he saw us, he started to cry,” he said, and finally added: “He kept calling me David.”

Mr. Becker/ketchup’s salvo was intriguing. And so was the email I got that same day from “Carroll Floyd”—email ID GuerreroABryantflatulent. Her prose had something to do with a “child’s drawing of rock walls.”

I didn’t know either of these people, so I ultimately determined that the messages were spam. But can somebody tell me: What’s the deal with spam these days?

Used to be all the spam I got had a pretty clear-cut purpose. They’d try to sell me porn or cheap loans, and they’d let me know right in the subject line with a series of big XXXs and whatnot. Or sometimes someone of Nigerian royal lineage needed my help ...

But now, much of the spam—or rather, “unsolicited commercial email” (UCEs) —is meandering and nonsensical. I understand that today’s audiences are savvy and cynical, and one has to approach them surreptitiously. But a bunch of words strung together in a crazy rant, followed by NO CALL TO ACTION?

I don’t see the point. But maybe that is the point—to confuse. Turns out there are these gangs out there hijacking everyone’s computers (note to Wilson and Carroll: run Norton now!) and using them to send out spam. The messages tend to get by spam filters because the sender addresses are often legit. The e-thugs get the addresses for free, so they can afford to send as many emails as they wish. One hit in a million equals success.

In further trickery, the spam gangs are imbedding their scammy pitches about weight-loss pills or knockoff watches in image files attached to the emails, where the red-flag words are harder for filters to find. On a second glance, I realized that Wilson and Carroll had attached images to their messages, as well. But I never opened the pictures to find out more (a small victory over the spam syndicate).

With UCEs back, big time, people everywhere are treating just about every email they get with great suspicion. That’s why, for those of us trying to engage in legitimate email marketing, it’s best to be on the level: Build databases of people who are actually interested in what you have to offer and be clear when you’re contacting them about who you are and what it is you’re offering.

Otherwise, they’ll send your more earnest marketing email to the spam folder just the same.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

What's Next - Strong Brands Can Raise Your "Good" Cholesterol Levels?

An article in the Tuesday, November 28, 2006 edition of the Wall Street Journal titled "This Is Your Brain on a Strong Brand: MRI's Show Even Insurers Can Excite" caught my attention. The subject of the article was a presentation at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America.

It seems that a study performed at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich indicates that there is a possibility that strong brands trigger strong activity in the portions of the human brain associated with "positive emotions, self-identification, and rewards." Now, before we all get excited that this provides biological grounding for business-to-business companies to jump on the branding bandwagon, there are several subsidiary, notable points:
  1. The population of study participants was very small - only 20 people;
  2. Only two brand categories were tested - automobiles and insurance; and
  3. The study did not indicate that the stimuli activated the decision-making part of the brain.

The use of brands has been part of the consumer/retail marketing communication toolbox for decades. Past postings in this blog have commented on the migration of branding into the business-to-business marketplace, as well as the impact branding can have on growth in not only revenue but also enterprise value. What I found intriguing about this article, and the underlying medical research, is the use of scientific methodlogies to attempt to explain a domain of business that, until now, seemed to always show up as "soft" and "existential" in my conversations with CEO's and mid-market business leaders.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chinese Manufacturing: Same Wounds, New Salt

You can’t be in manufacturing in the U.S. today without having a China strategy. That goes for companies of all sizes: from the largest multinationals to the smallest contract suppliers. There's no shortage of variations on the “China strategy” theme. Some establish alliances with Chinese manufacturers. Others maintain relationships with Chinese-based manufacturers or agents. The bigger players set up their own operations there. The common thread? Every domestic manufacturer we’ve come across in the last decade has been adversely impacted by price-based competition from China. The smart ones long ago began inventing ways to remake their businesses to stay competitive.

Anyone with an interest in the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut must read the cover story in the November 27th issue of Business Week: “Secrets, Lies and Sweatshops: How Chinese suppliers hide the truth from U.S. companies."

While the article is hardly surprising—it confirms what U.S. manufacturers and other observers have been saying for years about exactly how China is able to keep its labor costs so low—it does offer new anecdotal and numerical data on Chinese labor practices. One example:

Based on Chinese government figures, the average manufacturing wage in China is $.64 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and demographer Judith Banister of Javelin Investments, a consulting firm in Beijing. That rate assumes a 40-hour work week. In fact, 60- to 100-hour weeks are common in China, meaning that the real manufacturing wage is far less. Based on his own calculations from plant inspections, the veteran compliance manager estimates that employees at garment, electronics, and other export factories typically work more than 80 hours a week and make only $.42 an hour.

From a marketing standpoint, it’s intriguing to consider how findings like this could give new weight to “buy American” campaigns in the domestic B-to-B sector.

But as American consumers, we do love our dirt-cheap household goods and the big box retailers that sell them. With supply chains organized around feeding the insatiable appetites of consumers here and overseas, few U.S. purchasers have the financial power to pay more for American-made products and components. In this climate, it's more critical than ever for U.S. manufacturers to have a compelling story about why they merit a premium price.

Hmmmm....sounds to me like a strong case for building a strong B-to-B brand.

Friday, November 24, 2006

More on Corporate Blogging, B to B Style (or not)

Interesting piece in B-to-B magazine on the rise of internal blogging in major corporations. The numbers quoted by author Paul Gillin are telling. According to Gillin, IBM has "more than 300 internal blogs," while about 100 Procter & Gamble employees are actively blogging inside the firewall. Gillin advises B to B marketers to "pay attention to this trend" because of the role internal blogs can play in helping companies efficiently build internal communications and knowledge centers.

The real rub may be how long it will take B to B companies to finally embrace corporate-sponsored, public blogging. To be fair, this isn't another slam-dunk case of B to B lagging heinously behind consumer-focused companies. It's not as if there's universal acceptance of the concept on the consumer side either, as Information Week noted last month.

My read is that the more a consumer company or product impacts people's "lifestyles," the more sense it makes to use corporate blogging to build relationships with the audience. Think Vespa, which hosts blogs written by evangelical owners on its own web site, or Tivo, which has staffers write and moderate a corporate blog aimed at current and prospective users.

Both of these products have inspired fanaticism among their owners. Corporate blogging lets a company tap into that reserve of good will, and thereby further deepen its relationship with the consumer. A pretty sound business case for blogging, I'd say.

Most B to B companies simply don't create similar levels of devotion. As such, blogging in B to B is much more about sharing knowledge than revelling in warm feelings about the experience of X product or Y company. In the tech sector, corporate blogs present a low-cost, high-value method of exchanging knowledge with the company's user base. B to B tech companies like Sun Microsystems blog like their lives depend on it. (Go here to see the directory of Sun's public-facing employee blogs.)

Mega-corp Honeywell sponsors employee-written blogs that support the company's recruitment objectives. Three employees in disparate roles post entries aimed at helping recruits "gain a deeper level of understanding to the culture, people, work and environment of Honeywell" (Honeywell's grammar, not mine!).

