Category Archives for "DAILY POSTS"

2 Branding in a skeptical world — Two Trends For 2012

Magazine editors and TV journalists love year-end lists. And when it’s the end of a decade, there’s even more interest in rehashing the top 10 things in every category from celebrity scandals to the most trusted brands.

I prefer to look forward, and I suspect many of you are with me on that. So here are two — not ten — branding trends that will help you, right now.

• The crisis of confidence and the consumer’s ultra-sensitive, internal BS meter.

The last two years have not been good for consumer confidence. The banking collapse. Bernie Madoff. AIG bonuses. The automotive bailout. Tiger’s “transgressions.” No wonder people are more jaded than ever.

Consumers are singing a collective tune, and the refrain goes like this: “don’t bullshit me!” (It’s country western.) They’re more savvy than you think. They’re armed with information, and if they catch you trying to pull a fast one, they’ll blast their song to the entire world.

Negative word-of-mouth has never spread so fast, or so far.

Customer reviews on sites such as Yelp, Angies’ List, Amazon, and Citysearch have become so popular, the press is calling this the “reputation economy.”

The big brands are spending millions to monitor and manage the online dialog, but control is squarely in the hands of the consumer. They now have the power to preempt a major branding effort with a few bad reviews, blog posts or YouTube videos. (Remember Micheal Phelps?)

Entire industries have been buried in bad will. Take, for instance, the mortgage business…

If you’re trying to manage a brand in that turbulent mess, your single most important task right now is rebuilding credibility and regaining the confidence of your constituents.

And it’s not going to happen overnight.

Here’s the good news: When it suddenly crashed, that big wave you were riding wiped out more than half of your competitors. Darwinian capitalism at its best. The bad news is, all those failures tarnished your image too. As a survivor, you have to dig yourself out of a hole filled with bad press, misperceptions and tainted experiences.

It can be done if you focus on making the entire experience better than it ever was. During the boom, no one cared about service. It was just a race to see who could close the most deals. So the bar is very, very low.

Hurdle it by being honest with yourself and with your prospects.

Slow down. You’re in a service business, so focus on building a better process that will deliver an experience that far surpasses their expectations.

Do that, and you’ll have an authentic story to tell. Do that, and you can get past the skepticism and come out of this better than ever.

• The experience is everything.

Branding isn’t just about products and marketing messages. It’s about the real life experiences people have around the product. Directly and indirectly.

So the easiest way to generate authentic, positive word-of-mouth is to provide an experience that far exceeds that of your competitors.

Think of everyone who went to the movies in the last week or two. How hard would it be for Regal Cinemas to make the experience dramatically better for us during the busiest time of year?

Not hard at all.

Imagine if we didn’t have to wait in a long line, out in the freezing cold. Of if we did have to wait, imagine if someone was serving little cups of hot chocolate. That would warm us up to the Regal Brand.

Imagine if we didn’t have to wait in yet another serpentine line for the same old Skittles. Or what if they offered a Christmas special on popcorn and soda that didn’t cost as much as the movie.

Talk about a better experience. Talk about Tweetable differentiation… “No lines at the Regal Cinemas on 5th.”

We would drive out of their way for that. We would tell our friends and post positive reviews. And most of all, we’d remember that experience the next time. Given a choice — same movie, two different theaters — we’d opt for the theater that triggers some little reminder of a positive experience.

That’s great branding.

Here’s another example: Over the holidays I heard a couple raving about their experience with a Lexus dealer. They actually argue over who “gets” to take the car in for repairs. No kidding.

For that particular couple, the experience in the service department of the local dealer means more than more than the driving experience. More than all the luxury features. And way more than any commercial message the company could air.

It’s ironic when you think about what Lexus stands for: Dependable Luxury. Their cars seldom need work, so you wouldn’t think the company would put much emphasis on the repair experience. But they have.

Maybe they saw the market research that pegged “service after the sale” as the biggest problem for other luxury brands. Or maybe they just figured there was so much room for improvement, they couldn’t go wrong.

In any case, by completely reinventing the repair experience, Lexus turned a potential problem area into a branding opportunity. And according to the 2009 J.D. Powers study, it’s working. Lexus, once again, received the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any automotive brand.

So this year, find ways to improve the experience people have with your brand. Even if they’re not your customers.

And don’t just focus on your best product or service. Look at the weakest part of your operation, and see if you can turn it into a positive customer touch point, like Lexus did.

Go beyond your core competencies and see if there’s something you can do to make things easier, better, faster for your customers.

Lexus is in the business of building cars, not automotive repair shops. But they recognized the connection, and the opportunity. They built repair shops that are as good as the cars they make.

In branding terms, they aligned the repair experience with the Lexus brand.

How well does your service and your operation line up with your brand? This is the year to find out.

5 Brand differentiation. Is your message too generic?

Golf is one of those categories where brand differentiation is difficult. Clubheads are as big as they’re going to get, and every brand promises the same thing… Longer, straighter drives. High technology. And distance above all else.

This headline from a Cobra Driver ad sums it up: “Scientifically engineered for insanely long, straight drives.”

Sounds insanely generic to me. Why pay $50,000 to convey a message that applies to the entire category? You could literally insert the photo of any driver and no one would know the difference. Seems like a high price to pay for invisibility.

