Brand Advocacy the Apple and Amazon Way

Sometimes I get tired of seeing Amazon and Apple at or near the top of various brand rankings. It just seems like a cliche. So I received a much-needed jolt of reality this morning on my morning commute.

I was reading Groundswell on my Kindle. As the train reached 125th St., I noticed my seatmate looking at me. That usually means that the person needs to move past and exit the train, so I asked him if he was getting off. He said that he was actually looking at my Kindle and that it reminded him of his wife’s recent experience with her Kindle. Apparently, she was reading while exercising, and dropped it. Although the device didn’t shatter, the side controls were loosened, and her Kindle was unusable.

Hoping that it might be repairable, she called Amazon customer service. To her amazement, the Customer Service rep said not to worry–just mail the broken Kindle to them, and they would replace it. Two days later, her replacement arrived, with all of the books in her original Kindle intact. My seatmate and I agreed that Amazon was quite generous in their terms.

(In fact, I was curious enough to check out the Kindle warranty on the Amazon site. It is quite open to interpretation, and customer service would be within their rights to claim that dropping it on a treadmill or elliptical machine wasn’t covered in the warranty.)

Continuing on the subject of great customer service, the same gentleman began talking about a similar experience with the Apple Powerbook that he purchased for his college bound daughter. The laptop arrived the week before she was to head off to school in California. When she turned it on, it was clear that something was very wrong with the hard drive. It was now Friday afternoon, and she was due to leave in five days. Her father called Apple customer service in a bit of a panic.

Again, the customer service rep was totally reassuring. The rep informed the father that someone from DHL would arrive at their home by 6:00 p.m. with a box that would fit the laptop, that he ship it back to Apple, and that a replacement would arrive by the following Tuesday. The father emphasized to the rep that his daughter was leaving for school on Wednesday morning, so there was no margin of error.

Sure enough, the laptop arrived on Tuesday as promised. He said that this experience alone persuaded him that a Mac was worth the large price differential over a comparable Dell or HP.

By now, we had arrived at Grand Central Terminal. As I walked to work, it occurred to me that my seatmate is a genuine advocate for both Apple and Amazon. Customers like this is what all companies yearn for. What made both of these examples so great was that it had nothing to do with “features and benefits”. What drove his loyalty to these two technical devices was the interaction with human beings in customer service.

All the brand strategy, advertising, brochures, cool websites in the world cannot improve on the personal interaction with a brand. It is clear that in a purposeful way, both Apple and Amazon create engaged employees. Engaged employees are infectious in the best possible way–they pass along their infection to customers.

My hat is off to both of them.


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Branding Brilliance from Mary Kay

My daughter and I were on a drive for a college visit. I was in the center lane of a three-lane Westchester County parkway. Before I knew it I was passed on the left by a most unusual SUV. At first, I thought that the sun was affecting my eyes, but, yes, driving along in distinctive splendor was a pink Cadillac Escalade.

My daughter gasped and said, “Is that a pink car?”. “Yes”, I replied, “it belongs to a super salesperson for Mary Kay”. Susannah immediately asked whether anyone could buy a car that color, and my response was that it was unique to Mary Kay.

I had always heard about the pink cars, but had never seen one. I had assumed that they would be awful-looking, but that was the wrong assumption. Pink the Escalade was, but it was tasteful, and believe me, it stood out from every other car on the road. It conjured up so many positive attributes as well:

  • Cadillac is an American car, and Mary Kay embodies the American dream. Good for her for not handing out a Lexus to her top salespeople
  • Pink is Mary Kay’s signature color, and this particular shade was so special that it remains in my mind over a week later
  • This is a business that encourages and–better yet–rewards the entrepreneurial spirit. Whoever was driving must be an incredibly successful person and clearly an advocate for the Mary Kay brand

All of those associations came crowding in within seconds. Although there was a discreet “Mary Kay” on the rear of the vehicle, it was unostentatious. Bravo!

