Tackle Your Brand Vulnerability – or Be Prepared to Lose


When former US-President Bill Clinton proclaims that the three largest global soda manufacturers have declared their intent to reduce sugary calories by 1/5 within a decade, you can be assured of two things. One, it’s a pretty damn important message. Two, every media outlet imaginable is going to carry your message in their next news cycle.

Skeptics might argue that, for these oft maligned and outed soda manufacturers, the second reason might actually pip the first.

After a decade of fighting public relation battles that stretched from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attack on serving sizes in New York to numerous references in medical journals about the contribution of high-calorie sodas to teen obesity, there’s definitely a chorus of folks remarking “about friggin time guys”

To give credit though, reducing sugary calories by 20% is a great step forward – Jim Collin’s might even label it a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) – but this spectre has haunted the category for a while. Worse, their historic responses – typically splashy marketing and advertising efforts - have been so saccharine and self-serving as to make no impression whatsoever. In fact, many of those earlier efforts were so poorly received that they were quickly quashed.

Two things strike me about this news.

1 – Why, after decades of declining sales in their principal markets and in their principal product lines, did this initiative take them so long to launch?

2 – Why is it that so many mature categories seem so unwilling to tackle well-documented, broadly understood vulnerabilities in their value proposition?

I’m not so ignorant as to presume that a single memo or a strongly-worded email from the CEO would turn around the behemoths that are Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and Doctor Pepper. When Interbrand values you at $17.8billion (Pepsi) or $79.2 billion (Coca-Cola) these are deeply integrated organizations that have spent decades chasing Michael Porter’s “core competencies” in manufacturing, distribution, new product development, sales and marketing. You don’t unravel that Gordian knot overnight.

But when you’ve invested countless dollars creating – and supporting with marketing dollars - a product portfolio of over 400 product flankers, bought new verticals to capture juice, water or energy variants and folks are still leaving in droves, it must beg the question “perhaps there’s something else we need to be addressing?”

frustrated-by-automated-phone-system1But they’re not the only culprits.

Cable companies that advertise a slew of new content blockbusters yet seem unable to send a technician to my house at the time they scheduled.

Telco companies that offer a bewildering array of snazzy new phones and data plans yet take 45 minutes and several rounds of escalation to answer a simple question about my monthly bill.

Hotel companies with incredible mobile tools and services allowing me to rate, review and check-in to my $450-a-day room from anywhere yet also seem to think that charging me an additional $30 a day for wifi is somehow appropriate.

Software companies launching fantastic new features with every release though, sadly, those same releases seem to be bloated and buggy until release 3.0

There was certainly a time that building a business and brand by launching new products or adding new features was the fastest way to market success but, particularly in mature categories, that traditional approach seems closer to the law of diminishing returns than the greenfield opportunity of old.

What’s a marketing leader in a mature category to do?

Well one answer might lie in an unusual and unlikely source for mature categories – the fantastic work by Adam Morgan, the father of “Challenger” brand 51uK-n3zEkLthinking.

Amongst his 8 Credos of a Challenger brand, Adam sets out the notion of “Symbols of Re-Appraisal” which essentially asks brands to think deeply about what actions they can take to make consumers profoundly think differently about them. What would it take to make consumers stop and think “Wow, I’d never have believed category X or brand Y was capable of that” In Challenger brand folklore, when ING Direct decided to offer customers a banking experience without bricks&mortar branches, that was a profound “Symbol of Re-Evaluation” which lead to a redefinition of what consumers expected of the category.

It means taking on the sacred cows – or obscenely overgrown pink elephants – of the category. Or within your organization.

And, most importantly, its now the category champions, not just the historical Challengers that are doing this.

McDonalds stepped up admirably with their “Our Food, Your Questions”. Heaven knows, the QSR category – of which McDees is the de-facto big dog – has a very tattered and blemished record, particularly in the mature markets of the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. But by tackling their toughest critics head-on, versus dodging them, McDonalds was able to claw back some credibility – and create a Symbol of Re-Evaluation.

The brutal reality for all marketers is that building brands entirely on what we perceive as strengths is no longer enough. Our brand weaknesses, or vulnerabilities, are just as likely to sink our sales aspirations as our brand strengths are to drive them.

Well-informed consumers are just too socially-connected, too societally-aware, too financially-empowered and too able to find and purchase alternatives for us to think that not addressing our vulnerabilities is sustainable.

To paraphrase that terrible dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, perhaps its time for all brand leaders to consider if they’ve built a giant with feet of clay. Because, it may just be those clay feet – or Achilles Heels – that will topple your business.

How Winning Brands balance Purpose and Profit

BELGIUM jan14013


There are those who continue to frame the role of business in purely commercial terms. Business is hard enough, and the demands of shareholders and the markets so insistent, these people say, that companies need to avoid the ‘distractions’ of infusing a moral platform into what they do. They should just get on with making profits. That’s their purpose. After all that’s what shareholders demand and that’s typically what they’re compensated on.

And in that one word, purpose, and its ambiguities, lie the seeds of an increasingly vigorous debate that, to our minds, stems from a confusion of ideas (and priorities).

When you adopt a functional definition of purpose, this is pretty much where most of us land: The purpose of business is to make money. True. Single-minded. And responsible – in the sense that without money, there are no resources to keep people in jobs and to contribute to the economy and the markets.

If however you take an intentional definition of purpose this idea extends one stage further: the purpose of a business is to make money and to do good in the world; or even the purpose of a business is to make money by doing good in the world. Also true, for those of us who believe that there is more to business, and life, than just money. Less single-minded, because there is a linked agenda. Also responsible – but to different things, in the sense that money is a means as well as a resource.

Purpose when it is defined as a function revolves around the immediate and commercial reason for being.

