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LEARN FROM THE MISTAKES OF OTHERS

Almost 30 years ago, Peter Senge, a systems scientist and lecturer at MIT’s business school, developed the concept of the learning organization. This idea became a big wave in organizational development and thinking. Basically, a learning organization is a company that enables the learning of its members while continuously transforming.

According to Mr. Senge and his peers, a learning organization develops because of the pressured business landscape and helps keep businesses competitive. Others, such as Harvard’s business theorist, Chris Argyris, saw learning as being keenly aware of what competitors are doing; recognizing and keeping abreast of changes and innovations in the marketplace; and, then responding with creative solutions.

When people think of learning, they often focus only on learning only from successes. Some marketers call this the “transfer of proven success.” Others refer to it as “copying with pride.” But, it is just as important to learn from mistakes. Learn from your own mistakes and learn from the mistakes of others. Learn from your close competitors’ mistakes.

Last winter, Automotive News, the auto trade press bible, reported that Lincoln would be changing its model names from letters to names. Owners and customers were confused as to which brand was which. Its brands were named MKS, MKZ, MKT, MKC, and so forth. The head of marketing, sales, and service said, “There’s a lot of challenge associated with the letters and putting those together.”

Luxury car brands tend to use letters or alphanumeric combinations.  The more mass-market vehicles tend to use names. So, for example, Toyota uses names while Lexus uses alphanumeric branding.

However, it was not just the letter names that put Lincoln in the hot seat. The vehicles were not differentiated enough to make the labels meaningful. Mercedes and BMW have highly differentiated models that are segmented by class (C-class, S- Class) for Mercedes, and series for BMW (3 series, 7 series).

Cadillac introduced a cavalcade of products. They have not learned from the mistakes of Lincoln. Cadillac had a model called ATS (a compact sedan), which was supposed to be the “BMW fighter.” It is being replaced by the CT5. Cadillac’s CTS will also be discontinued and replaced by a midsize sedan also under the CT5 nameplate. There will be the CT4, a small vehicle like a BMW 2 series. A CT6, also a sedan, will be differentiated by GM’s Super Cruise hands-free driving system. There will be the XTS, a large sedan. And, there will be the XT4, a compact cross-over, and a larger model the XT5, as well as a three-row crossover, the XT6. Is all this clear to you? The only named brand is the Escalade, which, by the way, is the only brand that actually makes money for Cadillac.

If you go on the Cadillac website, the coupes and sedans with the alphanumeric names and similar designs are just as confusing as the Lincoln models. The engines differentiate many Cadillac models. But, when parked in a lot, no one sees the engine; people see the vehicles. Striving to be a luxury brand is about more than labels and names. It is about meaningful differentiation. Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Lexus are successful not because of how they label their vehicles but by the relevant, differentiated experiences they promise and deliver.

It remains to be seen if the influx of new Cadillac models will raise the luxury image of the Cadillac brand. Unless the Cadillac models are clearly differentiated, Cadillac may find that the problem Lincoln had was not a Lincoln problem. It was a brand management problem. Learning from someone else’s mistake is far better than making the same mistake on your own.

 

THE SIX RULES OF BRAND REVITALIZATION: ETSY’S BRAND RECOVERY

Recent news about Etsy indicates that the new leadership under CEO Josh Silverman has implemented a successful brand turnaround. The online crafts seller was in dire straits just a year ago. There was consensus among many that Etsy was doomed, a victim of not only Amazon, but also other direct to customer selling on sites such as Instagram.

However, today, Etsy is thriving. As Financial Times so clearly stated: “The results suggest that the problem was not the threat from a Seattle e-commerce giant but rather its own mismanagement.” Brands do not die a natural death. There is no natural brand lifecycle. Brands can live forever but only if properly managed. Brands under inept leadership falling under the spell of common tendencies for trouble such as losing sight of the core customer, letting bureaucracy and processes take over, playing not to lose instead of playing to win, failing to adapt to changes in the marketing world, or not having a clear direction, inevitably move into the death spiral. Mr. Silverman followed what we call The Six Rules for Brand Revitalization.

Mr. Silverman did the following:

Rule #1 Refocus the organization: Mr. Silverman refocused the organization around a clearly articulated brand direction. He gave employees a vision of a possible dream, a common ambition that all could buy into and implement.

Rules #2 Restore brand relevance: Etsy had evolved to an “eccentric” crafts fair avoiding fundamental marketing approaches, and had favored its craftspeople over the customer. And, although the headquarters still retains its quirky character, there have been substantial brand changes designed to attract new customers. One of the top brand priorities is making and keeping core customers happy.

