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.

Brand value must mean more than Shareholder Return

A very lively, and somewhat lubricated, conversation ensued last night with several friends in the marketing field. After cheering Canada’s narrow win over Latvia in Sochi, we got into a very philosophical discussion on brand value, worth and purpose.

The consensus?

We need a better, more consolidated lens to evaluate business and brands today.

We have several celebrated brand valuation models but, besides being a black box in many ways, they don’t seem to incorporate the new yardsticks Image_boy-300x200consumers hold brands accountable to.

Aspects like societal impact. Or employee cohesion and engagement.

I’ve written previously about brands with purpose or direction. I’ve also written about the underlying ethos driving challenger brands. Brands that have a larger, and more profound, mandate than just financial growth. They are businesses and brands with a core philosophy on the planet – and their place within it.

Within those purposeful organizations, growth and financial success are regarded as an outcome – not an objective.

Outside the organization, today’s consumers are relentless in their demand for brands to be truthful, to be transparent, to have a positive societal impact, to be a haven for employee satisfaction.

So in an age where most average consumers no longer deem growth and financial success sufficient aspirations for a business, why do those factors remain the key criteria for determining the value of a brand?

I get that value in a monetary sense is important (just ask Wall Street, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and 24 Sussex Drive) but shouldn’t we be defining value in a more holistic fashion?

Value = impact

We talk about the impact a brand has on our lives all the time. Why wouldn’t we bring that same thought to brand valuations?

Consider these headlines and tell me the impact these should have on a brand valuation.

Wal-Mart Says ‘Save Money Live Better,’ But Workers Don’t Make Living Wage And Rely On State Benefits

Water for People or Profit? – Coca-Cola Sucks India Dry.

Foxconn Riot: Largest Apple Supplier Suffers Another Violent Outbreak

Tech Giants, Like Telecoms, Have Been Sharing With the NSA

Conversely, consider the impact that headlines like this should have on the valuation of a brand;

Google Using Earth App to Help Save Rain Forests

Culture and Openess contribute to value too

We celebrate organizations with strong, progressive cultures regularly. Yet, its interesting that only one organization appears on both Forbes and Interbrands’ respective lists.

That company is Google – ranking #1 on Forbes 100 Best Places to Work 2013 and #2 on Interbrands Best Global Brands 2013.

No reader of this blog misunderstands the synergy between strong brands, strong organizational cultures and the ability to attract and retain the very best talent. Why then is there only one company represented on both of these two well-respected lists?

We also regularly congratulate, and vilify, nations based on their respective ranking on the Transparency Index released by Transparency International. The same organization has begun shining a light on corporations too.

While Transparency International pays particular attention to corporate activities like corruption and misuse of public funds, their mandate is really about determining the contribution organizations make to the societies in which they operate.

Contribution is just another word for impact…and impact is another way to measure value.

So it is interesting to see that the Top 3 brands listed on Interbrands Best Global Brands – Apple, Google and Coca-Cola – get a measly rating of 3.2, 2.9 and 5.3 from Transparency International. In other words Coca-Cola ranks 42nd on the list of 106 organizations, Google a dismal 96th and Apple 92nd.

What gives?

4f0711d8-9a1d-11e3-9517-22000a9780da-largeShareholder Return aint enough anymore

I completely get that all the models referenced above are based on entirely different models, analytics, ratios and inputs. And I certainly know that Interbrand, Forbes and Transparency International have way smarter and more analytical boffins poring over data than myself.

My point is perhaps simpler.

Marketers have a responsibility to measure their contributions in more ways than ROI and increased shareholder value.

Our organizations have too profound an impact on the people and the planet to use such a narrow gauge.

If we’re going to be leaders of valuable organizations, we need to broaden the definition of value.

Perhaps if we were to measure brands on the positive impact they make on society, not just on the stock market, we’ll be just that little bit closer.

I fully expect to be taken to task on my interpretation of the various valuation models. My interpretations are based on readily accessible definitions so please broaden my interpretation where I’ve strayed.

