“Fake it ’till you make it?” Not anymore.

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This isn’t a business post.  This is about who you are and who you want to be.  This is about getting closer to the ‘you’ that, over time, becomes shellacked with years of “professionalism” and “real world” experience.  This is about the distance between who you’ve become and who you know you are deep down inside.  This is about authenticity.

Forgive the poor image–taken from Joe Pine’s truly outstanding book: Authenticity.  It’s called the “Real-Fake” matrix and is Pine’s method of categorizing four distinct types/traits of a person’s authenticity (the same matrix can be applied to a business or service as well).  And it matters–especially because we live in a world in which authenticity is a manipulated medium.

Anything can be manipulated to appear authentic or real.  Dos Equis beer commercials (“Stay thirsty my friends”) include “authentic” film footage of The Most Interesting Man doing everything from playing chess to rapping with Buddhist monks.  Grainy, hand-held, Super 8 stuff that renders the feel of a by-gone era and looks authentic.  Nike manipulates an image of a small boy leaping off the high dive for the first time, or a basketball player’s lonely evening on the court, or a runner’s zen-like journey across the Brooklyn Bridge–and we’re pulled in to their stories.  Sizzler manipulates it’s image and wedges itself in to the food truck community.  Pauly D (yes THAT Pauly D) manipulates his image and becomes a DJ superstar.  We’ve never had more or better resources for manipulating the ways that the world perceives who we are, what we do, how we live, what we dream, and what we sell.  We live vicariously through these manipulations, fabricating a post-modern construct in which the manipulated reality becomes preferred because it is manipulated to align itself with the one thing the viewer craves: An authentic experience.  

These manipulations work because they make us both envious and aware of people living lives we’d like to be living as well as the shameful fact that we’re not.

Defining “Authenticity” is harder than it sounds, hence the inclusion of Pine’s diagram.  The literal definition has something to do with credibility and “unquestionable evidence.”  On an emotional level our gut tells us when something’s authentic–there’s a deep trust and confidence in the authentic person.  Holden Caulfield defined it in reverse, simply noting that the world is full of “phonies.”  Pine takes a more appropriately clinical and developmental approach:

Upper Left Corner: Real-Fake.  This is the person who talks a good game and delivers on his promises–and is probably very good at whatever he does. But, when the dust settles, the promises aren’t kept.  Commitments aren’t met.  Integrity suffers.  It’s false fire. It’s empty because the authenticity core is missing.  There’s no soul.

Lower Left Corner: Fake-Fake.  The worst of the worst.  Total deception.  This is the person who lies to you and also lies to himself or herself.  There’s no commitment.  There’s no passion.  There’s nothing but a series of fake shells overlaying each other with a ghosty core at the center.

Lower Right Corner: Fake-Real.  I find this to be the most challenging sector of the grid.  We’ve all done things that we may have felt weren’t exactly “in line” with our authentic aspirations.  We’ve all worked jobs just to pay the bills when our heart has told us, and we knew on a gut level, that we were born to follow a different passion and path.  Many of us do this right now.  And that alone is not a bad thing.  I’m not coming down on anyone that punches the clock, feeds a family, and takes care of their future despite the fact that they’d rather be a surfer or painter.  But the question is “Can you get closer to being true to yourself?”  Fake-Real simply means that what the world sees is not who you really are.  It’s a false front that rooted in a very true core.  Reconciliation leads to the final and best alignment.

Upper Right Corner: Real-Real.  You are who you are.  The Real McCoy.  You’re comfortable in your own skin.  There’s no division between what the world sees and what’s inside your heart.  Artifice and manipulation are out the window and have been replaced with true authenticity.  Suddenly you’re the hero in your own story and the world knows it.  And trusts it.

People throw the word “authentic” around these days to the point that the word itself is in danger of become an artifice.  And time goes by very quickly.  Being true to yourself and what you do is trickier than it sounds given the normal demands that life puts on all of us.  Yet not asking hard questions about the authenticity of who we are, what we do, and how we live leaves us vulnerable to the suggestion that a manipulated reality, manufactured dreams, and artificial lives are somehow more attractive than the gifts we’ve been given.  

Rudy’s: How a barbershop mastered social media before it existed

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In the late 80’s and early 90’s Seattle was, by all accounts, a very ugly place.  Fuzzy loud music was the deal and grooming wasn’t part of it (flannel, yes.  flat top, no).  I was, however, applying for a job and needed a trim.  A retro-looking add in The Stranger caught my eye.  Looked “vintage” and advertised a $10 buzz cut.  There was something both out-of-place and intriguing about the concept–what appeared to be the type of old-school barbershop that smells like hair tonic and cigar smoke existing in the middle of the apotheosis of slobbish Northwest metal mania.  Years later Rudy’s Barbershop has expanded in to a multi-located network of branded, profitable barbershops and boutique hotel stores.  They’ve even expanded into the ‘burbs.  From a marketing standpoint they initially accomplished this type of successful growth without Twitter or Facebook or any ‘viral video’ production.  Back then ‘social media’ meant great word-of-mouth buzz.  Rudy’s knew, however, that the secret to staying alive was to create a defined identity that deeply engage their customers.

