Tag Archives: Leadership

Passion is not a line item in your budget.

Passion is not a line item in your budget. Neither are values.

“We’re not like Disney” is a common line people use, usually as a rebuttal against intensive brand development (or they toss out McDonald’s, Starbucks, Nike, etc..). In the world of brand strategy, those famous consumer brands are the de facto benchmark for “a real brand”, as though good and bad is measured on scale, not connection. While there is no question most organizations don’t have anywhere near the budget for brand execution that a Starbucks or an Apple has at their disposal, there is no line item in the balance sheet for your passion or commitment to real, compelling values.

Conviction—passionate belief in your values as a competitive advantage, and the conscious effort to live them—isn’t something that you can buy or trade. You have access to just as much passion as the famous brands, your competitors, and even the failing brands. You’ve got all the passion you’ll ever need, if you believe it.

Core values—holding people accountable for their actions in service of your mission—isn’t a budget issue. It’s a culture issue. And it’s free.

And that’s the catch. Do you really want it? Do you truly believe it?

SAG_Post Quote_Culture-SuccessAre you really committed to creating and delivering an experience that is compelling, driven by values that are truly engaging? Are you really committed to standing for what you believe is important and creating an experience that authentically expresses—and lives within—your core values? Do you really believe that what you offer is worthy, in spite of all the competitive options or differing opinions?

Or perhaps you just thought core values were a convenient message; the right words that are popular enough to compel to a suitable target audience. Perhaps you don’t filter every act through your established sense of right and wrong—the culture you’ve defined as important—and hold everyone accountable. When challenged, you believe values will bend if they offend.

Or perhaps you feel that passion takes too much energy and investment. Sure, you believe in what you’re doing, but you don’t believe people need to “drink the Kool-Aid” to show an unnatural sense of enthusiasm. Maybe you conflate passion with hype, letting ‘marketing’ lead the bandwagon of cheerleaders. Proof of passion—being excited about what you stand for and confident in your purpose—takes a big, bold, in-your-face expression, and you’ve got a bottom line to watch.

Too often people barter their core values and passion with excuses. They’ll find excuses for why they can compromise their values in a given situation, or why only some people in the organization are responsible for passion. Note: excuses also feel free, but actually put a massive lien on your credibility.

“When times are better…”, leaders say, “we’ll invest in making sure our values are clear and our passion is strong. But right now we have more important work to do.” Or the common, “We just need to get our work done. Whether they…” referring to anyone other than the customer “…are connected to the brand or not isn’t really important, as long as they do their job.”

Brand Strategy is about attaching values to the experience you promise. Brand Strategy is about defining your core values, and inviting people who share those values with you. Brand Strategy—the kind that adds value to your organization—is about creating a distinction with purpose and meaning.

Culture—probably more than any other factor—is the essence of loyalty; the pinnacle of brand success. So a positive culture, one that reflects the values of the org and serves the goals of the your mission, actually adds value to the bottom line. And it’s free. Easy money, …if you want it.

Passion and values are the seeds of the culture you build, and they are at the foundation of Brand Strategy. And they are free.

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The Curse of the Buzzword

A buzzword is only a buzzword because you believe it is a buzzword.

There are two types of buzzwords. The first is a form of concept blindness; a word or phrase that captures an idea in a concise way, and becomes common language. An example would be ‘thinking-outside-the-box’. The second is essentially linguistic abuse; when the placement of the word is so overused that the meaning is cluttered and pointless. An example shared with me today is ‘agility’. Both of these buzzwords are a weapon of weak strategy.

Buzzwords are often show up as a cover for confusion and discomfort rather than insight, and typically at the expense or ignorance of fundamentals. In turn, mediocre teams embrace buzzwords like a weapon, unleashing disruption on true insight.

Used recklessly, the buzzword is damaging to discussion, let alone strategy.

