Nov 11

Goliath never had a chance

7776034730_34d893c693_oMalcolm Gladwell’s latest book, ‘David and Goliath‘ is subtitled: ‘Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.’

That certainly appealed to this underdog, who’s been battling global holding companies for nearly two decades.

Gladwell’s gift is his ability to look at old, or conventional, subjects in new, and counterintuitive ways.

He argues that you CAN fight city hall if you stop thinking of ‘The Man’ in the same, old way. Size can be just as big a disadvantage as an advantage, says Gladwell. You just have to uncover the giant’s weaknesses.

David did.

According to Gladwell, who cites countless biblical scholars and historians, David was anything but a tiny, shepherd boy. Instead, he was a well-trained slinger.

In ancient times, armies featured squads of cavalry, foot soldiers and slingers. The latter were the equivalent of latter-day archers or sharpshooters.

On the day of the epic battle, Goliath was wearing nearly 100 pounds of armor, carrying three separate weapons AND suffering from acromegaly, a disease caused by a benign tumor of pituitary gland (which, says, Gladwell, explains Goliath’s extraordinary size).

The tumor severely limited the giant’s vision. So, when the fleet, unencumbered David sprinted onto the battlefield, he had the advantages of sight, speed and surprise. When he let loose his sling, it propelled a small rock that struck Goliath in the forehead at the speed of 138 mph! The giant was killed instantly.

David won because he didn’t buy into his fellow Israelites fear of the bigger, stronger Goliath.

T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was a latter-day David. Lawrence led a group of Bedouin nomads in a major upset of a large, entrenched force of Turkish soldiers at Akaba. He did so because he embraced the unexpected.

Conventional wisdom held that Akaba, a port city, could only be attacked by sea. It was surrounded on three other sides by hundreds of miles of hot, inhospitable desert sand. That didn’t deter Lawrence, though. He not only led his small force through the desert, he completely surprised the napping Turks and suffered only two losses.

Neither David nor Lawrence made the mistake of assuming greater size meant greater strength.

Lest you think this is a book solely about military history, Gladwell also describes how a small, amateur team of suburban white girls consistently beat urban squads of larger, urban girls who’d been playing hoops for years, and eventually went to the national junior championship.

There are also chapters on class size, and our misconception that a smaller class means a better learning experience. It doesn’t. And, there are truly inspirational stories of successful people who overcame such seemingly insurmountable challenges as coping with a disability, losing a parent or graduating from an ‘inferior’ school.

David and Goliath has armed me with a whole, new way in which to think about the giants in my industry. As Gladwell would say, their seeming advantages CAN be used against them. But, it will take a David or a Lawrence who possess the ability to think in unconventional ways to unseat the Edelmans, Webers and Fleishmans of the PR world.

I highly recommend Gladwell’s book. It’ll resonate with anyone battling any type of Goliath. If nothing else, Gladwell will open your mind to new and different ways of thinking. And that, dear reader, is priceless.

Nov 07

What’s in a name?

wrong-name-brand-fail-knock-off15-400x365Today’s guest post is by Diana Soltmann,  Chief Executive, Flagship Consulting, a Peppercomm agency.

I can remember how a few years ago we nearly lost an account because we misspelled the CEO’s name. The head of communications contacted me and told me in no uncertain terms that the board felt that if we could not even get the head man’s name right how could they trust us to act on their behalf.
It was a point that had a particular resonance with me because people constantly get my name wrong, which is weird because Diana is one of the most recognised names on the web due to the high profile of the late Princess of Wales.

Americans always call me Diane, or Dianne…come to think of it President Reagan called the Princess ‘David’ which isn’t even close. I get called Di (which I hate) Dinah, Dianna even Diaanna. As for my surname… I have given up on that one.

However I do think it is common courtesy to get someone’s name right. It shows one has paid attention, listened and has made the effort to get it right.  A prospective applicant’s CV go straight in the bin if they get my name or the name of my company wrong. I don’t even read the covering letter which they probably spend hours on. I recently seriously considered resigning from our trade association because they not only misspelled the name of my company- in other words their fee paying member- but also the name of the key liaison person on the account. Why would I want to be a member of an organisation that is that sloppy?