I would also like to thank my friends Scott Beffort, Emily Squirrel and Jim Sale for the conversation that inspired this post.

Scale and Personalization. Two opposing forces in building brand purpose

One of my favourite business quotations has to bespider-man-uncle-ben

“With great power comes great responsibility”

Okay okay I acknowledge that Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben isn’t Peter Drucker or Michael Porter but the core of that statement couldn’t be more true of today’s marketer.

An old friend breaks it down like this.

Marketers really have two tasks.

One, create a brand purpose with enough scale to make a business appealing to many and therefore profitable. Often that purpose is intended to humanize the brand. To create a deep connection and build a relationship. I’ve written previously about how critical brand purpose is.

And two, communicate and reinforce that purpose at every opportunity with each and every individual customer.

Essentially…scale AND hyper-personalization.

We’ve been doing the former for decades. It is only in recent years that the ability to do the latter has become possible.

And maybe its because the tools to deliver the latter are so new, bright and shiny that so many brands screw it up.

Here’s an example.

2 weeks ago a friend had a death in the family.

It meant dropping everything and getting the first plane home.

Now, as anyone living on the Eastern seaboard will tell you, this winter has been particularly torrid. Polar vortexes (who names these things anyway??), snow, ice, temperatures colder than a witches’ mammaries, airports shut down. The works.

Add the rollercoaster of a family in mourning and you have an emotional tinderbox.

My friend proceeded to call her favourite Canadian airline. One known for their friendly service and delivering Christmas miracles.

Explaining that she needed to travel urgently because of a death in the family, the operator put her on hold to check availabilities. All great. All uber-efficient and friendly.

And, here’s where the story takes a weird turn. A turn that, as a marketer, has me shaking my head and whispering “wtf”

She then spent the next 15 minutes on-hold listening to the same childish joke (“Why did the chicken fly across the road? Because it was too far to walk”) repeated over…and over…and over…and over

BesqgkTCQAAKKTX.jpg-largeA small moment granted. But, through the lens of delivering both purpose and individual experiences simultaneously, a fail from this brand.

In this situation, the most human connection would have been to stay on the line with my friend. Talk to her. Human being to human being.

Not easy I grant you but for a brand recognized as Canada’s friendliest airline, keeping that human-to-human connection would’ve been an action entirely consistent with their brand purpose.

At the individual level, realizing that a tool like an IVR is not best suited for all client experiences is important too. Sadly airlines are often in the business of dealing with irate, scared, annoyed, pissed off customers. That’s just a reality. While an IVR is certainly a cost-effective way on managing operating costs, it’s a really poor tool for delivering the type of individual experiences that nurture customer affinity and loyalty.

This is not a knock against this particular brand. They do get it right way more often than their peers.

And I’m certainly not saying its’ easy either.

ShareACokeThe world’s most valuable and loved brand created a social storm in 2013 by allowing their customers to personalize individual cans. A tactic consistent with their purpose to spread joy and happiness. And of course what could be more personalized than a Coke with your very own name on it.  Unfortunately, in recent weeks their South African operation has had to issue a public apology because the website driving the promotion wouldn’t allow gay customers to embolden “gay” on their cans…but it would let you write “straight”.

Certainly not a deliberate slight from Coca-Cola but an example that highlights just how much focus and diligence is required to drive truly individual experiences today.

So what’s the lesson here?

To deliver on your brand purpose requires making a real, authentic connection with your audience both at scale and at an individual level simultaneously. For many marketers the bright shiny tools of social media, marketing automation and customer-service give them the perception, (illusion?) they can do just that.

Sometimes though, the best tool for the task is a good old-fashioned analog human being.

I do want to thank Michelle for letting me use her personal story in this post. My thanks too to Ashley Konson. His review of an earlier draft of this post was invaluable. Thank you both.

Challenger, Cult or Citizen? What type of brand are you building?