On the whole, though, most B to B companies continue to watch from a safe distance. There's wisdom in that prudence, as I've noted before. But sitting on the sidelines until legal and others concerns dissipate isn't sound strategy. By validating or invalidating the business case for corporate blogging now, companies can gain an advantage on competitors and position themselves to reap the business benefits of blogging sooner.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Think Like A High-Profile CEO When Watching The Bottom Line

Media coverage of some of the nation’s leading CEOs recently was analyzed by Factivia, a part of Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive. GM’s Rick Wagoner received the most coverage, but more importantly the media portrayed him as a leader associated with turnaround and leadership.

For someone like me, who counsels CEOs on the value of effective communication in creating positive corporate outcomes, the study revealed much more.

  • Think about the value of a CEO’s time and what it would cost to re-communicate what’s already been said. Depending on what you read, CEOs indicate communication accounts for upwards of 40 percent of their time. Or worse, if the communication was not received accurately initially, which led to costly missteps, how would that impact the bottom line? In the case of the media, if a CEO is not communicating messages on strategy, costly misrepresentation and confusion often are the result. Employees, investors, analysts and other key stakeholders act and react to what they see or don’t see in the media.
  • Regardless of a CEO’s profile, every company leader functions in an environment covered by media who can influence perception. For those CEOs of smaller companies who believe no media coverage is good media coverage, remember this: media coverage can work to the advantage as well as the disadvantage of your company. Therefore, not engaging the media can stymie the growth of your company as much as harmful, negative coverage.
  • The higher the profile, the more a CEO pays attention to perceptions. Fortuity does not lead to consistent messaging in media coverage. Preparation for media interviews with a clear purpose in mind leads to consistent coverage and perceptions.
  • CEOs of every magnitude can learn a lot from watching the best and the brightest. Many CEOs frequently study their high-profile counterparts, but it’s my sense they don’t realize these superstar CEOs work diligently at becoming excellent communicators.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

So, You’re No Longer Who They Think You Are?

Bear with me; this posting has to do with branding, marketing, and corporate communications.

Recently, our principal owner, Mary Scheibel, attended a community meeting in Milwaukee’s inner city. The purpose of this meeting, which was organized and attended by the Mayor of Milwaukee, was to stimulate candid discussion and the interchange of ideas concerning the impact of poverty on the community. In attendance were residents, community leaders, politicians, and business executives. After a raucous open forum following a presentation by Mayor Barrett, the attendees were divided into small groups comprised of a representative sample of the attendees at large. One of the statements made by a participant in Mary’s group has started a thinking exercise for me.

This individual was a man, in his early-to-mid-thirties, and, at best, under-employed. He didn’t complain about his plight; he actually was very philosophical about it. In looking back at how he came to be in his current situation, he admits that he made mistakes. He got in trouble in many ways, and even spent some time in jail. He can see the error of and accepts the responsibility for the poor decisions that he made earlier in his life. And, he can appreciate why companies may hold this against him when he applies for jobs that, if he could get them, would provide the path to a better life for him and his family.

But, he asked a question that is at the heart of my thinking exercise – “Why can’t businesses understand that I am no longer the person who made those stupid decisions and did those bad things? I’ve grown up, matured, and am a much different human being today. Why can’t anyone give me and others like me a second chance?”

When I think about this gentleman’s situation from our profession’s perspective, I see that companies and organizations confront similar situations every day – remember Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia, Health South and Tyco? How do companies who have become notorious because of corporate missteps regain trust with and create a willingness to transact by the marketplace? How do they communicate that they are no longer the company that made those stupid decisions and did those bad things? One of the above companies—Tyco—has been working for the last several years on restoring its reputation, and has come a long way. Strategic, brand-based, and integrated corporate communications have played a critical role in this transformation. I am biased, I admit, but I can see how Scheibel Halaska is well-equipped to assist companies to solve these problems.

But, as both an employer and a human being, I still am haunted by the aforementioned man’s question. I don’t have the space to write, and you don’t have the time to read, all the thinking that this man’s question has triggered for me. Right now, I think he makes a very valid point. Maybe, just maybe, we as business people, who are confronting a skilled-labor shortage, are part of our own problem. Maybe, just maybe, we are handcuffing ourselves by dealing with a changed social and economic environment using employment philosophies and practices that were appropriate for a different time and place.

I am hoping that there are some who read this who will be willing to help me to deepen my thinking.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Gotta Keep The Half-Pipe

I admit it. I have a thing for FedEx. As a business person, I value knowing I can always trust them to keep their delivery commitments. As a guest lecturer on B to B branding to MBA students and college seniors, I appreciate having at my fingertips a slam-dunk example of B to B marketing done well.

My unnatural affection for FedEx goes back to the legendary tag line that started it all: When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight. Verbosity notwithstanding, that tag line accomplished just about everything you could want from a tag line and brand position. It demanded that all audiences think about the company and its offer in a specific way. It loudly and proudly announced the niche position (overnight delivery) FedEx sought to own. It was instantly memorable. And, it earned big bonus points by repositioning the competition. For years, it was hard to look at UPS, DHL and the rest without seeing them as somehow inadequate. Sure, they did deliveries. But FedEx's campaign pegged UPS in particular as the "3-4 days by ground" guys. At least in my mind.

It's a few tag lines later, now, and UPS has undoubtedly narrowed the communications gap with its "Brown" campaign. DHL has also made a nice comeback by finding a place to play between #'s 1 and 2.

Today, FedEx is parked on Relax, it's FedEx. As a B to B marketing geek, I continue to love the clarity of their communications. The quality of their creative product. And the fact that you don't have to be a B to B marketing geek to love their work.

Plus, you always know it's FedEx. Can you say that about most spots? How about the ones that run in the Super Bowl? Can you name the sponsor who brings us the spots with the chimps running amok in the office? (Hint: it's NOT, as so many people think, an ad for

Today, Fed Ex’s TV spots continue to slay me. They're funny as hell. There's always a clear message (lately, about improved office productivity). And like Office Space, Broadway Danny Rose, This is Spinal Tap, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom album or just about any Seinfeld episode from the middle years, you find something new and great with each subsequent viewing.

But hey, enough of my yapping. Check out the current array of FedEx spots on their web site. And while you're at it, put a push pin in China. Worky work, busy bee.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Smash Mouth Interviews: Should You Attack Journalists?

National Public Radio’s Morning Edition recently broadcast comments from President George W’s chief strategist Karl Rove and embattled Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Below you can read about the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the six-minute segment. This is a great opportunity for learning as you prepare for your next media interview.

Listen carefully. Rove attacks NPR’s Robert Siegel out of the gate. Generally a major mistake toward getting a fair shake during the interview and for ongoing reporting and relationships with the media. But, in this instance, I’d say a savvy move. Savvy from the perspective that Rove needed to ensure listeners immediately recognized Siegel did not see the same polls as Rove, thereby diminishing Siegel’s credibility and argument that Republicans are in danger of losing one or both branches of the legislature during the interim elections Nov. 7. Another reason for the distinction of savvy versus stupid: Rove is not running for re-election.

