What is the real Character of your Brand?



The flames can be seen from outer space.

80,000 people have been displaced and over 1,600 homes and businesses totally destroyed.

The Canadian city of Fort McMurray is currently facing a fire of such savagery and intensity that the Province of Alberta has declared a state of emergency as residents evacuate the area en masse.

Government and Red Cross assistance has been swift and there is no doubt the skill of those organizations will help immensely.

But help has also come as swiftly from several brands.

Albertan-based airline WestJet has committed numerous airplanes to assist in the evacuation of Albertans trapped by the flames. Social media accounts speak of WestJet planes lined up to assist in the evacuation and returning filled with relief supplies for the beleaguered city.

Accommodation provider AirBnB has activated their Albertan network to help those fleeing the fire. Not surprisingly hosts and the AirBnB organization are stepping up to assist. The company has waived their standard booking fees and many hosts are offering their homes for free.

National brewer Labatts immediately repurposed their beer production lines to can water that was then shipped to the devastated area to assist firefighters and fleeing residents. This marks the fourth time their Albertan operations have canned water to assist in Disaster Relief in the Prairie provinces.

Of course many other organizations are electing to send money straight to the Canadian Red Cross. Not surprisingly, they deem the Red Cross to be the organization best equipped, and with the most experience, to put these funds to good use.

Cynics might argue that the actions of WestJet, Labatts and AirBnB aren’t all that surprising. That those organizations weren’t doing anything particularly novel or far removed from their day-to-day activity. After all how hard is it to waive booking fees, repurpose automated production lines or fill planes already going to a destination?

Here’s where I disagree with the cynics.

All acted with little or no fanfare. No newsflash. No corporate chest beating or soapboxing. No massive social media campaign.

They saw a situation where they could make a difference and they went ahead and did it.

Quietly. With character. And with class.

Sadly that type of character isn’t practiced by all brands in times of adversity.

The recent death of music legend Prince highlighted just how many brands see opportunity in tragedy. Or are so anxious for the social media cocaine of Likes and Retweets that they’ll jump on every opportunity to be part of a Trending situation on Facebook and Twitter.

And while I’m taking shots at organizations who seem to have lost their character compass entirely, dare I mention the current slew of automotive brands mired in regulatory and legal battles over their corporate actions?

Mitsubishi Motors recently admitted to fudging the fuel economy ratings of their cars. Okay so that’s illegal in almost every country on the planet. More egregious though is they admitted they’ve been lying about their fuel economy since 2002.

German manufacturer VW has also been through the ringer for their tampering with emissions on their diesel vehicles. Tampering that has lead them to accrue about $8 billion dollars to pay the inevitable fine that US lawmakers will slap them with.

That’s bad enough but, what stupefies me more is the recent decision at VW HQ to honor annual bonuses to the executive board that were at the helm when the emission scandal broke. In fairness, VW executives agreed to take a 30% cut in their bonuses after the scandal. Why that cut wasn’t 100% suggests that the organization is either tone deaf or has its head buried in the sand.

Here’s the thing…

As a marketing and brand consultant I’ve sat in numerous boardrooms and focus group settings agonizing over what words and phrases define a particular business or brand. I’ve suffered countless paper cuts leafing through dictionaries and Thesaurus’ trying to eloquently find a word that exists somewhere between “Empower” and “Enlighten”. I’ve written creative briefs that have tried portray brands as “affable, approachable and fun…but not frivolous”

It is all bull.

The true character of any (wo)man, and certainly any brand, is how you act.

Not what you say. 

As my friend and fellow Strategist Jay Chaney quips “Do, then Say”

My simple ask?

Next time you’re playing word associations at a brand management off-site, forget the Thesaurus and ask your colleagues and executives instead, how your brand would act in a time of intense pressure or real adversity.

That, my friends, will be the more authentic articulation of your brand character.

The real question then, is what do you intend to do about it?

$50Billion Disappointments & Runaway CEO Expectations



For the record I’m not angling to become some latter-day Naomi Klein but I would hate to be Tim Cook today.

His organization delivers $50 billion in revenue and remains the world’s most valuable company by many accounts, yet Apple stock is hammered on the heels of a disappointing quarter. $47 billion (about 8%) of stock market value is lost in after hours trading.

Close your eyes for a moment and try reconcile the phrases “$50 billion” and “Disappointing”

I can imagine there’s a legion of CEO’s who would give any appendage to similarly disappoint their employees, board and shareholders.

Analysts, or should I say “Chicken Little’s in Expensive Suits”, opine such sage soundbytes as There’s no question that Apple’s best days are behind it”

Perhaps it would be better if they channeled their inner Shakespeare “I come to bury Ceasar, not to praise him”

There’s no doubt Apple has reached a scale and market prominence that the YOY returns they posted a decade ago are now almost impossible. And no-one debates that the incremental refinements in their most recent products are enough to generate significant sales in a market close to saturation.

But neither can we debate that Apple sits on enough cash, and employs some of the brightest business and design minds on the planet, to be a legitimate and genuine success in the years ahead. Wearables, TV, Automotive, Healthcare are all categories that Apple can (and could) expand into to drive new growth.

What troubles me more is the short-term and short-sighted perspective of many of the supposed business experts and opinion leaders that hold forth on this topic.

The obsessive fixation on the 90-day call.

The underlying hope, wish, wet dream, presumption that YOY growth is not only attainable but somehow expected.

Equally troubling, I believe, is the behavior that this kind of shortsightedness creates.

