Saturday, May 29, 2010

White House writers from a unique PR club

I never knew this PR company existed - but then again, I am as far removed from the White House as BP's PR right now! From what I can see, the White House Writers Group is a PR half way house for those released from Presidential detention with a pass to offer advice on corporate affairs.

I have no idea how many White House writers there are - a substantial number I should imagine given the scope of issues coverage from Washington's most prestigious home. WHWG is certainly maintaining the tradition of broad scope with an article currently on its website home page entitled "Analyzing Campaign Speech Writing on Norwegian Television".

White House Writers Group is certainly not a brand name that rolls off the tongue, but I have to say, it's a name that needs no tagline or mission statement to spell out its value proposition, experience or service offer. And their website offers free advice and insights - much better than most PR websites that are no more than online brochures that do the profession no justice.

If you're running a PR company, take a look and learn. The sprinkling of original free insights and advice would encourage me to hire this company ahead of many others.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

BP - Trouble in the Gulf between fact and message?

BP is certainly experiencing what it's really like when events stack up beyond petroleum. The company's brand is at risk of drowning in the Gulf of Mexico, with any number of reports like this one sprouting up everywhere about whether the oil disaster is much worse than the company is admitting. The only thing flowing as fast as the oil are the stories and commentary across the internet.

Naturally, whenever these cataclysmic events occur, the first instinct of a company is damage limitation, but in what order of priority? This is the question many residents along the Gulf coast will be asking, as oil seeps twelve miles into wetland areas. Government agencies - from local government all the way to the White House - are starting to question whether BP is doing enough and is what it is doing effective?

For BP, damage limitation extends beyond saving the environment to brand, legal and financial. And the messages the company sends out on its efforts to stem the flow of oil shapes world perceptions about which area of damage it is most concerned about. This is regardless of what its true priorities might be.

There is no doubt that this is an enormously challenging technical problem, which extends into explaining the issues to stakeholders, from local fishermen to the US Government. In the past few days, there have been reports that BP was forewarned about problems associated with this rig. No doubt, when the litigation inevitably starts, the veracity of these claims will be appropriately tested.

Nonetheless, rig integrity or otherwise, the fundamental question is what risk assessment took place before exploration and drilling began and either:
  • Why did it not identify the potential for this problem; or
  • If it did, why did BP not have an adequate disaster management plan and facilities in place?
To some extent, BP's reputation will swing on the speed with which it can resolve the crisis it faces in the Gulf of Mexico and the appropriateness of the reparations made to communities and environment.

However, I would argue that the measure of damage to BP's brand and reputation ultimately lies in the answer to the questions I posed, because reputation is built on conducting business with integrity at every level and stage of operation.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Tough times shape the thinking of Gen Z

I arose every morning this week to discover that Wall Street had been crunched again overnight with a similar outcome expected for the Australian bourse in the day ahead. It got me thinking about the implications for branding as the punters lose faith in institutions and corporate and economic management.

The underlying economic problem right now is the risk of collapsing national economies - of countries defaulting on their debts. Widely referred to as sovereign risk, this is potentially a far bigger problem than the collapse Lehmann Brothers. I must say that, as they face the bailout of whole nations, I am amazed at the resiliance of the humble taxpayers who - whether they're underwriting sovereign or corporate debt - end up footing the bill somewhere along the line. I wonder what happens when taxpayers default - or revolt?

The fortunate thing for politicians is that we have institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who appear to magically produce money to bail out cot case economies. Most taxpayers don't realise that the IMF magic pudding actually rises on the back of contributions from member states who, in turn, raise the necessary taxes to cover their contributions. How's that for adroit sleight of hand?

But I digress. As nations grapple to stay afloat, what are the implications for brands? There is a lot of research around that says, for Gen Y, brand loyalty has gone out the window. According to many, this fickle, demanding generation is almost impossible to pin down. But if you think Gen Y's tough, wait until you see the next mob. My daughter is Gen Z. She's gifted with xray vision and bullshit detection capabilities that us boomers can only dream about.

