Whose Ad Is It Anyway?

Investors and company executives are cheering of late for the resurgence of Facebook above its IPO price from about a year ago.  Mobile growth is the story at Facebook, and many are pleased with the associated revenue progress.  I wish everyone well tallying their riches.  I am still not sure how much significant value is being created, particularly as it applies to the company’s core advertising business.  And hey, I was a very early believer in this business model and all the promise it held as the definitive interactive media platform of a generation — kind of like the first time as I kid when I saw a movie on HBO, a complete movie on television with no commercials, I just  knew something good had happened and someone was going to get rich as a result.  Uh, that was for taking the ads away.

If you are active on Facebook, particularly mobile, you probably weren’t surprised by the earnings improvement.  You’ve seen the ads — oh, have you seen the ads — you can’t miss them, right there in your news feed, as intrusive as the interface mandates.  Recently an ad for a salacious French maid’s costume was offered to me with the following copy — pretty much full screen — and I was kindly given the opportunity to Like the page:

“This five-piece At Your Service set from Dreamgirl comes with a sexy babydoll with apron, maid’s hat, ruffle back thong, and feather duster.”

Curiously this clever bit of sponsored media appeared above a friend’s timely post on racism and below a post from a financial journal I follow on how to avoid manipulated options.  I suppose under certain circumstances this might be considered targeting, but I can honestly assert I was not in the market for such an outfit, either for myself or as a gift, nor had any click stream I created left a trail for the behavioral targeters.  Perhaps they could have offered me a nice bottle of Bordeaux, which would have made sense since I am a wine enthusiast and often post articles about my favorite varietals on Facebook, and I’m guessing their database knows I have a Pinterest board on the subject of value excellence (“Good Wine, Good Price“), but no such luck.  I am a middle-aged male, heterosexual, and married, so maybe that’s the profile they sold to the advertiser.  I would guess that the CPM (in ad-speak, that’s “cost per thousand” impressions, where the M is the Latin numeral) was very, very low, offset by volume that was very, very high.  Again in ad-speak, we sometimes call that “dollar-a-holler.”  In these cases, maybe a nickel.

Just so it’s clear that I am not picking on Facebook, my friends at AOL Mail where I have maintained the same email account for about a quarter century, now offer a curious feature: After I send an email, the confirmation screen is filled with singles looking for a date.  It’s nice to see that the advertiser is not presumptuous; sometimes they offer me women and sometimes men.  The fact that the advertising delivery system is ambivalent toward my preference is unusually progressive.  It also is quite genially unconcerned that my wife continues to see my email send pages resolve to these artifacts on our shared monitor.

Note to New Media Companies, with love, from Old Media Companies: Some things have not changed, including that there are still four key constituents in the advertising equation:

1) The manufacturer or seller of products and services.

2) The ad network or agency.

3) The media delivery vehicle or platform.

4) The viewer of the ad.

For full value to be created, all four have to be satisfied by the results of the supply chain.  For real ongoing business, it is most essential that #1 and #4 are happy, so that #2 and #3 can speak to a job well done.

Let’s look at all four in the French maid and available-singles ad examples and see who is happy working backward:

4) Me: Not happy, except that it gave me an idea for this story.

3) Facebook and AOL; Happy (except if they read this post); they got paid by #1.

2) Agency or network: Happy; they found plentiful inventory in the form of my news feed and mail page, and they also got paid by #1.

1) Advertisers: Should not be too happy; they paid the bill, and I am making fun of them for it.

So the owner of the bill and the receiver of the message are not happy (#1 and #4), but the middle-folks are just fine with it (#2 and #3).  Oh, they’ll tell you they are working on it, improving their targeting technology and all that, but they aren’t losing sleep, because they got paid.  They should be losing sleep, lots of it.

There is also an implicit fifth constituent, the expanded community surrounding the nucleus of the supply chain, particularly of significance in our interconnected world of social media.  When an offer is useful and enticing, like many of the tested e-coupons on RetailMeNot, pleased customers will gleefully pass them along.  That’s free evangelism from existing fans to unlimited prospects, making ad dollars work even harder through leverage.  When ads are garbage, they are terminal, mercifully so.  In fact, bad-vertising can hurt a brand through negative association — poor word of mouth is difficult if not impossible to combat.  Wonder if your would-be customers are laughing at you?  You may not know until the community turns on you, then it’s costly to recover, or perhaps too late.