So how did a low-budget barbershop in a mossy corner of the country connect so well with its customers, expand rapidly and profitably, while staying true to it’s core vision?  Moreover,  now that we have a social media network and highly connected consumers,  how can a small business create the type of customer engagement that Rudy’s generated without a single tweet?  There are five things that Rudy’s did and does exceptionally well and that you can use to improve your business’ level of social media engagement.

1.  Define Yourself.  Rudy’s created a unique point-of-view and identity.  It’s rock and roll.  It’s creative.  It’s in a warehouse or an old gas station.  It’s wallpapered with gig posters.  The barbers are inked up and cool.  They’ll bullshit with you and it won’t be stuffy.  The price is right and they’re almost always open.  That’s what the owners wanted–a place that was fast, inexpensive, and community based.  They created a social hub of sorts with a very distinct look, feel, and perspective.  

If you don’t want to get lost in the social media shuffle then your business must have a clear perspective, identity, niche.  A point-of-view in terms of services, content sharing, culture, and customer engagement not only creates a memorable pull-through for the customer but incentivizes reciprocity and return visits, follows, re-tweets, sharing.  A defined niche means you know who you are.  Your customers can appreciate the specificity, and you can centralize your content sharing around this niche identity.

2.  Test.  There was no real ‘blueprint’ for Rudy’s expansion strategy.  They knew what worked at the original location.  By the owners’ admission they were terrifically surprised when the original Rudy’s location outpaced it’s capacity.  They decided to open a second location.  They also decided not to mess with the look and feel of their business.  Loyalty was high, customer’s loved a cheap hair cut, and it was fun to hang out in Rudy’s.  The type of experience they created at location #2 was virtually identical to the original.  It worked just as well.  Location #2 was an instant smash and quickly led to a third and fourth opening.  The expansion test proved the owners right: they were on to something that connected.

Defining a niche is one thing but testing it’s market validity is the real proof of it’s ability to engage.  Thankfully the social world is a transparent world and it’s easy to determine how far your message is reaching and how deeply it’s being pushed into your consumer’s networks.  If, for example, a shared video connects and is suddenly re-tweeted hundreds of times then you may have content engagement that works for you.  But a one-time spike in engagement isn’t enough to sustain a social media campaign.  It has to happen every day.  You’ll have to test and re-test the reach and relevance of your shared items to ensure the messaging remains consistent and is consistently shared.

3.  Create Without Compromise.  These days every Rudy’s looks more or less the same (hotel locations notwithstanding due to other influences).  The locations are cool, the barbers are hip, the walls are still plastered with posters, and the music is still metal.  After the original vision took hold the owners decided to allow individual location managers to steer the creative direction of their respective locations.  And, because they’d hired very well, they found folks that understood the balance between calculated risk-taking and staying true to what works.  The result is that each of the 7 locations is distinctly Rudy’s but each has a unique ‘twist’ within that framework.  

You’ve defined a niche, you’ve tested the results, your customers are starting to engage.  Now start to explore the content varieties that exist within your defined identity.  Mix it up.  It SHOULDN’T BE all business (actually it should hardly be any business at all).  Create your identity as credible, humorous, likeable, reciprocal, community-based, and trust worthy.  Don’t limit your content sharing simply because you think it might stray outside of your niche!  

4.  Re-Test.  When Rudy’s decided to expand from Seattle to California there was an obvious question: Will the fickle, hyper trendy people of L.A. latch on to the punk-rock barbershop from the Northwest?  L.A. is a different beast.  True to their vision, however, Rudy’s opened their first California location.  The success was almost immediate.  The original vision worked.  Markets change.  Customers change.  But without an original concept of how they wanted to engage their clients the Rudy’s L.A. location may very well have been lost in the shuffle.

There’s nothing ‘plug and play’ about engaging your customers.  Especially in the real time.  Social media planning requires constant monitoring and evaluation as to whether messaging remains relevant, shareable, and true to the original vision.  If the message isn’t connecting then it’s time to take a fresh perspective on what people are talking about and the ways to better align your company’s social identity with their engagement expectations.

5.  Launch.  In the last few years Rudy’s became more than a barbershop.  It evolved in to a brand (although one may argue it was that from the start).  The Standard Hotel connected with Rudy’s on a collaborative project based on ‘The Rudy’s Experience.’  The Standard introduced lifestyle products: hats, sunglasses, logo wear, and pomade.  The Ace Hotel did the same.  Over the years the customer engagement, consistent messaging, and clear company vision outgrew the company itself.  

Most small businesses don’t have a ‘cool’ factor that ends up in a hotel.  But they can create their own brand of service based on a clear set of identities, principles, and actions.  In order to create a Rudy’s-level of customer engagement, however, an owner’s vision and strategy must be solid and tested and re-tested.  Auto-posts and auto-DMs don’t have the same level of emotional connection that personalized engagement accomplishes.  A social media strategy designed to engage has to always feel real to the consumer if they’re going to help co-create your brand.

There was a time when it was impossible to be The Mayor of Rudy’s in as much as it was equally impossible to tell the world that #Rudy’sRules while giving them the big thumbs up.  All anyone knew was that Rudy’s was creating something unique that felt good–it was a unique experience that connected with you on an emotional level and kept you coming back.  Any small business can take a similar journey with the right plan, a unique message, and a clear appreciation for the impact that true customer engagement has on long term growth and profitability.