Mary Kay doesn’t advertise. It is sold on a one-to-one basis. I have no idea how to calculate the collective impressions each time the vehicle is seen in the area, but I bet it’s worth a lot.  You gotta love the clarity of purpose and creativity behind this program. And my guess is that it grew organically, not as an overt way to “raise awareness of the brand”. Mary Kay was a woman ahead of her time in more ways than one!

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The Ten Brands I Give Thanks For

It’s Thanksgiving day, and although it sounds frivolous, I have spent the last few days thinking about what brands I really care about, that make a positive difference in my life, and that perform against higher standards than most. This is highly unscientific, personal, and random. But these companies make products that drive preference–mine at least–and stay the course in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

You will notice that the cool advertising is not  the reason these brands have been chosen. Cool advertising–or any advertising–is not the same as a brand. The same goes for the logo.

The list is in alphabetical order:

American Express For not recklessly pursuing the sub-prime market. For the wonderful Platinum card, which has earned every penny of the annual fee by giving me access to airline clubs on bad travel days. For retaining the original card member year on the face of the card.

Apple For gorgeous design, intuitive controls, and perfection in packaging. For not selling out to Intel’s co-branding dollars and keeping its advertising clean and distinctive.

Bergdorf Goodman For not contributing to the homogenization of the world and maintaining its one, spectacular and historic location. For merchandise that you can’t get elsewhere.

Felco For the best pruners in the world, in all sizes. 15 years and counting.

Google Voted in by my daughter, “because it answers all her questions,” and it’s hard to argue that. Besides, it isn’t afraid to take the logo out for a walk now and then. All I ask is that they stick with their mantra, “Don’t be evil”.

Hershey* For giving new meaning (or the original meaning) to “corporate social responsibility”. For employee retention and loyalty that few can claim. For staying true to its roots, even in extensions like the amusement park and hotel. *If they buy Cadbury and mess with the Trust, they are off the list.

Martha Stewart The brand, not the person. For inspiring me to get back in touch with my inner crafter, and make my home a better place. For an unerring eye for color, composition and quality. For products that are manufactured to high standards.

NPR For miraculous programing that brings a fresh face and point of view to whatever it covers. For Car Talk, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Jonathan Schwartz, An American Life, all of which have kept me in my car long past the time for me to get out.

Olay For reinventing itself from an obscure, old lady brand, to a well-priced, well-researched, line of skin care products just before the recession hit. Well done!

OXO For changing forever the experience of peeling a potato–in other words, ergonomic innovation. For standing out among all the endless kitchen tools.

The minute I finish this post, I will undoubtedly come up with other winning brands. I’ll just keep them until next year.

How about you?

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College and University Branding

I am the proud mother of twin daughters, who happen to be in their senior year in high school. Anyone who has gone through the college search process in the last few years is well-aware of the marketing prowess demonstrated by even the most unknown colleges. If you haven’t experienced it, you would be amazed.

Some of this we brought upon ourselves. As neither daughter seemed to comprehend the importance of good grades, we began visiting colleges after their freshman year–hoping to give them an inspiring glimpse of why exactly they were in college prep schools. Those first tours did not have the desired effect. In fact, they might have boomeranged. But not surprisingly, those early schools began to contact us regularly. Impressive follow-up.

Then my husband discovered the book, “Colleges That Change Lives“, which is a cottage industry unto itself. The book is terrific, uncovering some of the best, smaller schools that connect with their students in meaningful ways. The book came first, then the schools seemed to capitalize on it, and thus a specialized college fair was born. My husband and daughters attended one, and at the Cornell College booth, the recruiter knew of their great-aunt Geneva, who had been an renowned English professor there for 40 years. Then they visited the Ohio Wesleyan University booth, where the recruiter had been a classmate of my husband’s (back then a ne’er do well) brother, and remembered him well and fondly. Each school was more impressive than the next. Now the girls were starting to “get it”. What is so interesting about this group of schools is that they have, in effect, created a branded class that in total begins to challenge the commonly accepted top tier of schools.