Research shows that the ‘own name’ is among the first concepts that human being encounters. It is experienced countless times during a lifespan and is one of the most resilient entries in memory.  The ‘own name’ has the power to reach awareness in conditions in which most other stimuli remain unnoticed…that is why the use of ‘own name’ is always used to jolt people into consciousness after an accident or operation and is known as the ‘breakthrough phenomenon’. Research published by the German Research foundation showed that the brain will pick out ‘own name’ against highly distracting background noise and even a distorted version of ‘own name’ will be processed by the brain and recognised. Own name is a very powerful tool.

As communication consultants, we spend hours advising our clients about importance of brand, style and of course name. I cannot imagine how Mercedes would react if its agency referred to it as Merseedes. It would be a hanging offence in our industry. Equally, we spend hours working out how to best engage with staff and gain their loyalty and commitment. Fortunes are spent on sophisticated communication tools which are designed, debated and despatched. And yet the very basic part of demonstrating that the company really does care about the individual goes down the pan when the letter or the card is sent out…and the recipient’s name is wrongly spelled.

Our US partner Peppercomm has a great strapline which is ‘Listen. Engage. Repeat’. Maybe if we did a bit more listening and repeating before we engaged we might get the basics right.

Nov 06

The Moon is Down

125196Did you know John Steinbeck wrote THE most persuasive piece of propaganda during World War II?

That’s right. The same guy who gave us, ‘East of Eden’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ penned ‘The Moon is Down’ in early 1942. (Also think it would be good to add that it was made into a movie in 1943 and a play, adapted by Steinbeck himself.)

At that point in time, Nazi Germany controlled most of Europe and northern Africa while Japan was an undefeated power looking to next grasp Australia in its claws.

Steinbeck wrote ‘The Moon is Down’ to motivate the millions of people whose countries had been overrun by the Axis powers. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Throughout Norway, Denmark, Holland and France, it was translated, printed on clandestine presses and distributed by resistance groups everywhere. The Nazis banned ‘The Moon is Down’ and possession of it was grounds for an automatic death sentence.

What made ‘The Moon is Down’ so powerful? It argued that free people everywhere will find ways to overthrow the yoke of a conquering army. It depicts both the Nazis and townspeople of the occupied village as sensitive caring people, tasked with opposing goals. The Nazis were following orders. The townsfolk were following their basic human instinct to remain free.

‘The Moon is Down’ is only 112 pages in length. But, it provides more wisdom than any Presidential state of the union address I’ve heard as well as any Tea Party platform I’ve read.

More importantly, ‘The Moon is Down’ explains why no one country can ever hope to permanently subjugate another. It should have been must reading for Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld before we became entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

People everywhere yearn to be free. That’s why ‘The Moon is Down’ makes for timeless reading. It also presents a powerful reason why the United States should abandon our role as the world’s policeman. It’s bankrupting us, ruining our image AND forcing subjugated people to respond in the same way as Steinbeck’s townsfolk.

Pick up a copy. I think you’ll find it highly relevant.

Nov 05

I am the Consumer, Hear me Roar

Today’s guest post is by Peppercomm President, Ted Birkhahn.

tedYesterday, Repman wrote about truth in marketing using United Airlines as a prime example of a brand not practicing what it preaches. Today’s blog is also about United (sorry, United, we really aren’t picking on you but there just too much to write about) with a focus on failing to meet customer expectations.

This past weekend, I had the displeasure of flying United from NYC to Chicago. And what I quickly realized was something that most of the airline industry – United, in particular – hasn’t figured out yet.

As a consumer of many things, my expectations on everything from customer service to brand experience to product innovation are set high by the likes of Apple, American Express and others who have built their brands on delighting the customer across the board. So, when I fly, and the airline fails to deliver on some or all of these areas, it creates huge disappointment and an erosion of trust with the brand.

It is unfair to expect United Airlines to treat me as well as Apple? Am I being unrealistic to demand that a major airline provide me with a level of service that I have come to expect from the likes of Starbucks or Nike? In today’s globally connected service economy, where technology enables brands to listen better and tailor their solutions to fit a customer’s individual needs, the answer to these questions should be a resounding no.

ted united . jpgBy way of example, the United planes were old and dirty, and personal entertainment was nonexistent. On the return flight, the Wi-Fi didn’t work. To make matters worse, the flight was delayed for mechanical reasons. As I sat on the plane in an indefinite delay, United sent me three automated emails with false departure times. What’s more, when I tweeted @United, I received an unhelpful, canned response.

