Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy and Safe Festive Season to all

The final entry into the Bloggosfear this year is wishing all who read and enjoy, maybe even don't enjoy, my various ramblings, a very happy and safe Festive Season.

The Bloggosfear will resume operations some time early in the New Year, with a full appraisal of Christmas presents, the challenge of furtive returns to the store in the annual post-Christmas swap meet and the conversion of gift cards within the constraints of face value and store selection.

Cheers to you all...


Friday, December 17, 2010

Christianity's millenium of missed opportunity

The word Christmas originated as a compound meaning "Christ's Mass". It is derived from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes mæsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038. "Cristes" is from Greek Christos and "mæsse" is from Latin missa (the holy mass). Extract from Wikipedia
Yep. According to Wikipedia, the term 'Christmas' kicked off in about 972 years ago, even though the driver for it was the birth of Christ some 1038 years earlier. When you think about it, those branding dudes of 2000 years ago were pretty slow off the mark. Nonetheless, after taking over 1,000 years to get to launch date, no one could argue they hadn't thoroughly evaluated the perceptions of all relevant stakeholders in the process.
It's clearly the most effective branding program in history (unless you can come up with a better one!). Celebrated globally, even by non-Christians who've yielded to the market domination of Christmas by recognising it as another great excuse to party and indulge in unbridled largesse. The historical information in next bit also derives from Wikipedia:
The brand refreshment program for Christmas appears to have begun in about the late 18th Century when the brand consultants introduced a character to capture the spirit of Christmas, Santa Claus. Oddly enough, the 'character' first appeared in the 4th Century in the form of St Nicholas of Myra, the inspiration for the early European figure, Sinterklass. 
Centuries later, circa 17th Century, the Brits created another bod, Father Christmas. Essentially, the guy had similar characteristics to his European counterparts - generosity of spirit, reflected in gift giving. Being a Brit, he also had a dress sense somewhat different to that of the Europeans.
The logical conclusion for the brand consultants was to merge the UK concept with the traditional European Christian evolution and polish up the brand story a bit. Enter stage left, a based in the North Pole, a sleigh tugged around by reindeers, elves and all the rest. An absolute fantasy, remotely located so no one using 18th Century transport methods could easily check its veracity!
Christmas is a fine example of branding. It relates a story that is both factual and mythical. It strikes a deep emotional chord almost universally. It's a bloody good excuse to take a break and let your hair down. It's a great time to socialise and a hell of a reason to reconnect with people you've neglected to call all year. In other words it pulls all the right strings - belief, leisure, pleasure and indulgence.
The great thing about living in the digital age is that if Christ was born today, we'd have quickly got our act together and not denied about 40 generations of humans from the celebration. To appreciate how quickly we could have got things moving, take a look here.
Best wishes to all from the Bloggosfear for the Festive Season.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cost obsession driving the commoditisation of a generation

As I watch my tween-aged daughter glued to the computer screen for hours each day, talking to her mates, I find my mind drifting to the sort of social conditioning that's been going on to encourage it. I hear you say, "well just stop her doing it, you negligent, no-good father". My immediate repost to that is "Just try it - and why should I anyway?"

You see, we've created this impersonal world of instant gratification and commoditisation. Every move we make from government down to small business encourages destruction of face-to-face relationships, even though they are ultimately the most effective, if not the most efficient, form of communication. When Gen Zs start their casual jobs in department stores in the next few years, just see how difficult it will be to strike up a conversation.
This is one of the consequences that concerns me as the competition ideologues in our federal bureaucracy roll out reforms to 'cut costs' to consumers. While I think some reforms are required to regulate against price gouging and, occasionally, outright theft, I draw the line at the almost single-minded focus on costs that seem to drive reforms.
It's a mindset that relegates the concept of value and personalisation to virtually nothing. Let's cut bank fees. Great idea, but then why kick up a fuss when banks close branches and cut staff to protect margins and push us across even more into the internet banking space? All of a sudden, regional MPs fire off salvos about the unfairness of it all, but they're complicit in the reforms that cut the guts out of the system in the first place. Doh!
There's a pretty good possibility that my tween daughter will see the time when there are no street shingles bearing the name of a bank or telco. She'll run her life online, interfacing with virtual customer service staff, computers in the clouds and she'll own products for which there is no tangible evidence of ownership. But perhaps we're being driven to a society that is so impersonal we no longer need 'personalisation'? And what does this mean for brands - the very essence of businesses with which people identify?
So when I ask why I should bother to get my daughter off Facebook, the question is well-founded. I'm swimming against a tsunami of social engineering and commercial reality that dictates that her life is defined within the perimeter of her 15.4-inch laptop screen. It's one of the costs of cheapness.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pedalling through bicycle brands

I've been punting around on a Shogun hybrid bike for several years now. It's sort of left-over water pipe welded into a triangular frame - the sort of thing a plumber might build. Basically I bought it on the assumption that 'twould merely be a flash-in-the-pan fitness kick that might see me staggering back up the last leg of a 10km run willing myself back into the driveway and a hot shower about once a month.

But no, this riding thing has kicked in a bit more than expected and I now find myself punting anything from 40 to 90 km on Sundays, being blown into the weeds by lycra-clad pencils riding cool-looking drop bar bikes. Even their gear changes sound good as they slide through the cogs and accelerate over the horizon. Clearly, this is not good enough, so the journey into bicycle brand evaluation has begun.

The journey so far has been akin to my home theatre shopping experience of a couple of years ago and covered in past entries. There's a bucket load of brands out there, all geared by the ubiquitous Shimano, which I've noticed also has a high profile in the fishing reel business. Basically anything with gears is in Shimano's kitbag.

You'd think that would be a leveller, but it's not. Because, like Sara Lee cakes, Shimano makes gears layer ober layer ober layer. There's all kinds of sub-brands and numbers, which make absolutely no sense to the uninitiated - like audio visual cable specs only ten times worse.

Some bike brands appear in every decent store - Giant, Trek, Cannondale - while others seem to have limited distribution. Perhaps the limit is their price, which is often akin to an amount you'd pay for a small Korean car. Then within brands, there is a plethora of models, with apparently exponential price increases for very little gain. You're starting to get the picture, I know naff-all about what I'm looking at.

So, in the absence of real knowledge, I inevitably end up looking for a 'reputable' brand. But is this the right approach? The guru websites that cover bikes place 'fit' as the most important purchase criterion i.e. whether the combination of frame, handlebars, seat, gearing etc. suit your body and purpose. So you'd think brand should not be a driver, other than it might suggest the bike might cover a few thousand kilometres before disintegrating under you.

But brand does matter and I think I've discovered the reason. Again, it comes down to the primal emotional drivers that determine brand success: When you're dressed in lycra it's distressing for the peletons of riders flying past to see that your undercarriage is not only rudely exposed by the lycra, but is also reflects blissful acceptance of sub-par performance. So how much do I have to pay to avoid that? Thanks. I'll take one of those.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Damn! I missed jumping on the Oprah brandwagon!

The royal visit's well under way and I haven't prepared any plans for ambush marketing during Queen Oprah's drop in to Melbourne today. Because ambush it would have to be - marketing budget being somewhat constrained as it is by ... well ... lack of money.

But it's a great opportunity for the superannuation industry. We've missed the message that everything Oprah does is 'Super'. All the opportunities that presents! Where's Super Dude, Bill Shorten, with some government-sponsored slogan like "Oprah's super, like MySuper" ?  Huge opportunity missed, Bill.

I have to stop deflecting. Back to the point about being a failed marketing bod for not having jumped on the Oprah brandwagon. Why didn't I see the potential to life a low-engagement product or brand into the stratosphere of the total pre-occupation that surrounds the Queen of Talk?

If only I'd used social media to engage my brand in the conversation. I should have recognised the vacuum that I left for networked Gen Ys wanting to know what our super fund thought about Oprah - particularly the nuances of her tour like whether she looks good in an Akubra.

Now there's a guy we need in financial services marketing - the Akubra marketing guy (used in the unisexual sense). Everyone's wearing an Akubra. It's a ubiquitous part of the tour kit - like boarding and alighting from Qantas aircraft - other than A380s!

Why didn't I set up a superannuation account for every member of the touring party and have them all walking around with new member kits? Cool huh? The ultimate ambush. Ambushed for life! I'd even waive the $0.95 a week member fee for Oprah in recognition of the cashflow contribution that 9% of her annual earnings would make to the fund. Does she know earnings are tax-free after age 60 I wonder?

Better get down to Fed Square and get a message and kit to her. I'll take a colleague from financial planning in case it gets personal...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wikileaks opens a brand debate

The democratisation of organisational reputation via the internet is a face of life. No brand is immune from public scrutiny and comment. The brandkarma website blog has run an article about whether governments are capable of resisting the web-based makeover experienced by every other institution.

It says in relation to the current Wikileaks furor: "What is at play here is the principle that democracy and the public interest, all the way to issues of national security, are better served by the truth than by secrecy and subterfuge." It proposes that the controversy highlights that governments may now be exposed to the "radical transparency from which they thought they'd be exempt."