Rule #3 Reinvent the brand experience: Etsy’s website was cumbersome and off-putting, especially for novices. One of the first changes made was to improve the website to make the site easier to find and easier to use. Marketing the experience is now a priority as Etsy indicates it will increase its marketing budget to communicate the Etsy experience.

Rule #4 Reinforce a results culture: Mr. Silverman focused on stopping the bleeding. He implemented job cuts but also increased commissions, keeping these below that charged by Amazon. The focus is on generating high quality revenue growth. Furthermore, Etsy is solvent enough to begin reinvesting in the brand.

Rule #5 Rebuild trust: Etsy’s craftspeople made a record US$1billion in gross merchandise sales over the last holiday season in 2017. Even though sellers were miffed about the increased commissions, it is clear that the new approach is working, offering them a better platform for their goods. As for customers, an easier, more comfortable, consistent brand experience that delights is fulfilling the promised brand experience. Consistent delivery of the promise to employees, sellers, and customers builds trust. Be consistent.

Rule #6 Realize global alignment: Through Mr. Silverman’s focus, the brand has a common, global direction. Now, that the brand is on solid footing, Etsy is expanding its global presence. Etsy closed a deal with the German crafts site DeWanda, whereby DeWanda shuts down and refers its craftspeople to Etsy.

In speaking with analysts and fund managers, the problem at Etsy was a “classic” management problem. The previous CEO was a technical engineer rather than a brand-business focused leader. And, although there were technical difficulties at Etsy, brands need classic brand management even in our techno-obsessed, digital, online and mobile world. Brands can be murdered by misguided marketing practices. Brands die when they suffer from self-inflicted wounds of mistaken marketing actions.

The turnaround at Etsy has demonstrated that if properly managed, it is possible for brands to thrive in an Amazon-dominated business environment. It is all about winning and keeping customers every day. Brand leadership is a never-ending commitment. And, as Etsy shows us, brand success does not just happen; we must make it happen.

 

THE LURE OF LOCALIZATION

Customization and personalization are increasingly important marketing opportunities. Customization means flexibility of product and service design. Personalization means respecting and reflecting personal differences, attitudes and values. Personalization conveys respect for customers as individuals.

There is another powerful force… the lure of localization. Localization is more than the farmers’ market or the neighborhood craft brewery.  Local is a distinctive feeling of community. Local creates a sense of belonging.

Locally sourced, locally crafted, locally owned, regionally authentic, one-of-a-kind, bring a sense of cultural, ethnic, economic, and social connection. Artisanal, regional cheeses, local distilleries and breweries, grass-fed cows on local farms, cage-free chickens, arts and crafts, non-GMO, fresh, organic, locally made employing local people, and other local elements and activities that bring “real” into our lives continue to grow and are increasingly attractive and affordable. Homemade items from Etsy; retro items from eBay; and modern vintage from Restoration Hardware – all of these give us a sense of truth.

Local is more than location. It is also about local values. It is the comfort of belonging to a familiar community. Localism provides authenticity, genuineness, and a true sense of reality as in “This is what it is really all about.” It is a feeling of being a part of people just like me.

Feeling like a local gives us a sense of belonging to a social group with distinctive interests and priorities. In our current world, we have this need to belong while we consciously attempt to maintain our individuality. Feeling like a local means that we can stand out while we blend in.

For Millennials especially, it is important to feel like a local. Millennials value living and working in the same neighborhood.  They like “walking neighborhoods where you step outside your home, and have opportunities to have exchanges with others. In walking neighborhoods, people pass others on the street, and can connect. In a digital, AI, VR, and AR world, we need neighbors and belonging more than ever before.

Short-term residential rental housing is leveraging this need. For many people, staying away from home creates a sense of loss. We lose our anchors. Instead of staying at a standardized global hotel brand, people are searching for hotels with a local, neighborhood feeling.  As Airbnb says, short-term rentals let us choose a neighborhood where we can “live like a local.” Feeling and acting like a resident is important. Barry Sternlicht (former CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and creator of W Hotel and Westin’s Heavenly Bed) is investing in short-term residential rentals. His investment in a start-up goes to support the addition of new upscale, branded residences for short stays to compete with brands like Lyric, which is listed on Airbnb. Airbnb has its own brand as well, “Friendly Buildings Program” that features rental units provided by “friendly” landlords. The short-term residential rental market appeals to corporate travelers who prefer integrated neighborhood lodging experiences.