Apparently, even golf shoes can help us hit it farther these days. Get a load of these two he-man headlines from a recent Addidas campaign:

“Lock and load… 14 weapons in your bag. Two on your feet.”

“Not a shoe, a piece of artillery.”

The brand managers at Adidas are assuming that high tech features and a Rambo tone will sell shoes just as well as drivers. But as Spike Lee once said, “Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes?”

I think not.

Here’s what the copy says in one of those shoe ads: “Three distinct power geometry zones in the outsole for maximum energy transfer during the load phase, impact and finish.”

Here’s what consumers will say: “Yeah, but are they comfortable? Do they have them in my size? How much?” Those are things relevant to Joe sixpack.

This is a category that takes itself quite seriously, indeed. In that environment, humor can be a refreshing and effective way to differentiate your brand. Titlest did it with John Cleese for the NXT Tour golf ball. FootJoy pulled if off brilliantly with their Sign Boy campaign. It’s harder to do in print, however.

Mizuno pulled it off with a series of magazine ads poking fun at the almost obsessive loyalty of their customers. These are guys who love their clubs so much they buy an extra seat on the plane rather than checking their bags. They’re the fanatics who rehearse the golf swing while waiting in line, and consider their forged irons an unfair advantage that borders on sinful. The ads were purposely, humorously, exaggerated, but they captured the authentic passion for the brand that no competitor could claim.

mizunoMp57-extend-500x509-1Those ads would absolutely not work for any other club company. I don’t play Mizuno irons, but I aspire to. And those ads spoke to me. With a wink and a nod, Mizuno confirmed what I already thought… that their forged irons are for smart, accomplished players who know something the rest of the golf world doesn’t know.

see all of Mizuno’s ads here: http://www.mizunousa.com/news.nsf/golf?OpenForm

Sad to say, Mizuno recently dumped that campaign and started running ads that lack the market wisdom, the emotional connection and the brand personality of the old ads. In fact, the new ads are generic enough to speak for any forged iron on the market.

Successful branding involves a high degree of differentiation. It’s about having something different to say, and saying things differently. But the message also needs to be relevant. Otherwise, different doesn’t work so well.

Adidas has a unique new shoe line and an ad campaign that’s different. I’m just not sure their message is relevant for the category.

Mizuno-MX700-DriverMizuno has a unique story to tell and unprecedented brand loyalty, but they’re running a message that’s generic.

Before you ever approve a new ad campaign for your brand, try this: Take the ads and insert the name of your competitor. Then ask yourself, objectively, does the message still work? If it does, you should seriously consider starting over.

You may just need a new concept from your agency or a new creative brief. Or you might need to devise a strategic approach that deviates from the generic, industry spiel like “Scientifically engineered for insanely long, straight drives.”

Worst case, it’ll force you to look closely at the product itself. Mizuo and Adidas both have great products that are inherently different than the competition. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with an ad campaign that communicates the product’s differences and the brand personality in a relevant manner.

If you want more branding insight, subscribe to my rss feed by clicking on the link at the top of this site. Or e-mail me directly: JohnF@BNBranding.com

1 Three ways to hone-in on a better homepage.

By John Furgurson

These days there are a lot of nice brands that exist only on the internet. They don’t have a presence in the local mall. They don’t advertise in mainstream media. And they don’t have a rock star CEO who gets a lot of press.
Most of those companies have just one way to connect with potential customers. One Chance Only to convey their brand message and entice people to do business.
It’s the homepage of their website.
The homepage is the modern-day business card, storefront window display and company brochure all wrapped up in one. But for some reason, many people have adopted a real estate analogy to help explain homepage planning and design. Like a developer working within a tight urban growth boundary, they believe every square inch is “valuable real estate.” Not to be wasted. So they cram as much as they possibly can into that little 800×600 screen. To them, white space is just as useless as a vacant lot.
I’d like to offer a more constructive analogy.
imagesThink of your homepage as the cover of a magazine… That magazine is sitting on the newsstand, next to a dozen others on the same topic. Somehow, it has to stand out. The cover alone needs to entice people to skip over the competition and take a look. In a nutshell, the magazine cover has to sell magazines.
The same can be said for your website homepage.
So let’s look at the techniques that magazines use to move product off the newsstand shelves. Each of these is directly applicable to good homepage design.
Choose one delicious visual.
Photo editors spend weeks getting just the right photo for their next magazine cover. They look for images that tell a story and convey genuine human emotion. They sweat the details because they know that good eye candy pays off at the newsstand.
Seems like most webmasters use whatever they can find on Google images. Or they do the E-bay thing, and snap a quick photo of their product with a cell phone. How many homepages have you seen with a stock photo of a smiling, happy telephone operator, standing by? It’s ridiculous.
Here’s a homepage that’s worth studying: Patagonia.com. Long before the internet, Patagonia established strict guidelines for their catalog photos. They must be real photos of “Patagoniacs” using the products, pursing their passion or living the life. Thankfully, those same high standards now apply to the Patagonia website. One glance and you know what that company’s all about. It’s a clean, compelling reflection of the brand.
Narrow the strategic focus.
Magazine editors know their readers, and they choose a cover article that will be relevant and compelling to a large portion of their audience. Not all, but most. Then the art director designs the cover around that article. One idea. One main visual element, with just a couple of teasers regarding other content.
On the other hand, most homepages have all sorts of products and links and windows and flash and specials and banner ads and photos and videos and nav options. Unfortunately, all that clutter causes confusion and muddies your brand message.
You only have a few seconds to answer a prospect’s most pressing question… “will this website give me what I need.” “Does it have the content/tools/products I’m looking for?” Trying to sort through a hodgepodge of elements and endless choices doesn’t help answer that. In fact, consumer behavior research shows that when faced with too many choices, people often just disengage.
Limit the number of choices on your home page, and you’ll have better click-through rates. Besides, people don’t judge your entire operation by the homepage, but the DO judge your website from that. So you better make a good first impression.
Tease. Tease. Tease.
The objective of the homepage isn’t to make the sale, it’s to open the door and lure them in. It should entice people to click in and poke around, just as a good cover entices people to thumb through a magazine.
The art of the tease is about leading people deeper and deeper into your site, until they find just what they’re looking for. You want to build in a sense of discovery and drama, revealing a little more at each level. Far too many websites just lay it all out, right there on the homepage. Wham bam thank you ma’am.
Here’s another way to look at it… Imagine you’re a tenant in the world’s largest mall of the future. Your front window display is the equivalent of your homepage. You don’t show everything you’ve got in store, you choose a few really tasty items, and tease them like Victoria’s Secret. You want shoppers to stop in their tracks, admire your presentation, and then walk in the door. That’s all.
But back to the original analogy… It’s ironic that many successful magazines have had a hard time making the transition to the web. They have the content. They have the design sense and the writing staff. But something’s getting lost in translation. They seem to be letting the technology dictate their product. They aren’t employing their own rules of cover design to their homepages. So don’t do as the magazines do on line. Do as they do on the newsstand.

