Branding

can I get a little hate?

I’m fascinated by branding. Not the marking-cows-so-the-don’t-get-rustled kind. The kind of branding that’s about identity and messaging and clear authenticity. How clear? If No One Hates You, No One is Paying Attention. That statement is the title of a great piece by Alf Rehn (@alfrehn), and gets at the heart of branding. Alf reminds us that trying to be all things to all people doesn’t work, despite the legions of businesses that attempt it. It makes sense to know and declare who you are as a business and what you stand for. But the ugly, unmentioned downside is that in doing so you are also declaring who you aren’t and who you stand against.

So truly strong branding is only telling people “Our products are for you. You will like them. You will like what being associated with them says about you. You should buy them.” But it’s also taking that stand to say “Our products are not for you. You won’t like them. You won’t like what being associated with them says about you. You shouldn’t buy them.”

As an example Alf mentions the Cadillac “Poolside” ad. I hadn’t seen it, but it apparently launched in the spring to much criticism. Take a look:

Critics said it missed the mark, because it was obnoxious, reinforced negative stereotypes about Americans, and didn’t appeal to most buyers. Which was the point. They took a bold stand in defining who their target customers were and who they weren’t. It also got people talking and passionately arguing about Cadillac and what the ad represented. And it presented their electric cars a cool status symbol for people who would typically abhor electric cars as being for “tree hugging ecomentalists”.

Ford took advantage of the Cadillac’s self-induced negative press to parody it with an ad targeting a completely different group of buyers. Think young urban activist vs middle aged Wall Streeter. It’s a brilliant parody, nailing scene after scene and positioning buying the Ford as almost an act of protest against everything the Cadillac buyer stands for. It’s a pretty good jab, but not quite as much of a statement simply because the Ford has a bigger target market and the ad doesn’t have the same level of potential for starting internet flame wars.  See it here:

Not as bold as it seems

These ads actually highlight how low the bar for a definitive brand is set. That the ads appear buzzworthy is incredibly telling. This isn’t edgy – it’s actually very safe because it’s just acknowledging and reinforcing their long established brand images. The people who liked it were already on board and those who got irritated never going to be customers anyway. All the marketers have done is acknowledge and play off of what was already there.

Middle-age folks with some bucks treating themselves with a luxury car because “they’ve earned it”? Not quite a shocker. Twenty-somethings buying a small economy car? Well, few among that market could afford the luxury brand even if they did want it. Safe. Safe. Amusing. But safe.

Why are we so concerned with clearly defining our brands? Why are we so worried we might offend a potential customer when those who might be put off by the brand were never going to buy from us anyway? Why do we so rarely define both our target market and our anti-market? Our brand and our anti-brand? (A fun question for my HR friends: What’s the brand and anti-brand for your HR department? If you can’t answer that you might want to start asking around because it exists whether you’ve defined it or not.)

Bolder branding?

You know how difficult it is to shake the reputation you establish in the first few weeks on a job? Branding is the same. The brand image can boost or haunt you for years to come. So one of the biggest challenges is changing a brand by creating a new and different identity. The risk is that you’ll offend and lose the existing demographic while not convincing anyone of the new brand. Some retailers, such as JcPenney have been giving a master class in how not to change your brand for the past couple of years.

We started off with cars, so let’s continue there. Jaguar has been one of the most interesting rebrands to watch. They had a huge sporting heritage in the 1960s and then slowly morphed into an old man’s brand for people who liked luxury cars that tended to leak oil and break down on the way to the country club. Unfair? Tough. That’s the unfortunate power of branding. Your brand is not what you want it to be, it’s the identity and image stuck in the customer’s mind. And that can be tough to overcome.

A couple of years back they attempted to change their image with ads like this:


That’s a pretty swift kick to the crotch of the traditional buyers. Then, more recently they switched to the Good To Be Bad campaign with ads like this:

Are they good cars? Don’t know. But the branding has taken a bold, fun, tongue-in-cheek stance with a middle finger (or two fingers upraised) to the stodgy past. These are not cars for everyone. More importantly, judging by the styling and dragster-meets-F1 car sound, they are not cars for Jaguar’s traditional customer.

But they are cars for who they want their new customer to be. They have a very clear idea of who that is and isn’t.

Do you?

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branding, HR, and the customer experience

Want to build your company’s brand? Give a close look at your HR department.

That’s not how we typically approach it, is it? There are a ton of articles on branding, but far too many that discuss it as though it’s a separate activity, as though it’s a shiny bit of chrome that gets bolted on to make the company look nice. Company leaders just decide how they want the company to be known by customers, then they create marketing to support that and it’s done, right? Um, no.