The focus tends to skew towards results. In the right hands, this concentration on outcomes energises and drives the business priorities and strategies inside an organisation. Coke became the biggest beverage company in the world because it set its sights on putting a glass of Coke within arm’s reach of every thirsty person on the planet. The pursuit of that result is reflected in its supply chain policies, in its product development, in its distribution and pricing strategies. When it goes too far though, the pure-play pursuit of results (and their attendant incentives) drives an organisation to pursue agendas that are so outcome-focused they can lack humanity and even responsibility. The actions of Enron and GM are cases in point. Both organisations pursued results at the expense of other considerations.

Purpose when it is defined as an intention reflects a more global bias.

It frames what the people inside an organisation, and the customers who buy from them, would like to see change (for the better) in the world. In this context, the focus is on shared beliefs and on a shared view of the world that is much more long term. In the right hands, this focus on what’s desirable and altruistically aspirational holds an organization on a steady morally-focused course. It puts some ideas in-purpose and renders others unacceptable because they do not contribute to the intentional purpose (even if they do contribute to the functional purpose). As I pointed out in a recent post , a strong and clear purpose drives collective comprehension, cohesion and forms the basis for fundamental business choices. It focuses on an agreed worldview that provides people inside an organisation with powerful incentives to come to work and gives consumers reasons to stay loyal to a brand. When it goes too far though, the pursuit of an ideal leads to inefficiencies, lack of operational strategies and the adoption of an aggressive and self-righteous moral high ground that subsumes everything in its path and brooks no dissent or even debate.

Ergo, pursued to extreme either reading of purpose, functional or intentional, is detrimental.

Interestingly the ‘grandfather of consultancy’ Peter Drucker held a perspective more in line with the latter view.peterdrucker3

He once famously said, “Business has one task – to create a customer”. In Drucker’s world profit was a consequence, not an objective. If an organization successfully “created a customer” – through superb products built on sound insight, artful distribution and an alignment of the views of the organization with the views of the customer – then profits and success were inevitable.

This needn’t be an “either/or” decision though..

Pursued in a balanced manner, the two agendas hold each other in check. They provide the business with a mandate to chase its commercial goals at the same time as they lay down clear guidelines within which that pursuit must take place.

So what might that mean in a real, practical example?

The challenge for Coca-Cola today is not whether it should make money or tackle obesity but how it can continue to keep everyone happy by making responsible returns, persuading people to consume less calories through its products and using natural resources like water in sustainable ways.

If Coke’s purpose is ‘Moments of happiness’, then a balanced pursuit of that means finding ways to achieve moments of happiness for all and not at the expense of some. And to do that, Coke’s leadership probably need to be asking themselves at least eight ongoing questions:

  1. How do we define a moment? (is it solitary or social?)
  2. How much is a moment? (is it a gulp, a can or a 2-litre bottle?)
  3. What’s a moment worth? (if there were less moments, for example, could they be worth more? How?)
  4. How is happiness changing across the world? (specific, regional and global trends)
  5. Who must be happy in order for us to achieve our purpose? (how do we judge success and is that how our consumers judge success?)
  6. What makes people happy now and what will make them happy in the future? (How might we evolve what/when/where to ensure we’re appropriate for them?)
  7. Where do the pursuits of happiness fight with each other and how do we resolve them?
  8. Must a moment always include consumption of our products or could/should we enable other moments?

They’re not easy questions – particularly when you’re as global as Coca-Cola and your organization is a patchwork of owners, distributors, bottlers, franchises and partners like McDonald’s. Aligning those entities is another key component because consumers don’t delineate Coke from a vending machine and a Coke poured at the Golden Arches. We’ll deal with that conundrum in a future post.

But they are the questions that leaders need to be asking in our view in order to truly deliver the two sides of purpose.

For purpose to work to its full potential in organisations, the commercial leadership must be balanced by a clear and shared moral leadership.

Today’s leaders need to be comfortable embracing both sides, not merely the commercial one.

Mark Di SommaThis post was co-authored with friend, brand zealot and cranium tickler Mark Di Somma. New-Zealand-based he’s a creative strategist, keynote speaker and writer for Branding Strategy Insider. For more than 20 years Mark has helped decision makers, brand owners and brand agencies define, articulate and elevate the value of their brands. He brings a refreshingly New World perspective to issues around compelling brands, competitive value, purposeful cultures, market leadership and responsible ideas. Follow him at @markdisomma

We’re committed to a series of posts on this subject. Look for them over the next few weeks. Your feedback, comments and input is appreciated.

Business Leaders, How Self-Aware Are You?




In hindsight I should’ve anticipated there’d be a backlash.

You can’t put “Provocateur” into your LinkedIn title without expecting some provocation to come back at ya. Some debate. Some discussion. Some disagreement. That’s just karma.

Titling a recent post “Without Purpose Your Organization is Rudderless” wasn’t just an attempt to score highly in nautical search results. Its something I feel deeply.

But what makes it particularly personal is that I’ve experienced first-hand the difference between organizations who have a clearly-defined, well-articulated and well-understood Purpose – and those that don’t.

So what’s there to debate?

Well actually, it would seem there’s a fair bit.

Two friends that I admire deeply took me to task on my interpretation of Purpose.

Must Purpose always be Good?

It’s easy to point to Zappos, Patagonia, IBM and Red Bull and all the storied examples and wax lyrically about Purpose. But does that mean that other successful companies lack Purpose – or is it that we’d rather not discuss what their Purpose is?


Enron – which I had personal experience working with.


BP – the actions that preceded Deep Horizon” might suggest their real Purpose isn’t driven by an abiding love of the environment.

GM – the ongoing US litigation scandal and how whistle-blowers were considered internally might suggest another, darker Purpose at play.

And what about the much-loved, admired and emulated Coca-Cola Company.

For several years they battled an embittered backlash in India over depleting the water tables. More interesting was this recent article in BusinessWeek detailing how the organization is attempting to regain #1 share for their signature red can.