When advertising works — the right, relevant message in front of the right, engaged human being — it can be an excellent experience.  Absent concerns about privacy, you might embrace the very respect involved in not having to see ads you don’t care about.  But all this posturing about collecting intelligence on customers to deliver better leads — how come I’m still getting ads for reverse mortgages on My Yahoo homepage, which has every financial feed coming through loud and clear to tell them I’m a reasonably well heeled owner?  That page is still sold as remnant inventory (in ad-speak, leftovers) at bargain-basement prices, maybe less than the French maid costume or the singles ads.  Some money being left on the table there?  They’ll probably tell you no.  They would be wrong.

As the national dialogue on privacy invasion is reaching fever pitch, even POTUS has been dragged into the ruckus with a defensive “Don’t worry, we respect you while we protect you” mantra.  That dialogue is likely to resolve itself in the dialectic, because it is a civil rights discussion grounded in our cherished democracy.  I actually think that problem is going to get solved before the ad targeting starts to get it right, because there is too much money at stake for annoying and disrupting us that no one really wants to give back.  Like the story goes, always follow the money — the real today-money, not the theoretical long-term-value, someday-we’ll-get-this-right money.  Why would you want to do that?

Maybe I’ll just watch HBO.  The price has skyrocketed, but the shows are pretty good, and it is still ad free.  I am always willing to pay for that.

HBO Image

The $20 Brand Bond

Amazon LogoLet’s talk about lifetime value of a customer for a few seconds. I use the term “a few seconds” purposefully.

Recently I bought one of those discount vouchers for a neighborhood deli, where you pay something like half of face value and then cash in full value when you’re at the restaurant. This one wasn’t from Groupon or Living Social, but from Amazon Local. When I went to cash it in, the deli was out of business. Tough times always for restaurant retail. It happens. Went to another place for lunch. Oh well.

I got home that night, went to the customer service web page for Amazon Local, found the template under Contact Us, and submitted a one-sentence email notifying them of the event. How long did the response take? Less than a minute. Full credit.

Yep, Amazon Local “bought” this voluntary endorsement for a whole twenty bucks. Plus my ongoing loyalty. My lifetime value to Amazon the Brand just increased a good deal more than twenty bucks, perhaps a hundred times that, maybe more. Why? Well, first because they respected me and my time, but more so because they laid the pipe to assure me that if something bigger ever needed to be addressed, I could count on them.

What did they do right internally to cause this function to be enacted externally? For one, they fully empowered their staff, someone in a call center likely on the other side of the world. There is no way in that brief turnaround their staff person had to ask anyone for permission to do anything. They saw an issue, they jumped on it, case closed.

We look for WOW THE CUSTOMER moments in business all the time. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to get someone to sample a new product or service, so that somehow a WOW THE CUSTOMER moment can occur. This one cost an entire twenty-dollar bill.

Compare this experience to another I wrote about earlier this year, where try as I might, I could not get one of the largest retailers in the world to help me locate a $5 replacement part for a thousand-dollar appliance I had purchased from them. That retailer competes with Amazon, probably does not know it, and will never get another dollar from me. If you have a moment, go read the transcript I shared from that interaction. Coincidentally, I happen to have shared that post with a rising star at Amazon back when it happened who was aghast when he read it. He had no idea of the contrast to come.

This is not meant to be a lionizing of Amazon. Full disclosure, they were a minority investor in my previous company and proved to be a formidable competitor, daunting in many respects, not the least of which was their near-rabid obsession with precision, time to market, and transaction perfection. They had vast resources to call on that were not available to me, but they used them wisely and never skimped when it came to the customer experience. That is a big part of how they got to be best in class, and consistently one of the top performers in the Internet Retailer Top 500.