10 Leadership Skills for an Uncertain Future

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The second edition of Bob Johansen’s exemplary book on future leadership skills was just released.  Leaders Make the Future is a Futurists’ perspective of the skill set that successful leaders will need in the next ten years.  It evaluates the impact on leadership  that digital natives, cloud-based super computing, and an economic shift toward a “global well being economy” will create.  The book is outstanding.  Unlike a paint-by-numbers “business book,” Johansen makes no claim on having “The Answer.”  Rather, he recognizes that we are living in an age defined by what he calls VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity (feel familiar?).

Johansen argues that future leadership will be in part defined by one’s ability to comfortably exist in, and evolve with these four traits.  Great leaders will, in his opinion, do the following:

Volatilty to Vision: Leaders will have the ability to see past short term volatility toward a broader vision of what’s possible

Uncertainty to Understanding: Leaders will understand and manage causal forces that create uncertainty and be ‘ok’ existing in uncertainty

Complexity to Clarity: Leaders will create simple solutions that work

Ambiguity to Agility: Leaders will have the ability and desire to change as needed (often on the fly and in the face of failure)

The four tenets lay the groundwork for Johansen’s specific detailing of futurist leadership skills.  They include:

1.  Maker Instinct: The need to exploit our inner drive to build and grow things while connecting with others that can assist.

2.  Clarity: One’s ability to see through a messy or contradictory situation and determine the best courses of action

3.  Dilemma Flipping: Unlike a problem–that can be fixed or solved, a dilemma has no clear solution.  Futurist leaders will recognize the difference and create advantages and opportunities rather than solutions.

4.  Immersive Learning: Futurist leaders will immerse themselves in unfamiliar environments in order to learn from them while enriching their own learning paradigm.

5.  Bio-Empathy: The ability to see things from Nature’s point-of-view to better understand, and respect Nature’s patterns.

6.  Constructive Depolarizing: Future leaders will have the ability to calm tense situations where differences dominate and communication has broken down.

7.  Quiet Transparency: The ability to be open and authentic about what matters to you without advertising yourself.

8.  Rapid Prototyping: Leaders will innovate and create quickly.  They’ll be ok with failure–recognizing that future successes will be build on these failures.

9.  Smart Mob Organizing: Future leaders will create, engage, and grow shared assets that benefit other players in the interest of allowing higher level competition.

10.  Commons Creating: One’s ability to seed, nuture, and grow shared assets among Smart Mob communities that eventually allow higher level competition.

Johansen envisions a business future in which traditional attitudes and definitions of ‘success’ are antiquated and, in many cases, obstacles.  As he writes in the Harvard Business Review:

“Self-interest and competition will not be enough.  Business leaders will still need to drive revenue, increase efficiency, and resolve conflicts, but financial mandates (I win/you lose) won’t be enough.  Leaders must expand their view of self and embrace the shared assets and opportunities around them — not just the individual takeaways that will reward them alone.  Leaders must learn to give ideas away, trusting that they will get even more back in return.” (HBR Blog, May 2010).

Keep Calm: “Robsten is Unbroken”

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 Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, Edward and Bella, true love on and off the screen–in shambles!?  If you paid any attention to Twitter this week then you know that it was nearly impossible to miss the avalanche of posts having to do with the rumored affair between Kristen Steward and the director of Snow White and the Huntsmen.  As the story broke and continued to develop fans around the world rallied around Stewart and Pattinson–tweeting their support, disbelief, hopeful well wishes, and outright anger at the magazines publishing the details.  “Robsten is Unbroken” became their battle-cry.  For 13 HOURS “Robsten is Unbroken” was in the top 10 trending phrases on Twitter.  The Stewart/Pattinson ‘brand’ galvanized the Twitterverse for over half a day!  THAT is brand affinity.  THAT is brand strength.  And, perhaps, the truest expression of fan loyalty is the extent to which the fans themselves will fight to preserve the brand when things get rough.  

The question is: Would your “fans,” your customers, do the same for your business brand?

Many small businesses attempt to measure ‘customer satisfaction.’  They have indexes and ranking and percentage point systems that measure “VOC.”  It’s not uncommon to hear a business owner say “We have a 95% customer satisfaction score.” Which is great.  Don’t get me wrong.  Any feedback is better than none.  The more important question, however, is how much new business do those 95% satisfied customer create after the survey is completed?  It’s one thing for a customer to be satisfied and altogether another for that same customer to feel emotionally compelled to help grow the company that provided a service.  Satisfaction is not the same as brand affinity.

Brand affinity begins the moment at which a business becomes meaningful in the customer’s eyes.  Meaningful.  Not competent.  Not friendly.  Meaningful.  Brand affinity begins the moment at which the customer feels that their well-being is improved.  When they’ve learned something that enriches them.  When something funny happens (and it’s genuine).  When they feel good.  When there’s an ethical connection.  It’s a connection that has almost nothing to do with a product or service but, rather, an intimate emotional connection with the business and people involved.  

Making the shift from “customer satisfaction” to true brand affinity demands that a business Owner ask a tough question: “If our customers are so happy then why aren’t we living off of referrals and non-stop customer loyalty?”  Unfortunately, for many small businesses the answer is that the customer is far less committed to the company’s well-being than their customer satisfaction survey indicates.  Time to change.  Get meaningful.  That’s how to win.

It’s Time to Re-Brand the Service Sector!