4 Putting Amazon In Perspective

How could my 79-year-old mother possibly be a poster child for Amazon.com? When it comes to technology, she’s utterly hopeless… She’s never written or received an e-mail in her life. She’s never Googled anything, or referred to Wikipedia. And to her, a twitter is something finches do.

And yet here she is, contently reading yet another novel on her Amazon Kindle.

The new Kindle.

The new Kindle.

About a year ago my mom had a “micro stroke” that affected the optical nerve in her right eye. Made it almost impossible to read for any length of time, and typical, 12-point type is almost impossible to decipher. To make matters worse, the little library in her town can’t afford many large print books. So she was stuck.

Enter the Kindle. Critics have panned it for being technologically archaic, and like Sony’s book reader, “bound to go nowhere.” Some say it’s just another pet project of Jeff Bezos, like his exploits in the commercial space race. And Wall Street analysts say it’s such a tiny piece of Amazon’s model, it’s too small to even consider.

But it’s a big deal to my mom. And to me, it’s symbolic of everything good about the Amazon brand.

In the 4th quarter of 2008, when the rest of the retail world was sucking wind, Amazon reported its best holiday season ever. Net sales increased 18% to $6.70 billion, compared to $5.6 billion in fourth quarter 2007. For the year, net sales increased 29% to $19.17 billion, and net income was up 36%.

As Fortune Magazine put it, “By virtually any measure — market share, revenue, profit, stock price, customer satisfaction, international reach — Amazon Inc. is thriving.”

But why? Why did Amazon survive the dot-com crash when so many brands fizzled into oblivion? Why did Amazon become the world’s largest on-line retailer? Why does the Amazon brand rank so well on virtually every brand loyalty index?

Because they treat all their customers like my mom.

Bezos started out during the dot-com boom with a plan to sell a lot of books on the internet. And he certainly accomplished that. Amazon went public in record time. All his investors, including his parents, made a fortune. He was even voted Time Magazine’s man of the year in 1999.

But unlike many of the CEOs of the day, Bezos was thinking long-term. From the very beginning he understood that the success of his brand hinged on one thing: An unrelenting focus on the customer.

That’s the brand mantra of Amazon. To this day, Bezos continually sells Amazon as the most customer-centric company on earth. When he has a tough decision to make, he always defaults in favor of the customer. Often at the expense of short-term profits.

When Amazon added the customer review function many people thought they were crazy. The assumption was that bad reviews would hurt sales. In fact, the transparency boosted sales and help solidify a truly interactive brand relationship with millions of people. Now customer-generated reviews are standard procedure in the e-commerce world.

Amazon’s short-lived TV campaign is another example of how Amazon stays true to its brand. “We did a 15-month-long test of TV advertising in two markets – Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis – to see how much it drove our sales,” Bezos said in a 1997 interiview. “And it worked, but not as much as the kind of price elasticity we knew we could get from taking those ad dollars and giving them back to consumers. So we put all that money into lower product prices and free shipping. That has significantly accelerated the growth of our business.”

They haven’t run a mass media campaign since, and yet the Amazon brand has grown even stronger. Suppose, maybe, it’s the customer’s experience that cements long-term brand relationships, not advertising?

Bezos believes their focus on the customer has also helped Amazon launch innovative new products and services over the years, like Amazon Prime pre-paid shipping and a host of services for small e-commerce companies.

