July 28, 2017

The last of the anti-social marketing tactics

Taglines are the last bastions of a classic, one-way marketing messaging strategy, preserving marketing’s perceived right to tell customers what to think.

In truth, customers have never listened, except in a few cases of companies with the budget muscle to pound the tagline into customers’ heads over and over again though mass marketing and TV.

In B2B marketing, we’ve never been given the right to tell customers what to think, much less the budgets to pound a tagline into their minds. I’ve spoken to hundreds of CIOs in my career as a journalist and I can tell you that at best, they ignore taglines; at worst, they feel their intelligence insulted by them.

And yet we keep spending hard-earned shareholders’ dollars creating these shallow soundbites that are supposed to protect our brands, even though the transparency of the internet, and now social media, have rendered such defenses useless.

Not that the defenses were much more than Maginot Lines to begin with. I recently did a search on some well-known B2B technology brands and compiled their taglines in the list below. Many of these companies compete with one another. Can you imagine being a buyer surfing providers’ websites and seeing even a handful of these in quick succession? I put them in alphabetical order so that you can feel the “Power of Repetition” in the words and “Experience the Selling.” I mean, some of them are just plain incomprehensible, communicating to buyers that we live in “A Certain World of Connected Freedom for Caring People to Passionately Inspire the Valuable Impact of More Enterprise Silliness”:

  • A world of communications
  • Agility made possible
  • Applying thought
  • At the speed of ideas
  • Building a world of difference
  • Building tomorrow’s enterprise
  • Confidence in a connected world
  • Creating business impact
  • Cutting through complexity
  • Experience certainty
  • Experience the commitment
  • Freedom to care
  • Inspire the next
  • Passion for building stronger businesses
  • People matter, results count.
  • The power to know
  • The power of we
  • The power to do more
  • Results realized
  • The value of performance
  • Working with clients, not just for them

It is also interesting to note how many well-known B2B technology companies do not use taglines (at least not that I could see on their home pages): BMC, BT, Cisco, Deloitte, EMC, Juniper, Lenovo, Microsoft, Nokia-Siemens, Oracle, Pitney Bowes, Xerox. Are the marketers at these companies not doing their jobs? Or have these companies decided that they are going to stop trying to sell themselves in a couple of hackneyed words and instead do it through relationships and experience?

There’s even one company, IBM, which inverts the focus of the tagline from internal “capabilities” to something that customers may actually care a whit about: Smarter Planet.

'a Smarter Planet' logo

Image via Wikipedia

Actually, calling Smarter Planet a tagline does it a disservice. Unlike traditional taglines, which generally hang on the corners of websites like misplaced socks, with no discernible connection to anything around them, Smarter Planet is paired up with a lot of interesting thought leadership content that lines up with IBM’s business strategy—it’s a business theme rather than a tagline. I predict that we’re going to see a lot more B2B companies moving in this direction in the coming year.

What do you think? What am I missing about the value of taglines?

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2011: The year of personal brands

This is the year that the personal brand begins to do battle with the corporate brand. I think we need to let the personal brand win—especially in B2B.

Featuring big pictures and bios of your subject matter experts on your website is a good start, but it is the equivalent of paid search. It’s relevant but still a step removed from the truly personal connection. We need the equivalent of organic search, where our people rise to the top on their own, independent of their corporate affiliations. Then as marketers, we create a virtuous cycle that links these personal brands to the corporate brand. But it’s going to mean letting these people roam free outside the corporate firewall.

Pitting the corporate brand against the personal brand
Forrester Research is testing both sides of this argument. Now, awhile back I wrote a post criticizing Forrester’s decision to prevent its analysts from hosting their own personal blogs. I still believe what I said is right, but that’s not the purpose of this post.

The reason I bring up Forrester again is because they are actually so far ahead of the curve on this issue that they are the Sputnik dog of personal and a corporate brand testing. It’s a good problem to have, to be grappling with this issue as Forrester is.