Consider this rogues gallery and ask yourself what signals did the stock market, and us as profit-motivated individual shareholders, plant in the minds of these CEO’s.

VW have set aside 8bn pounds or $11billion to buy back 500,000 diesel cars fitted with defective emissions equipment sold in the United States. Ironic in a week when Presidents, Prime Ministers head to Paris to ratify a Climate Control Agreement.

Mitsubishi Motors have acknowledged lying about the fuel economy numbers since 2002. This deepening scandal has halved their market value in less than 2 weeks. But here’s the kicker for me – Since 2002!!! That has to get this week’s “Corporate WTF Award” for sure.

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling has a few years left languishing in prison for his role in one of the largest and most public corporate fraud cases in US history. His sentence has been reduced by 10 years after he agreed to pay $40 million in restitution. Ironically the judge in the case said Skilling had enough money to keep the court tied up in an appeal process for years. That’s scant comfort to the millions of folks who lost their pensions and savings when Enron imploded.

And what about poor BP CEO Tony Hayward lamenting that he “just wanted his life back” while his Deepwater Horizon oil platform was leaking 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico? Despite the record-breaking fines levied against the organization and the huge cost in litigation, the findings of an independent report and a White House Commission ultimately held BP and its partners culpable for a series of cost-cutting decisions and an insufficient safety system. Ever wonder what motivated those cost-cutting decisions? And while you’re pondering that, consider that the same scathing White House report highlighted that that this behavior was so systemic that another spill was highly likely, perhaps even inevitable.

These sadly aren’t isolated cases.

Union Carbide and Bhopal? General Motors and defective ignition switches? Nestle and Baby Formula in Africa? Coca-Cola and groundwater in India? Toyota and defective brake pads?

These are some of the most lauded and celebrated companies in the world.

Companies filled with smart, insightful and, I daresay, morally-driven and ethically-minded folks.

Again, I’m not angling to become some latter-day Naomi Klein. 

I genuinely believe that Corporations have more reach, more power and more impact on society than Governments. I genuinely hold out more faith in Corporations to create a better future for mankind than any meeting of the United Nations.

I just wonder what responsibility we have for motivating a profit-and-growth-at-all-costs mentality in the ranks of business people today.

I just wonder why a simple search for business ethics courses only returns 6 million results while a search for business growth courses returns 357 million.

I just wonder how any budding CEO juggles doing the right thing (as amorphously defined as that is) with a consumer group born in a world of universal access to information and suckled on a steady diet of instant gratification.

Perhaps there’s a certain irony that Tim Cook and a slew of his Apple products have been a significant contributor to that expectation of instant gratification.

Is that ironic or just disappointing?

What say you Dear Reader? Have we run amok with our expectations of CEO’s? Do we incent dangerous behaviours with our short-sighted and near-term business focus?

Can You Create An Immortal Brand?


Nothing quite like sitting through 151 minutes of DC Comics-inspired testosterone to set your mind spinning about brands and businesses.

Not the obvious elements like how fans flocked to this movie despite the panning it got from critics. The power of social media and Influencers versus the establishment?

Nor the discussion on licensing power, brand portfolio management and brand extension strategy. DC inserted at least 4 cues for spin-offs in the movie and an inevitable sequel.

Nope it was something a little more existential.

The question of whether a brand or business could actually be immortal.

Your mind would wander too after watching Ben Affleck debate whether Superman is actually a God for 151 minutes>

Seriously we’ve all sat through meetings discussing new product features with a reverence bordering on idolatry.

“Stop the presses, we’ve just added a 15th flavor variant for gluten-free, adventure-seeking Buddhist Millennials.” 

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being passionate about your brand. Passion and dedication go a long way.

But is that enough to sustain your business and your brand? And for how long?

Particularly as the tenure of brands seem to be declining at such a precipitous rate. You’ve likely seen this chart in your LinkedIn feed and it does paint a rather stark picture. In 1958, the tenure of a S&P 500 business was 61 years, today its less than 20.

Does make you wonder if our children will be saying “UBER who?” and “Tell me about that brand you called Tesla Dad” I still reel from the reality that Nokia is now just a line item in the Microsoft stable.

Of course there are brands that seem to weather the storm. That appear more impervious to the buttressing of consumer schizophrenia and the roller-coaster of market fluctuations.

Apple turned 40 this week and would probably be the one most referenced. Remember this is a brand that a decade or so ago was seen as a bit player, not the powerhouse it is today. Worryingly, recent headlines suggest Apple is now boringand that the recent encryption saga was merely an artful PR ruse to deflect attention from lagging relevance and innovation. If that’s true, you have to wonder how much runway Apple still has. (No doubt that last line will evoke a torrent of ridicule from the Fanboy section)

And these guys? The brand still ranks in the Top 3 Interbrand businesses and is estimated to be worth an incredible $78 billion. However, a decade ago they were the undisputed #1 (Ironically other top 10 contenders included Microsoft, Intel, Nokia and Marlboro). Formerly exalted as genius marketers, most mainstream conversations about Coca-Cola today focus on child obesity, diabetes and serving sizes and a general “meh” about their recent global advertising. Is there any disputing that the fizz is out of the bottle?

So is brand immortality feasible or do all businesses have an Achilles Heel?

And, is there any way for a brand to ward off the power of Paris’ arrow?

Perhaps one way to look at this is to consider if the threat is external or internal? 

Of course, the answer isn’t going to be binary but one approach is to determine if the threat coming from movements in the market or a stagnation internally?

