Friday, September 18, 2009

Remember the days when we just got things done?

As I pack the last pair of undies into the Fiji kit bag, I pondered the idea of just getting things done - without all the political correctness, sign-off and other paraphenalia that contributes to not getting things done, or at least not getting them done on time.

I don't know about you, but I find deadlines really difficult to meet these days due to the intervention of a whole range of 'stakeholders' who become involved in the marketing communications process because a) the government or regulator says or implies that they have to or b) their misguided belief that their input adds value to the communication (usually it has the opposite effect).

I was at a meeting a few weeks back when one person asked could we make a communications decision without involving two others - neither of whom was relevant to the decision nor, I suspect, would have been really interested in the outcome. Fortunately, their proposed involvement was knocked firmly on the head before it became doctrine. Sometimes I long for a new management 'bible' that proclaims we need to reinstate benevolent dictatorship into the management process. Bring back Tom Roberts' Thriving on Chaos quickly!

Not that I exclusively want to exclude people from my management portfolio. I want to be excluded from endless meetings to which a) I can contribute little or b) I have no interest in contributing to. You see, I respect the professional judgement of experts in fields in which I am unqualified. I can spend my time much more effectively involving myself in marketing and communications projects for which I have the experience and qualifications.

So, as I prepare to fly the coop, I hope I return from my holiday to a nirvana where marketing and communications people can focus on their core business without having unnecessary 'inputs' of well-intentioned amateurs. All it needs it mutual respect for our professional ability from those in the more 'esteemed' professions.

I'm off for a good break. Don't fret. I'll be back!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Fiji holiday - It shows what happens when you damage your brand

I will head off to Fiji next Monday. The few people who traverse this blog over the next fortnight will be devastated at this news. However, this holiday has brought into focus how much a damaged brand can impact margins.

You see, I'm going to Fiji because I was able to get a bloody good deal for my family. It did not require genius, just some issues relating to Fiji's brand. Our package includes: airfares, resort accommodation, free stay and food for my daughter, several tours and, to top it all off, a AUD650 voucher to spend at the resort.

To spell it out, according to my calculations, there are at least five product and service providers slashing their margins to get the three of us to travel to Fiji. I presume there are others attracted to the deal, but I won't know this until I catch the flight out of Sydney.

And why are these providers cutting their own throats to get us there? Because, frankly, Fiji's brand has been pulverised by the nation's military shoving an elected government out of office and the subsequent rejection of the country from the Commonwealth of Nations (now there's a 'brand' that does need refreshment!).

Coups, whether bloodless or otherwise, and being ostracised by other nations is not the natural fodder of tourism promotion, even though you are unlikely to see or hear evidence of unrest while in Fiji. It is brand-tainting material, which has led this leading Pacific destination to price-driven, tactical marketing - the domain of all damaged brands.

But believe me, none of this will likely cross my mind as I take full advantage of this brand malaise!

The email challenge

I recently ran some research among superannuation fund members. Of those surveyed, over 50% said they preferred to receive newsletters and other discretionary information via email. However, only 7% of the fund's members had subscribed to the its electronic news service.

This isn't due to lack of incentive or effort on the part of the fund's communications team. Over the course of the past 18 months, two recruitment programs for email subscribers have been conducted offering incentives of a flat screen LCD television and a choice holidays to North Queensland or Fiji.

While this doubled participation from 3% to 7% of fund members, it is nowhere near the 50% who expressed a desire to receive information this way. The fact that the second campaign attracted far fewer subscribers than the first suggests that the number of subscribers is approaching a plateau.

Now superannuation (pension fund for overseas readers) is a low-engagement product for many but, nonetheless, how do you explain the fact that it appears some people would rather give you $1000 than yield their email address?

