January 2012.

If we took a poll of senior management and marketing executives, how do you think they would answer?

Do you think they are so command and control oriented that a majority of them would say order takers? Or, do you sense that more of them are blue sky thinkers, visionaries and strategists who want to surround themselves with critical thinkers. Individuals, who not only implement their direction, but work shoulder to shoulder with them vetting and molding it.

Assisting organization with strategic branding and other marketing communication challenges, I’ve collaborated with and worked for CEOs, COOs, CMOs and other senior leadership team members who fall in both camps. Although, I doubt some would admit it or maybe even recognize that they are surrounded by order takers or task managers. Too often corporate culture, job security and income are mitigating circumstances to why employees are ‘yes men or women’ and why third-party providers fill this role only. The other reason is simply skill set.

From what I’ve witnessed across many industries, the best executives give their employees and associates the same leeway afforded most paid outside consultants. They encourage and value everyone’s thinking.

Many times, these are the same executives who seek branding services for like-minded professionals who also understand the value and challenges associated with strategic brand management. People who know it’s much more the brand identity design of a logo, a tagline or a quality Web design. People, like them, who know the organization biggest asset is the people who work for it, especially the ones who don’t take every one of the executive’s comments as the final word on the matter, aren’t afraid to ask why or what if, can see the big picture and always have the best interests of the company and/or brand in mind.

Whether you are developing value propositions and key message points for direct mail solutions, emailing marketing programs or social media marketing campaigns, keep this single tip in mind.

1. Outside in

Too often organizations get so enamored with new technology, historical milestones or industry recognition that they don’t ask themselves if their customers care. They try to make their customers care by promoting and touting it in every ad, Web banner, Facebook post and television spot.

Instead of looking at the subject matter from an ‘inside out’ perspective, try looking at it from your customers’ perspective or ‘outside in.’ Figure out how to translate it so it’s of value and benefit to your customers or the audiences you’re attempting to influence or persuade. That’s how you’ll get their attention, get them to care and get them to act.

Simple enough, right?

You can find great examples of successful ‘outside in’ communications in every market. In consumer-to-consumer and business-to-business communications. In the marketing of healthcare services. In financial marketing solutions. In foodservice and agriculture advertising.

Now, consider auditing your marketing communications. How do you think it will perform?

If you find your communications are too company-centric, then it’s time to get everyone thinking in terms of being customer-centric. That’s when ‘outside in’ communications becomes part of your culture and the day-to-day execution of your brand strategy…and with the right internal brand champions, operations will follow suit and start addressing customer touch points from the ‘outside in’; as well.

It’s the first of the year and Americans are being bombarded with messages about losing weight and getting in shape. It happens every year. And right in the middle of this fitness craze comes the Girl Scouts with their cookies. It happens every year.

Thin mints. Samoas. Tagalongs. Are you kidding me! The Girl Scouts are killing me. Besides the fact that these cookies are sabotaging my efforts to drop some pounds, why do they continue to market them at this time of the year? I know it is tradition, but is it smart marketing.

Want to buy some cookies! Parents will be bringing the order forms through the office. Bright-eyed little girls will be accosting us outside the local Wal-Mart. And let’s not forget the few brave ones that still come to your door.

You can even go online and enter your ZIP code to find the council nearest you because these cookies are sold by girls from individual Girl Scout councils…not through some Web marketing strategy or a series of direct mail campaigns.

This is good-old grassroots marketing….feet on the streets to put cookies in our bellies. It’s a common solution for marketing non profit organizations like the Girl Scouts of the USA.

And since cookies and milk are such good friends I’m sure the National Dairy Council must love this time of year. Milk consumption has to see a spike as our willpower wanes and waistlines expand.

That said, pour me a glass but please rethink your go-to-market strategy and move cookie sales to the fall when most of us in the northern states are bulking up for the winter months. Not when we are trying to shed our winter weight. But don’t take my word. Do a market research study. Qualitative research like the Dairy Council conducted to create the “Got Milk” campaign which improved sales after 15 years with no growth. If you’re the quantitative type, I’m sure surveymonkey.com would welcome the opportunity, especially if you throw in some Do-si-dos.

If you haven’t heard the 2012 Super Bowl is being playing in Indianapolis. February 5th is the big day. With only a few weeks to go, our city is all a buzz with excitement and final preparation.

As a football fan, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s a chance to experience some of the activities during the week leading up to the big game. Who plays in it is of little consequence since the Colts are focused on the number one pick in the NFL draft. However, having our streets and bars filled with Patriots’ fans might be a little hard to stomach.