My overall experience was more akin to shopping at Kmart than it was to being treated like royalty at my local TD Bank or hanging at Starbucks. United needs to realize their competition is not just American or Delta, it’s any other brand that provides consumers with a positive, tailored experience that meets and even exceeds their expectations.

And I don’t want to hear excuses that the airlines are too big or cash strapped to give me the experience I deserve. If Amex and Starbucks can do it, so can United. It’s a new world for consumer brands and like many, my expectations are being shaped by customer service and experience leaders from all walks of life.  Brands like United need to step it up or step aside.

Do you agree? Should brands be held accountable based on experiences that customers get from non-competitive brands and industries? Let me know your thoughts.

Nov 04

The awful truth

persp-oscar-aaaaa01a-2013I’ve written many blogs about corporations that say one thing in their messaging, but deliver a very different experience with their product or service. McDonald’s is one of the best (or most egregious) examples. Their tagline is: ‘I’m loving it!’ And, while that may be true about the profits they’re raking in from serving fatty, artery-clogging foods, the average Mickey D’s diner can’t be loving her expanding waistline and Type II Diabetes.

Likewise, United Airlines has just resurrected their old tagline, “Fly the friendly skies.” As a frequent flyer on United, I can tell you those flies are ugly. They’re mean. They’re anything but friendly. United’s tagline should be, ‘Fly the lying skies.’

But, what to make of a company that tells the truth about a terrible product? The Heart Attack Grill in Arizona knowingly promotes its deadly menu. And, now, Oscar Mayer is actually bragging about its Butcher Thick Cut Bacon! They’re running an advertisement entitled, ‘It scares other bacon to bits.’ Ouch. To make matters even worse (but, being fully transparent), the Oscar Mayer photograph of hickory smoked bacon shows all sorts of fat and gristle up close and personal.

It’s yucky, but it’s authentic. Does that make it right? I think so. I think that’s all we can expect of marketers. Tell me the truth, and let me make the decision to sacrifice my future health and well-being.

Having said that, I must take this opportunity to ask my fellow public relations firm owners to think before they run another print ad entitled, ‘We prefer to be judged by the company we keep.’ The headline is followed by a series of client logos in the body of the ad.

In addition to being a hackneyed, worn-out approach used by countless firms, the company we keep strategy is a badly flawed one. It leaves the advertiser wide open to being judged by the conduct of its clients. Imagine if your PR firm represented the likes of JP Morgan Chase, the NSA and BP. If your print ad asked readers to judge you by the company you kept, I’d think you embezzled, snooped and ripped up the environment. And, I’m guessing that’s not the image any PR firm would want.

So, what do you think about truth in advertising? Should we applaud the likes of Oscar Mayer for being fully transparent, or continue to look the other way when McDonald’s and United do their double-talking?”


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Nov 01

Acquisition is a poor substitute for strategy

pacman-2Strategy guru Gary Hamel earned a reputation for casting aspersions on the myriad acquisitions of the go-go dotcom era. He believed that, almost without exception, acquisitions were a poor substitute for strategy. Companies, said Hamel, bought what they couldn’t create.

That sure seems to be the case with the announcement of PricewaterhouseCooper’s acquisition of strategy consultant Booz & Company.

Strategy consulting is where the big bucks are nowadays. Industry analysts say traditional accounting and auditing fees earned by the PwC’s of the world are flat at best, while strategy shops such as Booz grow at 20 percent annually.

So, unable to build much of a consulting practice of its own, PwC bought one.

The Omnicom-Publicis merger is another example of buying what one cannot build. The mega coupling had nothing whatsoever to do with enhancing the strategic or creative work it did for clients. Rather, both would say they’re combining in order to compete with Google in the uber lucrative search and ‘Big data’ categories. Neither Omnicom nor Publicis possessed the smarts to do it alone. So, they’re getting married.

And, then, of course, there’s the human carnage that goes along with any merger between large entities. ‘Redundancies’ and ‘rightsizings’ leave thousands of souls looking for new jobs. And, many of the downsized zombies are middle-aged, high priced managers who, frankly, are virtually unemployable.

And, so, the top guys at Booz will walk away with ungodly amounts of cash, and the big dogs at PwC will get what they couldn’t create. But, to me, it’s yet another example of a large American company failing at what our country used to be best at: innovation.

Right now, Corporate America needs a whole lot more strategy and far fewer mergers.