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According to Forbes Magazine:

“The dearth of skilled workers threatens national infrastructure and industrial competitiveness. The nation is severely short on operations and maintenance workers who create, run, and troubleshoot everything from storm sewers to nuclear reactors. Ditto for the utilities, transmission, and pipeline workers.

For anyone in the trades this isn’t news.  There’s been a shortage of talented candidates for a long time.  It’s partially our fault.  The trades aren’t known for high-paying jobs, solid benefits, or clear paths to career advancement (even though the better companies offer these advantages).  While the short term problems are obvious–come-and-go employees, an older workforce, and employees that just sort of “fell” in to the trades–the traditional means of solving them have not created the level of enthusiasm needed to attract the best and brightest job-seekers.  It’s time to change the perception of what it means to work in a trade and re-dignify the effort and skills required to succeed in these fields.  It’s time to re-brand and re-design the concept of what it means to be in “the trades” by looking back to a time when the men and women that worked with the tools were American Heroes.

Ingenuity!  Working with your hands is a physical expression of solving practical problems.  Anyone who has worked in the field knows what I’m talking about.  An Installer or Service Technician is responsible for applying a manufactured product in an unfamiliar work space.   Walking in to a customer’s home or a commercial setting with little more than field notes or a set of plans means you have to expect the unexpected.  And the job has to get done on time and hopefully under budget.  This isn’t a task for fools!  It requires creativity, communication skills, trouble shooting, an attention to conduct and detail, and a never-say-quit attitude toward the task.  In an attic, in a crawlspace, in red weather, on crowded sites–the people that make it happen in these situations demonstrate a remarkable level of ingenuity and experienced ‘smarts’ by combining their physical skills with their intellectual aptitude.  

Strength! Not just the “lift heavy things” type of strength (although that doesn’t hurt).  I’m talking about the kind of strength it takes to get up every morning, punch the clock, get in that van, keep your tools sharp and clean, maintain an exemplary level of professional conduct, and do what it takes to get the job done right.  Every day.  Even under tough circumstances.  I’m talking about the kind of ethical strength that says “I’m not quitting until I know the job’s done right and the customer is satisfied.”  The kind of strength needed to deal with a huge variety of personalities and expectations.  The strength that grows inside a person after the work is completed and he steps back and smiles at a job well done.  It’s what a person feels from a specific type of pride-of-ownership: “I did this.  This is MY work.”  Physical strength, yes.  But that’s not tough to find.  Rather, spiritual, soulful, ethical strengths that keep a guy going when jobs get bogged down, customers get cranky, and days run long.

Determination!  As the poster says: “They don’t know all the answers but they’re willing to learn!”  There aren’t any dot-com billionaires in the trades.  There are, however, thousands of men and women who know what it’s like to pay their dues to reach a level of respect and accomplishment.  There are countless journeymen who pushed brooms in warehouses.  There are armies of service technicians who spent their time and money in trade schools across the country learning the theory and application of their profession before entering the workforce.  There are legions of master installers who started out as duct cleaners and ‘crawl rats’ before earning their stripes.  The trades have never been a place to find a one-rung ladder.  But they have been a place where, by the time people reach a level of mastery, they know the scope of their job like the back of their hand.  And that’s rare.  And worth promoting.  

Stability! Unlike the tech sector the trades can’t be outsourced.  Again, according to Forbes: “The U.S. labor market lost 687,000 high-tech manufacturing jobs to overseas production — that’s a 28% decrease in the base of American talent capable of producing high-tech goods since 2000.”  Over one quarter of high-tech positions have gone elsewhere.  In today’s economy job stability is at a premium.  A stable job that pays a fair wage means peace-of-mind and the ability to build a future.  It means never having to hear: “We’re moving our service department to Indonesia this year, sorry.”  These days, that type of security is invaluable.

There was a time when America needed to fill factories with men and women.  We had to mobilize, make things, and protect our future.  Everything was at stake.  Ordinary people became heroes who rallied behind the most important cause imaginable.  In the course of this mobilization American’s found dignity and  purpose against a backdrop of global instability.  America has done this before–we just lost sight of the trade’s true nobility.  It’s time to hire heroes again.

Chick-Fil-A’s Epic Social Media Fail (or: A Quick Lesson in Reputation Management)

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Chick-Fil-A has taken a lot of heat recently following its president’s remarks regarding marriage equality.  President Dan Cathy described himself as “guilty as charged” when it comes to supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”  Politicians, religious leaders, and pro-gay marriage advocates condemned Mr. Cathy’s remarks as bigoted and unwelcome.  The Jim Henson Company quickly elected to remove their toys from Chick-Fil-A locations as a way to demonstrate their disgust with the president’s position on the issue.

Rather than deal with the Henson Company’s decision in an open manner, Chick-Fil-A released a ham-handed statement that “there were reports of children getting their fingers stuck in the holes of the puppets.”  It was a hack move on their part and did little else than foment distrust for the company.  In an effort to stem the bad press Chick-Fil-A turned to Facebook as a potential means of repairing their reputation.  

Using a stock photo image, Chick-Fil-A invented a Facebook user.  They named her “Abby Farle” (see picture and posts above).  “Abby” began to participate in Facebook discussions regarding the Henson Company debacle.  She attempted to correct facts and dates.  She posted bible verse (John 3:16).  She tried to correct the vocal critics.  Until they wised up and did a little fact checking.