Germane to Amazon’s perfection is a mandate of setting a customer service standard that is so extraordinary and so rare it can seem financially irresponsible to emulate—so much of net margin goes right back into the expense line to serve the customer. Market analysts often shiver when they report on Amazon, wondering how their eye-popping trading multiples can last, with so much volume but so little relative profit. Amazon seems to pay little mind to these analysts, instead worrying instead about customers. That leaves them no choice but to focus on lifetime value, calculating it in complex equations with net present value back to the reinvested capital that most others would probably harvest.

How tempting it is to consume the fruit of that harvest, but harvest has to come each year, and that is why we focus on brands. Here I lionize the customer service commitment as an essential and grounding component of the brand promise. It is the shortest business case study in the world, yet almost every company you encounter gets it wrong.

A service culture in the information economy puts the CEO at the bottom of the hierarchy and the customer at the top. The customer is the boss. The people closest to the customer, individual contributors like those in customer service, are the ones who interact with customers. They make or break your brand. How much discretion and authority are they usually granted? None. How much should they have? As much as you can pile on. They own the customer relationship, so they own your future.

Go on, hire the highest paid consulting firms and retain power player ad agencies. Hold multi-day off-sites for brainstorming retention strategies. Give motivational speeches about reframing your mission and vision.

Or just be really, really, really appreciative of your customers. Love your customers, every single one them, embrace them as strategic imperatives, bonds that build moats.

What’s the ROI on world-class handling of those who frequent your brand? You tell me.

Why I Love LinkedIn

LinkedIn 200 Million MilestoneLinkedIn recently celebrated a milestone, surpassing 200 million member accounts, which they announced earlier this year. Shortly after that announcement, I received an email from LinkedIn congratulating me on having one of the 1% most read profiles on their social network. For a moment I felt like a big part of the celebration, until I remembered that put me among two million others. Curiously, I seem to know most of them, who have not hesitated to share this bragging right. Apologies, I guess I just joined them!

But that’s not why I love LinkedIn. I love LinkedIn because they have created a fantastic online service. I love LinkedIn because they do clever marketing like telling me unprompted where my profile ranks, which makes me feel good about being part of their community. Last year they sent a similar email thanking me for being someone early to their party, signing up in their first year as an early adopter (I tend to do that sort of thing, but very few beta programs ever thank me, especially a decade later). I love LinkedIn because I am convinced that they are eating their own dogfood, which probably means most of their employees love LinkedIn more than I do.

Here are some other reasons, with numbering left open so I can add more things as I think of them, and you remind me of others:

1) They are transparent. They say what they do, and don’t cause you to think otherwise. Your data is being mined by people you want to mine it for the reasons you want it mined. If you don’t want it mined, you don’t post it.

2) They provide a valuable service that brings me business. It’s my network, I built it. They facilitated my actions. I have hired talent off the site, my former head of Human Resources has used it to identify candidates for open positions, and I have been sourced for consulting work as well as investment opportunities, almost always by people I know and with whom I can quickly build trust. It works.

3) They don’t violate my privacy and I understand their privacy controls. They tell me clearly what they are doing with the information I give them and let me easily block what I don’t want to share either through menus or suppression. I know what I get myself into at all times and I am cool with that.

4) Their ads are relevant and not intrusive. They don’t get in my way. They don’t annoy me. I would advertise here if I had a product or service relevant to segments of the network.

5) I don’t currently subscribe to their premium service, but I might. The price is reasonable for what it offers. The rest is free, and I like that a lot, especially because they respect me in spite of my free use. I am part of the ecosystem and their multiple revenue streams. They don’t discriminate and treat me worse than a paid member because they need all of us active and happy.

6) The site helps me teach recent graduates how to think about presenting themselves and creating a resume. Come to think of it, it helps me do that for people with thirtysomething years of experience. Focus is good.

7) The site forces me to think about keywords that matter to me, which forces me to think about the science of keywords, which is the backbone of internet search.

8) It has been an awesome vehicle for growing my blog. I suspect the same will be true when it is time to release my book.

9) The community self polices. Just try posting something polemic on LinkedIn. The community will remind you this is a place for business, not politics. In fact the community is so dynamic on LinkedIn, it makes the whole thing work, a place of relevancy for smart articles, worthwhile referrals, and relevant personal milestones that matter to readers as much as writers.