Is there anyone out there who knows the trick/s of the trade for building email databases? And please, no funny remarks about finding a job in a more engaging sector, unless you're willing to offer one with the appropriate amount of remuneration attached!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Observations on Jennifer Hawkins

I knew this heading would catch your attention. It will no doubt also introduce this blog to many new readers (are there any yet?). Unfortunately though, this article is not accompanied by images

I am writing about the Myer group's impending float on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX). The Financial Review commented today that analysts were probably disappointed yesterday to see Myer CEO, Bernie Brookes (no relation), pitching the float to them instead of the former Miss Universe. I bet the AFR is dead right! They should definitely have featured a catwalk, but not performed by Bernie (I will soon write another blog about brands fronted by people called Bernie!).

The point of this is to ask is it appropriate to use young 'Jen', as she is affectionately known in Oz, to front the float of a major company? Could it be a double-edged sword?

Certainly, paid full page adverts in the AFR featuring the flawless Jen brighten up the publication's otherwise dull pictorial. And Jen does a great job of reminding us that Myer is a retailer with a focus on fashion (they also sponsor Fashions on the Field at Victorian Racing's globally famous Spring Racing Carnival). But what other value does she add to the serious business of attracting investors to the initial public offer of Myer shares?

One could ask is Jen's flawless countenance used to distract us from flaws in the company and/or its investment potential? I'm not suggesting this is the case, merely asking the question about perceptions? Or as a community, have we become so smitten with celebrity and the beauty of youth that we'll basically buy anything that lovely Jen endorses.

Bernie said the other day that he would pay even more for Jen's profile and she would be worth every cent. I bet there comes a day when he regrets that comment! Using Jen to publicise a float certainly attracts eyeballs, some of them bulging, but does it enhance the credibility of the message? And talking brands, will this Jen 'brand extension' from beauty and fashion into huckstering investment dollars from smitten institutional analysts, or even retail investors, work?

My guess is that in our celebrity-obsessed age, it will work, particularly with retail investors, who think Jen can do no wrong. Congratulations to Bernie and the team! By the way Jen, will a big chunk of your fees be paid in Myer shares?

Oh buggar it... you all deserve a reward for reading this far, here's a link to Jen's famous catwalk wardrobe malfunction....

Monday, September 14, 2009

The financial sector in Struggle Street - You must be kidding!

This brief note is to express my curiosity at an announcement today that might be a truer indication of the state of health of the global financial services sector than all the prognoses of expert commentators.

An avowed fan of Liverpool Football Club, I was interested to see that London-based Standard Chartered bank had signed a new four-year shirt sponsorship deal with my favourite club for a reported STG80 million, about AUD $154 million (if you're working in yuan, yen, US Dollars or other, my apologies for not doing the maths).

This follows a recent deal, of which I don't know the value, but which is more than the Liverpool deal, between AON and Manchester United. Admittedly, AON has replaced fellow financial services company, AIG, which probably believed it could not justify spending public money on the deal as easily as it could justify executive salaries and junkets.

The world just gets curiouser and curiouser!

Friday, September 11, 2009

When is it time to retender your creative?

This question popped into my mind the other day, for no other reason than I received some invoices from my creative agency. I receive invoices from them all the time, so this was not a new event. I still don't know what triggered it. Possibly the amount!

But this question is an interesting one as it comes down to a decision about whether longevity and a solid understanding of your brand, your business and your products trumps a fresh look at, in particular, your brand. Generally, I think there are arguments for both. But...!

I work in the financial services space in Australia - to be specific superannuation, our version of pension funds. Now this is an Australian sector way behind the Usain Bolts of the FMCG sector when it comes to sophisticated thinking about brand and what it means. This is due to generally low consumer engagement with retirement saving, usually until it's too late to rescue a parlous situation. In other words, consumer apathy lulls providers into a false sense of security about their brands.

In Australia, an onerous regulatory environment that wants competition between funds to reduce fees and costs to superannuation beneficiaries, yet doesn't want funds to spend any beneficiary money competing to add scale, also contributes to this brand malaise. The latter can be the subject of another blog!

