Don’t trip over me.

Gadsden_flag2_IEI go to church. The church I go to would have people categorize me as evangelical Christian, although it’s not a label I would usually apply to myself. People are often surprised that I am a churchgoer. The way I dress, some of my laissez-faire viewpoints do not necessarily fit one’s “standard” idea of a Christian.

I am also in a history book club. At our last meeting we discussed Neil Maher’s book, Nature’s New Deal. We all really enjoyed the book, which looks at FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps through the eyes of the socio-political issues of the time, (1930s & 40s). It gave rise to some great discussions.

One guy who was attending, a friend of the author (who was also in attendance – how cool is our book club!) said during discussion, “How can evangelical Christians support Trump? He is against their beliefs.” Common, smart rules of discussion would have advised me to leave that comment be… But I said, “I am an evangelical Christian and I don’t support him.” Luckily we extricated ourselves from that rabbit hole before we went too deep, but it really got me thinking.

There is a book called, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America that explores the idea that certain states the author feels should be voting Democrat (and used to reliably vote Democrat), are now solidly Republican. Part of what I realized from reading Neil Maher’s book was that these states originally used to be Republican, went Democrat as a (purposeful) result of the New Deal and now are moving back to the place from whence they came.

What does this have to do with marketing…?

Well, in the long and hard thinking about this that is my job and that Neil Maher’s book inspired, I really saw how often we decide for ourselves what groups other people should belong to. – At our peril.

The guy at book club thought evangelical Christians see themselves as that first and so should form their voting decisions based primarily on their religion. People who think Kansans should vote blue are deciding the citizens of that state should look at broad social-economic policy and decide that Democrats would offer more protection to populations living in areas in economic decline.

But more than ever before, we are seeing people feeling much more free to “identify” with groups that make sense to them but may not be the most obvious based on their surroundings, or gender or whatever.

The tools of this seminal change? The apps on our smartphones.

The most powerful force of social media is that it allows “me” to find other people just like “me” on a national and even global scale, whereas not too long ago, I’d have to decide whether I wanted to “belong” or “not belong” based on the people I would physically run into through the course of my day, week, year.

Not anymore.

Now I can feel like I belong, even if the group I belong to is spread out very widely in a geographic sense. However, in a communications sense we can be talking and reinforcing each other 24/7.

The old rules don’t fit. People are, less and less, part of a geographically-based groups. They are members of communication groups. It is people’s shared experiences and opinions that make them part of any group. Or a voting bloc. And those groups are now being defined by Facebook and Snapchat, etc., not by zip codes.

So be careful in defining people-groups the way you used to.

People are becoming less “Kansans” or “Christians.” They are “them.” A small (or large) collection of self-defined important viewpoints that become honed and hardened by largely talking only with others of the same viewpoints. And feeling very comfortable with being hostile to those with opposing viewpoints. (Just check out the comments section on any news site, YouTube or wherever commentary is allowed.) The drift would seem to be that instead of the collage of views and personality that any person has when you meet them in real-life, a social media relationship may only consist of the viewpoints you and “they” happen to mesh upon.

The internet has the power to bring people of widely disparate views together for discussion, but more and more it seems that the “melting pot” is reverting to a bowl of separate ingredients. (That may react violently when combined.) This can allow powerful specificity for communications strategies, but must be pursued thoughtfully.

Anyone who has seen me talk has heard me talk about conversing with potential stakeholders in a “resonant format” – i.e., in a way that makes sense to that group and identifies you as someone sensitive to that group. That is only going to get more important. Hardened “micro-groups” mean it can be easy to find people that “like” you. But it is also getting increasingly easier to step on communications land mines and face focused wrath as a result.

Tread carefully.

— Simon Dixon

Golden State. Base metal plate.

blackcalifornia2Yesterday I gave in. I’ve always said that specialty license plates are a waste of money, but the new black California plates are going to have to go on my ’71 Buick Riviera. I cannot live in a world where (as I saw yesterday) a 2014 Honda Accord has the black plates and my Riv does not.

