Dec 01

A squeezed middle in the midst of a widening waistline

Fat-man-boatThe Oxford University Press just anointed the phrase ‘squeezed middle’ as its ‘word of the year’. The phrase, of course, refers to the financial pinch being felt by the American middle class in the midst of a never-ending recession.

I find it ironic, though, that the Oxford word wizards would choose ones that illustrate the exact opposite of what’s happening to the population’s collective waistlines. Two recent cases in point illustrate the dichotomy. The first appeared in The New York Times and told the sad story of America’s truckers. According to Abby Ellin’s article, an astounding 86 percent of the country’s 3.2 million truck drivers are overweight or obese! And, check out this tidbit provided by Brett Blower, director of marketing and development for the Healthy Trucking Association of America. A few years back, Blower’s group conducted a blood screening of more than 2,000 truckers at an annual truck show. “We sent 21 directly to the emergency room, and one of them had a heart attack on the way there,” he recalled. Talk about road kill. Wow!

At the same time truckers are dropping like flies (note: Ellin’s article blames the truckers’ sedentary lifestyle and the calorie-rich gruel served at truck stops as the chief cause of their obesity), Congress is fighting hard to undermine the Obama Administration’s efforts to take unhealthy foods out of our nation’s schools. I guess knowing that most Americans today are overweight isn’t good enough for Congress; they’re thinking long-term.

In fact, if Republicans get their way, the tomato paste used on pizza would be counted as a vegetable and they’d overturn efforts to limit the use of potatoes on the lunch line, put new restrictions on the use of sodium and boost the use of whole grains. It’ll be a huge win for potato-growers, frozen pizza makers and the salt industry, respectively; and a huge loss for the health and well-being of our kids.

So, while I wouldn’t quibble with the Oxford University Press opting for squeezed middle as the word of the year (after all, it’s the economy, stupid!), I would nominate a co-winner for the 2011 word or phrase of the year: ‘self-inflicted wound’. I cannot think of any other nation at any other point in history that has done more harm to itself than modern-day America. Of course, I missed Rome circa 476 A.D. and Athens about 800 years prior to that, but I can’t believe either society could compete with ours for sheer stupidity.

Nov 22

The Distrust Barometer

TrustI’ve just returned from visiting my alma mater, Northeastern University, where I’m honored to say I’m a member of The Northeastern Corporation, a body constituted to provide counsel on a variety of strategic issues. (And, in the interests of transparency, I should also note that I’m helping the school communicate its amazing value proposition).

During my full day on campus, I had the opportunity to lunch with five or six of the most impressive undergraduates I’ve encountered at any college or university (and, I’ve literally met thousands). Each shared his or her personal Northeastern journey with me, and some of my fellow ‘corporators’ and, I must say, each story was more compelling than the last. These ‘kids’ were not only committed to finding new ways to help make the world a better place, they were also racking up some amazing international work experience courtesy of Northeastern’s unrivaled cooperative education experience (a.k.a. co-op).

After listening to their tales, we were invited to ask questions of the students. I wanted to know their feelings about the society in which they’d grown up. After all, as I said to them, the one fundamental difference from the world I knew at the Northeastern University of the late 1970s and the world of today could best be summed up by the word ‘trust’. While The Vietnam War and Watergate may have eroded my generation’s trust in certain political leaders, we still believed in The American Dream. Today, though, every single pillar of society is either immersed in a major scandal or recovering from one. Be it religion, sports, politics, entertainment or business, kids today are growing up in a world without trust.

So I asked the undergrads if they trusted anyone and, if so, who. They all said the same thing: they trusted their friends and family first. Then, as we’ve seen in some of our audience research on clients’ behalf, the students said they trusted objective sources such as Consumer Reports. From there, they turned to bloggers and what we PR types call influencers. Next came local and regional news, followed by national news and, finally, advertising. To a person, the students said they no longer trust leaders. One volunteered that she’d actually quit her co-op job in state government because of the sleaze factor. She’s now considering an alternative career path as a result. (Note: that’s one of co-op’s many strengths; it can not only provide deep, practical experience in one’s chosen career path. It can also red flag a professional pursuit that doesn’t make sense).