Buried within the article “Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem”  is a candid account of how a zeal to push sales volume in the US lead to the much-maligned phrase “Super Size”, gave rise to ridiculously outsized portions and, likely contributed, to the associations of soda with childhood obesity and so on.

You might argue those actions were representative of an earlier “Purpose” but you can’t deny they fly in the face of an organization that purports to exist to create moments of happiness.

Begs the question…Happiness for whom?

Purpose must benefit customers and society

Ironically in the same BusinessWeek as the Coke article above, was another that highlighted the lengths that Purpose-driven organizations are supposed to go in defense of their Values and Ideals.

Ben & Jerry’s is in the midst of a disagreement with parent company Unilever over moves to mandate GMO labeling of foodstuffs. Ben & Jerry’s position is that customers deserve to know exactly what’s in the food they eat. Unilever is concerned that the provisions are ambiguous, impossible to enforce and will add substantial cost and inefficiency to their supply chain and production.  Unilever, to their credit, are giving Ben & Jerry’s autonomy in this decision.

Both are acting within their Purpose but which organization is getting kudos and which is being lambasted?

As more and more evidence accumulates that consumers want – nay, expect – organizations to be transparent, societally-aware, environmentally-neutral, positive contributors to the world, what is any ambitious CEO to do?

JanusLet’s Start Here - Leaders Must Be Self-Aware

For the record, neither friend was advocating a Purpose of pillaging and scorched earth. Far from it. In fact both violently agreed that any Purpose has to be built from an organization that is ruthlessly self-aware.

If your sole purpose is to create an organization for acquisition, don’t talk about longevity and legacy.  Your actions are going to belie that Purpose.

If you’re not prepared to stamp out bureaucratic processes that impede customer satisfaction, then you can’t state your Purpose is customer-centricity. Your behaviours run counter to that Purpose.

Ultimately, your Purpose is just that. Yours. You have the responsibility to fashion it in a way that echoes your views and your ideals. Just accept that they may not be one’s that we share.

But if Purpose is intended to drive all decisions you make, just be self-aware enough to be honest about what that Purpose really is.

Because, if you aren’t, then I can almost guarantee Joe Public and Joe Employee will quickly discern the difference between your espoused and your real purpose

And, as the examples above highlight, your reputation and performance will inevitably suffer.

Without Purpose, Your Organization is Rudderless



Thank god for Hollywood and the characters, icons, metaphors and phrases it’s created.

When I tell my clients “Help me, help you. Help ME, Help YOU” they immediately picture Tom Cruise and Jerry McGuire. Sometimes I’m even on my knees imploring them like the scene in the movie just so they get the connection. Sometimes.

But there is another classic I see often in my consultancy work. Often said with the same gravitas as James Earl Jones summons in “Field of Dreams”

“If you build it, they will come”

“If. You. Build. It, They WILL come”

I think we all realize just how empty and dangerously naïve that phrase is in today’s market.

How many websites are never visited? How many applications are never downloaded by anyone other than the family of the developers? How many products go from lauded to landfill without making the barest dent in the lives of consumers?

Within the microcosm of social media there are pages filled to the brim with “conversations” that feel more like desperate cries for attention. In classically deft fashion, Kiwi blogger Mark Di Somma recently highlighted just how misguided some brands actions are in the social space. I think he’s on to something when he suggests that “Consumers and brands have been talking past each other socially”

For my money, many of these failed efforts happen because organizations are looking for love in all the wrong places.

Rather than looking deep within themselves – to their Purpose – they try desperately to ride a trend or co-opt something current and en vogue so as to appear fashionable.

In my book, that’s a guaranteed fail.

My admiration for Challenger brands stems from a discipline – and devotion – to their Purpose that isn’t swayed by fashion, trend or whim. They remain focused on the reason their founders began the company to start with.

Red Bull’s focus on “energizing the world” means there’s no incongruity when they hold air races in crowded downtown areas, take free-running from an underground niche past-time into the mainstream or throw a man from outer space in real-time. Or when they open their own travelling music academy to nurture fresh new talent, no-body says “That’s not Red Bull”. More often, the reaction is “Of course. Who else but Red Bull could do that?”

Conversely, a friend recently relayed a story to me that is sadly too familiar. Brought in to create some video assets for a very successful company, she asked the founders “why did you start this company and what makes it special?” They didn’t have an answer to either question. The founders! These are the guys that started the company? Their hope was that she – an outsider – would be able to create this magic with her video camera. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.

So how is it that stories like the one above are so prevalent?

Well, what I often hear is that getting to a company’s Purpose is incredibly hard. And is all that hard work really going to make a significant impact on their top or bottom-line?

Let me ask if these outcomes aren’t worth the effort.

A more enlightened work-force. One of the central benefits of a well-articulated and well-understood Purpose is that employees know exactly who they work for and what they’re trying to achieve in their daily efforts.

Purpose drives comprehension.

A stronger corporate culture. A Purpose that acts as an aspiration and “true north” for the organization becomes the bedrock of stronger corporate cultures. Ask organizations like Zappos and The Four Seasons about how their Purpose informs their much-admired cultures.

Purpose drives cohesion.

A filtering mechanism for decisions. I’ve been fortunate enough to see organizations use their Purpose to guide decisions as varied as the market sectors they’d enter – or not, the partner and franchisees they’d partner with – or not, and even the types of employees they consider hiring or promoting.

Purpose drives fundamental business choices.   

So, for those companies unwilling to invest in defining their Purpose, is not doing the work worth the risk?

Do you think you can still launch new products, attract new investment, stimulate and galvanize your workforce without it?

Is that something you’re prepared to bet the farm on?

Hands Up. Who Wants to Be An Innovator?

Back when I started my career (or when dinosaurs ruled the earth) there was a very different perspective of innovation and innovators.

