Archive for the ‘branding’ Category

I Am Terrific! A Lesson in StoryBranding

Note: I don’t run many guest posts here, but I found the piece below really interesting.

The following is a guest post by Jim Signorelli. Let me know what you think.

If you’ve gotten past the title of this article (and many don’t) you’re obviously intrigued. How could anyone expect to sell anything this way? Telling someone you’re terrific is so, well…crass, obnoxious, and Neanderthal, anything but effective.  Right?

Curious, I created an experiment.  I set out to see how people would actually react to someone saying “Hey there! I am terrific!“, not in written words, but in a real face-to-face interaction. So, taking life into my own hands, I stood out on a street corner to see how passersby might react.

After a startled stare and/or a quizzical “huh?,” I either received a  polite “no thanks” or a profane description of what I should do with or to myself. Consequently, I gave up on this experiment early on so I don’t have anything that would come even close to a projectable sample. But I’m going to take a leap of faith and hypothesize that the chances of someone responding with “okay, I’m buying whatever terrificness you’re selling,” are slim to none.

So why would I do such a thing? What’s to figure out? Nobody talks this way. So what’s the big deal?

Before you answer that, watch a little TV tonight and pay particular attention to the commercials. Take stock of the how often brands depend on self praise in their advertising, as in “we are reliable, we are caring, tasty, smart, cool, friendly, sexy etc.” Look around you, on billboards, postcards, digital banners, restaurant place mats, business cards – wherever there is paper, plastic, video or audio paid for by an advertiser, chances are that it won’t be long before you see and hear words telling you how terrific some brand is.

Okay, so most advertising isn’t quite as objectionable as some stranger walking up to a person pronouncing human superiority. Furthermore, being blatantly immodest may be frowned upon in one-to-one verbal exchanges, but it’s totally acceptable for advertisers.

I recently visited my doctor for a routine physical and my annual guilt trip for loving an occasional cigar. When I called to make an appointment, the operator made it sound like she was upset.  I don’t know, maybe I interrupted a winning hand of Solitaire. She put me on hold while she looked up my information. There, in phone purgatory, I heard three of the hospital’s latest commercials delivered by somebody I didn’t know (or trust) telling me that at this particular hospital “EXCELLENCE IS ALL AROUND YOU.” (I caped this to make up for not being able to put it against an emotional music background, like in the commercials).

“How about that?,” I thought. In the twenty-some years I’ve been coming to this place, it never occurred to me that excellence was all around me. I thought all along that this health care center that I come to for the sake of staying alive was just mediocre. Gave me goose bumps.

When I arrived for the appointment, I saw posters and brochures tagged “Excellence is All Around You.” Then, when I got the “you’re healthy” email from my doctor, the very same advertising tag line was placed under his signature.

I like my Doctor (except for the cigar lectures). I like the hospital he’s affiliated with. I wouldn’t think of switching. But it has absolutely nothing to do with his or the hospital’s self-serving opinion that “excellence is all around me,” even if it is. I decide what’s excellent or desirably “terrific” – not the advertiser. Come to think about it, I could say it’s insulting.  But I won’t. If I let myself feel insulted every time I was exposed to advertising like this, I would need to book another appointment with a different kind of doctor, the kind that treat’s depression.

Why then, one might wonder, do brands advertise like this?  Could it be that it’s always done this way, that it’s culturally acceptable for advertisers to brag and boast about who they are and what they do?  We ignore most of it anyway, so why care?

If you have a brand, and especially now at a time when social media is availing people to go public with their opinions apart from yours, you maybe ought to care.

What’s the solution? I asked this of some astute marketing people recently, and their answer was to rely more on facts than opinions or puffed-up superiority claims. “Let the facts speak for themselves,” they said.

Okay, I’m good with that. Seems logical, but even hard, cold, provable facts have their foibles.

Last summer, we conducted a study of an ad for a client promoting the “fact” that it had just been recognized by J.D. Powers for having the “best customer satisfaction” as compared to its competitors. Surprisingly, it generated little or no positive response.  Here were some of the things respondents said:

  • “J.D. Powers is not me. How do they know what I’m looking for?
  • “Did  [the advertiser] pay for this award?
  • “Doesn’t do anything for me.”
  • “Yeah, but what aren’t they telling us?”

This is not to say that a brand fortunate enough to garner third-party endorsement like this should keep it hidden from consumers. But it does suggest that facts alone do not always outperform claims of superiority.

