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.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Guilt By Association: Best Practices for Professional Association Involvement

I admit it. Like 215 other Milwaukee area marketing professionals, I took most of the day off Monday to play in a golf outing. Specifically, it was the Business Marketing Association Milwaukee Chapter’s annual golf outing.

Given our company’s ambition to continue building on three years of unprecedented growth, my colleagues and I aren’t in the habit of ditching out of work to play golf any chance we can. But BMA Milwaukee has earned our trust and time over the years—thanks to the notable benefits we’ve realized through our involvement. In the end, the BMA-Milwaukee golf outing was, as always, time well-spent.

If you’re a professional marketer, you already know that active involvement in professional groups is an important strategy for building a successful business—and a successful career. Organizations like BMA have helped our company:

  • raise our visibility in our local marketplace
  • build our reputation as a B to B-focused agency
  • recruit great people to join our company
  • generate new business opportunities

Those are the obvious benefits. We also know that when we facilitate our employees’ active involvement in the business community, we contribute to their career development. That's why we'll sponsor each employee’s participation in at least one professional organization, provided the following criteria are met:

  1. The organization’s purpose has to serve our company’s ambition, purpose and go-to-market strategy.
  2. The employee’s participation must produce clear business value for our company.
  3. The employee's participation must produce clear career-building value for the employee.
  4. The employee must play an active role in the organization. Minimally, that means being an active member of a committee. The last thing we want is for our people to simply show up at the functions. "Association membership" to us is about action. It's about making a significant contribution recurrently, and thereby driving the organization, the industry and one's career forward.

Along the way, we’re always assessing the value of the organization, and the seriousness of the employee’s commitment. After all, each dollar and hour spent with a professional organization is time and money that can’t be spent elsewhere.

This set of practices has allowed us to produce distinct benefits for our company and our employees while simultaneously contributing to the broader community of marketing professionals.

Not to mention the occassional round of guilt-free golf.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Competitive Sailing

...And how they apply to business.

I’d like to share some observations that help sailboats win races and may, on some level, help you with your business or department or important initiative.

GET YOUR NOSE OUT OF THE BOAT. The skipper and navigator should spend very little time policing the crew. Instead they should look up the lake for wind shifts, keep track of the competitors and plan strategy. “Hire” the right crew and let them keep the boat responsive. Often works the same in successful businesses.

TACKING FOR CLEAR AIR. When a boat is in a pack of several others, many times tacking away from them to get clear can make a big difference. Often works in successfully positioning your company or product.

THE NAVIGATOR IS REALLY THE “NAVA-GUESSER”. Each competitor on the racecourse has a nava-guesser -- the one person who makes the strategic call. We all make mistakes, most of them go unnoticed….not so with the nava-guesser. This person needs, among other things, thick skin and the ability to recognize a mistake and act immediately to correct it. Often works that way for those in leadership positions.

I wish I had time to share more of these with you, but we have a practice race tonight. We race an “A” boat on Pewaukee Lake, home of the largest “A” fleet in the world. We have some video footage of us during a regatta last year on Green Lake. Click here for a look.

Howard Halaska
President , Creative Director

Monday, June 19, 2006

In Case You Missed the Message, Let’s Pause for a Recap

I’m posting today from Chicago , where Mike Stefaniak and I are giving a presentation at NPE 2006: The International Plastics Showcase.

“Your Brand: A Vital Yet Underutilized Asset” is a lecture we’ve presented several times, in various forms before various audiences. In this instance, we’ve adapted it for plastics executives and experts—because it’s an arena in which many plastics companies aren’t investing.

I’m not writing to promote our NPE appearance — if you’re not here already, you’ve likely missed it. Even if you aren’t in plastics, that doesn’t make our main message any less relevant to your B2B company. And what’s that message?

If you’ve been following our blog, you know we’ve chatted quite a bit about the importance of building brands.Well, once again, this theme bears repeating. But rather than take you through our whole slide show—that would spoil the fun!—I’ll just touch on a few quick points, in condensed form:

  • Branding—It isn’t just for consumer goods and services anymore.
  • B2B companies are building focused, unique brands not only to spur short-term sales, but also to grow enterprise value over the long term
  • Because of its strategic value, brand building warrants CEO leadership.
  • One of your competitors is likely building a strong brand right now.
  • You have a brand, good or bad. Shape it to your advantage or ignore it at your peril.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Glass Onion

“I told you about the walrus and me – man; You know that we’re as close as can be – man; Well here’s another clue for you all….”

This is my final, retrospective entry on the concept of developing communication strategies that use purpose-appropriate tactics to produce both short-term ROI and longer-term, sustainable increases in enterprise value.

Why should we all care? To me, enterprise value is the language of CEOs, be they leaders of public or private companies. It’s the language of CFOs, too. These people are fundamentally oriented to play the enterprise value-creation game. If we want to have them value what we have to offer, it is imperative that we speak their language, understand their concerns. If your offer can connect along these lines with the CEO, you’re almost ready to transact. And if that connection extends to the CFO, they’ll allocate the funds to invest.