The commentary refers to an article in The Guardian by Heather Brooke, which postulates further on the implications of digitisation for government, politics and national security.

Of course brandkarma has taken an interest because of the brand industry's constant hollaring about brand transparency and accountability. It's an interesting take on an extraordinary debate.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Big brands fly into storm

Three of the world's leading brands have encountered severe turbulence in recent weeks - Qantas, Rolls Royce and Airbus and all three may be on a collision course in the courts, with Rolls Royce the company in the firing line.

The issue went public when one of Qantas' new Airbus A380 Rolls Royce engines blew in mid air, resulting in a grounding of the fleet, an investigation that pinned the source of the problem on faulty engineering or manufacture in an engine component and a recall by Rolls Royce of A380 engines from Airbus.

It seems that the upshot of this is going to be a significant dent in the cowling of one of the UK's most venerated brands and collateral damage to the other two. For Qantas in particular, this is an awkward situation. While there have been some concerning incidents involving Qantas over the past few yeasrs, the media has ensured every minor glitch discovered on the tarmac or elsewhere is magnified out of all proportion. So the Rolls Royce incident, not of Qantas' making, simply tags onto a conga line of stories damaging to the brand.

Qantas' brand problem is that customers generally do not analyse the veracity of some of these issues in any depth. Their perceptions are mainly shaped by their experience of on-time service and reliability. The question of unreasonable media scrutiny, helped by some mischief making by some stakeholders, doesn't register. Add personal experience to subconscious doubts about safety issues and you have a potent mixture of brand-eroding agents.

Airbus customers are airlines, who you would think would apply a fair level of analysis to the reasons for delays to orders due to the Rolls Royce recall. But it still isn't good news that refitting aircraft already in service will place priority demands on the supply of new engines, thus delaying deliveries of new aircraft scheduled for 2011.

Quite apart from the financial impacts, these companies, especially Qantas with its direct exposure to reputational risk among consumers, will be turning a lot of attention to restoring the lustre of their brands. So it's no surprise that Qantas has already announced it reserves the right to sue Rolls Royce for financial losses incurred through the grounding of its aircraft, should it not be able to reach a commercial settlement with the engine manufacturer.

Of course, that amount is calculable. But how calculable is the cost of restoring reputation? It will be interesting to see if that is built into the equation should the matter go to court. How do you calculate loss of brand equity?

And where does this leave the Rolls Royce brand? Perhaps it's flown under the radar of consumer consciousness, even the company's well-heeled automotive customers. There is no research yet to bear this out. However, if you want some insight on the burgeoning chorus of discontent, perhaps visit my old mate, Ben Sandilands' report, Rolls Royce under fire from all parties over A380 engines.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's not all apples for smartphone marketers

No surprise really that the only brand that attracts a reasonable level of brand loyalty amonth smartphone owners is Apple. The ubiquitous iPhone is an object of desire for corporate tyeps whose choice is often dictated by paranoia about iPhone's security architecture.

A survey conducted by GfK in the US, showed only 25% of smartphone owners planned to stay loyal to the operating system running their phone, with loyalty highest (59%) among Apple users and lowest (21%) among Microsoft users. RIM's Blackberry scored 35%.

The survey points out that the buyer decision is not about the handset, but about the high-end user features, in particular the apps available for the various operating systems.

GfK analyst, Ryan Garner says: "Loyalty with a handset is a lot more complicated these days in that people buy into experiences at the high-end level. If a phone doesn't do what it says it will do or what the owner hopes it will do, the maker will lose loyalty."

In the end, branding is a simple thing isn't it? The consumer experience is all that counts, not the means of getting it.

More detailed article at Reuters.

Friday, November 26, 2010

You think Gen Y is tough, wait for Gen Z!

Having a completely automated and networked Gen Zer in the house just makes me realise how lucky we are that Gen Y is so easy to deal with! I am writing about this because of a convergence of personal experience and some of the stuff I've been reading (not smoking!) lately, particularly about media.

It starts with the challenge of getting Gen Zs to read anything in hard copy at all, despite all efforts to glorify the age-old pleasure derived from reading books. Sure, they read books, but only when it suits them and, more importantly, when they can take time from the arduous daily routine of updating everyone in their various networks about their day's activity. At dinner time, you have to give 30 minutes notice of your intention to serve, just so they can formally sign out from the couple of dozen Facebook and other conversations orchestrated on their laptop or iTouch.

In this context, trying to grab even a nanosecond's attention from this target group is going to turn marketing into an extreme sport.

From my personal experience, there are a few things I have learned about Gen Z:
  • They think everyone can be famous. This means if your brand is not on TV and/or appearing in internet banners, it can't be important. My daughter asks: "If your company is good, why don't we see it on television?" TV in itself is not important to them, or even particularly credible, but it does signal fame - an important ingredient in the communications mix for Gen Z.
  • The primary media distribution channel is social media. Every network, virtual or otherwise, has its gatekeepers and influencers. If you're not on their radar, you're not going to penetrate their networks. So much for paying for access to content! Think again, Rupert. You might have to start paying micro networkers for adding messages and tiny URLs linked to your website.
  • Instant gratification is key. So devise ways for me to interact with you online or, better still, via my favourite mobile device. If I have to download and form and provide a signature, forget it. I'll find someone who can do the job online. My wish is your command!
  • I'll never read a product disclosure statement, so don't bother sending one. If I need information, I'll ask for it. If you lose my money or send me a dodgy product, I'll make sure the world knows about it. Let me spell it out for you: "Just deliver or I'll trash your brand."
We are seeing the emergence of an empowered generation of consumers. They have access to everything, filter information quickly, believe 'us not you' and are quick on retribution if you fail them. Wasn't it just easier when people sued us enabling an appropriate out-of-court, out-of-sight settlement?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why do blue skies become overcast when talking social media?

I went to a presentation this morning from Jamie Pride who heads up Deloitte Australia's online practice. For an accounting firm, those dudes at Deloitte are pretty cool. One of Jamie's colleagues, Pete Williams, regularly does the rounds projecting his entertaining patter to industries from advertising to financial services.

These presentations always start with the Socionomics video on the exponential growth of internet usage and social media in particular (if you're the only person who hasn't seen one of these, here's a link - set aside about four minutes). Then we talk about digital natives, or those under 35 who've never known a world without computers. This is all good stuff, the audience becomes more animated. Even the pulses of  actuaries can be seen to quicken - or start for the first time.

By the time the formal presentation ends, the whole audience is wondering how we'd ever survive without social media. Even more, they're growing restless as they realise their oversight in not making social media the core driver of their marketing communications. But then... question time and the clouds start to gather.

You see, most of the gigs I attend are financial services related. From our regulated, compliant regime, we dare only occasionally pull the curtains back to take a peek at what is possible. And what we see troubles us. All this freedom is unhealthy, when you're constrained by legislation and regulation that reflects the media landscape of the 1980s rather than the present.

How can we engage in online conversations when regulations say we cannot give personal advice? The whole thing about social media is that it's very personal - it's about talking to me, about my interests and concerns. I'm not interested in general information that I must take away, interpret and overlay on my own circumstance. I want an expert to chat to me and tell me what I need to know and I don't want to pay a few hundred bucks an hour for advice when my super fund, bank or insurance company is available to me online.

The boys and girls from Deloitte tell us what many promoting social media do. It's free, or low cost, so just get online and do it. Try things. Fail quickly, but learn and then try again. Persevere, this online engagement stuff is a long-term strategy. It's about relationship building and networking, not quick returns.

I agree that everyone should be considering integration of social media into their channel strategies. I agree that it's trial and error in most instances. What works for some doesn't work for others. Running test campaigns in social media is no different than similar experiments in traditional media - the beauty being that failed campaigns cost less. Or do they?

Every time you enter the social media space, you leave a digital impression that lasts a lifetime - perhaps beyond. For businesses, this is a brand footprint, which means reputational risk if you stuff anything up. You'd be amazed at how cheap it can be to ruin a brand, so if you're going to experiment, follow a few basic rules:
  • Know why you're doing it;
  • Know how it fits into your broader channel strategy;
  • Know how it will integrate with other customer service and communications channels;
  • Take time to learn the protocols for online engagement;
  • Know how you're going to add value to the conversation.
If you are vague on any of these issues, don't even start. Experimenting is fine, but blundering in without a plan is courting disaster.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing, cleaning or driving - the choice of unskilled tasks is yours

Alan Kohler published an article today in Business Spectator on the new challenge faced by media - at least the traditional media. He points out that the human desire to interact is creating so much content that professional journalists i.e. bods who write for a living, are struggling to have their voices heard above the din.

If you work in marketing communications you will know, of course, that everyone can do your job. Everyone can write, is qualified to comment on, or amend, your copy and so on. As Kohler points out, the only thing saving professional writers is the fact that not everyone has time to write (which incidentally brings into question what's lacking in my life?). He argues that this trend may make professional writing akin to cleaning or driving, in which our participation is directly linked to the time we have to allocate to it.

So as marketing and communication people better start thinking about what they need to do to build a bastion against surges from the infidels. We better start thinking about our personal brands!