In the heady days of the dot-com boom I moved to New York to run the Enron business at Ogilvy. Yes, you can blame the entire global meltdown on me. As I struggled to make sense of this new type of business, I drew heavily on two books that now hold real sentimental value for me.

One was “Leading the Revolution” by Gary Hamel. The other was “Eating the Big Fish” by Adam Morgan. I was particularly taken by Adam Morgan’s view of how feisty upstart brands could shatter convention, commonsense and unseat market leaders. The entire Challenger brand ethos struck a very deep nerve with me.

The point being, we all know a (very small) selection of brands that occupy this type of mythical place in the brand marketers lexicon. The brands we all adore and covet.

Brands driven by a deeper sense of purpose and attitude than the one’s they leave in their wake.

Which brings me to another lens I’ve been thinking about recently.

The notion of Citizen Brands.

What’s a Citizen brand?

Citizen brands are one’s that forego the notion of brand ownership and brand evolution as something strictly controlled by a central group. They provide their customers or followers with the tools to merge, meld and build the brand experience in their own way. The customer – or Citizen – is the one in control, not the organization.

I’m mindful that there are other interpretations, and books, on the notion of Citizen brands. Many of those place emphasis on “good” citizenship, which naturally manifests as societally-aware and societally-driven brand engagements. I can’t dispute that idea.

My view is perhaps simpler.

Citizen brands are one’s that empower the customer to make the brand theirs entirely. As such, they are completely democratic.

And, just as the combination of smartphones, Twitter and blogs gave rise to the phenomenon of Citizen Journalists, I believe we’re seeing an equal, and inexorable, rise of Citizen brands.

Utility, Openess & Facilitation

All brands deliver value in some manner. They fulfill a need, a want, a desire. Citizen brands deliver it with a certain unique flavor.

They are inherently open. These brands expect – and even rely – on their followers to help construct, define or redefine the brand in the way that best suits the Citizen’s they serve. That can mean everything from open API’s, collaborating on access to data to having the users be the actual architects of the brand experience. Wikipedia and Reditt are perhaps my most obvious examples of this phenomenon. Interestingly the public sector is championing this new openness. Many government organizations are seeing benefit – and revenue – from making huge data sets available to the general public to mold, assimilate and build into new services. That thinking from the public sector was unheard of five years ago.

They deliver high levels of utility for their customers and followers. The value of their brand delivery relies heavily on providing tools and applications to solve problems for their followers. From something as simple as redefining the ordering of car and taxi services, brands like Uber and HailO have taken this approach. The retail space is particularly energized by this thinking. More and more retailers are realizing that customers are looking for tools to make their shopping easier, faster and cheaper from price comparison apps like Red Laser to personal favourites of mine, like Starbucks mobile app which contains a personal wallet, list of favourites, couponing and commerce all in one easy place.

They serve as facilitators. If democratization is at the heart of citizen brands, then providing channels to facilitate interactions between citizens is where they shine. Certainly meta-trends like collaborative consumption have provided more opportunity for these brands to flourish but I look at examples like AirBnB, AutoShare, and even old stalwarts like eBay, as examples of this type of facilitation ethos. Again, by facilitating versus trying to own the transactions, these Citizen brands are letting the customers ultimately define the brand experience. That’s a pretty brave and courageous model IMHO.

Does this notion of Citizen brands ring true with you? Is this the way brands have always acted, or has technology – and a new type of hyper-expectant customer – required brands to relinquish the control they used to have?

In recent weeks I’ve been introduced to a bunch of folks who’ve also built upon the notion of Challenger brands and extended it into a pretty unique POV.  Canadian agency Cult believes that certain brands have the ability to do more than merely attract regular customers. They actually build cadres of deeply committed followers. There is certainly something very visceral about being able to nurture that kind of customer devotion IMHO.

In a Canadian first, Cult has actually gone further than just talk about these new-fashioned cult brands.  They’ve actually pulled together an enviable collection of these “cult” brands and cult brand leaders for a pretty unique conference called The Gathering. For two days in February, brand leaders from Red Bull, WestJet, TSN and the NHL are going to debate and discuss how you build a cult brand. If you’re a brand leader, I sense the conference is going to be pretty damn sexy.