In reality, branding is deeply woven throughout the entire organization, despite our attempts to reduce branding to some eye catching advertisements. It’s a circular “chicken and egg” problem that has to be addressed as a whole and looks something like this:

Brand –> Values/Culture –> Hiring/Retention/Development –> Employee Experience –> Customer Experience –> Brand

 

Brand. The company decides what it wants to be known for and how it wants to be viewed by its customers. Highest quality, best value, best service, the choice of people in the know, whatever.

Values/Culture. Not the stupid mission statement nailed to the wall that no one can remember and everyone ignores. Not the list of safe values that shows up in the “About Us” section of the webpage but how things actually get down and the (unwritten) values the company uses to make decisions and set priorities. (Lest we forget: Enron’s posted values included “Integrity” and “Excellence” but those clearly weren’t the values underscoring their day-to-day operations.)

Hiring/Retention/Development. I cannot emphasize this enough: business gets done for, through, and by people. What the company stands for and how it operates is determined, supported, and reinforced by its people and the behaviors that are encouraged (and tolerated). The ideals written on the wall are irrelevant if they are not fully supported by who gets hired, who is allowed and encouraged to stay, and what they are taught through formal training AND daily interactions with managers and peers.

Employee Experience (EX). I’m not convinced we can create employee engagement or motivation – that’s one reason why who we hire is so important – but I’m very confident that we can utterly destroy it through the daily employee experience. Is the EX one of support, growth, and pride or terrible manager, toxic peers, inane policies, and a dehumanizing culture? Or, is it trapped in between and a daily dose of apathetic meh?

Customer Experience (CX). The customer experience determines how they think of your company. Your definition of the brand is meaningless next to the customer’s. Who determines the customer experience? It’s a combination of your culture (i.e., how things get done around your company) and your employees. It’s been said the customer experience will never exceed employee experienced (I like to think of it as: CX<EX). That makes sense. It’s ridiculous to think we can make our employees’ lives miserable and have them turn around and create a wonderfully fantastic experience for the customer.

Brand. Yep, all of this leads right back to brand. Not the one you want, but the one you actually have.

None of these operate in isolation; they all feed into each other. You can’t build the brand without linking it to your people and how you expect them to operate day in and day out. So how is you HR department supporting the brand?

Might be time to give it some thought.

hr’s missed opportunity to generate revenue

Blatant product placement or morning prep to speak at #ilshrm13 ? Does Red Bull sponsor HR speakers? What if I promise to be “extreme”?

I posted this comment along with the picture at the right while waiting for my co-presenter so we could go over our notes before presenting later that morning at the Illinois SHRM conference (yes, those are my authentic, actual speaker notes). I thought it was really funny in a ridiculous sort of way. Red Bull sponsoring “extreme” HR? So many paradoxes and contradictions. They sponsor stunt planes, insane jumps on bicycles and motorcycles, parachuting from record heights. Their image is all about athletes pushing the boundaries of possibility, not the middle age guy talking about company culture. Funny, right?

Almost immediately, Kris Dunn (@kris_dunn) from HR Capitalist and Fistfull of Talent responded, “Hey Broc, believe it or not, at FOT we got contacted about placement… Workforce application of red bull, etc…

Apparently there is nothing so ludicrous that it isn’t true somewhere.

I think this just might be HR’s chance to generate revenue through product placement, sponsorships, and advertising. What are some of the natural fits? Pharmaceuticals, diet and fitness, health care? How about day care, dry cleaning, and maid service? Car dealers and home builders? Universities?

When it comes to placement or ads, there’s the obvious approach of putting posters in the hallways or covering our desks or company shirts with logos until they look like race cars straight outta NASCAR. But what about sponsoring company picnics and the requisite Christmas party? Attaching ads to the side of email like in gmail or Facebook like ad placement in the Learning Management System? What about training – there’s so much that could be done inside of training programs that it really feels like a missed opportunity.

What if we named HR programs after the sponsor? For example, we could have the University X Tuition Reimbursement Program. Could we take it to the policy level? Is any sponsor willing to slap their name on or in the handbook? Anyone want some publicity every time the dress code is mentioned? (“Sorry, that beard is in violation of the Sponsor Y Grooming Guidelines.”)

I’m going to stop myself right there. Before I close, I need to emphasize three points:

1. I’m kidding.

2. If companies are not already doing this, I’m confident we’ll be seeing it inside of three years. After all, it’s already in the school system with advertising sponsored “educational” news content.

3. Given points #1 and #2 and my love of paradox, if Red Bull wants to sponsor my global adventures as an HR speaker, I’m more than willing to talk. I already have a few ideas on which metal bands I want to have open for me…