Monday, November 28, 2011

Check Your Facts

I recently read Hammond's work on Branding Your Business, a tradebook that attempts, more than any other I have encountered, to take a comprehensive look at the notion of brand and the practice of implementing, maintaining, and leveraging it in marketing a product, service, organization, or individual. Given all the topics the author intestinally attempted to cover, I'm most stricken by the lesson implicit in the way the book is written: how fragile a thing is credibility.

It's not unusual for authors to make broad statements about "customers" or "businesses" without an explicit acknowledgement that the observation is a generalization based on personal experience. That much is implicit, and chances are that an author who claims three decades of experience has sufficient experience to generalize - even if he is completely wrong-headed, he's earned the right to some degree of credibility.

It's also not unusual for authors to assert "research proves" or "studies show" some point they care to make without citing the source of the information. Experienced professionals who are attentive and studious are exposed to so much research and study that it's often difficult to recall the exact source of a bit of information. But the danger is that some curious mind may look into it, and given the amount of information that is now conveniently available on the Internet, they may check your facts.

And here is where the trouble begins: memory is an imperfect preservative. An author may present a fact that is skewed in the original source - there's a lot of bad research out there and, if you make the mistake of assuming a source to be trustworthy, your own credibility is married to this assumption. An author may misinterpret research, or faithfully represent (as in re-present) it from a source in which it is misinterpreted. OR the author may quite simply get it wrong himself.

This happens sometimes, and it's expected that readers are generally forgiving, though less so for the print media (where we expect that the publisher has staff to fact-check manuscripts) than online (where a blog post is largely extemporaneous and there is no editorial team to polish it). People make mistakes, often with the best of intentions, and are given some latitude.

But when this is done constantly, the reader becomes overwhelmed by the amount of vague and specious references to research "facts" and the limits of trust and forgiveness have been exceeded ... in this instance, it happened around the middle of the book ... and the esteem an author means to call upon to engage a reader has consumed itself.

While this meditation has focused on the specific phenomenon of a book, my sense it applies to all communications in all media - and is particularly germane to the topic of this particular book: if building a brand is based on communication and trust, it is just as easily undone by playing it fast-and-loose with the truth ... and even when the intent is positive, and there is no clear motive for deception or misinformation, the impact is entirely negative.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What's Wrong With This Picture?

While I tend to react negatively to those who claim to be innovative when they are simply copying something that someone else has done, I have to concede that imitation is sometimes the right approach. Mindlessly copying a competitor or rigid adherence to industry standards as a default is clearly the path of a firm that is not merely unsuccessful, but which doesn't really care about achieving success - but there are instances in which imitation, carefully considered, is found to be the best tactic.

Take, for example, the standards and practices that are evident when you consider several products in the same category: products of the same type generally have a number of similarities, which enables customers to recognize without having to be taught what a given brand is, and is meant to do. Imitating others and adhering to a common practices helps the shopper to recognize what's in the package, what the Web site does, what kind of operation is behind the door. And while innovation is possible, it's still necessary to copy certain features that are common to the category.

The problem with the image above should be self-evident, but at the risk of being bombastic, I'll elaborate: soda bottles have a specific size and shape, and the customer has come to learn that and expect that the contents of a bottle is soda pop. Actually, I think that has been broadened, as juices and water are sold in bottles of similar size and shape - so it would be more accurate to suggest that the size and shape indicate that the bottle is something potable. It's certainly not a cleaning product.

And so, selling bleach in a bottle shaped like a beverage container is an unwise and potentially dangerous. It's unwise in that the consumer who wants bleach will not recognize your brand of bleach as such, and will not buy it. It's potentially dangerous in that a consumer who wants soda will not recognize your brand as "not soda" and drink it, at least a sip. And while the "reasonable man" standard should shield you from liability, the law has switched to the "dumbest ape on the planet" standard when it comes to consumer protectionism. Sometimes, that's not a bad thing.

