Archive for May 30, 2008

Posted: May 30, 2008
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Business body-building

Anybody involved in sports training knows that if you want to develop muscles you do so by constantly pushing them beyond their limits. You push weights that are heavier than you have pushed before, the fibres in your muscles break and bleed and you feed them protein to fix them and they become bigger and better than before.  So, nothing is easy, right?

The great squash player and recently retired World Champion and World Number one Peter Nicol was training at his peak by pushing his boundaries too. Like other elite sportsmen and women he followed the theory that your brain has a built-in fail-safe that protects you from over-doing it, that this margin is rather larger than it needs to be.  By ignoring the messages you get from your brain during exercise that tell us mere mortals to ease-off you demonstrate to your brain that you can do more without actually dying. Next time your brain lets you go further before telling you to stop. Well, it worked for Peter!

The business world isn’t much different, Last evening I went out to eat with my son. We found our way to one of those up-scale food courts with a host of trendy restaurants (and inevitably a few less trendy or up-scale ones) and set about making our choice. As it was we ended up at the hand-made burger restaurant and it was great, but during our deliberations we considered (for a nanosecond at least) TGI Friday’s.

I remember Friday’s from when my son was a child (that’s twenty years ago) and we used to go to our local TGI occasionally for a treat. It was always a kid’s place to me, but apart from being about as far away from grown up dining as you could get, then it was new, and funky and they tried. I mention this because yesterday we concluded that TGI Friday’s have committed that unforgivable sin – they are still doing the same old thing!

This is an old chestnut of mine – business success being more about the fact that you are new and different than what that difference is and that once you have established your place on the map with a new formula, you are duty-bound to start looking at improvement or re-invention. However, that’s not quite my main point here.

Last week one of the guys I mountain bike with accused me of being too competitive. I say accused because that’s how he meant his comment to be interpreted, but frankly I was flattered. Personally, I would rarely use the words “too” and “competitive” in the same sentence. His point was that I tend to streak off up hills leaving everyone else behind and disillusioned. Now, I have to say that this isn’t strictly true. In fact there are many of my riding chums that leave me behind in the same way in such circumstances, but as far as the group in question were concerned, I guess my critic was correct – Its all a matter of context and the relative fitness or skills of those who you are riding with at the time. The point I made in reply was that while I’ll buy the “competitive” label its not that I am competing with the guys who are riding with me particularly (although that has been known) I compete with myself, trying to push my limits because, although the view from the top of a climb is always a reward for the effort involved the real point is the challenge of getting there as quickly as I can and quicker than the last time. The fact that I am quicker than you isn’t really a concern to me, but, inevitably if I always approach my rides in this way I’ll improve to the point where I will beat you and ultimately any other challengers every time.

I approach my work in the same way. I start every project with the objective of doing it better than I did last time. Sure I have the competition in my peripheral vision, but I’m focussed on my own Personal Best. As long as I always work that way my performance will improve by increments and when I have been doing it for long enough (and I’ve been at this for a while now) I guess I’ll beat anybody.

Because I work this way I am more than usually irritated by businesses and people who don’t rise to the challenge in the same way. Its perfectly clear to me that once you have a Brand Model to represent your objectives (because a Brand Model will always be the starting point of any business development strategy), if everyone in an organisation approached their work like a body-builder or sports-person their organisation would pretty soon be unbeatable.

This thinking is similar to the 110% philosophy. I heard an American business guru explain this by asking a room full of people what percentage of their objective they thought it was reasonable to achieve. The suggestions were something like 85% or 90%. He then equated this to an airline’s success in delivering passengers to their destination and drove the point home by suggesting that it represented a plane crash every so-many minutes. “So you think that’s acceptable?” he asked. It was a simple next step for delegates to nominate 110% success their objective with the expectation being 100% achievement.

Whichever way you look at it its clear that if you want to succeed you are going to have to put yourself out a bit, aim high, compete with yourself. This is reasonably easy for most senior managers because they have a better perspective of the business. Further down the chain of command though its harder to relate to. That’s where internal marketing, that other message that I keep repeating, comes in. Its the internal marketing that gets your workforce thinking like a body-builder and which provides the incentive. I also feel that a lot of business attach too much importance to what their competitors are doing. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t be interested in the guy down the street, but all too often the performance that competitors achieve becomes your objective and that’s bad for a lot of reasons.

