Category Archives: corporate

Optimism, the power of positive thought and the future of your business

I’m an optimist.  I recognised this many years ago and I’ve been reminded of the fact daily ever since.  I look around me, see and hear the responses others have to situations that we are all facing and its obvious that my responses are different.  I don’t know why this should be and and I’m not about to start trying to understand it, but what I do know is that it impacts in many ways on my life and never more so than right now.

With the economies of just about every country now in turmoil every business, anywhere in the world is having to make significant changes.  If you have followed my work for any length of time, you’ll have probably picked up that I like change.  Change is good, same is bad.  You are only as good as your NEXT big idea.  I can’t stand companies who strike it lucky and then settle into the rut of replicating what they did time and time again to milk it for all its worth.  I don’t like them because there is an inevitable consequence to this approach – failure.  The world moves on, customer needs change, attitudes swing, everything is in a state of flux.  It is a very lucky business that has a product that will be equally successful through time with no change at all and right now I can’t even think of one.

I’ve been inside more companies over the years than I could even list and it has become clear to me that successful companies all have a spirit of optimism.  Talk to their employees and their chatter is about HOW they are going to achieve things not WHETHER they can achieve them and that’s simply because they don’t consider for one minute that they won’t get there.  And why should they?  Anything is achievable.  We are our own limitations.

I have never been far away from sports of one kind or another and the great sporting enlightenment of the last few decades has been sports psychology.  At an elite level most athletes have equal capabilities.  What separates them is most often belief in their ability to succeed.  That’s where visualisation plays its part.  Most athletes these days will sit and visualise their success, sometimes for hours.  This conditions their brain so that it doesn’t consider failure as an option and that in turn enables them to perform to their full potential.  It works, but if you don’t believe me consider this.  Within twelve months of Roger Banister achieving the one-minute mile, 37 other runners did the same thing.  What caused this surge of performance after years of believing it was impossible?  The belief that it could be done!  I’ve seen sportspeople who habitually performed below their skill level, transformed.  What’s more, once they realise it’s working it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle – confidence increases, performance increases, success increases, confidence increases etc…   It also works with sportspeople who are not in the elite group, even weekend warriors.

Anyway, back to business and why its clear to me which companies are going to make the transition that will earn them a place in the new world market.

I hear organisations all over the world acknowledging that they have to change to survive, but very few actually end up making the changes that are necessary.  The reason for this is a combination of comfort with the status quo and fear of failure.  Firstly, these organisations don’t have the change culture that I mentioned earlier (You are only as good as your NEXT big idea) so it’s not their habit to constantly look for improvements or changes. Secondly, they are, both individually as employees and on a corporate level terrified of doing something that will go wrong.

This fear is based on the failure to recognise that we are all capable of succeeding at anything.  Anything is possible it’s just a matter of how badly you want it.  If one company can innovate then you can.  It’s just a matter of self-belief.  My advice is, instead of focusing on the potential for failure, turn your attention to the risk of failing to exploit an opportunity, because that’s all that matters.

Attitude change like this has to start at the top.  If you are a manager who accepts failure as inevitable or who doesn’t assume success, you need to pay a visit to a motivator or business psychologist, or you could quit of course if you think you’ll never make the change! (think about that comment, it’s deep)  If you choose to re-focus your mind your next step has to be to eliminate all the doubters in your organisation.  You can do this either by firing or re-training them.  The latter is the best option of course, but you are going to have to focus a great deal of attention on internal marketing to pull it off.

Once you have introduced your organisation to positive thinking you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.  Someone asked one of my contractors this week how sure they were that they would deliver a particular task.  “Absolutely” was the unhesitating reply, but the questioner wasn’t convinced.  “How can you be so certain?” came the response, to which my contractor replied “Anything can be done, its just a matter of how much time or money or effort you put behind it”.  That task would never have been attempted until we came on the scene, but they’ll do it now and it will work and it will improve their business performance and I know that because my contractor recognises that anything is achievable.  What’s more, like the cycle of positive thought I referred to earlier, the achievement will fuel further, bigger achievements for the company concerned.

It definitely pays to be an optimist.

Maintaining eyeball-to-eyeball retailing

The trouble with business success is that its like a computer game – you overcome one set of problems, arrive at a new level and then find that there’s a whole new set of problems to overcome. What’s more, because they are always new challenges, you encounter them with no experience upon which to base your response, so you are perpetually learning on the job. And its a treadmill that once you are on, you can’t get off – every level of success brings new challenges and every solution moves you to the next level.