Which leads me to a thought…

A few years back I was in a meeting on one of the University of California campuses, which I was told was the first meeting where all 30+ deans were in one room. We were there to discuss the branding of the university as a whole vs. school by school. Dan Burnham, ex-CEO of Raytheon and at the time the head of the Trustees asked me, “Simon, we don’t have an unlimited budget for this, are there any things we could do that would be effective and not cost much money?”

I answered that actually, some of the things most important and most effective would almost certainly save them money. Back then, I had never been to a meeting at the university where 5+ people from the same department/school would have the same business card. And every PowerPoint seemed to be a custom creation. And so this tremendous university with many extremely accomplished faculty (including, a number of Nobel Laureates) had no unified message about its greatness. They would almost certainly save time and money by having all business cards and all PowerPoints created from the same template, but also, importantly, have them all pushing the same brand message. I have found this to be an all too common situation in large organizations.

And so back to license plates:
California still represents the American Dream to many people both in the U.S. and abroad. And the scintillating tagline that we choose to affix to the 13 million vehicles carrying California plates?

Wow. I guess we’ve decided that Californian governmental gridlock should be our defining feature. Also that our citizens have never heard of Google and so would need to walk out to their car to obtain the web address of the DMV. Perhaps it’s part of a state-sponsored plan to encourage web-browsing while driving.

So here we have it: a free mini billboard on every one of the 13+ million vehicles registered in California and it is just thrown away. I don’t even ask for originality, Governor Brown. Going back to using “The Golden State” would do the job just dandily. While you are at it, the blue and yellow or the black and yellow plate colours of old are also much better looking than the current colour scheme.

And here I saw maybe the flash of genius. Could it be that they make the standard plate so boring that the upcharged specialty plates become more alluring?

I don’t think so. It’s just that no one with the power to change it is thinking what messaging could be achieved by 13 million billboards.

Any suggestions?


— Simon Dixon


Did someone Trump?

shutterstock_355923599Ahhh…Donald Trump.

One day I wonder if he is a Machiavellian genius with a keen sense of what “just enough” people will vote for and the next day he reminds me yet again that “to trump” is UK slang for raucously passing gas.

But that Trump can attract strong numbers to his gatherings and polls should not surprise us. In truth, Trump is just extending his brand. Even if it were no-one else, people who would buy gaudy products or live in gaudy buildings with the TRUMP name emblazoned on them would find his similar approach to politics and leadership attractive.

If you have seen me talk, then you will almost certainly have heard me say, “better to be loved by some than thought of as ‘acceptable’ by many.” In most cases, people’s shopping lists for any particular product are one item deep. Which is how the polarizing lightning rod politician can score higher on the polls than any of the five fractionated flavours of “meh.” It’s also how Cadillac came back from the dead. Starting with the CTS, they stopped trying to be another German car and became something unabashedly American (plus well made). If you like that look (and I do) then you are not going to shop it against the German three that are rather interchangeable. A great move and it paid off.

Donald Trump actually stands for something. That you may not like it, even abhor it, nonetheless shows that you know what it is. He has done a good job of giving you enough information to make a choice. What does Jeb Bush stand for? Ted Cruz? Marco Rubio? Mostly, you’ve no idea. Neither much does anyone else, so traction is hard to come by.

Take all this and apply it to your own company and products. Do people know what you stand for? Do they at least think they do? If not, there is very little binding you to your customers (which means they are up for grabs) and people who would love you, have no idea who or what you are.

But with some work, it’s totally fixable. – Or, like the Donald, it’s certainly a problem you can over-comb!

— Simon Dixon

Swift Thinking

Negotiating with Apple about his next “spontaneous” selfie.
Negotiating with Apple about his next “spontaneous” selfie.

I may have imagined the whole thing, but tipped my hat in awe on what I perceived as a stage-managed “disagreement” between Taylor Swift and Apple as Apple Music launched. Taylor tweeted how she felt that Apple’s FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL!!! (my emphasis) (sort of) was unfair to artists who would not get royalties during that period.

Apple then issued a mea culpa about its FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL!!! and did an about-face and agreed to pay the royalties.

Taylor Swift then thanked Apple for its decision regarding its FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL!!!. And all was well and world peace reigned.

Oh, and the world’s biggest brand and the world’s biggest music star gave each other huge headlines….

I may have imagined it, but I’ll be sad if I did. It’s genius.