10) It is more of a cable channel than a broadcast mishmash. I find useful, targeted business information posted by individuals in my network every day. The weekly email summaries use well-designed filters to point me to posts that interest me. The group subscriptions are equally helpful, and can be personalized for volume.

11) The software is robust. It is solid on all my systems and browsers. It is not an open platform which makes their life easier, but because it doesn’t need to support so many third-party APIs it remains remarkably stable. The mobile app is intuitive and efficient, especially handy on iPad.

12) I am not overwhelmed by the time commitment to get value from LinkedIn. I can use it, not use it, come, go, whatever, and it is always there for me. It takes the right amount of time to be useful, and is seldom a frivolous waste of time. It lets people stay active and visible even when they are busy and engaged, so opportunities don’t slip by because of timing or assumptions. Again, I think a lot of this has to do with the community self-policing. It’s a big enough network to have boundless value, but not overcrowded with unnecessary distractions.

Yeah, bravo!

Why did I write this post about LinkedIn? Because since the holiday season, I have been overwhelmed by all the online and mobile brands I don’t love, I’m not even sure I like, and some I have simply abandoned. While that was going on, I longed to present a model of a brand that was getting better in spite of its success. During that same period, my network on LinkedIn led to a whole batch of advantageous stuff, not just for me, but for a lot of people I know. I don’t think it is a coincidence. Good brands are created when good people create and embrace good products.

People, Products, Profits—in that order. The formula still works, at least for me.

I write this entirely unsolicited endorsement for LinkedIn freely and without interest. I don’t currently own the stock, nor do I have an opinion about its valuation. This is about loving the company and its product, not the equity. I don’t know if you can love a stock, because your motives are pretty limited, but I do know you can love a product, a brand, even a company. Hopefully they will love me back and this relationship can continue for a spell.

If you know someone who for some reason has not yet thought it worthwhile to be on LinkedIn, feel free to pass along this post. LinkedIn is a good place to do business, with a solid team running the show.

Customer Disservice

Why do companies with big brands and tremendous momentum go out of business? One reason often discussed here is lack of innovation, which is often opaque, quite difficult to grasp when it is happening because you are in the midst of it, even enjoying a final gasp of success. Another is much easier to understand and very definitely within control—when you stop loving your customers.

Here is a summary of a recent actual customer service call with a well-known company in which I was the very real customer.

ME: But the replacement knob you sent me does not fit the appliance.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: It’s the one you ordered.

ME: No, not exactly, I called and gave you the model number of the appliance and told you which knob was broken, and this is the one you sent me.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Well, it should fit. Did you push hard on it?

ME: It does not fit, so pushing harder will only break it.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Maybe you don’t know how to install it. Would you like us to send out a technician? I need to advise you we bill on site service visits at a minimum $95 per hour.

ME: I don’t need a technician. It’s a $4.75 plastic replacement knob to turn the appliance on and off. It does not fit on the metal stem.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Sir, if you don’t want me to schedule a technician to come to your home, there is nothing more I can do.

ME: Yes, you could send me the proper replacement part. I actually looked up the appliance online and have the serial number for the part I need. It differs from the one you sent me by two digits.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: That’s not possible, they are all the same. If you are not able to install the one we sent, how do you expect to install another one?

ME: I’ll take my chances that the right part will fit. Can I send this one back and get a replacement please?

CUSTOMER SERVICE: We don’t refund parts you ordered incorrectly that become open stock. You can order another one if you want, but you’re still going to need a technician to install it.

ME: You do understand this is a $4.75 part for an appliance that cost more than $1000. How do you expect to stay in business when you treat customers like this?

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Sir, we’ve been here for a hundred years and we’ll be here for a hundred more.

Then he hung up on me. Really. Somewhere there is an actual recording of this call, for training purposes.

Just so the damage is clear, we have a house filled with appliances from this retailer. As these need to be replaced, none will come from that retailer. The next house will also have none. How much did that $4.75 part and the mishandled call cost the seller? The future lifetime value of this customer. I know from having told this story to more than a dozen friends that I am not alone.