So, let’s add it up. So far, we can’t brag. And facts aren’t as hard working as one might think. Is my purpose here to completely destroy the institution of advertising on which so much depends (including my living)? Am I out of my mind? Absolutely not, and I’m taking the 5th on that second question.

Some brands have actually found the solution. Besides the usual suspects like Nike, Apple, and Harley-Davidson, there’s North Face who is now providing a great example with its’ “Never Stop Exploring,” campaign. Then there’s Corona’s “Find Your Beach,” and Chipotle’s  “Cultivate a Better World. If you look closely, you won’t find one declarative “we” in ideas expressed by these brands, no brags, no boasts – just a clearly stated value or a belief in what the value as important. And by association with these beliefs, these brands tell an important story about themselves and without getting in their own way. Through these expressions, these brands say volumes about who they are without explanation.

These are what I refer to as “StoryBrands.” I call them that because they function the way stories do. Stories don’t push influence on us, they pull us into becoming influenced. They inspire rather than force identification. And they create resonance to the extent that we share the underlying belief that is espoused.

Gaining trust is everything when it comes to persuasion. And when you are the one trying to gain trust, credibility is influenced by many other factors besides what you think of yourself or an endorsement by a credible source.

Thinking of your brand as its main story character with a cause or a reason for being, one that goes beyond the profit motive, can open up new, more creative alternatives for advertisers than the old standby “brag and boast” form of persuasion. Instead of being the hospital that brags “excellence is all around you,” perhaps an association with the value of excellence as a worthwhile pursuit in life, let alone health care, would be a more effective appeal. Instead of being the brand that cites some statistic about customer satisfaction, perhaps an association with the shared value of people caring for other people would render greater trust.

As such, story logic provides an important remedy for advertising at a time when consumer skepticism and distrust are mounting. We were humans before we became consumers. As humans, we naturally gravitate to stories and the ideas, experiences and lessons with which they invite us to participate.

Speaking of lessons, I only have two. Think of your brand as a story, and not as an opportunity to brag. And don’t try my experiment at home.

Jim Signorelli is the founder and CEO of ESW Partners, a Chicago-based marketing firm and author of the new book, StoryBranding: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through the Power of Story. For more information, please visit

How To Ruin (Or Build) Your Personal Brand

A little while back I was invited to keynote at a young professionals’ event in Hamilton, on the topic of personal branding. I presented at the event this morning, and thought I’d post it here for you, too.

Rather than taking a single view on the presentation, I shook this one up a little by dividing the topic three ways:

  • How to ruin your personal brand
  • How to build your personal brand
  • Things you can do today

I’ve embedded the presentation below; the primary talking points are summarized beneath.

How to ruin your personal brand


  • Ignore the Internet – Reputations are made and broken online nowadays. Even if you think social media is a fad, the fact remains that the Internet is a significant driver of business in today’s economy. Even if you don’t care about that, know that employers will Google you. Ignore the Internet and lose the opportunity to manage other peoples’ impressions of you.
  • Go negative – Few people like trolls. No-one wants to work with someone who only tears people down without providing anything constructive
  • Broadcast without engaging – The 1990s web let people with technical expertise publish in a one-way fashion. Today’s technologies enable two-way conversations; use them for one-way broadcasting and you’re missing out.
  • Think no-one is f&$#ing watching – It doesn’t matter if you think your Facebook profile is locked down – lots of people have found the opposite to their cost. If you wouldn’t want your boss or future employer to know about it, don’t post it. Want to ruin your brand? Swear away.
  • Trigger-post - If you’re feeling emotional about something, hold off on posting. Sleep on it.


  • Know everything or nothing – You don’t know everything. Don’t alienate people by thinking that you do. On the flip side, you’re hired for your skills. Put them to use and contribute when you can.
  • Write sloppily – Writing is a critical skill. This is especially so in communications, but true in any field. Be honest with yourself – if your writing isn’t up to scratch, take steps to correct that.
  • Be “that person” – Don’t be the guy who leads with a business card, or who is constantly looking for the next person to talk to, or who asks for favours before getting to know you properly. Don’t know that guy? Then you probably are that guy.
  • Do the bare minimum – Be hungry for more. Seek out work. Cruising is a path to mediocrity.
  • Let up once you’re let in – Landing that dream job isn’t the end of your journey – it’s the beginning.