WeWork is another example of creating feelings of belonging. WeWork generates feelings of community. Not only does the brand provide communal office space, but, also, through its WeLive brand, it offers apartments. And, to provide for physical and mental wellness, We Work just opened Rise, its gym and spa featuring treadmills, boxing bags, saunas, and massage studios. (The New York Times indicates that the Rise memberships are from $100 to $360 a month.)

Brands have an amazing opportunity to leverage the need for feeling like a local – enhancing the sense of belonging – for all individual customers. Here are three things brands can do right now:

  1. Figure out what makes your brand “authentic” to its audience and then consistently and creatively deliver that authenticity in its experience. Increasingly, deliver the local “real thing” over a who-knows-who-how-where it-was-made. We want something genuine, honest, we can trust. People trust local over distant. People trust locally grown over imported from Mexico.

 

  1. Design ways that customers can become involved in the brand community. People want to feel like a local – this need to belong is a need to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Create personalized participation for customers. Don’t automate everything. People see certain services as being more authentic when delivered by a human. All-digital-all-the-time can be dehumanizing and deadly. Feeling like a local entails being within a neighborhood of real people.

 

  1. Create conversations. Employ the art of conversation. Conversation is collaborative: it is an engaging, connecting, channel-agnostic interactive, and integrative force. Whether vocal or digital, it can be used to generate a feeling of local. Conversation builds trust.

 

Feeling like a local helps us understand our places: our communities, our neighborhoods, our homes, or our countries. Feeling local binds us together as belonging to some place or communal physical, psychological, geographical or virtual space. Local provides kinship with a particular place, wherever that is, and in whatever physical/virtual state that is.  Technology is transforming the world by lowering the physical barriers of place. By respecting local values and tastes and ideas, by rooting in the local space, brands deepen trust.

 

PASSION OR POISON: THE HORROR OF HUBRIS

Brand founders are special. They have great ideas. And, they have passion. They act on their ideas. Brand founders have the code of the brand in their core. It is always worthwhile to spend time listening to their stories, learning from where the brand’s values come, and understanding the brand’s guiding principles. Unfortunately, sometimes a brand founder’s passion becomes arrogance; poison for the health of the brand. Uber is a recent example of passion turning into the poison of arrogance. And, sadly, another recent example is Chipotle.

Recent UBS research indicates that the customer perceptions about Chipotle have fallen enough to merit downgrading Chipotle’s rating from neutral to sell. The research indicates that concerns about food safety are only the tip of the iceberg. Customers indicate that they frequent the brand less not only because of food safety but also because customers perceive the brand as not as clean as it used to be; the food is not as good as it used to be; the service is slower than it used to be; its food is not healthy; and friends do not want to go there with me.  Whether these statements are actually true, perceptions are everything: the hovering food safety issues have tainted customers’ overall brand perceptions. UBS examined Chipotle’s online ratings across various websites: the brand’s online ratings – reflecting customer reviews – have deteriorated substantially.

Chipotle was built on the brand founder’s commitment to sourcing and preparing food according to classical culinary techniques applied to fast food. His passion for Chipotle’s founding principles worked when the brand was small. However, Chipotle has grown to over 2000 restaurants. It now needs to operate differently. Yet, Chipotle did not adapt. Classical cooking does not work for a 2000 restaurant chain. Food safety was a looming risk. The founder’s passion actually prevented the brand from handling an incredibly serious food safety situation where customers in multiple states were becoming ill. The brand founder’s unwavering belief in the food’s provenance and the logistical and culinary processes became stumbling blocks.  The food could not be the problem: the food is organically, naturally, humanely grown, nurtured, handled, and the food is additive-free.

Chipotle’s commitment to classical culinary techniques meant crewmembers had to learn how to properly use knives, and all preparation would be handled in the restaurant, just as in high-end, sit-down, restaurants. Chipotle does not use frozen food. Rice and guacamole are made fresh every day in the restaurant.

The public communications reflected the founder’s hubris. Over the course of the multiple food safety incidents, the brand released numerous press statements that boggled the mind. There was a statement indicating that along with Food with Integrity, Chipotle was now committed to food safety. Did they mean that previously the idea of integrity did not include food safety? Chipotle hired a food safety expert, but there have been no indications that this expert’s recommendations have been followed. In fact, after using a commissary to safely prepare the food the brand’s founder thought the food tasted differently and so the commissary preparation was stopped.  

Chipotle seemed to view the food contamination issue as a small, limited standalone issue. They did not imagine that overall brand imagery perceptions across the brand would be damaged. Contaminated food appears to affect the image of restaurant cleanliness, food taste, and customer service.