The sham was exposed.  “Abby’s” Facebook account was only 8 hours old.  Her picture was quickly determined to be a Shutterstock image.  Her posts were clearly those of a PR zombie that had been given marching orders to use social media in order to help salvage the company’s reputation among networked consumers.  And it failed.  And then it went viral.  Twitter powerhouses Gizmodo and Mashable had a hey-day mocking Chick-Fil-A’s brainless attempt to manage its reputation.  On-line readers had a good laugh at “Abby” and her robot charm.  Not only did Chick-Fil-A take a severe blow in the press, but they also became the Uber Epic Social Fail of the Moronic Moment among connected consumers and digerati.  

A business leader is entitled to his opinion on moral, ethical, and policy issues.  Should they be shared with the world?  Arguably not.  But once the opinion is “out there” a business has a simple choice to make: Take the heat and stand behind the opinion OR apologize to the customer, community, constituents, and shareholders and move on.  Attempting to dupe consumers using social media, falsifying identities, and disingenuous PR nonsense, however, only creates another layer of distrust between the consumer and the organization while further harming the company’s integrity.  The on-line community is smart and it moves information through networks at wicked speeds.  Fact checking and bullshit detecting occur in the immediacy of a conversation and can be merciless.

Like it or not any business is a social business.  We have better mechanisms to capture and accelerate the social nature of the business than we’ve ever had before.  In an age of such tremendous transparency this type of acceleration can either legitimize a company’s reputation or discredit the business as furtive, slimy, and out of touch with a modern consumer.  You can’t hate on the Muppets and you can’t lie to your audience.  Stings a little, doesn’t it Mr. Cathy?

Brand Expectations Have Changed: Have You Changed With Them?

We’re living in a hyper-connected world.  Linear brand strategies for a small business have become dwarfed by the radical, multi-dimensional, highly mobile consumer influences.  21st century consumers all have smart phones.  They all have cameras.  They all have video recording devices in our pockets.  And they share their brand experiences on the fly inside of a network ranging from Twitter to Pinterest to Foursquare to Facebook.  Social sharing has increased the level of responsibility that a business owner must assume in order to maintain contemporary brand relevance and intimacy.  A company brand now faces a fundamental challenge couched in emotional terms:

                                                  The expectation of a brand is that is it far more intimate.

Intimate.  A word once associated with very personal emotions is the new standard for brand strength.  A level of emotional intimacy with a consumer will be the gauge by which today’s consumer will measure successful brands.  And it’s happening right now.

Successful brands will surprise their audience.  They will challenge the normal expectations of how their brand functions on a product and service level.  They will excite the customer by reflecting the customer.  And they will involve the customer in the intuitive process of co-creating their brand message and delivery.  We’ve seen the biggest and best already win at this game.  Nike+, Mini, Domino’s Pizza, Coca-Cola, Volkswagon–they’ve all adjusted their branding message, product position, and consumer connection.  They’ve also used massive budgets to make it happen.  On a smaller scale, savvy business owners can take the first steps toward similar ends by following a three-step process for re-defining their company brand.

Step 1: Define a Company Brand Strategy Around a ‘Why’ Before a ‘What’

What a company does is always obvious.  ‘Install HVAC products.’  ‘Service Equipment.’  ‘Solar.’  ‘Make money.’  These are the outward expressions of a product/service company.  They are also easily viewed as a commodity in the marketplace.  A reinvented brand strategy, however, goes deeper than a function.  It aims to have a purpose, a cause, a battle-cry.  “Enrich our customer’s life.”  “Support the well-being of our community.”  “Improve lifestyles.”  “Live better.”  Asking a ‘Why’ question forces a business to re-evaluate the purpose for the work rather than simply sell the work itself.  In the process of asking ‘Why’ the business undergoes a re-evaluation that will eventually reshape every single business function that touches a customer.  The ‘Why’ becomes the basis for a new brand identity that creates differentiation and a multi-faceted branding opportunity.

Step 2: Content Curation

This is about determining the touch points or access points through which a customer will participate in the company brand, the company ‘Why.’  Thankfully there’s no shortage of ways to create these channels.  Start with the obvious: Does the staff share the vision and do they understand their role in communicating/executing the brand ‘Why’ with customers?  Does the company have mechanisms to share this brand position easily?  Is the company utilizing available technology to extend the brand message as far as possible?  And, most importantly, are these touch points consistent and repeatable?  The level and types of connected sharing allows terrific levels of transparency, consumer involvement, and brand co-creation.  They key is to strategically design these touch points to maximize exposure without diluting the strength of the brand’s position in the market.

Step 3: Production

The down-and-dirty brass tacks of making it happen.  It’s very easy to brainstorm a million great ideas.  It’s altogether another thing to execute the plan and produce the results.  If a business wants to drive their lifestyle brand using Pinterest then someone must be responsible for curating and managing the pin board.  A company that intends to integrate their field staff using video sharing needs to have a consistent way to create quality videos, manage the content, ensure the messaging is aligned with the brand message, and share the results.  A simple blog (I’m in to Tumblr.) needs to have fresh, brand related content updated on a regular basis.  Producing a brand doesn’t simply happen–there’s no flip-of-the-switch and ‘ta da’ we have a new brand.  It grows over time and reflects a clear vision, defined messaging, varied touch points, and solid execution.

