Oct 30

Do you really want mom or dad to spend eternity in a Wal-Mart casket?

Not content to undercut every other conceivable type of mom-and-pop store, Wal-Mart has now set it sights on the recession-proof business of death.

October 30 - walmart

True to its 'high price of low cost' form, Wal-Mart is now selling caskets and urns for less. For the moment, the products are only available on the Wal-Mart website. But, I have to believe it won't be too much longer before a Wal-Mart greeter, dressed in mourning black, suggests you visit aisle seven for the latest in low-priced funeral accessories.

Wal-Mart has clearly hit a new low (about six feet under to be precise).

Death is a big business that, until Uncle Sam & Co's emergence, was dominated by a few, large funeral chains and lots of mom and pop types. So, how do the latter fight back? The only possible strategy is to go up-market and adopt a value-added solutions provider positioning.

'Sure, Mr. Dimwitted, you can buy the Instant Karma model on Wal-Mart's web site for $500 less, but our 'afterlife' consultants are available 24×7 (yes, they work the graveyard shift as well). They'll help you choose interior color patterns for the casket. Would the deceased prefer paint, wood laminate or, perhaps, a floral wallpaper pattern? Wal-Mart can't help you with those decisions. And, an urn is an urn is an urn on the Wal-Mart website. Not so with us. Our afterlife consultants will custom fit the ashes. Could you imagine anything worse than spending eternity in a poorly-fitting urn? That's my idea of hell, Mr. Dimwitted.'

In a perverse kind of way, I admire ruthless marketers like Wal-Mart. They have no shame. And, they'll squeeze every supplier, underpay every employee and undercut every competitor. It's a sure fire formula for success in this world. But, will the Wal-Mart's of the world have to answer to an even higher authority in the next? I leave that to Brother Harold Camping and his followers to decide. Hey, just imagine the rush for Wal-Mart caskets on May 22, 2011 (that's when Brother Camping predicts the world will end).

*Thanks to Greg Schmalz for the idea for this post.

Oct 28

Not delivering on the brand promise

I never cease to be amazed how many organizations still don't 'get' the concept of a brand promise. They don't understand they need to deliver the brand experience they promise in their tagline, positioning and marketing messages.

October 28 - comcast Comcast is a great example of a brand that doesn't deliver on its promise. The huge cable systems operator has been running its 'Comcastic' campaign for years. But, as any Comcast subscriber will tell you, the service (and, in particular, the customer service) is anything but fantastic. It's positively dreadful. A better, more realistic brand promise from Comcast might be: 'ComPoor' or 'ComAwful." A brand shouldn't raise consumers expectations by promising one experience and then delivering another.

New Jersey Transit is my personal bête noir. The local transit system heralds itself as 'the way to go.' Now, anyone who routinely rides NJT's trains will tell you it is anything BUT the way to go. It's a necessary evil that one has to take because alternative solutions are either cost or location prohibitive. NJT trains are habitually late, staffed by rude or indifferent conductors and feature restrooms that are definitely NOT the way (or place) to go.

I originally suggested the powers that be at NJT supplant 'The way to go' with 'Just train bad.' I think they may not have understood my purposeful double entendre and ignored it. So, instead, I'm suggesting NJT adopt a shorter, more direct brand promise that perfectly manages expectations and can be delivered every single day. I'm calling it: 'expect less.'

I love 'expect less.' It works in every conceivable way. In fact, I've actually adopted 'expect less' as my personal, tongue-in-cheek brand promise for my upcoming year as chairman of the College of Charleston advisory board. 

Speaking of the CofC, Tom Martin, executive-in-residence at the College of Charleston (and one of the all-time great Peppercom clients, btw) recently created a classic brand promise slide you should check out.

Download Brand and Reputation

It lists what brands say about themselves and what we, as consumers, really think about them. It's worth a gander.

Oct 27

I thought we were making progress in a lot of areas

October 27 - Eric_Mangini(3) Earlier this year, I engendered the wrath of Cleveland Browns fans by suggesting that erstwhile Jets coach and newly-named Browns Coach Eric Mangini was bad news. I asked the rhetorical question, 'Why do sports teams keep recycling losers?'