They were an elite group of secret, almost mythical, creatures toiling away in labs far from the prying eyes of competitors or even colleagues without a C-suite designation. As a lowly advertising guy, you never saw these folks until your client was prepared to unveil the fruits of “Project Thunderstruck”. Another sign o’ the times – innovation projects weren’t funded unless they had some kinda quasi-military-superhero name.

That’s all changed.

Today every corporate press release, LinkedIn profile and company blog isn’t complete without innovation, innovative, innovator in every second sentence.



The perceived norm for innovation has moved from top-secret skunkworks to open and crowd-sourced, from the company-knows-best model to a consumer-collaborative one. Today all your employees are expected to be innovation engines and storied organizations like NASA actually want us, the general public, to weigh-in on their projects.

However does all this innovation talk really reflect a true sense of the market? Has innovation, like other popular phrases such as creativity and follow your passion, really seeped into the bloodstream of organizations.

Might I suggest these questions could help determine your real appetite for innovation;

Do you have a well-understood definition and expectation for innovation?

Innovation, like Strategy, is an amorphously-defined word by many executives. Are you looking for “big I” Innovation that will redefine your business and category or “little I” innovation where you’re polishing and refining processes, products and services incrementally? Simplistic as it may seem, if there isn’t a universally-understood definition of what innovation in your company, category means, how can you expect your people to know what’s innovative or not…and then act accordingly?

Do you have a culture that’s conducive to innovations and innovators?

I’m not talking the trappings of innovative or creative workplaces like beanbags, open concept offices and bring-your-dog-to-work-Fridays but a real cultural environment to foster innovation. Are your employees encouraged to tinker, play, build, question? Is that tinkering, playing, building deliberate, unexpected or unstructured? Do you have a process or framework that purposefully moves innovation from ideation to development and deployment? If you’re really committed to this innovation thang, it requires deliberation and purpose. Innovation happenstance makes for great scenes in a movie, not in the workplace.

Do you consider innovation your best opportunity for growth?

Many folks (way smarter than me) working in innovation consultancies tell me that many executives pay lip-service to innovation because they’re still obsessed with maximizing efficiencies and reducing operating costs. And when those have been maximized, going out and buying another company as the engine for future growth. These are important, even necessary, pursuits but they really only make your current organization more efficient – they don’t catalyze your organization to be more effective. If you genuinely buy into the potential of innovation you’re looking for ways to put jet fuel in the engine of your organization, not ways to make the windscreen and hubcaps shinier.

Are you actively and broadly sweeping for innovation impacting your business?

We’ve all read about Kodak, with an employee base of over a hundred thousand, being disrupted by Instagram with less than twenty employees. A spectacular story and a genuine cautionary tale but the story has a direct correlation to your commitment to innovation too. If you’re genuinely committed to innovation you’re deliberately and diligently seeking out innovative examples to watch, mimic or outright copy. If you’re not, I can guarantee your competition is. The flip of innovation as a growth engine is innovation as an engine for your demise.

Do you accept that innovation will disrupt your organization?

Innovation is scary. It means doing new things, with new people, new frameworks, all for the first time. Its also not 100% guaranteed to succeed. That’s enough to test the mettle of the bravest CEO. All sturm und drang aside, consultancies like IDEO, Stage Leap and Canadian firm Idea Couture have well-defined processes and experience traversing clients through those bumpy waters. But, trust me, it will be choppy and disruptive. If the thought of that disruption causes a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, I’d suggest you’re not really ready.Px41antidote

Have you set aside budget and accountability for innovation in your company?

Such a fundamental point, perhaps I should’ve started here. You’re not really into innovation unless you have genuinely set aside real budgets and accountability for it. And not innovation as an intellectual “what if” exercise but as a demonstrable contributor to the company. Is there P&L attached to your innovation or have you merely added the word “innovation” to someone’s existing job description? If there’s no skin in the game or someone’s feet aren’t to the fire to deliver, then , mixed metaphors aside, innovation is a pet project, or worse a distraction, to your business.

As this wonderful article in The Atlantic suggests, innovation has a complicated, sometimes bloody history. However as the word – and all the accompanying descriptors – become more widely used, I think it is critical that each organization puts a stake in the ground.

Is innovation a real imperative for your company or merely the latest Bright Shiny Object?

I’d love your thoughts and feedback. Are there other determinants of companies truly committed to innovation. Sound off folks.

Brand Purpose and the Ethics of Marketing

I’m responsible for the global financial meltdown of 2001.

Phew. Feels good to finally get that off my chest.

In all seriousness though, I did have a very tiny ringside seat into that debacle in 2000. While working at Ogilvy&Mather I was sent to the New York office to run the Enron account. A few months later I was back in Toronto. Here’s a reminder, if you really need one, of that story

The Enron legacy was gallons of journalist ink on corporate malfeasance, a brief rise in post-graduate courses in ethics and the signing of everyone’s favourite piece of business legislation Sarbannes-Oxley.

Problem solved right?

Sadly it would appear not.

GM-BOARD-BUILDINGWhile a lot has changed in the thirteen years since Enron and WorldCom, the debate about business ethics appears to be back on center stage with some interesting debates happening in the United States.

On the east coast, automotive giant General Motors faces a very damning court case over criminal negligence that lead to the deaths of 13 people. There is increasing evidence that GM knew they had a defective part which could cause fatal accidents but they, fearing a massive recall and huge legal fees, chose to deliberately conceal that knowledge from outsiders. In a story more reminiscent of John Grisham, US courts are attempting to unravel who knew what and when did they know it, who deliberately conspired to hide this information and what course of action can be taken to give justice to the bereaved families.