One of my very best former senior executives used to start each morning in our customer service department with the kick-off mantra: “Remember, our business would be so much better without all those pesky customers. Never forget that, how happy our days would be without them.”

No Service Is Not ServiceOf course he was kidding, but just saying those words aloud every morning to our trusted heroes on the front lines reminded them how important they were to our success, or how much pain they could cause if they forgot what they were there to do—help keep our customers our customers. We would consider every inbound call a gift, an opportunity to repair any aspect of our relationship that might have been violated. Without our customers, we could not exist, and without the opportunity to hear and fix their problems, we knew we would lose them.

No one in a customer service role likes to get yelled at all day, but what’s the alternative? When the phone stops ringing and the emails stop coming, it is seldom because you are doing everything right. It is usually because the customers have been trained not to contact you or they simply aren’t there anymore. Not exactly a great alternative to customer complaints, is it?

Recovery, or “the art of the save,” is the process by which a negative becomes a positive. Every downside event experienced by a customer offers the single best opportunity you have to show your love. When you empower the people on your front lines to transform any possible negative experience by a customer into an opportunity to bond with them forever, you not only keep their business, you have a shot at recruiting an uncompensated evangelist. Solve a customer’s problem and exceed their expectations, lifetime value continues and they might even go to bat for you with their friends. Ignore or insult them with as many alternatives as there are in the marketplace, the tar pits of antiquity offer your final resting place.

Beating back the challenges of creative destruction is hard enough work. Is being nice to the people who pay your bills really that hard? If it is, get ready to join the march of obscurity and obsolescence. There are so many ways to lose what you’ve built and so few ways to win in the long run. Take heed and don’t lose the game for the things you can control.

Any presumption that a company will last forever defies logic and history. Don’t give your employees reason to think that perpetuity is ordained or soon enough you’ll sink together in the ooze. Love your customers, every single one—those who complain the most are probably the ones who control the keys to your survival.

The Last Word on This Election Year

All week I have been trying to devise a clean getaway post for the year 2012 and it has been a struggle.  Then performance on demand, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan did the heavy lifting for me in this weekend’s edition of her column, Declarations.  Because I can’t say it any better than she does, here is an extended excerpt from her article on what she got correct and wrong in covering this year’s Presidential Election, in particular, what she got quite right:

In writing about what struck as the president’s essential aloofness, I said there were echoes of it even in his organization. I referred to a recent hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. “It read like politics as done by Martians. The ‘Analytics Department’ is looking for ‘predictive Modeling/Data Mining’ specialists to join the campaign’s ‘multi-disciplinary team of statisticians,’ which will use ‘predictive modeling’ to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. ‘We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.’ “

This struck me as “high tech and bloodless.” I didn’t quite say it, but it all struck me as inhuman, unlike any politics I’d ever seen.

It was unlike any politics I’d ever seen. And it won the 2012 campaign. Those “Martians” were reinventing how national campaigns are done. They didn’t just write a new political chapter with their Internet outreach, vote-tracking data-mining and voter engagement, especially in the battleground states. They wrote a whole new book. And it was a masterpiece.

Hats off. In some presidential elections, something big changes, and if you’re watching close you can learn a lesson. This was mine: The national game itself has changed…

For those who followed the FiveThirtyEight blog by newly minted celebrity Nate Silver most of the year, the numbers were the story, and the importance of understanding the underlying truth to the numbers brought a new tone to political commentary.  Data tells a story, but the story is seldom obvious.  You have to dig through numbers to see what they are saying.  Statistics don’t create strategy, they inform it.  You try an unending number of contact experiments in outreach, measure tactical responses carefully against controls, see what is working and what is not, reevaluate and act.  The secret is, you must do this on a one to one basis, scale personal interaction without treating people as a mass, without using a blunt instrument to address pushback and slow acceptance.

