Category Archives: Strategy

The Brand and the Apology Strategy

When a brand makes a public apology, we are sure of one thing: the story that people are talking about makes the brand’s leadership uncomfortable.

Whether it’s a gross error in judgement, negligence or corruption that is exposed, an apology is a clear sign that change is forthcoming.

But in this fast paced world of instant, permanent and amplified communication, brand apologies have taken on a new form; a knee-jerk reaction to the slightest ruffled emotions, or actually part of the (terribly misguided) strategy.

“Do it, and ask for forgiveness after” might be good wisdom for an innovative culture. And it’s a great tactic for breaking through red tape rules that get in the way of progress. Lately, though, it seems this mindset is also used as a lazy fall back when a sloppy attempt at awareness generates the wrong kind of attention.

Brand leadership is about honouring your stakeholders—the employees, customers and communities that support your brand.

As individuals, we align with brands that take a stand on issues and lifestyles. So it makes sense we’d rather see a brand accept that it might offend some people and not feign an apology after just to appease those who don’t understand or share the culture or sentiment in the first place. Show those that love your brand—and everything you stand for—that you are connected and understand them; that’s what deepens the brand relationship.

A little controversy—a difference of taste, opinion or attitude—is at the root of a great brand strategy. But when something appears to go sideways, and those differences show up as very public rage, brand leaders need to anchor back to the core of the brand promise.

If the action/message is inconsistent with your brand, you apologize and take action to change it.

It’s good to apologize for true mistakes; errors that occur when systems break and products fail. There is tremendous value in being accountable to your stakeholders and honouring your side of the brand promise.

However, if the action/message is consistent with your brand—perhaps just a little bolder than people are familiar, or more revealing to the uninformed—you’re likely apologizing to make amends with the wrong audience. Or worse, you’re apologizing because you really didn’t believe in your brand.

When you apologize to the rage of those who were never aligned in the first place, you reveal weak positioning and undermine your entire brand strategy, and all your efforts outside of this one controversy come under scrutiny. You’re apologizing for being who you promised you were going to be, but only apologizing because it got a little uncomfortable.

Brand strength is about honouring your attitude and culture. It’s about being proud of your values and how they manifest in the world. That’s authenticity showing up and adding value when it matters. That is brand strategy.

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Mind the Gap.

You’re probably well of aware of the concept of “the brand gap”—the difference between the experience you promise and the experience you deliver.

You should know that nobody cares about the ‘gap’ except you.

The brand gap only exists in your mind—it’s the strategic vacuum between your promise and your capacity to deliver the experience consistently. The gap doesn’t exist in your customer’s mind. Or any other stakeholder, for that matter.

No one else knows what experience you intended to deliver. No one else sees a gap. Everyone else sees it merely as a promise that you failed to deliver, and now over-promised or failed-to-deliver is part of your brand story. You exaggerated your capacity and the value of the experience; no gap.

A regular assessment of the gap is a helpful brand management tool; it’s important to take a brutally honest look at the experience you are delivering against the promises you make.

Defining the gap, though, is not a stage of brand development to work through. It’s a failure of your brand strategy and any sign of a gap is a serious wake up call. If there is a disconnect between the brand you want to have—the promise you believe is compelling—and the brand experience you offer, you must change one of them fast.

Your brand beyond your customer.

If you’re only focusing on customers, you’re missing a huge audience for your brand.

Avid readers of my blog know that I almost always use stakeholder to define your audience. I am pretty sure people read customer in those sentences—and are frustrated that I make it too complicated or buzz-wordy—but there is a good reason to think beyond the transaction when developing your brand strategy.

Your customers are only one of five distinct stakeholder groups that are influenced by your brand. And I am not convinced they are even the most important one in your brand strategy.

1. Customers are indeed important. To paraphrase Drucker, without them you simply would have a reason to exist. As a stakeholder audience, customers include anyone who is willing to trade their money, time or resources to take advantage of what you have to offer. They buy your product, support your cause, volunteer their support or contribute their skills. They are engaged.

Customers use your brand as an expression of their personal choice; you become a badge of honour in their lifestyle. They expect you to reward their loyalty with consistency & integrity of the promise, and trust that you will continue to feed the relationship with innovation and relevance.

Don’t let your brand strategy stop with customers.

2. Employees are next in this list, but when developing your brand strategy, I suggest this is the critical group. As a stakeholder audience, employees are the people so committed to your brand vision they want to create the experience for others. They enthusiastically bring their skills, expertise and passion to move the organization forward.

Employees—and volunteers who show up to help—are personally committed to delivering the brand experience, sharing the cause and their abilities to make the promise possible. This is the group that embodies the phrase  “authentic”, so consider this group first. When everyone else is judging or borrowing from your culture, this is the group who define it.