“We wanted to have a customer-focused culture. We consciously tried to get that. If you’re competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.”

Which brings us back to my mom’s Kindle.

The scalable type is plenty big enough for her to read. There are 230,000 titles to choose from. It’s simple to use, (with some assistance from my dad on the downloads.) There’s no annual contract and no monthly bill. And the new, second generation Kindle will even read outloud to her.

It’s everything she would have ever asked for, if she could have dreamed of such a thing.

To my mom, the Kindle isn’t an electronic gadget. It’s not about the sophisticated wireless connection or any other technological leap. It’s just a tool that enables her to do what she’s always done… curl up with a good book. And for that, we’re genuinely grateful to Bezos and his team.

2 Super Sales vs. Super Brands.

It’s discount days in the retail world right now. Everywhere you turn there’s a super sale, an inventory reduction, a clearance event or other equally banal form of discount.

Sign of the times, I suppose. Store owners are desperate to get people in the door, even if it causes long-term damage to the brand.

But does discounting really hurt your brand?

That’s a good question… one that often leads to blazing debates between ad agency folks and their clients. The creatives are quick to condemn anything that involves a price point. But the client wants to “move the needle” and “get an immediate ROI” on every advertising dollar. He feels that any sort of “image” advertising is a waste of time. Then there’s the agency Account Executive, trying desperately to bring the two sides together in a sort of middle-east accord that will save the account for another year.

Not a good scenario for a lasting client-agency relationship. But I digress. The question is, does it hurt a brand to run a half-off sale?

It depends on the brand.

Before you hire that sign painter to emblazon your front window with “Everything Must Go!” ask yourself two questions:

  1. Does the promotion complement your brand promise or contradict it?
  2. Who would the sale appeal to? Will you ever see those people again?

images-11

Nordstrom has the right answer to both those questions. When it comes to brand integrity, Nordstrom is the bellwether for the retail industry. It’s a chain known for high prices and bend-over-backward customer service. Bargains are NOT part of the Nordstrom brand ethos. So yes, frequent discounting would definitely hurt that brand.

If Nordstrom had a Super Bowl sale and a Valentines Day sale and an Easter sale and a Mother’s Day sale like most department stores, consumers would slowly but surely begin to question the entire premise of the business. They’d begin to doubt Nordstrom’s stature as the industry’s service leader and wonder if the chain compromised the quality of the merchandise.

Might as well go to Macy’s.

So here’s how Nordstrom handles discounting without compromising their brand promise: They only have one store-wide sale a year, plus twice-yearly sales in specific departments. They don’t do cheesy newspaper inserts to support the events, just big, tasteful announcements and direct mail to all their devoted customers. Anything more would be off brand. Not Nordstrom worthy.

To manage the inevitable department store inventory challenges, they opened The Nordstrom Rack. If you don’t want the impeccable service but like Nordstrom’s outstanding merchandise, go to the Rack. It’s like a sale all the time. Same stuff, but a totally different experience.

So here’s the final answer: If you have a high-end brand that emphasizes customer service and outstanding quality, use discounts sparingly. Because every sale will send mixed messages to an already skeptical audience.

Contrast that with Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart shoppers aren’t going to Nordstrom for the twice-yearly men’s sale. They’re going to Wal-Mart every Saturday where a constant barrage of markdowns is always expected, and perfectly “on brand.” Wal-Mart’s corporate culture takes frugality to an entirely new level, and it shows up on every isle in every store. Wal-Mart’s brand promise demands big, loud sales, or at least the perception of sale prices all the time. That’s why they have spend more than $600 million a year on advertising… it’s a constant state of “Sale.”

For both Wal-Mart and Nordstrom, the corporate promotional strategy delivers on the brand promise. Their sales appeal to core customers as well as those who are looking for a bargain. And there’s a good change they’ll come back again after the sale.

Unfortunately, most business owners can’t answer the question, “is this sale consistent with your brand promise” because they don’t know what their brand promise is. When pressed, they can’t pinpoint what their business is really all about, beyond making their quarterly numbers.

They’ve never thought about it. They’ve never articulated it. And they certainly haven’t communicated it to the public in a clear, compelling, consistent manner. They’re too busy advertising “value.”

The Gallup Organization has done extensive research regarding brand promises and have found that the vast majority are poorly defined and poorly communicated. “Rather than attempting to convince a skeptical audience that their brand offers something truly meaningful and distinct, some companies have found it easier just to bribe their prospects… Repeat purchases that are driven solely by brand bribery, however, are not the same thing as a brand relationship.”

Successful brands like Nordstrom have lasting relationships with their customers, not one-night stands. So think twice about your promotional strategy. If your brand’s promise is to consistently deliver the cheapest goods and services in your category, then go ahead. Run some sales. But if your brand promise is to deliver value or service or anything else, then find another way to drive traffic. Your brand will be better for it.

 

2 Restaurant Brands — A Recipe For Failure.

In a town the size of Bend, Oregon, three top restaurants closing within weeks of each other is big news. It’s a story that goes way beyond water cooler banter. Beyond the blogosphere. Beyond the business section of the local paper and into the annals of business school curriculum everywhere.