One of the comments that I frequently hear from my clients is “I don’t sell a product, I sell my company.”  And I agree.  A company is something to be extremely proud of–especially a good one.  But what they fail to realize is that the company itself is a product (if not THE product) in question.  By the time a salesperson sits down with a homeowner that homeowner is already in the process of making a purchase.  At that point they’re making evaluation-based decisions: Is this project in my budget?  Do I trust these people?  Am I making the right decision? Can I find a better deal elsewhere?  The purpose of a deeply defined brand is to help shape the customer’s understanding of what it means to partner with a company.  The purpose of a deeply defined brand is to create a greater level of transparency and intimacy with a consumer so they feel like they’re part of something more significant than ‘Product X.’  And the purpose of a deeply defined brand is to stimulate an emotional response from the consumer toward the brand/company in question.  None of this can be accomplished by looking, sounding, and feeling like every other competitor in the marketplace.  

For years marketing and advertising companies have attempted to motivate customers with incentives, images, and explanations as to why they are the best choice (“Lowest prices!” “We’ll beat the competition’s price!” “Your comfort experts!”).  These days, however, the predictable outbound messages are commodities themselves and fail to create the sustained response and intense loyalty that businesses need to survive.  In today’s economy a company/brand simply must do more than register as a blip on a radar.  In order to improve the overall level of meaning and relevance, small businesses must begin to re-think the nature of who they are, what they stand for, how they deliver this brand proposition, and how easily they’ll let consumers aide in co-creating something truly unique.  

You’re “Family Owned and Operated?” No kidding. Tell the REAL story.

At the small business level 99% of my clients are “family owned and operated.”  And that’s a very good thing.  These companies reflect a dream, are manifested out of risk and guts, and eventually solidify into something real for a variety of reasons.  The owner has vision.  The customer service is impeccable.  The staff reflect a culture based on ethics, loyalty, honesty, and skill.  The drive to succeed is relentless.  It has to be.  The market suffers no fools (at least not for long).

So why do people reduce their business brand or company story to something as empty as “family owned and operated” when they’re at the kitchen table?  Perhaps they assume that the customer understands the terribly hard work needed to actually BE in business in the first place.  Maybe they assume that the customer will connect the dots between a “family owned” business and a higher level of ethical conduct.  Maybe they don’t know what else to say!  Or, worse yet, they may simply feel the customer doesn’t care.

The fact is, any business–regardless how big or small–started with a Founder and a Founder’s vision.  His or her story.  And there’s value in it.  There’s differentiation.  There’s power in the fact that small business success is NOT accidental.  There’s nothing random about it.  And it should never be reduced to a one-line talking point.  For example:

A client in South Carolina started his business in 1964.  He borrowed money from his father-in-law, who allowed the young man to work out of a barn in the middle of his farm.  A barn.  A dirt floor.  Sheet metal tools.  And nothing else.  Over 50 years later he’s still in business.  Retired.  Wealthy.  He’s passed the business to his son-in-law.  He still goes to the office (when he’s not fishing!).  Last year he built a new facility for his company.  When it came time to decide a location he elected to put the new building exactly where the barn had been.  And in his own office he elected to leave an entire patch of exposed dirt next to his desk.  When I asked him why he smiled, sat back, stared at the ceiling and said: “Cause I never want to forget where I came from.”  We both almost cried.

I hear stories like this all the time in cities and states across the country.  They’re all different in the details but they all have a few things in common: An owner who had a dream, a busted down truck and a lot of early mornings and very late nights.  They’re all woven together with a thread of dignity and determination that has outlasted the original vision and has transformed into something greater.  Yet at the core is belief, faith, and guts.   “Family owned and operated,” yes, but the story is so much richer and important that it deserves to be told because of what it represents.

Unless you play the lottery success is not accidental.  Nor should a successful small business be reduced to anything other than what it truly is: heroic.  It’s’ time to put “family owned and operated” away.  Tell a Founder’s Story.  Tell a story about dreams, risk, work, care, pride.  Tell a story about determination, attitude, great people, and customer’s that help make it possible.  Go big with the story for it deserves that level of accolade and celebration.  Show your company for what it truly is–a manifestation of a vision, an expression of personal passion that burns like fuel every second of every day.  Never be bashful, never be shy, never reduce what’s hard-earned to that which is commonplace.  And never forget where you came from.

Transmedia Storytelling: Game of Thrones, Professionall Wrestling, and the Future of Advertising

A significant and exciting shift is occurring in marketing and advertising.  It’s a shift away from one-off ad spots, direct mail, incremental television and radio promotions, and incentive-driven offers.  It’s a shift away from disconnected media and fragmented messaging.  It’s a shift toward layered, sensory, interactive, ‘transmedia’ storytelling.  And it’s the future of advertising for any business.

Transmedia storytelling (or transmedia advertising) is the process of designing a layered narrative using various types of communication with the aim of creating multiple consumer access points while simultaneously creating an interactive narrative that engages the consumer in a storyline.  It’s the process of creating a mini-plot line around a topic, individual, product, or event and then extending that storyline into a variety of media.  The good news: It’s really not that complicated.  The better news: It’s proving to be a whole heck of a lot more effective than a direct mail piece (in the trash!), stock content, or a television ad (who watches ads anymore anyway??).  If you’re a fan of either Game of Thrones or professional wrestling then you may have already participated in two brilliant examples of transmedia storytelling.