Well there’s certainly no shortage of potential solutions and planning methodologies for discerning the size and velocity of external threats. Scenario Planning is definitely one and certainly provides some robustness – but its expensive, time-consuming and organizations need to commit versus flirt with it. Including the wonderful PESTLE in your activities is another way forward. Even the exercise of asking Theodore Levitt’s (immortal) question “What Business Are You Really In?” does force a very valuable introspection.

Are there others?

What if the issues are internal?

Here’s three avenues that I’d consider.


No shock here but I’m a huge proponent of Purpose as a way of aligning resources internally and aspiring to a larger rationale for your organization. Begs the question – Does your organization have a larger rationale for its existence? Is it a Purpose that puts people before profit? When, like Patagonia, your stated purpose is “To make the best product with the least environmental impact and the most social value possible” – its easier to imagine an organization constantly striving to do better. An organization committed to something beyond the 90-day analyst call to orient their people behind.


Increasingly organizations are waking up to the reality that their people, and the culture they’ve created, is an area of significant competitive advantage – or can be the Achilles Heel mentioned earlier. This goes far beyond employees who are merely “engaged” but is about building an environment where employees can be “unleashed”. An environment where your people are genuine advocates for the direction and Purpose of your company – but are also set up for success. Importantly this isn’t just about cultural artifacts like trust falls and foosball tables (as critical as those are) but about defining a Culture that aligns to your Strategy and then nurturing that. Can you say for certain that you have a good grasp on your Culture? Can you say definitively that “unleashing” your currentCulture will accelerate the success of your Strategy?

Organizational Design

Another topic of increased popularity amongst business leaders globally. Do we actually have the systems and processes that will allow our Culture to deliver our Strategy? Is our Innovation pipeline blocked with great ideas that we just can’t seem to get out of the building? Do we prevent our well-intentioned Customer Representatives from genuinely being “customer-centric” because we’ve added unnecessary and superfluous layers of oversight? Are our Centers of Excellence operating more like distant islands divorced from the business, than core drivers of it? Ultimately, you may have a brilliant Strategy and a vibrant Culture but without an Organizational Design that can marry the two, failure is inevitable.

In the end perhaps there is no way to create a truly immortal brand – just as there is no way for anyone other than a Son of Krypton to be immortal.

But that shouldn’t stop us trying. 

Businesses today are well positioned to be the real saviours of this planet. Just ask Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne.  Certainly better than many other institutions, like governments. Perhaps a good place for them to start is with a desire for immortality.

And a well-defined posture of benevolence.

What say you?

As always, I’d love your feedback. Is an Immortal Brand feasible – or even desired? Should that be what business leaders set out to create? Or should we continue to let businesses evolve and then die?

Stop Being More Digital, Start Being More Human

Any questions regarding this image please contact Joanna Capitano. +1 (310) 314-2805

These days I read the word digital more than almost any other word in the dictionary. That includes pronouns.

Perhaps ironically, I’m going to add a few more instances as I pen this post. 

There’s an overwhelming desire to bring digital and digital thinking to the forefront of every conversation. Digital something or other has become the almost ubiquitous job title for everyone – or everything – in the business arena. If you don’t have it somewhere in your job description, it signals your Luddite credentials as openly as carrying a paper diary or a Blackberry.

There’s memes like this that pop up in LinkedIn 5 times daily.

And we’ve all seen Tom Goodwin’s excellent (often poorly plagiarized) slide that deftly highlights the real impacts of tech on business and business models.

Conversely there are UK ad agencies so keen to not pigeon-hole themselves as digital, they’ve taken to calling themselves interactive.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The term digital marketing has seen almost exponential growth in the past four years. (Thanks GoogleTrends)






I suppose if we’d tried to determine the percentage of times Steam was used during the height of the Industrial Revolution I’m sure we’d have seen a similar phenomenon. Unlikely anyone then was calling themselves a Steam Ninja or Steam Guru though.

Yet in the midst of all the debates of “Is Digital a channel, a medium, an attitude, a philosophy blah blah blah” I remain perplexed at how much still seems to be about the bright shiny object and not the “why I should care” part.

The features, not the benefits.

The tool, not the task it is intended to accomplish.

And when confronted with a question like “why should we build this piece of tech?” the answer, often delivered with shrug, is typically “why not?”

Don’t get me wrong, I adore the tech industry. The brains it attracts. The bold advances it makes possible.  But somewhere in all this coveting of code, many seem to have lost the plot and the ability to suitably answer, “to what end are we doing this?”

They’ve forgotten the human side of the equation.

The humans that have grown so tired and pissed off at the constant barrage of digital advertising on every screen that they’re routinely installing ad-blocking software just to rid themselves of that irritation. The entire promise of digital – and phrases like “digital body language” – was that we wouldn’t be subjected to stuff we didn’t care about anymore. Digital promised the ultimate “personalization” of content and offers. And the eradication of junk.

Disappointingly digital is capable of that personalization but there remain cowboys who steadfastly ignore that opportunity. If its any consolation, the ANA reckons programmatic ad fraud will cost advertisers $7.2billion in costs for ads never even be seen by a human.

What about the Utopia offered by that pinnacle of digital thinking, aka social media? 

An inter-connected world where, separated by less than six degrees from all our other human brethren, we’d live in peace and tolerance? Well, sadly, it would seem that the pesky algorithms that are the backbone of many of our digital lives (Amazon, FB, Expedia and this site of course) do a better job of making our worlds, networks and opinions smaller, not bigger. Algorithms serve many purposes but exacerbating our confirmation bias can’t be one of them. Reducing our worldview can’t be expanding our humanity can it?