That's not to say that innovation isn't possible. When it comes to soda, there's one brand whose packaging stands out. I likely do not need to name it, just the shape of the bottle evokes the name of the brand. Granted, it is roughly the same size, and kind of the same shape as every other brand of soda - but it's different enough that no-one who sees the bottle thinks of a different brand. And that is brilliant.

The question then becomes, for any brand, how closely one must adhere to a "product standard" and how much one can deviate from the same standard in order for customers to recognize your brand as unique.

At the extreme of innovation is the firm that sells its product in a unique package, unlike any other product, and intends to "teach" the customer the shape of the bottle is an element of their brand. Once the brand has succeeded, you will have unique identity and strong consumer loyalty. But getting there will be an uphill battle.

At the opposite extreme is the firm that sells its product in a package that conforms to the "industry standard" for all other products of the same category. The advantage is that you are leveraging the visual cues that the customer has already learned from other brands - they know that there is soda in the bottle, even if they do not recognize the brand on the label. But at the same time, you're running the risk of never developing an identity, never offering a peg on which the customer may hang their loyalty.

If it's an informed risk - the brand manager knows and accepts the consequences of the decision to imitate, it's arguably an intelligent choice. But more often than not, I suspect that such decisions are not the subject of logic - the imitator puts no thought at all into what he is doing, just copies others, mindless of the reason.

And to my way of thinking, failure to make a decision, to even think about making a decision, is worse than making a decision that turns out to have poor results. If you make a bad choice, you can recognize it and change it later. If you make no choice, and assume that copying what made others successful will also make you succeed, you'll forever be chasing the wrong things, steadfast in the confidence that the decision to imitate and conform is not the cause of the problem ... and it may not cause a problem, per se, but merely prevent you from succeeding.

But in fairness, it is not necessarily a decision made by a brand manager at all - the operations manager insists that his equipment will only work with standard bottles, the cost accountant demands the cheapest alternative and insists it will save a penny per unit, and the brand manager does not fight (or loses the fight) for ownership of packaging decisions. You could argue that he should have fought harder, but those of us with a few battle-scars know all to well that there are some fights you just can't win, given the culture of an organization.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why E-Learning Sucks

I originally started this off as a post to summarize a book(let) I recently read on the topic of Mobile Learning - but immediately went off on a rant that took me in an entirely different direction: the egregious quality of e-learning. While I think it's great that instructional designers are excited about using the next generation of information technology (mobile), they have demonstrated profound incompetence in using the current generation (Internet), and never did make effective use of the last generation (computer-based training), so my expectations are very low.

I can likely omit a description of the hideous experience of training in the digital channels, because anyone who has taken a computer-based training module or Internet course has likely been deeply disappointed by an experience that seemed a frustrating waste of time that taught them very little. The average training module is little more than a forced march through poorly-organized information, in a slide-show presentation interrupted periodically by a few hokey animations to make it seem "fun" and a quiz at the end whose answers are so blatantly obvious that it can be passed without having paid any attention at all to the material.

And while the author of the booklet concedes, at times, that digital training leaves much to be desired, and makes a few suggestions as to how it can be leveraged more successfully, the most interesting parts of the book are the editorial passages that seek to lay the blame on anyone but the instructional designer for the sorry state of things - and with good reason: there's ample blame to go around:

The Sponsor

The sponsor bears much of the blame for the poor quality of digital learning - because he pays for it, gives it direction, and ultimately signs off on it. As such, the chief problem with digital courses is a sponsor who simply does not care, or cares too much about the wrong things, such as wanting the greatest benefit for the least cost.

Arguably, the sponsor is handed the task by an organization that provides him with inadequate resources to accomplish the task, and he must do the best that he can. And in many instances, training is intentionally a token effort - the company is required by law to inform its employees of something, or it can get a break on its insurance premium if it provides training to its people. It is merely seeking to meet a requirement to deliver training, to prove to another party that its people have taken training, and is not at all concerned whether it is effective.