These are lessons worthy of any MBA program in the country.

The obituaries sounded all too familiar for this town, at this time: “Merenda’s demise was hastened by prevailing economic conditions.” “The bottom dropped out of the restaurant business. Everyone’s feeling the pinch.” “The seasonal nature of business in this town makes it very difficult…”

But the story goes way beyond recessionary economics and touches on many of the fundamental principles of branding. The restaurant business is littered with cases of meteoric success and dramatic failure. For whatever reason, it’s an inherently volatile business.

Prior to 2000, the culinary scene in downtown Bend wasn’t much to write home about. Some would say, non existent. So when Merenda opened in 2002 it generated more buzz than Steve Jobs with a doctor’s appointment.

As the Bend Bulletin reported, “Chef Jody Denton pioneered a renaissance in fine dining in Central Oregon.” But the Merenda brand wasn’t about the cuisine. It was about partying. The brand promise seemed to boil down to “good friends, good times.” It was a loud, raucous place where groups would gather and drink generously from an outstanding wine list. The vibe was more urban, the energy level more electric, than anything previously. Many nights you couldn’t hear yourself think.

Lesson # 1: Trendiness seldom translates into a lasting brand. Many of Merenda’s customers were only there because it was THE place to be. It was a superficial relationship, not a genuine bond. Success by association. When new restaurants opened the crowds thinned out.

Trendiness is a common problem in the restaurant business, fashion and high tech. The next big thing or hot spot is always right around the corner. So successful brand managers have to find ways to stay relevant with their past customers, or become relevant to a whole new group.

After five years Chef Denton got distracted. Just when Merenda neeed a little extra attention he opened another restaurant less than a block away. And his place called Deep never got above water.

Lesson #2. Brands need constant attention. This seems like a no-brainer, but many people dream of having a business that runs on autopilot and generates an endless flow of effortless revenue. That doesn’t work in any industry, much less the restaurant business. You have to mind the store.

In 2005 Cornell University published a seminal study on why restaurants fail. One of the surprising contributors was simply a lack of attention, time and effort by the owners. “Failure seemed to stem from an inability or unwillingness to give the business sufficient attention… The immense time commitment was mentioned by all of the survey respondents who had failed.”

At Deep, Denton was determined to create something completely different. As he told The Bulletin: “That’s been kind of my business model: finding what Bend doesn’t have and filling that void. I’ve always enjoyed the environment of a sushi bar. It’s always been something appealing, both from the restaurant’s and the chef’s standpoint.”

What he failed to consider was the customer point of view.

Lesson # 3: Differentiation doesn’t guarantee success. Being different from the competition is certainly important, but it’s not as crucial as being appealing. Tiny morsels of Kobe beef served on a hot rock for eight dollars a bite… That’s different! “Angry Lobster,” Monkfish pté, grilled yuzu and marinated, chopped maguro tataki were all impressively different. But not appealing enough to inspire repeat business by a large group of people in a relatively small market.

Bottom line: Deep was a high-end sushi place in a meat and potato town.

Lesson #4: All successful brands have a clear, well-defined concept that goes beyond the product. The Cornell study proved that clarity of concept is essential to restaurant success. “Perhaps the key finding was the focus on a clear concept that drives all activities… Successful restaurant owners all had a well-defined concept which encompassed an operating philosophy and business operation issues. Failed owners, when asked about their concept, discussed only their food product.”

Denton certainly had vision beyond food for both his restaurants. But the concepts behind Merenda and Deep were based more on Denton’s past experience and personal preference than on the realities of the local market.

There’s an old saying… “If you want to live with the classes, sell to the masses.” In Denton’s case, his restaurants served the classes. His high-end brands only resonated with a small segment of the population, and he didn’t reinvent Merenda when he needed to.

In the end, Denton’s concept for Merenda was not clear enough to sustain the business over the long haul. (Being first in the market isn’t a sustainable brand strategy for a single restaurant.) And the concept for Deep never had a chance. So both restaurants were shuttered, his investors came away empty handed, and there are two more empty storefronts in downtown Bend. Hopefully, the next restaurateur who comes along can learn a lesson from Merenda.

4 Truth & Transparency — How one ski area is managing customer’s expectations.

By John Furgurson

Ski area managers live and die by the whims of Mother Nature. Already this winter high winds and heavy ice have toppled trees and wrecked havoc at Mt. Bachelor. Flooded roads cut access to Crystal Mountain. A lift tower at Whistler snapped. A landslide took out a lift at Snoqualmie Pass. And some poor guy at Vail found himself hanging upside down and naked from a chairlift.

So how do you keep your customers happy through all the drama and mayhem? How do you handle those days that don’t qualify for the chamber of commerce brochure? As Mt. Bachelor has discovered, it’s a matter of managing expectations by educating skiers about mountain operations and reporting the truth in a timely, credible manner. A significant departure from the industry norm.

Ten years ago they could get away with little white lies on the morning ski report. But now cell phones make it hard to pull one over on anyone. The lift ride is plenty of time for skiers to Twitter or send simple, pointed text messages to their friends down in town that either confirm or deny the morning report.

“Is sucks, stay home.” “It’s Epic. Get up here.” “Fogged in. Can’t see two feet.” With minute-by-minute updates like that, sugar-coated reports from the marketing department just don’t cut it any more.