After word: The world’s largest independent public relations firm has gained notoriety for its annual Trust Barometer, which measures peoples’ trust in various sectors. Based upon what I just heard at Northeastern, though (and, what has been echoed by many other students with whom I’ve spoken), the time is right for someone to create a Distrust Barometer. We need an index that will regularly take the pulse of pre-Millennials; the kids who’ve grown up in an era marked by a complete erosion of trust in everyone and everything. If Peppercom represented brands seeking to reach that demographic and how to re-build trust with it, I’d fund the study immediately. As far as I’m concerned a Trust Barometer can no longer be trusted; at least not by anyone under the age of 21.

 

Nov 14

Sandusky, Ohio’s PR challenge

1849658501pLet’s suppose for a moment that your name is Daniel J. Kaman. For the past seven years, you’ve been president of the city commission of Sandusky, Ohio. During that time, you’ve no doubt had to deal with all the things city commissions deal with: taxes, infrastructure, tourism and attracting business to the city. Then, in the waning months of your seven-year term, boom! The earth, the moon and the sky itself suddenly fall on your shoulders. Your city’s name is front and center, day-in and day-out, right smack in the middle of the year’s uber crisis: The Penn State University scandal.

Can you imagine a worse image and reputation challenge? How do you deal with the fact that your city’s name is now synonymous with one of the worst alleged pedophiles in American history? What do you do?

I’d suggest several options for Mr. Kaman and the city commission’s consideration:
-    Ignore the crisis completely. Your terms end on 12/31/11. Let the incoming commission deal with the image and reputation fallout.
-    Call together the best image and branding minds in the city, county and state and brainstorm new and different ways to position the city’s outbound marketing.
-    Change the city’s name. This is a big deal though since, in 2018, Sandusky, Ohio, will mark its 200th anniversary.

I’d opt for the third choice if I were in Mr. Kaman’s shoes. Like it or not, his city’s name creates insurmountable business challenges. To wit:
-    Can you imagine some Mid-West husband shouting upstairs to his wife, “Hey honey, let’s bring the kids to Sandusky this summer!” Just placing the words Sandusky and kids in the same sentence sends shivers up and down this blogger’s spine.
-    Or, how about a CFO and risk manager making this recommendation to their CEO: “Sir, we’ve conducted our due diligence and made our choice. We believe it’s in the best interests of Moed, Moed & Birkhahn to move our corporate offices to Sandusky, Ohio. Yes sir, we’re aware that Jerry Sandusky is the Jack the Ripper of modern times, but we believe the tax breaks and local community environment outweigh the fallout we’d receive from every one of our constituent audiences.”

The city has to change its name. But, they can do so in a smart and strategic way.

I’d counsel Commissioner Kaman to involve Sandusky’s citizens in the name change exercise. Create a microsite that is linked to the city’s website and invite local kids, parents and seniors to contribute names. Or, maybe Kamen is a revenue-driven guy and decides, instead, to approach a technology or Web 2.0 company and offer his city’s naming rights for, say $1 million? Maybe Sandusky, Ohio, becomes Godaddy.com, Ohio? I have to believe those Godaddy types would love this sort of negative buzz.

Whatever he does, I do hope Mr. Kaman does something. The name Sandusky will be forever linked in the minds of Americans to pedophilia, cover-up and disgrace. And, what city wants to have to deal with that albatross when trying to market itself?

Nov 07

What did JoPa know and when did he know it?

No one's smiling in Penn State University's Happy Valley today. Long-time assistant coach Jerry Joe-PaternoSandusky has been accused of 40 counts of inappropriate contact with eight young boys, ranging from touching to statutory rape.

If he's found guilty, the Nittany Lions coach may spend the rest of his life in jail. And, two other PSU officials have resigned in the shocking scandal's aftermath.

The really big questions, though, are swirling around legendary PSU coach Joe Paterno (or, JoPa, as he's affectionately known). The winningest football coach in Division One history says he was told about the allegations in 2002 and passed them up the food chain, but that's it. Pretty weak, no?

I think JoPa's in denial. I think the head coach knew about Sandusky's hijinks all along. And, worse, I think he helped cover it up in a Nixonian bid to maintain his power base (clearly, the guy has no interest in ever retiring).