Ultimately, whether you call them Challengers, Citizen or Cult brands, I believe all marketers today have to create a different relationship with their customers. Hyper-connected, entitled and highly expectant customers are no longer prepared to let any brand leader get away with same ol’ same ol’.

Look at brands like Harley, GoPro and Red Bull, they certainly don’t appear to operate by those same ol’ rules.

More importantly, the devotion, loyalty and sales results those brands command suggests they’re doing something right.

The Gathering is happening in Banff February 19th and 20th. I’ll see you there and we can discuss your views on Challenger, Citizen and Cult brands over a single malt. That’s my kind of debate.

Good Will Hunting and how to be a better Planner

I’ve always thought Will Hunting would make a brilliant creative planner.

Forget the photographic memory and retention (who wouldn’t want that??). Or the deep ethnographic insight from living and working in some of Boston’s toughest areas. It isn’t even the off-the-charts IQ, which is always helpful.

It’s his attitude to reading.

In his first meeting with Robin Williams, he throws out this classic line;

“You people baffle me. You spend all your money surrounding yourself with these fancy books…and they’re the wrong fucking books

Going out on a limb here but if you’re reading this you’ve likely got Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Steele, David Aaker, Simon Sinek and Daniel Pink on your bookshelf. Nothing wrong with any of those. They’re great authors and certainly have made a mint with books, consulting and TED speeches.

But are they the right fuckin’ books?

I’m guilty of this myself.

It is hard when all your peers are clambering over a new book, a new post, a new author to not dash out and jump on the bandwagon. And there are certainly some must read books in any profession.

Perhaps the issue isn’t the books but it’s the topics we read, get insight from, draw our opinions and postulations from. If we’re all drawing from the same well of Strategy, Trends and Social Media books are we stimulating synapses in other areas? Are we internalizing opinions from folks that our competitors aren’t and finding new nuggets they might’ve missed?

Here are 6 topics I draw inspiration from. And 6 books that I’ve found immensely useful. Three are obvious and fall into the areas I know we all read. Three are a little off the beaten track and that I’ve found useful.


No brainer. We all gorge on these books. Many of us have this word in our title or job description. My go-to in this area is Good Strategy Bad Strategy. Richardgood-strategy-bad-strategy-richard-rumelt Rumelt is ruthless in his definition of both. My favourite takeaway is that hope or wishlists aren’t a strategy. How often do you come across a strategy that feels just like that?


No avoiding this. No sector, market or consumer is beyond the reach and impact of this topic. An interesting intersection book here is Sherry Tuckle’s “Alone Together” which does more to examine how technology profoundly impacts us on a personal level that anything I’ve read recently. As a shameless plug, I’d urge you to follow my mate Greg Satell who often takes a very provocative view on technology – no wonder I like him.


Duh. We trade in insight and empathy. Psychology is key to understanding how folks think and why. Two favourites here are “Clash, Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us who we Are” and “Nudge”. The former looks at how different cultural orientations and attitudes – to race, gender, collaboration etc – are bumping into each other as we become more connected globally.  Fantastic. The latter is a great synopsis on the burgeoning field of behavioural economics. Where Dan Ariely has become the posterchild for this, Richard Thaler deserves equal credit.

And three topics that I find useful for nudging my thinking.


thenext100yearsThere is no truer statement than “those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it” By the same token without an appreciation of history – distant or recent – how can we, as planners, really understand how people think or what their motivations are. Close to home, consider how the recent history of the United States has a profound impact on how Americans view trade, immigration, capitalism, entrepreneurship and personal safety. All of those impact their affinity with brands and business. As a global POV, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better source than George Friedman and the folks at Stratfor. His novel “The Next 100 Years” is a great succinct longtitudinal view on history and where certain geopolitical trends will take us.  My favourite read about the US has to be Thomas Friedman’s “That Used to be Us”. Its brutally unapologetic but has some deeply profound insights about the decline of the US.