Mangini was the latest in a long line of mediocre and just plain bad football, baseball and basketball managers and coaches who, inexplicably, keep landing new, higher paying jobs despite a history of failure. I went on to suggest such a thing simply wouldn't happen in business industry. When CEOs fail, they rarely turn up at the top of another firm; instead, they usually start their own hedge fund or venture capital firm with the cash from their severance packages.

Not so with pro football. Take a gander at this season and the performance of Mangini and his Browns. They're 1-6 after being drubbed on Sunday by the Packers, 31-3. And, what was Mangini's comment after the game? 'I thought we were making progress in a lot of areas.' My comment? He's delusional. Could you imagine a CEO saying something similar to Wall Street analysts after a disastrous quarterly earnings report?

Mangini made the same sort of absurd comments as the Jets lost game after game at the end of last season. He was always pointing to progress on one side of the football while the team was collapsing on the other.

Mangini reminds me of former Mets Manager Willie Randolph who, during the team's historic collapse at the end of 2007 season, kept pointing to the positives: 'We saw some great pitching tonight. All we needed were some clutch hits,' or 'The guys were hitting the cover off the ball. We just need more consistency from our bullpen,' or my personal favorite: 'These losses will make winning the division and sipping the champagne just that much sweeter.' Needless to say, the Mets never did win the division and any champagne that was consumed was probably washed down with scotch, vodka or some other sedative to ease the pain.

I'd like to see accountability come to the coaching ranks. If a guy has a proven record of losing, ditch him. Blacklist him. Suggest he become a media trainer. Send him packing. But do not do what the Cleveland Browns and countless other franchises have done with the likes of Mangini over the years. Do not recycle losers.

Oct 26

Look both ways before crossing an intersection and listen to all stakeholders before engaging in social media

October 26 I recently shared a Bulldog Reporter audio conference panel with two corporate communicators and another representative from the dark side (read: PR firms). The topic was social media and, thanks to some excellent moderating by the lovely and talented Brian Pittman, the discussion was rather lively.

I found myself disagreeing with one of the corporate panelists who advised the 150-plus listening audience to engage in social media at all costs, 'Look,' he advised, 'Social media is the future and you might as well engage sooner rather than later.'

I agreed, sort of. I think personal engagement in social media is, indeed, a no-brainer. But, an organization should think long and hard before taking the plunge. The corporate panelist said organizations can learn as they go. Well, yes, but some serious, and potentially devastating missteps can occur during that learning phase.

I likened social media to a busy intersection in a large city. Conventional wisdom holds that one should look both ways before crossing. Social media is the same: organizations should listen to all stakeholders before proceeding. Does each and every audience need/want your organization to engage with them in a social media dialogue? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe information overloaded employees don't want or need a company Facebook page. Maybe long-standing customers prefer the pleasures of a face-to-face meeting over a Don Draper-like scotch and soda. And maybe local community leaders expect a town hall type back-and-forth on issues of the day.

The social media land rush mentality can undermine your organization's image, reputation and credibility if you dive in without listening first.

Brian Pittman asked what sort of questions an organization should ask of its stakeholders during a listening phase. That's easy: the exact same questions neophyte journalists are trained to ask before crafting a news article: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Make sure your audiences want to engage in social media before you decide to flip on the switch. Just because your management wants to, or your competitors are doing it or, even worse, some expert says it's here to stay and you better engage are the wrong reasons.

In the same way rushing across an intersection can be detrimental to one's health, diving pell-mell into social media can be dangerous to one's brand.

Oct 23

The death of a BlackBerry and the five stages of grieving

My BlackBerry was murdered the other day. I killed it. It was a second degree homicide though. There was nothing premeditated on my part.

Octoerb 23
The scene of the crime was the picturesque Middletown, NJ, train station. I was easing into my car when, unbeknownst to me, the BlackBerry slipped out of my pocket.