So, if you want your business to succeed you too must remember the lessons of our great sports-people and think like a body-builder focus on your own performance, aim to be better every time and don’t stop when you win – keep at it and make your competitors eat your dust!

Posted: May 29, 2008
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Alas, the UK National Health Service, I knew it!

A client of mine attended a conference last week of key figures from the UK’s National Health Service. He spent a total of eight hours in an auditorium with two hundred delegates listening to some big name (if not big talent) speakers and being amazed at the comments and questions from the floor. Never before, he tells me, had he witnessed such universal negativity and self-interest at an event like this. The whole sad moan-fest left him wanting to stand up and shout something like “Get a grip you sad, lazy idiots!”.

The demise of the UK’s once proud health service is the stuff of legend and there are many reasons why the jewel in the British crown has become so lacklustre. Fundamentally though, its about lousy management and a factor that, for our purposes right here, I’ll call “negative opportunism”, which was there in buckets-full at this conference.

I have witnessed this phenomenon many times in different places over the years and it has always annoyed me. Its when well-intentioned rules or procedures are laid down and those who are supposed to follow them immediately manipulate them to bring-about a situation where they feel they are excused from doing exactly what the rule is designed to achieve. Still with me? Good!

I am sure that it isn’t always entirely the fault of the people at the pointed end. After all, good rules are those that are most readily accepted and to achieve that much its a good idea to collaborate on their formulation with everyone that they affect. There’s a lack of this sometimes at UK government level – especially with our current government. Its also true that the UK health service has completely lost the plot. An organisation that was set up to ensure that basic healthcare was available to everyone is now unable to fund life-saving treatment for those with critical illnesses because its coffers have been drained by the cost of helping childless middle-class couples have quintuplets and women with large breasts have them reduced because it makes them self-conscious! Aneurin Bevan would turn in his grave!

At the conference in question my client reports that without exception the comments and questions from the floor were negative, destructive and un-cooperative. Everyone, it seemed was more concerned with proving that the system doesn’t work, or that expectations of them were unreasonably high than to get their arses into gear and make something happen. An accusation that might also be levelled at that other bastion of the lazy and self-interested, the UK teaching profession. I am not saying that this is a mind-set adopted by everyone employed in these public services. Of course it isn’t.  They may even be a minority, but sadly for us all, those with most influence are usually those with the biggest mouths and often the smallest intellect and it seems they were out in force last week.

I realise that these things aren’t as simple as they seem, but I et mad when there are fundamental mistakes or omissions.  What happens in the private sector that clearly doesn’t in the public is that businesses start with, or at least periodically identify, a fundamental objective or two and align their business structures and practices to realise them. In its simplest for, that’s what my Brand Discovery Programme does. If only we had a Brand Model for the National Health Service we could start on the internal marketing that every organisation needs to get its people behind the promise – and that I think is the key here. A Brand Model, correctly marketed internally gives good employees something reassuring  to focus on and provides floaters with a sense of purpose.  Once you start with this strategy it also becomes much easier to winkle out employees who, for their own reasons, are never going to comply with the spirit of the plan, which in this case it seems would have meant an empty auditorium!

Having admitted that it may not be so simple I have to say that this isn’t an excuse for not trying. I’m a UK tax-payer and I’m sick of wasting my tax money paying pubic servants to either do nothing to support, or actually work against the initiatives that could make our country a decent place to live. The good work that Margaret Thatcher did in starting to get us to think of running the country in the same fashion as we should run a business has almost entirely been undone in recent years.

I’m fascinated by the idea of applying commercial thinking, tools and practices to the public-sector, but sadly the successful businessmen who could make this kind of thing happen are usually too busy running their own enterprises to help out. There are exceptions, of course, and Tony Blair and to some extent Gordon Brown have done their best to harness this knowledge and experience by bringing in “government advisers” but it clearly hasn’t been enough.

Hopefully we will soon have a change of management and there will be a chance to start putting things right. I only hope that the patient hasn’t died before the treatment arrives!

Posted: May 20, 2008
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Go ahead. Make a decision!

When I was an up-and-coming ad. man I spend an enlightening few years in the employ of Michael Conroy, then MD at McCormick Intermarco-Farner and more recently President of Publicis-FCB in the UK. Michael is one of those truly charming, eloquent Irishmen to whom philosophising comes as naturally as breathing and one of his mantras has stuck with me to this day.