This is a recent area of interest.

senecaAs someone eloquently said “Philosophy is mankind’s search for meaning and resonance” Doesn’t that sound like a topic that marketers and planners should be paying attention to? As we agonize over purpose, brand essence and emotional benefits doesn’t Philosophy sound like a helpful input. A starter here is the collected works of Roman philosopher Seneca “Letters from a Stoic”. I’m just working through this and finding it brilliant…and meaty. Warning – don’t pick this up if you’re not willing for some deep introspection.


Scenario Planning

Damnit, I was hoping for 6 tidy words ending in “y”. Scenario Planning is something I’ve discussed previously. Essentially the practice of looking at alternateSchwartz-Art-of-The-Long-View views of the future and charting courses appropriately. Sounds like something Planners should do. Detractors question whether companies have the time or resources to dedicate to this pursuit – it certainly aint for the faint of heart. My response is, in a world where change is perpetual and relentless, can you afford to NOT have a Plan B or Plan C? Start here with Peter Schwartz’s “The Art of the Long View” which is a brilliant synopsis. Want something more immediately actionable? Grab Woody Wade’s “Scenario Planning : A Field Guide to the Future” which is a cracker too.

I appreciate the irony of throwing out these topics. You may tell me that these six are the wrong fuckin’ books too.

I welcome that.

Call me out. Tell me the one’s that are better. Tell me the topics YOU cover or get inspired from.

Lastly, if you still need further proof that Will Hunting was a deeply insightful Planner, watch this clip. Isn’t this a perfect interpretation of a business problem delivered with insight, acuity and empathy??

How do you like them apples???

Brand Purpose, Simon Sinek and the state of Canadian brands

The business world is awash with debates and discussions about brand purpose. Who has it. Who appears to NOT have it.

I don’t believe there is a more important discussion to be having as a marketer or brand leader.

Like you, I spent much of the December holidays cramming in some reading (between trips to the mall, wrapping presents and family gorging of course) and became reacquainted with Roger Martin and AG Lafley’s superb book “Playing to Win”. One of its key lessons is brands can only win if they have a winning aspiration. Certainly operations, marketing, distribution all play a role but a guiding aspiration is pivotal. Lafley and Martin reference the classics like Nike (To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world) and McDonalds (Be our customers favourite place and way to eat) but their point is simple.

Brands with a purpose win.

Those without a purpose, or aspiration, fail.

Simon Sinek is the recognized expert on this subject. His TED talk and book “Start with Why” are required reading for anyone grappling with this thorny point.

Simplistically his premise is that people don’t buy WHAT you make. They buy WHY you make it. His go-to example is Apple. They don’t communicate that they build laptops, music devices, phones and tablets like HP, Lenovo, Microsoft or Samsung. Instead, Apple communicates that they’re driven to unlock the creative potential in everyone who wants to think differently about the world…and don’t you want to join them.

Different approach but powerful.

Why, not What.

That got me thinking. Which Canadian brands would Simon Sinek be applauding and which would have him shaking his head…or offering to consult for several thousand dollars a day?

Hat Tip

Certainly we have a few.

Canadian Tire has brilliantly positioned themselves as Canada’s General Store. Granted they have the heritage and the inventory to support that, but they genuinely act as a brand that understands that life in Canada is tough and arduous (look at December 2013 if you want proof of that) and folks want the assistance of a General Store to get them through. Canadian Tire wont stock items that can’t take the kinda beating Canada’s weather will throw at you. That purpose shines through even in some hyperbolic advertising from their agency TAXI.