Testing the popularity of content
If you follow social media, you probably know most of the story already. One of Forrester’s former analysts, Jeremiah Owyang, developed a big following on his personal blog “Web Strategy” in part because he hits on all cylinders of blogging: frequent posts, engaging content, and an active audience that contributes interesting and insightful comments. (And it should be mentioned that he started his blog before he came to Forrrester.) Another reason for his popularity, at least more recently, was because he was a Forrester analyst, and that brought instant credibility and gravitas to his words, because Forrester has such a strong brand.

But Owyang didn’t just post on his own blog; he also posted on a Forrester blog that was created around his business line. In other words, you had two avenues of attention and traffic that both complemented and competed with one another, at least from a branding perspective. In the early days, Owyang’s personal blog was driven by his personal brand and enhanced by the Forrester corporate brand. First you found Owyang, and then you found that Forrester was behind him.

Meanwhile, the Forrester corporate blog that he contributed to was driven by the Forrester brand and enhanced by Owyang’s personal brand. First you found Forrester, and then you found Owyang.

What better a, b test of personal vs. corporate branding could you get?

I wish I had the numbers to prove it, but my sense based on my own experience in social media is that Owyang’s personal brand won that battle. It certainly did in my own view. I found him on his own blog before I found him on Forrester’s and the conversation on his personal blog was more interesting and his community more engaged than on the Forrester blog.

What happens when your personal brand quits?
Of course, then Owyang left Forrester for a startup, Altimeter, that was started by a former Forrester analyst and which has since scooped up a number of other Forrester analysts. Right around that time, Forrester announced that it was ending the cross-posting experiment—no more personal blogs for its analysts. Any blogging would now be done from behind the firewall. I don’t want to assert cause and effect here, just pointing out the change.

Co-branding the individual and the company
As part of the change in its blogging policy, Forrester revised its blogging strategy as well, making its analysts more visible and giving them their own personal blogs behind the Forrester firewall. For example, Owyang’s replacement, Augie Ray, has his own personal blog, but his posts also appear on a group blog targeted at the business line he serves, “Interactive Marketing.” It’s a kind of co-branding strategy: individual analyst, line of business, and company brand all have equal billing at the top of the blog. So when Ray leaves, Forrester banks that people will want to follow the replacement analyst in interactive marketing for Forrester.

Meanwhile, Owyang still has his personal blog and it is as popular as it ever was—if not more so—than when he was at Forrester. And that’s a really good thing for Owyang’s new company, Altimeter Group. If you don’t agree, just go to Alexa and compare traffic at Owyang’s personal blog, the Forrester site, and the Altimeter site.

For smaller companies like Altimeter, the personal vs. corporate branding decision should be a no-brainer. Owyang’s traffic dwarfs that of the company. They should be thrilled that Owyang is still blogging, because he is constantly driving traffic to their site and exerting an upward pull on the corporate website’s traffic chart. People are going there to find out what company is backing Owyang and what they offer. If he left, would that traffic diminish? No doubt, but in the meantime, it’s all good for Altimeter.

For well-established brands like Forrester, the decision is less clear. The site already has lots of traffic and most people have heard of Forrester. Forcing analysts to start over again to build a personal following after they leave the fold may make it easier for replacements to follow acts like Owyang—at least from the corporate brand’s perspective

No doubt some will say that that proves that Forrester should never have allowed Owyang to keep his own blog. When he left, so did a lot of traffic that could have stayed with Forrester had he been surrounded by the corporate firewall.

The legacy of the corporate brand in the personal brand
But who’s thinking about the customer here? Will they really think less of you if one of your stars leaves? Was it a waste of time letting Owyang promote himself like that?

I don’t think so. Owyang’s blog is still packed full of references to Forrester and his work there. It’s clear searching on his blog today that Forrester played a big role in bringing him to prominence. And that association will never go away unless Owyang decides to one day just erase all traces of his past. There’s a very positive association there that underscores Forrester’s ability to nurture talent.

