Chasing Tales

dog-chasing-tailLast year a friend of mine in DC went to work for the federal government after spending his previous career working in the private sector. A month or so after the switch he came to me saying, “You know people have got these guys all wrong, folks here work really hard.” I did not doubt the veracity of his statement. I know a lot of hard working government folk. (Yes Honey, I mean you too.) Recently we crossed paths again and he was rather despondent. He was dismayed how much time people in his division spent chasing rabbits down holes and how easy things were made difficult by “the system.”

(It’s worth taking a moment to say I hear this kind of story all-too-often in for-profit organizations also.)

I reminded him of his “people here work really hard comment” and said, “Remember, your dog is working really hard when he’s chasing his tail.” (And “Chip,” the Labrador in question, really does work hard! He is focused, resolute and even occasionally catches his tail…)

Something that is an output of our brand creation process is an “Observations and Recommendations” document. It often truly surprises clients what a fresh (and experienced) set of eyeballs (and a confidential set of ears) can learn about their organizations. Sometimes relatively easy things to change are having truly deleterious effect on morale or perceptions of the organization both inside and outside. But you can’t fix the things you don’t know about. You, chasing your peoples “tales” can, with proper analysis, stop them from continually chasing their own “tails”…

Because, if you don’t address these issues, it limits the brand promise you can make, or the kind of effective advertising you can do down the road. Not to mention the cost in employee morale.

One of my favourite quotes is by Basil King who said, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Of course if one is going to act boldly it would be a good idea to be wise in the selected direction of all this boldness… The good news is that all the information you need for that wise decision is out there. In your head. In your staff’s heads. In your customers. If you ask them correctly or more importantly listen to them correctly they’d love to tell you.

It’s the difference between going bold, and getting bowled-over.

— Simon Dixon

Flossed in Translation

HiRes_flossingLast week, I was talking to a good friend who is the Director of Marketing for a startup. His CEO had been talking about their positioning in relation to how easily their publishing product “got stuff out on the net.” However, my perspective was that my 11-year old son is great at getting things “out on the net” – it’s rather simple these days. I suggested that they instead highlight their skills at getting their clients’ slice of the ever-burgeoning internet morass actually noticed and consumed by the people they are seeking to communicate with.

Especially after you remind them, clients are (should be) much more interested in how many people actually interact with their messaging than how wide they happen to disperse it. Buying uninterested and incompatible eyeballs is not a good use of anyone’s media dollars.

Reminiscent of the old adage, “floss only the teeth you want to keep” – chase only the potential customers that make sense to you and you to them.

I have a quip that I often say to clients, paraphrased from something Pastor Britt Merrick said: “People don’t care who you are, they care what they are in you.”  Which is to say, “I don’t care who you or your company or product are, I care why my life will be better if I let you in it.”

And that should be the progression of your marketing conversation. I was chatting with a non-profit recently that could not figure out why they got people all excited and got initial donations but then had a terrible time with retention. The answer, I explained, was that they had not gotten donors passionate and excited about their organization; they had only gotten them passionate and excited about the issue they served. The non-profit had done a tremendous job of branding the problem but they had done a terrible job of branding themselves as the solution. So their donor base was very ripe picking for a non-profit working in the same space that was doing a better job of making their brand outcome-focused as opposed to problem-focused.

If the “brand” of your organization is just a list of things you do, there is no passion and therefore no adhesion. It’s like comparing a dictionary to a novel. I love reading both but there is no such thing as a “can’t put down” dictionary. So if you insist on branding yourself as a list of attributes and a mission statement… well, on behalf of your competitors, thank you very much.

— Simon Dixon

Uber or under?

uber-blogOK, I usually try to avoid writing about what everyone else is writing about so forgive me this time…

There is a lot of talk about Uber these days. I was a fairly early Uber adopter and developed some early opinions, which I think are now coming to roost. I have used Uber mostly in DC, when working at our DC office. DC is, for the most part, awash in cabs. In fact, I have heard previously (and five minutes of research just now seems to confirm) that DC has more cabs per capita than any major US city. Anyway, the reason I started using Uber in DC was because most DC cabs even just a couple of years ago did not take credit cards. Uber allowed me to not carry money – all I needed was my phone. But it seemed to me that this would be a fairly easy fix for the cabs: just start carrying Square or some other card-charging solution. And that has happened. All DC cabs now have some form of automated charging system.