 TELUS is another. Originally carving out a distinct Challenger opinion with their “The Future is Friendly” positioning they’ve morphed into an organization logo_telusobsessed with heightened customer service and a genuine customer-centricity throughout the firm. In a sector – Telecommunications – often derided, TELUS have been posting impressive gains in all key metrics of customer acquisition, reduced churn which is the category death knell, and customer satisfaction. Signs that their purpose is making a mark.  (Disclaimer I’ve worked with TELUS)

Hudsons Bay, under the guidance of CEO Bonnie Brooks, has been transformed from a lumbering retail chain that many had written off, to a vibrant, up-scale clothing destination. No small feat but Bonnie has trimmed inventory, revamped locations, injected personality into the advertising all in an attempt to redefine, or resurrect, The Hudson Bay Company for the 21st century. Importantly Brooks has stated she wants The Bay to be “an adventurer”. What a glorious reflection of the company’s heritage – and stimulating way to contemporize the company. A clear singular purpose, to be a pre-eminent shopping destination, has catalyzed The Bay internally and with ordinary Canadians.

Head Scratch

I’d categorize these as “I’m no longer sure what their purpose is”

Tim Hortons was once the distinctive mark of Canadian brands. A cup of Timmy’s, a box of Timbits, a 5am hockey practice, a maple leaf on your backpack or logo-entattoed on your body and you were Canadian. No more. Somewhere between pressure from Starbucks and a reinvigorated McDonalds Canada (disclaimer I’ve worked with McD) and Tim Hortons appears to have lost their way. Perhaps their purpose hasn’t changed internally but as a customer I can’t see any signs of that purpose in their delivery. Uncomfortable seating, time limits on their WiFi, perpetual promotions and Tim Hortons no longer feels warm, convivial and nurturing…and that just doesn’t feel Canadian.

Head Shake

Sadly this grouping was easier to compile. Canadian brands that personify an obsession with WHAT they make, build, offer and no sign of that elusive WHY.

Blackberry has to top this list. Too much has been written, and too much has been lost on the stock market, about how BB lost its way. Another stellar example of a purposeful organization at the outset that couldn’t react and respond to a tumultuous sector. The lack of vision and purpose couldn’t be clearer than this chronology of quotations from former CEO’s Basillie and Lazaridis. Forget Playbook, missing touchscreen as a trend, spotty OS and a freefalling stock, those are merely symptoms of a larger organizational lack of purpose.

Rogers Communications has long been the bad boy of Telco here in Canada. An impressive array of top-notch products, a recent content coup with the NHL and aggressive moves into retail banking all signal a very driven organization. Yet they’re seen as the poster child for atrocious customer service and a bloated corporate culture. Many Canadians are waiting with bated breath to see what new CEO Guy Laurence has planned. Expectations run high based on his UK reputation but there is no denying he has his work cut out for him defining, instilling – and communicating – a purpose for Rogers that will shift current perceptions.

lululemon-logoLululemon has to epitomize the “hero to zero” award. The Vancouver-based athletic company was once the sweaty sexy symbol of the yoga crowd until some ill-considered remarks from the (former) CEO tore that to shreds. As stupefying as those comments were, the internal schism it created was even sadder to watch. This from a company whose internal cohesion and purpose was so well-defined that it was legendary in Canadian business.

Sinek, Lafley, Martin may just be the loudest and most recent proponents for this type of thinking. And heaven knows Canadian brands aren’t the only ones struggling with this problem. But you can’t deny it’s a critical business issue.

Brand purpose isn’t just a mission statement but a set of principles that guides all decisions by a company.

Brand purpose becomes a pivotal touchstone for customers and employees giving them a reason to say “this is why I choose this brand” and “this is why I choose to work here”.  Purpose is why consumers will find a way to bring your brand into their lives. It’s certainly a deeper motivator than the functional, or even emotional, benefits we tend to cajole them with.

Ultimately, today’s proliferation of me-too brands and fickle customers affords no marketing and brand leader the luxury of being without purpose.

If you’ve not seen Simon Sinek speak at TED, you must watch this. Better yet, get your team, your agency, your CEO in a room and watch it together.

Any Canadian brands I’ve missed? Do you agree with the ranking I’ve given the one’s above. Sound off folks, this is too important a conversation not to have.