As a brand strategist and from a pure marketing perspective, the planning and ongoing promotions have been solid. An exceptional fan experience (i.e. visitor experience) appears to be everyone’s number one objective. Volunteers are being trained to be brand ambassadors for the big event and for our city. Hopefully, the stories posted on indianapolissuperbowl.com will bear witness to these efforts.

A heavy broadcast media event, it would be interesting to get a look behind the scenes at their Web marketing strategy and social media marketing campaigns. The negative press about traffic and parking downtown is causing many of us locals to think twice about going downtown. And asking downtown businesses to have their employees work at home that week is nuts. Are we going to shut down the state and city government offices too? This PR miscue needs to be addressed, unless it’s part of the overall plan.

No matter, I will not be deterred. I plan on being there. Very soon, a shirt with the 2012 Super Bowl’s brand identity design will be added to my wardrobe.

Have you ever hired, supervised or worked with a employee that was extremely talented, but in the big picture was a poor employee or co-worker? If you have, you should be able to relate and commiserate with this blog topic.

The big question is when these individuals reach the tipping point. When do their negative contributions to the team, department and organization or your brand outweigh all the positive ones. Identifying this point of no return and reacting to it is no small feat. Too often, these employees can damage and force the flight of other good employees, and even clients, before these employees are diagnosed as cancerous.

Like some financial institutions being “too big to fail,” one of the traps is believing that they are too talented to be replaced; so you try to mentor them in the belief you can change their stripes. In three decades of working in the advertising industry, I’ve not seen one of these employees successfully rehabbed and believe me I’ve been patient and crazy enough to try and reshape my share of talented and turbulent employees. And I have the scars to show for it. Another Band-Aid or path of least resistance is to isolate them as much as possible. You may try limiting their authority and interaction with others in the organization or with clients. This too will run its course with little benefit or satisfaction. Cut your losses by cutting these employees from the herd quickly is my best advice. Generally, you will find that group dynamics and teamwork will improve immediately. Employees will thank you. Other employees, who were restrained by the actions of these talented and turbulent employees, will step up and begin to shine. Overall morale and teamwork will soar. And the need for you to referee disputes and put out fires will dissipate which will impact your productivity and give you more time to work on bigger picture matters such as product development, customer acquisition and retention, mergers, or even strategic brand management and new digital marketing strategies for 2012.

Don’t be surprised if some of your clients, customers and channel partners congratulate and thank you for the move. This reaction may give you solace after many sleepless nights wrestling with the concern that the loss of their talent could put an account or some business at risk.

As you look for a replacement or other hires, you might want to put on your brand strategist hat. Run the candidates through the brand persona or profile for the team, department and organization. Then compare it to what you can discern as the candidate’s brand personality. If it’s a match, aligns closely and no red flags fly, then you may get an exceptional talent without any of the baggage.

In a new reality filled with digital marketing strategies and social media guidelines, do people still respond to brands that do more that serve their needs? Do great brands still express a unique point of view? Does this view really drive differentiation, consideration and preference? And are these truly the lead indicators of future business performance which enable companies with strong brands to deliver sustainable organic growth? After all, that’s exactly what business owners, executives and marketers are told and promised.

So what aren’t they buying about strategic branding?

Most executives are willing to invest in brand identity design and maybe a clever tagline to accompany their logo and position the brand in a beneficial way. Some strive to control brand consistency and continuity through extensive guidelines and templates. Others launch, refresh and retool branding campaigns. Some redesign their Web site, get on Facebook or wrapped up tweeting, or become big bloggers. While still others craft and share brand promise statements and new customers service standards with their employees and customers. Or produce and distribute brand coaching tools – from brand architecture charts to fancy “brand books.” And a few are more spatial and moved to create the right brand environment – complete with purchased or commissioned brand art or the latest in digital merchandising.

I’ve even seen brand briefs drafted as strategic brand management and brand coaching tools that were anything but brief and more akin to comprehensive, C-suite oriented marketing and communications plans. Too dense! Too academic! Not ready for employee consumption.

And hence, there’s the real brand truth!

All that branding work is the easy stuff. It’s the low hanging fruit and reason why many “challenger brands” never develop a unique point of view or reach their full market potential.

Great brands understand that a brand is a relationship – with a set of expectations and reputation to uphold and protect.

In a world where homogeneity and standardization dominates and word-of-mouth has been digitized and globalized through social media, great brands have proven that it’s no longer just about positioning, it’s about taking a position. These brands stand for something that people value. They create a different type of customer experience. They have become recognized as “my kind of company, my kind of people” and customers are proud to be associated with them. They work on an emotional level and have formed common bonds with their customer base.