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Last season Mt. Bachelor suffered a string of PR problems… Unexplained lift closures, safety violations and some questionable policy decisions by the new parent company caused a lot of grumbling in the skiing community. And quite frankly, the Mt. Bachelor brand took a hit. For the first season in 30 years, it slipped to # 2 among Oregon’s ski areas.

So this year a new management team is working hard to improve the overall experience, and that starts by managing expectations.

From what I’ve seen so far, they’re using their website pretty effectively to paint a realistic picture of what it takes to operate a modern ski area on a 9,000-foot Pacific Northwest Volcano. And it’s a lot harder than I ever imagined.

Since the latest storm, they’ve been uploading videos that show what the lift crews are faced with. It’s harder to complain about a lift not opening promptly on time when you’ve seen the manual labor required to do the job… Time lapse photography of an employee climbing up a 40-foot lift tower, tentatively chipping away at ice two feet thick. Loggers and snow-cat drivers working together to clear 60-foot fir trees from the middle of a run. That’s powerful stuff that I haven’t seen on any other web site or in any other industry.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlYZUlHzby4

The daily conditions report has also improved dramatically. It’s now updated several times every morning, and it’s written in a first-person, man-on-the-slopes tone. Not only that, it’s refreshingly truthful. Last week, in the midst of the worst ice storm in 30 years, the author said, “I walked around the base area, and it’s not the kind of day you don’t want to set foot outside. It’s raining hard and it’s below freezing.”

And I love this one from a day in early December when everyone was still praying for the season’s first big dump: “We had nine inches overnight, with high winds. It’s deep in some places, and other spots look just like they did two days ago.”

Now that’s authentic!

The amusement park industry should take note. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a park, with your kids all jacked-up and ready for the latest, greatest roller coaster, only to find the ride closed for some unknown reason.

The golf industry would also benefit from such frank assessments. A detailed superintendant’s report would be tremendously useful in a country club environment where guys have been known to complain about the fairways being TOO perfect. If you show members all the work that goes into keeping all 18 greens rolling at 11 on the stimpmeter, they might not complain as much about miniscule variations in the height of the rough.

But honesty isn’t about shutting up your biggest critics. It’s about cementing a relationship with your best customers and maintaining the goodwill of your brand. Because every time you leave out important information, fudge a bit in a press release, or overstate a marketing claim, you’re chipping away at your credibility. Like ice on a lift tower, eventually it’ll all come crashing down on your head.

Curiousity got the best of you? See the unlikely lift ride here:

www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/06/vail-chairlift-accident-l_n_155578.html

6 The ultimate, feel-good retail experience.

Why Powell’s is one of the sweetest franchise brands in the country.

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I never knew a store like this when I was a kid. Even back then, a neighborhood candy store was purely fictitious. More cliché than everyday. So when I wandered into Powell’s Sweet Shoppe for the first time, it really was a first.

Industry consultants call Powell’s Sweets “an involving retail experience that taps into deep-seated emotional connections with long-forgotten childhood brands.”

To me, it’s a mood-altering drug.

It’s virtually impossible to leave the store without feeling warmer. Younger at heart. And at least a little giddy. It’s more fun per square foot than any store I’ve ever seen. My 11-year-old daughter says it’s even better than the American Girl Doll store in Manhattan.

Powell’s is banking on the power of nostalgia to sell everything from collectable lunch boxes and pez dispensers to gelato and old-fashioned candy. They have all the brands you haven’t seen since childhood, and all the flavors that linger in the palette of your memory.dsc_0476

Powell’s is a store full of stories. And good, authentic stories are the main ingredients of success for any business. As I browse through Powell’s, or even just peer in the window, the stories come flooding back… My little sister, hair in braids, eating Fun Dip in the back of the station wagon. My older sister hording her tube of Flicks. The penny candy selection at Jack’s Country Store. The red, black and purple licorice I loved so much at summer camp.

That stuff sticks with you.

But Powell’s triggers more than just memories. It also triggers the imagination. It ignites the senses and conjures a latent, childlike creativity in us that gets beaten down by the demands of modern society.

Maybe that’s why I want to linger so long. It’s not just satisfying my sweet tooth, it’s filling a need for creative inspiration and optimism. I can feed off the energy of the kids and the delight of the parents. There’s laughter and smiles and buzz you just don’t find at the Starbucks next door.

There aren’t many brands that can honestly say that.

So what can you learn from a little candy store in downtown Bend, Oregon? You want customers to tell stories about you. You want products and service that create lasting memories. You want positive word-of-mouth that’s more powerful than anything you can say yourself.

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Here are a few, random reviews of Powell’s from Yelp.com:

“Move over Disneyland – this is the happiest place on earth. I feel like I step into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory every time I come here.”

“This candy store rocks. It has everything you want especially if you’re looking for some candy that will blast you right back to your childhood.”

“The best candy shop. Period.”

“I want to hug the person who came up with the concept of this store…they are pure genius and manage to put a huge smile on my face the minute I walk through the door!”