Believe it or not, the layout and language of some sections of disclosure documents here are prescribed by law and regulations. And guess what? The people determining that are not tuned in to brand or even communications - they are regulatory officials, lawyers and actuaries (probably all working within the presentation compromises of Microsoft Word - refer previous post). Tell me the last time you saw a legal or actuarial document that was comprehensible! The regulators are driving industry uniformity, thereby dumbing down the creative process. What happens if you can think of a better way of presenting your business or disclosing important information? Bad luck, stick to the script!

So, under these conditions, my original question swings heavily towards retaining the existing provider, assuming the business relationship is in good shape. Let me take another look at those invoices.... hmmm, just pay them and get back to the knitting. What's on at the weekend?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When cuddly koalas get favoured treatment over scaly seahorses

I saw in today's business news that IP Australia, the authority responsible for trademark and intellectual property registrations in Australia, has knocked back a trademark application from chocolate maker, Guylain, to register its seahorse shape. If you know anything about Guylain, you will know they make ocean-inspired chocolate shapes from a blend of brown and white chocolate.

Guylain chocolate is so aligned with the shapes of the sea that it wouldn't surprise me that if you showed the average consumer a seahorse and asked where you'd go to look for one, you would likely find many replying "in a chocolate box" rather than "in the sea". Perhaps a slightly long bow to draw, but I'm sure you get the point.

This all clearly relates to a discussion about how difficult it is becoming to secure brand differentiation and positioning in a regulated consumer landscape almost paranoid about delivering an advantage to any individual player in the marketplace. God forbid that anyone should be able to dominate a category through inspired branding!

However, it also relates to a discussion about consistency in rulings by regulators. Consider the Guylain decision in the context of an earlier decision by IP Australia to allow Cadbury to register the shape of its Caramello Koala. I have to ask is this some form of specism - a preference for seeing warm, cuddly icons in the marketplace, rather than, arguably, less elegantly shaped and coiffured species?

I say this tongue in cheek of course. But what is the argument for allowing a dominant market player like Cadbury to register its animal shape, but not a lesser (in terms of market share) competitor like Guylain?

Any thoughts on what the alternative rationale to my guess of 'specism' might be?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Enjoying writing to myself

Ok so I have no followers yet. That suits me fine, because I'm finding this blogging quite therapeutic. It's more or less a stream of consciousness.

Anyone who has breezed by this blog might picture me as a a grumpy old man, way past his 'retire to pasture' date. It's really quite the opposite. I quite enjoy the anarchy of the web and the way it has slowly dismantled and then redefined customer engagement.

I mean what is wrong with customers defining brands through their interaction with other consumers and organisations? Isn't that really what has happened since the first cave man picked up a club and told another "this bloody thing works you know", unknowingly sowing the seeds of the global weight loss industry by enabling increased food capture and intake?

It's just that we communicate our satisfaction and dissatisfaction more efficiently these days - instantaneously if we want to. In some respects, the web has enabled a form of consumer cowardice, that empowers criticism from behind pseudonyms. But that can be the subject of another blog!

So roll out the feedback. Express yourselves and criticise those brands that disappoint you. But! Try to be fair. Heap praise on those who exceed your expectations.

Having written that reminder to myself, I'll trundle off to think about my last great consumer experience. I may even write another note to tell myself about it!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When old farts reminisce

I caught up with my good mate, Nige, the other week over a coffee. Just as a sidelight comment for the benefit of those living outside Victoria (that's the one in Australia!), you cannot find a better place than Melbourne's beachside suburb of St Kilda to enjoy this pastime.

Anyway, back to the point. As we each mentally jousted with whether to eat the froth with a spoon first, or suck the coffee through the froth, we got down to griping about the challenges of communications consultancy in a world dumbed down by the mediocrity of Microsoft. Yes, that's right - the company notorious for mediocre fonts, poor layout programs and compromised output!