The piece then shifts to Sen. Santorum (R-PA) after a brief comment from his opponent. The Keystone State senator picks a fight with interviewer Steve Inskeep when he asks “Is that a shock to you...Is that a shock to you? I’m asking you a question.”

Not a wise move in this case. Santorum is in a close race. Some consider his senate seat the most vulnerable in the Republican stable.

Santorum did show some wisdom, however, surrounding an exchange with Inskeep on Iraq. The exchange follows.

Inskeep: “So you’re saying we need to adapt, that things are going poorly, that things are getting worse….”

Santorum: “I don’t think I said either of those words. What I see is….”

Santorum goes on to clarify his position and what he actually said versus what words Inskeep attempted to put in Santorum’s mouth. In a live broadcast interview, always clarify immediately when an interviewer paraphrases your words in a way that is out of context. The immediate response closely ties accurate information to misinformation. Immediacy also ensures your comments are part of the broadcast. Interviews end abruptly at times, leaving you without the opportunity to respond.

Taped broadcast interviews and print media interviews also require clear concise messaging and delivery to ensure you are not taken out of context. Editing plays into these interviews. When editing is involved, you won’t know what part of the interview is selected for broadcast or print as you do with a live interview broadcast in its entirety. Staying on message is crucial to all interviews, but especially when editing leaves you vulnerable to interpretation. (See my June 12 blog entry entitled “Who’s to Blame for Misquotes…You or Them?” Scroll down through the June blog archives.)

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Somewhat Shameless Reciprocal Promotion

Turns out Inside B to B Marketing was the subject of a recent post on Rick Short's B2B Marcom Blog.

Rick is a business-to-business marcom blogger we've been reading for a while. Director of marketing communications for Indium Corporation and a 22-year veteran of the marcom game, Rick provides consistently well-grounded commentary on the issues, challenges, do's and don'ts of business-to-business marketing.

As a practitioner, teacher and student of B to B marketing, I've found Rick's posts on the recent e coli crisis (bagged spinach, anyone?) to be particularly insightful. That kind of analysis is par for the course in Rick's blog, hence my repeat visits over the past half year or so.

If you're serious about B to B marketing, Rick Short's blog definitely merits a bookmark in your browser. (We've added a permanent link to Rick's blog in our menu on the right.)

So what's next? May I suggest a business-to-business practitioners' summit where we all decide, once and for all, whether it's "B to B" or "B2B?"

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Machiavelli, Fist Fights and Managing Change

Fist fights and change initiatives require similar mindsets. Whether you are right or wrong, win or lose, flying high or lying low, you will get bruised.

One of my favorite works on the dangers associated with leading change resonates from the pages of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” published nearly 500 years ago.

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,” the founding father of political science wrote, “because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Agree or disagree with his famed cut-throat, ends-justify-the-means strategies, Machiavelli understood the perils of change. Effective leaders today understand communication plays a large role in effectively managing change.

Clients of ours run into journalists with agendas, activists who bristle at anything new and others who react negatively for any number of reasons. The leading cause of failed initiatives frequently hinges on misunderstanding and, at times, intentional dissemination of misinformation by opposing parties. Preconceived notions about people, organizations and products by key stakeholders and outside observers with the power of the pen, check book and motivated, mobilized constituencies also affect rates of success.

If ever you are told it’s far too early to begin advocating on behalf of your issue, product or organization, don’t believe it. It’s never too early to plant the seeds of success.

For the most part, standing outside the ring, hoping they go away only makes it worse until all likelihood of success is lost. Get in the game. Take strategic action to bolster your position. Create a steady drumbeat of on-strategy, targeted messages. Take your lumps along the way. Focus on the prize. And, win the fight by creating a groundswell of positive buzz and accurate information.

Monday, October 23, 2006

FREE411: Will It Change the World?

Recently, when I needed the number for a place where I can get an affordably priced, high-quality men’s haircut, I recalled an interesting new service a friend had recommended, 1-800-FREE411. Call the number, tell the nice operator what you’re looking for, listen to an advertisement and BAM!–get the number. This way, you avoid handing the phone company a buck for public information. It’s a small victory, maybe, but you have to feel a little satisfied.

In my case, I heard a painless-enough message about the righteousness of a certain satellite TV provider and how evil and lame the cable companies are.

It’s a simple idea—ages old, really. A free service just for putting up with some ads? Sounds like good ol’ broadcast TV. But if FREE411 absolutely caught on, if more companies than just satellite providers bought in and they “enhanced the interface”—or whatever fancy buzz terms you’d like to attach—they just might be onto something.

Let’s say you called FREE411 looking for your local printer’s number. Suddenly, an ad for FedEx Kinko’s comes on, with a prompt to press 1 to get connected to the nearest location. You learn of a choice you might not have been aware of, and big, bad FedEx gets to muscle in on the little guy’s business!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Vince, are you saying that Free411 could pull together data learned from your location and the SIC code associated with the business you’re seeking and play an ad for a competing company, along with an offer to connect to that company FOC?”

To that, I would say two things “Yes! And what is FOC?” You would then say “Free of charge.”

With all the competition for customers’ attention these days, advertisers are struggling to find their audience. FREE411 could be a new way to target ads at the right niche audiences (similar to the way Google indexes its search queries and shows relevant sponsored ads)—potentially a win/win for customer and advertiser.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tit-for-Tat For Governor

This isn’t about politics. It’s about communications.

Nonetheless, as a public service to registered voters in the state of Wisconsin, I’ll begin by summarizing the communications to date in the current gubernatorial campaign. I trust this will be helpful to those of you planning to join me at the polls on November 7th.

  • Democratic incumbent Jim Doyle panders to Casinos and other special interest groups in Wisconsin.
  • Republican challenger Mark Green panders to big oil, Enron, W and the like.
  • Doyle’s administration traded state travel contracts for political contributions.
  • Green’s campaign transferred funds from his congressional campaign to his gubernatorial campaign, which might be illegal.
  • Doyle is running miseleading ads about Mark Green.
  • Green is running dishonest ads about Jim Doyle.
  • Doyle has created loads of jobs in Wisconsin in the last four years.
  • Doyle has cost Wisconsin loads of jobs.
  • Doyle wants to give illegal aliens welfare and subsidized home loans.
  • No he doesn’t.
  • Does too.
  • Does not.
  • Does.
  • No way.
  • Way.
  • Etc.

Kinder, Gentler, Better Communications
If you're in the U.S. and have a pulse, you no doubt recognize the name Russ Feingold. You know, the Wisconsin Senator of McCain/Feingold fame? The only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act? Straight-shooting Everyman? Flaming liberal? Pushed to censure Bush? Twice-divorced pinko straight outta Middleton? Sorry, I'll let the idealogues sort that out. This isn’t about politics. It’s about communications.

In 1992, long before Feingold ascended to his current status as political lightning rod, he was one of three candidates vying to be the Democratic challenger to Republican incumbent senator Bob Kasten.