Interestingly, the nostalgic theme of every Powell’s store seems to work equally well on children. Because the appeal of it is timeless. The candy cigarettes that we thought were so cool, still are. The element of surprise and the sense of discovery works just as well now as it did 40 or 50 years ago.

I’m glad Powell’s came to town. Because for my children, the idea of a kid in a candy store will be very, very real.

9 Marketing lessons from GM — Will a $30 billion bailout buy them some focus?

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The top guns of the American auto industry parked their private jets, piled into their big, luxury hybreds, and headed back to Washington last week. The goal: 50 billion dollars in loans, credit and other forms of bailout money. The second installment of what one reporter called, “a long term payment plan in $35 billion installments.”

There’s no doubt GM’s failure would a terrible economic blow. Those jobs would be sorely missed, but would anyone miss the mediocre brands that GM’s been consistently producing for the last 35 years?

I don’t think so. Other than some loyal Chevy truck fans, consumers won’t miss a beat.

GM’s business problems are far reaching and complex. The Wall Street Journal says “it’s a bloated organization with too many dealers and too many factories producing too many cars for the marketplace.” (GM has 7000 dealers in the U.S. Toyota outsells them with just 1500.) The company is burning through cash faster than a Suburban sucks gas — $75 million a day, according to one account. Turning that land yacht around is is going to be much harder than anyone’s predicting. As one consultant said… “Even with a generous series of government loans, GM is likely to go bankrupt within the next two years.”

Let’s face it. GM has been losing ground slowly but surely since muscle cars were killed by the oil embargo of the 1970’s. If congress looks at the situation from a marketing standpoint, they wouldn’t cough up a dime.

According to Automobile magazine, “it’s been 50 years since GM built a car that was the standard of the industry in any category.” Overall, GM products have been poor in all respects, from design and driveability to safety and fuel efficiency.

I believe that GM’s quality issues and their current financial crisis is a direct reflection Alfred P. Sloan’s famous, flawed strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose.” Sorry, but quantity over quality just doesn’t work in the modern automotive industry.

GM’s business model for the past 30 years has been built around the assumption that they can keep making money off products that are unremarkable, at best. But even when you’re as big as GM, you can’t be all things to all people. Over time, that lack of focus is going to kill you.

Look at GM’s track record in the small-car market. First they had the Chevette and the notorious Vega, a car reknown for being the first aluminum block engine ever produced… (not exactly the type of innovation that propels a company into a new era.)

While Honda, Toyota and Nissan were dominating that market in the 80’s, GM introduced The X-cars… the Citation, Omega, Phoenix and Skylark. Yikes! Those weren’t economy cars, they were just awful, underpowered sedans.

GM fumbled around for 20 years trying to build a small car under the wrong brand: Cadillac. Remember the Cimmeron? It’s on Time Magazine’s list of the worst cars ever built. And the Catera, “the caddy that zigs.” The advertising was unbelievable and the product, unbelievably bad. For consumers, a small, sporty Cadillac just doesn’t compute.

Then there was Saturn, GM’s great hope of 1990. Nothing in the history of GM could match the enormity of this brand’s launch. They built a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Springhill Tennessee. They opened a new dealer network and adopted innovative new marketing and customer service programs, including a policy of “no haggle pricing.” To their credit, they did everything differently in order to compete with the Japanese.

Despite the plastic body panels, Saturn succeeded for a while. The cars were affordable, and they even won some industry accolades in the subcompact category. Unfortunately, GM starved that division of cash, kept them from launching new products for 10 years, and now is contemplating a shutdown of that brand.

So they can’t compete in the small car market. But what about GM’s bread and butter categories, like vanilla-flavored sedans? Unfortunately, they’ve even been losing on that front as well. The Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in the country for years, followed by the domestically produced Toyota Camry. In the meantime, The Oldsmobile brand limped along for years before GM execs finally pulled the plug in 1999. They tried all sorts of marketing ploys to save it, including more than a dozen different slogans for the brand over a 15 year period. They did everything BUT build a car that appealed to anyone.

GM missed the boat entirely on the minivan craze, and they were slow to market with their SUVs. (But no one will deny the success of the Suburban.) GM actually had the lead in green technology in the late 90’s with the EV1 electric car, but they pulled the plug on that for short-term financial reasons. Now, while the Toyota Prius flies out of showrooms, GM’s playing catch-up yet again with the Chevy Volt. The volt is not a hybred. It’s actually an electric car, leaps ahead of Toyota in the green car game. It plugs in and it looks racy too, but it might be too late to the starting line.

Clearly, GM has been all over the place strategically. Now it looks like the bailout will force them to focus their efforts a bit. There’s already talk of paring the product line-up, and in the recent Senate hearings GM execs said their new strategy is “to focus available resources and growth strategies on the companies profitable operations.”

I guess that means four core brands… Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. And potentially four more marketing failures: Pontiac, Saab, Saturn and the king of them all, Hummer. (Don’t even get me started on that.)

Even with the forced focus on just four brands, GM will have a difficult time turning a profit. According to Automobile Magazine, the Cadillac CTS is actually one of GM’s small glimmers of hope for something better down the road. “It’s not relevant at $60k, but it’s a reminder that GM knows how to build a very special automobile. It’s the pride of Lansing Michigan and proof positive that GM has a lively pulse.”

