December 24, 2009

A Saab Passing

So Saab is on the way out. And I am a little less for it.

To paraphrase John Donne (and with apologies to the poetry purists amongst you):

Each brand's death diminishes me, for I am involved in brandkind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

News of the imminent demise of what Brandchannel describes as "the first venerable, standalone global brand" to fall casualty to the worldwide crisis in car-production, has provoked a reaction more suited to the announcement of a death in the extended family.

But it's only a brand, you might say. And not a very successful one at that, if sales are anything to go by. And if you're the brand-owner (General Motors, in this instance), then it's only natural that you're inclined to switch off the life-support when your ailing brand is flatlining.

Now, I'm a Saab-owner as well as a brandmaker, and whilst I can see the business-case for shutting down a brand that's not performing (and remember, the purpose of a brand is to influence choice), I am doubly diminished at the passing of this great brand.

Perhaps it's because I've grown rather fond of my own Saab? 

And it seems I'm not alone. I've written previously in Open-Heart Branding that I'm not especially into cars, but my choice of Saab made sense when I went to buy my first new car some years ago. That post prompted a remarkable reaction, not just from my regular readers, but from Saab-lovers worldwide. A number of them contacted me directly to tell me of their own love-affair with the brand.

Judging from the language used by industry analysts, it appears that the brand is widely-mourned by those who appreciated Saab's "quirky designs and mastery of turbocharging". (Even if, like me, you're not quite sure what turbocharging is, you've got to love a brand that's mastered it.) Brandchannel refers to it as a "storied brand" and reports how General Motors (who bought the brand in 1989) "slowly strangled a proud heritage with a paucity of new products."

Elsewhere, CNN talks of the death and loss of a "brand we loved", whilst others talk of the 'devastating' news of the demise of a brand with real character. Almost everyone lays the blame for the death of the brand squarely at General Motors' door, accusing the manufacturer of stripping Saab of its singular, angular design and reducing it to just another lookalike car.

No, it's not just that I'm a Saab-owner and a brandmaker. The death of any great brand diminishes us all.

When brands are at their best, they contribute hugely to the richness of our lives. Representing the distinctive relationship between buyer and seller, they make customer choice easier and a lot more interesting. Like many other global manufacturers, General Motors doesn't understand that.

Saab isn't being killed off because it didn't matter. Starved and neglected, it suffered because General Motors ignored the brand's rich heritage and made a series of poorly-judged changes that rendered the brand almost unrecognisable and left it a pale, bland shadow of its former self.

Bewleys suffered the same fate here in Ireland, whilst Guinness was victim to some appalling advertising in the late '90s that threatened to kill off the brand before it finally regained much of its old strength thanks to a return to brand values.

Like Saab, these brands matter.

To paraphrase John Donne again:

No brand is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea (or put to death by a hapless manufacturer that deeply misunderstands brands), then we are all the less.

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for us all.

Farewell old friend, we'll miss you.

Over To You: Are you saddened by the passing of this great brand or do you think mourning a car-marque is just a little over the top?

December 12, 2009

To That Special Nobody

The people over at Vertical Response insist that one of the great benefits of direct email is how it lets you personalise a mass-mailing.

I agree.

Even when I know that I'm one of many, a note addressed to me by name can make me feel like I'm a very special one in a million.

That's why it's so disappointing to receive a mail from them addressed to: FIRST_NAME / Vertical Response Customer.

Now, I'm no longer a customer of theirs since discovering their competitor, Circulator, but I still feel a little snubbed by their message.

What I can't understand is how they allowed this to happen. It's just a simple mistake you might say, but one of the beauties of direct email is that it allows you to send a test version and iron out any wrinkles that result.

A careless click of the finger has undone much of the good reputation that Vertical Response has built up over time (I'm assuming that I'm not alone in my disappointment). Even more vexing is that no-one over there seems to have noticed, and I haven't received the quick follow-up note that might smooth my ruffled feathers.

Direct mail offers a great opportunity to speak in a personal way to our customers, but Vertical Response have messed up on this opportunity and I'm not so inclined to welcome their messages into my In-Box anymore.

Over To You: What impersonal messages have left you cold recently?

December 06, 2009

More On 'Following The Leader'

My previous post on the importance of followership seems to have struck a chord with readers and has attracted much commentary both on and off-line, with many of you contacting me directly to remark on it.

One of my BNI Marketwest colleagues sent me on a copy of a note I had circulated when stepping down as Chapter Director some years ago, where I talked in more detail of the benefits of leadership and support enjoyed by geese in flight. He suggests that I add it to my blog thread on this subject:

Until recently, scientists could only theorise as to why geese adopted the V formation for flying long distances. However, a new simulated study during which ornithologists taped heart monitors to a team of BNI members, who were then trained to fly behind a small airplane, has produced some astonishing findings:
  • The heart rates of the BNI 'geese' are lower when flying in a V than when flying solo.
  • The goose at the head of the V is not necessarily the leader of the flock. Apparently geese take turns leading. As one bird tires, it drops to the back of the formation and another takes its place.
  • As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the birds that follow. By flying in a V, the whole flock adds over 70% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.
  • The formation allows geese conserve energy as they can glide more often.
  • When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it is able to fly again. Then they launch out in a V to catch up with the flock.
  • Each goose has an unobstructed field of vision, allowing flock members to see each other and communicate while in flight.
  • The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
What can we learn from all of this? Well, your goose is as good as mine.
To the old V: thanks for all your support and honkouragement.

And to the new V: honk, honk, honk, honk!

November 30, 2009

Following The Leader

Sometimes, I think the importance of great leadership is overstated.

Don't get me wrong. We do need great leaders but maybe we need great followers even more.

Over the years, I've taken up leadership roles in a number of groups; often as a result of simply standing out like a sore thumb when others took a step back or being next in line when the baton was passed.

But I must admit, I enjoy playing the part of leader. In recent months, this has seen me taking centre stage more and more as I develop my speaking career and there's certainly a great buzz in leading the conversation in this way.

But I was struck at a recent showcase event, when I lined up with five of my fellow speakers to strut our stuff, at how important it is to have a great audience too, people who are prepared to follow your lead and make the experience an even more powerful one for us all.

I'm a member of a number of network groups too where it's hugely important for those on the back-benches to support those leading the group in simple, often overlooked ways, rather than vying to be the centre of attention.

So what happens when we fail as followers?

When I look at those who would lead our country, in particular those flailing about at the heads of our political parties, it seems to me that they couldn't be where they are and how they are without being egged on by a motley collection of spineless lackeys and cronies. A poverty of vision, ambition and integrity amongst those followers seems to lead to poor leadership: the bland leading the bland.

I've often used the example of geese in flight when taking or handing over charge of a group. You know the one: how geese in formation take turns to spearhead their unerring progress through the air to nesting or feeding grounds. And how they take turns too to be good followers. For if an individual goose breaks ranks without strong cause, then all is lost and they fall into disarray.

In my own business, I rely greatly on good customers, those who are willing to take my lead and head off into the unknown in search of a strong brand position. Without their active and critical support, I'd be powerless to lead them anywhere. They demand the best of me and the quality of their followership is vital to the success of our enterprise.

The more I think about it, wherever I look, it seems to me that our successes are down to inspired leaders and followers working in tandem. Equally, a crisis of leadership or followership leads to failure.

As followers, we need to both demand more of our leaders and demand more of ourselves. Sometimes even with the same breath, we need to be more critical and more supportive. Our society and our economy requires better backbenchers, voters and customers; ones who will demand only the best for us all.

There's no dodging this one: whether you're playing the role of leader or follower, you can't afford to settle for second-best.

Over To You: Where do you see examples of great leaders and followers setting the standards and demanding the best from one another?