Data can be aggregated and cut, but it comes from somewhere, individual people.  If you read the data in geographic and demographic segments, it can help guide both strategy and tactics, allowing you to be responsive in near real-time.  Your core remains your ideas — conviction, creativity, and vision — but how you express those ideas better to achieve consensus, how you improve your message, how you harness the power of a devoted following to add their deeply personal beliefs to the mix and build a unified voice with impact, that is where data is your friend.  Yet it’s critical to fully appreciate and understand that friend, with humility, with nuance.

There isn’t much commentary I recall from the endless talking heads covering the election, but one almost throwaway interchange I remember was led by longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield.  He was admiring just how expert Nate Silver’s predictions had been across the board, calling the electoral votes in advance for all 50 states, when he sort of joked, and I paraphrase from memory, “Well, I guess those of us who got into journalism because we liked English in school so much we could use it as an excuse to avoid math, we can’t make that assumption anymore.”  That simple concept seemed profound to me.  In the same way we can no longer draw clear lines in organizations that identify and confine analog departments, the separation between language and numbers in our thinking has naturally blended.  They may appear to be separate areas of study, but our connected world of internet communication, social media, dramatic global speed, and authority transfer to communities has put words and mathematics on a collision course of unified discipline.  As integrated tools, they are perhaps becoming more the same than they are different, inseparable in decision-making.

The lesson here is hardly isolated to politics, it is a story of marketing at large.   If you have spent any time trying to understand e-commerce, you know well the power of data and the risk associated with ignoring it.  Great products and services have no substitute, but as a former boss taught me long ago, good marketing helps bad product fail faster, and bad marketing can undermine the best of innovation.  Both right and left brain are now requirements to win in business.  Fail to master either at your own peril.

My last word on this election year: Analytics.

Necessarily reflective of authentic, individual voice.

Thank you so much for continuing to share this journey with me.  Here’s to an informed and inspiring new year!

More Words Next Year!

Like Is Not Enough

AllYouNeedAll You Need Is Love” — Lennon/McCartney, The Beatles

Facebook over the past several years has done the unexpected in creating exponentially vast usage of the noun/verb Like. This has been fun for those of us who indulge in broadly stamping our personal approvals on anything from a friend’s single syllable utterance to the launch of a new wave of flavored taco shells. Some argue the Like button has diluted the very significance it is meant to convey by spawning misguided promotions to increase click tallies, while others maintain it is the metaphysical fuel that rocketed Facebook into the stratosphere as the place advertisers have to be to mine explicit commendations. Regardless of the ultimate conviction it conveys, Like is an ultra easy way to express a soft high-five in public without any substantive commitment, and if you change your mind, you can Unlike something just as quickly.

While the full measure in a Like action remains on the light side of hand-waving, for marketers it can nonetheless provide an easy litmus test to note directionally if their intended messages are registering at all. Registering is not necessarily resonating, but it is a decent stride across the starting line. Getting someone to Like your brand for the long haul—on Facebook or along the purchase funnel—will never be a small task, but my sense is there is one constant in consistent success: For star marketers to get a Like, they must first Love.

I wrote about a similar topic not long ago in a post about eating your own dog food, where I suggested if you don’t use your own products, how could you expect anyone else to pay you for the privilege. This is a tangent to that thread, where of late I have observed entire marketing teams dogged by cynicism. They are charged with brand evangelism, but in their own minds, they are either not engaged in the true value proposition of their products and services or they have given up on their own futures, proclaiming themselves victims of an ice age they believe is imminent and unavoidable. I believe we often refer to this malady as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recently in a meeting with a team of executives who had invited me to help them with some seismic strategic planning issues, I noticed a through line where all of the many accomplished marketing executives in the room found a way to get on each other’s bandwagon, lamenting that their company’s future was not bright. I thought this was simply a down cycle in the conversation which is normal in brainstorming, but the negative energy was a contagion. Here we were, charged with helping reinvent the company, a blue sky path to infusing new levels of Like into brands that were already broadly embraced, but no consensus was emerging on how past Like could become new Like, or dare I say it, Love. As an outsider, I saw that their brands were certainly challenged in the market place, they had seen some decline, but they had in no way collapsed. Yet here the brand stewards being paid quite well for their presumed passion had convinced themselves their brands were dying—a sickness that was terminal and could not be reversed. Where I really got myself in trouble was asking the team how many of them still loved these brands. The rest of the assignment was awfully quiet.