Hmmmm. How can a car be “not relevant” in the market, but hopeful? And why does the mainstream press assume that GM will suddenly “start building fuel efficient cars that people want to buy” as soon as this bailout comes through? They haven’t done it yet. And no marketing blitz or government bailout can turn a lousy product into a branding success.

There’s an old saying in advertising circles… “great advertising just kills a bad product faster.” Sadly, GM’s history is littered with products that died fast, deserving deaths.

15 Four secret ingredients of all successful brands.

 

(What you can learn from a healthy bowl of cereal and a two-buck burrito.)

Branding is a popular topic in the business press these days. Unfortunately, case studies about Coca-Cola, Nike and Virgin, make is sound like Branding is a discipline reserved for the Fortune 500 companies and globe-trotting billionaires.

Let me set the record straight on that: It’s entirely possible to build a successful brand without a million-dollar marketing budget or a cadre of high-paid consultants. Many small-business owners do it intuitively. They build a successful business, step by step, and over time a great brand develops.

It does not happen the other way around. You can’t just come up with a nice name a great logo and expect the brand to suddenly succeed. Without a good, solid business operation, you can’t have a great brand.

If you look, you can find plenty of inspiring brands in everyday places. Like the breakfast table and the local Mexican restaurant. Because the fact is, branding is not exclusive to big business. In addition to the multi-national brands that have become household names, there are successful regional brands and millions of small but prosperous local brands. Conversely, many big, international companies don’t adhere to any principles of Branding. It can go both ways.

This isn’t the Harvard Business Review, but if you deconstruct it, you’ll see that all successful brands share four important things:

Relevance.

Credibility.

Differentiation.

Consistency.

Forget about Proctor & Gamble for a minute and consider the small businesses in your town that have a loyal following. What makes them successful? What have the owners done that turned their typical small business into a successful local brand?

In Bend, Oregon there’s a tremendously popular restaurant named, simply, “Taco Stand.”It’s the best Mexican food in town, and it costs next to nothing. It’s so cheap it’s almost embarrassing. Taco Stand’s in a terrible location next to a laundry mat. It’s not open for dinner. They have no web presence or advertising budget. And yet, it’s a successful little brand, doing much better than many high-end restaurants downtown.

Taco Stand has all four ingredients of a tasty brand, with a bit of Tabasco thrown in for good measure. It has always been relevant to young people living the ski bum life who can’t afford fifteen bucks for lunch. And since our building boom crashed, a cheap lunch at Taco Stand has become cool to a lot more people. Like Walmart… hard times equal increased relevance.

For Taco Stand, differentiation and credibility stem from the genuine quality of the food and the loyal, locals-only reputation.If there were an insider’s guide to Bend dining, Taco Stand would be top of the list. And consistency… you’re never going to walk into Taco Stand and find they’ve changed the menu on you. They do simple Mexican fare, and that’s that.

But, you say, “my business is a lot more complex than that. We have a sales force and a supply chain to deal with.” It doesn’t matter. You still need the same four ingredients. Leave one out and you can have a successful business, but not an enduring brand.

Differentiation and credibility used to be easy for big corporations. They could launch a new brand with a massive tv campaign, effectively differentiating their product on nothing but advertising creativity and pretty packaging. And the television presence alone equaled credibility.

Smart Start brand case study on brandingKellog’s tried this recently with a new brand of cereal called Smart Start. Great name. Great-tasting product. And an old-school, Fortune-500 style marketing effort. Lots of full page, full color ads in smart magazines like Shape and Parenting.

My kids like Smart Start, but they’re not the target market. It’s an adult cereal, promoted on its nutritional virtues. Too bad. As it turns out, Smart Start isn’t as nutritious as it’s cracked up to be.It’s loaded with sugar… 14 grams of high fructose corn syrup. That’s more than Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs or Cap’n Crunch.

I’ll bet Smart Start doesn’t have the staying power of Cap’nCrunch — my childhood favorite. Because in this day and age, consumers are too smart for Smart Start. When the word gets out, the brand’s going to have a substantial credibility issue on their hands.

Kellog’s will probably fight it with the old line-extension strategy trick. Rather than addressing the underlying weakness of the product, they’ll just keep launching new flavors of Smart Start and new spin-offs. (They already have several variations.) But in the process, the brand will lose another key ingredient… consistency.

So Smart Start’s credibility is questionable. The brand’s consistency is debatable with all the line extensions. And relevance is dwindling as more people find out about its nutritional shortcomings.

I predict the brand will eventually die out because it doesn’t live up to the promises of its marketing. But even if it dies, Kellogs might consider Smart Start a branding success. Maybe it’s done well enough. Maybe Kellogs can chalk up a good profit with new brands that have short life cycles. It’s a big company, with big resources. They can just move on and do it all again.

Smaller companies don’t have that luxury. You can’t afford to launch a new brand under false pretenses of any kind. Credibility too hard to come by, under the best of circumstances.

What do you suppose would happen to Taco Stand if they suddenly started marketing “healthy” burritos without changing the way they cook. It’d be a recipe for branding disaster. Relevance and credibility would be the first to go, followed shortly by consistency. After that, no amount of differentiation would help. It would end up like so many other restaurants that just come and go, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.