I didn’t realize I’d lost my trusty companion until after dinner. I retraced my steps, but couldn’t find it anywhere.

The very next morning, though, I discovered the remains. The BlackBerry was lying face down in my usual parking spot. It looked like it had run over an IED in Tikrit or Basra. The unit had pancaked. Gravel was embedded in it like some journalist traveling with the 101st Airborne division. The battery cover had been blown out and was lying some five feet away. And, yet, the darn thing was still flashing its red beacon. Talk about ‘taking a licking and keeping on ticking.’ Wow!

Sadly, though, the BlackBerry needed to be euthanized. It was replaced by Kel, our crack IT manager.

In analyzing my reaction to the BlackBerry’s loss and ultimate demise, I realized that my emotions closely paralleled those of the terminally ill patients chronicled in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s seminal work: ‘On death and dying.’ In the book, she identified five stages that one goes through when learning of a terminal disease. They are:

  1. Denial. When I first discovered I’d lost the BlackBerry, I went into denial. ‘I couldn’t have lost it. It has to be in my pocket. Or under the car seat. Where are you!’
  2. Anger. As the hours mounted and my search efforts became increasingly fruitless, I became more and more upset: at myself, at the BlackBerry and at life in general.
  3. Bargaining. I started bargaining with myself. ‘Please let me find the BlackBerry and I’ll go to Church this Sunday. I promise.’
  4. Depression. I found myself staring blankly at the television screen. I’d hit rock bottom. Even the dogs picked up on my mood and tried to lift my spirits with a quick game of fetch. I told them what to do with their ball.
  5. Acceptance. By the following morning, I’d accepted the fact that I was no longer in instantaneous contact with the critical and the mundane. And, I was OK with that.

Now that I’m fully wired and living in a 24×7 world again, have newfound respect for, and admiration of, my BlackBerry. The new ‘guy’ looks exactly like the old one. but, he’s dramatically different in a fundamental way. He’s like a raw recruit who’s just sent to the front lines. My old BlackBerry had been part of the frontline invasion. It had been severely injured in the line of duty but, like a true soldier, it never deserted his post.

Readers: a moment of silence, please, as I play ‘Taps’ for my dearly departed BlackBerry.

Oct 22

Holy brand extension!

October 22 - Pope-Benedict-XVI How about Pope Benedict XVI's bold and brash end run on the Anglican Church and the archbishop of Canterbury? In case you missed it, the Pope just made a special offer to Anglicans who had grown disaffected with that church's decidedly liberal stance on female priests and openly gay bishops by extending membership in the one, true Church (as the nuns used to like to say).

From a brand extension perspective, the Pope made a very cagey move. Church membership is rapidly eroding, especially in First World countries. So, deciding that the best defense is a good offense, Pope Benedict tries to take market share away from a weaker sibling: the Anglican church. Talk about Machiavellian!

This was front page news in the U.S. However, RepMan Freelance Correspondent Carl "Union Jack" Foster says it barely caused a ripple across the pond. "In a country where the Head of the Church of England is also the Head of State, Britain is a decidedly non-religious place. Coverage of the Pope's move has been reported but it isn't riding high. Look at the homepages of the major newspaper websites and you won't find the story. I presume stories about swine flu vaccinations, postal strikes and celebrity fashion slips are more newsworthy because they got more clicks."

Blasé Brits aside, I find the Pope's move disturbing from a number of image and reputation standpoints:

– By inviting the far right wing conservative branch of the Anglican Church to join the RCC, he has, de facto, moved the latter's philosophy even further right.
– By becoming ever more conservative, the Church is being anything but 'Catholic' and, rather, re-positioning itself in a neo-conservative box that will surely hamper future recruiting efforts for priests, nuns and, of course, congregants.

Brand building depends upon authenticity and transparency. The Church's original mission embraced piety, humility and an openness to all views and perspectives. Clearly, something went awry along the way. In fact, I think Sarah Silverman's recent suggestion that the Pope sell the Vatican and end world hunger with the proceeds makes more sense than the Anglican brand extension (Note: This video contains R-rated material).