November 22, 2009

Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Sinner or sinned against. Which would you prefer?

I watched the furore around 'l'affaire Henry' from the vantage-point of our Franco-Irish household (where my French wife Christine and au pair Marie were vigorously flying the other tricolour in the lead-up to the game) with a certain bemusement.

Christine summed it up best in the immediate aftershock of the match,"What a terrible way to lose. But what an even more terrible way to win."

When I was growing up, news of a teenage death on our roads would immediately prompt my own mother to commiserate with that other mother who had received the dreaded knock on the door that same morning. Then she would say, "I know this sounds awful, but I'd much prefer to be the mother of the victim rather than the mother of the drunk-driver at the wheel."

Thanks, mother, I think. But even from an early age, I knew what she meant, and I heard the same regret from Christine, Marie and the countless others who sent their expressions of shame and embarrassment to notice-boards and chat-forums in the days after the match.

It may be only a game but now, thanks to a simple sleight-of-hand that took scarcely a split-second, it stands for so much more in the popular imagination. It invites us to ask what it means to play fair, to take advantage, to stand up for what's right and, of course, what it means to be Irish and to be French.

But as an Irish football fan, I prefer to view Henry's as the fickle hand of fate (in other circumstances, it might well have been an Irish hand), and look instead to what the Irish team stood for on Wednesday night. Remember, that in the days before the game, this team had been pilloried as largely talentless donkeys, destined to play also-rans to the footballing thoroughbreds of France. Even those who didn't use such dismissive language damned the boys in green with faint praise and held out little hope of an upset.

Instead, the Irish players put on a courageous and frequently skilful display that lacked only a killer touch in front of goal. Robbie Keane's strike may have stunned the French team but for the remainder of the game a succession of squeamish Irish players failed to apply the coup de grace. Their failure to finish off the game offered a hostage to fortune and, as is her inclination, she took it.

In the aftermath of the match, I struggled to rouse myself to righteous anger or even indignation. Like my mother, it seems I'm hard-wired to prefer honourable defeat to shameful victory.

From the reactions of my countrymen, it appears that they too prefer to be on the side of the sinned against rather than the sinner. But there's a danger that we use our sense of being wronged (and how we love to store up those wrongs) as an excuse not to hold our own hands up to our failure to put the game beyond the French team when we had the opportunity.

For if fortune is to favour the brave, she at least expects her champion to have the good sense to seal the deal when given the chance.

Our players may have given it everything on Wednesday. But they might have given even more. And denied Henry the chance to play the villain's role.

If I regret anything, it's that in the aftermath of the game, I saw little evidence of any steely intent from our players to make sure that we never offer such hostages to fortune again.

Over To You: Which do you prefer: Sinned against or sinner?

November 14, 2009

Style Over Substance: The Fate Of The Giant Panda

"Like its piebald image as featured in countless brand logos, the Giant Panda has itself become a franchise."
John Keay, China, Basic Books

Something about that last line, from a longer excerpt on the debunking of myths about China, struck me as rather sad.

Earlier in the piece, the writer describes how "in the 1960's and '70s, the nearly extinct creature, together with some acrobatic ping-pong players, emerged as a notable asset in the diplomatic arsenal of the beleaguered People's Republic. Much sought after by zoos worldwide, the pandas, especially females, were freely bestowed on deserving heads of state."

Now, those Giant Pandas or Daxiongmao (Great Bear-Cats), are only available on a ten-year lease with "any cubs born during the rental being deemed to inherit the nationality of their mother - and the same terms of contract."

Whilst I guess life on loan in a zoo is a lot easier for the Giant Panda than a hunted existence in the wild, it seems to me somehow pitiful that this magnificent creature has become a franchise.

I know that, for many of us in business, the building of a successful franchise is a holy grail of sorts. And I know too that I am quick to remind business-owners of the importance of the commercial transaction that must underpin their activities if they are to count themselves a success.

But I must confess that sometimes I find market values just a little depressing. And the picture of the Giant Panda on a production line has really struck a chord.

Perhaps it's because we're in the midst of a media frenzy around the antics of Jedward on Britain's X Factor? Or that in watching the local version of The Apprentice earlier in the week, I was appalled how each of the contestants made all of the right noises around responsibility and accountability ("That was my decision" and "I made that call, Bill") yet wriggled off the hook with their next breath and laid blame at the door of a colleague?

So what's that got to do with Giant Pandas, you might ask?

Sometimes, it seems to me that we've grown too obsessed with symbols, particularly the symbols of success. It's not enough that we simply do our job, we must always turn it into a performance and look for plaudits. Much of the time, it becomes only about the applause whilst pretending to be about something much more substantial.

Isn't it enough that we simply do what must be done, without always playing to the gallery?

I think of my own parents, and the countless like them, content to work quietly away, raising their families and doing what's right, and largely indifferent to the approval of the judges or the fickle applause of an audience.

The Giant Panda was once held out as the ultimate symbol of an endangered species. In our media-obsessed culture, where few of us seem happy to simply do our best without looking for an audience and an approvals-rating, the great bear-cat is not alone. Now, this natural introvert, who by all accounts would much rather be left to its own devices, has become a status-symbol, a lucrative franchise.

And somehow, that strikes me as both pitiful and sad.

Over To You: Do you think we're too inclined to applaud the triumph of style over substance?

November 08, 2009

Primary Colours Fading Fast

What's the opposite of the halo effect?

It seems America's primary political brands have grown horns and a forked tail if the recent actions of some candidates are anything to go by. In its Branding The '09 Political Races article, Fast Company reports that politicians on both sides of the divide are keeping their party colours well hidden and flying the generic patriotic flag instead.

Brand commentators talk of the halo effect when brands bask in the virtuous glow of another brand's deeds but it appears that both Democratic and Republican candidates in State elections in the US believe that their primary colours have lost their lustre.

Are we now seeing the horned effect?

A visit to the websites of candidates for Governor in a number of states reveals lots of stars and stripes and whole fields of blue, red and white rosettes, but very little indication of where the candidate stands in terms of party loyalty.

It's almost impossible to imagine a politician in this part of the world washing party colours out of the election mix in this way. And it's extraordinary to see two of the world's most recognisable political brands diluted or damaged to such an extent that local tribal leaders prefer to daub on more universal colours before going on the war-path.

(It's also a measure, of course, of just how powerful the patriotic ideal remains in that part of the world when politicians fall over themselves to appear more American than their rivals).

If political leaders don't invest in their own brands, then how do they expect voters to either believe in those same brands or know what they stand for? Are political party brands just flags of convenience, to be lowered or discarded when they no longer fit?

Or is it possible that in this more transparent society we will see elections fought on the question of character and personal integrity rather than along party lines?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Even if we are seeing a return to more broadly patriotic values, there is something dispiriting about this desertion from the political camp. When politicians merely wrap the old flag around them in the hope of attracting voters, there's a real danger that they do so in order to disguise either their naked ambition or a poverty of ideas.

Over To You: Do you think it's a good idea when politicians deny party affiliations or does it show a refreshing sense of independence?

October 31, 2009

Yes, I'm Feeling Lucky

Why lucky?

Although it's difficult to recall a time before Google, I have a strong memory of my first visit to their homepage when I was intrigued by the second search button 'I'm Feeling Lucky'. It promised daring and glorious serendipity, like the bottle labelled 'Drink Me'in Alice In Wonderland, and I wondered briefly what exciting worlds beyond a world might be hidden behind that simple button.

'Press Me', it seemed to say.

But, despite my general appetite for novelty and adventure, I'm quite purposeful when I'm online, more White Rabbit than Alice, so I never did put down my stopwatch long enough to disappear down that particular rabbit-hole.

But I did wonder.

