Jan 14

Why bother?

united  ssssjpgHow many companies can lay claim to being the perennial poster child for terrible service in their category?

Comcast is one for sure. And, then, there’s my beloved New Jersey Transit. NJT totally dominates the bottom of any Garden State customer satisfaction list.

But, NO ONE can touch United’s remarkably dismal performance record. And, to their discredit, United’s bottom-feeding performance is remarkably consistent. Year-in and year-out, United OWNS the aft section of any airline ratings report.

Just last week, for example, The Middle Seat’s annual scorecard of the nine major U.S. carriers placed United in the cellar for the second straight year. That’s eye-opening. It’s also a differentiator worth exploiting for marketing purposes.

Predictably, United tried to put a positive spin on their turbulent results (sadly, though, the words carry about as much weight as a United pilot’s announcing a “minor” delay).

Here’s what United’s EVP for marketing, technology and strategy, Jeffrey Foland, told The Middle Seat, “We have had a material improvement but we know we have more to do.”

C’mon, that’s like the Titanic’s Captain Smith saying, “We know we’ve struck a berg, but we’re still expecting an on-time arrival in New York.”

I think United should stop with all the double-talk and feel good messaging (i.e. they recently re-introduced the legendary ‘Fly the friendly skies’ advertising campaign’).

Instead, United should own the words, phrases and images that align with their performance.

I’m thinking of taglines such as:

– ‘You really didn’t need that bag, did you?’

– ‘If you think your life is tough, try flying United”

– ‘United: Your day just got worse.’

And, my personal favorite:

‘Why bother?’

Most of us ignore feel-good advertising and boastful taglines because they don’t match our actual experiences with the brand.

But, that doesn’t stop Madison Avenue types from dusting off such totally off-base campaigns as the current United one. And, so it goes……

On that note, here’s one last suggested tagline:
“United: Sipping our own Kool-Aid.”

And a free First Class upgrade to Greg Schmalz for suggesting this post.

Jan 13

Send in the frowns

christieNow that every PR blogger, trade journalist and political pundit has ‘weighed’ in on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s marathon press conference, I thought I’d join a lone Gonzaga University professor in addressing what the embattled pol DIDN’T say.

As you’ll read in The Daily Beast article, Gonzaga’s David B. Givens said Christie’s non-verbals were in direct contrast to the Gov’s ‘mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa’ talkathon.

Givens said Christie never once used his hands to emphasize a point. Nor he did move his highly-scrutinized bulk around as he addressed one painful point after another. So, while his mind and mouth may have been in sync, his other body told a different story.

I’m not an expert in detecting non-verbal clues. But, having media trained countless clients and prepared hundreds of others to perform stand-up comedy, I am very attuned to non-verbal communication.

We work long and hard to help executives understand the importance of connecting the non-verbal to the verbal.

So, if a Fortune 500 executive is trying to impress a CNBC reporter (and his viewing audience) she really needs to use her hands and her arms in just the right way and at just the right time to drive home a point. As we always say to these executives, if you’re not displaying passion and conviction, why should the audience care?

Likewise, when prepping business executives to perform stand-up in front of their peers, we stress how critical it is to make eye contact, use physical humor to illustrate a story and ‘act out’ a particular bit (i.e. I often pretend to be texting on an imaginary iPhone when I speculate how many more people Jesus might have reached if he’d had access to Twitter).

In reviewing the coverage of ChristieGate, I wholeheartedly agree with Professor Givens. Chris may have talked the talk, but his hands, arms and body sure didn’t walk the walk.

Jan 10

The Wolf of Wall Street and What It Means for Today’s Investors, Part II

Today’s guest post is by WalekPeppercommers Chris Gillick and Dmitriy Ioselevich and their conversation about The Wolf of Wall Street. Below is Part II. (Part I ran yesterday.)

the_wolf_of_wall_street1Dmitriy: I agree with you that Stratton Oakmont’s investors deserve some of the blame for “gambling” their money away, but I think it’s naive to assume that they should have known better. Why would they? Investing wasn’t being properly taught to the general public. That hasn’t changed.