How to build your personal brand

  • Build your brand before you need it – The time to build your reputation isn’t when you need it – it’s before. It takes time; start now.
  • Be a sponge/say yes… enthusiastically – Spend the early part of your career in general, and of any job, being a sponge. Take every single opportunity to learn everything you can about your role and the organization. Try to continue that learning orientation throughout your career.
  • Create opportunities at and outside work – Volunteer; participate in extra-curricular activities; organize sports teams; get out in your community. The more you do, the more opportunities will present themselves. They’re unlikely to come if you do nothing.
  • Follow your passion; be yourself – Be authentic, both about your passion and about you as a person. Authenticity is critical, especially in online channels where one example of a lack of authenticity can hang around for a long time.
  • Define your goal – If you don’t know where you’re heading, you can never get there. Figure it out early.
  • Under-promise; over-deliver – Always aim to exceed expectations – delight rather than satisfy.
  • Kill people with generosity – Give to other people more than you take. Help other people more than you ask them for help. Build social capital for the times when you need it.
  • Find a mentor; don’t be afraid to connect – Find a mentor. Don’t let someone else assign them to you; find someone you gravitate to, who you respect and to whom you can relate.
  • Network like crazy – Get out there, online and offline, and meet people (without being “that guy”).
  • Be willing to fail – Failure drives learning. Find a supportive environment which encourages failure so you can develop.

Seven things to do today:

  • Google yourself – Find out what people are saying about you. If you haven’t done this before, you may be in for a surprise.
  • Monitor yourself – Use Google Alerts, Twitter Search etc to make those searches persistent so you know whenever someone posts something about you online.
  • Scatter breadcrumbs online – Having your own online properties can be a great asset. If you’re not ready for that, scatter breadcrumbs – comment on other peoples’ work; upload photos to Flickr; find small ways to spread your reach online.
  • Build-out your LinkedIn profile – Your LinkedIn profile is one of the easiest online properties to build out (you have a resume, right?) and can likely become one of the highest-ranking results in search engines. If you don’t have a profile there, get one – it’s quick, risk-free and free.
  • Find similar people – Whatever your passion, there’s probably a community for it. Search for similar-minded people and connect with them.
  • Reach out to someone you admire – Think of someone who you respect, who you’d like to meet or connect with – for whatever reason. Reach out to them today.
  • Get out and meet people – Online media are great but offline connections are just as powerful. Get away from the keyboard and meet new people.

What do you think?

(Hat tip to Jeremy Wright for the idea for the videos)

Do Damaged Brands Have More Opportunities In Social Media?

Do problems with your brand mean more opportunities in social media?

I spend a lot of time thinking about how companies can use social media tools to enhance their communications efforts.

  • Some involve a new take on traditional outbound or inbound marketing.
  • Some are conversational, building relationships rather than “selling.”
  • Some focus on customer service and solving pain points for people.

It occurs to me that to some extent, the effectiveness of two of the options above may depend on the state of your existing brand.

Caveat: This is by no means the only factor involved in this decision, which is why companies need to approach social media from a strategic perspective (with full consideration of multiple factors) rather than a tactical one.

If your brand is healthy and people generally think positive things about your organization, well-targeted communications along interruption and destination-based lines may be well received. However, if your brand has little equity and people are distrustful, it may be that you have more to gain from other social media approaches than healthy brands.


Because the bar is set low.

Angry customer on the phoneWooden corporations can benefit greatly from allowing some personality within their online activities. As I often say, people don’t want relationships with brands; they want them with people. (Note: I’m not talking about slick artwork and design; I’m talking about real people.)

Similarly, if your brand is on thin ice, online customer service improvements can be received with open arms. Peoples’ expectations are so low that just solving problems (essentially, taking them from a negative to a neutral state with the product/service) can have positive effects on your brand. Companies like Dell and Comcast bave benefited greatly from this approach.

As I noted recently, it’s when times are tough that you can differentiate your company.

What do you think? Do you think companies have more to gain from social media when their brand is suffering?

(Image: Shutterstock)

A Poorly Thought-Out Sponsorship?

The Globe and Mail newspaper reports today that at the launch of Waste Reduction Week, hundreds of schoolchildren were given souvenir bags containing bottled water from Nestlé.

