You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category.
As a communication professional, I spend a good deal of time working with clients on the rationale and content of their communication. Why do they want to communicate? What are they trying to achieve? Who are they trying to reach? And what should they say or show to convey the right messages and reactions? Too often the how – or the delivery tactics – are an after-thought. In fact, many clients simply want to do what they’ve always done, and are reluctant to explore new platforms or formats. The NHL offers a good reminder of how a smart tactical strategy can pay dividends.
The NHL’s new head of player safety, Brendan Shanahan, has introduced an innovative “show and tell” video strategy to support the league’s aggressive campaign against dangerous hits. In past years, decisions on dirty hits and related penalties were unpredictable and delivered in opaque, often belated statements. Not surprisingly, many players and pundits complained (and presumably many referees were left equally perplexed and frustrated.) Notwithstanding the merit of their decisions, the league didn’t successfully argue their case. Shanahan entered the fray with the fearless purpose he used as a tough power forward. In the first weeks of his tenure, Shanahan assessed a number of fines and penalties and argued strongly against what he saw as dangerous, illegal hits. But unlike his far more circumspect predecessors, Shanahan reached out directly to players and used game videos and footage of the infractions to make his case. In one video, in response to critics shouting that he’s taking the hitting out of the game, Shanahan explicitly shows a series of clean hits, and explains how those differ from others that resulted in penalties. The video campaign is supported by a healthy menu of interviews, TV appearances and fan events. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Shanahan is a former player with a stellar pedigree as a tough, fair competitor.
The reaction of hockey fans and players, at least anecdotally, has been dramatic and positive. Players now understand the reasons for the discipline, and the nuances that justify different fines for apparently similar infractions. Some players still disagree with the fines and suspensions, of course, but there is much more clarity about the reasons behind the league actions.
The lesson here is two-fold. This is a good reminder that how you present information can make a big difference in how it’s received. Nothing new there. But the NHL also shows us you don’t have to use cutting-edge social platforms to have an impact. Straight talk. Some replay footage. A user-friendly website. A consistent message.
As a Canadian, I have watched the presidential campaign in the United States with a detached fascination. As the campaign has progressed, I’ve become increasingly numbed and disappointed, and not just by the torrent of disingenuous and shrill attack campaign ads. What’s even more interesting – as a student of marketing and PR – is how the candidates have ignored some of the basic rules of communication – in particular the core tenets of marketing. If the candidates were being judged as brands competing in the marketplace – they would get very mixed reviews. Let’s review how they rank against some key elements of successful branding.
- Focus: One of the central tenets of effective branding is having a clear, cogent brand identity. If customers (or voters) don’t have a clear sense of what you stand for, you have a serious problem. I would argue both candidates have muddled their identity and messages to the point where most voters are unclear what they really believe and what they stand for. Take McCain as an example. He starts the year as a renegade maverick who proudly bucks most of the Republican establishment. In the past few months, he has predictably softened his message on key issues and taken on the mantra as the Straight Talk Express. More recently, shaken by the implosion of the financial markets, he has apparently turned his back on decades of traditional Republican dogma about small government and free markets and remade himself a deathbed convert to regulation and Wall Street bashing. His focus on key issues has gone through a similar windmill depending on the vagaries of the campaign. Now he has belatedly joined Obama as the candidate for change and positioned himself as the real outsider. Whatever your political views on these twists and turns, it’s likely unclear to many what McCain stands for anymore…beyond perhaps getting elected. It doesn’t help, of course, that McCain’s opponent Obama is doing all he can to attack McCain’s positioning (see friend of George Bush ads) and protect his own turf.
- Differentiation: As per the above, while both candidates are striving to carve out their distinctive positions (and inherent advantages as candidates) their drifting positions have likely made their pitches more diffuse and confusing. Here’s a test: who is running as the most credible change agent, Washington outsider and somebody who no allegiance to lobbyists? Yes…both of them. This one should be easy given the inherent polarization of politics and electoral campaigns, but aside from splits on a few fundamental issues the candidates are stepping on the same platform.
- Credibility: This is a tough one given the inevitable histrionics and exaggeration of political campaigns, but even by those low standards of probity I would suggest the aggressively partisan advertising – which is usually quickly debunked by most impartial fact-checkers – seriously erodes the credibility of both candidates. It’s never a good thing when voters (or customers) expect most of what you say to be only distantly related to the truth.
- Consistency: See comments above. Even the most ardent political junkie would be hard pressed to keep track of the protean positions of the two candidates. It’s fine to adjust your position on key issues, but another thing altogether to do so for political expediency. The only thing that is consistent is the reactive and poll-driven messaging. I would also give Obama some credit for being consistent about his campaign theme and core messages – despite pressure from insiders to change it when the polls dip.
- Relevance: Most brand stewards stive to get to know their customers and respond to their desires and aspirations so they’ll buy your products or services. In politics, you use the same method to get their votes rather than their money. Given the amount of polling involved in this campaign, it’s clear the campaigns are working hard to be relevant to the voters…all the way down to specific voter segments or even neighborhoods. I’d have to give them decent marks on this one – in fact this may be one area where marketing has something to learn from politics.
- Third-party (customer) endorsement: Though the parties and candidates have thousand of passionate fans, it’s much harder to find impartial supporters who are not partisan or dogmatic. It does appear Obama has generated genuine enthusiasm among many who have not traditionally voted, so give him higher marks for creating buzz outside the traditional Democratic circles.
