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.

June 01, 2009

Crunched By The Numbers

The numbers speak for themselves and it seems almost everyone's agreed that brands that increase their marketing spend during a downturn emerge on the far side in a much stronger position.

And yet very few practice what they preach.

Instead, anecdotal evidence suggests that even those companies that aren't just battling to survive have pulled the purse-strings tightly closed and are sitting on their hands for fear they might be tempted to spend foolishly.

My own recent experience suggests that this is especially the case in larger companies that employ financial controllers and I'm hearing that, even when a marketing executive is willing to offer cast-iron guarantees that an initiative will deliver a good return, funds remain frozen and untouchable. To judge from their behaviour, finance professionals in particular appear to have lost faith in their own ability to make a call on whether an investment is worth making or not.

In some ways, it's not too surprising. Following the great washing of financial linen in public that's gone on over the past year or so, even the bean counters themselves seem to have taken the view that they simply can't be trusted. The popular sentiment is that we all lost the run of ourselves during the boom and must now curb our dangerous tendencies to splurge.

Yet most of the number-crunchers I know behaved with the utmost responsibility even when a small few were splashing the cash like there was no tomorrow. But they don't seem to believe that themselves and are keeping their heads down as though they're guilty of the same serious errors of judgement that have brought so many venerable institutions crashing about our ears.

As a brand, financial services is in a bad way. The palsy that now afflicts the marketplace in general can be traced back to the paralysis of the bankers in particular. Those who hold the purse-strings are furtive, eyes down whilst they busy themselves with the appearance of utter financial probity. They want to be seen to exercise perfect judgement and so they prefer to imagine great risk even when the evidence insists that this is a good time to invest prudently in the future of business.

Someone needs to take that brand in hand and rebuild its credentials in the marketplace. Otherwise, the purse-strings will remain drawn tight in the frozen fingers of the financial controllers whilst the paralysis extends further to those who are ready to make good things happen.

Over To You: What do you think needs to be done to rebuild our confidence in those who crunch the numbers?