Today I saw a story that PETA is suing to give a macaque (which is a kind of monkey, unless like George Allen you want to lose an election…) the rights to some selfies it took. Rather a fun water cooler story.

To me it seems like a similar stroke of genius. If they can win a case giving copyright rights to a monkey, you know some talented attorney is going to use that precedence to try and seriously expand animal rights in other areas. (Good for her!)

It’s always worth it to stop for a moment and ask, “what else could be going on here?”

— Simon Dixon

What’s really bugging VW?

vw-splat-2There’s something I taught my son when he was around 8 and he still remembers well at 12. If I ask him, “how do you keep a secret?” he will reply, “tell no one.” Sounds rather simple. It is.

And yet here we are with the colossal blunder, (or errr… willful criminal fraud) that is the growing VW story. Somehow, the management of VW figured that a secret that tens, if not a hundred, people must have known about, would not see the light of day.

Bill Clinton could not keep a lid on the secret that was his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and the people tasked with keeping that secret were actually called the Secret Service!

But there is a back-story here that I think is worth looking at. What is your driving force? You and your company?

Up until 2007, General Motors had led global car sales for 77 consecutive years. But slowly, the ramifications of a quote attributed to two different GM CEOs came home to roost. “General Motors is not in the business of making cars, it is in the business of making money.” In the purest mix of capitalism and altruism such a focus would lead to building the best vehicles possible to make the most money possible. But in the real world, that can easily lead to lowest common denominator decisions purely to wring out short term profit. (As GM learned from around 1972 to 2000.)

In the early 2000s the folks at Toyota had realized that GM’s hold on the global sales lead was tenuous and made the decision to do what it would take to assume the #1 position. They became #1, but what it took was a very public slip in quality control followed by deaths, investigations, recalls and a lot of damage to Toyota’s core brand identity which was built on quality. They had been gaining on GM for years by “simply” making the most reliable cars on the planet. But they switched their focus and paid the price.

Now it is VW that has “done what it takes” to wrest the global sales crown from Toyota (which it achieved just this year). I’m sure there was no management retreat where they white-boarded international fraud, but it can be the off-shoot of making your core identity about a sales number. As a result, they have left themselves wide open for crushing fines and lawsuits. (And perhaps jailed executives?) I doubt if VW will go bust, but perhaps someone might like the idea of buying a global car company for half-price…

So my question to all of you is: what is your focus? Is it still being the best purveyor of what you do? Or has it become doing what it takes to meet the numbers?

Ask yourself. Ask your employees. Ask your customers. Listen to the answers and adjust as necessary. One answer forms your decisions from the dark-side of you fighting for every quarter; the other forms decisions based on a radiant march to long-term success. (And happy customers and employees is a nice bonus!)

— Simon Dixon

Who Should I Be: Better or Different?

fast foodAn interesting story in last week’s New York Times discussed the challenges McDonalds is, and has been, facing. Same-store sales have been falling worryingly. As one former McDonalds executive theorized, people think of McDonalds as “fast” and “food” and on both counts they have slipped. The McDonalds burger was recently rated as lowest in taste by a survey conducted by Consumer Reports, while the average time to assemble and serve orders has been increasing.

When asked to explain the meaning of “brand,” I say it is the answer to the question, “What do people think of when they think about me?” This applies whether the “me” in question is a person, product, place or position. And this is an important question for McDonalds right now: who do people think McDonalds is and therefore what do people want them to be? In past, McDonalds had widened its food offerings – the Premium Wrap and salads being examples. But these products have not saved McDonalds from sliding. I think the problem they have is that they decided to try and be something different when their actual problem has been they just have not been the best version of what people wanted them to be. If you serve “fast food” and yet your food is not good and it is also not fast, then you are failing on your basic brand promise. The answer is not selling different food – it is selling food at a higher quality and faster.

Early in my career, I was bemused to watch 7-Eleven start a major campaign to aggressively compete on price with supermarkets. This was costly on two fronts: the price of the advertising and the cost of the markdowns. It was a dumb idea and it netted them nothing except lower profits. 7-Eleven had not focused on what their brand was. No one shops at 7-Eleven for deals; we go to 7-Eleven for convenience. And it has been proven every which way that people will pay for convenience. So all they got out of that decision was brand-erosion and lost profits. Oh, and er, having to sell the company to stave off bankruptcy.