Now let’s look at that from the opposite perspective. Let’s say Ray builds as big a following through his Forrester blog as Owyang did through his personal blog. What happens to that content when he leaves? To me, the association is less positive over the long term. Do you really want a former analysts’ content to dominate your corporate brand’s search rankings after he or she leaves?

What about the customer’s view?
Now, I think that if we look at this from a traditional corporate branding perspective, your immediate reaction would be to expunge the analyst from your audience’s memory and start pushing the new content instead. And no doubt since the blogs are all behind Forrester’s firewall now, they can decide what stays and what goes, and can probably create ways through SEO to make the newer stuff more prominent in searches. I don’t want to speculate too much here because I’m not an expert on SEO.

But looking at it all from a customer’s perspective, I think Forrester looks better being a legacy on a star’s personal blog than having a star that leaves a void in content upon leaving. Let me underscore again that this is a good problem to have.

But as social media raises the ante for putting a personal face to the corporate brand, we are going to have to work through the issues that Forrester is grappling with right now. And we will need to avoid making knee-jerk decisions based on traditional brand thinking, because, like it or not, the brand game has changed forever.

What do you think?

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Do too many cooks spoil the blog?

Scoble, Longhorn Evangelist
Image via Wikipedia

Companies who want to add their voices the blogosphere have a decision to make: Do we allow individual employees to be the dominant force in our efforts, or do we keep the focus on the company by creating group-authored blogs?

In part, this is an issue of control. Some companies have decided to let a thousand flowers bloom—i.e., individual employees can blog as long as they adhere to the company’s social media policy. The other is to take a more controlled approach and put a blog or a handful of blogs on the corporate website.

Multi-author blog are easier for companies—but what about the audience?
It seems that most blogs that are on the corporate website are multi-author affairs. The advantage to multi-author blogs (though not necessarily to the audience’s advantage), is that the workload can be shared, reducing the dreaded gaps in posts if bloggers get really busy in their day jobs. There is also less disruption when a blogger leaves the fold. And the brand or the issue that the brand wants to promote (say cloud computing, for example) remains the focal point of the blog rather than a particular personality.

The downside to this approach is that the blog can seem muddled, with bloggers of varied interests and abilities going off in their own preferred directions, leaving the reader to wonder who’s in charge here. It’s also harder to avoid the perception that the blog is a corporate organ rather than a natural outgrowth of your employees’ passions.

Multi-author is part of traditional branding
The multi-author approach is more loyal to the traditional marketing approach that says that the brand comes before the individual. Yet there’s no question that blog readers are looking to connect with a person, much as people follow their favorite columnists in a newspaper or a favorite character on a TV show. They enjoy getting to know the blogger over time.

Increasingly, I think the multi-author approach will become old school. An interesting article this week, Brand Building, Beyond Marketing, essentially argues that the issue of brand has gotten beyond the control of marketing and is increasingly embodied in the actions of individual employees. (This is especially true for services companies, which don’t have concrete products that can do the branding for them.)

Individuals can burn out—or just leave
Now, it is possible to highlight individual contributors within a group-authored blog to give readers a better sense of connection, but for me it never works as well as when the individual takes responsibility for the whole enchilada. Individuals can’t afford to play it safe if they want to build and keep their audiences.

The downside to this approach is that individual bloggers can get burned out easily (most already have day jobs, right?). Another problem is that they may move on to another company, perhaps taking their audience and any brand cred they’ve helped you build with them (most people pick on Robert Scoble as an example of this).

I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to this question yet—at least I haven’t seen any good research comparing individual vs. multi-author blog performance.

What do you think?

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How customers will react to a crisis in your company and what to do about it

I’m continuing the discussion I began in my last post about when a crisis hits a brand. Geoff Dodds, Julie Schwartz and I brainstormed the different responses customers can have to a crisis and the steps you can take to address the problems.

