When in doubt, learn

I relocated early in 2015 after 15 years in London, UK, to the great city of Missoula, Montana in the great Mountain West — where I grew up in nearby colorful Colorado.

I’d done big relocations before — Australia, Sweden — and experienced culture shock in all of its variations — including the reverse culture shock of returning to a more than subtle change in a lot of the nuances of operating in my native country.

What struck me was that there is a significant difference in the thinking and approaches of the leading brand strategists and employee communication experts in this market versus the other markets I have experienced, and while some of this is certainly market-driven, a lot of it is cultural.

So far, my impression is that the average North American practitioner is far more advanced in their digital awareness and thinking than many of their peers around the world. So much so that after a few months I realized that despite world-class credentials working at the strategic level with household name global organizations, the world was moving forward — faster than I had been.

So the past few months have been dedicated to ramping up my skills in certain areas — Montana Code School Boot Camp to get under the skin of coding (OK, I’ll never be a coder but I now understand the full stack development environment and my eyes won’t cross when you mention Node, and I understand how .css, html and .js play together). Then I went to the QuestMT marketing analytics forum, and got certified in Google Adwords (next stop – Analytics).

None of these are capabilities that I am likely to spend a lot of time working and billing time to — but all of these have combined to recharge some batteries, change my perspective and raise my game just by understanding how a lot of these things work “under the hood.” They have certainly enhanced how I think about brand development, positioning, and engagement at all levels.

And that’s the thing. In this industry if you are not moving forward, you are sinking. You used to be able to coast, to dine out on previous successes. Maybe at 47 that’s reality catching up to me – or maybe (and I think this is the case) the world is just demanding personal development at a level we haven’t known before.

The good news is, it’s not just a way to grow skills. Exercising the brain and learning is fun and keeps that muscle, the most important one, fit.

Let’s continue the conversation.

When worlds collide: brand strategy meets inbound marketing automation

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.57.24 AMThere have historically been, and continue to be, two worlds co-existing with increasing opportunity (and a lot of discomfort) for many practitioners.

The first is the world of brand strategy. With notable exceptions, it’s largely informed by the qualitative and led by the ‘big idea creative.’ Brand strategists argue that creating a powerful central organizing idea, consistently expressed, lived internally and made relevant and distinctive to the target market, is a driver of awareness, conversion, and loyalty. Many  brand strategists remain (dangerously, perhaps) one step removed from the coal face of what technology is doing with and to the ‘influence industry’.

The second is the world of analytics and marketing automation. While people have been talking about ‘convergence’ for a decade, recent acceleration in this realm has been breakneck. The concept of inbound marketing (whether for product, service, or indeed talent), where a significant proportion of customer decisions are made long before actively engaging with the seller, has in many ways subsumed traditional PR, reputation management, advertising and brand-building practices. Add to this the power of descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics (check out Young-Bean Song) and the machine intelligence of marketing automation …

… and you have AI doing a fully competent job of insight generation and plain language reporting.

In some ways, one could argue that the problem is perennial: It’s simply the tools and methods that have changed (instead of three television channels and Nielsen-style data collection we now have millions of channels and faster, better ways to get data). However we are generating attention and interest, it still comes down to an idea, effective creative, and being in the right place at the right time.

On the other hand, despite the risk of jumping into the deep end of the hyperbole pool, advances in how technology enables, accelerates, is responsive to and indeed leads and informs behaviors are genuinely unprecedented. Understanding this world at more than a superficial level and being able to apply its potential upstream – in the brand strategy, big idea and creative space – will separate the real performers from the laggards. We’ll still need big ideas – but they will also need to be fast, agile, responsive ideas.

The moral of this little story? The best brand strategists and creative directors will be the ones with a deep, uncluttered understanding of the world of inbound marketing, data analytics and automation in addition to generating brilliant ideas and compelling creative.

Sector/industry specialization – a double-edged sword

In the agency and consulting worlds, many are of the opinion that sector specialization trumps generalist capabilities.