Paterno certainly had the power and motivation to cover-up the scandal if he chose to do so. After all, Sandusky was his top lieutenant for decades.

Regardless of what he did or didn't know, JoPa's legacy will be forever tainted by the Happy Valley scandal.

And, depending upon how aggressive top school officials are in admitting fault and implementing change, the university itself may be likened to a collegiate version of The Vatican. Maybe the school will even take a page out of the Church's play book and blame others for its own sins (i.e. “Sadly, Assistant Coach Sandusky is yet another victim of the sexual liberation that pervaded the 1960s.”).

For the sake of the school's image, if not his own, Coach Paterno needs to come clean and answer two basic, Watergate-inspired questions:

– What did JoPa know?
– And, when did he know it?

His answers will determine whether the sex scandal is an unfortunate footnote to JoPa's legendary career or college coaching's version of Watergate. If the latter proves to be the case, I wonder if David Frost might be interested in a sequel? Nah. 'Frost: Paterno' doesn't have the same panache.

Oct 26

One is the loneliest number

One of the immediate outcomes of the just published IBM Institute for Business Value's study of 1,734 chief marketing officers is a collective sigh of relief among CMOs who have reviewed it, says Carolyn Heller Baird, director, Global CRM Research Leader at the Institute.

GBS_IBVhero_930x300“The CMOs with whom we've shared the results tell us they're relieved to know they're not alone in helping their organizations cope with the fundamental shifts we're seeing in business,” observed Baird. “While we're still sifting through the data on an industry-by-industry basis, the CMOs are remarkably similar in terms of how they manage data, deliver value, foster lasting connections and measure results. In reviewing what their peers say, the CMOs feel validated and inspired.”

I can relate to that. As the CEO of an independent, midsized communications firm, I often feel alone in making decisions. So, I can empathize with the pressures that must weigh on the CMO of a Fortune 500 company.

And, while Baird says there are no dramatic differences between CMOs in the business-to-consumer and business-to-business spaces, she does see distinctions between chief marketing officers in emerging markets (i.e. Kenya, Croatia and Peru) vs. those in mature ones (i.e. The U.S., Germany and Japan).

“CMOs in emerging markets have fewer legacy issues and more flexibility. In many ways, they're starting from scratch,” Baird says. As a result, they can wear multiple hats and make multiple decisions. And, that has to be liberating.

Regardless of whether they find themselves in the Czech Republic or the United Kingdom, though, I have to believe every CMO wants to avoid the gaffe just made by their peer at Netflix. In fact, The New York Times says the corporation “…made a classic business mistake. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVD's inside.”

IBM confirmed that managing what they call 'the data explosion' was the top concern of CMOs and that many “struggle to develop customer insights because they primarily focus on understanding markets rather than individuals.”  I believe far too many marketing and corporate communications executives depend solely on data to drive their decisions. The smartest ones know a mix of gut instinct and intuition are just as important in deciding their marketing mix; as is the elementary, but often overlooked, solution of simply putting oneself in a customer's shows and experience the brand from the outside in.

I don't know if the Netflix CMO felt alone when he made a huge decision relying solely on data and yesterday's strategy, but he'll most certainly be alone in resurrecting his career. Before he starts the journey, though, he might want to read the IBM report. It may prevent a similar mistake down the road.

Oct 14

It’s the worst of times (for men)

Feminist1If a visiting alien was asked to evaluate the roles of men and women based solely on the current rash of books, movies and TV shows, the E.T. would undoubtedly conclude that all men are not only dolts, they're also emasculated fools who can't make any decisions on their own.
 
In fact, I think the title of Maureen Dowd's 2005 book best sums up the current wave of ManBashing. It's called "Are Men Necessary'?"

And, sadly, Alessandra Stanley's review of the Fall TV season in the New York Times confirms that these are, indeed, the worst of times for men.
 
Every new show, ranging from 'Man Up!' and 'Last Man Standing' to 'How To Be a Gentleman' and 'Whitney' go to ever greater lengths to marginalize the role of men in society. And, says Stanley, the trend will only continue since "…female viewers outnumber men and network executives know what women want."
 
That may be great for feminists (and the ratings), but it's very bad news for male adolescents and boys. I don't care how many problems you have with men, ladies, but you need to speak up and stop this never-ending, ever-escalating emasculation. Here's why: you owe it to your kids, nephews, younger brothers and friends' kids.
 