The commoditisation of communications really began with the internet and Microsoft's ubiquitous presence. I ran a communications and marketing consultancy for 12 years and saw the writing on the wall as the capacity to self-publish grew exponentially through the 1990s. I'm talking about self-publishing in the corporate sphere, rather than at the individual level.

In that business, return on revenue dropped from 22% to 6% over the course of the last five years - not enough to keep me interested in supporting the infrastructure necessary to turn out quality advice and services. Good people got more expensive, as clients squeezed budgets.

So, while the business was still holding the line, I closed it, selling off a few pieces of IP that had accumulated over more than a decade. Since then, I've seen marketing services companies pursue growth by acquisition to overcome the same challenges I faced. In nearly all instances, their share prices are reflections of the difficulties and the struggle to establish a clear value proposition in the eyes of clients. They cling on, desperately hoping for rescue by a private equity firm that has outlived the GFC.

This phenomenon is no different to what Kohler's on about with regard to journalism. We must all create a clear value proposition in the eyes of our customers. In my humble opinion, that proposition comes from within because, in most commoditised sectors, the only differentiator between one offer and another is the quality and uniqueness of the persona and skills set the organisation presents to the world. It is the way of doing business as well as the outcomes that define a brand, whether corporate or personal.

This means that organisations wanting to survive must be brave in their recruitment process and start creating their uniqueness from within. This often means being willing to take a bet on a team able to occasionally challenge the status quo and try something new. As marketers and communicators, our value to our employers and clients is the capacity to identify opportunities and connect in order to take advantage of them. If we fail to meet that 'brand promise' as a profession, we'll be competing with the journos for Kohler's cleaning and driving jobs.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Just gotta love Audi's commitment to brand

Anyone who read this blog up to about six months ago knows the psychological distress caused to this author, a confessed Audi tragic who drove a VeeDub Passat for two years. Ultimately, I sought counselling from friendly Audi salesmen, who seem ubiquitous since Australia discovered the brand about seven or eight years ago. They immediately diagnosed the issue and resolved it by performing a brand transplant in the showroom.

But my purpose here is to mention a snippet I saw in an article in The Age last Saturday about the development of electric cars. I hadn't actually thought much about the potential hazards to blind people, or I suppose people just not paying enough attention, of cars that run almost silently. There's quite a buzz, or should I say hum, about contriving noises that allow people to hear these electric cars approaching.

I was gratified to read an Audi engineer quoted as saying that his company was actually putting a lot of time into developing an auto sound consistent with the company's long-standing brand tagline Vorsprung durch Technik, which translates into Advancement through Technology. The company is committed to fine-tuning a sound that cues associations like automotive, performance, leading-edge (hate that description, but it's too early on Friday for creativity) etc.

That's what you call alignment - when even the technical boffins in your organisation are explaining their role and goals in the organisation in terms derived from the company's brand values.

Have a good weekend...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

No wonder brand is a hard internal sell

Through various online sites, I have joined a number of networks that talk brand, marketing, communications, social media etc. You get the picture - living the delusion that I may learn a lot about these things by chatting to others with similar experience and interests.

In fairness, I have joined a few conversations that have been thought-provoking. For the most part though, I have merely been dismayed at the lack of consensus on what brand and marketing are. How often do you see people in these groups coming up with the questions : 'What is brand?'; 'Define brand in a single sentence.' ? For other variations, substitute the word brand with marketing. The answers are even more interesting, seldom cast light on the subject matter and leave you in despair.

The implications of this for those responsible for brand, marketing and communications are significant and career-limiting. These discussions merely serve to illustrate that brand means different things to different people and, worse, suggests to those not involved in brand that it is so ill-defined that it can be interpreted or ignored to suit pre-ordained corporate strategy. The brand community is largely failing to stake out its ground in the universe of corporate activity. In some respects, it is another variation on the theme of my earlier blog about the poor quality of brand / marketing presentations at many major conferences.

The purpose of this blog is not to add to the debate about what defines brand, but rather express my fear that while this sort of debate rages, brand will struggle to take its appropriate place at the top table of corporate strategy.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mitsubishi's Outlander TVC - a lesson in communications

I must confess, that being an old motor industry hack, I still following the marketing activities of car companies. From my seat in financial services, I guess there's a bit of longing for a sector where selling to customers was not a practice from the dark side.

From my repose on the sofa and between my feet resting on the coffee table, I caught a glimpse of a new Mitsubishi TVC last night that any communicator should take a look at. I'm not suggesting you should immediately rush out and buy an Outlander, just consider the take on removing jargon from communications.

The sales person in the advert starts by talking to the couple seated in the car in acronyms, "ABS, SRS, EBD etc." but then says, "What that means is it's safe." (or words to that effect). He then goes to the back of the car, opens the hatch and gives them a rundown of the luggage dimensions in millimetres and cubic metres, then says: "What that means is there's lots of space." He talks about the warranty and says: "What that means is you have worry-free driving."  Each time he interprets for the couple, they're won over as they appreciate the customer benefits offered by the car.

The last of these is interesting. Would the legal bods in financial services allow us to use the phrase 'worry free'? If we used an expression like that in relation to insurance, there'd be a stack of objections like: How do you know you'd be worry free? Wouldn't it depend on your circumstances and how much cover you had? What about if you're worried about something else?

We'd no doubt have to put in a disclaimer saying: "We can only suggest that you might be worry free. There might be other personal and financial circumstances that create worry in your life. If you feel that your insurance cover might not ensure you're worry free, we recommend you seek personal and financial advice from fully licensed practioners, including your GP, psychologist, neurologist, financial planner, accountant and bank manager. There may be other professionals that we haven't thought of from who you should seek counselling. For a definition of 'worry free', please refer to our website, where we have a pop-up window that defines it. You may find the pop-up stressful if you haven't set your browser to allow pop-ups from our website. If this worries you, you should consider seeking advice from your 12 year old, who knows how these things operate." ?

I think you get my drift. Mitsubishi's Outlander TVC should be a training video for any aspiring communicator and even perhaps our corporate lawyers!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Superannuation investors don't care about brand - don't believe it!

Just picked up on an article in today's Financial Standard, reporting that leading financial services company, Mercer, has surveyed 500 working Australians and discovered that a high proportion of members rate investment performance as their number one priority in superannuation (their pension fund), ahead of brand and choice.

As you can imagine, this revelation blew me away. Of course they rate investment performance above all else! Making money to boost your retirement savings is the name of the game isn't it?

Mercer also reported that only 6% of those surveyed thought it important that their money was managed and invested by a well-known brand. What concerned me was that this led to the conclusion that there is a disconnect between what members and the trustees of their funds want, with 'brand development' being bundled with the other peripherals of lesser concern to investors.

Rather than a disconnect between what members and trustees want, this reflects a belief on the part of the researchers that brand is simply a measure of awareness. It is not. It defines organisational belief and a behavioural model that establishes and builds relationships with customers. In other words, I believe if you asked consumers whether they thought it important to have confidence and belief in the fund (the brand) that was looking after their money, the answer would be a resounding 'yes' for the vast majority.

So whether fund members have their money with a 'big brand' (read: "high awareness"), or a smaller, lesser-known fund, they must have confidence in the fund's brand, the values that underpin it and alignment of its promise with their experiences. Yes, investment returns are right at the top of the hierarchy for most people, but isn't that just part of the brand portfolio for any decent fund?

I'm sure the level of understanding about the essence of brand varies considerably across the spectrum of funds. Fund trustees who really understand brand work on 'brand development' because they understand that achieving a perfect alignment of brand and customer values is the axis around which successful client relationships revolve.

Brand development is not a misalignment of customer and trustee priorities. In fact, building your brand with the aim of achieving alignment of customer and trustee priorities is the only thing that matters.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bank bashing is a buy signal for investors

There is an unusual dynamic to bank brands. As soon as a pollie gets up to sink the slipper into the banks, their share prices generally seem to rise as quickly as their interest rates. To turn Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey's words back on him, a shellacking from a pollie is, to a bank, like being slapped in the face with a wet lettuce.

You see, when banks raise interest rates, to shareholders it reflects good financial management because the action is:
a) to increase margins; or
b) to maintain margins as funding costs increase; or
c) both (although it surely would be churlish to suggest any bank would use the funding cost argument to increase margins!).

Note that I said it reflects 'good financial management'. If you subscribe to the ESG approach to evaluating company performance, financial management and profitability is but one component of good governance.

So I wondered what it meant when Westpac CEO, Gail Kelly, got up and said her bank's record profit was a 'quality result'. Westpac has been at the forefront of promoting and reporting so-called 'triple bottom line' accounting. Yet was Ms Kelly's reference to a 'quality' result a reference to outstanding performance across all ESG criteria, or just the financial component?

Although brand creates awareness, investors don't necessarily buy into it, but consumers do. That is why I think it is so easy for Joe and the boys to have a crack at banks, while their share prices increase. A consumer buying into a bank's brand believes raising interest rates is not contributing to, or even considering, the broader social good, let alone their own. An investor in the bank generally thinks differently.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What is it with the French and the guillotine?