By all accounts, Feingold didn’t have a prayer in the primary. His biggest claim to fame was that nobody outside the state capitol knew who he was. And that became the germ of an absolutely brilliant campaign.

With help from Milwaukee advertising giant Steve Eichenbaum, Feingold launched a series of TV commercials that poked fun at Feingold's obscurity. If my memory serves me correctly, one spot has Feingold holding a Weekly World News-type tabloid announcing Elvis Presley had endorsed his candidacy. Fun, funny and a breath of fresh air in an otherwise dour campaign, the spots created a groundswell that buzz marketers today would kill for. Like all great communications aimed at positioning anything—company, product, candidate, etc.—Feingold’s spots created clear, meaningful differentiation and preference in the minds of the target audience. They also made it easy for people to like him. Imagine that.

During the campaign, Feingold used his quirky TV ads to position himself as a straight-shooting, self-effacing, political outsider. People actually had some sense of who and what they were voting for. Which is more than many could say about Feingold’s opponents. In the end, Feingold won the primary and went on to unseat Kasten. He's won re-election twice since then. All of which says as much about communications as it does about politics. Maybe more.

Sadly, the current Wisconsin gubernatorial race offers nothing in the way of breakthrough communications. I have trouble fathoming how anybody who's not a political partisan could feel great about either candidate based on the nightly flurry of on-air, tit-for-tat exchanges. (Though both sides are no doubt polling furiously to chart the impact of the latest thirty-second salvo.)

In politics, as in business, you are what you communicate...and how you communicate. So in spite of my own ideological leanings, I find myself not liking either one of these guys very much.

Then again, maybe I’m not the target audience.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Is It Time for B2B to Get Wiki with It?

You’ve probably heard the term Web 2.0 lately. It’s a term that’s sweeping the nation. But what is it? Did Al Gore invent it? Do I need a password? The answer is no – chances are you already use it and didn’t even know.

“Web 2.0 has become a catch-all buzzword that people use to describe a wide range of online activities and applications,” according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s report, Riding the Waves of “Web 2.0.”

So where did Web 1.0 end and Web 2.0 begin? Some would argue that there’s really no distinction—that “marketers” use the Web 2.0 label to distance themselves from the failures of Web 1.0 companies that burst with the tech bubble.

But in some ways, “Web 2.0” represents a return to the roots of the web—as a social tool that brings people together without the weight of monolithic online institutions (think Usenet groups vs. an AOL-sponsored chat). Free and freewheeling applications that fall under Web 2.0 include MySpace, the wikis and Blogger, where social connections are the primary purpose.

Despite the hoopla, the more things change the more they stay same. Some of those clunky institutions are buying up these new applications, certain to stifle the hip, independent aura that surrounds something like facebook. Meanwhile, in the past five years, the most frequently reported internet activity by the average user on an average day is still checking email, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

So what are the implications of Web 2.0 for b2b marketers? At the very least, we can recognize the people’s preference for social activity online and play to it with tactics like hosting online forums.

I think b2b still has a ways to go with Web 2.0, and I’m pretty sure we’re not ready to start recommending to our clients that they build a MySpace page.

Check out the Pew Internet Project on Web 2.0 online.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Click Here

Just finished Business Week's provocative investigation of click fraud in online advertising. Well worth checking out, particularly if you or you company is involved in (or considering) pay-per-click on search sites like Yahoo or Google.

Those of you familiar with the Spyware "industry" will recognize some of the same mechanisms at play in the article's deconstruction of click fraud—including the involvement of sketchy, nefarious third-parties riding the system's vulnerability to big profits.

Given BW's broad audience, the piece understandably focuses on big search sites. So where does that leave B to B trade publications and portals that increasingly promote pay-per-click ad buys? My guess is, the relatively low volume of click-throughs makes it much easier to separate fraudulent clicks from "real" ones. We won't have to wait long to hear from our colleagues in business to business media: with October comes the height of planning activities for 2007 media budgets. So what say you, Mr. or Ms. Business to Business Media Rep?

Friday, October 6, 2006

Master the Fundamentals of Communication

In a world where personal time is scarce and competition for that time is intense, getting people to participate in even professional-related events and organizations can be quite a challenge.

As a member of the Association for Corporate Growth Wisconsin’s membership committee, I have been charged with the mission-critical task of retaining existing members and attracting new members. Greater participation is crucial to our organization because greater participation equals more ideas and connections.

At ACG WI, we’ve approached our search for new members the same way businesses find new customers: we’ve identified our target market and created a holistic communication plan. Our communication plan includes a brochure demonstrating the value of being a part of the ACG and post-meeting articles each month to reinforce that message on an ongoing basis.

This got me thinking about the fundamentals of communication and how, whether your concern is a professional organization, a business, a club, a church, etc., the issues are the same.

It all comes down to one issue: How clearly and consistently are you communicating with your audience? In a business or in an organization like ACG, you must regularly reinforce the reasons customers or members should continue to choose you.

If you keep in mind the fundamentals of communication when attracting new members or new customers, you will succeed.

Meanwhile, for more on ACG and how to become a member, please visit

Don’t miss ACG WI's remianing 2006-2007 line-up:

Stephen Marcus, Chairman & CEO, Marcus Corporation
Dan Broderick & Trevor D’Souza, Managing Directors, Mason Wells
Gus Ramirex, Chairman & CEO, Husco International
Jim Reinhart, Vice President, U.S. Golf Association
Lee McCollum, CFO, S.C. Johnson

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

New Data on Rise of Blogging in B to B...Kind Of

I've posted here before about the phenomenon of b to b marketing lagging behind consumer marketing in the creation and adoption of new marketing techniques. Blogging certainly fits that bill, as business-to-business enterprises have been much slower to incorporate blogs into their corporate marketing arsenals.

A recently released survey from KnowledgeStorm/Universal McCann sheds some new light on the state of blogging in the b to b space. The operative word here is some. As B to B Magazine noted in its article on the survey, the findings reflect responses from 4500+ people who use KnowledgeStorm's white paper download service. Says B to B, "KnowledgeStorm users are typically IT professionals."

Given the predisposition IT types have to blogs and other online resources, I can't help but think that the data may not be indicative of user trends in the broader business-to-business marketplace.

Having said all that, here are a few tidbits from B to B's article on the survey (I'm quoting directly from the article here):

  • 53% of respondents said blogs influence their purchase decisions
  • Of the respondents who said they read blogs daily, nearly 69% said blogs influenced their purchase behavior
  • 49.8% of respondents said they comment on or contribute to blogs at least once a month
  • 70% said they "recommend or pass along content from blogs to co-workers and colleagues" at least once a month

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Satan + President + UN = PR Crisis

That noise you hear is a Big Gulp from Citgo.

The next few days and weeks should be interesting for American employees of the Venezuelan-based petroleum giant. News broke today that 7-Eleven has cancelled Citgo's contract to provide gas at 2100 7-Eleven stores across the U.S. This, of course, comes in response to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's recent (and rather unflattering) UN remarks about W in particular and the U.S. in general.