And today, I'm feeling lucky.

My colleague Paul Flynn sent me on a video, Social Media Revolution, which reminded me again of those worlds beyond this world that have made it such a pleasure to be a small-business owner in Dublin, Ireland in 2009.

This short video offers a range of astonishing facts about the growth of social media, including:
  • If Facebook were a country, it would be the world's 4th largest (after China, India & the USA)
  • A recent study suggests that online students fare better than those taught in the classroom
  • 78% of consumers trust peer recommendation; only 14% trust advertising
& suggests that successful companies in social media are more like Dale Carnegie than advertising legend David Ogilvy.

Now those are some rabbit-holes!

The maker of the video, Erik Qualman, goes on to say that "successful companies in social media act more like party planners, aggregators and content providers than traditional advertisers."

Of course, these are difficult times too for a small-business owner, but our access to the worlds of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter make it so much easier than before to spread the word on how we do business and what we have to offer.

When I first got into business in event-management in Hong Kong some twenty years ago, small wasn't such a good thing, and we had to work very hard to promote our events. Bigger competitors with bigger fists and deeper pockets could outpunch and outspend us. Sometimes, they crushed us under their massive feet.

OK, I exaggerate, but you know what I mean. Being a pygmy in the jungle was a lot of hard work.

Now, if you've got something useful or interesting to say (or better still, useful and interesting), there's whole worlds out there populated by people who are just one sticky word or arresting image away.

And, of course, being an Irish small-business owner makes me feel even luckier. For who can put the 'social' into social media if it isn't for the Irish?

Party planning? Check!
Aggregators? I think that means knowing where all the good stuff can be found and passing it on. Check!
Content providers? We just love making things up! Check, check, check!

Our time has come and I'm determined to make the most of it. How about you?

Oh yes, I'm feeling lucky.

Over To You: What difference will social media make to the way you approach your career or business?

October 26, 2009

State Of The Nation Brand

Born in the USA?

It should come as no surprise that America, home of the brave and of Madison Avenue, has catapulted back to the top of the rankings in Simon Anholt's Nation Brands Index in 2009 from its previous relatively low ranking of seventh. Each year, the Index measures the power and appeal of 50 nation brands by surveying people in 20 core panel countries. Not surprisingly, its author has also built quite a career advising governments and local authorities on how to improve their standing in the eyes of the world.

But measuring something is one thing and understanding how it works is another, and Anholt has some puzzling things to say about branding in general, which suggest that he hasn't quite got a handle on how brands work.

Listening to his interview on a recent CBC Podcast, Anholt says that when it comes to the term 'nation branding', he wishes he'd "never coined the damn thing." He then goes on to say that he's never seen any evidence to suggest that it's possible to 'manipulate' a nation brand.

Maniupulate? Now, there's an interesting choice of word.

A visit to his website gives us another clue as to Anholt's rather odd position in all of this. There he tells us that although "the word 'brand' is used a lot in this context, Simon Anholt’s work has nothing to do with marketing, advertising or public relations." In fact, he's keen to stress that "places can't construct or manipulate their images with advertising or PR, slogans or logos – and although some governments spend large amounts of money trying to do just that, there is absolutely no proof that it works."

Yet in the same CBC interview, Anholt puts the ascent of the USA back to the top of the index in the past year down to the Obama factor.

Which suggests that the reluctant nation-brand advisor is somehow getting his wires crossed.

For whilst Obama has set out with an admirable sense of purpose over the past ten months, it's too early for his actions to have had much tangible impact. Instead, it's evident that any connection between the new President and America's revival in the opinion of the world at large is down to the rather canny mix of 'advertising, PR, slogans and logos' which persuaded not only the American electorate but USA-watchers from around the world that he was capable of reinventing brand America.

Anholt's disdain for branding seems to arise from his confusion over what a brand is and how it works. He suggests that nation brands are too complex and unwieldy to manage in the same way as branded goods or services, but it's not only nation brands that struggle to make an impact when they talk the talk without walking the walk.

Only in a very small number of cases is branding down to advertising, PR, slogans and logos alone. Powerful brands such as Nike, Starbucks, Google and others have found that there is a cost to their reputation when the gap between talk and walk widens, particularly in those areas where those brands have taken their stand.

Brand America stands in the popular imagination for freedom and opportunity and Obama surely stood for these values above all in his march to the White House. It's no surprise then to see nation-brand America reassert itself in the wake of his successful bid for the presidency.

What a pity that influential commentators like Anholt haven't a more developed understanding of how brands work. It's too easy to dismiss branding as so much spin and window-dressing.

Whether Anholt likes it or not, his Nation Brand Index is about branding, and the same broad principles of behaviour and communications apply to these complex and unwieldy brands as they do to any of the popular products or services on offer that we regard as great brands.

Over To You: Which nation-brand do you regard as your Number One?

October 20, 2009

There Was No You In Olympics

Who would have thought that savvy Barack Obama would make such an obvious mistake?

We've admired the way in which the US President has made politics more inclusive again, so naturally we were surprised when he and Michelle ignored one of the basic rules of marketing and missed the 'you' in Olympics during their recent pitch to the IOC in Copenhagen.

The always-engaging Denny Hatch writes in his Business Common Sense that "the president and first lady went to Copenhagen and gave little speeches about themselves. She used the first person singular pronoun in some form or other 34 times in 16 paragraphs. He used it 23 times in 13 paragraphs."

Now I don't know enough about the cut and thrust of Olympic Committee voting to be sure that the Obamas' failure to put the 'you' into their pitch was the tipping point but it certainly can't have helped matters and may explain why voters resisted their legendary charms and dumped Chicago out on the first count.

Hatch quotes Seattle guru as saying, "The prospect doesn't give a damn about you, your company or your product. All that matters is, 'What's in it for me?'"

The Obamas wasted a lot of time telling the Committee what was in it for the Obamas and missed the opportunity that the Brazilian President seized with both hands to make it all about what bringing the Games to Rio would mean both to the Olympic movement and to the world.

Now Obama has shown his ability to learn from mistakes in the past, so is unlikely to make it all about 'me' in the future, but reading about his gaffe sent me scurrying to check whether my own recent messages to prospects made it all about them or - perhaps fatally - all about me.

Over To You (yes, you!): Have you been subjected to a pitch lately that's been all about the seller and only incidentally about you?

October 17, 2009

Reversals Of Fortune

Spotted a shopper going into Superquinn yesterday proudly toting an Aldi carry-all.

Whatever next?

Ladies who lunch at Brown Thomas showing off their austerity chic with Subway sandwich bags? Gentlemen surreptitiously bearing gifts from Weir's of Grafton Street in plastic wrapping from Claire's Accessories?

Honestly dear, it's a mere bauble.

Oh, how the fallen have grown mighty!

October 12, 2009

Coloured By Money

Does money make the world go round or can it put a spanner in the works?

I only ask because I heard Chris Brogan on the Marketing Edge talking about how we're much more comfortable putting money into a begging bowl than directly into someone's hand. In researching his new book Trust Agents, Chris discovered that we prefer the idea of a go-between when it comes to making payment and suggests that this extends to our levels of trust in opinion-makers and other experts for hire.

Here at Open-Heart Branding, and on our Islandbridge website, I've always resisted the idea of carrying advertising or offering affiliate links because it seemed to me that this might undermine my reader's trust in what I have to say. Chris suggests that we shouldn't be so slow to commercialise our opinion and recommendations. He believes that a trusted source is unlikely to risk the credibility that's been built up over time for the sake of well-rewarded but insincere opinion.

Somehow, I don't know.

I guess it depends on what role is played by the opinion-maker, and how openly they declare a financial interest in their recommendation. I know that mortgage-brokers, for example, manage to fairly represent their client's interests in a commission-based arrangement but wonder if even those understandings might be open to abuse?