I was fascinated during a telecast of Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival to see Mumm's brand ambassador demonstrating how to behead a bottle of French champagne with a sabre. It's no wonder they struggled at Waterloo - half the army directing their sabres at popping corks rather than rattling them at the advancing Brits and Prussians.

The trick for an effective champagne beheading seems to be to slide the leading edge of the blade up the neck of the bottle at the right velocity to neatly severe the bottle's neck where the wire binding nestles under the lip. I'm convinced that the French invented the guillotine to practice this, removing undesirables while saving money on expensive bottles of champagne.

This brings me to the question of what Moet's brand positioning is. Not being a champers connoissuer, I always thought of Moet as a 'premium' brand, albeit produced on massive scale by one of France's largest champagne producers. But over the past few weeks, the price has been down around the $45 a bottle mark. It's still dearer than a lot of the Aussie produced stuff, but is certainly not at the levels of some of its direct competitors. Perhaps they're passing on the full benefits of the rampant Australian Dollar - delivering value as well as prestige to our dedicated racegoers?

I suppose the question is - "who cares"?  Still looks very acceptable to serve the guests, who generally seem to rate it higher than even some of the better Aussie versions. Me? Once it has bubbles in it, I can't really pick the difference. Give me a deep red sparkling Shiraz or Burgundy any day! Cya later... I'm off to Flemington for the last day of the Carnival!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Target for Stella sales

Stella McCartney appears to be nearly as popular as her old man - if Australia's leading shopping show, A Current Affair, is any guide. Consumers are just busting their buns to batter down Target's doors and grab a fashion 'name' at a bargain price.

The Stella McCartney strategy of delivering style at an affordable price through a suburban department store chain has been an outstanding success. The reason - exclusivity for Target, street smarts by Stella Mac and her marketing / distribution team. Don't be too proud to sell alongside 6-packs of undies and socks and the kids' toy section. That's where Mums go all the time - lots of eyeballs fine-tuned for style at a discount - and a personal treat.

Compare this story with the Myer and David Jones scenarios, where leading brands battle cheek by jowl for prominence and space - and pay a premium price for the privilege. At the retail level, both David Jones and Myer have invested substantially in upgrading and updating the real estate in which these battles take place. For them store experience is a big marketing focus.

But all Target has to do is do a bit of publicity work about Stella Mac's new range being in the store. No expensive fitouts - just more racks of cloths. And Target's in the 'burbs. 'I'll drop in when I go for coffee.'  I expect we'll see lots of Stella McCartney, or at least her products, over the next few weeks as Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival hits top gear.

Oh. By the way. Did I mention anything about nice timing, Stella?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Confusing and impenetrable - call in Bear Grylls!

Do you even watch Man v. Wild on SBS? Our hero with the titanium-lined digestive tract, Bear Grylls, parachutes into some remote, hostile location and then finds his way through and out. I've never seen him fail to overcome the odds.

It seems people who have superannuation accounts identify with this show. According to new Government Super Supremo, Bill Shorten, just-released Australian Treasury research shows consumers face a superannuation landscape that is similarly confusing, complex and impenetrable.

That's why Bill's all in favour of MySuper, a much simpler landscape where superfluous investment options, insurance choices and other paraphenalia requiring consumer decisions are bulldozed to allow a clear view to the retirement horizon. The theory is that people will be able to more easily get their bearings.

MySuper - would Bear Grylls approve of it? No investment swamp lands to wade through, no barbed fee structures to hack through, no insurance wilderness to traverse. No need to climb to the high ground of financial advice to get his bearings. An armchair ride to retirement nirvana. Right?

Wrong! People will be disengaged and have no more idea under MySuper of how they're tracking than they do now. They will have no better idea of whether their lifelong investment is going to deliver their retirement lifestyle objectives. Knowing this requires engagement, whether in MySuper or any other investment product.

In Man v. Wild, our hero always ends up discovering a clear path back to civilisation. But the important thing is that, to survive and thrive, to find the path home, Bear Grylls fully engages with his landscape and the challenges it throws up. Through engagement, guidance from his survival training and expert advice, he makes it. Disengagement would be fatal. To varying degrees, this is true of most things in life.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Service with a sale

Old car dealers never die, they just see opportunities. My wife bought a Lexus a few months back. Nice unit with fairly attractive lines - that is until an almost octogenarian truck driver running errands for his son's business decided to hook the rear boot lid of my wife's parked car under his trailer and drag the hapless Lexus into the car parked in front of it. 13 big ones worth of damage!

As the car was new, the boss took it down to the Lexus dealer to have them double-check that there was no underlying damage that the panel beater might miss. Nope. All good. Just make sure the four points align and she'll be right. Their much-relieved customer drove off in her mutated Lexus until ...

Yep. Today the car dealer was back with a bit of extra service advice. For only $16,000 she can trade up from her current new car to an even more current new car ("2011 model" - where are the compliance people on the car industry?). The opportunity to capitalise on the customer's disappointment at having a shattered new car was not lost on this guy!

I'm working through this weekend, afraid to go home in case she's accepted the deal. Talk about service with a sale!

Twitter failures

I searched 'superannuation' in Twitter the other day. It's a sure-fire way of discovering a whole flotilla of dudes that just don't get it. The biggest culprits are those tweeting and retweeting (their own tweets) promoting self-managed superannuation funds (SMSFs) or DIY super opportunities.

The first page of the search is just full of them. Am I deluded, out of the loop or retarded when it comes to how social networking is supposed to work? I thought it was supposed to be all about dialogue, or at least trying to promote dialogue with other twitterers.

Perhaps we need to go back @DIY super or @SMSF types and tell 'em it just ain't working for us (or them!). Perhaps a conversation at @DIYtwitter might be a good dialogue to open up. But right now, anyone looking for useful information on super on Twitter would be best to find other search terms than the logical 'superannuation', or at least consider filtering to exclude all references to 'DIY' or 'self' in the search.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why brand presentations don't work with the beancounters

I am becoming an absolute conference junkie. At least that's the way it feels at present, having attended about three in two months. Another year to the next one of any interest though, so I'm off the hook for now. The great thing is that they're a rich source of raw material for blogs.

At a recent conference, I saw a few brand / marketing bods presenting their thoughts on, well - branding and marketing. And from this experience, I have to ask one thing: Why do brand / marketing presentations always include 'illustrative' TV ads feeding from YouTube and other sources? The old Apple 1984 advert, a quirky European car ad and perhaps a 'zany' financial services advert from a nation noted for its weird sense of humour.

There's something awfully wrong, not to mention tedious, about all these presentations. First, they promote the notion that TV is still the primary driver of brand awareness. Yes, it's still a powerful presence, but TV does not define brand - just ask Google. Secondly, they never talk about important things that 'sell' the importance of brand to the collections of lawyers, accountants and MBAs that adorn corporate boards. Where is the information about setting up brand metrics for your organisation, about measurement, about translation of brand values into dollar value?

Unfortunately, when we go to financial services conferences, well attended by the aforesaid business technicians, these presentations merely reinforce the view that the brand and marketing dudes have no concept of improving the bottom line. You can see and hear the cranial cogs turning: "Nice ads. Bet they cost a bomb. Hope there's none of our marketing troop here picking up crazy ideas about funding similar ventures."

Yep. I really disappointed with brand presentations that reinforce the stereotype image of the marketing team. They contribute nothing to promote marketing and, more particularly, brand specialists to company boards. They do even less to promote marketing as an investment and not a cost.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Consumer advice from.... the land of the zloty?

My first clue that I was reading tech product reviews on a site outside of the US was when I read words along the line - 'when the difference in price is something like 1,500 Polish Zloty". At first, not having heard of zlotys before, I thought it was a wind up. That was until I ran across the zloty again on another page and more thoroughly investigated the website.

Sure enough, I was reading sophisticated camera lens reviews on a Polish website, If you're in the market for a camera lens, check it out. Unlike a number of the others on this subject that I have visited, this one is full of lab test information on optical and mechanical performance, as well as commentary on performance in the field.

So, after buying a new camera body in Singapore en route from Thailand, I am sourcing information from a Polish website on the performance of products made in the USA, Malaysia and China. To round off this global shopping experience, I am a consumer based in Australia! And if I buy off ebay, then I could well source the purchase in Hong Kong or Taiwan (then again, I probably won't!).

Apart from the obvious implications for retailers, this experience raises an interesting point about how so-called international warranty undertakings have fallen behind borderless consumerism. Given that we consumers do shop globally, when are the 'big brand' manufacturers going to offer truly international warranty on their products? I went to register my camera purchase on the manufacturer's website in Australia and couldn't because I'd bought in Singapore. When I tried to register on the Singapore site, it wouldn't let me because I wasn't a resident of Singapore.

What a nonsense this is. I bought exactly the same product, same specification and, I believe, one substantially priced the same, if you ignore taxes and duties, as I would have done in Australia. So what makes warranties less valid on a product across national boundaries?

If we're happy to distibute globally, then we should be able to offer appropriate customer protection globally, despite the considerable variations in consumer protection legislation between nations, or some bean counter's neat international accounting structure.