Organisations in every sector will know what I am talking about and one of the major challenges that becomes bigger with every advance you make is that of just managing the day-to-day of your business. Those of you who know me or who take the time to read my stuff or turn up for my seminars and workshops will know that I’m no fan of routines or bureaucracy, but I’ll be the first to admit that you have to have a way of tackling the ever-growing challenge of the day-to-day. You’ll also know that one of my big things is the impact that apparently insignificant actions, that happen well away from the boardroom, will always have on your overall success.  This also highlights the demand for a way of passing information up and down the chain of command.

It’s a dilemma with a couple of possible solutions. The one favoured in the past and which is still, sadly, adopted by the head-in-the-sand school of management is dictatorship – basically you give nobody the space or the authority to do anything other than what you instruct them to do. The problem with this, as many organisations and a number of countries have spectacularly demonstrated, is that it involves a level of micro-management (and/or a degree of coercion) that no organisation can sustain and even if you succeed in controlling things you are going to miss out on a bunch of valuable and increasingly rare opportunities. The other route is delegation … Agaaaaaaaaaaaah! I can hear the muffled cries from below sand level in boardrooms around the world right now, but if you are one of those to whom this sounds like heracy, there’s no escaping it – its time you went cold turkey on those old habits, put down the stick and find yourself a carrot – yes, as the man said, your future is orange!

I spend a great deal of time in the retail world. One of the things that I have always loved about the sector is that its one of the last bastions of the entrepreneur, where you can actually get stuff done and try new ideas while they are still new. New stuff often represents less of a risk for a retailer than it does to other types of organisation because retailers have eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the customer and therefore understand them better and therefore have maximum scope for making a sale. That’s why when an fmcg company wants to understand customers one of the places they go for insight is the retailers who channel their products.

Retailers are big businesses these days. They have access to an unbelievable volume of data and partners who can analyse it inside-out and tell them the innermost secrets of consumer minds. However, its a two-edged sword. Because they are so big a retailer’s chain of command has lengthened. No longer can it be taken for granted that the folks on their front line have that retail blood, possess the corporate gene or really understand the objectives that you set for them – unless you tell them that is.

Did you ever play Chinese Whispers as a kid? You know, that game where you all stand in a line and the person at one end whispers a message into the ear of the second and the message is passed down the line from there, usually to arrive much changed at the other end? The famous example being “Send three and fourpence …” quoted from the first world war (so Google it!). The same applies to the instructions and customer feedback that is transmitted back and forth between the shop floor and the retail boardroom. Most organisations, retailers included, now acknowledge the need to give their sales people, at least, some discretion at the point of sale. The trouble is that in order to make the right choices the shop assistant needs a load of information and motivation and that’s where most organisations fail.

What I am talking about here is internal marketing. When I started my career in what was called the “Advertising, Marketing and Display Department” of a national retailer I tackled this by introducing a regular (weekly or monthly, I can’t remember) bulletin containing instructions and insights, which we mailed (can’t even imagine doing so now) to every manager of every one of our 100+ stores (that was a big retail chain then!). My contemporary take on this solution is a far more complex integration of things like Internet, direct mail, mobile training workshops and special events, based on my essential tool for all businesses the Full Effect Marketing Brand Model.

Internal marketing for today’s unwieldy companies, if tackled in this way, provides the essential two-way flow of information that’s the stuff of success and absolutely essential to retail and a few other sectors where entrepreneurship still lives. The Full Effect Marketing Brand Model establishes ten critical aspects of the brand, including the Brand Promise that will be an important basis of every decision in every corner of every business and the integrated communications routes that are Full Effect Marketing itself ensure consistency in message (in just the same way that your external communications should). If everybody in your business “gets it”, as they will if this is done properly, the decisions that they make in their every-day functions will be the right ones an you’ll get accurate reliable feedback from the shop floor that in turn will make the decisions you make than much easier.

It may well be that, given the number of employees involved, internal marketing is more complex for retailers than for other types of business, but we have the technology and its really just a matter of understanding how to use it. A typical retail integrated internal marketing campaign might incorporate in-store radio or TV, a LAN or WAN university and direct mail. I recently created a travelling circus for a retailer that took training to the shop floor in a way they had never seen it before and I created a plan for another retailer that involved a radical internal promotion/event that was never launched (due to unforeseen circumstances unconnected to the event) but which was exciting, colourful, competitive, contemporary and above all very educational.