As current events unfold, they are defining the development years of her generation, which must inevitably grow up to question the integrity of institutions, brands and people behind them. While we in the branding community talk about authenticity, the aftermath of our series of financial crises will surely test our capacity to 'walk our talk'.

So if you're company's only paying lip service to authenticity, you'd better lift your game as the Gen Z shoppers are starting to hit the streets now!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gazman and Toyotas

My wife rang me at work yesterday from that bloody Gazman clothing store. It was about a jacket... oh, and by the way... there's also a pair of pants on sale... and a SKIVVY!! sort of thing.

This rang serious alarm bells. A 'Sale' sticker is like the lure on a greyhound track to my wife. She'll chase it  all the way to the cash register. Nevertheless, I felt I had to make a stand.

'Unless Gazman agrees to use me in its next male catalogue, I won't be buying any more,' I resolutely responded down the phone, knowing full well there were plenty of more likely candidates. "I'm just about entirely attired in their stuff and I don't want any more!'

It was the return of serve to this comment that really floored me though - especially as I have some respect for brands. "I don't know what's wrong with you. Gazman is one of the best-selling brands in Australia. Everyone buys it."

I couldn't help myself: "Toyota is the best-selling brand in Australia too, but I wouldn't buy a Toyota." The silence was deafening, then: "A Lexus is a Toyota." This would seem a feeble response and would normally prove my point but, instead, it send shock waves through the domestic millpond. My wife has just signed up for a new Lexus IS250 - her new pride and joy - and I had just thumped my volley into the net.

How did I step back from the brink? I agreed to buy the Gazman jacket. If only all purchase decisions were so simple! At least I held ground on the skivvy thing, even though it would look good behind the steering wheel of the Lexus!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Collegiate approach to research a clear trend

I've had three marketing / research companies push stuff through the letterbox in the last month offering me - or at least the company I work for - the chance to cough up some dough to participate in industry-wide research projects.

I think pitching into a research 'pool' with competitor businesses isn't a bad idea. I have been doing annual tracking of customer satisfaction for the past few years and I have to say, done in isolation, I'm often left wondering what it all means in terms of our competitive position.

This especially occurs in a low engagement business like retirement savings. I mean, if we didn't have mandatory contributions and big tax breaks on it in Australia, who'd be in superannuation? We'd all just stash our cash where we could get hold of it when everyday matters took priority over saving for the future.

The thing about tracking customer satisfaction on your own, is that you get an absolute score, whether NPS or other. But for better or worse, you don't know how that tracks against your competitors. Sure, there's plenty of secondary research around, but direct comparison is rendered useless by methodology that is not 100% aligned across surveys.

The best you get in annual surveys is a trend line for your business. This is useful for setting and rewarding against organisational KPIs, but a 5% annual improvement off a low base is deceptive if your competitors are achieving an annual 6% off a higher base.

This collegiate approach to independent research, where you have the opportunity to include your own customers assessed as a subset of a broader survey is precisely what's needed in order to gain meaningful insight into your competitive position in the marketplace.

Congratulations to the various companies who are taking this approach. When the time is right for us, I will be participating.

Friday, May 7, 2010

UK election: Recruit your lobbyist now!

The Prime Minister's been hung by the British electorate and so has the Parliament. It's starting to look more like the US democratic model by the day - with no party reliably able to govern and presenting some of the most fertile commercial territory for lobbyists in the world.

A hung Parliament means ruling through arrangements ranging from formal coalition to loose collectives of common ideology and/or special interests. The problem is, of course, that the Government has no clear mandate to do anything. It leads to the gridlock for which Capitol Hill is renowned, and special interest groups running amok lobbying individuals and parties sympathetic to their cause or, worse still, owing them political favours.

For the next 18 months, or however long the new British Parliament lasts, there's probably going to be no faster-growing business than 'Government Relations' more commonly referred to as lobbying. So if you're running a PR agency with aspirations in the UK, I reckon you'd better start recruiting a lobbyist with strong political connections.

The only problem will be selecting one who has connections on the 'winning' side. In the end, that might be the one with strongest links to the Liberal-Democrats because, as I read it now, they're the party in the driving seat.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Things that go bump in the stats

Two things have crossed my radar in the past 24 hours that have raised the question about statistical error and, more particularly, when one should act on research findings.