I have always been told that I was impatient and have tended to take this as an accusation. These days though, with the benefit of age and the overview that facilitates I see things differently. Maybe I have been blessed with the ability to see things without the clutter of unimportant details, but it often seems to me that people make decision-making unnecessarily complicated. Most of the really successful businessmen that I have met over the years have told me that a significant factor in their success has been the ability to make decisions and in today’s business world, if not in the past, this is definitely a pre-requisite to success. That’s probably why, apart from stuff that doesn’t deliver its promise, indecision and procrastination makes me madder than March hare! I really can’t bear to see a missed opportunity and in most cases behind every one of the there’s a ditherer. Business opportunities are so rare and valuable these days any that are missed because someone can’t piss or get off the pot represent a criminal waste! To me I see someone who can’t make a decision as somebody who lacks clarity of vision, and as a business developer clients who fall into this group only make my work harder.

I always loved Michael Conroy’s ability to illustrate a point with a story or anecdote and the one I recall about indecision was that half the decisions you make in your life have no consequence beyond the next minute of your life, half of those that remain have no consequence beyond the next hour, half of those that have not already been accounted for have a consequence of a day, and half of those that are left matter might impact on the next week. Half of those that remain might hold consequences for the next month and half of the rest might impact on the next year of your life, and so on. Ultimately you will see that of all the decisions you make in your life only a handful really matter in the great scheme of things. The thing is that when you have to make them you have no idea which decisions are the significant ones so you may as well just get on and make them and hope that if your decision is wrong it will only matter for a short while. Now, I think that’s a great piece of advice and one that, had I not already been well along this thought process might have changed my life. As it was, it merely gave me an anecdote to pull out of the bag from time to time to illustrate the point.

This approach definitely works. Sir Ralph Halpern resurrected the Burton Group of retail brands in the UK with an aggressive campaign of innovation. He once told me that he had no fewer than twenty pilot formats up and running at any one time and explained (Though it was probably obvious enough) that if only one in twenty succeeded, that one concept would pretty quickly more than cover the cost of the nineteen failures. So if anybody on his team came up with a concept that looked half-decent, they would give it a go!

Don’t get me wrong though. I am not advocating recklessness. While Michael Conroy gave me license to get on with it and think on my feet Stanley Kalms, the charman of the great Dixons Stores Group (now Dixons Stores International) added stability to my decision-making approach with his insistence on minimising risk. “I don’t mind taking risks” he once told me “As long as it doesn’t cost me anything” and with that he challenged me on one of my great ideas one day to “Show me how if this doesn’t work I don’t have to pay”. Which, incidentally, I did.

This isn’t a “get out of jail” card for the risk-averse it just points to something that separates the boys from the men. You still have to do your homework, but it can’t be allowed to slow you down so I have to admit, I’m not sure if it means that you have to weigh up all the odds very quickly or just know what to prioritise. Actually there is a bit of magic dust around some of the really great business people I have met that leads me to believe that its more about knowing instinctively what’s important, than exploring every avenue, and that demands a mindset that’s more genetic than acquired.

So, yes, its vital that you make business decisions quickly and I personally have far more time for someone who does than I do for procrastinators, but you have to make each decision on the basis of knowledge. You can acquire that at the time which means having resources and applying them efficiently and probably with a degree of prioritisation, which in turn means knowing, maybe instinctively, what’s important. It also points to accumulated knowledge, life experience and all that stuff as being an important aspect of sound decision-making.

So if your finger has been hovering over a button for the last six weeks, my advice is get on and push it. Minimise the risk by all means, you’d be stupid not to, but be decisive. The chances are that if you are wrong it won’t matter that much, but if you don’t push it, its an absolute cert than you won’t get that opportunity again!

Posted: May 19, 2008
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Since when was marketing the same as communications or sales?

I’ve been having one of those weeks when the same question repeatedly turns up and this week it has been an old one that never ceases to surprise me. Early in the process of my Brand Discovery programme workshops we get around to defining marketing. Simple you might think, but you’d be surprised. There’s no lack of confidence behind the answers I get, but there are some very weird ideas!

The most common problem is that people – and remember the people I am talking to are supposed to be marketers so they should have this well and truly sorted – confuse marketing and marketing communication. Of course communication is a critical component of marketing, but it’s by no means the whole deal and if that’s your universe then not only is life going to be difficult and boring you won’t actually achieve much.