Chipotle felt the media treated them unfairly. The incidents were only a very small fraction of the total number of customers served very day. But, the credibility of Chipotle’s promise of “food with integrity” was attacked at its core by these incidents. Playing the situation down will not make it go away.

Advertising can do many things, but it cannot make a restaurant’s food safer. Chipotle tried strange, unconventional adverting. Product safety issues cannot be changed by running a philosophically existential advertising campaign that is probably making Jean Paul Sartre turn over in his grave.

New products did not help change the perceptions of Chipotle either. Chipotle’s queso has been ferociously panned. Commitment to the founding principles of classical culinary techniques does not work for preparing queso as people know it. Chipotle tries a new dessert item. This was destined to fail. People come to a restaurant for its core menu. They are not likely to choose chipotle for a dessert if they do not like the burritos. The dessert entry has been yanked from the stores. And,

Chipotle is not a franchise. Chipotle owns all the restaurants. There was no interest in having outsiders meddling in the brand. As Chipotle grew to over 2000 restaurants, the management of the brand became much more complex. Furthermore, the creation of two other restaurant brands using the Chipotle-style assembly line distracted executives.

Chipotle has experienced tremendous success. The brand changed the fast food landscape. Chipotle leapt to success by leveraging an idea that food can be great and fast. The problem fast food is not that the service was fast; it was the food. Offering quality, sustainably sourced food, made in the restaurant according to classical culinary techniques was something new for the fast food customer. Chipotle’s success created a new business model the industry dubbed fast casual.  

Success needs to be leveraged, not lived off. As brands grow, as the world changes, as customers change, properly managing brands demands changing the way the brand experience is delivered. The essence of the brand’s promise can be kept intact while adapting to changing circumstances.

Chipotle is now looking for a new CEO. As with Uber, Chipotle needs a new leader to put the brand back together. The belief that stubbornly sticking to original techniques supported by unusual advertising would bring back customers and allay their fears was arrogant.

Chipotle is on a downward spiral. Executive hubris will not change this trajectory. Yet, the death of the Chipotle brand is not inevitable. Brands can live forever if they are properly managed.

 

THE CAROUSEL OF CREDIBILITY GRAB THE GOLD BAND OF BELIEVABILITY

What goes around, comes around. From the beginning of advertising, expert testimony was the way to sell a brand. From the remarkable RJ Reynolds cigarette ads that touted that Doctors recommend Camels, to the ADA seal of approval on Crest toothpaste (Look Ma, no cavities!), to Ronald Reagan and GE, to TV star Mariette Hartley selling Polaroid cameras, to today with Marie Osmond and Oprah Winfrey confirming their weight loss results with Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers, respectively.

But, overpowering expert testimony has been the increasing reliance on peer review, peer ratings, and online peer influencers and websites of peers alerting us to situations such as the food safety (alleged) poisonings at Chipotle. Many people do not make a hotel reservation without checking with TripAdvisor, even though faceless, unknowns of potentially sketchy backgrounds are dishing their opinions. They do not make a restaurant choice without checking Yelp. They select a doctor by searching for patient ratings. They select a home-repair person by checking Home Advisor.

Things have changed. The carousel of credibility has turned around with its calliope crooning a new crescendo: experts and academics are now more trusted than peers. The credibility and validity of peer ratings are being questioned.  According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, just released, 2017 was a good year for faith in experts, and a really bad year for faith in peers. Technical (63%) and academic (61%) experts became the most credible spokespeople relative to “a person like yourself,” which dropped six points to an all-time low of 54%.

In the Edelman press release, the head of the Reputation practice said the following: “In a world where facts are under siege, credentialed sources are proving more important than ever. There are credibility problems for both platforms and sources. People’s trust in them is collapsing, leaving a vacuum and an opportunity for bona fide experts to fill.”

Trust in CEO’s is benefiting. For years, CEO credibility has been on the decline. But as the new study reports, “…this past year saw CEO credibility rise sharply by seven points to 44% after a number of high-profile business leaders voiced their positions on the issues of the day.” In other words, CEOs have moved to standing up for what their brands stand for, a welcome change.

Being the purveyor of credibility has responsibilities. As Edelman points out, “building trust (69%) is now the No. 1 job for CEOs, surpassing producing high-quality products and services (68%).”

Brands must leverage this turn of events. Now is the time to involve expert testimony to enhance brand expertise in the brand’s area of authority. Peer testimony is not going away, but allowing it to totally define and drive the brand is creating a lot of baseless buzz rather than believability.

