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!