In almost the polar opposite scenario, an intriguing situation is raging around Silicon Valley darling Mozilla and the resignation of their CEO Brendan Eich. Eich was ousted for a personal contribution he made to California’s contentious Proposition 8, a bill which attempted to define marriage status as something between a man and a woman only. Many in the civil and gay rights movements saw Proposition 8 as reprehensible and demeaning and that made Eich’s personal support of it questionable. An intense and quite public debate ensued amongst Mozilla staff questioning Eich’s moral judgement. Following that “debate” he chose to resign. Many saw this as a victory for business ethics and congratulated Mozilla’s employees on their fortitude.

Two very different cases with business ethics at their core.

Two very interesting debates about how ethical businesses should run and should act.

So what is today’s ethical framework?

In my strategy work I come across a vast number of company’s that hold up “Doing The Right Thing” as their ethical filter. That’s a noble filter.

And, in truth, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that sentiment – and the company’s and clients that I work with are all very well intentioned – but the struggle is defining right by whom.

Your customers?

Your partners and vendors?

Your stakeholders?

Society in general?

YOUR corner of society in particular?

It’s complicated, right??

Several months ago I wrote a blog post about the tragic garment factory fire in Bangladesh and the difficulty of determining the appropriate corporate response. Reparations to the affected families in the short-term was obvious. But what about the long-term strategy?

Is the ethical decision to leave the country, set up your supply chain in a better-regulated country where your operational costs are likely going to increase – and those costs are either going to be absorbed (“Hell no” being the chorus from your shareholders) or passed on to your customers (“Are you frigging kidding me” being their likely response). What about the lost income and livelihood of all those, mostly female, workers? What’s your ethical responsibility to them, their families or their efforts to earn more gender equality in their country?

For others there is no ethical ambiguity.

For all the vilification WalMart elicits in certain places, there is little doubt about who they’ve determined as the group they’re most concerned by. The group that they’ll do “right by” All their efforts are intended to drive the lowest possible cost for their customers. If that means incredibly tough negotiations with their suppliers and partners, so be it. If it means breaking the backs of their labour groups and creating unlivable wages, then they’re going to do it. If it means foregoing opening stores in certain geographies, then they’ll do it.

How do you determine what’s right?

We all know there is no “right” in the decision made by GM.swearing-on-bible-jpg

In a legal sense I’m sure we’ll see countless lawyers argue the finer points of phrases like “criminal”, “negligent”, “willful” and “culpable”…but that wont change a thing. There is no ethical dilemma about what to do about a faulty product that has already killed people.

So how do others handle it?

These three Canadian examples might help.

McDonalds Canada chose transparency as their ethical route. Faced with consumer backlash, an internet filled with half-truths, myths and lies, McD’s chose to confront the problem head-on. By actively soliciting consumer questions – no matter how blunt and direct – and filming responses to those questions, they were able to highlight their commitment to openness and transparency.

BCHydro chooses education as their ethical yardstick. Their Power Smart initiative is based entirely on getting consumers to actively use less of their product and think long-term about conservation. Let me reiterate – they have an educational program teaching folks to use their product less. Its almost counter-intuitive in a province where hydro-electric power is plentiful and operating costs are relatively low. Its also a far-cry from the organization’s past where they – like so many companys today – were encouraging consumers to spend, spend, spend. Its quite a remarkable example.

Property developers Minto Group uses corporate heritage as their yardstick for making principled decisions. Long before sustainability, green and eco-friendly became watch-words in the development community, Minto had established a robust and dedicated department focused entirely on sustainability initiatives. The impressive part of this commitment is that it started before consumers were actually willing to pay for energy-efficient homes. Minto could’ve chosen to build less-efficient homes that consumers were willing to pay for, but they chose not to. Instead they forged ahead and built some of the highest-rated sustainability properties possible.

It’s all about your brand purpose

Yes Regular Reader, you knew my opinion would come back to this.

Your brand purpose is the strictest filter of any behavior within your organization. As your brand’s true North, there should be no dilemma that can’t be resolved by looking at your brand purpose for guidance.

And while you may still find issue with Mozilla for trampling on the personal opinions of Brendan Eich, there’s no denying the organization – and Eich himself – was acting in a way entirely consistent with their brand purpose. As an organization famous for collaboration, openness and universal access, calling out their CEO was entirely brand consistent. This internal blog post from Mozilla actually reinforces how the company’s brand purpose became the final arbiter for Eich’s decision to resign.

467400-bangladesh-building-collapseBuckle up, its only gonna get bumpier

As consumers become more connected, better informed and more aware of their rights, I fully expect that these ethical dramas will only increase in frequency – and in volume of customer outrage.

Company’s unable to act ethically will find themselves tried in the court of public opinion. And it will be those ethical trials that confirm whether a brand has purpose, and if that purpose has genuine customer appeal.

Sigh, if only Sarbannes-Oxley could make this all go away.

Still believe marketers aren’t the ethical voice of an organization? Still believe that your brand purpose shouldn’t act as your ethical filter?

As always when I write a post on a subject I have little formal background on – in this case ethics – I’m always appreciative of feedback and comments from my readers. What say you on this subject? I’m fascinated to hear your perspective.

20 Signs That You Might Be A Redneck Marketer

Insomnia can be a real killer.

Rather than tossing and turning in bed incurring the wrath of my wife, it means late nights watching infomercials and re-runs on the TV. Counter to popular belief, it seldom means inspiration and creative breakthroughs.

But then there’s the rare occasion when planets align…

2am the other night I stumbled upon the incomparable Jeff Foxworthy and his brilliant comedy show “You Might Be a Redneck…”

redneck_park12xFor readers from outside North America, rednecks are an archetype for a certain group from the southern USA. As the stereotype goes according to the good folks at Urban Dictionary, they are incredibly conservative, stubbornly hold on to antiquated views, resist change and have a love of NASCAR and beer.  In the hands of Jeff Foxworthy, this group provides comedic gold.

That got me wondering if there was such a thing as a Marketing Redneck. Marketers similarly resistant to change. Holding on to antiquated views and incredibly stubborn.

