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'?