In my experience, people are always much more comfortable in taking direction when they know that there's no vested interest in any outcome beyond their success. Whilst I don't believe that additional reward necessarily sullies that advice, I do know that others mightn't see it that way.

Money does make my world go round but there's more to it than that. I have no problem charging a fee when someone comes to me for my professional advice but prefer to keep it clean rather than take a cut of any action that follows. Then there's no question about my motive in recommending one course of action rather than another.

Whether we like it or not, many people do see money as something that can put a spanner in the works of trust and prefer to pay it over in open-view so that the exchange is above-board and trustworthy.

People don't like a hidden agenda or even one that's half-hidden away.

Too often, those who come to us in the guise of experts use free or low-cost advice as a lure to sell us something else. We shouldn't be surprised then when some of those same experts suffer serious lapses of judgement or worse if there's substantial profit riding on a particular outcome.

As opinion-makers, I suggest it's best for us to resist the temptation to capitalise on our market connections. When we keep it clean, those who come to us for direction can safely trust our advice without worrying whether a vested interest is skewing our professional judgement.

Over To You: What do you think? Are you happy to take advice when you know that your advisor has a financial interest in the outcome?

October 04, 2009

Voices In The Dark

How come we're so much more likely to lower our guard when we're chatting with someone we can't see?

I've been hearing quite a lot lately about the quality of the conversations that are to be had online, particularly through the likes of Facebook and Twitter. It seems people are more frank and much less defensive. Ideas flow more readily and people are more inclined to share. Often, there's a generosity of spirit that you don't find off-line.

I was reminded of this the other night when I overheard my two boys busily chatting away after lights-out. Ten minutes earlier, they'd been bickering like late-summer wasps and we'd had to intervene before someone got badly stung. Now, they filled the short space between top and bottom bunks with the warm, honeyed buzz of their conversation.

I remembered the same from my own childhood; my sister and I calling across the landing between our two rooms until the call to get to sleep came from downstairs. Whatever divided us during the day faded away once darkness fell.

We see things so much more clearly in the dark when there's a friendly voice nearby so it should be no great surprise that our companions online speak and swap ideas more freely in that space.

Whilst the texted word may not have the same weight or resonance as those uttered across campfire and between bunk bed, it still seems to prompt a heart-to-heart frankness that's seldom found in more traditional business exchanges.

It's not for everyone, or for every type of business, but this opportunity to give and take through a very different kind of exchange is too important to dismiss out of hand. Why not ask yourself whether your relationship with your customer would be enriched by taking the conversation online?

Over To You: Which type of business relationships do you believe are best suited to 'voices in the dark'?

September 26, 2009

Keeping Public Order

Have you ever found yourself disappointed when someone you admire greatly doesn't live up to your ideal?

I'm a great fan of Seth Godin and tell others about his ideas and messages as often as I can. His ability to see things from the perspective of the customer in particular has always appealed to me and much of what I have to say about branding has been influenced by Seth, beginning with Purple Cow, then back and forth through his remarkable books and blog posts.

But I found news of his latest initiative Brands In Public a little unsettling and, although it's undoubtedly well intentioned (as well as commercially savvy), it struck me as running the risk of returning us to the bad old days when business-owners sought to control the conversations their customers had about them.

Essentially, Squidoo's Brands In Public creates websites for brands, what they describe as dashboards offering a hot list of what's being said about the brand in question. If the brand-owner wants to "take over" their brand-page, they pay $400 per month for the privilege and can then "curate" the conversation.

Sure, as Seth says, "you can't control what people are saying about you. What you can do is organize that speech. You can organize it by highlighting the good stuff and rationally responding to the not-so-good stuff."

Hmm, as customer, I don't like the idea of having my conversation organised for me.

Whilst these dashboards will continue (I think) to feature some of the not-so-good stuff, I doubt whether there's real value to the customer in being corralled into a conversation under the watchful eye of the brand-owner.

Over at Fast Company, Chris Dannen wonders if "by moving the 'conversation' to a static website, the energy a company might put into a personal response instead goes into a PR campaign. That brings us full circle, to backward-looking company-customer relationships. The ultimate loser? The customer."

Seth has built up far too much respect for me to easily take a pop at one of his ideas but there's something not quite right about this latest enterprise.

What do you think?

September 20, 2009

Kiss Me, I'm Made In Ireland

I heard Colin Gordon of food producer, Glanbia, talking about the recently-launched Love Irish Food campaign and was prompted again to wonder about the nature of Irishness.

According to the campaign Chairman, Jim Power, the vision of Love Irish Food is "to help you make informed choices about buying Irish manufactured food and drinks brands and to alleviate any confusion as to what constitutes an Irish brand".

But apparently, we're not supposed to love all Irish food, just food that's been made in the Republic of Ireland. Food made north of the border doesn't qualify, presumably because the prime movers behind the initiative (the larger food companies) don't profit from foods made in the six counties.

Thanks Jim, for alleviating my confusion about what constitutes an Irish brand.

Why can't Love Irish Food demonstrate a little neighbourliness? Surely this initiative could extend across national (and economic) borders to match what the average customer would understand in terms of an Irish brand? Those in Irish tourism (with a little nudge from a certain agreement) have recently extended the idea of Ireland as a tourist destination to include both north and south. Meanwhile, Irish rugby, athletics and boxing teams have been loved without qualification for quite some time.

So why not Irish food?

This food island-within-an-island mentality does us little credit, even if it helps save a number of Irish jobs and our capacity to continue producing foods in this country.

There is anyway something quite calculating (if not downright misleading) about a campaign for Irish food that includes brands with no association with Ireland beyond localised production (e.g. Cadbury's Flake, Yoplait). Whilst I appreciate that a 'Choose Food That's Made In The Republic Of Ireland' campaign would lack a certain bite, isn't this more about self-interest than it is about a love of food?

The invitation to share 'your Irish food stories' on the website just adds to the misleading impression created by the initiative. Somehow, this appeal to nostalgia which has been used very effectively by a range of brands that are widely understood to be Irish, just doesn't work here:

'Ah, I remember of an evening, as the glimmer-man went about the streets of me jewel-an'-darling Dublin, me auld fella would bring home the locally-produced global brands from the factory at the end of the street. But hold your horses there, Joxer, didn't those lads also have a manufacturing plant up in Belfast? Maybe those chocolate bars weren't made here after all...Ah, even Irish food isn't what it used to be...I should have checked the label."

I love Irish food and agree that we should support local jobs where we can but somehow this campaign leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

September 13, 2009

The Thought That Counts

I often speak of what I describe as the Goldilocks effect: the way in which the creator of something can make it 'just right' for you without ever knowing you.

Think of the way we feel when we stand together in front of the Taj Mahal, built by an emperor for his lost wife, but somehow made just for us in that moment. Or the way the iPhone fits snugly in my hand as though crafted just for me (even though Steve Jobs and his technicians have never met me).

But I was reminded of something even more powerful when I spoke at the Fingal Women In Business Network event earlier in the week. One of its members, Margaret Fay of Gifts For All had been asked to supply the customary speaker's gift but what she produced was far from ordinary.

Margaret had done a little research into me and Islandbridge and produced a beautifully presented bottle of wine and bar of chocolate which were labelled with a picture of me and the following message:

Gerard, thank you for being guest speaker at our Fingal Women In Business Meeting

Islandbridge - We help you identify your strengths and match them with your market to build a brand that supports and drives your business.
Ingredients: Creative Energy
Nutrition Facts: At Your Service...100%, Creative...150% etc
Serving Size: One Winning Team

Now I know that since the advent of digital printing, it's very easy to dismiss much of what is clumsily passed off as customised but Margaret demonstrated what happens when you ally smart technology with even smarter (and more thoughtful) thinking. The effect was quite devastating. I was genuinely moved, far beyond a simple sense of gratitude for a polite gesture of appreciation. In every sense, I felt honoured by this crafting of a gift that was so clearly made just for me.