The Student

Students also bear part of the blame for the failure of learning experiences - as it's entirely impossible, whatever the enthusiasm or resources of the instructor, to teach anything to anyone who does not want to learn. This is not unique to the digital channel, but the poor use of the digital channel has exacerbated the problem greatly. When presented with a learning opportunity in the workplace, the attitude is generally dreary - "I have to take a class" - and it is seen as an ordeal that will have to be endured but will ultimately yield little benefit. Some have enthusiasm about live training events, but very few show the same enthusiasm about a computer-based training module.

Again, the student can pass along the blame, as their negative attitude at the prospect of a new opportunity stems from their negative experience of similar situations - though I have seen situations in which the trainees at a course reversed their negative attitude within the first few minutes of a (live) class where the instructor was especially skilled in engaging them in the subject, that instructor must overcome the misdeeds of all the ones before him who failed to do the same.

The same burden is laden upon any "opportunity" to take digital training - poor experience in the past creates low expectations of the future - and it's likely more difficult to overcome than in an interactive situation, where the instructor can read and respond to the general mood of the student body. Because a pre-programmed course is static, it does not adapt itself to the level of interest of the student - theoretically, it should be possible to do so, but I've never seen it done.

The Programmer

The author lays a heavy blame on the technical staff who program interactive training experiences, and again with some validity: a good developer, one who seeks to meet or exceed expectations apply his skills to deliver better than what is required, is very rare. Many developers are only marginally competent in their core skills, at their attitude seems to be one of refusal and resistance to any challenge that takes them out of their comfort zone - they prefer to code what is easy to code, and balk when faced with a problem that requires them to invest much thought or effort in discovery or innovation.

The problem is further compounded when vendors are used to do programming work, which is commonplace. Vendors are in the habit of low-balling bids to land a contract - and when they have won a project, they operate much as any other business: to seek the greatest revenue at the least expense. Since "expense" is the time that their staff devote to doing a task, they seek to do it as quickly as possible to maximize their margin - and so long as it meets the (poorly) documented requirements of the contract, they see no reason to deliver one iota more.

The Instructional Designer

The author carefully avoids blaming the instructional designer, likely because it is the author's own chosen profession, as well as the business of the trade association that sponsored the booklet. So it's likely that if there was ever any intent to share any burden of the blame, it was quickly squelched.

But in my experience, instructional designers are guilty of the very same failures as they lay on the programmers: they lack competence (which is why most online courses are poorly organized and conceived) and are unmotivated to do anything that is unfamiliar (which is why the training modules resemble slide presentations). And when a "professional" is engaged as a contractor, they fall into the same mindset of profit maximization by delivering the very least possible.

The instructional designer can lay the blame on the other parties, mentioned above, and is likely justified in doing so if they interfered in the process of instructional design - put constraints on what the designer is permitted to do, or failed to deliver what was designed. I have the sense that this is often the case, but I also suspect that in a great many cases, the designer was not constrained and their design was faithfully executed, and they are merely seeking in arrears to lay the blame on someone else for their own poor work.


All things considered, I don't share the author's enthusiasm for the mobile delivery method. It presents new capabilities, not the least of which is being able to be constantly available to the learner, but given the way in which training and support have been poorly handled in the existing digital channels, I have little hope that mobile will be leveraged with much competence, either.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

You Don’t Need a New Logo, Part Two

My last post, cautioning that “modernizing” a logo effectively breaks the association of a logo to a brand, sparked a few follow-on conversations, one of which led me to a better analogy … and being fond of analogies, I had to work through it a bit more:

The analogy is that changing a company’s logo is similar to getting cosmetic surgery to improve your face – to erase blemishes, reshape certain features, and to be more attractive in a general sense.

Plastic surgery can go horribly wrong. A bad surgeon, or even an otherwise good one with a bad plan, can make a person look freakish and bizarre.

Likewise, a bad designer, or a good one with a bad plan, can completely wreck a perfectly serviceable logo.

This can be the consequence of considering a specific feature out of context: a person doesn't like their nose, picks out a better one, and once the surgery has been finished, the "new" nose doesn't look quite right in the context of their "old" face. And so, more and more surgeries are needed to make everything look right, all together - the outcome of which is seldom as effective as starting out with a comprehensive and holistic plan.