It's a business crisis for Citgo, to be sure. But as business communications professionals, my colleagues and I will be watching closely to see how Citgo's U.S. operatives handle communications with their U.S. customers, retailers and suppliers. 7-Eleven showed the way by making a savvy, proactive PR move. Short-term, 7-Eleven's quick action may secure the mega-chain at least a stay-of-execution from American consumers. That's the PR part.

Read the coverage, though and you'll see that 7-Eleven was already seeking to private-label its gasonline; legally separating itself from Citgo sets the stage for them to solicit new providers. Meaning their PR tactic also doubles as a pretty slick business move

It's only a matter of time before patriotic fervor fuels (sorry!) a consumer boycott. Citgo's next move in the PR arena should be interesting, to say the least.

Friday, September 22, 2006

You Always Knew What To Do – Now Do It

How do you know? How DO you know?!?!

It’s decision time. You’ve heard from the people heading up the project. From the experts. From the agency. From the researchers. From others around the office.

You ran it by your wife and kids. Your old college friend who always did well in Vegas. Your mentor. Your pal from a previous job. Your dog.

You applied your usual methodic process for making decisions. Still…you’re looking for something more. What’s missing? What else can you do?

BLINK. That’s what.

Go back to the beginning. The very beginning. (No, not the book of Genesis – when you first saw the creative concepts) Remember what you thought in the first few seconds? It’s just a piece of advice that has served me well throughout my career. Incidentally, I am not the only one who has this philosophy. This is the subject of Blink—a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant - in the blink of an eye - that actually aren't as simple as they seem.

Click below for author Malcolm Gladwell’s rationale and decide for yourself if it’s worth the read….you’ll know in a blink.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mold Technology Provider Thwarts Alien Invasion

Look at any “newer” B to B marketing tactic—buzz, viral, one-to-one, etc. etc. etc.—and you’ll see the same gestation pattern. Consumer advertising incubates and validates new tactics while B to B advertisers watch and wait.

Is history repeating itself with the run-up of paid placements over the last 2-3 years? Today, companies like Apple retain specialists to secure conspicuous placements in hit shows like 24, CSI and The Office to connect with consumers. In one of the more celebrated (and questionable) product placements, HP paid a reported $200K for a subliminal placement in a Jessica Simpson video. (Lewis Black’s rant about this on The Daily Show was priceless.)

Which got me thinking about the inevitability of B to B product and service placements in entertainment media. If my co-workers and I lived in a world of gargantuan egos, bottomless budgets and a mandate to indulge both, where might some of our clients pay to play?

  • 24 - Jack Bauer chases a suspected terrorist into the boiler room of a Los Angeles hospital. Cornered, the suspect fires his Glock into a nearby boiler in an attempt to scald Jack in red hot steam. Sparks fly but the bullets fail to penetrate the boiler's outer hull. Cut to Jack flinching momentarily, then shaking his head and laughing. Cut to shaky cam closeup of the boiler's Cleaver-Brooks name plate, with tag line "The power of commitment" prominent. Plant managers, specifying engineers and end-users everywhere immediately recall what the terrorist now knows: nobody makes a better boiler than Cleaver-Brooks.
  • Madden NFL '07 - A middle aged man sits in front of his TV in horror as Tom Brady lies writhing in pain on the virtual gridiron. Madden—or is it Frank Caliendo?—says "that kind of knee injury is one of the hazards of the occupation." Suddenly, a team of medical specialists with jackets reading Sensia Health Care is on the field, attending to Brady. In seconds, Brady is back in the game. Says Madden/Caliendo, "Al, that's just further proof that the folks at Sensia go where other occupational medicine and wellness providers can't and don't. They treated Brady like no other. And they're Treating your business like no other."
  • War Of The Worlds - As alien killing machines rip through the Hudson Valley, Tom Cruise scurries into a nearly abandoned injection molding plant. Turns out Tim Robbins' creepy character is keeping the presses running, molding plastic squirt guns that can be used to shoot common cold virus at the aliens. But Cruise realizes the mold has reached the end of its life cycle. New tooling must be built—and fast. He calls D-M-E Company and uses D-M-E's QDS (Quick Delivery Specials). In days, Cruise has the mold base he needs to build replacement tooling. (Yes, somehow Cruise knows how to build plastic injection molds.) Using a 650-ton Milacron Powerline injection molding machine, Cruise and Robbins mold thousands of squirtguns. The Powerline's high efficiency power train ensures there are no hydraulic system losses—even as the aliens wreak havoc on the local power grid. Dissolve into slo-mo shot of Cruise and Robbins distributing squirtguns to humans across the northeastern U.S. Cut to Cruise in Boston, returning his kids to his ex-wife, squirt gun in holster, as Robbins looks on. Morgan Freeman's voiceover caps the scene, and the movie: "Just like D-M-E, they were there for us Every step of the way."
It wouldn't be any worse than a Jessica Simpson video, would it?

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Customer Testimonial: Does It Make You Nervous?

You might worry about the perceived hassle for your customer in the development of a testimonial or case study. Or you might be concerned about how it shifts the focus off your business.

Either way, you need to relax—because customer testimonials, when they’re done right, are mutually beneficial exercises for your customer and your company.

In BtoB, there’s always a kind of chain reaction to success. It’s about helping customers succeed—and helping them help their customers succeed. Your marketing should demonstrate both these elements in a way that also shows your company’s key points of differentiation.

That’s where a customer case study comes in. You can focus the story on the success of your customer (and of their customers), which is a win-win situation. Meanwhile, the story lends third-party credibility and powerfully validates your claims about the value you provide. And it does so much more subtly than just telling people how great you are.

As with any other marketing initiative, a case study or testimonial should play up a clear, consistent message about your company’s differentiating strengths. And you don’t have to wait for the biggest or most groundbreaking success story. You can be just as compelling—and possibly more so—by showcasing the ways you’re helping your customers win on any given day.
After all, whatever way you make your customer look good makes you look good, too.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Guerilla Graveyard?

It wasn't too long ago that guerilla marketing efforts focused on generating buzz at tradeshows had nothing but momentum. Think Bluetooth's notorious assault on the Consumer Electronics Show in which hundreds of models straight out of a Robert Palmer video swarmed the show floor.

But that was 2004. Today, we're seeing signs that trade show organizers and hosting venues are cracking down on guerilla marketing assaults on the floor.

It's no secret that organizers and hosting venues see every aspect of every event as a potential revenue stream. If they can't make a buck off something, they're loathe to allow it. And by their nature, guerilla marketing campaigns remove control over what happens on the floor from show organizers.

Which helps explain what happened as we recently prepared a client for an upcoming product launch at a large domestic trade show. I can't go into details about the client, product or guerilla tactics. Let's just say that the client is introducing a new product to U.S. media and distributors at the show. They've rented a small booth space. We came up with a campaign that involved actors walking the floor posing as something they're not (as actors are wont to do) in an effort to drive attendees to the client's booth and generate a buzz at the show.