I see signs all the time of retailers who are losing their grip. The ideas that are agreed on in the boardroom are not always being represented on the shop floor. Sure this happens in other sectors too, but for a retailer, building that up-close-and-personal relationship with customers is what its all about. So, get a grip. sort out your internal marketing and let’s not lose it!

Consistency – the key to strong brandships

ConsistencyMy friend’s wife suffers from multiple personality disorder.  He says its fine – like sleeping with a different woman every night!  It doesn’t work that way with brands though.  Deviation from the personality your customers have come to know and trust could mean the end of a beautiful relationship!

You know how it is.  There’s a chap at work who you see every day.  You know him well enough, he’s the guy in the smart suit with the latest haircut and all his facial hair in the right places!  You like him, he’s reliable and you don’t really think twice about trusting him with a project or a task.

Then, one Saturday, you are pushing your shopping trolley around the local supermarket and you come across a couple of loud kids with some bloke in jeans an a baggy sweater, hair all over the place and stubble on his chin, who looks like their Dad and a woman in track pants tagging along.  It takes you a minute, but you think its that guy from the office.  You’re not sure, but he’s seen you and looks as though he knows you.  You make a sort of non-committed nod of acknowledgment and take half a step in his direction – yes its definitely him.  Blimey!  You would never have recognised him in a crowd, though now you do its OK and you strike up a conversation straight away, but its that moment of awkward hesitation that’s significant.

Now translate that to a brand scenario.  What if a brand that you know and trust, one that you had been married to for years, suddenly acts out of character – a corporate inconsistency, new packaging, a different advertising message, a disappointing experience?  It probably wouldn’t make you want a divorce, but there would be that moment of hesitation.  And that’s all that your competitors need to step in and introduce themselves, maybe with a little incentive to break the ice.  “Hello, I’m just the kind of friend you thought he was, but I come with an extra if you take me home today”.  That’s the way longstanding brand relationships can come to a sudden end.

Brand relationships (or “brandships”) are all about knowing and trusting and its vital that you maintain the core character traits that enabled you to establish the relationship in the first place.  Of course, brands have to make changes from time to time, its essential if you are going to evolve with your customer base, but there are risks.  Avoid them by remembering that its like seeing the guy in the office in a new suit for the first time, provided he hasn’t gone from Gucci to grunge, its just new and interesting, not a complete change of character.

Having said that, it comes down to sensitivity.  Changes can be more radical that you might expect – David Bowie (one of my favourite examples of a strong brand) lived characters like Ziggy Stardust that he created and changed music styles dramatically while maintaining a very loyal fan base for longer than most performers, because the key character trait that drew us all to him in the first place was his creativity and character creation, not necessarily a particular persona.  Product brands can be the same – Apple, automotive brands, sports teams (different players, same philosophy).  In fact I have written recently that brands often forget that they can and should be constantly re-inventing themselves.  Be edgy by all means but be so within the framework of your core character traits.

A smart marketer will be able to maintain the freshness of their brand, like the spark in any relationship, without losing the fundamental values upon which the relationship was originally founded, but it works both ways.  If you are looking to steal customers from a competitor, wait until you know they are going to make a few changes and make yourself conspicuous.

What brand development is really all about – Part II. Community

community

A brand, like the district you choose to live in or the club that you join, is a community.  You feel comfortable there, it fits you like an old arm chair, it reflects your personality and values and when you give people your address or mention your club they make assumptions about you based on its location (“country bumpkin” or “city trendy”) or maybe the social level that it represents (“middle/upper/working class”) and more. 

I once advised a mobile phone company that had a reputation for being a bit cheap and basic.  Domestic subscribers loved them, their problem was that they couldn’t attract business users.  They could satisfy their practical demands, but their reputation for being cheap kept getting in the way.  In those days you couldn’t switch networks and take your number with you so the objection raised by business users was “if people can see from my number that I am on this network they will think I’m cheap and basic too”.  And, they were right!  Its about the community to which you belong.

Think of the way we sometimes describe people “… so and so is OK but he hangs out with a bad crowd …” – same for brands.  Another client of mine told me recently that because his business was “number one” in their sector they made a point of only appointing suppliers and partners who were “number one” in theirs.  He felt that it underlined his own positioning.  So if your brand is sold alongside products or brands, or in outlets that don’t reflect your standards and values, you might find that your reputation is being tarnished.  Then again, if you need a bit of brand social climbing it can help just to hang out with the blue-chip boys.