As a brander, I applaud them. As a mother, I realized that many of them were beyond the academic reach or geographic interest of my daughters. And so we continued to search.

Today’s college fair (if you live near a large city) is an amazing experience. It’s like a trade show, but what is interesting is that everyone plays on an even field. Each school has a table. What they do with their table is up to them, but there is no change to create a fancy two story, over the top, booth. Business could learn a great deal from the “sales” efforts of the recruiters. The best of them have attended the school they recruit for, and they provide detailed, insightful and personal information.

Another great resource is “America’s Best Colleges for B Students“. It’s not as rigorously researched as CTCL, but there is helpful information about how and where students may access academic support and get the tools for success. We found several intriguing schools, some of which cross-referenced with CTCL, which made them even more interesting.

The best schools understand how 17-year olds today communicate, which is not always in a formal interview or a formal essay. Most have FaceBook pages, and they communicate via email–and direct phone calls. Again, this is evidence of total focus on the target audience.

We are far from done. What were the memorable experiences? High Point University, whose president is a businessman who has both a vision and a deep understanding of marketing. It may look glossy, but it is not fluffy. A surprise finalist is McDaniel College, which is both a CTCL and a “B Student” school. The information session purposely had no fancy PowerPoint or video, just an incredibly intelligent and articulate representative who focused on the school’s commitment to the holistic education of each student. Instead of being put off or intimidated by the academic excellence, my daughter found herself challenged and insprired by it. Bravo!

Right now, we are in the thick of it. The phone rings nearly every day with a recruiter or student representative from a college. Our mailbox is overloaded with post cards and brochures.

If you are a marketer, just think of the challenge. There are the Ivies, the Big Ten, the major State Universities. But there are thousands of schools under the radar, all trying desperately to stand out from the pack. The best have a deep sense of who they are, their heritage, and their vision for the future. The remainder have bought into expensive marketing communications programs, but they still have far to go. As many people say, “There is a college for everybody.” Some make their case far better than others.

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How To Start A Business Without Really Trying

About two months ago, I was driving my car on my way to the garden store, and a little voice in my head said, “I don’t want to work for anyone anymore.” I don’t get urgent messages from my inner self all that often, so it seemed important that I think hard about that.

On the surface, I had a pretty flexible situation. I was a freelancer/contract worker at a small brand consultancy. Given the economic climate, I had recently been exploring alternative opportunities, both in consulting and corporate marketing. Nothing really inspired me. And the place where I worked had a cool name, and I had spent the past year doing nothing but represent myself behind that name. That had been a big, serious commitment. And I really liked the guy I was working with. But.

On a Monday, I “quit”. And then I started to think that I didn’t want to be one of those people who just had a business card with my name on it. I’m a brand consultant, after all! I wanted to look–and be–professional.

So I started thinking about setting up an LLC. The web, as always, provided a massive amount of information, especially about the relative merits of the LLC versus being simply “self employed”. And there were lots of companies out there that would do the paperwork for me, for what seemed to be not a lot of money. After some comparison price checking, I selected Incorporate Fast. They lived up to their name!

The major challenge, of course, was the name. Naming is terribly hard because it seems like every real word has been taken. But my little voice reminded me that the word “synthesis” was representative of what I do, and kind of intriguing. I tried to register “Synthesis Group”. Sadly, although it was clear in New York State, the US Tradmark Office said it was too close to “Synthesis International Group”. Happens all the time. Not to be deterred, I decided to amend it slightly to “Synthesis Plus”. Bingo! A real word that wasn’t just my name, that could be registered!

A friend of mine, who has had his own business for years, told me that I now needed a “hosting service” that would give me an email address and domain. He recommended Network Solutions. I found them online, and once again, after putting yet another significant charge on my credit card, we were underway. Then, the dreaded search for a domain name. Can you believe it? Both SynthesisPlus.com and SynthesisPlus.net were totally available for the princely sum of $9 each. Needless to say, I scooped them up.

