Tag Archives: Authentic

The uncomfortable allure of the Brand Evangelist.

Plenty of talk these days about the importance of Brand Evangelists. Or Ambassadors. Or Employee Advocates or, …minions.

I’ll admit the idea makes me uncomfortable. Not because I don’t think employees should be outwardly proud of where they work, or that the ‘brand Kool-Aid’ is poison. And it’s not because I don’t think that the employees—people directly connected to delivering the brand experience—aren’t some of the most valuable champions of the brand. Plenty of great organizations benefit from authentic, internal cheerleaders.

But from where I sit, the prevailing push behind ‘evangelists as strategy’ wisdom conflate enthusiasm against obligation in the realm of social media, underscored with the ugly falsehood that social media is “free”. It’s empty as a strategy—unmeasurable and accidental if truly authentic. To top it off, all of this is happening just as we’re moving towards greater transparency and accountability from leaders.

I believe pure brand evangelists—the concept—are a tremendous value. They mark a significant success in your brand strategy. I disagree, however, that expecting all employees to perform on social media—demanding, even—is smart strategy. And I believe that compelling them to perform is disingenuous; a slap in the face of the very authenticity good leadership is striving to achieve.

The strategy for any organization should be to create opportunities, not obligations, to share content and experiences. Organizations should trust employees to respond appropriately—as an insider in the community—and arm them with relevant contributions (or at least give them access). The strategy should leverage enthusiasm, not attempt to create it.

The strategy for any organization should be to create a SoMe profile that borrows from the people who accept the role of monitoring and responding. Their individuality will enhance the brand, not distract from it, and it should be clear that the brand is the anchor of the engagement.

The strategy for any organization should be to create a culture rooted in pride and enthusiasm. The organization should be passionate about transparency, ensuring that the Evangelist mindset has access to content and insights, and isn’t blindsided by facts outside their control or knowledge. Nothing screams ‘faker or flakey’ like an ill-informed insider.

The strategy for any organization should be to think beyond marketing, and let any department show up in relevant social media channels, sharing and learning. There are countless communities that would appreciate authentic participation—engagement that moves the whole community forward—not just the “sell”.

The strategy for any organization should not be to overlay ‘evangelist’ into every job description and expect everyone to blur their personal and professional profiles to serve the organization. The strategy must not have vague expectations nor imply unrewarded activity. The strategy must never compromise anyone’s integrity, and the organization doesn’t get to decide when such concern is valid.

Brand Evangelism is a result of your culture, not a technique to create one.

If your organization benefits from employees who freely promote, support, defend and engage, then you can thank a strong culture, not a ‘Brand Evangelist Strategy’. You’ve invested in people you can trust and depend on, and now you get to reap the rewards. In fact, if you have truly developed a culture worthy of brand evangelists, good luck stopping them from engaging beyond your expectations.

However, if you find you must request ‘evangelism’ from your team—or worse, demand it—then you haven’t earned the value that the phenomenon of the ‘brand evangelists’ offers. You don’t understand the concept, because if you haven’t taken the time to nurture the culture, good luck trying to get any authentic evangelists at all.

And authentic brand evangelists is really all that matters.

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“David” fails at the core brand promise.

Three emails. One mistake. Zero chance.

One of the rules of brand strategy is that you must excel at the core promise. Cafes must serve good coffee; cameras must take good photos; hotels must have a comfortable bed; airlines must get you and your luggage from A to B. There are lots of optional touch points that add to the mix and elevate an experience, but when a company fails to deliver on their basic offer it calls into question everything about the brand. It’s not rocket science (unless your brand is NASA).

Like most people, I get plenty of unsolicited emails. Not spam, but the professional generic mailing list kind with offers for legitimate services. Since most of them are misguided, such as offering to support my IT department, the emails are impersonal and I ignore them. In fact, I don’t even respond to 90% of the mailing list emails—even a simple “no thank you” for all of them would end up taking too many minutes out of my day. Delete.

A few do get my attention, though. I will read at least the first few lines of emails addressed to me by name and offer a service I might consider.

That’s what I did when I received the following email:

SAG_CC Email Blunder_01“Hi David,
 
My name is C____ C____ and I am a V_____ Chair here in Atlanta. V_____ is a worldwide CEO Organization with over 15,000 CEOs internationally (blah, blah, blah)….”

The rest of the email is irrelevant. It’s for a peer coaching group, and I am not interested. So I ignore the email. Two weeks later I get a brief follow-up, which we all know is an important and smart sales move.

“Hi David,
 
Do you have time to speak next Tuesday or Wednesday after 2pm to discuss if our group would be a good fit for you? Alternatively, I can have my assistant contact you to set-up an appointment at your convenient time. – C____ C_____”

I’ll give points to him for a good, direct follow-up, but I’m still not interested. I am about to hit delete for a second time and I realize something. (And this is where it hurts.)

My name is not David.

My name is Stephen. The name of my company is Stephen Abbott Group. Both are in the email address he used. This blog, stephenabbott.com, is mine, and I am pretty sure Stephen, not David, is in every bio about me on the web, everywhere. To quote the cool kids, this simple mistake is a true #fail.

Using a wrong name is a silly error, but one that we’ve probably all made at some point. I’ve even been called David in person (Kevin, Jim, Sean and Mike, too) by people who should know better. Usually we just laugh it off and move on.

But C_____ is pitching executive excellence. He’s promising me ”access-to-the-best-of-the-best” kind of stuff, yet the second word in both of his emails was wrong. I don’t know how the mistake was made—database, cut-and-paste, dyslexia—but it’s sloppy, and a perfect example of not paying attention to details. Not exactly in the authentic spirit of executive excellence.