Taking a page from Jeff, I compiled the following list. To remain true to the experience, please finish every sentence with “….you may be a Marketing Redneck”

1.     “If someone asks about your brand and you start describing your logo, font and tagline…”
2.     “If you think that customers have no role in helping create new products and services for your company…”
3.     “If you hear the word “digital” and immediately think “social media”….”
4.     “If you think social media is another fantastic place for free advertising…”
5.     “If you think your competitors are only those companies in your immediate category…”
6.     “If you consider that your Marketing role should only deal with advertising and communications…”
7.     “If you believe that its more efficient to use the same experience for your website on both desktop and mobile…”
8.     “If you consider that the best way to improve your company is to focus solely on cost reductions and avoid innovation…”

9.     “If you think that when your advertising is tanking, your most important task is to call an agency review…”
10. “If you believe that Marketing, Sales and Service are the only employees that impact perceptions of your brand….”
11.  “If you’ve accepted that Sales and Marketing can never work effectively together because they’re just so different…”
12.  “If you consider social responsibility initiatives to be some ancillary “nice to do” side project…”
13.  “If you still think that consumers follow a linear progression from awareness to consideration to purchase…”
14.  “If you use a funnel to describe the way customers act in your category…”
15.  “If your marketing strategy could be best described “doing what the largest company is doing just with less money”….”
16.  “If you believe the best way to attract new customers is to reduce your prices versus improve your brand…”
17.  “If you believe the best way to retain customers is tie them up in complicated contracts or convoluted loyalty programs…”
18.  “If you can’t understand why average people don’t care enough about your salad dressing/motor oil/depilatory cream to follow you on Twitter…”
19.  “If you swear by focus groups as the best way to validate any marketing decision…”
20.  “If you consider the only indication of a strong brand is its performance on the stock market…”

I have a sneaky suspicion I’ve only scratched the surface here. We are living through some extraordinary times. Times of turmoil, conflict and real ambiguity. I’d suggest that the way we’ve always done things isn’t going to get us through.

Perhaps a place to start is to stop being a Redneck Marketer?

Weigh-in folks, I’m sure there are some ‘Redneck Marketing” examples you’re just dying to share.

It would be crass of me to not thank Jeff Foxworthy for this inspiration for this post. Thanks man. You Sir, are a comedic genius.

Gold Medal Performance: Under Armour at the Sochi Olympics

Few things unite Canadians like a sale at Canadian Tire, an election for Toronto’s new mayor or the opportunity, sorry Northern Europe and US readers, to remind the world that we are the greatest hockey playing nation on the planet.

And there is no bigger stage than the Winter Olympics to prove that.

But on a stage that attracts hundreds of millions of viewers, rabid fans from every country and the ever-watchful eye of the IOC, you have to be a pretty savvy brand to make a real impact.

The 2014 Olympics in Sochi were no exception. Going into the Games, the media was ablaze with Islamist security concerns and rapping Putin on the knuckles for his human rights record. Talk about a 5-ring circus.

So how does a feisty Challenger brand like Under Armour cut through all that? How do you pick a strategy? How do you ensure a gold medal performance? (Oh yes, I did)

I had the opportunity to sit down with an old friend Corey Friesen, Marketing Director for Under Armour Canada and arguably a guy with one of the coolest gigs in sports marketing. We’ve riffed before about Under Armour at the Super Bowl but this was an entirely different milestone.

HB: So the Olympics hey? That’s taking Under Armour to a whole different level.

CF: It was a natural evolution for us. Our CEO Kevin Plank came back from the London Olympics with a real fire in his belly. Our presence was small and we felt like we weren’t seen as real contenders. Kevin was committed to changing that. If we were going to show up at the Olympics we were going to do it well. Sochi gave us a natural opportunity particularly as US and Canadian athletes were favoured to medal. It became a case of finding athletes and teams that made sense. In short, we were going to do the Olympics properly.

TeamCanadaSochi HB : UA Canada chose the Canada Snowboard Team. Can you tell me a little about that?

CF: In many ways, they were a natural fit. A burgeoning sport, some high expectations that they’d do well (they grabbed a Silver and a Bronze) and of course, they were looking for a long-term sponsor. If you’ve ever watched some of the X-Games, snowboarding is very challenging, very physical, very tough. Especially snowboard-cross. For a brand that prides itself on extreme performance, it was perfect. We were able to outfit them with our new outerwear designs and actually create a one-of-a-kind Canada Snowboard uniform. Our uniforms generated a lot of buzz and certainly looked spectacular on the slopes. That was pretty special. Lastly, as an official team sponsor it also gave us the opportunity to do dedicated – and completely credible – Olympic advertising too.

HB: The spot you did for the Olympics was pretty radical. You were certainly tugging hard on some very strong national emotions.

CF: <Laughs> Well you never fail in Canada if you can connect with the DNA of the average Canadian. And that’s always gonna be hockey. We worked with our friends over at studio m on the concept and they really delivered. We wanted to highlight just how physically and mentally challenging snowboarding and snowboard-cross is and, especially at the Olympics, how national pride is on the line. Using footage from the 1972 Summit Series just dialed that emotion up. The classic Foster Hewitt voiceover, the storied and epic battle between Canada and Russia, it’s goosebump stuff. Studio m suggested calling it “Cold War” which was the perfect title.

HB: You did more than just the commercial though, didn’t you?

CF: We did. We were able to get 72’ Summit Series legend Paul Henderson to create a personalized video for each member of the Canada Snowboard team. We then delivered that to them when they arrived in Sochi. These athletes are at the top of their game and many are barely in their 20’s but to get a personalized message from Paul Henderson, that was kinda cool.

HB: Sochi wasn’t all plain sailing for the Under Armour brand though. You had that much-publicized episode with the US Speedskating team too. Anything you can share about that?