3. Shareholders are a different bunch. These are people who are intimately connected to the brand (through financial investment or personal relationship) and choose to be associated with the brand, yet they are not responsible for delivering the brand promise. Or perhaps these people are the benefactors of your organization, receiving help and services.

As a stakeholder audience, shareholders have to believe in the tangible and intangible value of the mission and the capacity of the organization to meet its promises. Shareholders support innovation and leadership’s efforts to pursue the vision, holding the operations accountable for decisions and activities along the way.

4. Vendors make it possible. Vendors supply you with the array of goods or services that you will need so that you can deliver your promise. As a stakeholder audience, vendors share in the commitment to deliver the brand experience. Their compromise is your compromise; their ingenuity is your value; they are your best and worst.

Vendors are links in the chain of the brand experience and share in the integrity of your brand promise. They work with you in your innovation, sharing the push to offer an exceptional experience.

5. A community embraces the brand. As a stakeholder group, the community has the choice to integrate the brand into the local culture, and most importantly, holds the brand accountable for the promises it makes.

Communities make it possible for a brand to flourish and prosper.

Most brand strategy focuses on the customer message first & foremost, hoping that other stakeholders will be able to infer their role in the mission; strategy by osmosis. It’s understandable why it matters—every organization needs to attract customers or supporters just to exist—and why it feels most important during the development of the strategy. But this approach runs the risk of being merely a temporary marketing tactic instead of a defined brand strategy.

Strong brands know that they exist well beyond the customer. Great brand strategies focus on all the stakeholder experiences, engaging everyone in a shared vision.

Brand Strategy for Entrepreneurs

Smart entrepreneurs know that a good brand will help build their organization. They recognize the value that a strong brand strategy adds, and they make the effort to do the right things right.

I’ve met countless entrepreneurs with big plans. I’ve had the privilege of working with some great people, and seen a number of projects go from scribbles on a napkin to thriving reality. These projects are exciting and challenging, and it’s a thrill to be involved.

I’ve also seen plenty of dreamers—people with more passion than plans. It’s disheartening. These projects are challenging, too, but not because the work is hard. Instead, it’s just that the gap between capacity, reality and need is just too great for anything I contribute to be effective. It’s not that the idea is bad or the person is incapable. It’s just that they aren’t ready for the reality of being a successful organization, let alone a thriving brand.

As a consultant, I want you to succeed. It’s not only good for your business and our future relationship; it’s more satisfying work. There are a few things that I look for that gives me the confidence we are set-up for success:

I get excited when you have more knowledge about your business operations than I do. You bring more than an idea to the relationship. You understand the basic model behind your success, and you are focused. I bring brand knowledge and strategic objectivity—and often a fresh way of looking at things—for how you tell your story. But you have the passion and the expertise that will grow the business behind the brand.

I get excited when you know your budget. Talk of money doesn’t scare you, and you understand what cash flow can and can’t do for your vision. You know how much money you plan to earn; you know your fixed expenses and costs of your product; you know how much a typical business like yours makes and you’re prepared to invest in your success.

I get excited when you are well aware of your competition. Not just who they are, but why their customers love them. You’re competitive, not arrogant. You have a respect for the market that exists and you understand how your offer makes it better and different, or at least you’re ready to explore opportunities.

I get excited when you are more passionate about your vision than I am. Perhaps you can’t articulate it clearly—that is why you called me, after all—but you have a purpose that drives you. I get excited when I am the one bringing you back to reality rather than trying to bump you out into the stratosphere.

Most importantly, I get excited when it’s clear you want to work hard to create an experience that will captivate your audience. You reject the notion that you could compromise your values and cut corners on your brand execution since “its just the creative stuff, anyway.” You’re well past the idea that your brand is a defined by a slick logo or a catchy advertising. You know that your brand is at the foundation of your culture, your value proposition, and the experience you promise everyone—your brand captures everything that you want people believe about your organization—and it’s important enough to get your focused attention.

This is how I know you’re ready to do what it takes—not just what is fun and easy—to build a brand that will thrive. You’re smart; you’re committed; you’re realistic; you’re passionate; you’re a leader. This is how I know that you’re set up for brand success.

Accidental Excellence in Customer Service.

Accidental excellence in customer service is the curse of hiring great people. It’s not really a curse, of course. Great staff are awesome; a blessing for any organization. But you can’t take credit for their excellence—it’s not synonymous with the brand—if you didn’t train them to create an amazing experience by giving them the tools, systems, responsibilities and permission to deliver.

If you can’t tell me why all your staff are awesome, and prove it every time, it’s a wake up call for your brand strategy. Everything is at stake.