By focusing on the short-term ego gratification of women, the mass media is dealing a major psychological blow to future generations of men. Not only will boys and adolescent males buy into this totally ersatz, politically correct stereotyping but, worse, their female counterparts will reinforce it.
 
But, maybe that's OK with you, Virginia. Maybe you're fine with women becoming the dominant gender. But, somehow, I doubt it. If 50 percent of the population feels permanently marginalized, how in the world will we ever regain our global competitiveness? You ladies are terrific. But, you can't do it alone. Sorry. You can't.
 
So, here's a plea to the movers and shakers in Hollywood, and on Madison Avenue and at the major publishing houses. Lay off men. Now! The psyche you save may be that of your son. And the future you save may be that of your own country.
 
 Now, though, we return to our regularly scheduled programming…
 
“…Male lead admits he's too afraid to lift weights at the gym. Female lead nods her head knowingly and sighs, “I always knew you were a dumbbell, Adam. But, I never thought you'd be afraid to lift them.” Audience laughs and applauds. Screen fades to black.”

And a tip o' Repman's gender neutral beret to Jackie Kolek for suggesting this post.

Sep 15

I have some good news and some bad news

Your name is Julian Green. You had been director of media relations for CoorsMiller. 

The good news: You've just landed a new gig as VP of communications and community affairs for the Chicago Cubs.

The bad news: You've just landed a new gig as VP of communications and community affairs for the Chicago Cubs.

GravestoneFor those of you may not know, the beloved Cubbies are major league baseball's biggest losers. They hold the record for going the most years without winning a World Series… 103 years!

In fact, the last time the Cubs won the series, Teddy Roosevelt was president, the HMS Titanic had yet to be built and Betty White had just begun dating (only kidding with the last one).

Don't get me wrong. Any gig with a major league baseball team has to be a complete gas. But, the Cubs? They're so bad they even make my lamentable Mets seem respectable in comparison. They're such a disaster they make the BP oil spill seem like a small leak. Collectively, the franchise has disappointed more fans over the decades than the combined populations of China and India.

So, how'd you like to be responsible for managing their image and reputation? In my opinion, Mr. Green has one of two options:

– He follows the lead of legendary ad man, Jerry Della Femina who, in attempt to attract fans to see the woeful Mets of the late 1970s and early '80s, ran a campaign entitled, 'The magic is back'. But, it wasn't. Not by a long shot. In fact, the only magic at Shea Stadium was seeing fewer and fewer fans each and every losing season.

– He embraces the franchise's futility with a campaign entitled, ‘A century's worth of heartaches’. Green holds contests asking Cubs fans to submit stories telling how, say, the '69 Cubs broke their hearts by blowing a nine game lead to the Miracle Mets. Others could wax poetic about the '84 Cubs collapse in the NLCS to an incredibly weak San Diego Padres team. Or, how about the infamous game in 2003 when, just five outs away from an NLCS championship, a Cubs fan reached out, snatched a sure out away from a Cubbie outfielder and the team went on to blow the series? Green's got a treasure trove of ineptness with which to work.

Whatever marketing path he should chose, I do wish Mr. Green and his beloved Cubs all the luck in the world. But, I suggest he load up on a season's worth of Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol and a scrip for some Xanax as well. Something tells me the Cubs have another century or two to go before winning another World Series trophy.

Sep 14

It’s the customer, stupid

What-the-customer-actually-wantedTwo separate opinion pieces in two separate industry trades agree on one basic principle:  agencies and marketers alike are overlooking the customer in their rush to do the right thing.

Let's begin with Rose Gordon's superb editorial in PR Week. Fresh from a year-long stint as editor of Direct Marketing News, Gordon's POV on PR's role in marketing has expanded faster than a Burger King patron's waistline. She's spot on in admonishing the PR industry for not having “…a firm grasp on the customer.” We really never have. Instead, we're content to rely on market research, feedback from sales forces and other second-hand sources of what the customer REALLY wants and needs. And, when it comes to results, we get high on such warm and fuzzy things as image, transparency, reputation and total media impressions. That may have worked in the past, but it's not enough in today's 24×7 customer-driven, bottom-line focused marketplace.