Breaking the promise
When a crisis hits, customers make a decision about whether the promise of a brand has been broken and whether the relationship can be repaired. There are some important factors that will influence their decision and that should be considered in any brand decisions:

Existing brand image. Well-known brands have built up trust with customers and have farther to fall when a crisis hits. Coca Cola’s disastrous introduction of New Coke nearly destroyed the company because it broke the promise of continuity and reliability that had been built up with customers over the course of decades. Meanwhile, when startup airline ValuJet suffered a series of safety problems and a fatal crash in the late 90s, it quickly changed its name to AirTran. ValuJet’s lack of widespread recognition in the marketplace meant that the switch happened with little fanfare. Today, few people remember that AirTran (while certainly not a household name, either) was once ValuJet. (ITSMA’s Brand Equity Index provides a model for understanding a brand’s current image.)

Association of blame. In the court of public opinion, customers make a decision about whether the company as a whole is to blame for the crisis or whether the crisis was the work of a few rogue individuals acting outside the norms of behavior. When Computer Associates’ CEO Sanjay Kumar and some of his senior financial managers were indicted for securities fraud in 2004 for overstating company earnings in the late 90s, customers viewed the problems as the work of a few individuals rather than a sign of corruption throughout the company.

Collateral impact. If the crisis radiates widely beyond the company and damages other companies, the impact on the brand may increase. GM’s brand reputation has suffered as its missteps have affected its many suppliers, adding fuel to critics’ assertions that GM is bringing down the U.S. auto industry as a whole.

Ethical and moral impact. If the crisis is seen as being morally averse, or causes harm in ways that seem ethically and morally averse to the average person, it will affect the pace and depth of losses. When Enron management hid the company’s losses from the public and employees—even as managers cashed in their stock—and employees’ life savings evaporated, the company became permanently associated with greed and corruption. Similarly, when executives from Enron’s auditing firm, Arthur Andersen, refused to accept full responsibility for Andersen’s role in the scandal, trust in the company imploded—along with the company itself.

Speed of response. If companies are seen to be reluctant to respond to a crisis or its complications, it could have a negative impact on customer retention. For example, when certain models of Ford’s Explorer experienced tire blowouts, Ford delayed taking action with customers, blaming the tire supplier for the problems. But customers had not bought their Explorers from a tire manufacturer; they had bought them from Ford. They expected Ford to respond immediately to their requests for help. When Ford did not respond right away, it caused serious damage to the company’s reputation with customers.

Scope of response. Customers have a tendency to “forgive” brands that take more steps to resolve a crisis than the average person can envision or may even think necessary. When Johnson & Johnson responded to the Tylenol crisis by swiftly removing all bottles from the shelves (rather than just those in the areas where tainted bottles were discovered) and promising protective packaging to prevent that kind of crisis from happening again, it actually enhanced J&J’s reputation for safety and enhanced the brand’s position with customers.

Striking the right tone. Customers become highly sensitive to a company’s marketing and advertising messages in the aftermath of a crisis. If, for example, a company responds to a crisis by aggressively marketing itself to replace lost business without addressing the crisis or its impact, the company’s brand image will suffer. Marketers need to persuade the marketplace through the media that the crisis is being dealt with professionally and properly and there is clarity around the governance of the organization. Marketers should focus on getting that message out, not directly but through the media in as controlled a way as they can.
For example, when Oracle was found to have overstated its revenues in 1991, it removed its head of finance and brought in a new CFO, who announced that the company was changing its sales practices. Always known as an aggressive sales company, Oracle changed its practices for recognizing revenues so that salespeople would not be tempted to sell software before its official delivery date could be confirmed. Meanwhile, the company kept up its emphasis on research and development so that customers would see that it was still committed to offering leading edge products. The company took a different approach with customers and prospects, saying, “We’re a new Oracle.”

Use research to understand the context

In times of crisis, research with the following groups is especially important:

Customers and prospects. Research needs to be done with customers to get an aggregate sense of the degree of continued faith in the company and its ability to deliver.