Game of Thrones is an epic fantasy set in the mythic land of Westeros.  The novels were already acclaimed and had throngs of fans when HBO decided to launch the series.  Their transmedia promotion tactics involved creating a five step, sensory-based story for people to engage.  They wanted fans to truly experience Westeros and they designed their campaign as such:

1.  Scent.  How do you make a television show smell (other than bad writing)?  HBO sent journalists, bloggers, and high level influencers a hand-crafted wooden box.  Inside the box there were scrolls, maps, vials, “potions,” and other things one might find in a Westeros spice market.  The contents looked as if they’d been transported from a fkingdom.  And they smelled like an ancient world.  They smelled as if they were from another place.

2.  Sound.  Game of Thrones created an interactive sound environment called ‘The Inn at the Crossroads’ and made it available on the Game of Thrones/HBO website.  Users could interact with ‘The inn’ and hear the creaking doors, the clinking mugs of ale, the squeaking floorboards, and the the cackling drunkards clanging swords.  It brilliantly pulled you in to each room, each staged area of ‘The Inn’ and compelled you to imagine the characters making the raucous noises.

3. Sight.  One of the central locations in Game of Thrones is The Wall–a massive sheet of ice that John Snow is assigned to defend.  Designers used Flash to create an interactive visual of The Wall.  Users were able to navigate its narrow, deathly passages.  They could rest in small towers.  They could meet the Nights Watch on their outposts.  They themselves wore ‘the black’ for a short period of time and understood the desolate danger on The Wall.

4. Touch.  Game of Thrones designers used a simple weather application to create an iPad app for Westeros.  The app allowed a user to see the temperatures throughout the kingdom as they changed throughout the day.  “Winter is coming” is the Stark family motto and so it makes sense that it was much colder in Winterfell than in other places.  Was the user able to literally be cold?  No.  Were they able to project their own understanding of temperature extremes?  Absolutely!  Ultimately the user understood that it requires a certain type of fortitude to survive in a frozen wasteland.

5.  Taste.  Other than smell, taste is the most difficult sense for a tv program to connect with.  Producers worked with a famous chef, Tom Colicchio, to create a thematic menu based on the foods in each kingdom in Westeros.  In a brilliant move, HBO decided to execute the menus in food trucks throughout New York and Los Angeles.  Locations were leaked on the Game of Thrones websites, menus were posted on-line, and people lined up to taste the fantasy!!  First class.

Game of Thrones’ transmedia storytelling set a standard for creative power and execution.  On a social scale, yet equally effective, professional wrestling employs low-budget transmedia narratives to keep fans on the hook.

WWE is a billion-dollar business.  The pay-per-view events are wildly popular and fans fervently align themselves with the wrestlers.  To extend fan loyalty and engagement further, the WWE uses Twitter to continue the on-going friendships, rivalries, and feuds that fuel so much of the WWE’s fan loyalty.

John Ceda and The Rock are two wrestlers that are more than wrestlers.  They’re Personalities, Stars.  And they both use the WWE Twitter handle to extend their own comments, observations, to the fans.  Moreover, when not wrestling, they let the fans in to their personal lives.  The Rock shares photos of his film work with the fans.  John Ceda shares workout and fitness tips.  And they BOTH continue to extend the ‘in the ring’ storyline into the Twitterverse.  Fans can watch a match and then follow WWE on Twitter to participate in the after-match conversation: what’s next for the grudge match?  Who’s the real villain in the ring?  Was The Rock sucker punched? How did Ceda feel about the things that were said about him?  And on and on and on. WWE is the perfect medium for transmedia storytelling because it is, at it’s core, story based.  Social media has proven to be a mandatory component of transmedia engagement and it’s low cost access is perfect for small businesses.

Every business, regardless of how big or small, tech or not tech, has a story to tell–has it’s own narrative.  There are characters on stage, there is a plot line, there are extras, and there is an audience.  Game of Thrones captured this diversity using a sensory story.  WWE captures their unique culture by simply extending the match to Twitter.  Both understand that loyal fans want to experience a heightened level of richness before, during, and after an event.  Small business can capitalize on the same momentum that transmedia storytelling creates in a few easy steps:

1.  Design a storyline.  Regardless of the product or service it provides a small business has a storyline.  Customer has need, business supplies need, customer is thrilled, story ends well.  OR, owner has a dream, creates company, delivers amazing service, customers are thrilled.  There’s no one best answer to the storyline, but it should be customer-centric in that you want to engage the end user in something they truly care about.

2.  Determine the story arc.  Beginning, middle, end?  Beginning, conflict, climax, resolution?  Transmedia storytelling succeeds because of it’s sequential design.  It creates enough tension for the audience to say “I want to see what’s next!”  That entails specific design features that pull the audience in to the action.

3.  Determine the media access points.  A story starts anywhere.  A Website video that leads to Twitter.  A Twitter post that leads to a blog.  A blog that gives hints about finding specials in a newsletter.  A newsletter that has embedded clues for a promotion.  The fun part of a transmedia journey is designing and embedding the messages in to a variety of interactive media.  

4.  Involve the players.  Transmedia succeeds because it involves ‘actors’ instead of boring stock photo image.  Involving the people that do the work and receive the service is a sure-fire way to both humanize the story and show the audience the diversity of a business.  The message is controlled, yes, but the way it’s delivered should ultimately be about the characters in the story.