The first was on the ABC's excellent Q&A program where, as usual when politicians are exposed to public questioning, the conversation turned to climate change. Federal Environment Minister, Penny Wong, said that the research indicated that there was a 90% chance that human activity was contributing to climate change (note: global warming has disappeared from the vernacular!).

Segue to a newsletter I received this morning from respected Melbourne research company, Forethought Research, which discussed statistical error in research and what it means in terms of management decision making. There was stuff about p-value etc, which essentially measures the likely accuracy of statistical information.

The point in the newsletter was that companies are generally accepting of 90% accuracy, rather than the 95% that the statisticians would like us all to shoot for. Why is this?

I suspect it is because research is often used to test out management's instinctive or anecdotal suspicions that average performance according to a set of criteria has varied. In my view, a company with its finger on the pulse of what customers are thinking should not be totally surprised by research findings.

Which brings me back to Penny Wong and climate change. This is an area where the variables are so broad, and inputs so vague that anything close to 90% accuracy is miraculous. She put the argument that it would be irresponsible not to take action given the level of certainty around the research.

Penny pointed out that the last decade was the warmest since weather records began. I wonder if this is the 'managerial' anecdotal evidence that enables action on the 90% certainty? There have been warm periods previously. Antarctica used to be covered in forest - but perhaps that was when the Earth was still busy cooling the primordial swamps. The only climate records from then are layers of rock and fossils.

The only certainties I can see in all this is that global resources, though vast, are finite and economists, bless their hearts, still consider that the only valid success measure is growth in GDP. We talk about sustainability and still breed like rabbits.

More significantly, western democracies seem to have rendered themselves virtually impotent to do anything about it. Opposition politicians drool at the chance to harpoon governments if GDP declines, interest rates increase, new home starts fall and so on. Sometimes these are necessary evils. It's why the Chinese may be the best-positioned to act on climate change and make a difference. The are big emitters and special interest lobbies and the loonie fringe find it harder to get a foothold there.

In the end, climate change cycles outlast political cycles and will ultimately prevail. And you can bet on that with a high degree of accuracy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Football clubs - Great insight into the brand balance sheet

I watched my team, Liverpool FC, play Chelsea in the English Premier League in the wee hours of this morning. It was a sad end to the season for one of the proudest clubs, may I suggest 'brands', in world football.

Football clubs provide great insight into the brand balance sheet. On the one hand, they have everything that brand managers want - fiercely loyal tribes of advocates, an NPS in treble digits. On the other, they are brands open to the most rigorous scrutiny and comment. The players are ambassadors for brand value and, in elite sport, the pressure is on them to perform 24/7 both on and off the pitch. The tribe can turn ugly very quickly if their 'brand' doesn't perform or its values are trashed.

I turned 'ugly' this morning, although some would suggest this was a byproduct of my birth rather than football and happened decades ago. But I digress. The Liverpool brand has been slaughtered this season by indifferent owners looking to make a quick buck on the franchise, a manager out of ideas and a number of overpaid players who could not have shone the boots for more stellar players in bygone eras.

Read the internet banter among supporters and hecklers though and you can see why football clubs are great brands. Despite their disappointment, football tribes still vehemently defend their brand, even while hurling criticism at club owners, managers and players. The emotional attachment to football brands trumps all logical arguments that flow from disappointment.

The hard core of a club's supporters never think of going to support someone else. They merely heckle until the sheer force of public approbrium brings about change. How many corporate brands could withstand the barrage of criticism hurled at personnel and products as well as football brands seem to do it? How many would be game to freely host hostile commentary on their own websites?

Football is a winner-take-all business. There are no shades of gray. At the elite level, it's not how you play the game, it's whether you win or lose. If you're concerned about the political correctness of that, visit the message boards of under-achieving clubs and see how 'correct' they are.

Liverpool is an outstanding case. The club is a victim of its rich, winning heritage, of trophies won at the top level through intimidating speed and style. The tribe will accept nothing less and nor should it. Being true to brand is all they care about.

YNWA. If you don't know what it means, you're not one of us...! Bring on 2011!