Buzzwords occur at the tipping point; that moment when an idea is gaining momentum faster than people are understanding the concept. It is a dangerous place where leadership and innovation (buzzwords in their own right) can stretch too far from reality, believing they have buy-in and consensus (buzz-buzz) when all they have is a veneer of understanding.

Knowing when to confront a buzzword—a deep push for clarity and understanding—is the mark of true leadership and an intelligent team, and critical to smart strategy.

However, calling out a buzzword merely for being a buzzword has become common practice; a broad stroke rejection of the buzz at the expense of the insight.

Rejecting an idea because it’s a buzzword is as dangerous a place as living blissfully in the buzz. Perhaps even more so, because it is often accompanied by a sense of superiority and arrogance that is damaging to both the idea and the culture. When you reject a business concept because it’s a buzz word, you are as much of the problem as the people who used it so much and so incorrectly it became the buzz word. You’re reacting the buzz, not the meaning or value of the concept.

There are many buzz words in use today. Whether it’s a new management philosophy, the latest consultant fad trend, corporate double-speak, or just plain old over-hyped mindsets, a word becomes buzz-worthy when the value of the word overrides the value of the meaning.

Buzzwords, though, can be incredibly valuable. Almost every time, the concept that launched the buzzword has merit. Ignore the concept at your peril.

When we take a moment to make sure the meaning is clear—and we aren’t afraid to ask for clarity when we hear the buzz—we start to build strength in our communities (buzz). Familiar words and phrases that haven’t achieved (or surpassed) buzz status are at the foundation of strong culture. A common language among peers becomes a shortcut to understanding, and integral to connecting within shared values, vision and knowledge. Meaning-in-context is one of the most powerful roots of connecting.

A strong culture—one connected by a common language—is at the foundation of a strong brand 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.

Get out of your bubble.

I was once asked by a group of university students for advice on pursuing a career in marketing communications. Beyond studying, embracing creativity and landing a job at an agency, what did I feel was a valuable lesson for success?

“Get out of your bubble.”

The idea is simple. As communicators, it’s important for us to understand the diversity of different markets and audiences—to engage with vibrant communities that are different from our own status-quo. The more experiences we have—the more alternatives we understand—the more valuable we will be as marketers. (I’d argue that we’re more enlightened as humans, too, …but I digress.)

I am going to add to that advice. Don’t just be open to the idea—we need to make a point of breaking out of our bubble on a regular basis. In fact, you should probably schedule it just to be 100% sure you don’t fall into a routine.

I stepped out of my own bubble last month. I spent 21 intense days with 23 smart people who rattled the boundaries of the world I am immersed in daily; a world I thought was already pretty diverse. The ages ranged from 19 to 50, with the majority being below 30. It was a mix of men and women from different social and educational backgrounds.

If I am to believe my current bubble, social media—digital literacy in general—is desired and embraced by everyone, especially young adults.

Pop.

I was the only one who had a blog, knew HTML, or had an active Twitter account. I was the only one who was on Foursquare (I became the campus mayor in a few days). Two people had Instagram accounts, but wanted to switch to SnapChat because it’s “safer and temporary” [sigh…]. Even though we were all advancing our careers, people were more interested in connecting on Facebook than LinkedIn (they didn’t realize there was a difference). In fact, a few in this group were unaware of LinkedIn. Everyone knew YouTube; no one knew Slideshare. I was the only one who had ever knowingly watched a TED talk. No one wanted to do a Google Hangout, even though that would have been very, very helpful during our time together.

No one understood a business plan or marketing strategy, let alone how to define a good plan from a pipe dream. (To be fair, I didn’t expect them to. It wasn’t that kind of work session.) Many had business ideas, though, and it seemed everyone in this group knew what it took to be a billionaire, even though none have reached the first million.

I share this to show that everyone has their bubble, even those of us who are aware of bubbles.

In my bubble of brands, business, communications and customer experiences, it’s easy to imagine the whole world engages on Social Media and understands the basics of business strategy. I was, ultimately, thrilled to have my bubble burst, and to once again remind myself that each of these new friends personified a valid target audience.

“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.