All of which leads me to the Ad Age opinion piece. Authored by Jonathan Salem Baskin, a global brand strategist, it analyzes the various reasons why CMOs “…are fired TWICE as often as every other C-suiter.”

Baskin (or, is it Salem Baskin?) explains why the average CMO's professional life “…is going to be short and not so sweet” and sums it up by saying the bottom line MUST be the bottom line. Pressured by analysts, institutional investors and the board, CEOs need sales results. And they need them yesterday.

CMOs, says, Baskin, are too caught up in soft results and one step removed from the customer. (Indeed, we surveyed 75 CMOs a year ago and found a shocking 75 percent had never personally experienced their brand. Imagine trying to market a Lexus without ever having entered a dealership to see what the sales experience is like?)

Gordon's and Baskin's articles are warning shots across the bow of every marketer's ship. We MUST start going directly to client's customers and experiencing the brand the way they do (or obtaining their permission to accompany them on their journey).

It's no longer enough to sit back and wait for a client or a market research firm to tell you who the customer is and what she wants. The smart CMOs, ad agencies and PR firms will INSIST on experiencing a brand, a product or a service first-hand before formulating a communications plan. That way, we'll be assured the brand promise is in line with the customer experience.

Too many ad agencies, PR firms and their clients are caught up in winning awards, believing such accolades equal success. They don't. At least not in the CEO's mind.

In fact, the winning formula in the future will have NOTHING to do with website traffic, media impressions or brand favorability. Instead, it'll be all about “…sell(ing) stuff” as Baskin writes.
So, here's a note to friend and foe alike. Do yourself a favor and experience your brand as your customer does. See where they go and to whom they speak to make buying decisions. Find out where and when it makes sense for your brand to enter the conversation. Then, and only then, begin building your marketing plan.

As Gordon says in her piece, “In the end, there is one stakeholder and that's the customer.” The marketers and agencies willing to do the heavy lifting now and follow the advice of Gordon and Baskin will be the ones still around to read AdAge and PRWeek in five years.

Sep 08

The Babe Ruth of the expletive deleted

In our 16 years of business, we've represented a few particularly, foul-mouth executives.   

I remember a young, dotcom PR director, for example, whose salty language would put any longshoreman to shame (note: PR Week actually named her one of the industry's bright, young stars way back when). Not surprisingly, I've haven't heard or read of her since. My guess is she's plying her trade as a stevedore these days.Slideaaaaaaaa1

Another foul-mouthed leader was a guy named Joe, who was the short-lived CEO of VerticalNet, Newell Rubbermaid and about 30 other companies. He was incapable of uttering a sentence that didn't begin or end with the F bomb.

But, the true Babe Ruth of the expletive deleted was Carol Bartz, Yahoo's just fired CEO.

Bartz not only cursed a blue streak, but also used bullying tactics and fear to try and turn around her also-ran company (note: in the interests of transparency, I must acknowledge we had one of the stormiest, most abusive client/agency relationships with Y! in Peppercom history).

Our team had ringside seats for the inauguration of Ms. Bartz three years ago. We had just won Yahoo's business and were in the midst of a multi-day brand immersion (which consisted of little more than listening to various sales and marketing teams explain why they were losing market share to Google and Microsoft).

We were assured all that was about to change with the advent of Ms. Bartz, a noted turnaround artist who'd worked wonders at Autodesk.

And, so we eagerly shuffled into a massive, suitably New Age-looking employee cafeteria cum auditorium to hear the new CEO's vision for a bright future.

After receiving a standing ovation from the thousands in attendance (and the thousands more viewing via video conference from around the world), Carol began her speech. After hearing all the Bartz hype, we were expecting something along the lines of “…a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” or “We have nothing to fear but fear itself," or even  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Instead, Bartz launched into an expletive-laced discourse that began with the company's ongoing problems with press leaks. “The first person I catch leaking confidential information to the media,” she yelled, jabbing her finger at the astonished throng, “I will personally drop kick his f*cking ass to Mars!”