What about those humans terrified at what happens to all that personal data we’re hoovering up – ostensibly to help deliver more of those customized marketing programs. Personal data that we’re unable to keep safe and secure. Personal data that collected for one reason is then sold on to spammers subjecting us to invasive and unwarranted marketing. Pew Research recently released a pretty dismal (and scathing) report into the fears of Americans about privacy and security. It makes for alarming reading particularly because it seems that Joe Public just doesn’t trust corporations and the government to treat their data appropriately. Put another way, to treat them humanely.

Of course, I’m not just talking about the humans we blithely call customers and consumers.

I’m talking about those other humans too.

The ones we call colleagues and co-workers.

We (rightly) obsess about UX, abandoned shopping carts, click-paths, gamification, frictionless-not-sticky interactions for the customer. All critical components to deliver “meaningful and resonant” digital experiences. And build that bank of eyeballs and dollars.

But what of our human colleagues and co-workers?

The ones we’re putting under increased pressure and scrutiny to respond to customers at the speed of the internet? Do they have the necessary information – and authority – to respond cogently and effectively? Is our organization’s culture and design genuinely optimized for this scenario?

The one’s we’re asking to work in entirely new, and often untested, ways. Avant-garde companies like Zappos are going all out on Holocracy and a flatter more collaborative environment, but these new environments are harder in practice to execute than they are in theory. Certainly the rash of recent departures at Zappos suggest that it takes a tremendous amount of patience and dexterity to change how people work together in this new world.

And, how about those colleagues and co-workers increasingly seeing the specter of automation and the genuinely terrifying idea that a robot may be taking their jobs away? How are we humanely training and growing their abilities to address this? If you want a very real sense of how automation might take your job, then I’d encourage you to visit this BBC website.

In short, in this new digitally-driven business environment, are we just as quick to adapt our cultures and organizations internally as we are to address the needs of our external customers?

Ultimately, I wonder how hard it will be to live up to the promise and potential of this Fourth Industrial Revolution if we conveniently forget our basic humanity.

As always, I’d love your thoughts and opinions guys. Is this merely a period of growing pains or are we in danger of forgetting our humanity as we chase the allure of a digital everything future?

What Are You Doing To Deliberately Kill Your Brand?


When you begin your career in marketing, one of the headiest and most intoxicating feelings comes from “leading” an actual brand.

A feeling of invincibility. A certain sense of immortality.

I’m sure the brand managers for Pet Rocks, L.A. Gear sneakers, Palm Pilot’s and De Lorean cars felt exactly the same immortality.

Here’s the truth, business is Darwinian.

You’re either able to evolve or your trajectory moves from irrelevant to obsolete and, ultimately, to extinct.

“We’re too big to fail” is a common retort. My category is impervious and indispensable.

You sure?

Ask Big Tobacco. I grew up at a time when smoking was considered cool and hip. When the Malboro Man was an icon of virility. When every car, every house, every restaurant was festooned with ashtrays.

How about Big Soda? This week a New York Times article “The Decline of Big Soda” shows how rapidly that category is plummeting. This isn’t marginal players and brands, people. We’re talking brand behemoths like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

And QSR? Leaving business school today, would you be vigorously pursuing a career with KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell or McDonalds?

Or Automotive? They’re certainly tottering. When a senior German auto executive quips that he fears “becoming the ZTC of cars” (officially my greatest quote of the past year) because of the inroads made by Tesla, Google and even potentially Apple. When vaunted brand VW is set to implode because of an insanely desperate management need to “crack” the US market at all costs. Is that category too big to fail?

Banking and Finance? Sure BitCoin may be largely a non-news-item today but alternative currencies are inevitable. If I’m a bank executive, you don’t think I’m terrified when mobile payment platforms from Apple, Google, Facebook sit between me and the transacting customer? Do you think customers are going to be loyal to my bank when I’m largely an invisible entity sitting beneath the “point of most value”. Sounds ominously like the “dumb pipe” fears of the Telcos doesn’t it?

And this isn’t because these organizations lack information, insight, scale, legions of smart and passionate employees, deep pockets, distribution, vigorous networks of partners, loyal customers and franchisees. Trust me, I had the privilege of working with the awesome Finns at Nokia for several years and none of the elements above were in short supply. Today Nokia is sadly a footnote in mobile history.

Maybe the issue is the two most dangerous letters in business today.

“C” and “Y”




(and maybe even healthy doses of CYA)

Or maybe the issue is more biological.

For all the online ink on Disruption (43,100,100 results), Digital Transformation (28,800,00 results) or that hoary ol’ chestnut Innovation(454,000,000 results) every organization is powered by a collection of people.

People operating within an established structure. A structure that has powered historical success.

People operating within a codified set of processes, policies and procedures. Systems that got them raises, bigger offices and promotions.

People who may love what they do but still have lives outside the office. Kids, vacations, in-laws, swimming pools, cold beers.

And, just like every organism facing a moment of profound evolution.

People keen to protect the status quo.

How else do you explain the Kodak employee who was told to bury his patent for digital camera technology? In 1975. Fast forward 40 years and consider the insanity of that business decision.

Or this much publicized effort by one of the 20th Century’s Automotive legends.

And its ultimate demise when cannibalized by its parent company.