So this time I decided to respond.

“Hi C____,

I appreciate the offer, but I am not seeking executive coaching or peer mentoring at the moment. I already connect with a strong local group.

You should also know that my name is Stephen, not David, as clearly indicated in every aspect of my contact details, website, blog and social media. While it’s just a simple error, it does call into question the calibre of excellence your group prescribes.

I am not being mean about this, but perhaps take it as feedback to always stop and take a moment to make sure the little details are accurate. It’s not the reason I am not interested today, but it’s likely the reason you’ll have to work much harder for me to consider it in the future.

Respectfully,

Stephen”

To add insult to injury, it’s many weeks later, and I haven’t heard a response. It annoys me that C____ didn’t even take the time to say, “Thanks. My bad.” I could respect that. Ignoring me is not exactly in the authentic spirit of peer group mentoring.

Mistakes are human, forgivable, and can be overcome. Apologies are acceptable. But you have to try. Especially if you want my business.

Why does this matter for your brand? Well, any of the 14,999 other CEOs who brag about being part of this network have just lost any credibility the association affords them—with me, and possibly, with anyone who reads this post and can connect the censored blurs. They can offer all the bells and whistles they want to support their program, but at its core promise, the brand didn’t deliver.

The core promise for your brand is everything, perhaps even the only thing. Great brands always deliver on the core promise. No exceptions.

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.

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.

Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

Customer Service is the great differentiator for your brand. Competitors may offer a similar product or service, but the way you treat people—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—will define the brand. No exceptions.

There are two important mandates for customer service:

The first is the experience you intend to share with your customers—the promise you’ve made. This is rooted in your strategy; fail here and you’re doomed. (But that’s a post for another day)

The second is the experience you provide when things don’t go as planned. The way you treat people in the middle of chaos—chaos you’ve caused or chaos thrust upon you—will have a tremendous impact on the brand story, perhaps even the most impact. Success here is rooted in your culture.

When the shit hits the fan—and it will at some point—we expect the brand to understand and honour the relationship we shared in the good times. We expect the brand to honour our needs BEFORE they worry about their own. We expect the brand to deliver the experience when it matters to us, not only when it’s convenient for them. And we expect the brand to know more about solving our problem that we do; we expect them to be prepared.

Customer Service, for all the tools and techniques and plans and training, is about treating human beings with respect. Respect for the promises you’ve made; respect for moment you’re in; respect for the variables that make each of us unique. It’s an art, not a science. It’s in your culture.

Anyone who has seen my Essential Brand Strategy presentation knows of my admiration for WestJet, a Canadian based airline that focuses on a fun, friendly travel experience.  A few days ago they lost my luggage.

Their customer service culture, not just a problem-recovery strategy, made all the difference.

  • I never felt like Westjet lost my bag because of sloppy staff. It was simply an error, not negligence or apathy.
  • They apologized first. They were genuinely disappointed—not in themselves or their team, but the situation. I never felt like they weren’t 100% positive they would find it, and I always believed they were in control.
  • They compensated me without hesitation, even though they promptly found the bag. The employee recognized their team dropped the ball on the relationship—the flight—and accepted responsibility.

Luggage gets lost. It’s an inconvenient reality of air travel, and like many people, I have lost luggage with other airlines. While the other airlines stopped short of blaming me, there was always the impression that my action somehow broke their system, or that my need to have my bags was now an inconvenience for the airline—a disruption of their normal duties. The report, the solution, the reconnection—all met with just enough contempt to break any promise of friendly skies. Perhaps they loved to fly, but dealing with luggage problems was simply out of scope.

WestJet didn’t just retrieve my luggage; they did it within the experience I expect.

Now, I don’t want to belittle their business model, but good customer service isn’t exactly a secret formula for success. But with WestJet, it’s not really a formula at all.

Their approach to customer service is rooted in a culture that genuinely cares for their customer. It’s in their brand. It’s not a marketing tool; it’s an HR obsession. WestJet doesn’t train nice people to do things right—they hire awesome people and give them permission to do the right things. It shows.

Customer service is never just a strategy. When it is your culture, it is your brand.

The Rules of Brand Strategy, Part Five

Being “The Best Kept Secret” is not a strategy. Unless being a secret is your strategy.

There is something humble and charming about cause-driven and underdog brands. In the drive to be distinct from the dreaded “corporate brand”, they consciously avoid of the trappings of commercial success—bold, consistent identities; clear, consistent messaging; confident, consistent experiences. Or worse, these organizations disrupt and prevent anything that resembles a brand plan so that they (and their peers) won’t feel like they “sold out”.

Yet these hardworking people—more passionately committed to their business and cause than most commercial enterprises—still feel entitled to the same attention and success of their profit driven peers.

Awareness isn’t relative to the passion and purpose of your organization. Awareness is driven by proud, focused communication.

The only way an experience is of any brand value is if I know it’s an experience with you. There are numerous opportunities for touch points, and all the different senses come into play, but if I don’t know which brand is responsible for the experience, an opportunity is lost. If you purposefully avoid identifying the experience, your investment is wasted. And it’s terribly unfortunate if I believe your positive experience is actually connected to a different brand.

In a misguided belief that corporations are evil merely because they strive for profit, investing in the best practices and identity standards that are simply par for the course in corporate world are often shunned. The “best kept secret” might be a cool theory, but it’s a lousy brand strategy.

A great brand strategy thrives on awareness, driven by distinct, compelling, and clear communication. Consistency matters; time matters; frequency & repetition matters; being engaging matters; being bold matters.

A vivid identity matters.