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Communication Lessons from the Shutdown Crisis

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

Nevertheless it is not hard to see the principles of communication at work everywhere in this shutdown crisis. 

I won't even go into my thoughts about the ability of good communication to avert the crisis in the first place. This is only about the practices that took place once the wheels were set into motion.



I. Positive Lessons

  • Hold a meeting whether you have answers or not: At my agency we held a staff meeting where people could ask questions of senior leadership, and vent as well. Even if the answers weren’t there, the people had an opportunity to be heard and supported. 
  • Show you care: At the meeting, leadership showed – not just in words but in tone of voice and body language – sincere care and concern. They knew about the “ouch” factor associated with being termed “essential” or not or “exempt” or not and came prepared with the message that no matter what we were called for the purpose of a furlough, we still mattered critically to the mission.
  • Stop doing other things till crisis is addressed: We had a lot of projects going on, but the agency did virtually nothing but try to figure out what was going on and what it meant to us. 
  • Recognize the average staffer: We went out to lunch – no money, so McDonald’s – and someone had to stay back to take care of business. Second-line manager says, “What do you want? I’ll bring you back something.” The someone says, “Quarter pounder with cheese and a Sprite.” Takes out his wallet. Manager waves hand, says, “I’ve got it.” Smiles. Now THAT is a leader. I will never forget that.
  • Fight the good fight: A lot of discussion in the government goes on about terminology. We were steadfast in fighting the word “nonessential” to describe ANY employee, even if it was for the purpose of a furlough. Nonessential today, and how will you keep them employed tomorrow? Words like that hurt.

II. We Can Do Better

  • Abuse of weblinks: A web link is supposed to give you more information after a certain amount of base information has already been conveyed. Not speaking for the situation in any agency but rather across the board, there was way too much referring of people to weblinks rather than explaining in plain English what the story was. An excellent example was the situation with unemployment. Employees were referred to state websites, and then the state websites didn’t explain much. Were we eligible for unemployment or not? What documents would we need? How could we say we were actively looking for work if we had to get permission from a supervisor to work, and the supervisor was on furlough and couldn’t “work” and therefore couldn’t give us permission?
  • Defaulting responsibility to the media and message boards: It is up to the employer to provide information to the employee, not to rely on major news outlets. We don’t do this in any other situation that I can think of. It goes without saying that we should not be relying on message boards for information at all – these are only a supplement to official information. Can we not have a plan to officially pipe information to employees in the event there is a shutdown? As much as I like GovLoop, to default to them or anyone else seems like an abdication of responsibility.
  • Multiple decision processes per agency rather than a unified approach: Emergency planning benefits from a consistent, integrated, unified approach, especially when you’re talking about the federal government and rules that pretty much apply to all people (obviously there are exceptions). Somebody please tell me why there is not a shutdown council composed of representatives of all the agencies, that makes decisions, issues a plan and gets us ready just in case? One cannot help but wonder how we would handle a crisis for which we had no advance notice.
  • Inexplicably telling the communicators to go home: Communicators reach audiences. Communicators reduce confusion. Communicators soothe hurt feelings. Communicators reduce redundancy, eliminate process duplication, and ask tough questions. Communicators should be retained and possibly even expanded in the event of a crisis. (I do have self-interest here because I am a communicator, but I agree with myself. So there.)
  • Failure to use social media. It’s 2011, people. Time to get with the program. Get over it. Put the information out there. For G-d's sake, we check Facebook the first thing when we wake up in the morning, right after the email. We don't have a 24/7 hookup to CNN! So get on social media and make it redundant with official channels. A temporary Facebook page, a Twitter account at the very least. A widget, a mobile app just for federal employees. A discussion board, an idea program. We have so many talented people in the government, and guess what? Lots of them know how to use these tools! Saying that the lawyers don’t understand it and the IT folks are nervous (and so on, and so on) is just not good enough anymore.

The bottom line is, we in government are actually running a business. The business of keeping the country going.

As such, we have to prove to our bosses - the public, which pays our bills - our worth. Every single day. Or we are in danger of incurring their wrath and losing our jobs. 

We have to prove our worth to our employees, too – that we are a good place to work and that we care about them (us). Or we won't get anyone to work here.

Communication is paramount to doing all of this. It is part of keeping our promise - yes, our brand promise. 

We owe good communication to the public. We owe it to ourselves.


(Note: as always, all opinions my own and I do not represent any individual or entity in my posts.) 



Marketing is a Rude Conversation

If you want polite and straightforward, go into accounting.