Which begs the obvious questions;

“Can Our Organization Genuinely Evolve From Within?”

or perhaps better restated as;

“Will Our Current People & Systems Let Us Evolve?”

If you need signs of how other progressive organizations are tackling the very same question, look no further than;

Google “Alphabet” which officially comes to life today. Read the press release from August 10th to get the full flavor of what they believe is needed to evolve today.

Zappos’ culture experiment with Holacracy, which is radically change how the organization operates and delivers. Reflective of the earlier “biology” comment, Holacracy was seen as too radical for some who chose to leave Zappos rather than adapt to the new system.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to hear Leonard Brody speak in Toronto. His mantra was simple. Do create a “parallel business” if you want any chance at escaping natural selection in your category or sector. Do create an organization deliberately and vigorously attempting to drive you into obsolescence. Don’tkeep that parallel business (or “skunkworks” in former parlance) within your current structure. Don’t acquire a “parallel business” and then absorb it borg-like into your incumbent world.

Provocative? Certainly. Prophetic? Very likely.

I can fondly (wistfully?) remember when Incumbency was the ultimate capitalist accolade. When being the biggest was recognition of your business prowess. Not anymore.

Big didn’t save the T-Rex or the Argentinosaurus. Is there any reason to believe it will save you?

How are you tackling evolutionary changes in your business?

Are you actively trying to kill your brands with new models, new thinking and new organizations? Are you willing to consider a “parallel organization” or willing to accept the inevitable evolutionary forces around you?

I’d love to hear what you’re doing.

It’s Time To Evolve the 4P’s for our Digital Age



Is there a more foundational marketing framework than the 4P’s?

Is there a marketing or general business practioner that can’t sound off





Over the years, as customer trends and marketing evolved, additional “P’s” were tossed around to try encapsulate other criteria that marketers needed to address;

People was added as we realized that services and service-based businesses lived and died by the folks that served our customers.

Process was added (considered?) as a way to highlight that marketing systems, organizational design and the way in which goods were bought, sold and consumed had also changed dramatically.

And, as recently as 2013, HBR released an article suggesting that the 4 P’s needed to evolve once again. In that particular case, the focus was B2B environments but the premise remained the same. Is there a simple organizing framework that can encapsulate the “new” marketing mix realities and what marketers are dealing with?

The authors offered up SAVE as their framework/mnemonic – Solutions, Access, Value, Education.

Top points for the acronym but, to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t gotten the same traction as the 1953 original.

Personally I’ve been wondering if its not time for another possible “evolution” of the 4 P’s. One ground in the new realities of our digital world.

So, why should we evolve the 4P’s now?

Simply put, because marketing itself has evolved or, as I prefer to think of it, marketing is coming into a Renaissance within many organizations.

More bluntly, Marketing is unambiguously at the center of any organization’s transformation.

The “D”-word – Digital – has catapulted the CMO into one of the most crucial roles enterprise-wide. CMO’s are on track to outspend CIO’s in the technology arena. CMO’s are poised to become the next big player within the C-suite – Chief Digital Officer. And, not surprisingly, CMO’s are driving many of the new business models (AirBnB, UBER, Amazon) that are capturing the hearts and wallets of customers worldwide.

Ultimately, any archaic delineation between “business” strategy and “brand” strategy has been obliterated.

So if marketing is at the center of the organization, shouldn’t the notion of a marketing “mix” framework be more representative of the whole organization? The true gestalt of the enterprise?

To that end, and with the very tiniest of drum-rolls, here’s a new mnemonic to complement – or replace – the 4P’s.

The 4 A’s.


An inevitable head-nod to the topical concept of Purpose. Do we have a well-defined, well-understood and authentic purpose underpinning our business? Can we answer Theodore Levitt’s immortal “What Business Are We In?” question with absolute clarity? Do we understand the role our business plays in customers lives today? Do we know what elasticity that gives us to evolve and grow into the future? Do we have measures in place to evaluate our progress?


Where are the points of intersection between us and our customers? Between us and our advocates? Beyond the point of transaction, what are we doing to make our interactions more fluid, more frictionless? What parts of our business and brand are we allowing customers and fans to mold themselves? Can we co-create products and services that bring us closer to our customers and prospects and, in that closeness, can we drive deeper engagement and loyalty? Access in this environment transcends where we appear; it must also include how we appear at those points.


What’s our organizational ability to pivot and adapt to rapid market changes? Do we have rigid, inflexible processes and systems that prevent us capitalizing on new trends, new markets, new customer needs? Do we utilize concepts like scenario planning to build alternative approaches to our business? Have we internalized empathetic customer-centric approaches like design thinking to build adaptive systems into our organization? Do we acknowledge the necessity of, and have bench strength in, Change Management? Are we making investments in our people to build a culture that’s as adaptive as our systems?


The most fundamental requirement of any digital transformation is the expectation that it will accelerate the delivery of your business. And that shockingly requires a few “other” A’s to be present. Agility is one. Do we value and seek responsiveness in all our interactions internally – and externally with customers and partners? Do we place a premium on employees who ask “Why Not” rather than “Why”? Have we stripped away layers of oversight, obfuscation (hello Legal department) in an attempt to be as transparent and open as possible? Automation is another. Are we rigorously looking to enhance (accelerate) systems and processes via automation? Conversely, are we balancing our zest for automation with an empathy that understands that some systems will always need human interaction? And then there’s Alignment. As we deal with massive levels of change and disruption are we still able to create alignment internally? While empowering our employees and forcing decision-making authority lower in the system, are our executives aligned to losing that much authority? Can we create better and faster alignment if we implemented newer systems of working, like Zappos’ much-vaunted Holocracy, to accelerate the organization even faster?