CF: Too right. It did get kinda bumpy for a while and the marketing media certainly made a lot of noise about it. In many ways it’s a brutal and great story. A top secret product development group creates this Mach-39 suit. Working with engineers at Lockheed-Martin we develop a next-gen uniform and then, sadly, the athletes aren’t winning. We had to pull out all the stops. CEO Kevin Plank gets involved and, as we’ve gotten credit for, we don’t shy away from answering the tough questions and trying to come up with alternatives. I mean, there’s a whole lot riding on getting this sorted. We come through it – and this is the part that I personally love and that didn’t get as much press coverage – and just when you think UA and Team USA will part ways, we double-down and extend our sponsorship through 2022. I loved the way that Kevin Plank put it “These colours don’t run”. Brilliant.

We’re an athlete-based company first and foremost. We’re in business to make them better and to keep looking for new ways to help them win. What kind of brand would we be if we parted ways now? That spoke volumes to me – and to Wall Street, because on the day of the 2022 announcement, our stock jumped $10. People notice how brands act. I was really proud of UA for the way we handled it.

HB: So now you’re a bona-fide Olympic brand, what else have you guys got cooking?

CF: Well there’s the Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016 and we’re going to be there as well. Summer Olympics are a harder challenge for UA because they really are a Nike cornerstone. Every athlete – except perhaps Usain Bolt and his Puma’s – are wearing that swoosh thing.

Last year we signed on to sponsor the US Gymnastics team providing all their uniforms and apparel for Rio. That’s pretty big news. Outside of

Team UA at Sochi. Corey Friesen on left

Team UA at Sochi. Corey Friesen on left

track & field, gymnastics is a signature Summer Olympic sport. We’re following through on Kevin Plank’s mandate to keep challenging and keep growing.

 HB: All this growth, all this high-profile exposure, do you guys still contend you’re a Challenger brand?

CF: Of course. We always will be. We’ve never equated size with being a Challenger. For us, it has always been an attitude. It guides the sports we go into, the athletes we chose and, like the US Speedskating example, the types of relationship we wanna have with those athletes. Do we want to be the most successful sports apparel brand in the world? Sure but we’ll do that by not compromising the attitude that’s gotten us this far.

HB: Thanks Corey. Last question, any chance I could get some UA tickets for the Woman’s Beach Volleyball in Rio?

CF: Get in line buddy.

If you want to watch the Paul Henderson video that UA commissioned for Sochi, you can find it here. It’ll only be up temporarily. The password is: files

Lessons From The Best Challenger Brand Advertising Of All Time

I have a real emotional attachment to Challenger brands. The brands that look squarely in the eyes of the incumbents, the Goliaths of a category, and say “There is a better way and here it is”.

I just love that focus, that chutzpah, that sense of purpose.

While Challenger brands can manifest their purpose in many ways – like Red Bull dropping people from outer space or Zara having a very clear view on their business practices – they sometimes use good old advertising to thumb their nose at the establishment.

Sometimes that advertising is a straight call-out highlighting a weakness in the incumbent. Often it is more subtle and let’s the reader connect the dots – which invariably leads to them saying “you’re right, the incumbent isn’t as wonderful as I thought”

Ultimately you might be surprised by my definition of the “challenger” but, like all brilliant Challengers, you can’t deny that they’re taking on a prevailing attitude or brand position and highlighting why they are a better alternative.

Here are my favourites;

Coca-Cola vs Starbucks Warned you that I might not always chose traditional Challengers. In this great execution – or is it a great media buy? – Diet Coke are tackling the societal norm of standing in line for a coffee when you could get just a great a boost – and no lineup – from a Diet Coke and a vending machine.


Lesson: Pick your battles. What behavior or attitude does the incumbent have that you can exploit? What new, and better, behavior does your brand personify?




Pepsi vs Coca-Cola This is one of my favourite Challenger ads from the famous “Cola Wars” of the 80’s. As a piece of advertising, it is perhaps one of the most brilliant interpretations of the line “The Choice of a New Generation”. In the future there will be no Coca-Cola and, in fact, most people wont even remember who (or what) a Coca-Cola is. Spectacular.

Lesson: Be fearless. You may be taking on an incumbent but you have ambition, purpose and belief on your side. Why not aim for the stars and a brighter future where YOUR beliefs are the accepted norm versus the challenge?

Audi vs BMW vs Audi vs BMW… In the US the three German luxury manufacturers spend a large amount of time, and advertising budget, jostling for the number 1 spot. There is an underlying “superiority” theme to the battle – superiority of engineering, superiority of awards and accolades and

BMW and Audisometimes, just a superiority of wit and attitude.

Merely judging by the number of times this showed up in both my LinkedIn and Facebook feed, I’d say that BMW struck a nerve with this one.

Lesson: Attitude trumps all with your audience. You get Challenger creds for how you show up to the fight. This example shows a very cheeky attitude. An attitude that many BMW drivers would say tickled their sense of intellectual superiority and had them say “Hell yeah, BMW (and its drivers) are smarter and better”.

Apple vs Microsoft You knew this one was coming. A fantastic compilation (yip 30 mins worth) of one of the longest and most humorous Challenger battles in advertising ever. Nothing like advertising in the US market where you can directly call your competition out – we can’t do that in polite Canada – and earn points for it.

Lesson: Everyone and anyone can exhibit a Challenger ethos. You needn’t be the smallest, newest, least known player in the category to be a Challenger. If there is an incumbent whose worldview contradicts yours then you have a Challenge ahead of you. What is YOUR worldview and WHY is yours more enticing and appealing? Convince me.

Here are all the ads for your viewing pleasure

Virgin Atlantic vs BA (and the rest of the airline industry) What sticks out for me in this example is that it proves how strong and timeless the Virgin Atlantic proposition is. This spot celebrating 25 years of Virgin Atlantic shows that sadly very little in the category has changed. The check-in lines with “other airlines” are still as torrid, the “other” flight attendants are just a little less warm, friendly and dare I say attractive, the British still need help with their dentistry. Ok the last was a shot.