Buy a product, join the community and you instantly have a badge to wear.  This is the old Maslow Hierarchy of Human Needs coming into play – I am what I buy, own, eat etc …  A brand transforms customers’ lives by giving them both a sense of belonging and, ironically, at the same time a feeling of individual expression.  Remember, “American Express says more about you than cash ever can” or “I was just an accountant until I discovered Smirnoff”?

An interesting thing about a community is that its a two-way street.  While it influences its members they in turn also influence the community.  Its just like a new family moving into a residential neighbourhood.  They choose to be there because it reflects their vision of themselves, but their arrival changes the dynamic of the place – for better or worse depending on your viewpoint.  It works the same with brand communities.  

Marketers often complain that consumers are promiscuous and its true – sometimes they are (although there are two sides to every divorce case and often customers are enticed away from brand monogamy by the promise of a badge they are just happier to be seen with).  However, brand promiscuity is often misunderstood.  People are complex and individual, its rare that one brand will satisfy all the requirements for badges of recognition of any one customer.  That’s why, as consumers we adopt a portfolio of brands (sometimes more than one for a particular product sector), which between them cover all the things we want to represent.  I know a guy who wears Nike shoes to play his sport in because they are serious “tools” but chooses Puma when he’s hanging out because he feels they are cool.  With the choices we have available to us the permutations are almost limitless.  Certainly sufficient to represent a wide range of individual personalities.

This all means that as a brand guardian (Hey, I know you know, brands are not “owned” by the organisations that use them) you have to be sensitive to the needs and wants of your community and go with the flow.  It’s why interactive communications are important – things like blogs, chat rooms, “how are we doing?” cards, problem pages.  I just spent a frustrating few minutes trying to find contact information on the web site of a well known retailer.  I could find the address of my nearest store and I could “give feedback” that I know would end up being handled by some operator at a contact centre in India in a few days time.  This isn’t interactivity, this is an attempt to pass indifference off as genuine interest.  What I want is to “connect” with someone at the company who can do something … and I can’t even find a phone number for their switchboard! 

Like any other consumer, I want to know what people – other community members, just like me – are saying about my communities, the products, values, services it represents or even just stuff in general – like a couple of old wives gossiping over the garden fence.  I want a help line, live chat or at least an e-mail problem page, because that’s community and when I get to the point where I am tearing what’s left of my hair out, I want to know that there’s someone who cares enough to have left their number for me to call.  This retailer clearly just doesn’t get it.

The trouble with all of this is that its a mountain of work and we have to apply technology to get through it.  The pit that many organisations fall into with this is that the technology intrudes on the relationship, making it cold and impersonal, in effect neutralising the benefits that the interactivity is meant to create.  Smart people apply their technology sensitively – its not difficult, it just takes some thought.  In the next few years we’ll see massive development in this area.  Technologies that facilitate without intruding.  Recent developments in AVATARs support this prediction.  KMP in the UK are playing with some great programming that adds expression to AVATARS that really helps you look them in the eye, but my guess is that we’ll see integration of a far wider range of technologies and communications routes in the quest to make brand communities more supportive and involving.  My friend was relating to me recently that he was in the middle of buying theatre tickets when he was called away from his computer.  After a few minutes he received an SMS message on his phone saying something like “Don’t forget, you are in the middle of booking your theatre tickets”.  How’s that for community building?  However, if you think that’s cool, wait and see what turns up next.  Better still, don’t wait, build your brand community by applying technology creatively to situations like this.  All it takes is a little community spirit.

“You don’t fit in around here mate – you’re hired!”

dreamstime_3563964.jpgI just witnessed a new client make a classic mistake.  Its not the first time, I’ve seen this soooo many times before, but it always gets my goat.  They just hired a manager who fits right in!

The thing is, you just can’t afford to dothat these days.  Organisations survive and grow by pursuing change.  You MUST aim for every day to be different.  You MUST continually challenge convention.  Ideas are the currency of business, but you’ll ONLY have ideas if you have wild-cards on your team.  Clones just don’t do it! 

The irony here is that this client knows his organisation desperately needs new thinking (That’s why they are talking to me), but when it came to the crunch they turned down a really great candidate in favour of someone who is going to deliver the same old, same old.  And the excuse – because that’s all it is – “we needed someone who would fit in from day one” – WRONG!

