Sticks and stones can’t break their bones, but words can hurt brands.

In the past, if someone had a beef with a business, the worst they could do was to tell their friends and family about the horrible service at “Al’s Diner,” and maybe send a spiteful letter to Al. But now they can unleash their opinions and words of venom to the world through a never-ending list of business review sites, social media channels, forums etc., for all fellow consumers to read.

A major part of a brand’s identity comes from the way its consumers perceive it. And a part of the consumer’s perception of a brand is influenced by what other people are saying about it. In this Digital Age in which we are all connected, the modern consumer is capable of reaching a lot of people, potentially affecting their opinions, perspectives and feelings about a business.

When you think about it, that’s a lot of power, much more than consumers have ever had in the past, and both good and evil can come from that. As the old adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

I completely support the consumer’s right to be heard, as long as they’re honest and fair. The consumer voice of reason keeps businesses in line and helps them improve. It’s the unreasonable people that I have a problem with. It’s way too easy to turn on the laptop and rip a business a new one just because the cashier “looked at you wrong.”

We may assume that our lone little rants, out there amongst thousands of others, don’t have an impact, but they do. They’re out there for the world to see. Whether just one reader or 1,000 readers stumble across the consumer review, it has the potential to affect people’s perception of the brand. And if the review is unfair, irrational, unnecessarily mean, or a flat out lie, then that’s not fair to the business (no matter how big or small it is), nor the  bystander who now has the wrong impression.

The Digital Age has connected businesses and consumers in an unprecedented way. Both are now on an even playing field. And just as we expect integrity and fairness from brands, we are responsible for reciprocating. If we as consumers aren’t fair and judicious with our comments, reviews and complaints, then we’re just as bad as the allegedly loathsome businesses we’re complaining about.

– Andrew

Not Another “Go Digital” Lecture

You’d think people and businesses would be adapting to the Digital Age by now. Some have, but many still haven’t gotten the memo. Resistance to change almost seems to be wired into human DNA. So a lot of people, small business owners and companies alike, are in denial, and seem to think the Digital Age is just another passing fad. But if they want to succeed, that kind of thinking has to stop.

It’s not just about the technology; it’s about the consumer. Consumers are the reason businesses need to adapt to the digital/mobile movement in the first place. Why? Because consumers are living in the Digital Age, they’re embracing it, it’s where they can be reached, and it’s what they expect when they interact with businesses. And fully embracing the Digital Age doesn’t stop at setting up a Facebook Fan Page.

For example, I never carry cash, only a debit and credit card. Although I expect to make purchases with my cards, a lot of businesses miss out on my sale because they don’t have a card reader. I try to be proactive and grab some cash if I know I’m going to some place that doesn’t accept cards, but carrying cash just isn’t convenient for me, and many other people feel the same way. Therefore, we non-cash carriers sometimes end up just hoping a business will accept cards. How pathetic does that sound? “Please, please just let me buy something from you!”

If a business isn’t providing everything they can to make things easy on the customer, including the most convenient payment option out there (i.e. debit cards), then they’re missing out on sales. This goes for small businesses too. Their quality of service should compare to, if not surpass the quality of service of their larger competitors. Plus, making the debit card option available is easier than ever before. It’s called the Square.

In this new digital era, the ability to accept cards is just one example of the many modern shopping conveniences consumers expect out of businesses. And that list will only increase in the future.

Consumers have much more say in how they shop than ever before. They call the shots, and they expect convenience. Are you going to give it to them? If not, someone else will.

So yes, go digital, but beyond that, go where the consumer takes you.

– Andrew

Is Your Writing All Talk?

Commitment Innovations Today

People Inspiring Discovery

Soaring Achievement Excellence

Do these phrases mean anything to you? I mean, the individual words are ok. But put together, they’re ambiguous, and pretty much meaningless.

This is something I frequently notice in advertising and business communications – words that are pretty on the outside (sometimes not even that), and empty on the inside. They’re purely cosmetic. It’s just a gag played on the audience, similar to the tricks performed by this magician.

For the sake of conversation, let’s call these meaningless ad phrases “gaglines.” (Not only is the illusion that they’re saying something of value a joke, but they make me gag.)

Gaglines defeat the purpose of your advertising. They’re just pretending to say something, but really not saying anything at all.

