Archive | August, 2008

U-Haul or MyHaul?

25 Aug

My wife and I needed to move a couch yesterday, and re-discovered the great deal that is the $19.95 rental fee for a 10-foot U-Haul truck.  My wife admitted — and then was picked on for doing so — that she never realized that “U-Haul” is so named because they let “you” haul stuff.

So I suggested back that you’d never name that company “U-Haul” if you were starting it today.  Back in 1945, it made sense.  The country was on the move, and folks were willing to move themselves.  But it was almost impossible to rent a truck or trailer for a one-way trip.  Sam and Anna Mary Shoen came up with a business model, a name and painted a lot of orange trailers.  U-Haul was born with a promise to a “do-it-yourself” nation — as U-Haul puts it, “Serving U Right Since 1945.”

Today, the Shoen’s would probably have come up with “iMove“, “MyTruck” or “MyHaul” (and, for the record, I was picked on right back for suggesting this — U-Haul is a great name!).

Today, it seems like branding isn’t about the feeling that “we” the business are serving “you” the customer, but more about how “we” and “you” are all on the same side.  It’s not just a business where I buy stuff, it’s all about me, myself and I.  It’s not “YourSpace”, it’s “MySpace”.  There’s a burger joint that’s not the Burger King, it’s “MyBurger“.  At Coke.com, you can ‘Design the World a Coke,” as if you were a part of the great effort to bring cola happiness to every corner of the globe. There’s MyYahoo, iTunes and iGoogle (OK, so yes, “YouTube” is the exception…).

In social media circles, we talk constantly of engaging the consumer, of enlisting our biggest fans as advocates, of encouraging consumers to take over the brand by empowering them to discuss, review, comment and create.

This is an important, vital shift in the marketplace that is only growing in strength.  To a point. There’s a population out there with a passionate need to create and express themselves.  If they love a brand — or hate it — they’ll find an outlet in that.  They will “create” for your business, and you can be a part of that with them and with the right care and feeding it open all sorts of opportunities.

There seems to be a backlash.  Small example, interpreted far too broadly:  Microsoft Office 2007 puts files in folders called “Documents,” “Pictures”, “Music” and “Downloads” — they’ve removed the “My’s”. I think the pullback of the “my” trend will save the news business as well: While people want the news they want, and many want to participate in sharing and amplifying the news, the popularity of blogs and collaborative news sites like Digg and Metafilter indicates an equal desire for news judgement — whether it’s a guy with an opinion, the wisdom of crowds, or the (hopefully) evolving standards of a proud journalistic tradition.

The answers are complicated, and they are simple.  Complicated, because customers are diverse, individualistic, and exacting — and expect you to treat them that way.  Simple, because good businesses come by the right approach naturally.  They know that there are plenty of folks out there who don’t want “your business” to be “my business.”

They serve.  They entertain.  They inform. They deliver.  They don’t just create one more thing for me to do. They do something for me.

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Big Bad Russia: Back in the News

13 Aug

Are we witnessing the return of the “big bad Russians”?

The other day on Twitter, a public radio journalist I follow wrote, “It’s like the ’80s again. Russia’s soldiers are invading countries and its judges are jobbing us at the Olympics.”

Back at the end of the 1980s, I was sliding seamlessly from graduation to graduate school.  As I cast about for a master’s thesis topic suitable for journalism school, I kept coming back to one issue:  how is it that everything we knew as ‘eternal’ about the Soviet Union could be wrong.  I wanted to see how this played out in the media.  I analyzed Associated Press stories from 1983-84 — when movies like “The Day After” and “Red Dawn” seemed plausible — to 1988 — across the years of glasnost and perestroika when our whole worldview was turned upside down.  What I studied was how the state of relationship and conflict between countries has an impact on the use of stereotypes in the media about Russia and its people.  The hypothesis: that when our countries were opposed, there would be an emphasis on differences in culture and values between us and them; in times when our interests were more aligned, the emphasis would be on similarities.

The thesis was, perhaps, a bit obvious.  But the AP was supposed to deliver the news; it wasn’t supposed to be portraying Russians as evil, violent, bearlike, ruthless, drunken and foolish with an evil government that every last Russian would flee if they could. But they were, subtly.  And as our conflict with the Soviets thawed, so did the use of these kinds of stereotypes.

And now, as Russia continues to rise as a US competitor and as a potential threat to US interests in Georgia … and perhaps Ukraine, the Middle East and South Asia?  Well, if you believe a callow graduate student from the early 1990s, watch for more stories in the media that make you see the Russians not just acting against our interests, but as different. And in international relations and journalism, different is not good.

Thank You Note to a Journalist-Blogger: Eric Black

7 Aug

If you can be a fan of a daily newspaper reporter, I’ve been a fan of Eric Black’s for almost 20 years.  At some point, the StarTribune here in the Twin Cities was publishing long feature stories that actually offered in-depth historical context for national and world events:  The first Iraq War, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the Balkans, Bosnia, the fall of the Soviet Union, not to mention various and sundry politicians — you name it.

