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.