As a courtesy to show organizers—and to protect the client—we contacted show organizers in advance to see if they'd be okay with the concept. The answer was, well, pretty clear: not a chance.

Now, since this is guerilla marketing, you'd be within reason to question why we went to the show organizers to begin with. Doesn't the politeness of this advance warning take the "guerilla" out of guerilla marketing? In the Bluetooth example cited above, the company contacted CES show organizers and got permission to move forward in advance. I know of other large companies that have taken the opposite approach, and staged guerilla/buzz stunts on the floor at industry expos without asking for permission first. These efforts produced great results and met with little or no flack from show organizers during or after the show. Safe to say, being a big, perennial exhibitor and spender can buy you forgiveness.

But smaller companies rarely have that big of a stick. Which brings us back to our client's upcoming show. The client loved our idea and agreed the buzz-generating potential was tremendous. But the client's relationships with the trade show and sponsoring organization were still in their infancy. They needed both to successfully launch their new product in the U.S. In the end, the risks outweighed the benefits—at least in Year One—and the idea was killed.

All of this raises an interesting question. Leading guerilla marketing practitioners will tell you that the real beauty of guerilla is its ability to produce big results for smaller companies with limited budgets. If that's true, is the window of opportunity closing for little guys looking to go guerilla at trade shows?

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Just in From BMA-Milwaukee: Stellar Programming Lineup

Just got a PDF of the brand new programs calendar for Business Marketing Association-Milwaukee. If you’re in Southeastern Wisconsin and serious about B to B marketing, I think you’ll find a host of events worth attending.

A few general highlights from this season’s BMA-Milwaukee lineup:

• Speakers from renowned national and international companies like Caterpillar, Harley-Davidson, Atlas Van Lines, InSinkErator and Eastman Kodak
• Afternoon seminars featuring a host of high-quality, national presenters
• A special March workshop for members on idea generation that promises to be valuable and entertaining

Congrats to BMA VP Karen Conrad of Johnson Controls and her committee for putting together such a compelling slate of programs.

More on BMA-Milwaukee—including how to become a member—is at

*Full disclosure footnote: Given my role as VP for BMA-Milwaukee, I’m definitely not a neutral third-party. But I can say with confidence that this is BMA-Milwaukee’s strongest programs roster in my 5+ years as a member.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ford's Corporate Turnaround Diary: Remarkable

Given that the home page shows Episode 10, I'm admittedly a little late to the party on this one. But Ford Motor Company's Website—Bold Moves: Documenting the Future of Fold—strikes me as nothing short of remarkable. At best, it's a watershed moment in corporate communications. At worst, it's a cynical attempt to create goodwill inside and outside the company using smart design, feigned transparency and the Web's self-propagating buzz.

My take? If all you see is corporate weaseldom, you're missing not only the big picture, but every pixel along the way.

So what's so remarkable? First, consider the premise of the thing, as seen in a still from Episode 10:

As news of Ford's disappointing financial performance hits Wall Street once again, the company decides to accelerate The Way Forward plan. Can Ford make the turnaround happen in time?

Okay, it's no secret that Ford is in the midst of not only a turnaround, but a life or death struggle whose outcome may portend the future viability of American-based auto manufacturing.

But when was the last time a company not only admitted—but
reminded people—that everything rides on the success of its turnaround effort? And when was the last time anyone like Ford not only provided a public, ongoing report on its progress, but invited and then actually published commentary (good and bad)? Particularly given the fact that so many eyes are on the company's every move: mainstream media, financial analysts, current employees, car buyers, automotive suppliers and their employees and customers, other American manufacturers and their employees, etc.? The aforementioned commentaries include posts from the general public as well as recent artices (hours old in some cases) about both the Website and Ford itself—including some items that are extremely critical.

From my vantage point as a brand communications strategist, I'm impressed by what shows up for me as a brilliant instance of a company actually living its brand premise: in this case, Ford actually making Bold Moves.

But is Ford's site so over-the-top self-conscious as to give away its true nature as the worst kind of corporate spin? My guess is, some people will see the (not so) new media buzz generating apparatus and Behind The Music production values and conclude there's not a shred of candor here.

That's a shame. Ford is taking a risk by communicating in a way that's rare for a company of its ilk and situation. Few would bat an eye if Nike or Apple or SoBe or some other company with a higher hipness quotient acted similarly in such a public and precarious situation. But we tend towards suspicion when the companies we think of as monolithic American manufacturers act like anything other than monolithic American manufacturers.

To be sure, this is not Bill Ford's father's company. But unlike Oldsmobile, which launched a catchy campaign and then did little to live the premise, Ford is at least making new moves in an effort to save itself.

And, dare I say it, I think they're pretty bold moves.

Friday, August 25, 2006

New Data on Ideal Home Page Layout?

If you're not already subscribed to Marketing Sherpa's B to B channel, you're missing a lot. The current post features a new case study suggesting that executives prefer home page links organized a la search results (vs. graphic nav buttons). Very interesting stuff and certainly worth a close look.

My take on the findings: the approach that fared best seems to be best-suited to sites aimed at generating online transactions. I'd love to see data on what happens when you apply this approach to a site that's primarily about advancing prospective customers through a long sales cycle—i.e., sites used by companies offering high-dollar, B to B products or services.

Until then, though, read the story and view the accompanying graphics to see the differences between the various versions. It's available for free viewing by anyone until September 4.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Your Brand Needs a Life Beyond Your Home Page

A new article on B to B magazine's web site raises yet another reason to weave and support your company's brand narratives throughout your web site. Author Marie Griffin writes "Given that searchers link to sites based on keywords and content, they often don’t enter by way of a home page."

The continued rise of search makes it likely that visitors will increasingly go straight to interior pages of your site. Meaning that if your brand message lives only (or primarily) on your home page, your online audiences may never hear your story about what makes your company special.

Obviously, it's a fine line between communicating the brand and getting in the way of the user's quest for specific content. And the width of that line varies from one situation to the next. For instance, technical content aimed at engineering audiences certainly shouldn't be obfuscated by verbose brand messaging.

Still, it's worth auditing your company's site to determine A) where the brand story is currently leveraged (and where it isn't); and B) what brand communication tactics—visual, textual and otherwise—could be incorporated to ensure that search-driven visitors don't miss the big picture.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Find Your WOW!

For the last several years, I’ve been visiting the sites of web design firms and creative associations to keep an eye on where web design is going.

I watch for a couple of things: the WOW factor and if it’s actually advancing the brand.

My challenge to you is to visit Favorite Web Awards (click below) and check out a few of the sites. Does the creative drive the brand? Does the tone match the product or service ? It’ll be interesting and help you separate WOW for WOW sake and WOW that drives a brand. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"Brands Are Eclipsing Factories in Value"

The title of this entry is a quote from "A New Brand of Power," an August 7th must-read piece by Sebastian Mallaby of The Washington Post. Among other things, Mallaby speaks to the growing acceptance of the premise that strong company brands are primary drivers of enterprise value/market cap.