- Positive word-of-mouth: See point above. Plenty of noise and ardent cheer-leading but it’s not clear how much is real or will last beyond the election.
- Compelling advertising: Though many pundits claim critical campaign advertising is effective it’s clear that most of the advertising we’ve seen in this campaign has been formulaic and largely lacking in creativity and imagination. You know the type: highly critical attack ads that stick closely to the tried-and-true formula of dramatic banner headlines and splashy visuals. No subtlety here. Ads that break the monotony (and cacophony) are very rare…I can’t honestly recall one that stuck out. And there lies a major flaw of these campaigns – they are hopelessly predictable. Even if they work and some of the mud sticks – which is debatable – I firmly believe they ultimately erode the reputation and credibility of the candidates rather than enhance it.
Of course, unlike the real world one of these candidates will end up making the sale – and getting elected – no matter what they do. That’s lucky for them, because if they were in an open marketplace they may not close the deal.
“You can’t handle the truth!”. Many of us remember that famous line shouted so eloquently by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. In recent weeks I’ve had several discussions with peers and colleagues that ask whether this quote is accurate when it comes to sharing information with employees. One example: sharing the results of an employee survey.
Here is the scenario. Assume you have just conducted an annual global survey of employees for a global company. The workforce is slightly cynical about the process due to uneven communication and lack of visible follow-up during previous surveys. Sharing the highlights of the results – and focusing on driving tangible changes based on the findings – is a given. So is using all relevant communication channels, including regional and local managers, to cascade the information. But here’s where it gets less certain. Would you make most the data available to all employees, to peruse or compare at their leisure? Should you allow them to review customized reports with breakdowns by country, function or role? Would all this result in information overload and competitive sniping or foster a new sense of transparency and trust?
Here’s where we came down on this issue. Given the latent cynicism of employees regarding surveys in particular (and management in general) the default should always be to share information – or at least make it available – unless there is a good reason not to. In the case of surveys, one could reasonably argue the information is better presented with the proper context and with the right level of detail and local customization. It also helps to have key leaders take a personal role in the communication process to emphasize their personal interest and accountability. But it also sends an important message if in addition to the proactive communication process the company allows any employee to access relevant data or reports (for example on a dedicated website.)
There should be limits to this transparency, however. The obvious one is to protect the confidentiality of respondents and not present detailed data that allows close comparisons beyond (or really below) the major functions or regions, since that might create dissension and/or invite criticisms of specific teams or managers. The other is to ensure employees understand the information is confidential and not for external distribution. But beyond that the onus should be on opening the windows, so to speak.
Many discussions involving the issue of transparency with employees implicitly suggest most employees are not capable of fully understanding information unless it’s fully “digested” for them, or not responsible enough to have access to the data – with the inference they will use it to attack managers, foster dissension or even leak the information. The inference is usually based on the employees’ level and job function (white collar is ok, blue collar is not.) Though there will always be bad apples in any company, in my 20 years of experience I’ve never seen compelling evidence that a majority of employees will abuse the priviledge of candor, or that the risk outweighs the benefits. And I’m don’t necessarily buy the logic that the workforce can be easily divided into white or blue collar (or front-line) workers. Some would argue age, or generational divisions, is much more relevant.
No matter the workforce, the role of the communication professional is to find the right balance between candor and overload, and the best way to share information and foster relevant dialogue. It’s also critical that we strive to be relevant and responsive, so the communication process is a dialogue rather than a one-way street. But the default should always be to give employees the benefit of the doubt and treat them like intelligent, trustworthy partners. That’s the only way we can build credibility in the process (and leadership team) and drive employee engagement.
I continue to be fascinated by what appears to be a huge gap between the reality of the market and what I see on television advertising. Take automobile ads. For months now, we’ve been reading about disastrous financial results for the Big 3 automakers (and even some of their competitors) as customers move away from gas-guzzling SUVs and macho trucks. The CEOs of these companies are finally acknowledging that their business model is broken, and are belatedly changing their product lines, manufacturing priorities and supply strategies. So where does that leave their advertising? Apparently, firmly entrenched in 2002.
I’ve made no secret that I think most automobile advertising is depressingly timid, repetitive and devoid of creativity. But now the marketing also appears to be hopelessly out of sync with reality. In the past few weeks I continue to see numerous TV ads pushing trucks, SUVs and beautiful vistas. The push for large vehicles seem to vastly outnumber those for newer models (like Ford’s Edge.) Even Toyota has been relentlessly pushing their Tundra, their version of a truck behemoth. The one campaign that stuck out to me was, ironically, the pitch that Chrysler would guarantee 3 years of locked gas prices for buyers. How’s that for delaying the inevitable.
Even acknowledging the fact many of these campaigns were purchased and developed months ago and there is a built-in lag in the system, it’s surprising to see the torrent of advertising that appears oblivious to the existing reality. And most importantly, they are clearly not working. The Honda Civic has become the hottest selling model and smaller, fuel efficient cars are booming in popularity. This past quarter the U.S. auto firms reported decreases in sales ranging from 20% to almost 40%. The Big 3 appear to be mortally wounded, bleeding money and seemingly unable to change their fortunes. Perhaps their archaic advertising is part of the problem.