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.

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Beware the Idle Question

In his absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, playwright Tom Stoppard invents any number of ways for the courtiers to pass the time while Hamlet comes and goes:

Rosencrantz: Do you want to play questions?
Guildenstern: How do you play that?
Rosencrantz: You have to ask a question.
Guildenstern: Statement. One – Love.
Rosencrantz: Cheating.
Guildenstern: How?
Rosencrantz: I haven’t started yet.
Guildenstern: Statement. Two – Love.
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: Foul. No repetition. Three – Love and game.
Rosencrantz: I’m not going to play if you’re going to be like that.

Our modest heroes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not involved in serious inquiry.  They are burning minutes off the clock.  Their fate has already been cast, and although they don’t know that, they are reasonably certain there is not much else they can contribute because they are but secondary players in Hamlet’s drama, even in a new play named after them.  Good questions, bad questions, neither really matter, and statements result in a lost point.

Is there a business corollary here?  I think so.

When anyone is asked what appears to be a Big Question, it is often a good idea to decipher if the question is real, or if the person asking it is just passing time.  When top management in a company asks for “real change,” is the voice authentic, or simply read from a prepared script for the sake of appearances?  It is never easy to tell, tone only gets you so far.  Knowing the difference may determine whether your full commitment is warranted and can actually make a difference when applied.

Questioning the status quo is the stuff of innovation, the catalyst to progress.  A good question can be provocative, inspirational, challenging, a thought starter — but for a question to have the potential to cause impact, it has to be sincere, honest, clearly well-intentioned.  Not enough questions are like that.  Many only serve to feign engagement.  You’ve been in that meeting, right?  Me, too.

Some questions become legend.  A colleague of mine who worked for a Fortune 100 corporation recalled how shortly after the first dot bomb bubble the CEO turned to him in a strategic planning meeting and said: “eBay, why didn’t you think of that?”  He wasn’t sure if it was a joke.   It wasn’t.  A few months later he was gone.  It was his fault the company had missed the shift to digital.  It had to be someone’s fault, right?

I still gasp when I think about that.

If the top people in your company are asking how they can have all the benefits of the New World without upsetting too much structured order from the Old World, start provisioning the bomb shelters.  If your company is asking what are its core values and how its value propositions can become relevant to new generations of customers, transformation has begun.

Recently in response to my post Creativity and Courage, a friend called me to brainstorm how to more aggressively nudge his company into the 21st Century.  He had been hired by that company’s CEO as a change agent, with plenty of vim and vigor to come in and make change happen.  He had been asked the multi-billion dollar question: What do we have to do right now to reinvent our business before we are toast?

It had been almost a year since that curious question was posed.  Lots of ideas had been floated.  Many follow-up questions had been asked, most of them repeatedly.  To date, no substantive change had occurred.  Blame was starting to appear on the whiteboard where new ideas had been wiped clean to keep the peace — potentially good but uncomfortable answers to the hardest questions were emerging, yet the status quo had largely triumphed without consensus to advance.  It was an anxious peace, which led my friend to believe the question he had been asked was more a checklist item than a true strategic mandate.  Indeed, a perfunctory question is unlikely to elicit an eye-opening answer.  Those charged with asking questions usually get what they want, one way or another.

The second example of questioning is the opposite of the eBay punchline.  The first CEO was angry that no change had happened and needed someone to skewer.  The second CEO said he wanted change, but not too much, there was no reason to upset people unnecessarily and disrupt workflow with festering speculation.  Rumor mills can be ghastly impediments to productivity, particularly when they transmit substance.

Because questions are constructed of words, they can only get us so far.  Your real gauge has to be the reaction to your proposed answers, actions of consequence and commitment of resources.   If a request to bring change is heartfelt, a door has opened and you have the incredible opportunity to close it behind you.  On the other side of that door is risk, and you have no choice but to take it.  You can win or lose the whole ballpark, but at least you are in the game.  If the request to bring change is just passing time, you really don’t need to answer it, better to avoid it entirely to buy yourself as much time as you can — Powerpoint can be helpful to tread water while your wheels spin.  What you really need to do is find someone who asks more honest questions.

Playing at questions can be a pastime or serious business.  When asking, do your best to understand the difference.  When asked, be ready to know the difference.

Shall we play?