Take for example the Millennial generation. The majority of Millennials, myself excluded fortunately, don’t know the first thing about finance or how to invest (besides how to swipe a credit card). Some of them don’t even have a 401K plan. By the time they pay off all of their student debt many Millennials will be in their 30s or 40s and just starting to set up an investment portfolio. Would they start sooner if they understood how compound investing works?

We put so much emphasis on achieving literacy at virtually every grade level; I think financial literacy is even more important. The concepts may seem too difficult for most students, but it wasn’t too long ago that learning calculus at the high school level seemed unthinkable.  I’d even be in favor of having an entire finance section on the SAT. But will it ever happen? I don’t know. It seems like even though access to information has never been easier, it’s never been more difficult to decipher between what’s legitimate and what’s a scheme to defraud investors. There’s almost too much information out there.

Chris: Perhaps my perspective is skewed because I grew up in a town whose residents derived their income from Wall Street sources and my uncle used to tout telecom stocks at the dinner table in the 90s. But here’s the answer to your question: there is no mechanism for determining what is the right type of information out there because individuals don’t trust the financial establishment anymore, and rightfully so.

I don’t know what the solution for mandating financial education would be, but I do think it’s necessary or else our societal fabric will fray. The government is not going to be able to take care of us like they did in previous generations. That’s what happens when the Baby Boomers borrow from the current generation’s future to pay their bills now. So people essentially have no choice but to start saving and taking risk.

But given all the competing priorities that schools around the country have to grapple with, maybe Congress should mandate that high school students watch Khan Academy videos about interest rates, savings and debt. If taxpayers won’t pay for it, let the Gates Foundation, one of Khan’s backers, do it.

Dmitriy: The very real possibility that my generation won’t ever be able to collect Social Security may be the single greatest motivating factor driving the need for early investor education. Sadly, I don’t think we can rely on the federal government to come up with anything resembling a solution.

My other concern is that I feel like lower and middle class investors have an overwhelming desire to emulate their upper class brethren, and now for the first time all investors are going to have access to sexy investment products such as liquid alternative funds, ETF’s and even private equity/venture capital via the JOBS Act. It’s a brave new world out there and I’m worried that new investors to the game—my generation in particular—are going to put their money and faith in products that  specifically catere to the ultra-elite and ignore far safer and smarter options such as mutual funds.

The Khan Academy would be a good start, but strategic communications must also play a big role in educating investors. The Great Recession completely tarnished the financial industry’s reputation—perhaps irrevocably—but the fact that there are a few disingenuous players doesn’t mean that the whole game is rigged. There are plenty of financial institutions out there that are more than happy to help investors like you and me build and preserve our capital. The greatest challenge for these firms going forward is to share their story and build customer trust. It’s a tall order, but not an impossible one. I suppose we better get to work.

Jan 09

The Wolf of Wall Street and What It Means for Today’s Investors

Today’s guest post is by WalekPeppercommers Chris Gillick and Dmitriy Ioselevich and their conversation about The Wolf of Wall Street. Below is Part I; Part 2 will run tomorrow.

9383f339-2aee-4808-bb8c-c5a674e7f17d_GAL_Wolf_of_Wall_StreetChris: I giddily read Beflort’s book when it first came out and I had very high expectations for this movie, in part because I feel personally connected to the story. I grew up less than 5 miles from where Belfort and his brokers plied their craft at Stratton Oakmont, so this was all going on in my backyard. I was only 10 years old when Belfort first gained notoriety in a Forbes article. Back then Wall Street and the stock market were very much embedded into the local culture. The market was a favorite topic of conversation at Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house. The daily moves of the stock market actually used to mean something among everyday Americans.