You see, Nige is still in the graphics business, whereas I stepped out of communications consultancy after 12 years and returned to the corporate world (now that's another inexplicable story). We both blame our absence from BRW Magazine's Australia's Rich 200 list (our "Costco" version of the Forbes list) on the inability of clients to distinguish between well-written and laid out communications and, well, the alternative.

And that's where Bill Gates comes in wearing the white shoes and checked pants of the slick salesman. In a vain attempt to save a few bucks, clients have bought relatively cheap software from him to put together their own communications. This has resulted in drip-fed brainwashing, which ultimately convinces them that there's really not much difference between what they produce and what their agency produces. And the great thing is, that instead of paying for author's amendments, they can forego the planning process and refine on the run - interminable amendments at "no cost". "What the hell was it that our agency used to charge us for? This only takes a few minutes! Janine on reception can do it between calls."

So the role of "brand manager" becomes knowing how to place a jpeg of the logo (roughly matched to the corporate colour palette) in the top corner of the page. Oh, by the way, it doesn't really matter if you forget to press the shift key as you scale the logo - I reckon it looks better when it's flattened out a bit!

You've got to ask: "How serious some companies are about their brands when they allow these practices to occur?" But.... ah well.... just see my previous post for commentary on creating a discipline around brand presentation. Catchya later.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Organisational communications - are there boundaries?

Here's a deliberation on which I spend at least a few moments each day. While sitting inside the communications control tower I wonder how much control or slack should people be allowed while preparing their own written and/or audiovisual communications for the organisation.

I remember the days when Ford Motor Company employed people who, during northern hemisphere winters in particular, would circulate through the antipodean operations in Australia to check on the use/misuse of the corporate logo - including the special blue mixed in vast quantities by our contracted printers (for pre-digital era readers, this was when the corporate logo was a flat blue, not the 3D rendered work of art it is today).

Nowadays, I see communications material emerge from some of the largest corporations in all types of layouts, approximations of the corporate colour palette and, the thing I most detest, a kaleidoscope of fonts. And just don't get me started on poorly written copy!

But where should the boundaries of brand discipline be drawn? Has the corporate style guide gone to the great typesetter (what's that?) in the sky? When you're in charge of brand and you try to instill discipline, the operations, legal and other techno-geeks regard you as, at worst, some sort of fascist or, if you get off lightly, very uncool or a 'freak' (younger workforce reference here).

In the days when "txt rulz n, omg, u old pps r so lame", there is not even time to fully spell out words, the idea of inflexible guidelines around use of graphics is so yesterday. So what are the new rules about the visual and textual management of brand presentation?

And even more to the point, do your employer or clients even think it's important enough to ensure that their entire organisation buys into the need for these 'arcane' disciplines? If not, how do you go about setting the rules of visual and editorial engagement?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bye bye American Pie, the year the branding died?

2009 has been a shocking year for brands and just made life more difficult for those of us who believe in their power. That venerable old brand, Lehmann Brothers, kicked it all off by exiting stage left and nearly bringing down the world financial system with it. At first glance, naysayers could argue that this underscores that brand is not the be all and end all of business.

However, I would argue the opposite. In a perverse way, it demonstrates the power of brand and the enormous impact it can have when core beliefs about a brand are shattered. If Lehmann Brothers had been less well known, its collapse would not have triggered the crisis of confidence in the financial system that followed - even though the technical financial implications would have been the same.

The US automotive sector has also been challenging for brands. General Motors has shed some brands as it has scrambled for survival. But what this illustrates is not failure of brand, but failure of management to be true to brand. It is well documented that the company's focus had become short-term financial - a slave to the daily scrutiny of analysts rather than a servant of all the things that had made the company what it was.

The result was products that had lost their appeal, fallen short on quality expectations. The company had forgotten how to innovate and inspire. No one new what it or its products stood for any more. There was no emotional tie to a Buick when a Honda would probably do the job better.