And it seemed whenever I’d sink my teeth into one of these big juicy history stories — stories that cut through the daily rhetoric to hone in on the something closer to a complicated truth — the byline read “Eric Black”.  So I’d look for the byline, at times swearing at stories where background was scant and context lacking and grumble, “Where the hell’s the Eric Black story on this?”

It’s pretty clear these days that this sort of journalism isn’t making it into my daily paper any more … and neither is Eric Black.  Over the past few years, he’s plied his trade in local blogs.  Most recently, that’s MinnPost, a non-profit venture promoting the idea that professional journalists have a great deal to offer when given the freedom to explore the news and offer an opinion or two.

I write this after spending a half-hour or so learning as much (or more) than you ever wanted to know about the stance of two Minnesota senate candidates on the Iraq war.  It’s a story you’ll never read in a newspaper, built from in-depth research, nearly hour-long interviews with the candidates themselves and fact checking that is both independent and allowed the candidate’s PR staff to offer assist (incidentally peeling back the veil of how reporters work with a PR staff to facilitate a story). Further, if you’re worried that Black has misinterpreted your favorite candidate, he offers audio downloads of the interviews themselves.

In other words, anyone who wants to spend the time with this story gets:

  • a comprehensive view of the candidates’ positions — both now and how they have evolved (or not) over time.
  • the chance to hear the candidates’ responses to sharp, informed questions in their own voices.
  • a deeper understanding of how reporters do their jobs, warts and all — and how a good one takes nothing for granted on what his interviewee claims he said or didn’t say.
  • a deeper understanding of how campaign staffs work and how PR facilitates a reporter’s work.

As I said, you don’t see this kind of depth often out of daily newspapers — no doubt, there’s no time, no staff and no appetite for it.  And maybe this much depth isn’t necessary.  But in a time when it feels like everyone is spinning, nothing is genuine, no one knows the truth, Black the journalist-blogger is offering transparency, rigor, insight … and the whole complicated, messy truth.

So…thank you.

Toward Better Workshops

6 Aug

I conducted a nearly all-day brand positioning workshop in the Philadelphia area yesterday … the first I’ve done of this scope since I went independent from the Big Agency.  We unearthed more than a few insights about their target customers, and new ways of thinking about positioning the company, “de-positioning” the competition and expressing who they are in more compelling ways.  The client seems pleased — and they’re looking forward to how we follow it up.

Workshops are beloved by consultants, but often dreaded by participants, who believe — often not without merit — that they have more productive ways to spend their day.  But executives also rightly believe that there is merit to detaching fingers from keyboards and ears from phones to talk together about strategy and focus on the long term with someone from the outside.  The key:  How to ensure not just that everyone’s getting something out of the Workshop, but that everyone feels that it was valuable.  I’ve conducted and attended more than a few Workshops, good and bad… when I’m foisting myself on a client for the day, here are my guiding principles:

  • Is this trip necessary? Before planning a day-long workshop, I ask the client whether there’s another way.  Can we get the consensus we need over email, or a shorter call? Is this the best way to deliver the training?  Do we all need to do strategic planning, or would we be more productive reviewing and revising the strategic plan? Make sure there’s real value to gathering the participants in one room.
  • Make your goals have value. Everyone knows you need objectives. The key is to be sure that the objectives are ones that you can accomplish, and that your participants will feel that the accomplishments were worth accomplishing.
  • Avoid ‘death by PowerPoint.’ I keep the slideshow simple.  When I reported research results yesterday, I handed out the charts on paper and kept them off the slideshow. I think it made for less staring and more discussion.
  • What happens in the workshop does NOT stay in the workshop. There is something about bringing a consultant in to facilitate a workshop — especially if its off-site — that separates the discussion from business reality… so that what happens in the workshop is consigned to the ashheap of business history.

It takes timely follow up and a committed champion in the business to ensure that ideas, inspiration and decisions make it back to the office. How about you?  What works and doesn’t work in your workshops?

And finally… I was going to conclude this post by recalling a funny story about some big internal planning workshop I participated in at my old company.  But I can’t remember any of the details, which is probably telling.

Say It Ain’t So!

4 Aug

Heard on Minnesota Public Radio yesterday (and drastically paraphrased) with a clever, ironic wink clearly heard in the announcer’s voice:

Perhaps in this economy, those with a desire to express their individuality or to be a part of something will need to fulfill those desires with something other than purchasing branded merchandise.

Say it ain’t so!

I guess it’s time to decide between asking for a to-go cup of coffee at the airport diner or hoofing it to Starbucks to express my solidarity with my beloved community of bitter coffee lovers.  Darn those two $1 bills, burning a hole in my pocket…

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