A particularly good nugget:
Not long ago, the value of a company consisted largely of its "book value": physical assets such as factories and equipment plus money in the bank. But today, book value accounts for only about a third of the stock market capitalization of the top 150 U.S. companies, down from three-quarters two-decades ago. In the new economy, corporate value lies in intangible assets: patents, databases, know-how and brands.

Mallaby also speaks to a phenomenon we've commented on in previous posts: the prevailing shift in brand architecture thinking away from "house of brands" (e.g., P&G's gazillion stand-alone brands without explicit connection to the parent) and towards building strong, universally leveraged parent company brands. According to Mallaby,
Ten years ago, Unilever sold its foods and detergents under 1600 brand names, according to Kevin Keller of the Tuck School of Business; now, Unilever uses fewer than 400. The world's biggest companies (Citigroup, GE, IBM, Microsoft, Toyota, Wal-Mart) sell most or even all of their products under one or two brands.

There's lots more worth reading in Mallaby's piece, but you'll have to register (at no charge) on the Post's site to read the full article.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Repeat After Me

In my last post about employee retention tactics, I touched on ways to shape corporate culture. Later, it occurred to me that I should add this caveat: cultural change can be very difficult, especially in manufacturing.

But why?

In manufacturing, when the goal is to produce defect-free parts, repeatability and consistency are traditional barometers of success. Manufacturers typically build their cultures around talented people with this rigid mindset.

Change and flexibility are countercultural ideas in this environment. And if you’re a manufacturing executive seeking to achieve a cultural shift, you must recognize this substantial barrier to success.

Employees aren’t going to blindly accept a sudden new direction. As process-oriented, rational people, they deserve a process-oriented, rational argument.

It’s a technique as old as Aristotle. Begin with a rationale for change that’s grounded in the realities of the marketplace. Follow that up with a clearly articulated, actionable plan to respond to these challenges, as well as employees’ role in the effort. Finally, and most importantly, you must show them what’s in it for them personally if they participate.

It comes down to this: you must illustrate to them why, in a rapidly changing world, maintaining the status quo in manufacturing is akin to accepting a major defect.

And, as with anything else that works right in a manufacturing environment, you must perform this task repeatedly and consistently.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Too many Cooks?

Recently I came across this article featuring comments on the 2006 world cup logo by renowned designer Erik Spiekermann. In the article, Spiekermann faults the design team responsible for the logo with trying to communicate too many messages.

It reminded me of the challenges that often arise via design by committee. Design by committee is a wry term referring to a situation that can happen when a group of entities comes together to produce something. The end results are typically less-than-stellar. You wind up with an end product that everybody can live with, rather than communications that command attention and drive home the desired point(s).

Similar to Howard Halaska’s previous post touting the benefit of a singular message in forming your strategy, design by committee can lead to less-than-stellar creative characterized by:

  • Needless complexity
  • Internal inconsistency
  • Banality (remember the TV show "Friends?")
  • Lack of a unifying vision

It is true that we seldom have the luxury of being the one and only person with input into what is being created. Bosses, co-workers, neighbors, clients, family members, etc. want to put in their 2 cents worth. And when some of them are footing the bill, we have to listen.

So how can we avoid producing work that appears to have been designed by committee?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Select a "voice" for the committee—a person who is acutely aware of the group’s goals and has a good sense of design.

  2. Try to create an environment that is open to feedback and input, but ultimately let the experts make the decisions and control the design—design is about function as much as form, and suggestions to change one aesthetic thing or another can have a huge impact on the cohesion of the design.

  3. Limit the size of the committee—fewer participants means clearer communication, less room for interpretation from one person to another, and better attention to the task at hand. Note that keeping the committee small doesn’t mean forgoing input from others in the organization; it just means not everyone who provides input will have equal weight in terms of their vote. The committee’s job is then to consider and incorporate the input that comes from inside and outside the committee.

  4. Let the design team operate outside of the traditional organizational framework—recognize that the design process is far different from the other things happening in the organization and give it the space and opportunity to succeed. Treating design like just another corporate function will stifle its success.

If you need proof of the success achieved when avoiding design by committee, look to the origin of one the world’s most recognized symbols.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Which Comes First...?

In southeastern Wisconsin, when it comes to employees, it is definitely a “seller's market." At a recent meeting of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce with the leaders of the organizations recognized as the area’s fifty fastest growing small and medium-sized businesses, 63% of these leaders indicated that acquiring and retaining talented employees was their most significant, immediate business problem. In an entry to this blog several days ago, Mary wrote about employee retention and the role that internal communications can play in keeping the talent you already have inside your organization.

If you are a growing business, where do you start – recruitment or retention? Several years ago, we chose to start with defining our vision and values. We then began choosing people to join our firm based upon who best fits these visions and values.

We were rigorous in getting clear about what personal and professional attributes employees need to have in order for the company and its people to thrive. We also became much more serious about parting with employees who didn't share our core values or our passion for growing the business.

As in any social structure, people at SH are more motivated to bring forth the full spectrum of their talents when they trust that every other person in the firm shares a common narrative about interpersonal and professional values, skills, careers, and powerful offers of help – for our clients and for each other.

Sound simple? Hardly! Are we experts? Not a chance. But all of the leaders of our organization are committed to using our culture as a differentiating aspect of our recruitment and retention program. We take our tagline seriously – Differentiate Yourself™. We say our culture is different when compared to other organizations with whom we compete for exceptionally talented people. And, we say that these exceptionally talented people can differentiate themselves, again, personally and professionally, by joining and staying with our team.

If you, too, are interested in taking a similar approach to this tight labor market, check out a company named Pappas DeLaney LLC. Tim Pappas has what I believe to be an extraordinary offer to bring to the table with regard to employee recruitment (and, ultimately, retention). I have had the pleasure of being in a business leaders networking group with Tim for the past five years and I believe, in this domain (and a couple others), he is one of the smartest people I know.

So, which comes first? I have always approached life from the perspective that the egg always comes before the chicken.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Phone Books are Here! The Phone Books are Here!

A must-read for branding geeks and skeptics alike, Business Week's annual look at the Top 100 global brands is now available. As always, the article looks at which brands have gained and lost the most monetary value over the past year.

B to B practitioners will be particularly interested in Intel's drop, but they should also pay attention to the Starbucks story. The latter scored big gains in its brand value by maintaining its near-obsession with producing a consistent "culture"—in other words, promising and delivering a specific and highly-valued experience at every touch. That's the essence of a strong brand, whether consumer or B to B.

Interbrand's formula for calculating brand value is itself worth sharing with those in your company who see the brand as too soft (i.e., not quanitfiable enough) to justify sustained investment. A PDF version of the entire report—which goes beyond the abridged version in BW's Aug 7 print issue—is available here.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Speak With One Voice...Unless You're Microsoft

Can't remember what I was watching on TV over the weekend, but I do remember being pounded at every commercial break by the same Microsoft spot. A new employee named Alberto starts his first day at work. He fumbles his way through a series of awkward exchanges and tasks, finally making it to his cubicle. A chat window is open on his monitor, and a co-worker says hello. The kicker is, she's in Prague. Fade out on Alberto keying in his response, and VO of the campaign theme software for the people-ready business.

