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.