Like any of these things, I think the answer is, “It depends.”

Sometimes sector expertise and specialization is absolutely critical. In many instances, lacking an understanding of the complex issues, ecosystem and market dynamics within and across an industry sector will render the advisor incapable of providing the right advice and service (or at least charge a lot to get up to speed). Few clients would be willing to accept this.

Sometimes, expertise dealing with a similar or even tangental issue with a different organization in a different sector is where disruptive innovation is born. Fresh perspectives an naive questions can be an explosive, often unexpected combination driving either performance improvements or at least reducing complexity to useful simplicity.

Reality is probably in between – for most providers, having a strong set of generalist core capabilities augmented by say 4-6 sector focus areas is the right mix.

While single sector focus can drive specialization, efficiency and becoming the “go to” for topic X, without a robust innovation engine this can quickly be reduced to, or devolve to, cookie-cutter consulting.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Is responsive design the end of differentiating online brand experiences?

I’m sure I am neither the first nor the last to comment on this topic. So it’s not just me.

But in looking at not only a number of well-established organizations, as well as virtually every startup on the planet, it seems that virtually every responsive website looks identical in look, feel, content and navigation. Most dramatically fail the “cover the logo test” big time.  And it’s not just in general across the web, but more importantly within their own category.

The question is: Does it really matter?

Should User Experience trump Customer Experience (because they are different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)? As a staunch believer in user-centered design when it comes to products, services, interfaces and communication in general, it throws up some interesting challenges.

Conventional brand building would suggest that while certain standards should apply to ensure the optimum user experience, of comparable importance is the experience created. Is the online experience delivering on the brand’s promise? Is the content aligned to the brand’s messaging, personality, tone of voice? Is it different and distinctive from direct and (increasingly today) indirect competitors and substitutes?

My view is that many of these sites are failing to do this, particularly in the startup, rapid growth and entrepreneurial space. In a couple of sectors – most notably in emerging sectors such as health care analytics and any of a range of cloud and mobile business solutions – not only are the sites the same, the “insider jargon-loaded” content itself is often gobbledygook filling a defined space in the template with little regard given to the information architecture, user journey, customer benefits and indeed the brand story itself.

Basecamp CEO Jason Fried seems to agree: http://www.inc.com/magazine/201404/jason-fried/do-not-overdesign-your-website.html

“Most of these designs can be described like this: First, you see a huge photo with some text over it. Then, as you scroll down, the background slides away and another big photo with more text on it pops up. And so on…. Maybe you’ve seen this style—it’s starting to crop up everywhere. To a designer’s eye, it looks good, and it’stechnically impressive, but I’m not sure it says anything meaningful about the companies using it. Worse (for those companies), it’s created a new kind of clutter: Too many companies look the same—all style and not enough substance.”

Three observations:

First, responsive web design is a requirement that needs to be addressed, not a destination.  According to Wikipedia, Responsive Design means that “Users across a broad range of devices and browsers will have access to a single source of content, laid out so as to be easy to read and navigate with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling.”

So grabbing a template and populating it, with the confidence that it works across mobile platforms, is not a substitute for a considered approach to a site that effectively expresses the brand and the desired experience.

There is certainly a case to be made for the expedience of this idea: http://www.designyourway.net/blog/inspiration/the-case-against-using-bootstrap-to-design-websites/.   Let’s face it, an organization with limited resources to allocate to talent, product and service development, sales and marketing and operational expenses is going to want cost-effective shortcuts wherever and whenever they can be found.  The challenge is regarding the discipline and decision-making at work when it comes to following this path.  Bootstrap and templates can make it almost too easy to make something look good that works without thinking about the impact on the distinctiveness, clarity, credibility and relevance of what’s on offer – both visually and in terms of messages.

Second, Steven Bradley makes a compelling case for letting it evolve: Give it more time … but don’t just grab a template, populate it and think the job’s done.http://www.vanseodesign.com/web-design/responsive-sites-look-the-same/

“Give it more time: Responsive design hasn’t matured to the point where we can shift focus away from the underlying structure and back to aesthetics and originality.”