The other popular misconception is that marketing and sales are the same thing. We see the mistake made every day in recruitment ads. but just because some half-wit, or even a few of them don’t know their arses from their elbows doesn’t make it any less of a crime to agree with them. A crime, by the way, for which I believe perpetrators should be strung up by their delicate body parts and flogged with a copy of one of those marketing tombs that these people have on their bookshelf, but none of them (apparently) read!

You know what I mean. Read beyond the headline of an ad. for a marketing manager and the text describes a sales job. Yes, sales are a component of marketing, but they are just another bus-stop on the scenic route to profit. Marketing is far broader and more complex than sales.

If you Google definitions of “marketing” you’ll see the same mistakes time and again, but the dictionary definition and the one that thankfully you’ll come up with most frequently goes something like this:

“Marketing is the process of generating profit by identifying and leveraging an organisation’s resources to satisfy consumer needs.

Simple isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Its succinct for sure, but the implications are complex. Looking at it like this (which I absolutely believe is the correct definition – that’s why I wrote it!) it’s instantly obvious that marketing plays a part in every function within any organisation. Its about designing products and service offers that you can deliver using the resources at your disposal and which satisfy consumer needs, making sure that they are available and at the right price and telling potential customers about it and more.

While you are doing this you get to understand more about customers, competitors and market trends, which helps you identify your weaknesses (wrong manufacturing equipment, poor distribution and my favourite, people and recruitment etc.) and fix them, adding new people, resources and changing practices and structures. So, though this might sound like heresy to some people, marketing is well and truly a part of operations, distribution, manufacturing and recruitment for a start.

This same insight also enables marketers to understand the relevance of the product offer and define how to improve that too so (perhaps less radically) marketing involves a contribution to product design.

Even when you have the right product, life is such that there are probably a dozen alternative and equivalent products for consumers to choose from in their local store – Hey, I didn’t say this was easy! – and that’s where brands come in. Sure, you can begin to create an emotional differentiation in the cosmetics and packaging of your product – ask Philips Apple, Sony, Harley Davidson and pretty well all the auto manufacturers about this. However, that’s only a small step in the direction of branding and brand development and I’m not going to explain more – That’s what I get paid for!

In the “making sure you can deliver it …” department we get into internal marketing, which involves training and therefore brings HR into the equation. This is another of my favourite areas and one in which I think pretty well every business I see is under-performing. Delivery not only concerns the physical delivery of a product, but embraces the delivery of the emotional promise inherent in every brand. OK, you’ve heard me say this before, but its where most organisations slip up so I make no apologies for repeating myself.

Apart from not knowing what marketing is, the thing that prevents most organisations marketing effectively is their structure, practices and above all culture (I say “above all” because if the culture is right then the rest tends to get sorted). Most businesses are set up in silos representing different departments and that perpetuates a lack of cooperation between disciplines. Worse still, marketing is frequently viewed as one of the junior functions, sometimes even treated as separate to the mainstream business. Needless to say there isn’t much of a future for an organisation that doesn’t acknowledge the central role of marketing, but its essential for everyone on the team, whatever their specialisation, to be able to influence the work of other departments, which for most organisations means a new structure and set of practices. Thankfully I am increasingly encountering astute CEOs who create businesses with the cross-fertilisation and specialist accountability that is essential to business success in today’s competitive marketplace.

A structure like this works because it acknowledges that everyone around the table has capabilities or ideas beyond the boundaries of their defined role, but understands that specialists should call the shots in their own environment. For example, marketers tell the manufacturing/operations guys what they should make, the manufacturers decide how they are going to do this and identify what they need from everyone else in order to achieve that. This includes, for instance, the level of investment that the CEO needs to find. If to create the products, produce and deliver them requires a change in personnel the HR department either re-assign existing human resources or hire and train new people.

It works in reverse too. Having devised a strategy for delivering the necessary human resource, the HR people will hire the communications specialists to devise the communications that deliver the right people to the door and because communications is the essence of training the marketing people will be lending their expertise to this too. At each of these cross-over points there is opportunity for all parties’ input.

Part of the framework of HR strategy (as well as design, manufacturing and every other strategy in the organisation) will be the Brand Model that the Marketing Department has created with contributions from the board. No organisation is going to get very far from home without a Brand Model.