It was also a lot easier to operate a Stratton Oakmont back then. There was no Google or even Internet, so it was difficult to quickly verify what a broker was selling you over the phone. There was no cheap online stock trading platform where individuals could trade and invest on their own. If you wanted to own a stock, you needed a human broker to call and place a trade through. And since the market kept going up and up for a good stretch of the 80’s and the entirety of the 90’s, everybody wanted in. For the brokers doing the cold calls, it was actually a pretty easy sell.

Dmitriy: I’m not quite sure what to take away from this movie. That you shouldn’t trust anybody in finance? That’s a tired line and, although it fits nicely into the current socio-economic discussion, it’s not necessarily accurate. Belfort and his minions certainly deserve their share of the blame for defrauding investors, but it’s important to remember that they didn’t just steal money right out of people’s hands. Their customers willingly agreed to give them money!

You mentioned how easy it was for brokers to sell stocks during the 80s and 90s bull market, but how come investors didn’t know any better? The average American will spend maybe a year picking out the right house and several months selecting a car. But when it comes to forking over thousands of dollars to a complete stranger, they’re suddenly able to make a split second decision? That completely befuddles me.

The sad part is that this stuff still happens today, even with access to so many resources. Just look at Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Look at SAC Capital. Look at JPMorgan Chase. People will fall for anything if somebody tells them they can make money off of it.

So how do we fix this? Who should bear the brunt of the responsibility for properly educating investors? Financial institutions? Schools? The media? Investors themselves?

Chris: The ultimate responsibility lies on the part of the individual. Investing one’s own earned money into anything (stocks, bonds, peer-to-peer lending, a local bar, a franchise restaurant, etc.) is entirely optional. The downside of not investing one’s money though, is that if you don’t, it either sits in the bank earning less than 1% a year, or is stuffed under your mattress earning 0% a year. But unlike 20 years ago, there are so many more free resources and websites available to individuals to teach themselves about investing. Yahoo! Finance, The Motley Fool, Investopedia, etc. it’s all out there for everyone to see.

As for Belfort’s victims, the money they lost is their own fault.  They could have easily said “not interested”, hung up the phone, and gone about their business. But they didn’t. At the same time, all humans enjoy gambling and being tipped off to seemingly exclusive investment opportunities. The brokers working the phones at Stratton Oakmont simply catered to those human urges (while high on every drug imaginable, as Scorcese would have us believe). Brokers were able to get gullible investors to believe “Oh, if this event happens, I’ll be $100K richer!” But if that poor schmuck on the other end of the phone didn’t lose $100K on a crappy stock, he or she could have easily lost it some place else—in a bad real estate deal, or at the casino, or in any other failed business venture. Humans have had to take risks to survive over thousands of years, and the stock market, then and now, is just another way to express that need to take risks.

Check back tomorrow for Part II.

Jan 08

Wanted: CEO. Good looks a MUST

kennedy-sailing-jfkTwo University of Wisconsin economists have released a survey they say proves that Wall Street rewards good-looking chief executives.

The research paper, entitled: ‘Beauty is Wealth’ rated the attractiveness of 667 CEOs from S&P 500 companies.

According to the profs’, their Facial Attractive Index (FAI) indicates good looks have a significant impact on stock returns beginning on day one of a CEO’s tenure.

To further prove their point, the academics tracked CEO’s appearances on CNBC.com (the survey’s co-sponsor) and, surprise, surprise, found shareholders responded positively to viewing attractive CEO’s.

The researchers cited Marissa Mayer of Yahoo (who else?) as a textbook (centerfold?) example of the ‘be a hot-looking CEO or suffer the consequences’ trend.

‘She scored an 8.45 (out of 10) on the FAI, and is among the top 5 best-looking CEOs in (the) sample,’ they wrote. ‘And, Yahoo has been doing well since she became CEO (a 158 percent rise in stock price).’