If we could be fearless about the validity of warranties, then we could all buy genuine brands over the web or on our travels confident about the integrity of product and service that go with the brand.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Let's promote the NDS - Net Detractor Score!

Call me just one of those crazy financial services guys if you like, but I think we need to remove the parentheses around the Net Promoter Score (NPS), reflecting a negative, and rename it the Net Detractor Score, NDS, so we can all score a positive.

What prompted this momentary lapse of reason was that I revisited a financial services industry survey the other day which showed none of the surveyed organisations scored a positive NPS. I'm sure that's why the research bods servicing this sector go out of their way to make us feel better about ourselves - as well as justifying more expansive research methodologies. They tell us the NPS is not much of an indicator in financial services because people want to retain long-standing friendships by not recommending anyone put their lifelong savings into XYZ Investment Manager.

The other thing that prompted this blog was a mailed invitation from the Fund Executives Association Limited to attend a Net Promoter Score workshop later this month, where several bods will evangelise about how using NPS had transformed their businesses. Only one of the facilitators is from the financial services sector and none from funds management or superannuation.

Chief convenor of the meeting is a marketer and academic for whom I have enormous respect, Prof. Mark Ritson, from the Melbourne Business School. Mark is a passionate advocate of NPS, so I fear I'd be a luddite in the land of the fairies should I attend this gig.

My problem is that in the funds management and/or superannuation business, just about everyone is on the nose since the GFC. This isn't helped by a not-for-profit sector that basically tells everyone that financial advisors who receive commissions are ripping them off and investment markets that refuse to stop bouncing around. GFC + Outrageous Fees + Uncertainty does not equal passionate consumer advocacy for the sector!

I've heard friends and relatives saying such and such a company lost their money during the GFC. How does your average 20-something call centre dude convert someone with that perception into an evangelist? It takes more than soothing words, nice phone manner and an attractive website.

Most NPS scores that I've seen for everything from banks to investment funds are languishing in the minus 20 to minus 60 zone. These scores wouldn't have customers queuing at the counter even if you were selling ice cream cones in Noosa on a hot day. Yet financial services businesses seem to live with these scores year over year.

I am in bed with the research bods at the moment. I think the NPS is an interesting, but fairly useless measure in financial services, unless considered in relative terms.

But, as always, I'm open minded about these sorts of issues. So I'd better register for the FEAL gig I guess because, right now, I'm not improving the NPS for NPS.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The IP cops fail the test in Thailand

As promised, I return from a brief sojourn to Thailand to report on the state of play with regard to intellectual property theft - more simply described in layman's terms as the counterfeit watch business. I am pleased to report that this trade is thriving in Thailand, a veritable nightmare to the brand police at LVMH and other notable designer goods companies.

It's clear that all attempts to stamp out patent and intellectual property infringements have virtually been abandoned in Thailand and, most likely, most other developing countries in which this is happening. The only token response that I witnessed was a sign at the check-in desk at Phuket Airport saying that France and Italy could impose severe penalties on people found carrying fake designer goods into their countries. It was notable at the time I joined the queue that none of the international departures from Phuket were heading to either of those destinations!

The most interesting aspect of all this is that, at point of sale, shop proprietors take great pride in informing you that you're checking out fake gear. In fact, there is a degree of incredulity that you would consider buying the real thing, when you can get the fake for a fraction of the price.

But if I can offer any encouragement to the designer brands out there, my close inspection of many goods (none of which I bought!) indicated that the quality of fit and finish is nowhere near that of the real thing. I won't go into why I was looking at handbags - suffice to say it is simply inevitable if you're travelling with your household's female purchasing officer - but a number were already losing paint around the piping and glued parts had come adrift.

Then again, who cares, when you can buy ten and use each once before discarding it? In fact, these are arguably the perfect female accessory. You need never be seen carrying the same bag twice! And hey - if you're travelling to Italy or France and things get a bit dodgy in customs, you only lose about twenty bucks when you hastily discard the 'Louis Vuitton' purse into the nearest trash can.

Well, I'm just about out of time for writing this article - at least I think I am. The $20 Rolex has just died. I hope the Cartier's still working at home! It's a fair bet that, by the end of next week, I should be back to wearing the genuine Ebel purchased in Australia!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dateless Jesinta Campbell - A sign we really are feeling miserable!

There were two unrelated articles in Melbourne's Herald-Sun this morning that underscored the veracity of the other. Australia's Miss Congeniality winner in the 2010 Miss Universe pageant, Jesinta Campbell, can't get a date with a footballer or similar to go to the world's most boring televised ritual, the AFL's Brownlow Medal.

The other article was commentary from one of the nation's leading social demographers and researchers, Bernard Salt, on a recent Australian Government survey that found we're all quite anxious and dissatisfied, despite being wealthier than we've ever been.

When a hot-looking Jesinta can't get a date, there are possibly only two conclusions:
  • Our aspirations and taste for quality 'brands' are excessively high. What's a woman supposed to look like to get a date, if Jesinta isn't good enough? From what I've seen, she can even hold a decent conversation!
  • We've completely lost our self-confidence and our sense of adventure, even our sexuality, has been suppressed by an overwhelming fear of rejection!
As Bernard pointed out, there has been an amazing confluence of factors that have contributed to record wealth - a level undreamed of by the children of the Depression and WWII eras. But instead of celebrating our good fortune, we are anxious about house affordability, growing urban violence and the state of the environment. Paradoxically, all these anxieties are, in some measure, a by-product of our increased wealth.

So what is the solution? Well, if you're still feeling positive about the state of the nation and your sense of self, there's still time. Don a footy guernsey, grab a Sherrin and impress Jesinta. I know sitting through the Brownlow is a real downer, but would you notice?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Off to the land of affordable cachet

Off to Thailand in a couple of days. A beautiful country without doubt and one in which you can purchase the best of European design at a fraction of the cost. I am certain to see more 'Rolex', 'Omega', 'Louis Vuitton' and other leading brands per metre than almost anywhere else I can think of.

I was with a bunch of people the other week discussing the subject of brand piracy or, more specifically, fake watches. The general consensus was why buy the real thing when you can enjoy the same cachet for a few bucks? And, functionally, the fake products do pretty much the same.

Prestige brands are battling copyright and intellectual property piracy across the world and it's a while since I took a look at the losing battle they're fighting in countries like Thailand. I will return with a summary and, perhaps, a suite of deluxe accessories, in about a fortnight. At least the cheap stuff keeps us under the $400 customs limit!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I suspect the Hemline Index is flawed, but has merit

Saw an off-the-wall article in one of the newspapers today (sorry I looked for it, but couldn't find it, so cannot credit the publication) about using women's hemlines as a guide to the health of the economy. Some bod has taken the trouble to search through back copies of fashion magazines dating back to the pre-1930s Depression years to test the theory that, as the economy declines, so hemlines get longer.

This outstanding test of perserverence and hemline gazing revealed that if you invest on the basis of  the Hemline Index as a measure of economic trends, then you're probably going to be buying or selling at the opposite ends of the cycle to what you should be or, more likely, about half way through the next cycle.

You see, the researcher discovered that adjustments to hemlines actually lagged the economy by three to four years - the lead time in fashion being about that time. So a financially stretched version of Armani would sew the seeds of repression in time for a garment to blossom about half way through the next economic upswing.

Of course, I believe this research is fatally flawed because, like any other manufacturing endeavour, the lead time to market for fashion has been compressed since the Depression years, so the lag may only be about six months. But that is my instinct talking, rather than capacity to provide you with any tangible data on this.

In any event, the Hemline Index is just one of many indices with flaws. But as a purveyor of all things economic, I have to say studying the Hemline Index just after the economy has boomed sure beats the hell out of looking at the VIX or the Baltic Dry Shipping Index!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Brand values get JG over the line

So Julia got over the line and avoided the potential of becoming the first Australian female prime minister never to have won an election. I have to say that, during the post-election process, there appears to have been  more of the 'real' Julia than during the campaign itself. Why do I say this?

Because, according to the two independents who finally got her there, it was the core Labor (and Julia!) strengths of health, education and, more recently, national broadband access that won the day. If these are truly the things on which the independents made their decisions, then it underscores that being true to brand, in this instance at least, reaped its rewards.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Lego platforms for your corporate communications

Hey, what kid didn't play with Lego blocks? Lego made anything possible - at least it does these days. I remember getting a Lego set that included a set of wheels and I thought it was fantastic. Now, there are all kinds of bits - people, animals, bendy bits and so on that make even more possible. I'm so jealous I want to talk to a rebirthing consultant (remember that crazy '80s fad?), so that I can start with Lego all over again.

Communications platforms are like Lego these days. They're so bloody good that you can mix and match print, audiovisual, interactive and a host of other channels at minimal cost. Okay, I can hear you saying: "That's typical of the boomer generation - anything below a millions bucks is 'minimal cost'".

Well, surprise, surprise! You're absolutely wrong. As the former owner of a small business, there'd be no marketing communications bloke more conscious of making a dollar stretch to deliver the best possible outcomes. When I say minimal cost, I'm down in the tens of thousands for content-rich, single-touch editing platforms that ensure technology-enabled brand consistency, compliance and reduced cost.