Ultimately, in an age of digital Darwinism, do we covet the ability to respond to new business challenges with speed and with zeal.

In their heyday the 4P’s served as an incredible structure to build rigor and deep thinking into marketing. It forced marketers to consider all aspects of their business and find the linkages between them. At its most effective, it forced the astute marketer to ask probing questions about each one of the P’s. And, in doing so, strengthen the overall business.

That’s the intent of the 4A’s above.

Are they exhaustive? Deliberately not. They’re merely, IMHO, more representative of the areas that digital organizations need to plan and plot for.

So would I be so presumptive as to suggest they replace the legendary 4P’s? Of course not. Rather they’re just another added filter as you bring your digitally-centric business plan together.

Would you add (or remove) any of the 4a’s? Which ones and why? Chime in folks.

The Importance Of Culture on Your Digital Transformation



With the ubiquity, pervasiveness and media hype around technology’s impact on our lives, it would be easy to suggest that we’re being swept forward in blissful euphoria toward a bright and shiny tech-enabled future.

That would be overly simplistic and a little naïve.

Specters like automation, privacy, government surveillance and black hat hacking suggest, amongst this sea change, there are other forces we need to consider too.

Then there’s the simple truth that many (most?) human beings just don’t like change.

In fact, getting people to change typically meets resistance. Sometimes, even violence.

We jokingly refer to people as Luddites when they seem slow to adopt new technology. Forgetting that Luddites were a real group of individuals in 19th century England who burnt down textile factories fearing the rapid advance of new technologies. Technologies intended to streamline processes seen as inefficient and slow by Industrialists, but technologies that threatened their very way of life.

Sound familiar?

That also probably explains why most Change Management pundits characterize what they do as “the application of a structured process and set of tools for leading the people side of change to achieve a desired outcome”. I wonder how much simpler John Kay and James Hargreaves lives would’ve been with the application of PROSCI’s ADKAR system.

Business today is in the midst of a similarly foundational transformation. This one driven by that universal term “digital”.

And, not surprisingly, the same lines are being drawn.

New unfamiliar processes versus old familiar practices.

Technology versus humanity.

Flexibility and responsiveness versus Intractable and plodding.

Strategy versus Culture.

The latter is so frequently quoted it has become the most over-used and over-wrought meme on LinkedIn. A day seldom passes when Peter Drucker and the immortal “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” line doesn’t appear in my newsfeed. (Apologies for adding another instance)

For those who scratch beneath Drucker’s phrase – not merely like, share and comment “Amen” – the insight is alarmingly simple and profound.

Strategy is a fast moving, adaptive requirement for any business. Particularly those in a digital age, meeting the heightened demands of digitally-empowered customers, and looking to eke out the benefits of speed and efficiency that digital offers.

Culture, in contrast, is an entity grown over time. Shaped and nurtured by the previous successes and failures of an organization. An internal short-hand that employees characterize, often flippantly, as “just the way we do things around here”. Something that, unlike Strategy, doesn’t dramatically change when a 90-day analyst’s call goes pear shaped.

But, as noted culture academic Edgar Schein has written about extensively, Culture is way way more critical than an internal short-hand. Culture articulates what an organization considers important – its Values – and how it will act in accordance with those values – its Behaviours.

And, ultimately, it’s those behaviours that will be the arbiter of whether your digital transformation is a genuine success. And whether your organization’s transformation has been substantive or just superficial.

Consider the Values of collaboration, inclusion, accountability, customer-centric and transparency.

I’d venture it wouldn’t be unusual, or even unique, to have those exact Values at your organization. And for you and your colleagues to have a pretty decent handle on the associated and acceptable behaviours linked to those.

Now consider an organization poised to implement the significant potential of a digital transformation.

Or consider the new behaviours employees of a digitally-transformed organization face.

Collaboration that now enables loyal customers, and even random members of Joe Public, to directly participate in new product development and, furthermore, to have those same customers expect to be directly remunerated for that product’s success. Who determines which idea is best? Can you push and cajole people who aren’t on your payroll?

Inclusion that now includes a legion of freelance contractors with on-demand remote access to your proprietary systems and IP on a project-by-project basis. Freelancers who’re quite likely to be working with your competition when they aren’t working for you. Who do you trust? How far do you trust them?

Accountability that now utilizes mountains of “big data”, historical analysis and increasingly projective algorithms to codify and score each and every decision made within an organization. No more hiding. No more fudging. No more decisions made on “gut”.

Customer-centric systems that now push the decision making ability down to the very point of interaction between customer and your organization. No longer being vetted by the senior and seasoned executive. Now it’s to the junior bank teller. It’s the harried customer representative at the airport departure gate. Or the call-center operator at the end of her shift. Will they make the “right” call? Will they balance the needs of each customer with the needs of the organization? Will they go too far – or not far enough – to satisfy those needs?

Transparency that now means droves of employees enthusiastically using open-source social media platforms to comment and opine on the organization’s actions on issues like gay rights, access to water, the environment, sustainability and labour practices. Where are the borders between important discussions and time-wasting social pontification? Just how free do you want speech to be internally? Just how open do you want your organization to be? Read this brilliant real-life example from IBM if you don’t believe this is a real scenario.

Ultimately the digital transformation of your category, your organization, your team, and even your career, is inevitable. The benefits are just too compelling.