The Wisconsin study isn’t at all surprising. John F. Kennedy’s matinee idol looks played a huge role in his defeat of the somber, sinister and sweaty Richard M. Nixon. And, I don’t doubt that Republican power brokers factored Sarah Palin’s physical assets when choosing her as John McCain’s ill-fated vice presidential running mate.

In fact, I recall a long-ago a Challenger Gray survey proving that taller men were more successful than their height-challenged peers.

So, what’s a looks-challenged CEO wanna-be to do? Aside from an extreme makeover, I’m not sure what advice to provide. But, if nothing else, the Wisconsin egg-heads are to be congratulated for proving what we already knew: We live in a society that is positively obsessed with youth, vitality and beauty.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see fading Hollywood actors switch gears and, unlike Reagan and Arnold, leverage their good looks to land a corner office in Sunnyvale instead of Sacramento.

And, as you can see from the masthead, good looks had nothing to do with my being a C-suiter at Peppercomm.

And a tip o’ the hat to Michael “Empty Calories” Dresner for suggesting this post.

Jan 07

Who needs Jenny Craig when Ronald McDonald’s around?

089Good news for the millions of Americans who’ve started the new year with a resolution to lose weight: McDonald’s is your new, go-to solutions provider.

That’s right. According to a Reuters’ article, an Iowa science teacher lost 37 pounds in just three months by eating nothing but Mickey D’s fare morning, noon and night.

That sounds about as likely as finding men on Mars, no? I agree. But, it’s true.

John Cisna, and his students, created a 2,000- calorie daily diet that included only McDonald’s stuff (i.e. two egg white delights in the am, a salad at lunch and a yummy Big Mac for din-din).

Cisna also walked 45 minutes every single day.

In addition to the weight loss, Cisna reported his cholesterol had dropped from 249 to 170.
Maybe McDonald’s should open a cardiac care center at each location?

Now, before you rush to Mickey D’s to begin your crash diet, I’d like to make a few points:

– This guy ordered THE healthiest items on the McDonald’s menu (save for the Big Macs).
– He walked for 45 minutes every single day. I’d be surprised if the average Mickey D’s diner walks more than two minutes a day.
– I can’t believe McDonald’s is going to make much of this particular experiment in their marketing outreach since Cisna’s healthy menu option consisted almost entirely of Mickey D’s lowest margin foods.

NutriSystem, Jenny Craig and the other leading weight loss programs have little to fear from a Golden Arches entry into their category.

McDonald’s needs to drive profits. And, profits come from their terrible trio of cheeseburgers, french fries and soda (super-sized, if possible).

So, while they may be smiling at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oakbrook, Illinois, I doubt any high fives are being shared.

That said, I do salute the Iowa high school teacher’s mettle. And, I’d like to issue a new challenge to Mr. Cisna and his class: let’s see you figure out a way for ‘teach’ to lose another 37 pounds in 90 days by drinking nothing more than a pitcher of Budweiser morning, noon and night. Now, that would be truly epoch-making (as my Japanese clients loved to say).

And A tip o’ RepMan’s climbing helmet to Peppercommer Ray Carroll for suggesting this post.

Jan 06

Iced Out

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Laura Bedrossian.
bedrockI’ve heard lots of complaints about airlines of late, even from this very blog. (I think RepMan’s favorite airline might be United.) Reluctantly, I booked a flight with Delta because the fare was so low. My reluctance was due to issues friends and family have had with the airline— indefinite delays, horrendous customer service. But, I hadn’t taken Delta in a while, so I decided to judge for myself.

Yesterday, I was flying to San Diego from NYC, which, work trip or not, is a dream destination in January for those from the Northeast. Simply entering the terminal confirmed my fears that I had made a mistake. It was utter chaos. No one was helping travelers as they were trying to figure out how to check bags. There was a line literally to nowhere that had formed out of confusion— people thought it was a line to check bags or get help. An employee ever so unpleasantly yelled at the line of customers about which lines to be in. So, for me, based on this experience, I vowed to not fly Delta again.