Marketing is for psychologists, sociologists, sales people and rude people. 

Especially rude people. 

Rude people are willing to say what they think. 

They understand that the point is to sell. And that to sell you have to actually reach the customer. Not just create a pretty looking plan with color coded charts.

The psychologists, sociologists, and sales people are the partners to the rude people. 

These "good cops" soften the blow after the consultant delivers the hit.

Snapshot #1 -- 

* Customer - "Nobody uses Twitter. I don't see the point."

* Bad cop - "I use Twitter all the time."

* Good cop - "I don't use Twitter either...but my  (niece/nephew/sister-in-law) is an addict."

Did you think that there were statistics involved in this conversation? (More people use Facebook than Twitter...but Facebook is a lot scarier when it comes to figuring out how to use it well.)

Snapshot #2 -- 

* Customer - "Look - see? I took my own photo for the poster. Then I gave it to a designer. Now we don't have to work on it anymore."

* Bad cop (head in hands)- "Oh my G-d. Oh my G-d."

* Good cop - "Let's do a test run...see what others think and we can revise the concept going forward."

Snapshot #3 -- 

* Customer - "I have to reach (narrow segment of the population). What do you think?"

* Bad cop - "Let's do the research and find out, but from what I know they're frequently drunk. Need to reach them through the haze."

* Customer - "You know what, that could be true."

(In this one we don't need a good cop)

I once dealt with a customer - this is 100% true - who didn't like the marketing research, and therefore said that it was faulty. 

They seriously didn't want to pay. 

They said that what was found could not possibly be true. 

They could not deal with reality.

I had a rude awakening myself the other day.

Someone pointed out to me that one of my Facebook friends wrote something like this (in a group setting), regarding my blog:

"I don't know what the heck she's talking about." 

My Facebook friends are my friends from high school. They are not into marketing. They have normal lives.

We went to yeshiva together. Not MBA school.

They think I am weird.

My friend thought I would be offended at the comment. 

But you know what? I appreciated their honesty. That's why they're my friends. 

I'll take honest conversation over corporate communication any day of the week.

I'd rather do what works than have my ego left un-bruised.

Though we need good cops to soften the blow, marketing in the end is a rude conversation. 

Where the reality of what people will pay for meets our fantasy of what we have to sell.

Why a Failure to Focus Will Cost You

 “The promise you make is the promise that you must keep.” – The Brand Consultancy


Keep your brand promise. Not a different promise. Not all promises. Just the promise you made. The business gurus all say it:


·         Peter Drucker“Do first things first, and second things not at all.”

·         Jack Welch - “Number one, cash is king…number two, communicate…number three, buy or bury the competition.”


The benefit of focus is that it makes you very, very good at what you do. It makes you outstanding. Focus is what makes people buy from you, when they could buy from somebody else.


If you want to grow your business, organization, or simply advance in your career, you must get beyond a mechanical, technical concept of focus and master a higher-level one that is based on personality and culture. What does this mean?


·         “Mechanical, technical focus” – you offer a functional advantage versus your competitors. These are isolated and seemingly disparate things: “We sell nice pens.” “We repair cars well.” “We write great press releases.” “I can code!”

·         “Personality and culture focus” – you offer a functional advantage, true, but the advantage comes from a certain way of doing things at your workplace. You have a culture grounded in a set of personality traits that you value. The norms at your place of business reflect this personality. So you can conceivably sell nice pens, repair cars well, write great press releases, and code too – all under the same brand umbrella – how about customer service? Now you own!


The bottom line: If you don’t understand or leverage your brand, you will be stuck with a focus that is grounded in a function. If you do understand how to build and leverage a brand, you will see possibilities multiply because the skill you have ground into a very fine point can be applied to a diverse range of businesses.


Leveraging corporate culture strategically is how branding, well-applied, adds value and then more value over time. Empire-building by hurriedly jumbling disparate functions together, without paying attention to employee morale, productivity, or the cohesiveness of corporate culture, is how brands degrade. Bad brand leaders milk the brand until the value runs out – until the original promise is clearly seen to be a lie.


This principle is visible in the current corporate crisis at Johnson & Johnson. J&J has long been revered among branding and PR specialists alike precisely because of their company culture – which we understood to be based on trust and transparency. This reputation is based very much on the “Tylenol crisis case study,” which we leverage freely when proselytizing leadership about effective crisis management. This refers to the 1982 recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol by J&J.


