Saturday, October 29, 2011

Strong brands know it's as much about what you won't do, as what you will.

Lately I've had more conversations than ever with people launching a new business and creating a new brand, or trying to revive and reposition a tired brand. I'm taking it as a sign of our improving economy. And I love the dialogue because so many people, some very successful in business, see "brand" as a marketing thing. It's the logo, right? Or it's the color of their website, that matches the color on their business card. Or it's just that we need a new company story, right? That's the easy part - that's just the skin you show the world.

Brand is as much about what you don't do, as it is what you do.

In her amazing first book, "Different", that many of you have read, Youngme Moon calls the competitive marketplace today a "blur of similarity". Here's the deal I think... when things are tough and we all get scared, we look around the businesses we are in at who's doing what well and gravitate to "our version" of that same place and believe we'll be successful too. Take what's working and tweak it. This "me too" approach might work for a while, but it's not going to blow the doors off. And it's not really a new business.

Having a new idea is hard work.
What customer need is out there that you can fill? What problem or challenge do people have that your product or service can solve?
Simple is good.

If done right, creating the brand around your business idea will be about how it lives, not what colors you employ. ... If you are a quick serve cafe all about healthy refueling, what food will you absolutely not serve? ... If your business is all about human contact and personal service, what should your telephone system not do?

There are tons of great new business ideas out there. In this crazy world customers have more needs, and more specific ones than ever before. Those businesses with the guts to live their big ideas will win. And they will be the same ones who know that it's as much about what they leave out of their offering as it is what they add to it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Look outside your industry ... how do you stack up?

Spent some time today on a call with our team in Tampa, working on the customer experience we want to deliver in our new community, planned to open in mid-2012. We tossed around the usual notions of how to encourage customers to sign up with us, online and in person, so we can learn more about their home and community preferences. Not to hard sell them. Not to spam or e-blast the you know what out of them. But to help us keep learning about what matters to them, so we can continue to create communities that are relevant to changing buyers' needs, and help our customers along the exhausting and challenging home shopping journey.

Should we use tablets?
Should we use tech at all?
How can we make it simple, real time and best of all fun?
How can we integrate online and in-person among the community developer (us) and our builder partners?

As we created the amazing variety of journies our customers will take with us, trying to create a simple and easy approach became more and more complex. We are all customers too, so we inevitably referred back to those iconic customer service experiences held up as gold standards - the "blue shirts" in the Apple store, the seamless airline check-in experience, even some new examples from the automotive world. The discussion was great, and it reminded me of a few simple truths:

  • Customers compare you to their last best customer service experience, regardless of the industry. If you are comparing yourself within an industry, just remember... your customers aren't.

  • Every front of house opportunity has its share of back of house problems ... and they are all worth working through.

  • The kind of thinking needed to do this should make your brain hurt. If it doesn't, you likely aren't thinking hard enough.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Open for business

I had an early appointment this morning before work, and arrived just in time to see the person I was meeting with arrive at her shop. She unlocked her gate, upon which hung a wooden 2-sided sign, "Open/Closed". She flipped it over and the day began.

There's something about the act of flipping over a wooden sign, from Closed to Open at the start of the day. A pace within your own control. Romantic. Tactile. Human. A signal almost lost in this always-on world we all love so much.

It's a different feeling than being in an office where the signal the day has begun is the automatic fluorescent lights turning on at the same prescribed time. Somehow the sign is more human. It doesn't happen without someone actually showing up to turn it over. The lights go on without you - whether you are ready or not. The sign, like my perfect day, waits for me.

The same can be said for the other end of the day. Lights turn out at a time determined to signal the end of a day. Whether or not you are ready, that's the time. Our programmed, timed world is efficient for sure. The metaphor of that rustic wooden sign made me stop and think about how we can keep a little bit more "human" in it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Embrace your "back of house" and create memorable experiences

On weekends when I am batching it alone, one of the things I often do is get take-out from either a favorite Thai place (yellow curry), or a great Italian place. You see, Pam doesn't do curry, and gluten in the pasta doesn't much like her either, so curry and a great pasta dish are things I don't often enjoy, reserved for the weekends she's in Canada with family.

Tonight my to go of choice was Italian, from the best little crazy Italian place, a few miles from my house and right near the beach, Trattoria I Trulli.

I have never been to Tuscany, but I imagine this place is what a real Tuscan villa would be like. Tables crammed close together. Waiters rushing back and forth, turning sideways in the tight space to avoid crashing into each other or their guests. It's loud. It's always busy. There are never enough tables, even when they spill out onto the sidewalk.

Tonight as I sipped my glass of pinot noir at the bar while waiting for my dinner I marveled at how they use their "back of house" to create a sensory front of house experience that explodes with textures, sounds, and color. The bartender handles to go orders, in addition to opening wine, mixing drinks, and preparing after dinner "two decaf cappuccinos" ordered up in passing as a waiter drops of the plates from a meal just finished and seconds later re-appears with four wine glasses, a basket of bread and dip, and wisks a bottle of red off the edge of the bar.

Waiters come and go, through the bar, seen here in this quick photo, from the kitchen to the restaurant. In my short 15-minute wait I witnessed numerous near collisions, and yet never did the pace, the energy, or the passion for what they do slow.

I love this place. It makes me think about how many other "back of house" opportunities could be embraced as part of the front of house effect to create more memorable experiences, not just in dining, but in other businesses too.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Social media puts a point on what every great brand has always done.

I picked up my latest issue of Marketing Management tonight to wind down after another great day sharing the plans, vision and the new name for a community we are creating outside Seattle. Not wanting a huge commitment of time, I flipped to Don E. Schultz's column that I read with interest every issue. A short column, it's always pithy and thought-provoking. Tonight did not disappoint, but I think he missed the point.

His column talks about the whole new world we live in, where the customer has control. He asks, "Is Persuasion Dying?"

That's not the point. That hasn't been the point in meaningful, customer-focused branding for years.

I mean years. Many marketers may have only woken up to this fact in the last 3-5 years, and point to social media as the game changing reason why. But truthfully, all of us, as consumers, have been in control a lot longer than that.

What social media does I think is give those smart brands out there more opportunities to be talked about. You Tubed about. Tweeted about. The core premise of a brand, when truly used as a business asset, has and always will be a promise you make to your customers. It's never been about short-term interchangeable brand concepts that are more ad slogans than anything else, designed to persuade buyers. That's promotional marketing. That's ad copywriting. That's all good too, and it has its place.

The article asserts that social media is the reason why "having one clear, distinct, incontrovertible brand image is becoming harder and harder to develop and maintain". I don't agree at all. Social media simply gives us and our customers more channels and vehicles with which to share and communicate. And that includes communicating about powerful, great experiences we have with brands that work hard to deliver on their promise at every opportunity. It isn't an excuse to not work hard until your brain hurts to find the authentic nugget inside your company or product that connects with and matters to your customer.

That's what this crazy business has always been about. Social media has simply given us a faster, more expansive view into how we are performing as we continue the hard work each day of defining and delivering the promise of our brand. Meeting our customers' needs, while finding ways to co-create with them has always been the heavy lifting of successful businesses. Social media doesn't make it new. It just puts a big giant point on it!