Success Secrets

When should we brand? Early, often, and always

WorkplaceBranding

By Deb Gabor I hear one question from business owners all the time: “When should we brand?”

My answer is always the same: “Early, often, and always.”

Branding is not optional, and the risks of not taking it seriously are very real. Your customers might lose touch with your brand and leave you. A competitor with a strong commitment to branding might overtake you. Or, perhaps worst of all, the market might define your brand for you.

Brand yourself, or someone else will brand you. It’s very dangerous to let your customers, or the news media, or bloggers, or social media, or your competitors define your brand for you.

If you don’t intentionally control your brand yourself, it will take on a life of its own.

Brand or be branded For decades, cable television companies had no competition. They owned a local franchise, which allowed them to do business in a particular geographic area, and that was that. The regional cable companies had mini-monopolies because their customers had few options for home entertainment.

Hence, they often didn’t treat their customers well.

The cable companies knew their customers weren’t going to leave and, as a result, poor customer service became an ingrained way of doing business.

I don’t know if you’ve ever personally had the experience of being a customer of any of the big cable TV companies. If you have, then you’ve probably experienced the overwhelming sense of dread that comes whenever you have to call a cable company about anything. Dealing with cable companies is not a pleasant experience.

Invariably, you’ll start by waiting on hold for 30 minutes. When you do get a customer service rep on the line, you have to repeat all your account information that you’ve already entered. Then the rep will ask you a bunch of stupid questions you already answered for the person you spoke with previously. When you do schedule your appointment, customer service provides you a four-hour window of time when you need to be home. The technician shows up either early or late, or not at all. Finally, you get your cable bill, which is already too high to begin with, and discover that the company charged you way more than you expected for the service call.

When it comes to customer satisfaction—or the lack of it—it doesn’t get much worse than this.

With that atrocious level of customer service, pretty soon some of the big cable companies earned a dismal reputation among customers. You can go into a party and overhear people talking about how frustrated they are with their cable provider. “Oh gosh, I had to call the cable company the other day. What a nightmare. I’m still upset!” Everybody in the room utters a sigh of disgust because they’ve experienced the same thing.

Pretty soon, Consumer Reports or Temkin Group releases a survey and finds that the cable industry has the lowest customer satisfaction scores of any industry. Then the news media picks up the story. The bloggers start ranting. Twitter goes crazy.

Before you know it, the cable industry has been branded as an awful industry that abuses its customers. It can be very difficult to shed that reputation, and it can take years.

The cable industry lost control of its brand and let someone else—in this case, customers—own the brand. When you don’t take control of your brand’s image, and you don’t properly manage the relationship you have with your customers, the results can be devastating. And they show up on the bottom line.

What to do instead Branding doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t need to have a major branding agency on retainer or go on weeklong branding retreats.

By answering three major questions, you can take control of your brand and understand who you are and how you fit in the market.

These are deep questions, and three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, are dedicated to understanding them and how best to answer them.

1) What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?

2) What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?

3) How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?

By understanding the answers to these three questions, companies can ensure that they are sending the right message, and that their customers’ experiences are aligning with their messaging.

Branding is not a step-by-step process I want to be clear: Companies cannot just answer those three questions once and then hang up their branding hat. Answering the above questions is an ongoing exercise that should happen throughout the life of the brand. Branding is not something that takes place at a single point in time.

The answers to these questions will always be evolving and, even more importantly, living your brand and ensuring that customers experience your values is a constantly ongoing process.

You are in a competitive environment with changing customer needs and market forces that are beyond your control. Your brand needs to be constantly evolving to meet these challenges. You have to be in constant touch with your customers and your customers’ needs or subject yourself to the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Create your ideal customer profile

IdealCustomerProfile

By Deb Gabor

What’s the one thing that should always be at the center of your brand?

It isn’t design, color schemes, or masterful copywriting.

It’s your customer.

Some business owners have a hard time understanding this, but your brand isn’t about you. Your brand exists to bolster your customer’s self-image, lead them to achieve their goals, and help them become the kind of person they want to be.

To accomplish this requires you to think carefully about who your customer is. You need to understand them better than they understand themselves.

First, ignore traditional marketing advice Traditional marketing has always taught us to think about segmenting and dividing markets.

When you’re bringing a new product to market, the traditional textbook methodology is to think about who are all the potential people who could possibly buy this product, and then segment based on the potential use cases, the possible purchase channels, and their reasons for buying and not buying the product.

In other words, traditional marketing methods tell us to identify as many potential audiences as we can and then divide them further based upon demographics or shopping behaviors or desires and attitudes.