The purpose of your advertising is most likely to fix some kind of problem; transparent gaglines don’t fix those problems. Just because you use words like “excellence” or “inspire,” doesn’t mean you’re saying something meaningful and beneficial about the brand. Ad copy needs to be real and genuine. It should focus on the message, not the words.

Every ad you put out there is an opportunity – an opportunity to be heard, to influence consumers, to boost sales for the client… Failure to say something meaningful about the brand is a missed opportunity. So take advantage of your spotlight moment. Give your words legs to walk, and say something worth listening to.

– Andrew

To All You Brands Out There

Specifically the ones that don’t take branding seriously:

Branding matters, a lot, no matter how big or small your business, even if you have 6 Likes on your Facebook page. Remember, every single time your business is represented in relation to your customers and the general public, whether it be a Tweet, a sale or an ad, it all affects your brand image. And not only can your brand image affect your sales and reputation, but it can affect the entire future of your business.

Your brand isn’t necessarily defined by you; it’s defined by consumers, and the way they perceive your business. And that perception partially comes from what you have put out into the ether. Influencing that perception occurs in a number of ways, from the content of your website, to your logo, to your advertising, especially the experiences customers have with your company. All of these things (among others) contribute to your brand’s identity.

If you own a small business, do not make the mistake of thinking this kind of neurotic concern for brand development only applies to large, global brands. It’s just as important to your business, especially if you’re in the early stages of brand development. Every “branding moment” matters, regardless of how minuscule some moments may seem to you. By “branding moment,” I mean, every opportunity your business has to influence or support your brand in the public eye. And the outcome of every moment applies a plus or minus to your branding scoreboard.

So take it seriously. After all, this is your business. A business you’ve probably made sacrifices for, a business that puts food on your table, and provides for your family… You probably put a lot of care into every aspect. Don’t leave branding out of it.

– Andrew

Click for photo source.

Branding & A Kennedy Half Dollar

There’s a little sandwich shop not far from the office called Whiffer’s. It’s been there forever and as far as I can tell it only has one employee and that’s Whiffer. She owns the place, makes the sandwiches and soups and provides the witty banter as she makes your lunch. Whiffer has been running that little shop longer than I’ve been in Sioux Falls, and she is quite a character with a voice that reminds you of an aging Katherine Hepburn circa On Golden Pond.

It’s a quirky little joint on North Minnesota Avenue, on the cusp between a rough neighborhood and the industrial area surrounding Sioux Falls Regional Airport. The sign by the door says “Open 11 to 3ish.” As far as I know the extent of her advertising is the weathered old sign in front of the small converted house. And if you approach from the south the sign is hidden by a bush, from the north it’s obscured by a hill and some traffic signs.

But there are a few things you can always count on at Whiffer’s – a big overstuffed sandwich, great cookies and brownies and the cost of your meal will always be rounded to the nearest quarter of a dollar. And here’s where a little bit of branding genius comes in. When you get your change, Whiffer will hand you a Kennedy half dollar.

When was the last time you were given a 50-cent piece? For me, other than Whiffer, I think the last person to give me a Kennedy half dollar was my grandmother on my eighth birthday. A Kennedy half dollar was special. You saved them carefully in your piggy-bank along with the two-dollar bills and wheat pennies; they weren’t the kind of thing you spent willy-nilly. My wife still has her little ceramic bank full of them.

Now days, when I get a quarter, nickel or dime, I put it in the ashtray of the car as fodder for the parking meters. But the meters won’t take a 50-cent piece, so I set it on my desk. I’ve begun to collect quite a few Kennedy half dollars, and every time I look at one, or pick it up and toss it in the air, I think of Whiffer. And then I know what I’m doing for lunch.

I asked her about the Kennedy half dollars the other day and she told me when she requests them from the bank, they have to go back into the vault to get her the coins. This is not a decision she makes lightly. She likes the smile those half dollars put on her customers’ faces. She likes that she’s unique. And you know what, I think it’s pretty damn smart of that old gal. She’s turned an unusual piece of U.S. currency into her calling card, and that seems to me like some pretty shrewd branding.

Seriously, when was the last time you were handed a Kennedy half dollar?