In the financial services sphere, communications platforms are not optional. They're mandatory. In a regulated environment, there is a substantial chunk of communications activity that is compliance and process driven. There's nothing fancy about it. Even within more creative campaigns, there is a hard core of disclaimers and other information that is non-negotiable. My point is: Who wants to spend time and money on process, when a sound technology platform can empower you to allocate your 'life-support' level budget to the real tasks of building customer relationships and new business?

This was the point I made to my mate, Nige, who runs a boutique agency called Coolwise Creative in Melbourne, as I convinced him over a series of very pleasant lunches to invest over 100 big ones on building a platform that, at face value, would reduce his billings to me.

The point I made was that building this platform would not reduce my spend, but improve my spend. And over the past three years, that's proved to be the point. Less spend on process and more on creative.

Most recently though, I have been evaluating delivery platforms to enable an ever-growing emphasis on audiovisual, interactive communications and, to my pleasant surprise, I've found quite a few on offer. Even big international operations like Thomson Reuters offer solutions at price points within reach of moderately sized enterprises. I can deliver a series of engaging communications online that cost less than producing and distributing a single newsletter to customers.

I remember getting quoted quarter of a million dollars for production of a corporate video in the '80s(ROFL!). For that, I can now deliver something like 25 webcasts, or 40 online TV interviews, or a plethora of targeted email communications. Okay, the '80s quote was over the top (I've never forgotten it), but drop the quote by 75% and the equation's still pretty attractive.

What's more, I can track the success of each communication. Total accountability. What Board, CEO or CFO would not love it? Of course, I know from my own research, that there's a significant proportion of people who prefer traditional snail mail communications. But there are new generations of consumers who probably don't even open their mail. These are the consumers of the future.

New platforms for digital production and delivery put smart communications strategies within easy reach. If you're not reaching out and grabbing them, you're just not in the game. So ignore the luddites that surround you and make your move. This space is the future, just make sure you evaluate and invest in a great launching pad before you build the spaceship.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yikes! I qualify for pensioner insurance!

There's lots of things that give away the fact that you're not quite as young as you used to be, despite what your brain fools you into believing. Even avoiding mirrors doesn't help when brands you never previously associated with suddenly identify you as 'one of their demographic'.

I was hit between the eyes with this when my wife started telling me about quotes she had obtained on car insurance from APIA (Australian Pensioners Insurance Agency). "That's great," I said, before realising she was actually obtaining a quote on my car.

For those not in the know, APIA (I prefer the acronym because of the non-reference to 'pensioner') is an insurance company that offers cover only to people over 50. I thought the small print might get me off the hook, as they only cover people who are not working full time - the theory being if you're home knitting or repairing your false teeth, you're less likely to have a car accident or have your home burgled. But alas, you can get cover if your partner is not working full time - I qualify again!

I desperately thought I could put them off by demonstrating that I had just bought a car that belied by age - sports seats, sports suspension, big diesel motor, xenon lights and even a multimedia interface for my iPod. Sadly, this only confirmed the likely onset of mid-life crisis.

I thought of other age-proofing evidence I might throw at them to push me into the exclusion zone - gym membership, cycling, listening to Green Day, knowing what LOL meant in chat rooms and I even boring people with my blog. But to APIA, all these things just smack of an older dude still vainly trying to be cool.

There is one answer - divorce. It's the only way I can see my way clear to disqualifying myself from pensionerhood, at least according to APIA's criteria. If I don't have a partner who is not working full time and I remain working full time, I'm off the hook. But APIA are smart. They know the premium I'll pay for divorce is much higher than anything they plan to charge me.

There's only one saving grace in all this - I don't yet qualify for government seniors concessions. I love the idea of pushing the retirement age out to 67. It means the government won't identify me as 'one of their demographic' any time soon.

I don't need smart marketers and ever-vigilant CRM systems to mark me as senior. I'll know when I've met that definition - dribbling will apply to my state of health rather than my limited soccer skills. That's my yardstick but, in the meantime, I'll keep fooling myself while taking full advantage of any discounts that seniority might deliver.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The social media challenge for regulators

I heard this week, probably some time after everyone else, that the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) has released a discussion paper on guidelines that could apply to the use of social media by the financial services sector. I have to say a 'discussion paper' on social media sounds like something of a paradox. Why not just start up the discussion on a Facebook page (yep. ASIC is on FB) or have a crack at opening up discussion on Twitter? It might cast a light on some of the challenges we face!

I have to ask is there any point to a discussion paper on social media? Isn't this a bit piecemeal? As communications strategists, we don't consider social media in isolation, but part of a multi-channel, organic whole. So why would a regulator not consider a review of the entire disclosure regime with social media included as an integrated component?

To consider it alone is like the discussion that led to Product Disclosure Statements. Why wasn't incorporation by reference to website information integrated into the PDS discussion in the first place, rather than having PDSs considered as a stand-alone communication? Let's face it, the Financial Services Reform Act became effective from 10 March 2004 (who thought of that date), by which time we all had websites.

There's no doubt that the industry needs guidelines on social media's fit into the regulatory matrix. The disclosure requirements for the financial services sector are outdated by virtue of being geared to print media and, to some degree, traditional websites. Try putting full disclaimer into 140 characters on Twitter! What about throwing a few extra lines of disclaimer in an SMS? Users will not tolerate it.

The biggest challenge for social media integration is not disclosure, but engagement in two-way conversations. What are the rules around archiving? Is there any need to archive? How can social media conversations be captured and interfaced with more traditional communications channels such as call centres? Imagine a call centre employee picking up a call from a customer who claims to have just been 'speaking' with someone from your organisation on Twitter. What evidence does that operator have of promises made, advice given and so on?

These are questions that must  be answered before social media can be fully integrated into wider communications and engagement strategies. Until then, we've only got a toe in the edge of the pond. One-way, outbound conversations will not deliver desired outcomes in the social media space.

However, I believe that any brand-conscious business should not be relying on the regulators to answer these questions. It is in the best interest of effective and rewarding customer relations that organisations answer these challenges. As usual regulation is only required to look after the interests of consumers potentially exposed to unscrupulous operators.

Will consideration of appropriate social media regulations provide new perspectives on those we already have for more traditional channels and produce overall improvement in communications? I fear that by considering social media as yet another stand-alone channel, we could just add an overlay of unique regulations or amendments that will further complicate an already muddy customer interface. It would be much better to launch a more holistic discussion of communications channels.

Brand no longer a marketing function

I attended the annual Rainmaker Marketing Symposium this week, a talkfest for marketing and investment types from the Aussie financial services sector. One presentation from Julie Bennett, Principal of 64 Media, got me thinking about where brand rightfully sits within organisations now. Julie ran through her version of the differences between marketing and PR functions within organisations.

This is a oft-regurgitated discussion and Julie's list of responsibilities were interesting. I actually challenge the value of the term 'PR' these days. It has unfortunately been defamed too often through association with hucksters, frauds and spin to have any credibility. But that's a discussion for another day. Julie's list, while not specifically identifying brand within the PR portfolio, certainly included the key ingredients of brand - reputation and corporate citizenship, stakeholder relations and so on.

Admittedly, Julie is from the PR industry so this could perhaps be seen as a lunge to secure the territory. After all, in terms of influence within progressive corporations, steering brand trumps marketing and/or communications any day. Not belittling these activities at all, but strategy flows from brand, not vice versa.

Not everyone will agree with  this assertion of course. Financial, legal, compliance, investment and a host of other professionals and executives will not see their activities as subordinate to brand. But the reality is that all other activities are, by definition, subordinate to the organisational values and ethos - whether this is formally recognised and expressed or not. Brand is the expression within and projection into the community of underlying organisational values.

Those organisations that understand this will not make any governance, financial, ethical, product or service decision without evaluating how it aligns with brand. Brand is a focal point for everything an organisation stands for.

How many organisations lose customers because their actions are not authentic - truly aligned with the values they communicate to community? Even the mighty Apple brand lost its way for a time when it stepped back from servicing and appealing to the creative industries to pursue the mainstream corporate market with beige boxes built to a price.

When Steve Jobs took his sabbatical, executives failed to realise that its traditional market was a rich source of early adopters and trend setters. The company quickly enjoyed a resurgence when it returned to its core traditions of breaking new ground with slick, appealing design and market-leading user interfaces.

Apple doesn't have customers, it has a community that belongs to it. Nokia, Blackberry and others will never crack the Apple customer base in any serious way, because it's not about price, distribution or even features. It's about Apple.

And that's what Julie's presentation this week highlighted. The marketing list did not include relationship and community development. The communications function did. Therefore, in my view, marketing cannot own brand. It is too one-dimensional, too sales-oriented. Brand is not about making a sale. That is merely a single component. From a brand perspective, the first sale is merely the first customer experience of an organisation.

From there, through on-going interaction, brand is the delivery of a series of consistent, positive experiences through the life of the customer. The outcome of that is favourable customer pre-disposition for repeat sales. Marketing merely leverages that pre-disposition.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Political campaigns - branding on steroids?