But the surgeon makes a good bit of cash, ruining someone's face one piece at a time - and I expect that designers or "image" consultants do the same thing to companies, starting with the logo and, when that doesn't work, moving on to other little changes in hopes that it will somehow come together and end up looking good ... or perhaps, not caring about the outcome, just the revenue they will earn along the way.

Even if the surgery goes well and the final effect is not monstrous, or even quite stunning, any change in a person’s face causes other people to fail to recognize them. Even little changes can break recognition, as different people focus on different features when they form the holistic "gestalt" of a person's identity. Lose a little weight, get a tan, shave your moustache (or grow one), or even change your hairstyle and people who have known you for years will remark “I didn’t recognize you.”

Regardless of whether they didn’t recognize you because you look so much better, or so much worse, the fact remains that they didn’t recognize you – didn’t associate the face they saw to the person they knew. Likewise, a change in logo causes customers to fail to recognize a brand with which they are familiar.

For a brand, this can be devastating – consider the (admittedly shopworn) example of Tropicana, whose sales plummeted when they change their logo and packaging. Aesthetically, most agreed the new design was better and more modern, but functionally, people no longer recognized the "improved" look of the brand as the brand they knew, and decided to try a different brand.

Cosmetic surgery is undeniably beneficial is when a person’s facial features are so disfigured that they are utterly repulsive. If your lazy eye, crooked mouth, or misshapen nose is the first thing people notice, and they avoid making eye contact because of it, then there's a good reason to change it, even though that means people will not recognize you and will have to "learn" your new face. Alternately, when a person gets so much media attention that they are recognized, and hated, on sight, it would be better to put on a permanent mask to hide their identity. In such instances, any change is for the better, and the individual would be well served to completely abandon their previous identity and start over with a different face, maybe a different name.

Company regrinds fall into the same category: when a brand’s reputation is utterly ruined, a new logo and even a new name is a quicker path to recovery than trying to salvage their reputation. But unless that’s the case, there’s much more to be lost than gained by a logo change.

This considered, a brand manager would do well to react to a designer who quickly proposes a logo change in the very same manner that a person might react to a stranger who tells you that “you ought to get a nose-job.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

You Don't Need a New Logo

You don't need a new logo. It's likely the first thing that anyone who wants to do any sort of design work for a business wants to get their hands on, and the last thing they should be allowed to tinker with, unless they can demonstrate a compelling reason for doing so. "Compelling" as in something other than their opinion of the aesthetic qualities. Here's why:

The logo of a business is a symbol that represents the business itself. It is a mnemonic device that has been ingrained in the memory of your customers and prospects to the point that the mere sight of this particular combination of colors and shapes causes them to immediately recall the name of your firm (even if the logo doesn't contain the name), the industry you are in, the products you offer, and the memories and emotions they connect to a firm.

The people who are familiar with your existing logo refer these connections without a deliberate process of thought. And while there probably aren't many who would claim to have spent time studying and memorizing your logo, they have done effortlessly. Meanwhile, you have likely put a great deal of time, money, and effort into establishing that connection, to connect your current logo to your brand in the minds of the customers. It was no accident.

And even if the logo is outdated or "ugly" in the opinion of some who favor what is current and trendy, your old logo is quietly and unobtrusively doing exactly what it is supposed to do. If people can name your firm when they see the logo, it works perfectly and needs no modification. If people can't name your firm when they see the logo, changing the design is unlikely to improve that.

In fact, any modification is going to be harmful. A complete change of logo largely breaks all associations that the old one used to represent. Customers don't recognize the logo, don't think of the firm when they see it, until they "learn" the new logo. And even then, past experience may not successfully associate to the new logo.

Even if the changes is minor, it will be harmful to some degree. Memory is a funny thing: some people remember colors, some remember shapes, some remember the negative space around shapes. Change any one of those elements, and you decrease the number of individuals who will remember your brand when they see the logo. The new logo may look "smarter" or "more contemporary," but it is not effective at doing the one thing it is meant to do: to cause a person to remember your brand.