It didn't end there, of course. Although it was late in the evening when I arrived home, I put the gift in a prominent place in our kitchen so that Christine and the children could enjoy it when they came down for breakfast in the morning. After the kids had stopped clamouring to get stuck into the chocolate, they regarded the gift with something not a million miles away from awe. I suspect they even felt a little more respect for their dad and his odd job. (I'm still not completely forgiven for making a presentation on branding to the primary school assembly a couple of years ago and "totally embarrassing" them. "Why couldn't you do a normal job like the other dads?").

Christine was also inclined to tell her own colleagues at work about it. And perhaps they in turn spoke about it to others that we don't know about. I certainly mentioned it to other friends and colleagues in the meantime.

Even if it hadn't become a talking-point for the Tannam family, it did have a deep effect on me and I suspect that I'll always have something of a soft spot for FWIB, GiftsForAll and the people who made me feel so welcome and appreciated at their network.

I think there's a real lesson in there for brand-owners everywhere. Every day in town halls, conference rooms and other meeting-places, people are thanked for their contribution to an event. Mostly, the offer of thanks or gifts can feel like a token gesture but, as FWIB has demonstrated, with a little thought and effort it's possible for us to invest something powerful into the most perfunctory exchange.

Over To You: What simple gesture from a business colleague has left you feeling on top of the world?

September 06, 2009

Recession Refusniks

When I heard others boldly announce that they 'refuse to participate in the recession', my first instinct was to admire their bravado and positive thinking. Those who know me would describe me as a natural optimist so it's not at all surprising that a call to step away from the abyss towards a sunny future would appeal to me.

But the more I thought about it, and met with others who were clearly suffering a catastrophic downturn in business, or the loss of a job, and the crisis of confidence that typically comes with either of those, the more I felt that there was something a little smug about almost denying a state of affairs that had brought them to their knees. They may not wish to participate in a recession but the recent turn of events has left them little choice.

Now, I know there's an important attitude at work in the stance of the refusniks, and I'm all for finding silver linings in the storm clouds overhead, but my boldly announcing that I'm off to where the grass is greener probably does little to help my colleagues who are up to their oxters in the mud.

I do agree that we shouldn't wallow in it (as too many of our media commentators are inclined to do) but I do think we need to look recession in the face and stare it down, rather than appear not to engage with it. Whether we like it or not, recession and its crippling effects are the lot of many of those we care about, so we owe it to them to confront the beast and send it packing.

(And, whilst we're at it, can we please stop coyly referring to the monstrous creature in the room as the R-word. Cancer-sufferers tell us that they can't abide furtive references to the C-word, so I can't imagine those enduring recession are any different).

By all means, let's not listen to the nay-sayers (some colleagues report that turning the radio off for any current affairs-type discussions can be a good place to start) but let's not blissfully pretend that nothing's happening either.

That's why I'm delighted to be participating in a recession-busting event, Confidence In Action, this Thursday 10th at Dublin's Burlington Hotel. I'll be standing shoulder to shoulder alongside the battle-hardened warriors of a downturn or two, such as Louis Copeland, Bobby Kerr and Jack Black, to square up to this particular monstrosity. And we'll be armed with more than a slingshot of optimism (although it's extraordinary how potent a pebble that can be).

The organisers put it best: 'An eclectic panel of top economists, established and aspiring entrepreneurs and adventurers will be sharing a stage in Dublin for the first in a series of nationwide ‘Routes to Recovery’ seminars. Confidence in Action features a host of companies, agencies and guest speakers providing answers to the big questions facing us all. It will also help with practical solutions to current issues like reducing overheads, tax efficiency, pension security & maximisation, new markets, job opportunities, accessing capital, re-skilling, start ups, re-financing to name but a few'.

Other events in the series are planned for later in the autumn and will see us travel to Cork and Limerick to rattle a few cages.

So don't just participate in the recession, let's line up beside those who are suffering its brutal effects to tackle it head on and send it packing.

August 30, 2009

Not So Sweet Scent Of (Someone Else's) Success

I was reminded of Hillary Clinton's recent rebuke of a student who had apparently asked what her husband thought, when I read of Ali Hewson's visit to a courtroom earlier this month (Bono's Wife Loses Bid To Stop Stella McCartney Scent).

Throughout the article, Ali is referred to as the wife of her more-famous husband, which must be deeply annoying for someone who's forged a significant reputation for herself as a social entrepreneur and activist through her own Nude Brands cosmetics company. Hillary seemed sensitive to the same long shadow cast by the former president when she angrily told the student that "I'm not here to channel my husband."

I can understand Hillary's irritation at any perception that she is not clearly her own woman but, at the same time, the world tends to make sense of what people do using its own frames of reference. When you stand in the shadow of a formidable personality, it's not so surprising that people take their bearings from them.

Ask most of the world who Ali Hewson is and they are likely to look blankly at you; mention Bono and they now have a reference point. Hillary Clinton is certainly better known than Ali but people still connect her closely to her husband (particularly when he's staging dramatic rescues in North Korea).

I've seen the same angry rebuke from musicians who leave an iconic band to perform on their own and are then asked to play the popular hits from that previous life. Still, you can understand where the audience are coming from. Many of those same performers simply wouldn't attract the same numbers to their concerts if they didn't have their previous fame to call upon.

It's clear that if you really want to step out from under a long shadow, it's up to you to seize the limelight and throw a shadow or two of your own. We've seen Princess Diana do it in her own way, Robbie Williams and Sting in another. The outpouring of grief and tributes that greeted the death of Ted Kennedy this week suggests that he did so too.

There's no point in our growing annoyed at the world if it doesn't get how we'd like to be seen. Many of us do stand on the shoulders of giants and it's difficult to see either Hillary or Ali enjoying the opportunities to figure on the world stage if their more famous partner hadn't been there first.

As brand-owners too we need to recognise that the world often doesn't make the difference between us and our better-known competitors or neighbours and that we're better off forging a distinctive reputation of our own rather than complaining about how customers 'simply don't get it'.

August 22, 2009

That's (Not) Just Plain Shellfish

Those of us in the business of persuasion can be sensitive to accusations of being controlling and manipulative. Of course, much of what passes for branding in the commercial world does involve coercing customers into buying something that they don't really want or need. And there is a touch of the slick pedlar in a great deal of the marketing talk that fills the walls, screens and pages of our lives.

So I was greatly tickled by an article in the Irish Times during the week that describes how a scientist has "turned 5,000 of South Australia's rock lobsters from speckled white to red", especially when I learned that he had done so by a simple sleight of hand, rather than by chemical or genetic interference.

Apparently, red-shelled lobsters are highly-prized by Chinese customers, for whom the colour is a sign of prosperity and good fortune, but the creatures are in short-supply in the coastal waters around Australia where they make their home. However, there's no shortage of the speckled-white variety in the deeper waters further from the coast, and Irish rock lobster scientist (now there's a title worth splashing on your business card) Adrian Linnane has shown that moving the deep water variety into shallower waters (where they continue to thrive) has the effect of changing the colour of their shells to invaluable red.

I think there's a lesson in there for all of us marketers that suggests a more thoughtful and charming approach to giving people what they want without compromising on the qualities of what's on offer. Linnane's red lobsters display the characteristics that his customers require, whilst his natural engineering guarantees a plentiful supply.

Now that's real marketing genius, and a very neat solution to the challenge of demand and supply.