Third, your brand experience still trumps everything else – there are less than brilliant websites for many leading brands when it comes to their performance and mobile UX.  But as Greg Storey notes http://cognition.happycog.com/article/and-they-all-look-just-the-same :

It does nobody any good to have a web that all looks the same. Be mindful of the user’s needs and business requirements, but for the sake of success, go a different route.

Your online experience remains an increasingly important customer experience touchpoint. Don’t mistake a cool responsive site with a responsive, branded, exceptional and distinct customer experience.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Brand flexibility

Conventional wisdom in the brand strategy world seems to be that for a brand to succeed, it needs to occupy a single territory on any of a range of spectrums relating to positioning. Whether that’s its product features, its sense of belief/purpose, its people, its product-service offer, or any of a number of potential positionings that allow it to express why it’s distinctive, in a way that is true to the brand and meaningful to its users.

The new landscape might make this a lot more challenging than it used to be. A big challenge to this thinking seems to have emerged.

Predictive analytics and automated advertising creates a dynamic landscape that traditional approaches to brand positioning might find challenging.

This dynamism could mean that control of messaging becomes so segmented as to render traditional positioning impossible if not planned and managed effectively.

The ability to precisely target audiences (individuals) makes it possible to segment with laser precision – which equally can result in dilution of positioning if not planned and managed effectively. Knowing the precise interests and drivers of two different audiences with two different reasons to believe in your brand can challenge the idea of a central brand positioning.

Recently, thinking around vision and purpose pioneered by the likes of Collins & Porras and many others has made a (welcome) re-emergence as organizations and consumers seek to make sense of the chaos and diluted trust in government and business in the wake of the financial crisis. This certainly offers one way to tie together potentially different stakeholder messages.

The real challenge is creative – can an idea be created that occupies a space that can cater to these different audiences without dilution. So maybe we’ve come full circle, after all.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Keep it simple

In addition to getting back to basics, even in a world where data and technology allow us to customize and segment messages and channels, it’s still important to keep it simple. This is as true – if not more true – in employer/talent branding as it is in product/service branding. Many employment value propositions and employer brands become over-complicated, and sometimes in so doing muddle their messages or confuse the potential applicant.

With a war for talent and a small percentage of active and passive candidates engaging with talent marketing communications, I’m a big fan of keeping it simple. You can always add detail later, but it’s often a barrier to starting the conversations.

Here are two good examples of a simple overarching idea supported by three key messages. You don’t need any extra information or to be an expert in employer branding to decode these messages; they’re explicit.

Coca-Cola Enterprises This employer brand is several years old now, but I still am a fan. It’s simple and it achieves its objective – which is covered here http://www.recruiter.co.uk/opinion/2012/07/finding-talent-with-a-thirst-to-be-at-the-top/. If you look at the careers site – http://careers.cokecce.com/en/experienced/ – it’s just as unambiguous: The overarching idea is THIRST – do you have it? And then three questions ask you if you might be right for the culture – it’s about Pace, Influence and Impact. It’s flexible enough to apply to range of roles. There’s another great presentation of the work here.

BP I’m not sure if this talent brand/EVP is even still in use, but I consider it a good example of a clear, simple and very flexible system. In this ad for BP Canada, you can see that the overarching message is “Are you up for the challenge?”. Then, there are three supporting message components – about the challenge itself; about you and the role you play in facing it; and what BP brings to help address it. Again, you don’t need any special knowledge to decode the message. It is simple, clear, direct and flexible. See https://gprc.ab.ca/files/careers/ktIJXRNOyLI7fMY4cukQ.pdf When connected to initiatives like the very cool BP Ultimate Field Trip for students — http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/careers/hot-topics/uft-uk-winners.html – it’s a pretty powerful idea. Both of these examples might have neared or exceeded their shelf life and utility – since circumstancs change – but they are good examples and reminders of the power of a big idea and three simple supporting messages as a principle in good communications.