On the other hand, for me the big Uber turn-off is “surge pricing.” And around the third time that I was desperate and Uber sought to take advantage of my desperation by charging me several times the normal fare, I made my vow to make Uber my transportation of last resort. And so it has been. I have not thus far removed my app, but Uber now has in me someone who will only use them when I have zero other options.

“Inreach” vs. “outreach”

I had a conversation this week with a client about the fact that a brand is not just about “outreach” – it is about “inreach.” – What kind of company do you want to be? What kind of a company do your employees think they work for? What kind of culture are you building? When we celebrate the violence of NFL football (which I love to watch) and we incentivize the players with essentially “more violence = more money,” should we be surprised when one of them knocks out his wife? (Perhaps we should be surprised that more of them don’t.) When we celebrate that Uber flouts local laws set up to guarantee certain standards of safety and competence, should we then be surprised that they feel less than beholden to many other laws and conventions also?

Be careful of the “soul” you unleash inside your company.

Between the surge pricing, poor driver management, threatening of reporters, very questionable privacy practices, hyper-aggressive tactics and many other instances of “domination at any price via any scheme,” I believe a wave of anti-Uber is slowly building. And it may turn the corner so that using Uber becomes unfashionable. (Which, if it happens, will be fatal and forever.)

I remember, around 2000, sitting down with reps from the Washington Post advertising division as they stopped by the agency to unleash the draconian price rise for the year. They had little real competition and they threw their weight around mercilessly. And I said to them, “I don’t know what it is going to be, but something is going to provide an alternative to you, and when it happens, droves of people that you have abused will leave on the first ship.” – I was imagining another newspaper but then Craigslist expanded to DC and the rest is history.

Uber’s actions appear to be an outward expression of an internal cultural sickness. If they don’t soon completely and truthfully change their culture, eventually the amount of people looking for another way will be provided one. Perhaps by Lyft making their brand about something kinder, gentler and respectful of privacy or perhaps just by regular cabs upping their game and, because the taxicab laws that Uber is proud to flout, don’t allow cabs “screwing the customers” as a business option.

Uber, and its ilk, like to call themselves “disruptors.” I think, by way of bad attitude and poor treatment of employees and/or customers, many of them are actually “uniters” – they unite forces in opposition to them.

It does not matter if you have the greatest idea in the world; if you ignore and abuse your customers and/or your employees and/or regulators, they will yearn for your demise. And eventually they will get their way. If you doubt the mighty can fall, go read the story of MySpace. Or Enron. Or Blockbuster. Or MCI.

— Simon Dixon

Fix the strategy, Tony.

Fiat_screenshotMaybe the guy from Coke got a job at Fiat… Some of you may recall I blogged a year or so ago about Coke releasing a video about their “assistance” in the fight against obesity. And I thought it was a bonehead move only highlighting their contribution to the problem in the first place. (Plus killing my joy buzz for drinking Coke.)

Now Fiat is elbowing into the game…

Auto historians (or just older folk) may remember that Fiat, (like Alfa Romeo, Renault, Citroen, Peugeot) had to beat a retreat from American shores because of a legion of cars beset with reliability problems. And for years, Fiat was jokingly referred to as an acronym for “Fix It Again Tony.”

In recent years, Fiat has fought its way back to the U.S. And now, in a worrying reminder of times past, Fiat has again scored at the bottom of JD Powers quality surveys. Further worrying is the new spot being released by Fiat. It is a play on the “fix it” legend. I think it is a knuckle-headed decision for 2 reasons:

  1. Why would you want to remind people of “Fix It Again Tony” and start them off on reminding other people?
  2. The spot seems to reinforce the idea that Fiat values style over reliability — which is what pushed them out of the U.S the first time around.

Here’s a nutty idea that GM and Ford finally wrapped their heads around: Just start making good, attractive, reliable cars. People in the U.S. really like that in their transportation. Or at the very least Fiat should refrain from inserting themselves in “fix it” conversations.

Otherwise Fiat will soon stand for “Final Iteration And Termination.” Again…

— Simon Dixon

Oil Slick…

OliveOil_loA study by the University of California Davis found that 69% of store bought olive oils in the U.S. are probably not as labeled, and are actually partially or completely replaced with lower quality olive oil somewhere before they get to the store. They tested 186 samples and some well-known oils including Bertolli, Colavita and Whole Foods failed the test…

Do you know where most olive oil comes from? Well if you said Italy, you’d be giving the same answer as most people. However, Spain is actually the world’s largest producer, producing over 3 times the amount of Italy, but Italy built its export market first and was first to see the brand-value of the premium extra virgin olive oils (EVOO).