If a brand steward does not start the day in Love with a brand, by the time that apathy translates and diffuses itself into a campaign of communication tactics, Like is not going to be there with the public. Better the executives hand in the baton and give the assignment to someone else who might find a way to convince themselves there is light ahead, yet throwing yourself on the sword for lack of conviction is not a road well-traveled in business. Instead it is likely that these brands will die, even though they could fight on, because no one behind them has the Love to fight. I wonder if the CEOs at the top of these companies know their chief lieutenants have already surrendered to creative destruction rather than rallied to next generation rebirth. Even if the beaten executives are right and the brand is destined to die, shouldn’t someone else who doesn’t believe that be given the chance to prove otherwise—to try with honest enthusiasm to wrestle imagination and go a different route that might just work despite the naysayers? Perhaps some of the CEOs are biding time as well, but my sense is most of those wouldn’t last too long in a board meeting. Love has to be real, and it has to start at the top.

Can someone in a marketing job walk away nobly from a lack of Love? Sometimes I think it is necessary and essential. A very successful friend recalled for me recently how early in her career she was working for a multi-national corporation on a vastly successful billion dollar brand that had of late stalled in its growth, years after it had gone wild and saturated market share. The team brainstormed and came to the conclusion that to reignite growth, marketing programs would have to implicitly suggest that the brand being marketed met the needs of a more healthful alternative already for sale, and that by shifting use from the believed healthful product to the growing brand, nothing would be lost and everything would be gained. Mind you, nothing illegal was being plotted and the campaign would by default have to meet truth in advertising laws, but the very idea that the only way to grow the brand was to pull attention from a more healthy alternative did not sit well with my friend. She understood the strategy, but she fell out of Love, and even out of Like. She did the right thing and left the company. Today she runs her own company and I can tell you this—she Loves her brand.

Remember this: a brand is not a logo or a trademark or a pithy name—a brand is a promise. You can stop loving a product line because it needs to change, indeed loving a product line too much can be a trap, but products are directed to evolve because loving the brand is a driving force. A brand is a set of choices that begins and ends with meeting customer needs. The branding process begins with ideation, continues through product development, then translates into communication (these days bidirectional feedback loops, like we see in social media, more than soap box broadcasting) and ultimately does or doesn’t result in customer loyalty. When you make a promise to your customers, you are obliged to make good on that promise. My sense is for that to happen repeatedly and predictably, if you are part of the creative cycle, you must Love, Love, Love your brands. If you don’t, no one else will.

If for some chronic reason you’re convinced a brand truly is at end of life, the right thing to do is protect working capital and advocate to take it out of commission mercifully. It is wrong to shovel high-priced coal into an engine you believe will no longer run because you’re pretending to believe a directive handed down that you knowingly disavow. Don’t try to fake it! If you don’t Love your brand, go find another that you can Love. If you are biding your time waiting to be found out, don’t worry, you will be found out. Your customers will do that for you. You need their Like. They deserve your Love.

Love, Love, Love.

Say It Loud

I like that people are speaking out.  I like that customers are letting corporations know what they think.  It’s good for democracy and free enterprise.  It’s great for business.

Bank Transfer DayLast week one individual, 27-year-old art gallery owner Kristen Christian, kicked off a true grass-roots movement that came to be known as Bank Transfer Day.  No one told her to do it, no giant entity or association formally backed her cause, she just did it and thousands of people got on board.  Since September 29, 2011 when Bank of America announced its $5.00 debit card fee, as many as 650,000 new credit union accounts have been opened.  This past week, Bank of America changed its mind about charging that fee.  You think they aren’t listening?  Maybe not as carefully as they should be, but it is clear some message got through.  This is how it should be.

Companies must never forget why they exist — to serve customers.  When they forget that, they are on a slippery slope.  Corporations can have a tendency to be inward thinking, they can focus with intense obsession on their internal issues, efficiencies, operations, politics, succession plans, and tactics for improved profitability.  Internal company struggles can become engrossing to the exclusion of more important matters, like creativity and customer focused quality.  When companies forget about customers, the other stuff ceases to matter.  They need to be reminded of that often and with passion.  Don’t feel bad when you complain or move your business, you are helping them.  They need to hear from us.  Our voice is vital to their survival.  If they don’t believe that and embrace it as a core value, creative destruction will do its job.