– Jim Mathis

From FMOT to ZMOT

From FMOT to ZMOT Jan 13, 2012

For those who haven’t heard of the First Moment of Truth (FMOT), essentially it’s the moment in which a consumer is in a store deciding between your brand and the next guy’s. For years this has been a profound moment for businesses and marketers – a final fight to the death between two gladiators. Who will win? Lucky Charms or Cap’n Crunch? All of your branding and marketing efforts have led up to this moment. If your efforts were good enough, you’d close the sale and bask in the glory of the crowd’s roar in the Coliseum. But if you failed, you’d lose the sale to your competitor and fall to your death.

Although FMOT is still significant, it is yet another victim affected by digital technology’s wrath. Recently there has been a lot of hype around our office about a new book called ZMOT: Winning the Zero Moment of Truth  by Jim Lecinski.

Now that you know about FMOT, the term Zero Moment of Truth refers to the moment of competition before the consumer reaches FMOT, and it takes place online rather than in the store. For example, if you were thinking about buying a new TV, whether you plan to buy it online or in-store, would you first conduct a little research online to learn about your options? You may compare brands and prices, read customer reviews about the potential candidates, or even consult your Twitter followers for suggestions. If you’re behind the times like me and still have a cathode-ray tube television, you may even do a little research to learn about HDTV’s in general before moving on to comparing brands, specs and prices. The instance in which you are conducting all of this research, from learning about the product category to the brand options, is the Zero Moment of Truth. And it’s becoming increasingly important for brands and businesses to be present at this moment and to take advantage of the opportunity, especially in today’s digital retail environment where some consumers may not even leave the couch when purchasing your product. And if they do, there’s a good chance that they’ve done some online research before coming to your store. And this is why your business needs to be there during that decision process.

I’ll give you an example from the book. It’s not enough for businesses to only be present when their brand name or product category is typed into a search engine; there are more innovative ways to be present as well. To illustrate this strategy, the author points out a popular Google search phrase – “What’s in dog food?” Now if you were a dog food company, wouldn’t you want to be present when a consumer has a question like this? Who better to answer it than you? Maybe you could start a “What’s in dog food” campaign and educate your consumers. Plus, it’d be a great way to stand out among your competitors.

And that’s the kind of stuff you’ll find in this book. It’s a short and simple read, but incredibly insightful. The author presents numerous case examples and offers tools, tips and ideas on how you can apply and implement ZMOT in your business. The Zero Moment of Truth concept is no doubt a monumental, game-changing notion for the field of marketing. Although this book is a great way to get acquainted with ZMOT, I have a hunch that it is a subject that will only receive deeper analysis in the future as it becomes even more important and more relevant to business and advertising.

The book is available in about every format you can imagine (I downloaded the app on my iPod touch). And the best part is – it’s free! Again, it’s a painless read, nothing compared to the pain of being struck down by a gladiator. So check it out, before the caged lions get you.

– Andrew

Liver is Always Liver

Liver by any other name, well, just call it liver. Dress it up with gravy, corn or peas, but liver will never be a juicy cut of steak slathered with A.1®. Sauce, a mouth-watering filet mignon or a burger beefed up with cheese and bacon. It can never be the other white meat, it will always be beef. And whatever name you use, it still tastes like liver and I will not, cannot and could not think of eating it. But not that my mom did not try.

Growing up on a farm, when you butcher your own cattle, you get left with a lot of leftovers which includes a freezer full of tongue, Rocky Mountain oysters and liver, when all the rest found its way to a plate. My mom knew this, and she would call liver any other name but liver in hopes I would eat it. Sometimes it would almost work. I’d take a nibble or two and then question the cut. Sometimes simply the look would throw me into a toddler-like tantrum.

When it comes to PR, you get plenty of liver. Good stories, full of iron. They beef up a company, but rarely do they suit everyone’s palate – the specialized, niched and super-quirky pitches. As business owners, we want to pitch everyone everywhere every story, because we want to believe everyone everywhere loves to know everything we do. But you would not serve a plate of liver, steak or stew meat at a meeting of the American Vegan Society (yes, it exists – http://www.americanvegan.org).