One could hear the proverbial pin drop as she followed that threat with even scarier ones. Finally, mercifully, she ended her speech. Then the nascent CEO opened the floor for a question-and-answer session. I'll never forget the first query. It went something like this:

Employee (smiling): “Carol, we're so glad you're here and ready to lead us back to greatness. That said, you mentioned leaks to the press. Many of us in engineering have our own personal media contacts. I assume it's OK to continue speaking to them?”

Bartz (frowning and scowling): “What, are you f*ucking brain dead, or something? Did you not JUST hear me say I'll kick your f*ucking ass to Mars if you talk to the press? How stupid can one person be? Any other stupid questions?”

And, so on and so forth.

Afterwards, I remember walking back across campus with one of the in-house corporate PR types. He asked us, “So, guys, what did you think of Carol?” I felt like I'd just been asked what I'd thought of the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. But, since this was about two weeks into a 100k per month account, I tread carefully. “Well,” I responded, “She's certainly direct.” The client smiled, nodded his head and said, “Yup. She's EXACTLY what Yahoo needs.”

Well, as events turned out, the client was dead wrong. Carol Bartz was exactly what Yahoo DIDN'T need. She didn't turn things around. And, her foul-mouthed, acerbic ways (beautifully illustrated in this video, BTW) succeeded in alienating any support she might have otherwise garnered to protect her when the company continued to languish.

Instead, Carol Bartz and her salty tongue are walking away with a golden parachute that, were she so inclined, would probably buy enough rocket fuel to propel HER f*ucking ass to Mars. Which is where she, and other foul-mouthed, fear-mongering CEOs belong.

Aug 25

We need a Fifth Estate

Sky-is-falling-2 This country sorely needs a Fifth Estate to police the Fourth. Whether it's new, sports,  entertainment or, as is the case this week, weather, the media beast increasingly opts for hyperbole and superlatives over objectivity and balance.

Take local New York media. Please. They're in seventh heaven at the moment; basking in the afterglow of a 5.9 magnitude earthquake and bracing for the approach of a category three hurricane.

Not content to report mere facts, local news and weather reporters have been routinely going for the jugular.

Consider this near verbatim conversation I watched live on one of the local channels:

Anchor: "To repeat, New York has just been hit by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake whose center was in Falls Church, Virginia. Ron Mieth is at the corner of 42nd and Third right now. Ron?”

Ron: "Thanks Tim. I'm with Rebecca LargeCalves, who has an amazing story to share. Rebecca, where were you when the quake hit?”
Rebecca: “Getting out of a cab.”
Ron: “Tell us what happened.”
Rebecca: “I got out of the cab”
Ron: “And…?”
Rebecca: “I felt something.”
Ron: “The quake.”
Rebecca: “Yes.”
Ron: “Were you scared?”
Rebecca: “No.”
Ron: “Did you think to yourself, uh oh, another 9/11?”
Rebecca: “No, but the cabbie said something like that.”
Ron: “There you have it, Tim. More than one New Yorker wondering if today's quake was the start of yet another 9/11 attack. Now back to you in the studio.”
Tim: “Wow. And, of course the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is just days away. Well, stay safe Ron.”

Then, this morning there was this irresponsible banter on a local good morning show:

Anchor: “Now here's meteorologist Hiawatha Habitat with news of what appears to be New York's second major wake-up call from Mother Nature in less than a week. Hiawatha?”
Hiawatha: “That's right, Walter. We have a category three hurricane that, if it stays on course, will slam into New York beaches sometime early Sunday morning.”
Anchor: “Good lord. Considering Manhattan is at sea level, are we looking at another potential Katrina situation here, Hiawatha?”
Hiawatha: “Walter, meteorologists are trained to never say never.”
Anchor: “Understood. City building officials have to be losing sleep worrying how well our earthquake-weakened structures will withstand this new threat. Thanks Hiawatha and please keep us posted on this developing mega threat!”

This sort of fear mongering drives ratings. And the corporations who own nearly all the major media outlets are driven by the bottom line. As a result, superlatives and hyperbole increasingly rule the airwaves.

We need a Fifth Estate to hold the Fourth one accountable. But, who does it and how? And, how do we avoid a State-controlled media if we do have another entity step in? I'd ask more unanswerable questions, but I think I just spied a tornado over Fort Lee bearing down on 470 Park Avenue South. I can't wait to hear the hype on this one!