Luckily, despite this first impression, we boarded on-time. But then our departure time came and went and we all just sat onboard waiting. But, I didn’t think much of it; I couldn’t wait to get to sunny California.

There was no explanation as to why we hadn’t moved, though we had already gone through all of the safety videos, the attendants had conducted their departure checks, and we had pulled away from the gate. Eventually the Captain came over the PA system and said we’d be moving shortly. However, still no explanation as to why we were already late.

When we were about 40 minutes past our departure time and still not moving, I took to my phone to see what was happening.

To my surprise, I saw that a Delta plane had skidded off the runway at JFK airport due to icy conditions. Not only was I on a Delta flight, but also at JFK. It had made news quickly and Delta and other airlines were canceling flights and closing the airport to clean up the mess.

Of course airlines should have been canceling flights and JFK should have closed. Safety should be thought of first and foremost. However, why was I still on a plane, not being told why we were delayed reading the news online?

I asked two active Delta handles what was going on and why our flight crew hadn’t announced what was happening. As of this morning I STILL haven’t received a response. Thank you for listening, Delta, and ignoring all of the tweets I sent. Were those handles supposed to be for customer service?

If you have bad news or news about safety, wouldn’t a brand want to tell that story and control it rather than not say anything and let your customers find out on their own? Not telling your story also allows customers such as I to wonder why exactly they chose to not tell us what was happening with our own flight. Was our plane safe? Were we stuck there indefinitely and they weren’t going to tell us how long?

These types of concerns are ones brands shouldn’t want their customers to be asking themselves.
Two and a half hours after our scheduled departure time, we were still sitting on the plane. Eventually they said “we should be moving shortly; the runways are icy,” and we left. It’s a bit terrifying to have read that a plane skidded off the runway at this same terminal and then start a high speed take-off.

We landed safely, though late and not with the friendliest of crew members.

Just a piece of advice, Delta (and all brands), as a customer I’d like to hear news directly from you especially concerning safety. I would not like to have to be so annoyed about something that I start searching online and then find out the issue on Twitter. And if I ask you a question via Twitter, you should respond from the customer service handle I tagged. I’m just glad my return flight is with American Airlines.


Jan 03

Seems more like 1914 for some advertisers

vintage-women-ads-20As a PR guy who knows as much about the strategy behind TV commercials as the average Manhattan sanitation worker, I am nonetheless ALWAYS cornered at holiday parties to provide my POV on the latest, greatest TV spots.

This past New Year’s Eve, though, was decidedly different in one, striking regard:

I’ll bet 10, or more, women poked their respective fingers in my chest and asked me to explain why so many major advertisers were “putting attractive, young women in menial receptionist positions to sell their products.”

The offending advertisers most frequently cited were Progressive, Toyota and AT&T.

One woman asked me why middle-aged white guys like me who make decisions on creative strategy for TV spots continue to denigrate women. “Why can’t you celebrate the successes of female executives such as Mary Barra who was just named CEO at GM?”

After sighing and sipping another glass of Sancerre, I tried to explain that, while my firm was indeed a fully integrated one, I remained a PR guy to the core.

Hence, while my skills and views have changed as dramatically as the lines between advertising and PR have blurred, I still had no involvement whatsoever with the creation, casting or production of TV commercials.

I did offer this bon mot, however: Many advertisers still assume they know what consumers want. They still maintain an inside-out, top down approach to marketing. They still identify their target audience by name (i.e. Jane). And, they still believe they know what makes Jane tick (‘…Jane is a 40-something, mother of three, who juggles two jobs, manages the family money, is stressed to the max and needs to find more time for herself. That’s why a bright, shining and empathetic face at the Toyota dealership will elicit a warm response from Jane. And, research shows us Jane trusts her fellow women more than she does men.”). Smart move on Jane’s part, BTW.