The success of that transformation will require more than just brilliant software and services. It will require a sense of humanity for the customers you serve and a deep empathy for the colleagues you lead.

A recognition of the people side of the changes you’re trying to drive.

A need to align Strategy and Culture.

(In recent week’s there’s been a tsunami of opinion on the Culture of a digitally-centric organization – Amazon – and how brutal it supposedly is. And that’s an organization that grew up digital. If you’re looking for a great example, then I always recommend another digitally-centric organization, NetFlix. I’d encourage you to read this brilliant Slideshare document to see how they keep their Culture strong.)

Hope is not a Strategy













We all have quotes and sayings that we adore.

They’re typically opening slides in presentations or adorn the bottom of our emails.

They signal a perspective we share.

And often communicate an opinion so succinctly it would take us months to emulate something that incisive.

Over the years a few have bubbled to the top as personal favourites;

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do” Michael Porter

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less” General Eric Shinseki

And the one that sits on my LinkedIn profile;

Hope is not a Strategy

The full quote is “Change is not a destination just as hope is not a Strategy”

Pithy for sure. But absolutely insightful.

It’s attributed to Rudy Giuliani as part of the Republican Convention speech on September 3rd 2008. To give it historical context, Giuliani was taking President Obama to task for the sorry state of the US economy, foreclosures, bailouts, catastrophic unemployment figures and so forth.

Whether Giuliani was accurate in laying any of this at Obama’s feet is irrelevant, the point was, hoping for something to change wasn’t enough. It was action that was needed, not rhetoric, not speeches but bold, decisive action.

It would be interesting to ask Giuliani to comment on Obama’s actions in the past 90 days but, again, that’s off topic.

In many ways Giuliani could be admonishing today’s business and brand leaders with the same derision he leveled at President Obama.

You don’t have to look very far to see organizational efforts that are little more than Hail Marys or artfully crafted PR soundbytes masquerading as deep and thoughtful strategies.

A few of my favourite writers on LinkedIn have called these out.

Tom Goodwin wrote about how, despite all the notions and PR releases trumpeting transformation efforts for the digital future, many marketing firms are still stuck with ineffective “Mad Men”-esque business models.

More recently, Reuven Gorsht at SAP opined on how many taxi companies were railing against the impact of UBER on their businesses and the taxi companies were hoping that regulators would come to their aid. Regulators as angels of mercy? There’s a Hail Mary if I ever heard one.

Other classic examples of “hopeful” strategies….

Believing that a marked increase or focus in marketing communication efforts can solve systemic operational and core business issues. McDonalds anyone?

Having a singular obsession with NPS that isn’t counter-balanced by an understanding of where your brand is vulnerable. The Telco and cable industry for example?

Looking at emerging business practices or, worse, the latest issue of Fast Company, Mashable or Gawker, and believing those Bright Shiny Objects might be the salvation for your company. Its okay to admire Elon Musk, Tony Hsieh, Peter Thiel, Richard Branson et al, and look to their organizations for ideas, but blindly implementing Holocracy or the lessons of Zero to One is just plain crazy. The current deafening zealotry surrounding “Big Data” is something I personally throw into this camp.

Considering that a new strategy alone will be a panacea for your business struggles. Any strategy that doesn’t consider the impacts on culture and organizational design will inevitably fall afoul if there isn’t internal alignment with those three core elements.

Is it possible to create a Strategy that isn’t based entirely on hope?

Sure it is.

HBR recently published an article that resonated deeply with me. Titled “Navigating The Dozens of Strategy Options” they showed that picking the right strategy came from having a profound sense of what type of company you were, and a very clear sense of the real challenges you faced. They go so far as to create a simple matrix that highlights the advantages, disadvantages and considerations that underlie the strategic options available.

But the basic premise was simple.

Know thyself.

Know the market you’re operating in.

Implement the strategy (or strategic framework) best aligned to those dimensions.

Not exactly rocket surgery.

But beneath the remarkably succinct observations, lay a couple of deeper reminders.

Strategy isn’t possible without doing the tough but necessary situational analysis of the market. Superficial competitive reviews aint gonna cut it.

Strategy isn’t possible without some attention paid to scenario planning.

Strategy isn’t possible if you’ve not created an organization that has a cultural aptitude to change and adapt.

Strategy isn’t possible if you don’t have a clear and compelling sense of purpose driving you forward. And that purpose can’t only be chasing down mountains of profits.

There’s no denying that, as markets become more complex and we face a veritable tsunami of information, successfully steering companies forward takes courage and conviction and, yes, maybe even a dollop of hope.

Just make sure as you’re crafting that strategy, your dollop of hope is dwarfed by the courage to actually do the hard work required.

How are you building a strategy that isn’t led by hope?

Can You Really Innovate If You Are Brandcuffed?




Spring in Canada is a wonder to behold.

For the record we don’t put our dog sleds away and mournfully watch our igloos melt, but there is a definite air of rejuvenation and fresh promise in the air. That includes the energetic sounds of the second-most popular Canadian pastime after watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs – Spring Cleaning. The cleaning out of closets, the pruning of unwanted household items and the enthusiastic removal of stuff that’s either too old, too worn or too far gone to be salvageable.

I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this exercise as energetically when it comes to our brands and businesses.

Why, in an environment where innovation is such a coveted accolade, we don’t shed those processes, people or partnerships that hold us back and wear us down.