Most people would agree that some standard rules are the key to delivering a great customer experience: treat people nicely, listen to them and respond to their needs, deliver what you promise, and—pushing from good to great service—take a moment to exceed their expectations. It’s not rocket science—it’s simple, human behaviour.

As business leaders, we know it’s possible to have a standard of care that far exceeds what many people now expect as normal—routine, scripted, formulaic transactions. We also know that it’s important; very often the customer service experience is the thin line that separates us from our competitors. Very often it’s the only value we add.

What’s missing is the intention for an experience. For too many organizations, the idea of a great customer experience is expected to occur naturally, without a clear strategy defining what expectations makes a great customer experience for your brand, and without a clear plan to make sure it happens.

We hear and celebrate stories of fantastic customer experiences. This one about a barista at Starbucks is getting a lot of attention lately. It’s amazing what some people are capable of when on the stage of customer service. Some staff seem to thrive on the human interaction, and these people are gold. But our customer service strategy should set up all employees up for success.

I’ve done a rather unscientific study of great customer services experiences. I am willing to bet that most good customer service experiences are the result of a charming individual (staff) taking advantage of opportunities, rather than any staff member acting upon clear objectives, clear training, clear tools and clear strategies for delivering an experience that is consistent with your brand—and the flexibility to make it happen. Most excellent experiences are a happy accident; a symptom of a great employee, not a good system.

And if it’s not part of your systems, it’s not part of your brand.

Great staff are a curse because they give weak managers the impression that the brand is responsible for inspiring great experiences. They are a curse because they remind our customers what is possible, without the confidence that the experience will be repeated. They are a curse because they are not actually part of our brand.

Do you have a vision for a customer service experience? Do you have systems, standards and tools in place to make sure that your vision for excellent customer service is the rule and not the exception? Do you hire great people, train them well, and give them permission to build relationships that people can depend on?

Is a defined customer service experience an intentional part of your brand strategy?

The Authenticity Myths

Authenticity is a pretty big buzz word in brand strategy today. If you’ve read any of my posts, you know I am a huge proponent of ensuring that Authenticity is at the root of your strategy—it’s at the very heart of transparency and accountability. Buzz-worthiness aside, everyone agrees; when you act authentically, you set up your brand for success. It’s hard to argue with the logic.

The concept of Authenticity gets pushed into almost every conversation on brand strategy, and I won’t deny it’s important. But it’s also misunderstood.

Myth #1
Authenticity isn’t walking your talk. It’s talking your walk.
Semantics? Maybe. But know this; it’s far easier to speak to your natural, instinctual actions than it is to act with integrity upon the things you’ve said.

Talk is easy. Talk is cheap. Talk is emotional. It’s much more difficult to figure out how to model the expectations in your messages than it is to understand and promote your culture and true capacity in the work you do.

Actions are all that matter. Actions are the only things people have to judge you on, because actions are the only thing that have value. Words—the promises you make—are worthless until you act.

Your strategy shouldn’t be about walking your talk; it can only be about talking your walk.

Myth #2
Self discovery—an assessment of your skills, capacity and natural instincts—is important. In the Authenticity push, there are people who declare that is important to reflect your true, full self in your actions and your messages. Your entire brand promise must capture your authentic self. If you are clear on who you are and what you do, you (or your organization) will be a success.

However, authenticity is not it’s own reward.  Authenticity is only one factor in brand success, and it does not create brand equity by itself.

Yes, your authentic self matters. But just because you’re authentic doesn’t mean other people want what you offer. Your authentic self—as a model for your organization—must also be compelling to enough people to make it valuable. People must desire what you promise. It can be a few people, or whole bunch of people, or practically all people, but it must be enough people to reward your effort.

It takes more than authenticity. Your brand must be authentic, compelling, and a competitive advantage.

Leverage your Authenticity
Authenticity is a reflection of how your organization behaves—the choices you make that are important and natural. Develop a Brand Strategy anchored by your business model—your model of success—and defined by authentic behaviour.

Challenge yourself and your team. Do some deep soul-searching to discove values that are important, and characteristics that define your culture. Don’t pick popular words and try to make them fit. Reveal authenticity and celebrate it.

More importantly, identify any behaviours or commitments that will contradict your brand strategy. Here you face a tough decision; change the behaviour (hard-to-do) or change the brand story (compromises your competitive advantage). Because if you don’t change your behaviour, there will be a moment—probably not a moment you plan for—when no one will believe your brand story.

A great Brand Strategy will leverage natural, comfortable and defendable behaviours that reinforce the goals of the organization, defining the culture and standards that are celebrated, supported and rewarded.

Note: Read Authenticity is and True values are a choice for more.