Employees. Sales and delivery people are excellent barometers of the crisis because they talk directly to customers and prospects about their fears about doing business with the company in the wake of the crisis.

Analysts and influencers. Industry and financial analysts will likely have differing opinions about the current and future prospects of the company. But companies also need to find out what is being said about the company through other channels, such as the blogosphere and in customer forums.

Make choices about a brand’s future

We see B2B companies have three choices to make for their brands in the aftermath of a crisis:

  1. Retain the existing brand as is. In this case, marketers work to restore faith and credibility in the company through other means than a brand change, such as customer outreach, a change in management, change in processes, or other steps.
  2. Alter the brand enough to signal a new era. In the aftermath of its accounting scandal, Computer Associates decided that shortening its name to CA and changing its logo was needed to demonstrate that the company had recovered and was taking a new direction.
  3. Create a new brand identity and position. Going this route takes longer and costs more, but may be unavoidable if the crisis runs too deep.

A brand in crisis can be rescued—even enhanced
Customers and prospects are better informed than ever, thanks to the Internet and global connectivity. Companies in crisis need to act quickly. They need to act with absolute integrity and transparency in the wake of the crisis so that customers and prospects understand that the crisis was an anomaly that will be fixed. They need to do research to understand the impact of the crisis on key stakeholders and the business and prepare a response that goes beyond the expectations of these stakeholders. Through these steps, companies can rescue—and perhaps even enhance—the brand image they have so carefully cultivated.

Timing is important in making brand decisions in the wake of a crisis. Providers need to be able to predict the point at which the brand is beginning to erode irrevocably and intervene before that happens. But gaining the ability to be predictive requires research.

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The first steps to take when your brand is in crisis

I had a great conversation recently with two of ITSMA’s brand gurus, Geoff Dodds and Julie Schwartz. We put ourselves in a hypothetical situation that some of you may have faced for real: when something bad happens that involves your company–think Tylenol poisonings, accounting scandals, etc.–what do you do to protect the brand image you have spent years building up from crashing down around you? And perhaps more importantly, should you let the brand crash–i.e., start fresh with a new name and image?

We agree that there are a few steps that you have to take right away before making any drastic decisions about the ultimate fate of the brand:

1. Respond quickly. Everything that a brand stands for is up for grabs during a crisis. Customers and prospects will be anxious to hear whether they were right to place their trust in the brand. And they won’t wait long before making up their minds. Quick response is critical to making sure that the perceptions attached to the crisis don’t become permanent. Before making any drastic brand decisions, it’s important to clarify what will be done to rectify the crisis and to understand the impact of the crisis on the business.

2. Be transparent. As soon as you have an action plan in place for the business, communicate it. Be open and honest about what happened and what is being done to fix the problem.

3. Assess the pace and depth of customer losses. The most important vital signs for companies to monitor in the wake of a crisis are the pace and depth of customer losses. Factors that will impact the pace and depth of losses include the following:

  • Low switching costs. If the costs of switching to another provider are low, customers may panic and try to switch in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, increasing the pace and depth of losses. If switching is difficult, the pace of loss will likely be slower.
  • Dire predictions from analysts. If Wall Street and/or industry analysts are outspoken in predicting that the crisis will have a substantial impact on the provider’s ability to do business now or in the future, it could precipitate a stampede.
  • Level of commoditization. If the provider’s offerings are not substantively different from those of competitors, brand loyalty may be slim and customers will be vulnerable to aggressive poaching by competitors.
  • Length of the crisis. If the crisis is something that can be resolved relatively quickly, press and analyst attention will likely die down quickly too, perhaps decreasing the long-term pace of customer losses. However, if the crisis results in a lengthy public investigation, the long-term impact could be severe.

Have we left anything out? Please let me know.

Next time, we’ll get into some of the specific customer reactions to a crisis.

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