To their great credit, the students reacted badly to the Nestlé promotion (Nestlé Waters Canada sponsors the Waste Reduction Week). They wrote to both the recycling council, the corporate sponsors and to the two Ontario government ministers attending the event.

As one student noted:

"Isn’t it strange to talk about not wasting when you gave us a water bottle to waste?"

Meanwhile, although a Liberal MPP’s private members’ bill to ban bottled-water sales was defeated, the City of Toronto is considering whether to ban the sale bottled water in city facilities and the Toronto District School Board is considering banning their sale on school property.

A useful reminder to companies that if your message doesn’t match your actions, people may reject both.

(Image source: Green Union)

Branding Won’t Solve All Your Problems

Seth Godin wrote today about a couple of big companies that have re-branded themselves recently, with some scepticism:

I guess the punchline is: take the time and money and effort you’d put into an expensive logo and put them into creating a product and experience and story that people remember instead.

Man with a megaphoneSad but true: many companies seem to think that by launching a new ad campaign, changing a logo or starting a blog, they can fix all of their problems.


Organizations need to remember that just because they shout something loudly, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

I had a brutal car rental experience recently, waiting hours for a rental car despite having a reservation. Not surprisingly, I was a little upset and my Twitter followers got to hear all about it. The first line of the car rental company’s response to me (after an email to their head office) included their slogan in quotes, right down to an inappropriately-placed period from their trademark.

The company has definitely created a story. It’s not the one they want people to hear, though.

Instead of messaging and bureaubabble (please don’t lead a paragraph with the word "pursuant"), I might have been a little happier if the response had included the words "sorry," "improve" or "won’t happen again." It included none of these.

You can’t brand your way out of a poor product or poor customer service.

Starbucks: Good Move Or Poor Brand Management?

Update: Chris Clarke has written a response to this post pointing out that the store is being renovated at the moment and that Starbucks is providing the coffee gratis. While this post is about my reaction as a passerby to this scene and I think there are still lessons to learn, I say “bravo” to the person that came up with that idea if that’s the case.

In terms of lessons around this episode – if you plan to do something like this in advance, small details — like hanging a company banner from the table and hiding the garbage a bit more out of sight — can make a big difference. With those details fixed, this kind of customer service has the potential to generate great coverage instead of negative reactions.

Starbucks is a brand built upon luxury. The daunting menu options, the atmosphere… “the third place,” right?

Imagine my surprise when I saw this scene outside a Starbucks store on my way to work this morning:

Starbucks near Yonge & St. Clair at 8:30am on August 11, 2008

Coffee, cups, milk, etc. all on a temporary counter outside the store, complete with boxes of garbage (bottom right).

On one hand, this may be a good move that helps to stave-off the morning rush. However, in the long term, as a market leader in high-end speciality coffee, is this how you want people to perceive your brand?

What do you think?

Why Apple Doesn’t Need Social Media

Apple has a pretty well-known disdain for social media.

Despite being the one company that, more than any other, raised awareness of podcasting and gave the music industry a kick up the ass with iTunes, Apple is dismissive of social software. The company discourages employee blogging. It sued some of its biggest fans. It shut down online forum posts when people complained about problems with its Leopard operating system.

Jay Moonah mentioned Apple on his (excellent) Media Driving podcast the other day, wondering why brands like Apple and Seth Godin don’t get attacked for not “joining the conversation.”

So… why doesn’t Apple feel the need to engage with other customers? How come it hasn’t descended into Dell hell (and had to dig itself out) yet?

Rabid dogs Because it doesn’t need to. Apple has an army of fans that does the job way better than the company ever could.

Apple focuses on creating a fantastic user experience. Whether it’s the iPod, the Mac or the iPhone, Apple’s strength of design gives an experience that people love.

Sure, they would probably benefit from engaging with customers, listening to what they’re saying and responding like Dell, GM or Comcast. Let’s face it, though, like it or not those companies don’t have the rabid following that Apple does. They need to reach out to convince people.

Apple’s fans do it for them. When your brand is this strong, why take a risk using untried tactics?

Not everyone agrees with me on this. There are plenty of people that wonder if Apple really wants the crazed few defending its reputation and who think the company really needs to engage.

What do you think?

The Importance Of Meeting Expectations

The Globe and Mail published an interesting article recently entitled Build your brand – but don’t forget to deliver an experience (needs subscription). The article relates how, by not fulfilling its promises to a customer, an auto dealer turned that them from "a walking brand builder for the manufacturer" into a dissatisfied customer.