The Grating Divide

CBS News recently reported that there is no longer a group we can consider as “moderate” in the U.S. Senate.  In a report on November 22, 2011 looking back on the past 40 years, Scott Pelley sourcing research from the nonpartisan National Journal noted that in 1982 there were 60 Senators who could be described as moderates, while today there is zero.

Zero moderates?

Two questions come to mind: 1) What criteria could we be using to define the concept of moderate that would rule out everyone in the Senate; and 2) If this is truly the case, how can this possibly be good for the nation?

If the essence of this analysis is that all Democrats are left of center and all Republicans are right of center, I suppose that would leave us with zero moderates.  Yet we all know this is not the case, the party labels of Democrat and Republican have largely become just that, where we all know Democrats we consider more conservative than some Republicans as well as some Republicans we consider more liberal than Democrats.  Clearly President Obama is receiving as much if not more criticism for the actual agenda he has pursued from vocal members within his own party for “not being liberal enough,” and the most significant criticism articulated about once leading Presidential Candidate Romney by numerous members of his own party is that he is too liberal.  Here we have a handful of labels that are useful to certain individuals on any given day for campaign positioning, high profile op-ed pieces, and extremely uncomfortable holiday table rhetoric, but beyond that, these labels aren’t doing us much good.

That doesn’t mean the divisiveness in our nation is any less real; it remains as the CBS News story implies a disease that is killing us.  The problem is that regardless of monolithic labels like moderate, liberal, and conservative — descriptors that tend to have almost no meaning in our day-to-day lives where business behavior and social interaction demand a level of civility and tolerance for anything to get done in a timely manner — our elected leaders at the national level have fully separated themselves from anything that vaguely represents the real world and isolated themselves in a war between two parties that does not reflect the desires, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a people who really do wish to be united under visionary leadership.

The divide is on party vote, creating a climate where the mandate of political survival necessitates that whether in truth moderate, liberal, or conservative, an elected official still votes along party lines so as not to be perceived as a traitor to the party.  The party articulates a definitive point of view — whether that is no tax increase can be on the table or a tax increase of some sort must be on the table — and there you have it, intractable postures.  The result?  We still haven’t resolved the debt ceiling with intelligence, we are going to allow it to be done by mathematical computation.  If preordained formulas are going to be the measure by which critical decisions of how precious and limited resources are going to be allocated, one starts to wonder exactly what we are getting for the time and money of those being sent to our nation’s Capitol as voices of representative democracy.  We are willing to go to war with enemies overseas to advocate that democracy is the best possible ideal for self-determination of nations, yet at home we allow our own democracy to languish while our leaders fight among themselves for agendas of their own career advancement that are entirely irrelevant to the people paying their salaries and standing on the sidelines waiting to be rescued from stagnation.

Now while Congress fights (before it vacations again) over whether current extension of tax cuts and jobless benefits must be tied in a single package — another all or nothing argument that mirrors the failure of the Super Committee — millions of Americans are facing the end of year holidays in complete fear they could lose everything they have before they can get back on their feet because our government cannot do its job.  There can be no more excuses here — the needs of the nation must trump the needs of those who manage the nation, and those who will reap the lucrative benefits of post government service with lobbying jobs that continue to compromise the very fabric of fairness in practice.  Not much holiday spirit there, and no rhetoric makes things right when the bank forecloses.

I have written before that polarization is not only anathema to advancement, it is largely not tolerated in the business world.  Indeed a corporation is not a democracy, it is run by a CEO with executive authority that can be autocratic when necessary, but those of us in the working world know how seldom a successful CEO exercises that kind of power — the use of a blunt instrument is too often demoralizing to employees who thrive when they are empowered.  Is there career advancement at risk in a corporation?  You bet, every single day.  Are there winners and losers on a personal level, despite the fortunes of the company?  Yes, sometimes.  Do companies on occasion forget that competition is outside the walls of the enterprise rather than down the hall?  Oh yeah, happens all the time.  Yet to maintain one’s stature and upward mobility in working life, most of us come to realize the wisdom and benefit in building consensus viewpoints around difficult measures — and the more complicated the problem, the more upside there is to be found in working toward consensus.  Consensus is not the same as compromise, but it incorporates tactics of compromise to allow the best of ideas from different points of view to come together to form more enlightened arguments and better constructed resolutions.  The winning formula in consensus understands there is always a big picture, and in standoff bifurcation there is only momentum for standstill behavior.