A well-written summary relates how “the company (J&J) immediately alerted consumers across the nation, via the media, not to consume any type of Tylenol product….not to resume using the product until the extent of the tampering could be determined.”


The summary relates how an article in the Washington Post praised the company because it “effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.”


Fast forward to 2011 – a year featuring what seems to be a significant breakdown of the corporate values that put safety first. Of the corporate brand.


Of course, the whole story is yet to be told and we can’t judge definitively. However, what the major media is reporting is pretty shocking. Businessweek (March 31, 2011) posted a “recall rap sheet” on J&J (August 2008-present) listing affected products: Motrin, Tylenol Arthritis Pain caplets, Benadryl Allergy, Tylenol, Children’s Tylenol Meltaway, Rolaids, 1-Day Acuvue TruEye contact lenses, ASR hips, Sinutab, Invega (an antipsychotic), surgical sutures, and insulin-pump cartridges.


When we don’t trust the company – when it betrays its emotional brand promise – we don’t care anymore about the functional things it still does well. It’s finished. (Hopefully J&J will explain itself and recover.)


Truly great brands are built on emotions and not a functional value at all. Functional values like “quality” are the price of entry into the marketplace. Without them you can’t keep a customer. But they are easily copied. Even innovation only gives you a short window of time to get ahead because of how sophisticated copycats are today.


On the other hand, emotions cannot be easily copied. If you are able to build a corporate personality and sustain it through your culture, how can somebody duplicate that? They would have to work for you, hire your people away, run things exactly like you do, and all of that. It would be very, very difficult.


When people buy your brand, they are paying money for the emotional satisfaction they get from the experience. A satisfaction that starts with a functional promise of quality and progresses to an emotional promise that is unique to you. Break the trust and the promise is dead.


(This is why brand consultants constantly advocate to businesses that they invest in their employees. This is not a “generous,” “nice,” or “warmhearted” thing to do but a strategic, revenue-driven business move that is required in order to succeed. Google knows this. Starbucks knows this. But not everyone really gets it. People, not machines, are capitalism’s true moneymakers and always have been.)


The right way to focus is with joy, rationality and long-term planning. Not short-term greed. You try things, keep the good, and drop the bad. And hopefully keep on growing, the right way.


An outstanding example of how to do this is the megabrand Virgin. Read their philosophy, which starts with the obligatory functional values and quickly moves on to the emotional ones (


“We believe in making a difference. Virgin stands for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge.”


The Virgin “attitude” is clearly unique. The logo is unique. The brand is not something a marketing researcher made up. It is completely and totally reflective of the bold, brash, kickass (excuse me, there’s just no other way to say it) spirit of company founder Sir Richard Branson.


With these brand attributes, I think Virgin can sell practically anything. It makes complete sense to me that their brand portfolio encompasses everything from an airline (Virgin Atlantic Airways) to music (Virgin Megastore) to mobile phones (Virgin Mobile) and more – things that normally would not go together. Because when I buy that brand, I am buying something I can’t get elsewhere – a certain spirit that I want to affiliate with.


The brand is extremely powerful. It underpins “more than 300 branded companies worldwide, employing approximately 50,000 people, in 30 countries. Global branded revenues in 2009 exceeded approximately $18 billion.” That’s a lot of money people are paying for “a certain spirit.”


Virgin doesn’t just acquire any company. They are seriously focused. You, too, must have that. Like a diamond. Laser-sharp, razor-sharp, clear and hard-edged. Practice good planning and understand what you do well and don’t do well. Master your craft and your culture. Then succeed in business #1, and start #2, 3, and 4 and so on.


What to do and what not to do:

·         Do: Practice good brand architecture. Create a naming and logo system that makes sense to the customer and that feeds off of your company’s real skills. Retailers Target and J.C. Penney are brilliant with this. They have a department store, and they develop and promote sub-brands within the store. In just the right way.

·         Do not: put a little bit of everything into your current offering and think it will necessarily taste good to the customer. Do you want to eat a salad or do you want to throw salad ingredients into a food processor and eat the mush? If you do, you must own K-mart.


Why do so many companies, the divisions within them, and individuals fail to heed this obvious lesson? See the following justifications:


·         “We need to make money now - not wait for people to want what we offer”

·         “Our competitors are doing it – if we don’t, we will be left behind”

·         “We need to “evolve” – not be dinosaurs”

·         “If we don’t take this function over, someone else will.”

·         Nobody is hiring ___ anymore – all the money is in ___.”