To bring us back to our second great misconception; a Brand Model is where marketing and sales rub shoulders because when the sales folks take to the stage in this business pantomime they will also have to be working within the framework of the Brand Model. The HR folks will have seen to it that they are the right people for the job and together with the marketing people will have created a training programme that will deliver them to their cue. Now its their turn to represent the brand and its promise – in fact, they could be the only flesh-and-blood manifestation of the brand the customer gets to see, so not only will they find it easier to sell if they work within the Brand Model and maintain consistency of message (see earlier [posts on consistency), but the organisation is depending on how faithfully they represent the brand promise for future sales.

Even though this is a very much simplified scenario the fact that marketing impacts on every area of every business should be pretty obvious. So, if you find yourself in one of my seminars or workshops and this question comes up, you’ll know not to tell me that marketing is the same as communications or sales.

Posted: May 8, 2008
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Boris and the truth about brands

Last week witnessed a shift in the British political scene with the Tories gaining extra seats in local councils at the expense of Labour and the Tory candidate for London Mayor, (Bumbling) Boris Johnson scoring a resounding victory over the incumbent Labour (Communist actually!) (Red) Ken Livingstone. I’m not yet sure about Boris – it could be that London is buggered, but watching (blonde) Boris in action is sure as hell going to be more entertaining than the 2012 Olympics!

This Tory triumph represents two fingers for Labour and is a classic case of a) what happens when a brand (in this case Labour) fails to deliver its promise and b) how important the emotional side of brands is in any buying decision. David Cameron, the Conservative leader hasn’t come up with anything you could nail to your mast in the way of a policy yet, but the general opinion seems to be that he’s “our kind of guy”. Boris likewise won his contest really just by being a good bloke, in stark contrast to the slime-ball that Red Ken has always been. Welcome to the cut and thrust of political marketing!

The whole thing is a really great demonstration of how any kind of marketing works – the corporate and sub-brand relationship (Tory central office policies being represented at local level by brand Boris) and the harsh truth that a great brand is one that, when the Champagne bottles have been taken to the glass bank, delivers its promises. Yes, winning the election, just like making the first sale, only gets you as far as a seat at the crap table. Its what you do when you get there that really counts.

The terminology differs a bit between commercial and political marketing, but it all boils down to the same thing. You join the community by voting instead of buying and if you want to evangelise, you pay your fees and join your party, it all depends how close to the brand you feel. The parties are a sum of their membership and voters and the honeymoon period that they all talk about is the time immediately after election when the party has to put its plan into action. Up until that point the voting decision has been very much an emotional (right side of brain) thing now the rational left side of the electorate’s brain kicks in and takes increasing prominence (although it is never the whole story).

As with any organisation the people we see representing government are not those who will actually deliver the promises – that’s down to the minions – and the only way that the leaders can be certain that the delivery will match their promises is if they have their internal marketing really buttoned down. Every marketer in every sector faces the same issue. I was talking to someone the other day who said that they were going to vote BNP (British National Party – the remodelled National Front). His point was that their policies make sense. I felt obliged to point out that while I might agree, the real point was that while the senior party officials were spouting the (arguably) sensible stuff the grass roots representatives were interpreting this as race hate and ethnic cleansing. That’s what happens when your internal marketing fails and the front line do it their way! You could argue that its the same with Islam. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Koran, but it leaves much to the interpretation of Imams, who, intentionally or otherwise sometimes use the vagueries of the text to justify their own ends.

I have had a little experience of working with political parties, so I appreciate that its more complex than a commercial brand, but that doesn’t mean that the same rules don’t apply. You have to have a programme and my Brand Discovery is as good as any, even in this context. The stages are clearly defined:

  • Establish exactly what your brand is all about – That’s the process of creating the Brand Model within which is the brand promise that every brand has.
  • Make sure that your stakeholders (party members and representatives) understand it, buy into it and commit to playing their part in its delivery.
  • Go and tell he world about it, confident in the knowledge that wherever they encounter your brand the experience will be consistent.

When you are doing this every contact you have with customers or electorate will further enhance your relationship give you greater opportunity for sales and make life far simpler and your business more efficient. I didn’t say it was easy, in fact its where most organisations (and I mean all but a very few indeed) fail, but that’s all the more reason to be focused and tenacious because when you have been missing the target by the margin that most businesses are you’ll see results very quickly.