So far so good.

But then I opened the August Business 2.0 and saw a spread ad for the Microsoft Dynamics software suite. The body copy reference to this sw package as "a line of people-ready business management solutions" is also the only appearance of Microsoft's new campaign theme in this ad.

If "people-ready" is indeed the nut of Microsoft's new B to B campaign, why scream it in broadcast and whisper it in print?

Or am I exposing my inner troglodyte by expecting the big guys to follow a time-tested maxim like speak with one voice?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Few Ways to Bolster Employee Retention

Last week, I homed in on the idea that employee retention efforts should be a strategic initiative distinct from recruitment.

So then, what exactly should an employee retention initiative involve?

You’ve probably heard a thing or two about Southwest Airlines’ corporate culture. The company seems to have nearly perfected a culture that attracts, retains and motivates excellent employees.

The leaders at Southwest understand that building a great culture takes much more than an annual company picnic and an occasional mass greeting from the president. It’s a sustained, multifaceted effort—a lot more than I can get into here. So, for further reading, check out this good overview from the U.S. Department of Commerce about Southwest’s culture-building initiatives.

The name of the game is instilling confidence in your most important workers—confidence that your company is making strategic moves that ultimately benefit them, confidence in their professional and financial future and confidence that they know how to help the company cause.

These are corporate-culture issues that live and die with company leadership. Therefore, building a culture that breeds the confidence and participation of your top talent requires regular reinforcement from the CEO via sustained communications with employees.

One of the most effective ways to do this—although it shouldn’t be the only way—is through a regular internal communications vehicle, which can take many forms. Short or long. Electronic or print. Weekly, monthly or quarterly. To return to the Southwest example, the air carrier publishes a bright, fun and yet strategy-focused employee magazine, LUVlines.

Whatever form your internal communications vehicle takes, it should repeatedly share insights about the challenges of your marketplace, explain your company’s vision for success and drive home how employees can support the strategy. It should be the voice of company leadership, peppered generously with examples of how all employees are participating in the efforts to win whatever game you’re in.

And it should be only one element of a sustained effort to build a culture in which your best and brightest can thrive for many years.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Pay Attention to Retention: Marketing to Attract the Talent is Only the First Step to a Strong Workforce

Previously on this blog, we’ve discussed the role of branding in recruiting top talent. Last week, we heard some things that spurred us to revisit the topic.

At a Future 50 Forum—sponsored by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and its Council of Small Business Executives—leaders of some of the region’s fastest growing companies talked about their biggest challenges in today’s and tomorrow’s economy.

Time and again, manufacturing executives and professional services presidents alike cited recruiting and retaining skilled workers as a major worry on their minds. This issue is likely to weigh heavier as more and more Baby Boomers punch out of the workaday pattern. (For further study, there’s a cottage industry of books on this topic.)

Often, “recruitment and retention” get lumped together as one initiative. They’re certainly related and overlapping. But it might be time to think of them as distinct challenges—recruiting as more of an external branding exercise, and retaining as more of an internal communications and cultural issue.

As the Baby Boomers retire, the open jobs they leave behind will seduce many a young, talented worker. Retaining those people in your organization will be just as critical as luring others away from your competitors. To keep the right people on board, you had better pay attention to them.

Do your employees see that your company is headed in a strong, strategic direction? Do they know what they need to do to support the mission? Do they grasp the challenges of the marketplace? Do they understand the strategy behind the moves you’re making? Do they know what’s in it for them? Strategic internal communications help ensure that your employees know the score.

In a future post, we'll talk more about strategic internal communications, including some of the tactics you can use to help build a culture that appeals to your most important people. The more confident your top employees are that your company is making strategic moves that ultimately benefit them, the more they’re reassured about their professional and financial future working for your company. And the more likely they are to stick around.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Deadly Sins of B to B Branding: Death By Description

This post continues a series of entries focusing on the most common missteps we see in branding initiatives in business-to-business enterprises.

In the course of presenting our branding recommendations to a client earlier this week, we talked about the perils of settling for a brand position that merely names the game a company is in. Doing so often results in a brand position that describes rather than differentiates. So how prevalent is this deadly sin in B to B?

In some segments, it's rampant. Consider the following manufacturing industry example I've used in my guest lectures at Marquette University's MBA program. Each company uses its tag line to say what business it's in.

You could make the argument that with the exception of Chiswick, each of the above tag lines does indeed say something about how each company does what it does, and thereby positions the brand.*

You could, I guess. My point to students, though, was that a company misses a big opportunity by positioning its brand based on what the company does rather than on what's uniquely valuable about the company. That's strike one. Strike two? Each brand is positioned in territory that's already occupied by competing players.

The net is, each of these companies has made it harder than it should be for a prospective customer to start the process of determining preference and affinity. As noted in an earlier post, the tag line part of the equation is particularly critical because it announces a company's brand promise. It's also the creative expression of a company's desired brand position.

An October, 2004 study by Marketing Sherpa suggested that 64% of B to B buyers begin learning about potential suppliers by doing a Web search. My guess is, that number has gone up since. Today, prospects are vetting and evaluating your company based on what they see on your Web site. The fact they've found you means they already know what business you're in. If the announcement you make about your brand from the home page on is simply that "we do this," you've left it to the visitor to figure out what's special about you.

Yes, "Death By Description" is hyperbole. From the looks of things, the above companies have built sophisticated, successful operations. My point is simply that all of these companies are missing an opportunity to use effective brand positioning to put distance between themselves and their competitors.


*You may have also noticed that all of these companies brand themselves as "solutions providers." More on this in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that in the Church of B to B Branding & Positioning, this transgression calls for more than a few extra Hail Marys.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Action First, Words Second

High-profile accounting and corporate scandals propelled us into the current era of Sarbanes Oxley. Some argue the bark surrounding SOX is far stronger than its bite. Yet others believe SOX to be the most significant legislation since FDR's New Deal—a term he adopted from Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

" I was, in a country where a right to say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each thousand of its population...I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal." —From A Connecticut Yankee...published in the late 19th Century

Regardless of how SOX plays out for businesses, one thing is certain. Consumers, media, regulators, elected officials all will continue to demand greater accountability, transparency and scrutiny as the twinge of scandal reverberates through Corporate America. The role of communications in forming perceptions and managing reputation undoubtedly will continue to prove important to successful leadership.

But what many leaders neglect to realize, however, is that effective, influential communication is preceded by effective actions taken by the corporation. Corporate actions and even inactions ultimately cause the most damage to reputation and preclude communications from being effective.

To maintain positive perception with key audiences, corporate leaders must constantly communicate about actions focused on achieving value, effectiveness, quality, credibility and competence. Perception—good or bad, accurate or inaccurate—becomes reality and impacts reputation.