Based upon such quantitative data (and old school marketing logic), creative ad agencies then formulate the TV spots that end up alienating Jane, and many other women.

I talked my way out of that particular holiday chit chat by suggesting the ladies post their comments on the Progressive, Toyota and AT&T websites as well as in their favorite chat rooms. I assured her PR types such as me would be listening, and would relay their angst to the marketing powers that be.

After that, though, I told the disappointed ladies that all bets were off. Because, until and unless marketers put themselves in the shoes of their audiences and experience their brand from the outside in, they’ll continue to unknowingly offend and alienate key target markets.

Whoever said the more things change the more they stay the same must have been thinking of advertising (or sanitation workers).

Jan 02

My New Year’s Resolution for a Beardy 2014

I’m not sure why, but I’ve never been a fan of facial hair (on men or women). Dmitriy Ioselevich of Walek Peppercomm disagrees, though, and believes the right beard will take the right man a long way in the business world. Here’s his take on bearded guys who’ve done very well (as well as a few clean-shaven ones who’ve well, given an unsuspecting public quite a haircut…

This is NOT the guest author of today’s RepMan.

I take great pride in my beard and, judging by the appearance of some of my fellow New York City commuters, I am not alone. Beards have become so popular in the United States that the shaving industry is desperately trying to get men to shave more.

But beards weren’t always fashionable and, in some parts, still aren’t.

The New York Yankees are famous for their no beard policy, instituted in 1973 by former owner George Steinbrenner. The boss wanted a team full of classy, professional-looking ball players (creepy mustaches are OK though), and actively punished any players who were beginning to show the slightest signs of scruff. Former Yankee legend Don Mattingly was once benched in 1991 for refusing to cut his long hair, and in the late 1990’s lefty David Wells nearly suffered the same fate for refusing to shave his goatee, although he eventually relented.

Even though Steinbrenner is now gone, the policy still continues today. Earlier this baseball offseason the Yankees announced that they wouldn’t sign relief pitcher Brian Wilson because he refused to shave his majestic beard.

It was a strange excuse for a team that had just finished an ignominious third place in the AL East, but still one consistent with the Yankees corporate culture. (They must have missed the bearded wonders over in Boston winning their third World Series this decade).

The financial industry is also well known for its aversion to facial hair. With the exception of a few high-profile figures (Ben Bernanke, Carl C. Icahn, Lloyd C. Blankfein), beards are more rare on Wall Street than a non-tailored suit.

Dr. Allan D. Peterkin, co-author of “The Bearded Gentleman: The Style Guide to Shaving Face,” offers one interesting explanation: “Older people tend to view facial hair with more suspicion than young people do…you don’t want to have an ironic hipster handling your funds.”

Given what the likes of non-bearded luminaries such as Bernie Madoff, Steven Cohen and Philip Falcone did with investor money, an ironic hipster doesn’t sound too bad!

There have been countless other organizations with arcane rules about appearance. Even management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has a decades-old policy prohibiting employees from wearing argyle socks. But does suppressing individual expression really help build a tighter culture? Do clients really care what their bankers, lawyers, doctors, etc. look like?

It’s a delicate question and certain policies do have merit. For instance, showering and wearing pants are generally good ideas. Showing up to work in a blood-stained shirt reeking of alcohol is probably a bad idea.

One obvious solution for bearded or otherwise out casted individuals is to find a culture that matches their own set of ideals. David Price, a cherubic, bearded starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, elegantly summed up his feelings on playing for the Yankees: “I wouldn’t stay there very long. Those rules, that’s old-school baseball. I was born in ’85. That’s not for me. That’s not something I want to be a part of.”

What is a culture if not something that people want to “be a part of”? Too many companies today choose to enforce a particular culture upon their employees—often at the behest of the founder or CEO—rather than shaping the culture to accommodate the various eccentricities of each and every employee.

With 2014 upon us, it’s time to change that.