The other phenomenon dismantled was the aggregation of non-traditional brands by GM and Ford. Great European brands like Saab, Jaguar and so on were collected like trophies without proper thought given to heritage and what their customers loved about them (in some instances, despite their obvious failings!). The US juggernauts strode in and started building them on common plaforms with other mainstream products, compromising the uniqueness of their character.

So perhaps 2009 wasn't the year that brands died, but hopefully the year that will ensure brand value is better understood in the future.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Do blogs define your personal brand?

I have read that blogs perform an important function in establishing your personal brand. This naturally concerns anyone, like me, who has started one. How are we projecting ourselves, in my case, into the BloggosFear? Incidentally, it was these thoughts that were the source of the name BloggosFear. It was with some trepidation that I sky-wrote my name into this ether.

What trail will I leave behind? Will I spell out my personal branding correctly? What is my personal brand?

I am horrified by the thought that people reading these missives may think that I occasionally challenge the status quo. Readers may get the impression that I object to amateur corporate editors getting in the way of effective marketing and communications. That I regard "strategic marketing" as a tautology. That, in fact, I evangelise that branding should be at the pinnacle of every corporate strategy.

If these are the things that you are reading into this, then..... Yahoooo! I've got my positioning absolutely correct and my personal brand is off and running.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What's this thing about strategic marketing positions?

All of a sudden, jobs advertisements are popping up all over the place seeking 'strategic marketing manager'. Does this mean there is such a thing as a non-strategic marketing manager? No wonder marketing people have difficulty being heard at executive level if this is (a) True or (b) perceived to be true. This new position description seems to suggest the latter, which has to be a concern for the marketing fraternity.

Marketing and, in particular, its big brother, branding, should be at the centre of corporate strategy. Brand defines what an organisation stands for, its value sets and its unique point of difference. Marketing is, or should be, the projection of those values into the marketplace, whether they be price-driven or value-add. Even tactical marketing and sales activities should enshrine the strategic positioning of the business.

Let's do away with the 'strategic marketing' tag and just don't hire marketing or communications people for whom being strategic and aligned with the business plan and values is not a given. It would be a good first step to convincing the bean counters and legal eagles circling our board tables that marketing is a strategic business.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Writing clearly when the lawyers are all over you

Yes. It's gripe time. Ever worked in financial services as a communicator? If you answered 'yes', you're most likely wrong. No one that I know has ever worked in financial services and been a communicator in the literal sense of the word. If you answered 'no', then I believe you have worked in financial services in a communications role and fully comprehend where I'm coming from.

For those not in Australia, we have this thing here called the Financial Services Reform Act, enacted in 2004 and the bain of communicators working in the sector ever since. It has set up a failed framework of disclosure aimed at helping consumers avoid dodgy financial services companies and people by insisting industry participants describe absolutely every technical aspect of the business. Some of the 'disclosure' is prescribed. For example, a rigid fee disclosure framework that doesn't fit many products and providers in the industry. Terms like 'Indirect Cost Ratios' are prescribed, where previously we generally used the term "Investment Fees", which at least gave some punters a rough guide to what we were talking about.

How did this happen? Essentially, it's all about regulation gone mad and, while Australia may have fared better than most in the GFC, I would argue the use of impenetrable disclosure did not contribute to that. This is because the disclosure regime was not designed to help consumers understand what they were buying, but rather as a risk management tool to protect politicians and regulators from the fallout from the collapse of financial institutions and dealer groups. The pollies or regulators can simply point to the disclosure documents and say that (a) the consumer should have known or (b) the disclosure documents were non-compliant. The latter is the least-preferred excuse because it suggests that the dodgy dealer's documents should have been better monitored by the appropriate regulator.

Laughably, the overriding consideration in the production of these documents is that they should be 'clear, concise and effective'. Who to? A lawyer or actuary? I stand to be corrected, but I have not yet seen one of these documents that would have got through the sub-editor's desk in my newspaper days.

So go back to my initial question: Who works as a communicator in financial services?