Lesson: Being a Challenger doesn’t have an expiry date. Virgin Atlantic began because Sir Richard Branson saw an opportunity for a different kind of airline business. An airline with more emphasis on service, style and panache. As a former Platinum member of Virgin, I can attest to no better trans-Atlantic service from the brand that started as a Challenger and is still Challenging.

DHL vs UPS & FedEx Arguably this is a debatable inclusion. When this story first broke DHL received massive kudos for this very cheeky PR stunt. In reality, this case was done by a German advertising agency as part of a creative exercise. Unfortunately it was NOT work commissioned by DHL themselves. Regardless, part of the attraction of this work is it shows that genuine Challengers have a sense of personality and a unique creative view of the world.

dhl_german trick


The fuller case study makes for interesting viewing and it is a classic.


Lesson: Judo moves are a blessing for Challengers. The size of the incumbent is often your best weapon. Use their strength – in this case the numbers of highly visible delivery guys they have – to your advantage.

And my favourite Challenger advertising of all time??

BMW vs Mercedes-Benz It’s a well-known example from South Africa from the late 1980’s. You need to watch these two ads in order to get the full story – and why its such a great example of Challenger brand chutzpah.

As context, the setting for this story is an area near Cape Town with some of the most treacherous driving conditions in South Africa. What a fantastic setting for a duel between two great brands.

Watch the ads. First Mercedes

And now the incredible response from BMW

C’mon now. How brilliant was that?

Mercedes was so incensed by that one line of voiceover – “Built to beat the Bends” – that they asked for the ad to be pulled from South African TV. The ensuing ruckus portrayed Mercedes as poor sports and bullies while showing BMW to be smart, witty underdogs.

Isn’t that the ultimate compliment for a Challenger brand??

I resisted the urge to highlight “1984” as the quintessential Challenger ad of all time. I certainly admire the execution and like any student of advertising I can’t fault its attitude, its perfect sense of writing, timing and irony. It just seemed too easy an example.

Have I missed any great examples? Other ads that should’ve made the cut? Which one’s and what did you learn from them??

I had a lot of fun pulling this post together. Some friends back in South Africa reminded me of the BMW and Mercedes-Benz case. Thanks guys for the inspiration.

The rot that is eating your brand from the inside

Regular readers of this blog will know how passionately I feel about the business of brand building. And how building brands is more than an exercise in communications, distribution, pricing and doing some bemusing stuff in social media. Its about culture too.

The strongest brands have a clear purpose and direction. A unifying call to arms that motivates employees to say “hell yeah, I work for company XYZ” and has customers go “I believe the same thing about the world, which is why I chose brand XYZ over the alternatives”

Daily we’re deluged by inspiring stories (Thanks Fast Company and Inc) of corporate cultures like Zappos, Google, Southwest and Patagonia where you can almost feel the power of those motivated employees dripping from the page. (Too much?? Okay maybe)

claudiab466x466Additionally case studies abound of how to ensure consistent service delivery from your frontline employees. With nothing more than a browser, you can easily glean insights of how Singapore Airlines trains their world famous flight staff or how Zappos reinforces their corporate culture. They have become icons.

What organizations seem to forget is that everyone in the organization is a manifestation of the brand.

Sure its great that a WalMart greeter has a warm and welcoming smile and the call center lady at Virgin Atlantic is helpful, warm and bubbly but what about Bill in Finance? Or Simone in Marketing? And Craig in Enterprise Sales?

In the past month three separate friends have told me personal horror stories about head office colleagues who’ve gotten promoted, and been given big raises, despite being universally viewed as political, unethical or just mean people.

Political. Unethical. Mean.

Would you buy a brand that exemplified those attributes?

Would you join a company that did?

Would you stay at a company that promotes those attributes?

The reasoning most often given for the raises and promotions??

“They were delivering the numbers”

<insert rant about quarterly driven publically traded companies here>

jack-welch-started-a-rampant-conservative-conspiracy-theory-that-obama-manipulated-the-jobs-reportIn these situations, the example I most often cite is Jack Welch, former CEO of GE.

He had a very clear opinion on the importance of numbers versus culture. So simple it was a four grid matrix (gotta love management consultancy folks and their matrices)

It looked like this;

Great Numbers/Great Culture Great Numbers/Poor Culture
Poor Numbers/Poor Culture Poor Numbers/Great Culture


I’m sure you can guess what happened to folks in the quadrants on the left.

It’s the folks in the quadrant on the right that are more interesting to me. And should be to anyone who says that their culture is their brand.

Poor Numbers/Great Culture – Give them another chance. It might be a personal problem at home. An incorrect fit of skills and current assignment.

Great Numbers/Poor Culture – in his words, this is the “horse’s ass” folks. Get rid of them. These are the folks that will destroy your business and your brand.

The horse’s ass people who will destroy your business.

Can’t state it more clearly than that.

There is a deeper analysis of Welch’s opinon here – and what he called “public hangings” – which makes for great reading.

Jack Welch’s point – and mine if I’m riding on coat-tails – is simple.

Brands, business and culture are inextricably linked. The strongest brands know how pivotal the culture piece is. There is probably no more sustainable competitive advantage than highly-motivated, empowered and passionately committed employees.

But the culture part has to be applicable to all…or its applicable to none.

Just as brands send very clear signals by the way they act in the marketplace, organizations send very clear signals by what they condone and promote.

To build your strongest brand, are you prepared to make the tough choices of building your strongest culture?

I make no claims to be a HR executive but I can’t abide by organizations that proclaim a desire for building a strong culture and then don’t make the tough choices with their people.

Weigh in folks. I’m very keen on your opinions here.