In a certain way, all of these assertions have merit. But too often they are used to mask something else - fear. I completely understand that fear. I am a brand specialist, after all, and it’s a lousy economy. I continually struggle to a) learn and b) accept my core competencies, my strengths and weaknesses.


By now, I sort of know who I am and what I can do, though I do get surprised sometimes (I found that I like budgeting, which was neat). I also have a depressing sense that there are valuable things I ought to know, that I really don’t and probably never will.


I can see that by choosing to focus, I eliminate some opportunity. So I am not lecturing from a soapbox.


But at the same time, by embracing who I am and what I can do, I actually feel better. More generous. I do a better job, and I find people who can supplement my skills and love to do things I can’t. It’s alright. There is room for everyone.


Isn’t everybody afraid to limit themselves? It’s a money society, society is changing, and we don’t want to lose out. We can’t afford to fail, it’s an unforgiving world. We don’t want to be embarrassed, for sure. And the worst thing is that we don’t want to see things clearly, because of what we might find – a problem that gets worse the higher we rise on the career ladder, and we’re surrounded by “yes men” left and right.


Nevertheless, the real way to evolve – to make money and keep it – is to coldly figure out who you are and what value you bring to the table. Whether you are as established as Johnson & Johnson or as novice as a kid starting out in college.


See things for what they are. See yourself, your culture, your company.


My father-in-law, a seasoned businessman, often repeats this saying:


“Open your eyes or open your wallet.”


Every time I hear it I wince just a bit. But you know what? He says it straight. Be your own best friend. As “Mr. Miyagi” said to his protégé “Daniel” in ‘80s classic The Karate Kid, “Focus, Daniel-san, focus.”

Using Brand Architecture to Rethink Government

Everybody knows what branding is - the creation of a consistent image to the outside world, that will hopefully "stick" in the customer's mind and add a premium to what is otherwise a generic product.

(Behind the image there should be substance of course.) 

There is less familiarity with brand architecture. But it's pretty simple. Basically it's the naming and logo system you adopt to explain your business to the outside world.

Again, not to dwell, but there are three basic kinds of brand architectures. These can be used in the strict way or in a hybrid model, but generally you have:
  • Corporate - one name covers everything (
  • Endorsed - one name endorses a variety of individual names (Coca-Cola C2)
  • Sub-brands - baby brand has different name and logo (Caribou Iced Coffee, owner Coca-Cola)
The beauty of brand architecture is that it allows the same organization to offer completely different products and services to the public in an orderly way.

What I mean by this is that strategic brand architecture maximizes synergies where they exist, and enables different lines of business to ignore each other where they don't. It's not just about marketing, but about the core of the business itself.

As a former brand consultant working in government for nearly ten years, it's surprising to me that we don't use the principles of brand architecture more.

You don't need to pay a consultant lots of money to do brand architecture, necessarily. If you can apply common sense and be objective about it then the cost is - free.

All you have to do, really, is think about what your customer already expects from you, then ask if you are organized to meet those expectations efficiently.

For example, to the public, I think it is fair to say that the federal government is seen as a single entity that operates in a consistent way. They may have awareness that certain agencies exist (for example the VA or Social Security) but most of the time, to them we're "the government." 

So from a brand architecture perspective, there ought to be a brand or seal applied to all federal agencies and activities that is consistent - almost like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval - to indicate a certain oneness of operation.

Based on that mark, there are certain expectations that the public has - for example that we operate according to core values of integrity, efficiency, and diversity. We should examine all federal agency operations to ensure they meet a consistent brand promise. When something is "backed by the U.S. government" people ought to know what that means, regardless of whether it comes from Agency A or B or C. At the very least, every federal website ought to have a U.S. Government seal somewhere on the site to indicate that it's for real. Publications too.

Sub-brands can work across government too. Two great examples of sub-brands that probably have more recognition than their parent agencies, especially outside Washington, DC:
  • is the government's official portal for information. It is operated by GSA.
  • USAJOBS is the official portal for searching for government jobs. It is operated by OPM.
Brands mean something. Brands are powerful. We put our money in banks or credit unions that are backed by federal guarantees. That's the only reason not to put the money under the mattress - that little mark telling us that our funds are safe. 

We ought to invest in brand architecture across the government. It's not, repeat not, about marketing only. It's about creating a system of symbols across siloes that shows we operate as a single functional unit and that we've thought through the various promises we are making to our constituents.

We should institute brand governance in the federal government. Orderly, rational, logical. Applicable to all agencies. Coordinated. Singing from the same song sheet.

Sounds pretty good to me.

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