Using that old way of thinking often means taking your brand message and dividing it rather than multiplying it. Segment marketing suggests that you’re going to create a different brand experience for each of those different audiences. When you start dividing and segmenting your market, you start creating more and more marketing messages that are dissimilar from each other. If not managed, that practice can dilute your brand’s impact.

I’m not against segment marketing. In fact, part of my company does quantitative psychographic research with the goal of creating and identifying market segments and then coming up with marketing strategies and tactics for companies to go after those segments.

But when you create your brand, you need to look to what’s similar among all of those segments to create a singular brand for a singular customer archetype. That customer archetype is called the ideal customer, and it’s an in-depth profile of the customer who is most highly predictive of a brand’s success.

Who is your ideal customer? The ideal customer archetype is something that serves as a guiding principle for everything you do in branding and gives you a singular, highly identifiable customer persona toward which to point your brand’s story.

The ideal customer archetype is a fleshed out, detailed, hypothetical profile of your absolute ideal customer.

This doesn’t need to encompass anyone who might engage with your brand. I like to think of the ideal customer archetype as the profile of that single customer who will spend the most money with you over the longest time because he or she has so strongly bought-in to your brand experience.

Create your ideal customer profile This is where your creative skills come into play. After you’ve spoken to enough customers and people in your social networks who use the product, it’s time to write down a description of your ideal customer.

Close your eyes and conjure up a vivid image of who the perfect person is to buy your brand. Who are they? How old are they? Are they male or female? Married or single? What is their income?

Conjure up an image of who that person is, and write down everything you can think of.

Once you’ve written down everything you can think of, dig deeper.

The best trick I’ve found is to try to imagine his or her lifestyle. For instance, for a hypothetical online grocer in the Northeast, the ideal customer might be a thirty-five-year-old mom with two school-age kids at home.

That’s great as far as demographics go, but we can dig deeper by picturing the rest of her life. She works thirty hours a week outside of the home. She lives in the New York suburbs. She shops for groceries once a week in a big shopping trip, and then she does fill-in shopping every other day. She’s a technology user — she has a smartphone and a laptop and a tablet. She wears high-end casual clothes with designer labels when she shops. She carries a gigantic pocketbook. She keeps a yoga mat in her expensive European SUV, and she does not like minivans. Her total household income is around $200,000.

Now dial in your vision even further. Imagine her getting out of her SUV wearing one of her pairs of high-end designer jeans that cost around $200. She’s wearing a puffy down vest from North Face because that’s what all the other moms are wearing when they pick up their kids from private school.

Continue to go through the process of envisioning who this person is and what their life looks like. Write it all down. Even draw a picture of her if you have to.

Identify the Ideal Customer’s Needs Once you’ve created this ideal customer profile, the next step is to think about that person’s needs.

This is the hardest part of the ideal customer archetype process. This is the part where you have to really dig in.

Let’s go back to our suburban, working mom with two kids. From that detailed description, I can probably deduce some of her needs. She needs to feel like she is the best possible parent she can be. She also needs to look like the best parent in comparison to other moms at her kids’ school. Since she works outside the home, she likely feels the strain of balancing her job and spending time with her kids at this critical age. So she has needs for activities and services and products that give her as much time as possible to spend with her kids in the way that she wants to that also makes her feel like she is fulfilling her potential as their mom.

We also know that she values quality in the products that she buys because she doesn’t have time to drive around town making returns. In thinking about food, for instance, she probably wants to have the healthiest, most nutritious meals she can get for her children without the need to do a lot of shopping or preparation. She certainly doesn’t have time to shop at multiple grocery stores, and sometimes she doesn’t have the time to cook everything that comes to the table for a family meal. However, she still wants to feel like she’s the provider of tonight’s dinner and that the meal meets her very high standards.

Understanding your ideal customer in depth enables you to understand what that person needs most from you and your brand. By getting inside the head of your ideal customer, you’re able to extract from it the story that the customer wants to tell themselves and the world about who they are.

Eventually you’ll get a clear image of who your ideal customer is and, ultimately, whom your brand is for.

The ideal customer profile exercise This is great, but how do you actually do it? How do you figure out who your ideal customer is?

The ideal customer archetype exercise is ideally done in a group brainstorming session with the staff in your company who are most involved in customer-facing roles.

Don’t just invite the top executives! Often it’s your salespeople, customer service reps, returns processors, and delivery drivers who are closest to the customers. They actually know more about your customers than your marketing team ever could.