Over To You: What elegant marketing solutions have you seen lately?

August 15, 2009

Child's Play (For The Gifted)

It's maddening how many brands insist that switching to their offer or service is 'child's play'. In my experience, it's anything but.

Whilst they claim that signing up or changing over is as simple as 1-2-3, I often find myself counting to a hundred before the switch is made (sometimes just to stop me punching someone or something). Each step is fraught with difficulty or unexpected obstacles (to which the common customer-care response is 'Oh, I can't understand why that's not working, it's never happened before').

Even when I registered online with Payzone recently (very simple, in fairness), activated my account online (apparently quite simple), stuck my parking disc to my windscreen, then went to pay for my on-street parking, I spent almost twenty-five minutes with Customer Care before finally receiving the text confirming I'd paid (anything but simple). As usual, it wasn't enough that I supplied my name and mobile number when I called the helpline; I then had to run around the car in the rain to reconfirm my registration number and my disc number. Has nobody come up with a database system that enables operators to call up all information based on the details of one data field?

Imagine if I applied the same approach in my work (Note: Michael is a client of many years):
Hello, this is Islandbridge Brand Development, Gerard speaking. How can I help?
Gerard, Michael Lennon here.
Michael, thanks for calling, can you please confirm your company name? company name?
Yes, please confirm your company name.
Westport Woods Hotel.
And your username?
My username?
Yes, please confirm your username.
I'm not sure...Michael...MichaelLennon (one word)?
No Michael, that's not correct.
Maybe MLennon, Michael Underscore Lennon...honestly, Gerard, I can't remember.
We have a Michael Underscore Lennon; can you please enter your password?
My password? My password? Gerard, you can't be serious.

And he'd be right.

I certainly wouldn't even get so far as to ask him his mother's maiden name. (Yes, Payzone needed that information too). Surely a business that cares about its customers, doesn't make them go through such a rigmarole just to access the service.

Now, I appreciate that security issues often require that we verify someone's credentials before releasing certain information but Payzone and others go too far.

A brand that's offering a refreshing antidote to the 'easy-peasy' deception is Simple Assembly Me Hole, which offers flat-pack furniture victims the option of calling a handyman to put that apparently innocent but demonically difficult chest of drawers together (Save Time, Save Hassle, Save Your Marriage).

I cannot begin to explain the sense of dread I have when my other half proposes a new piece of furniture from one of the multiples. But evidently the good people over at Simple Assembly know how I, and presumably thousands of others, feel.

Mind you, when I see the ease with which my own three kids tackle the various technologies, perhaps some things really are child's play and I'm just too old (or slow) to get it.

Over To You: What blatantly-misleading brand promises get you into a lather?

August 08, 2009

The Brand Called You (Shouldn't Be All Me, Me, Me)

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

Is brand vanity getting in the way of your relationship with your customers?

Rebecca Morgan, writing in SpeakerNet News notes how some presenters insist on pushing their own brand at the expense of those who hire them:

"Once in a great while a speaker insists we use their brand in the title, even though the brand is not compelling to our readers, nor does it say anything about what they’ll receive for attending.

It appears that the person is more interested in cementing their brand than creating a win/win. We often include their brand phrase in the copy, but not the title. If you are insistent about using your brand in your presentation titles to position YOU, know that it can be off-putting to not only your client but also to those who may have been motivated to attend your session. If you’d created a different title that has more to do with the benefits to the attendee, not just to you, you’d had more exposure, which would have led to more people recognizing your brand."

Of course, it's not just speakers who get this wrong. Too often, brand owners promote the package over the content of their offer. A healthy pride in how well the brand presents to the world can easily turn to vanity as the owner spends more time gazing in the mirror than meeting the eyes of the customer.

We've all visited a house-proud relative or friend who's so busy staging the perfect meal that we felt somehow left out despite the exquisite food and entertainment that was on offer.

Over the years, I've often had to gently remind clients not to grow too preoccupied with the details of design and presentation. Of course, a well turned-out piece of packaging or promotional material goes a long way to setting the right expectations but all of that hard work can be wasted if the seller doesn't devote even more attention to the customer.

Paying too much attention to ourselves, and not enough to those we're providing for, can leave us looking shallow and self-absorbed.

Whatever you do, don't vie for brand perfection if it means taking your eyes off the customer; you'll leave them feeling left out and open to the attentions of others.

And inclined to take their business elsewhere.

Over To You: What brand-vanities leave you out in the cold?

August 02, 2009

Not Just Another Saab Story

I'm not really into cars. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, who can tell you off the top of their heads what such-and-such a person drives, I barely notice. Of course, a particularly smart car might turn my head, but most of what's out there on the road leaves me cold.

For many years, I didn't drive at all. As a student here in Dublin, and later working in Hong Kong, I hardly needed to. And when I did, my early transport was atop a Honda 50 (barely even a motorbike, but, I've just learned from Wikipedia, it is 'the best-selling powered vehicle of all time') and then astride a slightly more impressive model from the same manufacturer with greater engine size but little by way of memorable features (to me at least).

The purchase of my first car was prompted by the arrival of my first-born child and the sudden need to organise a weekly supermarket shop and occasional family outings. It was, I think, a Daihatsu Charade, but I'm open to correction. It was red. Or maybe silver. It definitely had a hatchback (or was that the car of a friend that we borrowed once or twice around that time?). When you consider that my first-born turns fourteen today, you can appreciate that this really wasn't such a long time ago and my grasp of car-detail is more than a little loose.

I do know we drove a Mitsubishi Spacewagon on our return to Ireland, but that choice was made by my father and brother, who put their heads together to decide what model of car suited the returning emigrants best, then drove me to a Japanese Import dealer to make the purchase. What a car that was! Air-conditioning when Irish models required you to crack open a window during our notoriously hot summers, and curtains you could draw to plunge a sleepy child into not-so-brightness. Actually, I did grow rather fond of it.

Then I drove a company car for a couple of years. A Honda Civic, I think it was (although again I half-expect a more eagle-eyed colleague to put me right). No, it was definitely a Honda. Just like the motorbikes. Aah, the power of half-remembered dreams.

My couldn't car-less attitude to what I drove would probably have continued indefinitely if I hadn't set up Islandbridge some five years ago. My wife Christine, who's not exactly a slave to brands herself, told me that I now needed to give some serious thought to the car I would drive. As a brand-maker, she said, people would naturally look to see which brand of car I'd chosen. But people hardly pay that much attention, I thought, until she told me how her former colleagues used to stand near the windows of their office and comment on the cars driven by the various visitors and sales reps arriving for meetings. A thumbs up or down could put the hapless driver on the front or back foot. Whether I liked it or not, she said, my car would be seen as a reflection of my standing in the business world. I briefly pictured myself perched on my Honda 50, and saw her point.

But which car to choose? I knew immediately I didn't want a BMW, Mercedes or the like but struggled to distinguish a car that I could truly warm to. Of course, another Honda wouldn't disgrace me but I was unconvinced. My romantic streak briefly toyed with the idea of importing a car from the US, a Mustang perhaps, something made for the open highway, and born out the American love-affair with the car. But that seemed too complicated. Then someone suggested a Saab, and I felt a tickle of appeal.

Something about the discreet, good manners of the brand appealed to me. Smart and stylish but not too up itself. I vaguely recalled a heritage in building airplanes. For some reason, that made sense. I liked the notion of aircraft engineers readying my engine for takeoff. I went to the garage to see for myself, and found myself quite charmed. I sat looking at the aeronautical instrument panel, ran my hands across the seating and interior fittings that were reminiscent of a flight cabin, heard the sigh of the engine when it shut down, and fell a little in love. Of course, I was also excited by the new-car smell and the sense that, for the first-time, I wouldn't be driving a hand-me-down.