Having laid siege to disaffected Anglicans, what religion is next in Pope Benedict's brand extension campaign? Today Anglicans. Tomorrow the world!

Oct 20

What works in Jacksonville may not in Jakarta

October 20 As if marketers don't have enough to worry about, a new blog series run by PepperDigital and Upstream Asia says successful social media campaigns need to resonate with the unique wants and needs of every culture and subculture around the world.

Bottom-line: a one size fits all strategy won't fly. The McDonald's online campaign that drives consumers to stores in Clarksville will probably be a turn-off in Copenhagen (although the Mickey D fish sticks will probably still be big sellers above the Arctic Circle).

The series tracks the rise of subcultures across the globe who, while they may be separated by several oceans, share a common affinity for, say, obscure Norwegian rock music. At the same time, though, those very same affinity groups will have wildly diverging tastes in other areas. So, while savvy marketers may be able to engage with a wide mix of, say, Vietnamese, American and Tanzanian fans of the Norwegian grunge band Lars and the Golden Geese, they need to tread lightly when introducing a second topic to the same group.

The same 'new norm' holds true within borders as well. The discussion that might build buzz in Paris’ fifth arrondissement could be found objectionable in Les cites of Marseilles.

It's a mixed-up world in which we live. This new series proves the old adage that marketers need to walk before they run, especially when it comes to engaging in social media. The land rush mentality to embrace social media we've seen by many U.S. organizations will fail miserably if they extend across borders without taking the time to stop and listen. Listening is, in fact, the single best piece of advice suggested by the series.

'Think global, act local,' is a smart admonition for any traditional marketer seeking to extend its brand beyond its borders. Based upon this new series, it holds doubly true for social media and should be extended to included subcultures and affinity groups.

Oct 19

Too much of anything….

October 19 - information-overload
I think most Democrats and Republicans alike would agree we see far too much of President Obama. He’s here. He’s there. He’s everywhere. As a result, voters tend to suffer from Obama Fatigue. I simply don’t want to see the guy anymore.

Too much of anything is a bad thing, especially for a brand. Case in point: I’m on the e-mail distribution of a certain law firm. Back in the good old, snail mail days, I looked forward to receiving their timely, thought provoking tips, trends and analysis reports.

Now, though, I’m continually bombarded by this very same firm. I must receive a new thought leadership article at least once a week, if not more. At times, I equate the law firm to the Allied invasion fleet and me as the defending German Army hunkering down on the beaches of Normandy as yet another salvo speeds my way.

It’s a shame, because I’m sure the content is relevant and important. But, in an information overload world, too much is, well, too much. I think it’s important for any and all communications to strike the proper balance between ‘just enough’ and Obama Fatigue. As for the law firm’s missives and me, I’ve adopted a Pavlovian response. As soon as I see the incoming article, I reach for the keyboard and hit ‘delete.’

Marketers should be constantly gauging the impact of their communications programs. It’s easy to do and will enable the organization to dial back the frequency and intensity of their outreach. To do otherwise is to court the bane of any communications program: indifference.

Oct 16

So, how did you feel when you first learned your son had third degree burns over 75 percent of his body?

My alma mater, Northeastern University, is featuring me in an upcoming section celebrating 025
the 100th anniversary of their cooperative education curriculum (a five-year plan in which students alternate between classroom study and relevant work experience).

I majored in journalism and was incredibly fortunate to land three stellar co-op jobs:

– as a copy boy/news clerk with The New York Times
– as a reporter/sportscaster/talk show host for WGCH Radio in Greenwich
– and, finally, as a news writer for WEEI News radio in Boston.

As I was being interviewed, I was asked why I'd chosen public relations over journalism. “That's easy,” I responded, “I hated asking the 'So, how did you feel' questions to victims of fires, parents of kidnapped children and other people who suddenly found their worlds turned upside down.

I remember my WEEI news editor once yelling at me to track down the survivors of a horrific fire in Dorchester that had occurred the night before. “Get one of them on the phone and, so help me, do not hang up until you ask them how it made them feel!” He felt I wasn't getting enough emotion in my interviews.