5.  Keep it going.  The best stories never end.  Game of Thrones is a sprawling series.  I’m half way through Book 4 and don’t want it to end.  WWE understands this as well.  Many small businesses, however, don’t extend their advertising campaigns throughout the year.  They run them in the spring and fall–if that.  Transmedia storytelling succeeds in part because the audience sticks with the story for a longer period of time.  They have more chances to participate, more opportunities to get to know the players, the track the storyline.  And in the process they’re pulled deeper into a business and develop richer loyalty.

Traditional advertising creates ‘spike’ consumer interest–here today, gone tomorrow.  It simply fails to sustain long-term loyalty and interest.  Meanwhile, connected consumers are both highly informed and significantly less interested in boring, promotion-based advertising.  They can find it anywhere and tune it out at any time.  They want to be engaged and they want a unique experience.  The future of advertising will not be simple content-based services, stock photos, boilerplate content that everyone seems to be using.  It won’t.  The future of advertising will be based on connecting with consumers via an engaging series of interactive touch points that tell a cohesive product and service story.  In the process, the business becomes more than a business–it becomes an experience. The audience becomes loyal, interested customers. And the plot line evolves towards greater and greater success. 

Don’t Bore Your Audience!

 

 

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Don’t bore your audience.  Nice sounding.  Hard to disagree with.  Nobody likes to be bored (I can’t stand it).  And nobody really wants to spend time with people that are boring.  It’s a tricky thing though, boredom.  There aren’t any clinical causes of boredom–at least none that I can find.  But you know when you’re bored, and you generally know why:

1.  A lack of variety: the landscape never changes

2. A lack of personal investment or connection: you don’t feel like you have a stake in the game

3. A lack of incentive: no reward

4. A lack of relevance: Immediacy is non-existent

5. A lack of engagement: The message or activity doesn’t include any form of new-ness

In life these are all preventable circumstances.  You can make the concerted, conscious effort to go do something fresh and fun.  You can take up paddle boarding (harder than it looks, trust me).  You can spend time with people that you’ve neglected to see in a long time.  You can get involved in creative projects.  And, with the right incentive, you ‘Just Do It.’  Boredom disappears the moment you push beyond the ordinary expectations and norms and in to the places you’ve always wanted to explore.  And keep exploring.  In business, however, the challenge is slightly more unique–especially when a customer is involved.  And most especially in sales.

The very worst thing a salesman can imagine is delivering a boring presentation to a customer.  That kind of soul-killing, brain-flattening presentation that sucks the life and energy out of the room is the surest way to kill a deal.  But it happens every day.  Moreover, the very worst thing a customer can imagine is yet ANOTHER bland meeting with another zombie who delivers ANOTHER deflating monologue about how ‘exciting’ and ‘amazing’ their products and services are.  The emotional disconnect doesn’t make sense.  If, in fact, a salesman’s products and services are really that good then shouldn’t there be a little bit of electricity in the presentation?  Shouldn’t the salesman have a little bit of fire in him?  Most importantly, shouldn’t the customer walk away from the meeting feeling some ‘stoke’ about what he just learned?  Selling is an emotional game–on both the part of the salesman and the customer’s behalf.  Boredom will strangle potential.  So shake it up–connect with your customers in a way that defies the doldrums…

1.  Add Variety!!  How many presentations start with a ‘Needs Analysis’ and then proceed down a highly predictable path?  How many salespeople employ a paint-by-numbers tactic to every single presentation?  And how many customers know within seconds that they’re hearing another rote series of steps that are almost guaranteed to lead to the most obvious conclusion?  Sales is organic, and nothing stops a salesperson from altering their structures and content in order to surprise customers.

2. Co-create the solution!  If the customer doesn’t have a stake in the solution, product, service, or benefit then they’ll never commit to the deal.  Nobody wants another top-down pitch.  Involving a customer means relinquishing a certain amount of control.  In so doing, however, a deeper and richer relationship occurs.  

3.  Make the incentive meaningful!  Most salespeople leverage a predictable set of incentives to encourage a sale.  They leverage cost savings, reliability, total performance.  But what if the customer isn’t interested in these incentives?  If they have a set of incentive criteria that are outside of the salesman’s ‘value proposition’ then the proposition itself will be irrelevant.  Figure out what really matters to the customer and let them determine the true purchase incentive.

4.  Increase your relevance!  Drop the pitch and assume a customer-centric attitude.  The message should be simple: ‘Everything is built around the customer’s lifestyle.’  Simple as that.  Nobody will buy something that they don’t feel is immediately connected to who they are and how they live.  

5. Raise the information bar.  Today’s customer is well-researched and informed.  The last thing they want to hear is a regurgitation of what they’ve already read on-line.  Information should be fresh, interesting, and uncommon.  The salesperson will have to work a little harder to move away from easy talking points but the reward is worth it.  

Don’t bore your audience.  They’ve given you precious time in order for you to share your services and solutions with them.  It’s the single opportunity to enliven the interaction with clear, lucid, engaging, and relevant information that creates true differentiation.  It’ll require that folks step back and evaluate the extent to which they may be putting their clients to sleep.  But to assume they’re always awake is to create a sales pitfall that does more harm than good.