The article outlines several reasons why today’s customers are a fickle lot:

  • Pressured for time
  • Starved for affinity relationships (successful companies are playing up the need to belong)
  • Jaded and sceptical
  • Short of money

It goes on to say that all this means that customers’ experiences are more important to your brand than ever. If you can’t match their expectations, you’re in trouble.

‘Gap theory’ says that closing five ‘service gaps’ is crucial to customer satisfaction (I still keep this book from my university days at work – it’s that relevant):

  1. Knowing what customers expect
  2. Setting adequate service standards
  3. Meeting those service standards
  4. Matching your service to your promises
  5. Ensuring customers’ perceptions of your service match their expectations

Looking at that the list, the importance of public relations and marketing leaps out at you. What’s more, the rise of new media puts this at the forefront of your organization’s reputation.

The old saying goes, "A happy customer will tell one person. An unhappy customer will tell 10 people." Nowadays, an unhappy customer can tell hundreds or thousand of friends with the click of a mouse.

A failure to match what people expect with what they get can be disastrous for your brand. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.

As the article says, "What is the dollar value of delivering an experience that consistently produces brand boosters and eliminates brand blasters?"

Are Companies Missing The Point Of Social Media, Or Is Facebook Missing An Opportunity?

The web is full of story after story right now about companies cancelling their advertising on Facebook because of their potential association with dubious content. In the latest move, Reuters reports:

The British government has halted its advertising on the social networking Web site Facebook over concerns about how its ads are displayed

I listened with interest to Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson discuss several UK companies pulling their ads off Facebook in episode 264 of For Immediate Release. I must say, I had quite a visceral reaction to their views on this (to the alarm of people near me on the bus).

Shel and Neville suggest that companies are missing out on an opportunity with these social networks. They argue that companies should realize that advertising is changing and that they should get on board with it.

I have a somewhat different perspective, which I’ll split into two parts here.

First, rather than the companies missing out on the opportunity here, I argue that it is in fact companies like Facebook who are missing out.

We shouldn’t put “Web 2.0″ companies on a pedestal. They’re young companies and they aren’t immune to making mistakes. Facebook is a fantastic website and I’m a big fan, but I think they’re on the wrong side of this one. They run the risk of losing out on huge potential revenue by not delivering an advertising model that accommodates advertisers’ concerns.

Rather than a negative, confrontational response, the company could generate a lot more goodwill by working on a way to deliver ads that provides a measure of control for advertisers. Let’s face it, Facebook (right now, anyway) generates its revenue through ads. The advertisers are its customers. Smart companies don’t alienate their customers.

My second point is that, like it or not, a lot of companies will continue to pull their ads until issues like this are fixed. Businesses spend millions developing their brands; it’s no surprise that they will act quickly to protect them. Not understanding this is to not understand a vital part of marketing.

Facebook is wrong here. They should embrace their customers’ concerns and work with them to fix the problem.

Democratic Debate… Or Branding Genius?

Mitch Joel wrote on his blog this week that the real winner of the recent democratic presidential debate wasn’t a candidate, but was YouTube.

I completely agree.

You’ve got to admit, Monday’s debate was marketing genius. Almost all of the reporting (and blogging) I’ve seen on this has been about the companies, not the candidates. To this extent, regardless of the problems associated with the debate, YouTube has come out on top. Even Jon Stewart, who you can usually rely on to cut through to the real issues, focused on YouTube.

(For the record, I don’t rely on Stewart for my current affairs knowledge – it’s a comedy show. However, his show is probably the best thing out there for cutting through marketing and spin).

I could rant about the state of democratic debate when two huge brand names dominate coverage, but I’d rather marvel at the marketing genius that managed to set this up. The two brands managed such dominance of the event that it became, not “the democratic debate sponsored by YouTube/CNN,” but “the YouTube/CNN debate.”

You’ve got to admit, this was fairly cool. The video question format helped not only to engage the increasingly alienated younger demographic, but also brought some relevance to the predictably-themed questions.

Unfortunately, a lot of people/groups missed their opportunies on Monday night:

  • The candidates, rather than taking a few chances in this new format, stuck with their same, old, standard answers to the questions, and did nothing to distinguish themselves
  • CNN, while it did well out of this too, stirred up controversy (deliberately? you decide) about its choice of questions

YouTube, however, came out on top. Google strikes again.