What I’d recommend is bringing a group together with a big roll of butcher paper, and dividing up into smaller groups to answer the following questions:

  • Who is our ideal customer?
  • What does their average day look like?
  • What are the needs they’re looking to fulfill?

This seems easy enough, but companies often struggle with these branding exercises because the conclusions are sometimes difficult to swallow. It’s hard to leave behind the myths and beliefs that are part of the company history.

But, ultimately, this ideal customer process is extremely galvanizing for companies.

I’ll give you an example. One of the companies that I worked with for a long time was iVillage.com. Back in its heyday, iVillage was probably the largest online destination for women. At the time I started working with the company, it had just become part of NBC Universal. With a mid-2000s onslaught of “mom media,” iVillage struggled to remain relevant and knew it had to reinvent itself in order to compete. Additionally, the proliferation of highly focused digital media sites in passion verticals, such as food, entertainment, parenting, fashion, and beauty, was stealing their readers.

By late 2011, iVillage was struggling to figure out how to both narrow its focus and grow traffic. As part of a branding engagement, I had them do the ideal customer exercise.

For iVillage’s ideal customer exercise, we did exactly the process described above. My team brought out a big roll of butcher paper and cut it into six-foot lengths. We divided up the staff of about one hundred employees into smaller groups. We gave each group markers, art supplies, magazines, photographs, glue, and scissors. Then I gave them the assignment of creating an image of iVillage’s ideal customer, using all that stuff.

One group actually had one of their team members lay down on the butcher paper, and they traced her body with magic marker. They gave her big eyes and big ears because they wanted to communicate, “Our ideal customer is somebody who has a curiosity about the world around her and is seeking information from other people.”

Another group drew their ideal customer as a woman with a gigantic pocketbook filled with items from different categories, such as parenting, beauty, fashion, and health. Their idea was, “Our ideal customer is somebody who is super engaged and productive in her world and needs inspiration, information, and connections in all of these different areas of her life.”

Another group drew this Picassoesque Cubist version of a woman with five arms and six legs and ten eyes. This was their version of a woman who is doing a lot of things at once.

Each team presented their ideal customer diagrams to the rest of the teams. Then I challenged them as a larger group to combine those traits to come up with a singular ideal customer profile. That group of one hundred people used all of those inputs to create the North Star version of their ideal customer.

Although it was difficult for them to give up some of their company’s tribal knowledge and assumptions around who their audience should be, it was extremely galvanizing for them to narrow their focus to align on a singular profile.

What’s next? The ideal customer profile is just one exercise I recommend for companies to align their focus on exactly who their customer is and what deep needs they are fulfilling.

For all the tips, tricks and exercises we use with our Sol Marketing clients, as well as a deeper understanding of how to think about your customers’ needs, check out my book, Branding is Sex.

 

Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything

Brandind_is_Sex-cover
Brandind_is_Sex-cover

If you hate making money and the feeling of a mind-blowing, toe curling orgasm—stay far away from Deb Gabor's new book.

In Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything, the Sol Marketing founder and "brand dominatrix" explains how proper brand positioning gets your customers in the mood.

In just seven short and sweet chapters, Deb covers these juicy topics and more:

How the most successful brands in the world get their customers laid How to never fail The Bullshit Test Who your brand should hop in the sack with (and it’s not who you think)

Don’t rot in the brand graveyard like Blackberry, Oldsmobile, Circuit City, Compaq, Blockbuster Video, and Pets.com.

Get your sexy back and move from being “just friends” with your customers to being long-term “friends with benefits.”

Branding is Sex provides you with a concrete foundation and a basic how-to plan for building or re-igniting your brand without needing a PhD.

Buy your print or e-reader copy here, or read more about it at brandingissex.com

Investor pitch archetypes

Archetypes abound in all sorts of storytelling, and investor pitches are, after all, storytelling. Which archetype best represents these classic startup stories? archetypes_V6

Find out how YOU can generate irrational loyalty

Join the Austin chapter of the American Marketing Association for a professional development luncheon Thursday, January 21, 2016. Do you ever wonder how top brands create irrational loyalty among their users? The world’s most profitable and well-known brands bond in highly emotional and compelling ways with the customers who are most likely to spend the most money with them.

Deb Gabor, founder and CEO of Sol Marketing, will lead a highly-interactive workshop to guide you through identifying and profiling the customer who is most highly predictive of your success using the Ideal Customer Archetype methodology. Through the use of hands-on exercises, you will learn to use this method to go beyond traditional demographic and firmographic profiles to hone in on behavioral and attitudinal attributes that enhance the climate of consideration for your brand.