But first and forever, their point of view is woven into the cultural fiber of these companies – not just documented in brand books on the shelf. It’s exuded by frontline employees and at every customer touch point. It has become intuitive, systemic and a point of self-discovery and reinvention. And for that to happen, these companies continue to invest time, training and thinking about how to preserve and expand their brands. Do you have the vision, discipline and fortitude to do the same? If not, then you might want to rethink your brand strategy and the dollars you’re throwing in that direction.

Do you focus your time and energy on “what’s wrong,” instead of on “what s right?”

With thirty years in marketing communications, I’ve been fortunate to interact with people from all kinds of professions, levels of experience, and demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. As a brand strategist, I’m continually fascinated by people’s behavior, bias and belief systems. However, I’ve noticed a challenging and misguided trend. More and more people are working from a negative perspective. It doesn’t matter if we’re discussing marketing communications strategy, messaging or creative ideas for advertising, direct mail campaigns, email newsletter design, interactive Website design, social media guidelines or whatever.

“I don’t like that.” “I don’t care for that.” “We can’t do or say that.” These are some of the first comments being expressed. Rarely are the participants getting around to saying what they do like. Or what can or should be done. Why is that? Are we so overexposed and desensitized to marketing and advertising that little impresses us anymore? Have we become a society of critics and cynics? Has the nightly news and negative political campaigns transformed us into the land of negative thinkers and pessimists?

I think not. I think it’s simply much easier to poke holes in others’ thinking. It’s easier to find fault, point fingers or play devil’s advocate, than to motivate, inspire and lead. It’s harder for people to recognize and celebrate good ideas and constructively build on them. Especially, when you consider the time demands and pressure most of us are under.

Ironically, the same people, who complain about the number of meetings they attend, are often the same individuals who waste time talking about the things they don’t like, instead of cutting to the chase and pointing out the things they like and feel deserves to be pursued and supported. Don’t get me wrong. I know I’ve learned as much, if not more, from my miscues and missed steps. Two steps backward and three steps forward is the path for many success stories. Unfortunately, positive feedback and constructive criticism during this process appears to be a diminishing skill set in the workforce. Focusing on the winning ideas is a more productive and positive way to work. It’s more uplifting and just plain healthier for the spirit and mental well-being of both the right and left brain thinkers in the room. The same people who are passionate and committed to those ideas. The same ones deeply involved in the project and the overall success of the organization. Certainly as colleagues, who share a common sense of purpose, we would prefer to rally around winning ideas than dance around the conference table torching the other ones.

So the next time you’re in a group meeting – looking at ideas of some sort – fight the instinct to focus on the “weak or bad” ones so you can find the good ones by a process of elimination. Everyone in the room will thank you, praise you and climb mountains for you. But, if your corporate culture or “group think” or the alphas in the room won’t let you escape the gravitational pull of this black hole, I recommend sharing the book Zapp, The Lightning of Empowerment by William C. Byham, Ph.D. It’s a good chance to lead by example and offer some substantive and constructive criticism to your colleagues. Make it part of your New Year resolutions, and with any luck, you will help create a positive environment for your marketing efforts as well as your other assignments.

Here we go. It’s 2012. The year the Mayan calendar marks the end of a 5,126-year era…December 21st to be exact. Forget crafting your social media guidelines. What kind of year are we facing? Is it another Y2K or something else?

One school of thought is convinced that it’s the end the world. Dooms day. Book of Revolution fire and brimstone stuff. Armageddon. The total destruction of life as we know it. Then again, there’s another school of thought that believes we are on the doorstep of a new beginning…a period in human history of great transformation and enlightenment. I think most of us would prefer the latter direction.

Yet amidst all this uncertainty, how are you approaching the year? Have you changed your business plans and marketing strategy development? Are you pulling back on your email marketing programs or direct mail campaigns? Maybe your marketing budget is being diverted and invested in alternative strategies such as a fallout bunker or survival gear.

Or, is it business as usual. Are your strategies for the year proceeding as planned? Focused on the economy and going to market with new products or services. Striving to retain your customer base and acquire new customers.

However you and your organization have elected to approach the year, let’s make it a great year! Let’s make it an extremely productive and positive year…one of the best years in the history of our organizations. That’s how we going to approach the year and I have the feeling we won’t be alone.

Here’s to a great year! I hope we all experience much joy and success in 2012 and for many years to come.