There are instances in which a firm wants to break associations. Perhaps the firm has done serious damage to its brand, and the memories and associations to the logo are all negative ones that the firm would like to have discarded. Or perhaps the firm has not done anything particularly egregious, but wants to make some sort of significant change, such that they would be better able to transition if they could convince people to "forget" the memories and emotions they associate to the "old" brand and the "old" logo and regard them as new - to start over under a different brand and hope the past will be forgotten.

If either of those cases, a change of logo is in order, but not until the change or improvement has been largely effected or the negative incident has faded from the public's mind, such that the new logo can start fresh without carrying forward old baggage - or carrying forward as little as possible.

But if your business has not soiled its reputation, and if you do not wish to make a major change and be perceived as something different than you formerly were, and if you don't want to decrease brand recognition ... then there's absolutely no reason that you should be talked into letting someone tinker with your logo. Ultimately, it will do more harm than good.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sponsorship and Affiliation

I attended a presentation in which a company announced it's a new affiliation with a sports team, a proposition that in my mind has always been questionable - but my sense is that's likely due to a lack of information that would help me understand the rationale for doing so.

Activities such as sponsoring sports teams or supporting charitable events have generally been lumped in the "other" category of channels, given scant consideration in textbooks and lectures by which marketing is taught. It's generally acknowledged that firms participate in "event marketing" to get exposure to the audiences that attend events or support causes, but little explanation has been given to the rationale and benefit of doing so. This became clearer.

Primarily, relegating sponsorship activities to public relations and corporate image marketing is likely a mistake that is dismissive of the potential of this channel. While it's true that consumers and the public in general "like," in a vague way, to see companies get involved in charitable causes, and that any mention of the company name builds familiarity and invokes some latent level of curiosity, it's more logical to consider these practices in the context of building brand.

Specifically, it's effective in gaining conceptual or emotional collateral by means of associating with an event or organization with which the same emotions and beliefs are already associated. Without declaring "we want you to think about us this way," the mere mention of the firm as a sponsor of an event, or the appearance of its logo in collateral promoting the event, quietly and indirectly suggests such an association.
  • A mining company that wishes to improve public perception might associate itself with a charitable event that raises money for an environmental cause
  • A manufacturer of automotive parts would want its logo on the fender of a vehicle that does well at NASCAR events
  • A washing powder brand would want to be associated with an event that raises funds for women's health (sexist, perhaps, but true that women drive brand choice for such products in US households)
  • Any product that wishes people to believe it cares about the local market would do well to sponsor a minor-league team or an event benefitting a local charity.
The subtlety of the tactic is more effective than any advertising in other channels. In the customer's perspective, considering all the contexts is which the brand is mentioned, sponsored advertising carries the least credibility. A thirty-second television commercial that attempts to convince viewers that a firm cares about something meets with cynicism - it is clear that "this is what we want you to think," and the implication that the viewer is gullible enough to believe the advertising adds insult. But when the logo appears in association to an event or organization, the rejection of the suggested association between sponsor and value or emotion is less evident.

The notion that any exposure to a target market is beneficial does not hold. Where an event or organization is in conflict with the values and emotions the organization wishes to associate with its brand, the association between the two is conflicted. To borrow on the previous example, if a mining company that was very recently involved in a highly public incident about pollution were to sponsor a 5K for an environmental cause, their motives would be transparent. A few months after the clamor has died down and the incident has faded from memory, the association would not be as readily rejected.

The need for the association to be harmonious is not limited to specific incident, but also applies to the innate qualities of a brand. That boutique cosmetics do not typically sponsor sporting events is not merely a matter of audience demographic, as there is a significant female audience for sporting events, but the qualities associated with one are not a good fit for the other. To be effective, association must be made to events and organizations that not only gather the attention of the target market, but that are evocative of sentiments that are supportive of the brand.