Once you intimately know your Ideal Customer, you can identify opportunities to make your brand part of your customers’ self concept, tell your brand story more effectively and focus your marketing efforts on the customers who will help you win.

Limited seating available: register today.

Don't have time to read the top 10? Try just one.

By Sara Breuer It's hard to make time to read all the business books people recommend, isn't it?

Top 10 lists are great, but I don't think I've made my way through the top 10 business books of LAST year yet. The clever people at Inc. magazine did some vetting and, with the Financial Times and McKinsey's choice of the ONE must-read book of 2016. You may not like it, you may not agree, but it's worth a look.

Read the Inc. list

Get tickets now: Sixty seconds to Success

Get your tickets now! Deb Gabor's session at General Assembly will sell out fast. Sixty Seconds to Success: Hacking the Elevator Pitch at General Assembly on February 1, 2016. Deb is the founder and president of Sol Marketing and is known as the Investor Pitch Whisperer. This is a must-attend event. Register now

"What do you do for a living?"

"What is your company about?"

This is the perfect opportunity to tell your story. The infamous "Elevator Pitch" was created for just such an occasion.

An elevator pitch is a conversation starter. You typically have just 60 seconds to make an exciting, impactful and meaningful impression on whomever you come in contact with. So make them count.

Takeaways

  • Be exposed to the Anti-Elevator Pitch and how it serves as an invitation for further conversation
  • Start to think of yourself as a “brand” and leverage that to your advantage
  • Learn everything that needs to be in your elevator pitch and everything that doesn’t
  • Create the building blocks of your own pitch – starting with communicating from a place of “WHY” and culminating in the unique qualities that can make you stand out
  • “Hack” the elevator pitch at critical points to create a cohesive story about you and how you make a client or a hiring manager the hero in his or her own story.

Make the most of every media opportunity

The media loves Sol Marketing! Learn what Deb Gabor says about maximizing every media opportunity that comes your way, from understanding reporters' motivations to paying it forward. Thanks to Arthur Bryan Marroquin of ABMPix for this awesome photo of our fearless leader Deb Gabor. Learn how it works

Podcast: The 3 Big Questions Your Business Needs to Answer when Building Your Brand

Deb was recently interviewed by Tim Hamilton for the new Praxent Commanding Business podcast -- listen to it for a mini branding MBA, Sol style! Listen to the podcast in iTunes

Commanding Business Podcast by Tim Hamilton, CEO of Praxent

EP018: The 3 Big Questions Your Business Needs to Answer when Building Your Brand with Deb Gabor

Released Oct 13, 2015

From leadership to management and marketing to innovation, Commanding Business covers a variety of topics with an aim to uncover actionable takeaways you can implement in your own organization today.

Episode synopsis: To become a financial asset for your company a brand needs to have an essence, a promise and a personality. Building your brand requires sustainable differentiators, scientific research and most importantly, focuses on your customer’s point of view. Your brand should also closely resemble the strategy of the business to benefit your end customer. There are three questions your organization needs to answer to achieve top of mind awareness within your business sector. When you have answered the three questions you have the criteria for the top of your brand value pyramid.

 

Brand Storytelling isn’t Telling the Story of Your Brand – It IS Your Brand

Storytelling is the latest buzzword kicking around ad and brand strategy agencies all over the world.  People often misuse the term brand storytelling to describe stories about a brand. Actually, a true brand story originates from its story platform – the emotional core, the DNA of the brand. The brand story is the very essence of the brand – something you need to convey in order to connect your ideas with your audience. We rarely evaluate companies based upon their products alone.  We’re in a world where a brand’s values and the emotions they evoke are narrative material. The most powerful way to persuade someone of your idea is to unite that idea with an emotion.  The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.  Your brand’s story isn’t a tagline or a headline. It isn’t the logo or visual representation. Your brand’s story creates an experience and defines the emotional relationship your customers have with you.  Ultimately, the best brand stories are those that intrigue, engage and connect with users on a level that transcends the products or services themselves.

Your brand story is like the glue that will hold all your brand’s actions and words together for a long period of time.  Your audience may not see it, but without it, your brand is nothing.   Sol is doing a series of brand storytelling workshops next week, so it’s timely for me to write about how to create the story of your brand.  Perhaps attend one of our workshops (link to reserve your place is here), or it give it a try on your own with the following tips:

How to write your brand’s story:

1. Define your brand promise:  Your brand promise is a single statement that is the articulation of your brand’s values, the primary benefit you provide and your unique relevance to your brand’s users.  Your brand promise lies in the answers to the three questions below:

  • What does it say about a person that they use your brand?
  • What is the singular thing your brand offers that your customer can’t get anywhere else?
  • How do you make your customer a hero in his/her OWN story?