And so I chose a Saab. In the five years since, it seems to me I've made the right choice. Colleagues comment approvingly of my brand, as though I've passed some unofficial test. For them the choice seems quite brand-savvy. Not too flash, not too obvious, not too self-absorbed; no, a suitable choice of someone in the business of brand-building. All the while, I've continued to be amazed at how much attention is paid to the car someone drives.

I've also found myself growing very fond of the Saab, so much so that when the time came to renew I went again and bought one.

And yet, I privately struggled to explain my affection for the brand, particularly as the car itself is broadly indistinguishable from a whole range of others just like it in its class. For example, I often find myself striding confidently towards someone else's car (and brand) in a crowded carpark.

But then, thanks to my colleague Philip O'Riada, I was pointed to the very excellent Why The Saab Inspires Intense Feelings, which goes some way to putting into words the depth of attachment I've formed to the brand. And allows me to retrofit my choice of the brand in the first place.

You need only spend a minute or two with me to know that I know nothing at all about cars. So don't take my word for it; check out why author Sam Knight describes a car that has always "overflowed with feeling".

And read why this is one Saab story with a happy ending.

Over To You: Have you made an accidental match with a brand, then found yourself falling in love?

July 28, 2009

Telltale Lipstick

In her article, Branding Beauty In An Ugly Economy, Ana Paula Palombo Terzi writes that this time round, customers are confounding the Lipstick Index which has traditionally linked an increase in the purchase of lipstick with a plunging economy. Instead, she reports that Austerity Chic, where women go to greater lengths to look good for less, is leading the way instead.

Of course, this public frugality isn't confined to the buyers of beauty products. We're also seeing a shared horror of any show of wealth or foolish spending in marked contrast to the buying habits of the boom time. Whilst a certain tightening of the purse-strings is a good thing, particularly in areas where a kind of shopping madness had waltzed in, there's also a danger in our going too far with the austerity drive. At times, it reminds me of the popular Monty Python sketch where the successful Yorkshiremen vie for the most sensational rags to riches story:

First Man: 'I was happier then and I had nothin'. We used to live in this tiny old house with great big holes in the roof.'
Second Man: 'House! You were lucky to live in a house! We used to live in one room, all twenty six of us, no furniture, 'alf the floor was missing and we were all 'uddled together in one corner for fear of falling.'
Third Man: 'Eh, you were lucky to have a room! We used to live in t'corridor!'

The guilt complex that has crept into society just doesn't add up, this popular insinuation that we were all complicit in the wrong-doings of those who hung out in the corridors of high finance and power. The notion that we've been deluding ourselves for the past fifteen years is unhelpful, particularly when you consider the numbers of people who worked diligently throughout that time to build businesses and contribute to the economy. Hardworking baby is in real danger of getting thrown out with perfumed bubble bath-water. Yet many of us are going about shamefaced, as though some immense pride rather than healthy self-confidence and ambition has seen us take this particular fall.

Whilst it makes sense to be both tactful and discreet about success in an economy where people are in real difficulty, we're unlikely to dig ourselves out of the hole we're in by demonstrating how we can all do so much more with so much less. A reality check is one thing, but unless someone is able to frame a new world order in which something other than money makes the world go round, small businesses in particular will struggle to make ends meet so long as customers show a reluctance to spend.

I'm not suggesting that we slap on the lipstick but we do need to get back out into the marketplace to buy from those who offer quality goods and services at a fair price.

July 15, 2009

In The Footsteps Of Our Children

I was excited when I saw the book at the airport and eager that one of the children choose it as part of their holiday reading. They were unconvinced at first; it didn’t look like one of the more fashionable books that they’re into right now, almost inevitably one with a film tie-in, Twilight or the like. There was no breathless prose to suggest that this book just might change your life or flashy sticker boasting of the author’s string of best-sellers. This one sat there unobtrusively with its simple cover and even simpler title: I Am David by Anne Holm.

It’s probably my favourite book of them all, this story of a young boy’s escape from a concentration camp and his flight across Europe in search of home. The blurb on the jacket gives little indication of what a great story it is, but I must have read and re-read it a dozen times during my teens. Based on its appearance alone (‘A most compassionate, powerful, moving book, full of hope and tenderness’), I could understand my children’s reluctance but, in the end, persuaded my daughter Lara to include it in her choices.

On the plane journey, I found myself wondering why I felt so strongly that the kids should read my favourite book. Of course, as a parent, I’m keen to see them choosing good reading material but there was more to it than that. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched delightedly as first Louis, and then Lara, picked up the book and started to read. I tried to remember what it felt like when I first picked it up aged around eleven or twelve, envied them their first reading of it and wished I could have it over again.

Naturally, the kids picked up on my excitement. Privately, I’m sure they probably found me a little intense, and my interest a little over the top if not downright weird. But they’ve humoured me in that odd way that kids can mother their parents and have shared their own impressions of the book as they’ve made their way through it. And I’ve been thrilled to see them getting caught up in the flow of the book, just as I was some thirty years ago.

Of course, I’m not alone in wanting the children to taste something of my own childhood. My wife Christine is French, from Angers in the Loire valley, and although we typically holiday in France each year, we rarely stay in her native northwest. Instead, we travel to the same places in the south and southwest where she holidayed with her parents as a child and I see in her the same urgent excitement that our children share something of her experiences as a girl thirty years later.

We even stay in the same holiday camps, some of the scores of VVF (now Belhambra) resorts built by the French socialist governments of the ‘60’s in the conviction that every family deserved its annual holiday. Although the brand livery has changed, these camps offer the same mix of activities through their kids’ clubs as their predecessors did in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s when Christine was a girl.

Like me, she watches with delight as the kids make new friends and head off for a water-polo tournament, or rehearse as she once did for the weekly ‘spectacle’ that’s a staple feature of French holiday life. In the evenings, she likes to take her book, sit with a coffee on the terrace that fringes the various events, and catch glimpses of the children as they get caught up in their own adventures.

These are heady times for us both, as we get to relive some of our own happiness as children. This urge to share with our kids the experiences of our own childhood is a powerful driver and has prompted us to make some significant choices in how we spend our time thirty years later, whether it comes down to the simple choosing of a book or the more weighty question of holiday destination.

I’ve seen something of this at work some years ago when I helped to design and build the go!kids! holiday brand with Michael Lennon at the Westport Woods Hotel, but I’m reminded now even more forcibly of the power of this nostalgia across the generations as I live again the story of a young boy making his way across post-war Europe to find his home and watch my children happily retrace the footsteps of their mother.

Over to you: What holiday nostalgia have you seen at work for you or others around you?

July 08, 2009

Perfect Strangers

We're on holiday in France and earlier this week our neighbour spotted the tennis racquets we'd picked up for the kids and invited me to join him for a game at the nearby courts. Now, I'm no tennis-player, and thankfully what he had in mind was more of a knockabout than a real match of any sort.

We've spent the last few evenings sending the balls back and forth across the net in mostly companiable silence. We break it occasionally to congratulate when one of us hits an elegant or well-placed shot although those moments are rare and for the most part the game is played silently and in the slow-motion prompted by late afternoon heat (and not, of course, by advancing age). Nobody keeps score and that seems to suit both of us just fine although we didn’t come to any formal arrangement about it.

We did exchange names on the second evening but that’s as much as I know about my neighbour. His children have struck up friendships with mine and could probably tell me more about my new friend but I’m not especially curious. There’s something very relaxing about our impromptu game; if one of us spots the other on the terrace, we gesture towards the court and off we go. We play for an hour or so before one of us calls time, or is called for dinner. Even then, we don’t rush off but play a few last rounds just for the fun of it.