Why we don’t take advantage of the perfect opportunity to say “This approach might’ve suited us 5 years ago but its just embarrassing that we still use it today” If I can get rid of my favourite acid-washed jeans, I can guarantee that there is definitely something in your business that is just as ripe for the garbage heap.

I’m not talking tinkering at the edges either. I’m talking about a deep and unapologetic look at the business and asking “Why do we still do that?” or even better “Are we still getting a disproportionate advantage from engaging in that effort?”

Perhaps the issue is we’ve created too many brandcuffs around the business. Real, or imagined, constraints that prevent us from moving freely.

A legion of brand equities we couldn’t possibly consider letting go off. A forest of SKU’s that bring in some marginal revenue but we’d never stop manufacturing. Cozy and comfortable relationships with partners (and employees?) where neither side pushes and cajoles the other to be better.

IMHO the brandcuffs begin when organizations consider their mission statement an intractable articulation of how they should act in perpetuity. That what they do today is what they’re inevitably going to be doing a decade from now.

That’s why I’m always drawn to Theodore Levitt’s brilliant question “What business are you in?” because that inherently forces you to confront the core of your business. And question whether, as the market and customers evolve and change, that core needs to evolve into something else instead.

Imagine a business “spring cleaning” exercise that began with…

Is Kodak in the camera film business or the memory business?

Is Blockbuster in the video rental business or the home entertainment business?

Is Radio Shack a physical location for electronic geeks to go to tinker or the de-facto experts on all manner of electronics?

The truly smart companies understand this isn’t just an exercise to engage in sporadically. It must become a core part of their business planning cycles.

I spent many years admiring Nokia for their ability to energetically spring clean their organization. Their history is peppered with “pivots” from making rubber boots to paper products to electricity infrastructure to, at their height, becoming the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer. And then they fell victim to their own set of brandcuffs as this quote from an excellent NYT article titled “Where Nokia Went Wrong” highlights;

It wasn’t just that Nokia failed to recognize the increasing importance of software, though. It also underestimated how important the transition to smartphones would be. And this was, in retrospect, a classic case of a company being enthralled (and, in a way, imprisoned) by its past success.

I’m not denying that Spring-cleaning is dirty, back-breaking and grubby work. It’s certainly not an exercise I look forward to.

However the sense of freedom, of lightness, of being unencumbered by old, stodgy and outta-fashion items is magical.

Wouldn’t you like to feel the same about your business?

Isn’t today the perfect day to consider Spring-cleaning your brand and business?

Strategy: It’s about Choices AND Commitment




You can’t deny the power of a meme.

A photograph. A pithy quote. Ideally something so succinct it would take you days to get something of equal veracity.

And it never hurts if everyone kinda knows the person you’re quoting.

Drucker. Branson. Churchill. Gandhi. Mandela. Tom Peters. Michael Porter.

Here’s a Hilton B favourite.







A favourite because, as Porter so eloquently states, Strategy is really a choice. Of what NOT to do. We all know the harm we put our business in if we try be all things to all people. That’s lunacy. Enough HBR articles and case studies will confirm that.

Why I particularly like the quote though is for a slightly different reason.

It’s the underlying sense that, by making a choice, you’re also committing to a path. That you’re not going to take fork A but you’re sure as heck gonna take Fork B.

Trouble is I don’t see nearly as much committing as I do choosing.

I see plenty of hedging. I see plenty of toe-dipping masquerading as “test markets”. I see plenty of self-imposed internal handcuffs disguised as governance guardrails. I see a lot of cutting corners presented as a trendy attempt at “minimum viable product”

I don’t see as much committing. Fully and completely.

Recently I had an incredibly tortured experience with a local retailer. I’ve bored my friends enough with the story that I wont repeat it here. The PTSD remains too raw. In fairness, their newly-minted Director of Customer Experience is working quite diligently to address the past mistakes.

The issue stems from, what appears to be, a monumental disconnect between the products they sell and the service related to installing those very same products. Aspects of their service chain and installation are outsourced (not unusual), their service center has only a marginal understanding or control over the outsourced part (again not unusual) and the overwhelming sense you get is that once you’ve bought the product, any after-sales stuff is really none of their concern. Its not them, it’s the outsourced 3rd party.


It is ALL your concern.

If you elect to outsource something, and its often a prudent move, you still own that partner. And that part of the customer experience. And if they f**k it up, its your brand that takes the hit, not some ACME dude in a plain white van with an indecipherable accent. He’s just cashing the cheque your company paid him. He’s certainly not worrying about your declining brand equity and reputation.

Commitment is the issue. Or, more importantly, lack of commitment.

If you chose to be in a certain type of business, or offer a certain type of service, then you’ve no choice but to deliver against the minimum threshold of customer expectation in the category. And all that minimum threshold affords you is the opportunity to be the value player in that segment.

<And if you think the minimum level is a Teflon-shield, try escape the teeming hordes on social media dying to skewer you at every turn>

The leaders in a segment are those who over-commit.

Who go further than the minimum threshold of customer expectation. That doesn’t mean they necessarily over-commit on service but they over-commit on one of the classic “4 P’s”. Ryan Air doesn’t overcommit on customer service but I’m damn sure there are no cheaper flights anywhere in Europe. That’s commitment.

At the risk of being nauseatingly pithy, commitment is what makes any relationship strong.

And if you’re not interested in strengthening relationships with your customers, then you shouldn’t be in business.

Strategy is about choice. It’s also about commitment.

<I wonder if there’s a Deepak Chopra meme about that>