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?