I promise this will be my last entry on the Aussie election campaign. But there is a strange mesh between what I've been observing and what someone said to me the other week about merging with another organisation.

He said that achieving stakeholder buy-in to a merger, and the launch of a new brand, requires running a campaign - more akin to a political campaign than an advertising campaign. Great time to suggest this don't you think? I almost wanted to rush home and take notes as Tony and Julia traded blows - or at least their campaign teams did.

But I resisted the temptation. As I remarked the other week, with a merger planned for completion in about two years, it would be hard to 'maintain the rage', to quote a line from a bygone political campaign, for such an extended period. Stakeholders Australia-wide would drink to that notion as the electronic media blackout on election advertising descended the other night.

Every election we choose from two brands (with due respect to the Greens and Bob Brown, who I can predict with certainty won't be prime minister on Sunday). The campaigns promoting them are branding on steroids. They're brands muscling up to each other, with messages often trying to encourage us to forget brand heritage as we look to the future.

What does this leave us with? Will we actually buy into one of these brands, or are we comparing two commoditised products from which we will ultimately select the one that will cost us less? How often could you get away in the commercial world, with a brand strategy based on debunking competitors?

This is what makes political campaigns fascinating from a brand perspective and that's why I disagree that running a political campaign to secure stakeholder buy-in for a company merger is not quite right. Selling a merger will require close attention to identifying and promoting positive attributes. I haven't seen much evidence of this in the 2010 election campaign.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rules for you don't apply to me

I'm already having withdrawal symptoms. No more election adverts as the blackout descends upon us. There's peace in our TV time. The war between 'phony Tony' and 'real Julia' is silent. No need for the NBN now, as we don't have to rush images of the two protagonists quickly around Australia with gigabit efficiency.

We can now sit and ponder, as the battle moves to the editorial pages and - God forbid! - our local shopping centre, did anyone think that Tony would have been on a winner if he'd promised to "Stop the adverts!"? Promise to stop meddling with Julia's hair which, according to Liberal Party advertising images, remains unmoved as here eyes and head swivel underneath it. And move to prevent any further images of his own, sepia, wild-eyed stare in Labor's adverts.

And what about banning the designer-daubed construction worker in Labor's ads, who uses the boss's time to promote the employment-saving benefits of the government stimulus package? I wondered whether the building site behind him was one of those sites where a house burned down due to dodgy insulation. "You've lost my vote Mr Abbott." he proclaims, raising the question as whether Neilsen or one of the other pollsters remembered to include this negative for the Libs into their latest figures.

And in the blue corner, the Libs counter with footage of a train wreck from the steam era - a methaphor for Labor's poor economic management, or am I thick and missing the point? Don't be surprised if this is recycled in a few months' time by the Victorian Libs in their campaign about the plight of public transport.

You see, the withdrawal symptoms are evident. I actually remember all this stuff and even think about it when I'm officially blacked out. Why do I remember it? Because it's so laughable. I guess humour is emotional engagement of a kind, the thing all of us who promote brands strive for.

Perhaps in financial services, we should use train wrecks as metaphors for the state of your finances post-GFC, or images of rebuilding to represent the scramble to recoup your retirement savings in the later years of your working life. Of course, we'd have to include a lengthy disclaimer along the lines of "this image may or may not reflect the state of your personal finances".

It's amazing what you can get away with in some spheres of marketing communications and not others. But perhaps not so when you realise that politicians set the rules for marketing and disclosure, with one key exemption - themselves!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Julia v. Tony - the battle for authenticity

Have you noticed anything different about the "real Julia"? Since she declared a fortnight ago that the authentic "Julia" brand would be unleashed, I've hardly noticed any difference. She gets out a bit more, tossing coins to start footy games, chatting with truck drivers, cuddling babies - it's just 'so Julia', the hard-edged industrial lawyer and political apparatchik.

Anyone who knows anything about branding would know that it would have been much better for her to morph without making the formal acknowledgement that she'd been faking it for several weeks - a concept, by the way, that I don't think I should discuss with my young daughter!

Recognition of authenticity is earned not declared. It's Branding 101 stuff and not comprehending this just reflects inexperience that must pervade the advisory ranks of the Labor Party. As soon as you have to design an "authentic" label your brand's on the road to ruin.

As for brand Tony, we've seen no declaration of where or when the "real Tony" might have started or finished. The Labor heavies quickly dropped the quip "phony Tony", famously the result of the Kerry O'Brien 'gospel truth' interview. That might have been because they were suddenly about to acknowledge a fair level of phonyness in their own ranks.

I tend to believe that, loath him or love him, Tony Abbott is pretty true to brand, even though he seems to have suddenly become really focused on fishing and learning the fine arts of filleting (is this a metaphor for the disposal of Malcolm Turnbull by Nick Minchin and his troops?). Whoops ... sorry, there's no leadership coups in the Liberal Party!

I mean, who could possibly create, or even seek to create, a brand like Tony - a love child of Catholicism and Howard Conservatism? A progeny who would send Moses home if his basket inadvertantly washed up on Australia's northern shores, but only after consulting with Pharoah.  A man who wants to stop boats, stop the NBN, stop debt, stop just about everything. And he means it.

I know Tony's authentic because he declares he 'is not Bill Gates' when he talks about his plan to short-change us on broadband. He's dead right. Bill Gates has vision that Tony will never have, despite the compromised software his company foists on us.

So we have authenticity (perhaps) versus self-declared authenticity. Like many Aussies, I find myself not convinced about either brand. But I'm not going to adopt the Mark Latham 'blank paper' strategy. I'll head off to the ballot box, complete the sheet of paper and make a choice. I can always return the goods to the store in three years time if the elected leader doesn't live up to the brand promise - authentic or otherwise.

Is understanding customer expectations like reading alphabet soup?

Just completed an annual round of customer satisfaction research. What does it tell me? Pretty much what every piece of research about the superannuation industry is saying right now - people have lost faith as investment returns have taken a battering and superannuation administration and communications platforms fail to live up to 21st Century expectations.

You see, the bods who built the administration platforms 30 years ago are still influential in driving customer satisfaction downwards. They were platforms built when the world was a quieter place and customers weren't so vocal, or networked. They were built when you defined customers as numbers and transaction histories rather than people. Their legacy still lives on.

Overall satisfaction with communications in our survey has hardly moved for over three years, yet the supposed underlying drivers of satisfaction in this area have improved immensely. I might say with some pride that the underlying improvements are because we actually act on our customer research - re-prioritising and fine-tuning the points of customer pleasure and pain.

The question is: if the underlying drivers have improved by over 50% in some instances over two years, why has overall satisfaction not commensurately improved? In fact, there is almost no customer touchpoint, except printed newsletters, that have not improved their scores over the period. Is finding the solution like reading alphabet soup, or is there an obvious explanation?

Although not obvious, I think the answer lies in the relevance and customisation of communications. Superannuation fund customers want stuff that makes sense to them. So reporting the investment returns for each investment option every month is 'nice to see', but largely 'irrelevant to me'. When you have a big chunk of the population that has no notion of how to calculate a percentage, publishing what we do fails to communicate. Customers want to receive communications that do the calculations for them. 'If I am invested in investment options X, Y and Z, translate those monthly returns into the actual dollars I have made after tax, fees and other costs have been taken out'. They don't just want to see their account balance, they want a report on how much they made. After all, that's what investment's all about isn't it?

The other factor is timing. The old quarterly newsletter cycle is bunk. It's useless. When you need to say something, it's usually not in sync with the regular cycle and when you have a newsletter to publish, there's generally nothing to say other than issue more trite reminders about how it's good for you to invest or save more.

No period highlighted this more than the GFC, which tossed investment markets and investor confidence around mercilessly - and is still shaking out in the form of market volatility. When people are losing money, or think they are losing more than they should, they're hypersensitive to the relevance and timeliness of information and they're thirsty for it. They want to log into the website and see, if necessary, a daily summary of their total position in dollar terms, with all their accounts displayed on a single screen and how much they made - or lost.

And this is where the industry's technology platforms are failing investors. Almost with exception, they deliver this information, but not in a consolidated and interpretive form that makes sense to customers, who are often anxious and apprehensive, but far from knowledgeable.

Customers expect and need personalised information. The want dashboards they can configure online to present information in the way they prefer or understand it, the convenience of access via their preferred mobile device, and printed statements that are unencumbered by reams of disclaimers and notes that create suspicion about 'the small type' rather than clarity.

Yes. I know exactly why improvements in touch point scores does not result in an improvement in overall communications score. We're given credit for the quality of our existing touch points, but many customer expectations are forging ahead - demanding more 'on demand' and information formatted how they want it on the media they choose.

We've got a long way to go...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Choosing a research partner

I've been going through the process with colleagues of considering alternative research partners to undertake the critical task of researching the underlying values of two organisations on the road to merger. Sensibly, over the course of the past fortnight, we have melded the brand and communications research with the human resource group's activities to ensure we get the best heads around understanding corporate cultures.