Figure out what your customers see you as. What they like you to be. And then be the best version of that and sell to it.

I was driving to give a marketing talk this past week and NPR was doing a report on falling profits at Kellogg Co. People are turning away from cereals. Various issues are at play here: gluten, culture, sugar, portability and more. And it got me wondering how Kellogg will battle this. Will they cut prices on cereals? (or issue coupons to same effect), Will they try to fight on gluten-free and sugar fronts? (General advice to all: be a “solution” not “less of a problem”). Or will they massage their brand into being more about “breakfast” than about “cereals”? – This might be interesting; with the new FDA re-think on cholesterol, it might be a great time for Kellogg-brand eggs…

— Simon Dixon

Uber or under?

uber-blogOK, I usually try to avoid writing about what everyone else is writing about so forgive me this time…

There is a lot of talk about Uber these days. I was a fairly early Uber adopter and developed some early opinions, which I think are now coming to roost. I have used Uber mostly in DC, when working at our DC office. DC is, for the most part, awash in cabs. In fact, I have heard previously (and five minutes of research just now seems to confirm) that DC has more cabs per capita than any major US city. Anyway, the reason I started using Uber in DC was because most DC cabs even just a couple of years ago did not take credit cards. Uber allowed me to not carry money – all I needed was my phone. But it seemed to me that this would be a fairly easy fix for the cabs: just start carrying Square or some other card-charging solution. And that has happened. All DC cabs now have some form of automated charging system.

On the other hand, for me the big Uber turn-off is “surge pricing.” And around the third time that I was desperate and Uber sought to take advantage of my desperation by charging me several times the normal fare, I made my vow to make Uber my transportation of last resort. And so it has been. I have not thus far removed my app, but Uber now has in me someone who will only use them when I have zero other options.

“Inreach” vs. “outreach”

I had a conversation this week with a client about the fact that a brand is not just about “outreach” – it is about “inreach.” – What kind of company do you want to be? What kind of a company do your employees think they work for? What kind of culture are you building? When we celebrate the violence of NFL football (which I love to watch) and we incentivize the players with essentially “more violence = more money,” should we be surprised when one of them knocks out his wife? (Perhaps we should be surprised that more of them don’t.) When we celebrate that Uber flouts local laws set up to guarantee certain standards of safety and competence, should we then be surprised that they feel less than beholden to many other laws and conventions also?

Be careful of the “soul” you unleash inside your company.

Between the surge pricing, poor driver management, threatening of reporters, very questionable privacy practices, hyper-aggressive tactics and many other instances of “domination at any price via any scheme,” I believe a wave of anti-Uber is slowly building. And it may turn the corner so that using Uber becomes unfashionable. (Which, if it happens, will be fatal and forever.)

I remember, around 2000, sitting down with reps from the Washington Post advertising division as they stopped by the agency to unleash the draconian price rise for the year. They had little real competition and they threw their weight around mercilessly. And I said to them, “I don’t know what it is going to be, but something is going to provide an alternative to you, and when it happens, droves of people that you have abused will leave on the first ship.” – I was imagining another newspaper but then Craigslist expanded to DC and the rest is history.

Uber’s actions appear to be an outward expression of an internal cultural sickness. If they don’t soon completely and truthfully change their culture, eventually the amount of people looking for another way will be provided one. Perhaps by Lyft making their brand about something kinder, gentler and respectful of privacy or perhaps just by regular cabs upping their game and, because the taxicab laws that Uber is proud to flout, don’t allow cabs “screwing the customers” as a business option.

Uber, and its ilk, like to call themselves “disruptors.” I think, by way of bad attitude and poor treatment of employees and/or customers, many of them are actually “uniters” – they unite forces in opposition to them.

It does not matter if you have the greatest idea in the world; if you ignore and abuse your customers and/or your employees and/or regulators, they will yearn for your demise. And eventually they will get their way. If you doubt the mighty can fall, go read the story of MySpace. Or Enron. Or Blockbuster. Or MCI.

— Simon Dixon