Any organization frozen solid when facing a crisis is likely to fail.  Strong executives understand that this is often the difference between positive and negative earnings, and rather than worrying about getting their way on every detail because they so strongly believe it, they worry about obstructions to the organization’s success.  A leader articulates a vision, listens, is decisive, and then sees to it that anything blocking success is removed from the path, not cemented at the crossroads as a monument to unhelpful ideology.

There are any number of points of view on any number of critical issues facing our nation, but my sense is that real question before us is how we rediscover the commonalities that make us a great nation and not a divided people.  If we have no moderates in government that we have no one who represents the voice of the people, which by definition in its aggregate is moderate.  Dividing lines may help individual careers and fuel unlimited punch lines for the evening talk show hosts, but they aren’t helping you and they aren’t helping me.  If Washington can’t get over it, then we need to show them where they are wrong.  If our elected officials simply refuse to lead by example, then it is time for the rest of us to show them how.  There is a lot at risk here, way more than an election, way more than claimed vindication.  We cannot meet our challenges if we remain divided, not a chance.  We must find a consensus and a shared voice of which we can be proud.

Demand more, demand better.

It’s Not What You Need, It’s Who You Help

Networking Can Be Learned, Once You Dump All Your Bad Habits
by Ken Goldstein
Fourth in a Series of Ten

Networking is of the most misunderstood and underappreciated activities in which we partake.  We are taught to begin networking as early as we can, in high school and college, to build our network of contacts so we know important people downstream who can help us improve all our metrics — financial results, recruitment, sales leads, and career development, just to name a few.  Yet even though we know we are supposed to network, do we have a clue what effective networking is?  How do we calculate an ROI on time spent, and oh how I despise this word, schmoozing?

Let’s start with the basics — schmoozing is not networking.  Idle chit chat at industry cocktail parties is not going to help you achieve a record quarter or land the gig of a lifetime.  You can point to examples where it worked, but you can also point to people who win the lottery.  In my experience, with the exception of sales people, no one really likes schmoozing — it’s weird, it’s thin, it’s shallow, and it’s uncomfortable.  To be clear, the best sales people I know only pretend to schmooze, what they are really doing in these circles is selling, because professional sales people are selling all the time.  So for everyone who is not in sales, let’s toss out schmoozing as a way to move forward.  If you have that kind of time on your hands, spend it with family and friends, you’ll have a much better and more honest day or evening.

Networking is the single best chance we have to make an impression on someone, an impression that lasts, possibly for the rest of the time you are on the planet.  What better way is there for you to make a positive impression, to get someone to remember you and care about you and think about taking your call?  Help them.  Help them any way you can.  Answer their email, return their call, listen to their problem or concern, and if you have something relevant to share, share it.  You want to know what we really appreciate in life and business?  Any simple act of kindness or respect.  Do it, do it often, trade your schmoozing time for helping time.  Do it now, it doesn’t matter if you are at the top or bottom of your game, if you are busy or bored.  Don’t discriminate, you are building a base of support and trust, you have no clue whatsoever where anyone around you will be in several years time.  They may be CEO, they may be down and out, they matter equally; in another year’s time, the tables can turn very quickly.

So once you help someone, it’s like The Godfather, right?  They owe you a favor?  Fuggedaboutit.  You give and offer to give because it’s the right thing to do.  You do it selflessly and without expectation.  You do it because it feels good and right to you.  You do not keep score.  If you network correctly, you forget every act you ever did to help someone so you never make the awful mistake of reminding them.  Let them remember.  They will.

Successful networking is like successful investing, it’s long term results that matter.  I can’t tell you how immensely consistent a theme this has been in my own life.  My contacts list is something I cherish, I can call any one of the people I consider contacts and they will get back to me promptly.  Why, because they think I have something for them?  No, because we have a human connection.  With that human connection comes access and trust.  Do not mistake this for friendship, it might be friendship, but that is rare.  It is a covenant of interchange, where connection and productivity are rooted in history.

You want history?  Start now.  Help someone today, then again tomorrow.  You will be shocked at just how powerful your network grows in the years to come, and how satisfied you feel to be part of an endlessly winning circle.