As I have written before, we are customers, we cannot allow ourselves to be reduced to the notion of being treated as consumers.  Customer service in a company needs to be both reactive and proactive:

Reactive customer service is when you call them to identify an issue or concern, the person on the phone or chat or responding to your email should do everything possible to solve your problem.  Great companies love these inbound calls, because each contact point is an opportunity to bond a customer for life.  If something goes wrong and a customer service person “makes the save,” your loyalty and lifetime value to that company can increase exponentially.  Conversely, if the customer service person manhandles the “win-back” moment, not only are you likely to be gone, you are likely to take a few dozen of your friends or the company’s future prospects from them, maybe more with the power of social media.  Again, you are doing the company a favor.  If you give them a chance to be helpful and they succeed, you have invested in their brand.  If they let you down, you teach them a lesson they need to learn quickly before their brand is permanently damaged.

Proactive customer service is the job of listening to customers before an action occurs, reading the trends and common themes that flow through the data bases of feedback systems.  Did banks know of the anger of the 650,000 customers who opened credit union accounts last month?  Some did and some didn’t.  Did they act in advance?  Did yours?  Why not?  If they are taking your business for granted, they deserve to lose it.  We all have options.  Proactive customer service focuses on retention activity in advance of crisis.  After crisis, it’s a public relations campaign, the spin doctors join the fray.  That may have worked a generation ago, but not so much today.  When we go, we are gone.

The Bank Transfer Day effort was careful to acknowledge that although it shared some inspiration from the activities of Occupy Wall Street, it was not part of that movement, it was its own thing.  Here again, the idea of customer voice is the key takeaway — what is being said, what is being heard, how can this help make systems function better?  Last week in the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Greene suggested the same basic idea, that “We Should Listen to the 99%” because they “are giving us a chance to address our problems before they grow worse.”  Neither Greene nor I are suggesting that every idea being articulated by OWS is necessarily actionable, but there is most certainly upside in listening and nothing but downside in ignoring the voices of passion.  If people have something to say, business is always well advised to listen.

And how about Congress, where the public approval rating dropped to 9%, are these elected officials not in need of working much harder at hearing?  Never has the need for the public’s voice been in more demand, and yet, as so many of us keep asking, is anyone listening?  The debt ceiling follow-up deadline for the Super Committee is November 23, just weeks away.  I don’t sense a consensus plan on the horizon or an amicable resolution, seems like business as usual in Washington to me.  Maybe we aren’t making enough phone calls or sending enough emails, we are much too polite.

It takes courage to speak out, to draw attention to oneself in a public forum and ask to be heard.  Likewise it takes courage in a corporation to align with the customer and advocate for improvements in the enterprise that cause customers to embrace goods and services along the lines of brand.  How much do banks spend on advertising to drive people through their doors?  What is the lifetime value of your business to a bank, to any company for that matter?  Can the banks not offer us valuable services over the course of a lifetime that produce reasonable profits?  Of course they can, or there would be no such sector.  While corporations worry about driving the value of their share prices, is there any better way to create value than to address customer needs and build lifelong customer relationships?  These are the backbone of profits, not much else that isn’t short-term financial engineering.  When innovation is applied to addressing real customer needs, good things happen for buyers and sellers.

It is so easy to give up and think that one individual cannot make a difference, but then someone like Kristen Christian comes along, fires up a Facebook page and shows us that there is power in the fabric of our nation.  That power of responsiveness is at the core of what can make a business great.  Our economic system can serve us well if we demand that it be responsive.  Don’t be quiet.  If you have something to say, say it and share it and drive the companies who need to earn your respect to work harder for the privilege to serve you.  When businesses listen they can only get better, help them to hear you by being brave and bold and honest.  A robust feedback loop makes good business sense, and everyone can have a say in that.  This is a business proposal with unlimited potential.