Brand credibility is a driver of purchase intent. Studies show that the more credible the brand, the higher is the purchase intention toward the brand. Customers show greater purchase intention toward brands that are credible. Research from 2004 indicated that brand credibility could increase the probability of inclusion of a brand in a customer’s consideration set. The years of research on credibility and brand clearly articulate that one of the significant factors in augmenting brand credibility is based on providing expertise.

Credibility means that the brand can be believed to consistently deliver what it promises. The support of “credentialed” individuals is a factor that helps build trust. Credentials means having specific qualifications or checkable achievements as indicators of relevant expertise.

The question for brands has always been “who do you trust?” Brands relied on their heritage, and sometimes the support of experts. But, in the modern social media age, brands relied on the power of peer ratings and comments.

It seems the carousel is spinning around to a new time for trusting the experts over the amateurs. Peer reports and ratings will always be important. But, in a world of information overload, expert testimony will rise in importance. Brands must step out into this brave new world where expertise is the new king. Brands must adopt a new view on how to communicate their expertise as an authoritative source of quality, leadership, and trust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CENTRALIZED MARKETING IS OLD-VIEW MARKETING

Brands that control all marketing through centralized command and control are committing brand suicide. True the world is becoming more global. However it is also becoming more local and more personal at the same time. The challenge is how to market at the intersection of increased globalization, increased localization and increased personalization. Insisting that the center knows best and imposing its will on the world is a formula for failure. Global standardization of marketing was once the accepted dogma. Theodore Levitt, a Harvard professor, popularized global standardization in 1983. With few exceptions, the attempts to create monolithic, standardized brands based on a homogenized view of customers were not effective. The rationale was on reducing marketing costs and not on increasing marketing effectiveness. The simplistic marketing efficiency approaches from the 1980’s are even less relevant today. It is a symptom of organizations that place cost management over brand management.
The global marketing view of the 1980’s was to have one standardized, global brand for a globally standardized product supported by standardized communications to a standardized customer. Establish a centralized marketing structure in the head office and dictate directions to the world. Local satellites existed only to execute the global directives. It was cost efficient. It was very popular. It was wrong.

Professor Levitt fervently believed in global homogeneity that would blanket the planet generating power and profitability. However, as efficient as the globalized, centralized, homogenized approach was, it fostered an environment of “lowest common denominator” thinking where ideas are acceptable everywhere, and especially relevant nowhere.

As the 1980’s transitioned into the 1990’s global marketing evolved to make the management of global brands more sensitive to local/regional cultures. Organizations searched for ways in which brand promises could be both globally standardized and locally relevant. The new mantra was “Think Global. Act Local.” (TGAL).

In theory, TGAL was the best way to build, and broaden, global brand appeal in local/regional ways. However, appeal of centricity often prevailed over local marketing relevance. TGAL became just another way to keep the real power at the center. TGAL came to mean that the center was responsible for the important strategic thinking and creativity. Then, the center handed over the thinking and creative template to the regions for execution. The regions were accountable for results but not really responsible for the marketing strategy to produce those results.

The regional marketing management executed the strategy dictated by the center. If a strategy failed, the regions blamed the strategy dictated by the center. It was wrong for the local market. The corporate center would blame the failure on poor local execution.

So what happened? Over time, the tensions between the regions and the center became intense. In the January 28, 2017 issue of The Economist discussed this approach as “decades-old.” Globally centralized, standardized, homogenized marketing is outdated. As the world becomes more global, local and personal, the failure to respect and reflect local wants and needs, centralized marketing is less effective. As The Economist pointed out, “Many industries that tried to globalize seem to work best when national or regional.”

Global brands have to contend with a three-way tug of war: how can a brand maintain its global, standards while reflecting local relevance and complementing personal differentiation? McDonald’s is one of the world’s biggest global brands. Yet, its marketing is becoming increasingly localized and personalized. The menu not only varies from country to country. It also varies from region to region within countries. A global hotel brand can have global safety and cleanliness standards, a common global reservation system, common global brand identification, while localizing the restaurant menu reflecting local culture, and personalizing the guest experience by customizing the in-room bar, the types of pillows and the newspapers you prefer.

Excessive centralization and standardization is yesterday’s marketing approach. Of course, brands must have global standards of coherent brand commonality. But excessive centralization aiming for reduced costs and increased efficiencies is slinking back into a cost-cutting cave that has no relevance for today. It is a formula for failure. 
Fractionalization, personalization, and localization have shattered the comfort of standardization. Globally standardized marketing is an outdated anachronism in today’s business environment.