So as PR professionals, we cannot serve every story to everyone. We need to know the menu, our audience, and what they like and want to eat. Blame it (or credit it to) technology, but journalism evolved in the last decade into the Mall of America, filled with amusement parks, Subways, Hooters and lots of stores, each catering to a unique audience. If we want to create effective (and efficient from an opportunity cost perspective) pitches, we need to know what our audience wants and to not waste their time with what we think, or hope they will like. As advertisers, we research what works and what doesn’t, and PR must follow the same philosophy. It may seem like I’m serving up some strained peas, easy and obviously little chewing required, but so often (as I remember from being a journalist receiving emails every day from the launch of a Bosnian eat-on-a-dime cookbook to pitches about throwing the perfect children’s party with a budget of $20,000 when I reported on courts, cops and crime). When we pitch to the masses, they pitch our idea in the trash. Instead, we need to know the reporters, the blogs and the beats that care most about what idea we want to sell them. We must find the unique angles, and then serve our stories up on a silver platter. I admit, I am as guilty as my mom at trying, wanting and hoping someone will eat what I dish up. I pitched faux-Facebook websites like a pop-up-shop on a random street corner pushing the latest Louis Vuitton bag, and I would pitch to anyone and everyone because my client wanted a story on the front page of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. That’s when a slice of humble pie helps for all involved. Communicating to clients also becomes critical so they know why and how you want to reach the people you believe will be most interested in them.

Now I’m kind of hungry with all this talk of food. I think I’ll grab a delivery menu for pizza tonight.

– Jolene Loetscher

Photos by Spec-ta-cles and coolmikeol. Thanks!

Minutiae Matters

Minutiae Matters Dec 09, 2011

I drive a green 1996 Chrysler New Yorker, and I’m not bragging. The air conditioning doesn’t work, the interior lights refuse to turn on, the driver’s seat is broken and must be propped up with an ice scraper; I can keep going but I won’t. However it does get me around, aside from the occasional stalling. At least the tires are in good working order. They only leak gradually, which means I have to occasionally fill them up at the gas station. But in the winter, and especially now that I commute to Sioux Falls, I need to make these tire-inflating trips more often.

The Hy-Vee gas station is my go-to convenience store in Brookings. It’s near my apartment, has the coffee I like, the beer I like, an air compressor, plus I have one of those nice little punch cards that gets me a free coffee or soda after purchasing ten. The only problem is, in the winter months it’s always a gamble as to whether or not the air compressor will be available because it doesn’t work well in the cold. So when I want to get gas, grab a coffee and fill my tires all in one stop, it’s really frustrating when upon arrival, I discover that the air compressor is unavailable. In that case, I have to drive clear across town and fill my tires at the only gas station in Brookings that has a reliably working air compressor, but seems to lack everything else. So when I have to go to Hy-Vee gas’s alter ego, I might as well fuel up while I’m there; meaning Hy-Vee has suddenly lost a sale that could have easily been theirs. And since I buy a lot of gas and need to frequently fill up my tires in the winter, Hy-Vee loses to its alter ego on a regular basis.

I don’t think the people in charge at Hy-Vee realize that their crappy air compressor is costing them sales, sales that end up going to their competitors. And I know that I’m not the only one who needs to fill my tires. I’ve had to impatiently wait in the air compressor line plenty of times. Being a CONVENIENCE store, I expect convenience, which makes it all the more inconvenient when my needs aren’t being met.

The moral of the story is, don’t underestimate the little things that could contribute to a loss in sales for your business, and this doesn’t just apply to gas stations. It’s amazing how a seemingly miniscule thing can negatively affect business. Maybe it’s minor, but nonetheless, it’s a loss. And little losses can add up. Sure, you’ve got all the major pieces in place, and sales are doing well, but don’t stop there. The minutiae matters too. Sometimes it’s the little things that set you apart from your competitors, especially when it comes to businesses like gas stations when there isn’t a lot of room for distinguishing yourself. They all have gas, they all have coffee, they pretty much have all of the same stuff. So if you’re in favor of optimizing your sales, take care of the little unexpected things. Get that pot hole in your parking lot fixed, keep your store at a comfortable temperature, and for God’s sake, get a better air compressor!

– Andrew

Tire pressure photo by Robert Couse-Baker

Black Friday, Green Christmas

The Holidays mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But to retailers and their marketers, the Holidays are nothing more than a dollar sign and market opportunity, especially Black Friday. But is that really so bad?