The process has encouraged me to revisit my thinking around the selection of brand partners, given extra poignancy by the fact that the objective is to select partners capable of satisfying the criteria of two quite cultural distinct organisations.

For the most part, the best research companies offer similar technical capabilities, but what emerges during presentations are quite different perspectives and individual styles. We have found criteria bubbling to the surface that have less to do with the technical capabilities of potential providers, but their personalities.

We are considering characteristics such as the likely performance of key individuals in the prospective organisations when presenting to two boards. And a key aspect of this is depth of experience outside of research - the ability to translate data into strategic recommendation.

We left the initial invitation to present credentials quite open to provide potential research partners to demonstrate insight and experience beyond our own. There was no point, in my view, in setting up a tight framework that may constrain original thinking and perspectives.

We have wrapped up presentations now and are on the road to locking in a decision. I suspect that I know the outcome. It will be the company and individuals that have the best prospect of, not only providing good data, but also the capacity to help us build a brand story that will ensure stakeholder buy-in from board to call centre levels.

In the end, human endeavour is all about dreams, stories and journeys. And brands personify companies. All we need is for the data to unearth a story.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Broadband isn't a luxury - it's a basic service

Any communicator or market worth their salt should be voting for the best and fastest broadband option available. It's a basic tool of the trade - with bandwidth and speed to the maximum number of people for the maximum amount of time unleashing enormous opportunities to communicators and consumers alike.

From a business perspective, it can deliver a competitive edge internationally, not just in Australia. There are already some communications and marketing businesses taking advantage of time zone differences to produce and finesse content here ready for the first breakfast meeting overseas later that day (think about it!).

And effective competition in our business is not just about superior ideas and creative, it's about being able to deliver those ideas - many of them in the form of large audiovisual or even print-ready files - to customers when they want them.

As we think about the relative merits in the imminent Australian Federal Election of Labor's $43 billion fibre to home concept and the LNP's collage of various technologies (for around $6 billion), we should consider what this network has to deliver. Unfortunately, I believe it's often discussed within the framework of 'internet'. For some, this means simply being able to read emails which, I think, is why we get such crazy arguments about not needing the bandwidth and speed of fibre optics. That's why businesses with skin in the game should stand up and be counted on this as a primary election issue.

Through this broadband pipe, we increasingly pump television, general telecommunications, movies on demand. online games and so on. And the variety and volume of content is but one dimension of the increased demand on the delivery network. Look at the phenomenal growth of social networking sites like Facebook, the new users they introduce to the web, the exponential number of new links created, the thirst for bandwidth demanded by hi-resolution on-line games and movie entertainment.

I am sure all of us can think of great products that have been compromised to the point of underperformance in function, appeal and sales simply because some bean counter said by eliminating such and such a feature or design element would save $nat's..... per unit. Of course, I'm not suggesting $37 billion is a piffling amount. But peel away the price sticker and look at the value before making a decision.

We're in the information age. Users are increasingly paying for content and access - and they're prepared to do it. Mobile communications would not be in the midst of a boom and iPads would be unsaleable if people were not prepared to pay for content delivered how and when they wanted it. Let's take the broadband decision out of the three-year election cycle and look at its benefits long term.

And by the way, I'm not ruling the low-cost option out. I'm just sceptical!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Are you in control of your brand?

It was great to see one superannuation fund CEO emerge from the pack to demonstrate an understanding of the essence of brand, in an industry otherwise generally bereft of any concept of the value brand delivers to organisations. The champion? Tony Lally of Sunsuper, who argued that, despite the free discourse facilitated by social media, companies still retained control of their brand.

In the opposite corner was Deloitte Digital CEO, Pete Williams, who pushed the alternative argument oft heard in brand circles now (particularly those of social media inclination) that brands are controlled by consumers. Pete argued that this was by virtue of their freedom to disseminate and amplify brand messages, both good and bad, through social networks.

So what do I think? And 'who cares?' you may possibly ask. Well, regardless of your level of caring, I'm going to proceed to tell you (exit here if you wish).

On the continuum of brand control from 100% organisation to 100% consumer, I'm going to give it 95% to organisation. And the reasons were clearly expressed by Tony Lally. Brand is not about your name, your logo or your advertising. It is about underlying values and the consumer expectations they engender. Aligning these is what effective brand management is about. It's about how you engage with customers, how your products perform and your organisational integrity.

All of these are levers controlled within your organisation. Sure, you'll never please 100% of the people 100% of the time and one disgruntled customer my possibly use Pete's social channels to amplify a negative message many thousands of times. But there are mechanisms for dealing with this - identification and resolution of the issue, conversing with your online community and so on.

My argument is that organisations who are getting brand management right will share control of their reputation with consumers, because consumer expectations will precisely align with brand values. Under these conditions, consumers will merely amplify an organisation's brand values through their social networks, whether online or alongside the weekend BBQ with a tinnie in hand.

An organisation that achieves this alignment has nothing to fear from social media, because the channel is merely a vehicle for... damn it... there used to be an old-fashioned term for this... what was it? Ah, got it! Word of mouth.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Let's reward our spectacular failures!

Professional recognition is great, particularly if you're still in career-augmentation mode. More years ago than I care to remember, I won a few awards over several years. Subsequent job offers followed. Strangely, the job interviews that stemmed from those wins all took place in city bars, but that's something I'll never quite resolve.

All I remember is knocking back one offer because I was in such dire financial straits with interest rates at 18% that I was on the verge of losing my house. I therefore could not take on any job that didn't provide a car, because that sort of purchase would have pushed me over the financial brink (I worked for Ford at the time so was well catered for in this regard).

But back to awards. I saw some awards handed out last week at an industry function. With due respect to the winners, who had put together some okay campaigns, none of them broke new ground and several won because of the sheer weight of budget. In fact, I have to say in all modesty that, in most instances, all I saw was replicas/hybrids of what we'd been doing for several years. But we didn't enter the awards program!

My point is not to decry the efforts of others, nor to whinge about opportunities lost by not entering. All I am asking is what is the value of awards programs? Certainly consumers care diddly squat about whether we've collected a marketing or communications award. But of course, they may count for something when you go for your next budget increase or, even more significantly, grovel for your next pay increase, bonus or promotion.

But can awards ultimately do the recipient a mis-service over the longer term?  If we win awards, are we tempted to kid ourselves that our effort and ingenuity sets a new benchmark for the industry? Because this is what good awards programs should be about - creating new benchmarks, thresholds below which no one should fall in future .

Perhaps all the good ideas that we're ever going to see have been acted upon, in which case we are doomed forever to view repeats as frequent as MASH reruns on cable TV. I hope this is not the case, because I would still like to see breakthrough ideas, people recognised and rewarded for taking risks with marketing and communications.

Perhaps every program should include a category for 'Most promising debacle'. This would give appropriate recognition that out of a failed idea might spring something fantastic that will point out new directions for the future.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On election campaign slogans

Remember Kev07's pitch to Australia's 'working families' in the last federal election? What happened to those families and why does Julia 'Brutus' Gillard keep referring to me as 'the Australian people'? Have 'working families' morphed into just plain old 'Australian people'? If so, what were they before?

Perhaps Brutus is trying to embrace diversity, assuming that Kev thought the only working families were immigrants who hadn't been naturalised and, therefore, had not quite made the grade as 'Australian people'. Or perhaps, she has identified that there's a swag of votes to be had among the unemployed and/or occasionally employed families, who didn't quite identify with the 'working families' thing. But what grinds my organ is that the Australian people phrase is very third person - suggesting that Brutus may not be of this nation as she addresses us.

You know, 'the Australian people' thing is getting to me more than 'moving forward'. Both of these would probably be no more irritating than the Lib's battle cry, which might grate on me if they'd cut it in half so I could recall it.  All I can think of from the Lib's catchphrase is 'action' which, unfortunately for the mad monk, keeps regurgitating the budgie smuggler image in my mind.

Election phraseology and imagery is of national importance and we're all occasional victims of it.  Those that capture the mood of the nation like the legendary 'It's Time' campaign in 1972, produce outcomes that vitally affect all our lives.

However, most just cause mood swings rather than capture the mood. The more gratingly annoying this stuff is, the more it sticks in your mind and the gloomier you become. This year's Labor Party slogans suggest that the legendary 'Singo' (he of the infuriating Madge dishwashing liquid and 'Where d'ya get it?' commercials of yesteryear) is back on the payroll and puppeteering in the background.

Unfortunately, the Lib's malaise is akin to my experience of trying to create concise mission and vision statements in the corporate world. Recently, I came across a consultant who advised that a company's vision statement should be a single sentence. The executive group duly engineered a single sentence which, on any decent newspaper subs desk would have been broken down into at least five paragraphs. The result was identical to the Lib's campaign slogan - too long for anyone to remember, generic, and totally forgettable. I say sack the consultant and smuggle in a budgie to think of another.

Given that their leader will never get over the budgie smuggler or early morning cycling images, or the fact that the mad monk would be a first-time prime minister, perhaps an appropriate catchline for the Libs might be: 'Lycra virgin. His very first time'. Job offers - message me here ...