No appointments, no commitment. Perhaps it’s down in part to our limited grasp of one another’s language but I think it’s more about the lightness of a very loose and friendly, no-strings arrangement in a world that’s often very heavy on schedules, contracts and the synchronizing of watches.

Maybe as brand-owners too we can get too caught up on the idea of lifetime loyalties when sometimes our customers are simply looking for a light and friendly exchange of goods or services. Of course, it’s not just the game with my neighbour that works on an informal basis here on holidays. There’s something very refreshing about strolling down to the bakery for bread in the morning and being greeted with a friendly smile by someone I may never see again or haggling harmlessly with a street-vendor over some seaside trinket.

It seems to me as I bask here in the warm holiday glow that sometimes back at the brand-factory we’re too concerned with customer relationship management and elaborate loyalty schemes at the expense of a simple, uncomplicated and smiling exchange with an easy-come and easy-go customer.

For the next few weeks at least, I'm happy to enjoy the perfection of strangers.

June 29, 2009

Clipping Our Wings

These past few weeks, I've been flying more than usual on a mix of business and pleasure and have been forcibly reminded that air-travel has really had all the romance squeezed out of it.

Whether checking in online or queuing at a desk, stripping off and pleading innocence at security (yes, I packed my own bag and no, I haven't sneaked a larger-than-permitted container of shampoo into my carry-on), shuffling towards boarding or being corralled in a holding area, there's no end to the indignities heaped upon us when we travel.

Even when we're in the care of the airlines that sell us a romantic picture of travel, we're hectored to step in from the aisle as we heave our cabin carry-on into the overhead bins, before being subjected to a quick-fire series of sales calls (drinks, snacks, duty-free, lottery, car-hire and hotel-partners). Then it's a token 'thanks for flying with us' as we're despatched onto the runway to traipse the kilometre or more to arrivals.

Now I appreciate that the economics of running an airline, combined with the exaggerated dangers of travel, have left precious few opportunities for those who swallow us up, chew and spit us out at the far end to set a romantic mood but does the experience really have to be quite so charmless?

In fairness to the pilots, their blow-by-blow account of the flying-route does offer a throwback to a time when boarding a plane was the height of adventure, but the gallantry of the gesture seems lost on those of us who've flown more than once and have grown a little disillusioned with it all (which, judging from the recent trips I've taken, seems to have been pretty much everyone on board).

Surely there's an opportunity for one of the airlines to sell us an experience that dresses the perfunctory nature of travel with a little more than token courtesies? For a start, somebody might stop talking to us like we're unruly children, ready to break ranks and cause chaos at a moment's notice.

I find myself almost pathetically grateful when someone in charge at the boarding-gate or despatching drinks onboard shows a glimmer of humour or understanding. I'd choose to fly regularly with an airline that promised to cheer up the grim reality of commuter-style travel with a little charm.

Over To You: Any other takers for travel that goes a bit further than setting an endurance-test?

June 21, 2009

A Toucan Gesture

I'm a great fan of the Guinness brand.

I like to tell my own Guinness story which illustrates the many ways in which my life has played out against a background of black and creamy white. Whenever possible, I kick off new branding projects with a (working) session at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, which is one of the most inspiring places I can imagine to begin your own brand story.

Although I had seen some of the great Guinness ads only a few times when they ran at first (I grew up in a house without television), I could recall them in great detail many years later when I lived overseas and was waxing romantic about my home place and my favourite pint.

And I'm a great admirer of Arthur Guinness, an entrepreneur who can teach us a thing or more about doing the right thing for the communities where you do business.

So you would imagine I would be delighted at the latest Guinness campaign, which celebrates 250 years of the brand by inviting fans to 'put their signature next to Arthur's', with each signature triggering a €2.50 donation from Guinness to a local community project.

But something about the gesture leaves me cold.

Even the advertising, which has the fabled toucans flying in from all parts to their favourite pub to sign up, introduces a certain chill factor.

Am I alone in finding the flock of Arthur's feathered friends descending on the city a little freakish (and scarily reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Birds)? I'm all for moving things on but I'm not sure that Gilroy's iconic images can be improved upon.

It strikes me that much of the campaign borrows from Guinness' rich heritage but doesn't give anything substantial back in return. Although it may seem churlish to question a project which will have a positive impact on communities across Ireland, it feels to me as though the heart of St. James' Gate isn't really in these 250 celebrations.

I'm off instead to quietly raise a pint to the generous spirit of Guinness as I know and love it.

Slàinte, Arthur, here's to the next 250 years.

It's Your Round: Any thoughts on how we might better celebrate Arthur's 250th?

June 15, 2009

A True Customer Touch-Point

Each time I take a trip to a spa for a treatment, I promise myself it won't be so long again until my next visit. We spent this weekend at Brook Lodge in Co. Wicklow where I was reminded how good it feels to slow down and take a deep breath once in a while.

Over the years, I've been lucky enough to enjoy treatments in a whole range of locations (I lived in Asia for almost a decade, when a visit to the bath-house with friends for a soak and a scrub followed by a massage was a local habit I took up with great enthusiasm). As my therapist got to work on me yesterday, it struck me that despite the step-by-step routine that each usually follows, I've never had the same massage twice. And that each one seems better than the last.

I remarked this to the woman who was treating me and she confirmed that, once training is complete, each therapist likes to develop their own signature style and moves, based on what seems to work best with one body-type or another. I asked her whether these new moves were learned from text-books or from experience and she told me that they were usually learned at the hands of another therapist. She, for example, liked to fold my arm lightly behind my back in order to work my scapula a little harder as she found the knots of tension there resisted the more usual arms-by-the-side approach.

"Often," she said, "we pick up something new from one of the therapists who's been trained in a different country. Everyone seems to have their own take on what works best. And you learn to work with your client to know what's best for them."

As I slipped into a reverie, I wondered why we don't all practise customer-care in the same way.

Whilst most transactions will follow the same routine, our customers would probably appreciate the lighter touch that comes from listening to others and reading the signals.

For me, it meant that once again I got to experience my best massage ever.

Over To You: Where have you enjoyed a different take on great customer-service?

June 08, 2009

Martyrs To The Cause

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at the reaction of Mr. Cowen (Fianna Fail) and Mr. Gormley (Green) to their savaging at Friday's elections. They are, after all, the leaders of two brands that have grown further and further apart from their key customer, the Irish voter.

The term 'crucified' is bandied about quite a bit in politics but Mr. Cowen in particular is inclined to take it literally and is offering himself up as a martyr to the cause. Over the weekend, his account of what had happened saw him stop just short of raising his eyes sorrowfully to heaven and murmuring 'Forgive them for they know not what they do'.

Both leaders seem to be labouring under the illusion that they're somehow being punished for taking unpopular decisions. Yet one of the remarkable things about the past year has been the general readiness of the Irish electorate to take whatever medicine is required to cure the ills of the country. Votes against the parties in government have clearly not been a refusal to take our medicine but a reaction based on the perception that they have horribly mishandled the diagnosis in the first instance and have blundered about prescribing ill-advised remedies. In particular, Mr Cowen (who was our Minister for Finance before becoming Taoiseach) has refused to acknowledge his own part in allowing some of the more virulent strains of economic contagion in our banking sector to fester under his care.

Brand-owners who claim to listen to their customers and then dismiss what they have to say as misguided and wrong ("We hear you but, trust us, we know what's best for you") are always in grave danger of losing those customers forever. Not so deeply beneath the martyred expressions of Messrs. Cowen & Gormley lurks a contempt for the voter that won't go unpunished.

Despite their willingness to cast themselves in the archetypal role of saintly scapegoats, the triumphant, happy ending of political resurrection may not be as certain as the two leaders believe.