Recruiting is a great and exciting opportunity to bring some new thinking into you organisation.  Sure there are basic must-have skills that’ll keep the transactional stuff rolling and any candidate with these will be able to make a contribution from day-one, but you should be looking for people who have skills and experiences beyond that.  Most of all, seek out people who have different charactersto the people who they will be working with and if you are a boring fart of an organsation and some whiz kid applies for the job, be thankful, hire him and most of all, give him scope!  This is the approach that makes a place great for everybody to work in and that means better all-round performance.  It will drive new thinking and generate new ideas even from your old lieutenants.  I’ll steal a quote from Mr Starbucks himself Howard Schultz that was highlighted by John Maver on his blog before the holiday.

“Recognise the skills and traits that you don’t have and hire people who have them”

Notice the word “traits”.  Howard Schultz knows that its about personality as well as skills. 

There’s only one reason why hiring managers choose people who “fit in” – they aren’t really up to the job themselves!  Play-it-safe mangers are usually insecure, afraid of being challenged (with just cause if this is their thinking) – but handling and channelling mavericks and their thinking is a primary requirement of any, manager!  So celebrate original thinkers, hire the wild card and think instead about how, as a manager, you will “manage” them and learn from the process.

I just ran a Brand Discovery Programme with another client (see the Brand Discovery tab above) that I was really happy with, because I realised that it genuinely liberated the managers in the organisation from the straight-jacket constraints of senior partners who had made it impossible for managers to contribute.  They’d achieved this, as is oten the case, by keeping everybody in the dark and feeding them s***t for years.  The reason I was there at all, not uncommonly, is because the partners had run out of road.  The business is stagnating (at best) and they know they need some fresh thinking.  They just didn’t know where to get it (How about looking around your own place first?). 

Sharing information is central to the Brand Discovery Programme so my first box was ticked and this was confirmed by a manager who came to me afterwards and said “That was great,  I feel like I’m telling them [the partners] what to do now”.  From a dozen delegates we came away from the second workshop with a mountain of prioritised initiatives, every one of which would move the business in the right direction again, and the start of a new management style.  And the partners – they were pleased as punch and celebrated in style by filling their Ferraris up with petrol – a real sign of success in today’s UK!

On the basis that “you win a few and lose a few” I’m going to focus on this small triumph while I work out what to do with the other problem!

You are only as good as your NEXT big idea!

ideaedit.jpgIs yours an “ideas organisation”?  If not you’d better get it together quick, because this is the era of innovation!

More than ever before, ideas are the currency of business.  You know that smart, latest thing, all-singing-all-dancing, electronic doo-dah you just carried home from the store? – Its obsolete!  Yes that’s right – dead, old hat, done, finished with, give it to your granny.  Meet son-of-your-doo-dah.  Yes, he’s there on the production line in all his gleaming glory, just in front of, hey … can it be … it sure is … son-of-son-of-your doo-dah!  In fact products in competitive sectors have no end of descendants in various stages of development heading for the stores, but the phenomenon isn’t exclusive to electronics or even consumer goods.  Product development is the future for any business and if you want to have a future at all you are going to have to liberate some of the ideas that are in your organisation.  Yes, that’s right, they are there already … well, some anyway.

A few years back I was having a conversation with a junior secretary in an advertising agency whose role it was to gather and collate local competitive activity for a major retail chain in towns where they were planning expansion.  Out of that conversation grew an entirely new, breakthrough product/service called Store Report that not only assessed the competition, but provided national retailers with local campaign flexibility and a range of plug-in promotions to supplement their national activity.  The thing was, it wasn’t my idea it was the secretary’s and it wouldn’t have seen the light of day if I hadn’t, by chance, been chatting with her.  Store Report spawned its own business unit and generated revenue for years to come, but most of all it demonstrated to me and, I guess the management of the agency that ideas are locked inside the heads of employees in organisations everywhere – an ideas organisation just liberates them!

So how do you become an ideas organisation?  Well, I’m afraid its back to brand development and internal marketing again.  There’s no getting away from it your brand is the source of every success and failure you have had or will have.  Being an ideas organisation is in your DNA … or not, as the case may be.  Unfortunately for a great many organisations it is usually not, but it is a strand that you can grow back if the people at the top of your organisation are truly committed and you take an organised approach that starts with a brand model (See “Brand Discovery” tab above).