Last week, Ad Age sent out an e-mail soliciting feedback on the recent trend of management consultants like IBM, Accenture, and McKinsey making offers to assess the value being provided by their client’s marketing partners. I think this trend speaks volumes, and I assert that it is further grounding for what we have written about over the past two months.

I have no idea whether Paul was or was not the walrus. But if you are open to “…looking through the bent back tulips, to see how the other half lives…”, then I recommend the following for your review:

1. Value Based Marketing; Peter Doyle; John Wiley & Sons Ltd.; 2000
2. The EVA Challenge; Joel M. Stern and John S. Shiely; John Wiley & Sons Ltd.; 2001

I am sure there are even more places for us to look in order to continue to improve our proficiency with the language of CEOs, CFOs, and management consultants. If you have any further recommendations, please help us to keep this dialogue going.

The lyrics above are from Glass Onion, The Beatles, © Lennon & McCartney

Monday, June 12, 2006

Who’s to Blame for Media Misquotes … You or Them?

When coaching clients on how to work with media, I start by asking for each participant’s greatest fear. Inevitably, the majority say being misquoted.

Of course, most of the blame for being misquoted is placed squarely on the shoulders of the reporter. Rarely, if ever, do we look inward for the source of disconnects between what we say and what the reporter captures and writes into a story. But most of us should.

More than likely our responses to reporter questions are too long, too convoluted and too sprawling in scope. This allows the reporter to determine what information is important, why it is important and how it should be used.

To combat this crap-shoot outcome, we must accept our role in the process and make time to prepare for the interview. Preparation allows us to anticipate questions and formulate answers using key messages designed to advance our point of view.

Once we anticipate and answer the questions, we are in a much better position to coach the reporter on the context surrounding the information we impart during an interview.

Follow this tip and your “quotability quotient” should improve exponentially.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

The Deadly Sins of B to B Branding: Failure To "Ing"

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

Business Week’s May 22nd issue. Great cover story on Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s work for consumer giants like VW and Burger King.

On the way to that article, you’ll see a newer, full-page ad for UPS. Nice ad. But that’s not the point.

The point is, years after the launch of What can Brown do for you?, UPS is still actively investing in its brand. Still finding new ways to reinforce what’s special about the company. Still branding. At every opportunity.

B to B giants like UPS know that active, long-term investment in the brand drives stronger financial performance. Which is why “failure to ing” is a sin they rarely commit.

Small- to medium-sized B to B companies, however, are particularly vulnerable to temptation. Many look at branding or re-branding as a short-term project, rather than a longer-term journey that requires sustained investment over years.

As the euphoria of introducing a revamped brand in the marketplace dissipates, it’s easy for these companies to lose their “ing.” Particularly when cutting short-term costs is an imperative. Brand-related expenditures start to look like fat that can be trimmed without consequence. Some stop branding altogether.

Of course, that flies in the face of why they invested in re-branding in the first place: to create preference and loyalty. To attract top recruits. And, perhaps most important, to differentiate the company in a way that demonstrates to customers why they should pay a premium.

But those returns don’t always happen in six months or a year. Brands deliver ROI when companies invest in sustaining and deepening the brand conversation over several years. Which explains why GE continued to invest in “We bring good things to life” for more than a decade.

In pragmatic terms, keeping the “ing” in “branding” means making sustained investments into external and internal communications.

External to ensure that the company is not only visible to its target audiences, but that every communication reinforces a single, differentiating story about the company.

to make sure employees understand their role in making the brand a reality in the marketplace—and can therefore act in a manner consistent with the experience the company promises to deliver through its brand.

Does that mean that to sustain the brand, you have to spend as much as you did in the first year of the launch? Depends on the organization.

The bigger point is that if you’re not branding in Years 2 and 3, you’re essentially guaranteeing the organization won’t see a satisfactory return on its initial investment.

Friday, June 2, 2006


We do a fair amount of company and product naming assignments for our clients. The next time you’re involved in a naming project, you may find the following observations useful:

Build your “naming committee” carefully. Only the key decision-makers should be involved. These people have the vision and are directly responsible for the company or product name. This will be one of the most important moves you make in the process.

No false starts. The naming committee should agree on the key message the name
needs to communicate. No creative work should begin until this is agreed upon.

Mum’s the word. Keep the name in the committee. This is critical. You can unwittingly kill potentially great names by running a “word” by someone in the hallway—either at the office or at home.

Take the phone test. Listen to someone speak the name over the phone. Is it clear? Easily understood? Do the words run together and form some other unintended word? Yup…this is low tech…but very important and effective.

Don’t skimp on legal help. Is the name you like clean? Or would your use infringe on someone else’s claim? Don’t leave it to chance. Do a preliminary trademark search using the United States Patent and Trademark Office search site. Check Google and/or another general use search engine for usage. If there’s a well-traveled portal or two in your key vertical markets, search there as well. While these are good first steps, your final choices (don’t fall in love with just one) should be vetted by an attorney to make sure they’re clean.