Upward and onward to the need for a computer. We have four computers in the house, but not one of them could really be used exclusively for my work. Plus I had been working on a Mac for 8 years, and our best computers were PCs. Thanks to my husband’s research, I found a great company in Oregon, PowerMax, that sells used Macs. I managed to find one that didn’t totally break the bank, and put in the order.

I will not bore you with the horror of trying to install an upgrade of our existing Windows for Mac software. Suffice it to say that it didn’t work, and if I wanted help from Microsoft, then I would have to pay to even speak to a human being. Since I had ordered iWork with my Mac, I decided to try to live Microsoft free. Yes, it can be done!

While all this was happening, I was suddenly getting calls about some potential work. I had a name, but no logo, and no templates for documents, and no existing boilerplate credentials, and no past proposals that I could turn to. The Mac Pages, which is their version of Word, was a lifesaver. It lacks some of the technical functionality of Word, but (of course), it creates much more beautiful documents. It’s also very easy to save as Word or Powerpoint so that those trapped in Microsoft can read my documents, and when they send their docs to me, it’s a breeze to swap them out to iWork.

It’s exactly 4 weeks since I first decided to create an LLC, and I have three proposals outstanding. I have some fabulous logo designs to choose from, and a sense of accomplishment and new-found energy that surprises and delights me.

There is much more to be done, of course, like get a website up and running, decide how long I want to work from home, and if I want to hire people to work with me, but that will come in time. Now, excuse me, I have to get back to work.

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Why Is The UK More Enlightened About Employee Engagement?

This is a question that has nagged at me for well over a year. So, when I read “Engaging for Success”, a report commissioned by the UK Secretary of State, my idle curiosity turned to amazement and awe. Consider the forward by Rt Hon Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills:

A recession might seem an unusual time for such reflection – in fact, the opposite is the case. Because Britain’s economic recovery and its competitive strengths in a global economy will be built on strong, innovative companies and confident employees, there has never been a more important time to think about employee engagement in Britain. 

This 150+ page report was authored by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke. It is extensively researched, and offers fascinating insights and recommendations. What is most impressive, however, is that it focuses on the tangible and quantifiable business links between engaged employees and business success.

Here in the US, as a lonely traveler seeking to provide enlightenment to companies, I have led numerous brand engagement programs. This is not the same as “classic” engagement because instead of working with Human Resources, I work with Marketing or Corporate Communications, and the focus is on brand strategy and execution. Historically,  my clients have rarely wanted anything to do with Human Resources or their programs. The opposite is also true. Many large companies have established “employer brands” programs that focus on recruitment and retention–and ignore the external brand.

But I haven’t seen the kind of holistic perspective on engagement as expressed by MacLeod and Clarke here in the U.S. Lisa Wojtkowiak, who specializes in employee research for ORC, says that the most exciting statistical research is being done out of their London office. There is finally concrete support for the Sears service-profit chain model, with other companies showing similar correlations between engaged employees and greater profitability.

Why does the UK get it and U.S. companies do not? Here are some theories:

1. The intangible value of engaged employees is not well-understood or quantified by financial executives.

2. Human Resources and Marketing have rarely, if ever, partnered together. Each have their own models, budgets, programs, KPIs, and preferred vendors, and sharing may mean loss of the power inherent in owning data. (As I understand it, HR executives wield much more financial power in the UK).

3. In many UK corporations, there is an officer who is in charge of employee engagement, and this person has access to the CEO. In the US, similar roles tend to be put under Human Resources, with little power or budget.

4. Maybe the UK workforce is just less mobile than the U.S. It’s much harder to lay people off, and with a greater investment in long-term employees, it may heighten the need to develop active, meaningful engagement programs.

I think we may be at the tipping point here in the U.S., and look forward to more meaningful conversations with my clients in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

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