Spain has largely been left as a mega-producer with a lack of recognition for their quality EVOO. And that is why I am interested to see what the new Spanish regulations will do for their “brand.” For health reasons, all Spanish olive oil must now be sold in non-reusable bottles. This is being done to ensure that olive oil, particularly in cafes and hotels, cannot be “topped up” from questionable sources. But as a bonus, it also means that people in Spain’s export markets e.g., in the U.S., can now absolutely know that what they are buying is actually genuine. And so Spain now has a tremendous chance to grow its brand. All olive oils that do not have the tamper-proof bottles will be viewed as suspect (particularly if Spain does its job). It is a great opportunity to put Spanish EVOO on the map. It will be interesting to see if Italy responds.  – It wasn’t so long ago that the French laughed at the idea of quality U.S. and Australian wines denting their dominance. How did that play out?

Which competitor are you ignoring? (Including your own inertia…)

(BTW. As far as I could tell, no California brand failed the test. So I will keep buying “Corto” and you can dip your bread at my house with confidence…)

— Simon Dixon

The Natives are Restless

23KEHR1-articleLarge_editIn the movie “Island of Lost Souls” that the above line references, the beast-men end up no longer feeling bound by Dr. Moreau’s laws, as he himself breaks one of them….

I have a PowerPoint slide I use in my lectures. It is simply the words, “Tell the Truth.” I especially feel the need to use it when I am appearing in a university setting so people can grasp, and hopefully internalize, the concept early. I tell the audience that there is no trick here; that it is not some campaign slogan. It is just a good idea for life in general and for marketing also. When I meet someone and they find out what I do for a living, they sometimes say some version of, “So you try to talk me into buying things I don’t want or need.” That is one way to look at marketing, I guess… I think of what I do as providing compelling truths about my clients or their products so people can make good, accurate decisions about the value of my clients and whether they need them or not. “Shoe-horning” is no way to build a relationship. If your product or your campaign is not good enough to win customers via truth, get a new product or get a new agency.

And it is through that lens that I look at the “new” blossoming of “native” advertising that is very hot right now. (The disguising of advertising as news content.) Apparently we are to believe that hoodwinking potential customers is considered a good start to a relationship. And when I see such storied organs as The New York Times willing to walk this road, I know things are getting bad. The most valuable thing that The New York Times has to offer is its reputation as a purveyor of truth. – I’d say native advertising threatens that and certainly weakens it. – They shouldn’t ask people to value what they don’t seem to value themselves. I often put things into human terms, which, I think, makes it easier for clients to see the relational aspects of an issue. If someone lied to you to get you to go out on a date with them, how would you feel when you found out the truth?
Think about this before jumping on the native advertising bandwagon. The natives will eventually turn on you….

— Simon Dixon

Premature Prognostication

It's Too Soon ClockNot for the first time, I was speaking with the CEO of a tech firm who was lamenting the lack of success of a previous firm he had worked for. He said, “sadly, they were just ahead of their time.”

I stopped to reflect on that comment and said, “No, they just sucked at communicating what their value was.” Tech firms in particular run into this problem (but certainly not exclusively). I think it stems from a couple of reasons. Firstly, the nature of tech is such that a company is often coming to market with a product that is new or different. Secondly, tech firms are very apt to believe (as engineers often do) that the value of their proposition is obvious to anyone who looks, and so needs little explanation beyond, perhaps, a cool name.

So listen up: No one cares. Few look. And your name is not that cool.

“Ahead of its time”? Really? Is that not the same thing as having a jump on everyone? So you’re a genius if it works, but it’s not your fault if it doesn’t?

If no one understands what you do or why they need what you are offering, then where do you expect your idea to go? As I often tell clients: “People don’t care who you are; they care what they are in you.”  Which is to say, people want to know why their life is going to be better because they are using your product or service. And if they don’t understand what you do, or why your product is different – and better – from the five other products that they perceive to be the same, then you have a problem. And the fact that you bought an oh-so-clever domain name like is not going to fix it for you.

I remember coaching some students for a venture capital competition and watching them show up for a rehearsal looking unkempt and with a glitchy PowerPoint. My admonition to them was, “Don’t ask me to respect you more than you respect you.”

Similarly, don’t ask your potential customers to figure you out beyond what you are willing to clearly communicate to them.

— Simon Dixon