I couldn't deal with the intrusiveness of it all. Nor could I deal with the jaded, world weary personalities of the journalists with whom I worked. I didn't want to wake up one day and be as burnt out as so many of these professional journalists appeared to be.

I bring all this up because I see the “…So, how did it make you feel?” question being asked more often than ever nowadays. In fact, it's become a staple of the morning talk shows. Maggie Rodriguez of ‘The CBS Early Show’ just asked the mom of some poor kid who had been badly burned how she felt. As soon as the interview ended, Maggie smiled at the camera and previewed an upcoming segment on women's health.

I couldn't do that. I couldn't keep up a false front or 'compartmentalize' the horror and personal tragedy.

I think it says something about the image and reputation of journalism that, as the media skew more and more towards the tawdry and sensational, we're seeing more and more digging into the human tragedy that goes along with modern-day life. Sleaze equals ratings, pure and simple.

Journalists may pillory public relations, but most of us focus on telling the positive side of a story. And, for that, I'm grateful (and proud.)

Oct 15

Attention vendors: “Your feelings mean nothing to us. Thanks again for wasting your time and money chasing our business”

I know I sometimes sound like a broken record, but I cannot believe how poorly some  
prospective clients treat the agencies competing for their business.Wspicture3

For example, there's a certain Midwestern home appliance maker that more than six months ago rushed us to develop a presentation, travel to their godforsaken headquarters and deliver a two-hour pitch. After awarding the business to another firm, they've refused to respond to our repeated e-mail and voice mail entreaties asking for feedback.

And, then there's a certain well-known consumer brand that just really put us through the ringer.

The top communications honcho called me about two months ago. She said we'd come highly recommended and invited us to be one of a “…few, select firms” to pitch her seven-figure account. She asked if we had conflicts. I assured her we did not.

So, she issued the RFP and we answered the typically inane, 'fishing expedition-type' questions ('Tell us how you'd break our brand through the clutter and overcome the poor economy to once again become number one in our field.” Prayer was one obvious answer.).

We submitted our lengthy proposal before the 5pm EDT deadline on the appointed day and crossed our fingers. Surprisingly, we heard right away. The lead prospect asked me to visit her HQs ASAP for an “informal working lunch.” Wow. Good sign, no?

So, I moved around my schedule, hopped in a car and traveled to god's country for the command performance.

Once there, I was greeted by the prospect, who carried a dog-eared, Post-it flagged copy of our RFP. We ate lunch. (She didn't treat.) In between bites, she'd flip to a given page, skim down to a section and say, “So, on page 22, section three, paragraph two, you say you'd jump on breaking news opportunities for us. Give me an example from today's news to show me how it would work.” Fair enough. But, the questions became more arcane and more intense up to, and including, how we KNEW our program would guarantee a sales increase. I told her the G word didn't enter our vocabulary, whether it's applied to media or sales. That seemed to cause some mild indigestion.

The 'lunch' ended and I returned to the office. The next day, I sent her a spot-on example of a breaking news story she could leverage on her organization's behalf. She responded effusively and said I'd given her the ammunition necessary to make some decisions. That sounded promising.

And, then, radio silence. Two weeks passed. I sent a follow-up note. No response.

Then, yesterday, came a note headlined: “To vendors.” It read: “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, you are not being invited to the final round.”

I was appalled, but not at all surprised. I shot the erstwhile prospect a note, asking for an explanation and letting her know that we had expended lots of blood, sweat and tears pursuing the account. At the very least, common decency dictated a personal phone call.

That said, I expect the same type of radio silence from this character as we got from the 'Midwestern nice' prospect.

I'm at a loss to explain why highly-paid, highly-educated and highly vulnerable corporate types treat their agency brethren with such indifference. If the economy doesn't turn around and these 'overhead expenses' find themselves on the streets, their reputations will precede them. In other words, I won't be inviting either of them to a working lunch anytime soon.