People may criticize the idea of Black Friday, turning it into the classic tale of marketers having to commercialize everything, but I’d have to disagree. I acknowledge that sometimes marketing can be greedy, over-commercialized, and even unethical, leaving little left for the sacred, but those are just the bad apples. And regardless of the marketing, people are going to buy gifts for their friends and family; there’s no changing that. Retailers are just playing the game. There is no malicious intent; they’re just doing their best to give people what they want – crazy awesome deals. There’s never been a more sure-fire way to make an attempt at increasing profits than to simply give consumers what they want. Pleasing the consumer has always been important, but it is ever increasing in this day and age when more and more consumers’ are becoming strict arbiters of their spending decisions and product/brand choices, so making them happy is vital if you ever want to increase profits and market share.

If you ask me, Black Friday is a brilliant marketing strategy. But we can’t blame any specific person for the invention. The origin of Black Friday may be linked to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades in the early 20th century. Since department stores sponsored the parade, they used it as a vehicle to launch a big push in advertising, getting consumers excited for the first official day of holiday shopping. Eventually it had become an unwritten rule that stores should not do their Christmas advertising until the parade was over. That would just be tacky. So the day following Thanksgiving naturally marked the official first day of the holiday shopping season, and marketers could advertise with a guilt-free conscience. And so a materialistic holiday that makes retailers’ cash registers ring and consumers’ wallets smile was born, and that’s ok with me.

– Andrew

Don’t Be the DMV.

Don’t Be the DMV. Nov 11, 2011

The DMV. I bet after just reading that, you already have a bad attitude. If the DMV was a product/consumer based business, they’d have gone out of business a long time ago. Their PR alone is a nightmare. Everyone has their own horror story about their experience with the DMV. This is my most recent encounter.

By November 30th, I have to renew my driver’s license. The last time I was at the DMV was in 2006, and I’ve savored every un-DMV moment since. But now I have to drag myself back and l will probably have another horror story to tell for the next 5 years. But so far, before even going there, they’ve already left me with a sourpuss attitude. Since it’s been so long since I’ve been there, I was doing some research to make sure I know what’s going on.

First of all, I was trying to figure out what time and day they’re open in Brookings, since I remember there being an unreasonably small window of time that you can get your license renewed. Something like, every third Tuesday on a Leap Year from 9:27 am to 9:54 am, but only during the Waxing Gibbous moon phase. So I call the Brookings courthouse, inquiring as to whom I should call since I could not find anything online. So they give me a 1-800 number to call, which takes me to a voice automated system. I can’t tell you how many times the robot encouraged me to “remember, most of your questions can be answered on our website at www, dot dps, dot sd, dot gov.” I bet you hated reading that. Could they have picked a harder url to remember? Also, yeah, I get that you’re trying to reduce the amount of phone calls at your call center, but given your reputation, I don’t trust that your website will be very easy to navigate. So I opted to speak with an actual person, and of course, all the call center representatives were busy, which says something about the DMV in it of itself. I wasn’t even given the option to hold, the robot just told me to “call back another time.” So I had no choice but to go to their website, which actually had a somewhat modern look, but as I suspected, it’s difficult to find information. I will say that I learned about what documents I have to bring, but I only stumbled across that information by clicking through links. If they want to deter phone calls, don’t you think they’d make information easier to find on their site?

At the end of all of this, I’m still left with unanswered questions. The best information that I managed to find, was on an UNOFFICIAL DMV page! It really shouldn’t be this hard to find basic information. As I mentioned at the beginning, if the DMV was a business, they would have failed a long time ago.

There are a lot of things businesses could learn from the DMV about what NOT to do. First, make yourself available to people, and don’t keep them guessing. I still don’t know when the heck they’re open. Secondly, make sure you make all of the right information easily accessible. And don’t think that a modern website design is all you need. A fancy look should come secondary to accessible information, which is one of the most important things to your customers. You only have a small window of time to draw someone in and to keep them there. Consumers can be quick to give up and to move on to a competitor who makes things easier for them. Also, you want to make sure that you appear willing to help. In this digital age, people still have not lost their desire and expectation of businesses to be willingly helpful, and that includes on the phone, and even face to face! Passing me around on the phone, encouraging me to NOT talk to you, and directing me to an information source that is no more helpful than your holding music, sends the message that you don’t want to help me, and that you want to get rid of me as soon as possible. Who would want to do business with someone like that? No consumer should have to WORK to get answers about your business. So please, don’t be the DMV.

– Andrew