2. Define your ideal customer:  There is an archetype of the “perfect” customer for your brand.  This is almost a caricature of the singular customer who would be MOST predictive of your brand success – the customer for whom your brand is specifically tailored.  Sure, there are probably multiple use-cases for your brand and even a variety of target audiences who might use your brand, but the archetype is exactly that – an archetype, which serves as a prototype for customer behavior and attitudes.  Understanding who this person is empowers you to understand at a very emotional level the CONFLICT in the brand story.  As I said in this previous post about Brand Swagger, great brands solve acknowledged problems and address real customer needs.  Knowing your ideal customer intimately will help you ensure that your brand addresses significant and real pain and anchors the concepts and language your brand uses to create a vision for what the world looks like when you’ve solved customers’ challenges.  To create your ideal customer archetype, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the person for whom my brand is absolutely perfect?
  • Describe them demographically/firmographically…if you’re a B2B brand, that means focusing on to the very person within an organization who is buying your brand: job title, what level she is within the organization, what that person’s work day is typically like. Also focus on what type of business she’s in -- what’s her workplace like?  What’s the competitive environment?

Then, focus on attitudes, behaviors and other descriptors that help you bring fine focus to the picture of who that person is:

  • Where does she live/shop/learn/play/work?
  • What does she care about most in her life?
  • What are her problems relative to what you’re selling? How significant are those problems?  How is she currently solving those problems?
  • On what metrics do they measure themselves? How does she know she’s living the life she feels she’s designed for?
  • Finally, how does she view herself vis a vis her world, other people, her job, her family, etc.?

3. Explore and define your brand’s personality and character: The best brands in the world have a distinctive point of view and a unique voice that translate into verbal and visual articulation of the brand. The language you use, the colors, images, even the photographic style you use should reflect your brand’s personality and character. The brand personality makes your brand feel human.  To understand your brand’s character and personality, ask the following questions:

If your brand were human, where would it:

  • Go to dinner?
  • Go on vacation?
  • Who would it go with?
  • What would it wear?
  • What would it eat?
  • What would it drive?
  • Where does it shop?
  • Which brand of athletic shoes does it wear?
  • Would it live on a street, an avenue or a road?
  • How old is it?
  • Male or female?
  • What are its personality traits?

You get the picture, right?

4. Create the story arc:  The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change. This change or transformation often takes the form of either tragic fall from grace or a reversal of that pattern. We often find this form of reversal in stories in which a character goes from a situation of weakness to one of strength. For example, a poor woman goes on adventures and in the end makes a fortune for herself, or a lonely man falls in love and marries.  Or a tragic hero falls from grace and then redeems himself in the end or transforms himself.

Great brands have a story arc too.  What’s the story of your brand?  How do you reverse your customers’ fortunes?  How do you transform people’s lives?

Chief Creative Officer of Momentum Worldwide, Jon Hamm (no relation!), recently wrote a piece in AdWeek which sums it up nicely:

“The truly great storytellers have long embraced the fact that the most powerful stories happen in the mind of the audience, making each and every story unique and personal for the individual. They also understand that stories are important because they are inherent to the human experience. Stories are how we pass on our accumulated wisdom, beliefs and values. They are the process through which we describe and explain the world around us, and our role and purpose in it. Audiences have always known this and asked for stories.”

So what’s your brand’s story?  How will you bond emotionally with your audience?

Hunting the energy vampires in your life

Have you ever felt like another person was just sucking the life out of you? Have you felt bored, annoyed, stressed, anxious, threatened or overwhelmed in another’s presence?  Have you had negative thoughts about that person that make you feel even worse?  (Oy! The guilt!)  Maybe you’ve even experienced the telltale physical signs of stress when you’re around that person – headache, nausea, muscle tightness, spontaneous hair loss, heavy drinking, the desire to shoot yourself in the face? You’re probably having your blood sucked dry by a negative person – an energy vampire.  Like vampires, negative people are incapable of generating positive energy. Hence, they feed off the energy of others. Vampires convert living beings into their kind because they feel lonely living in solitude. Similarly, negative people tend to drag people down into negativity too.  After all, misery loves company!

Spotting an energy vampire

Energy vampires are emotionally immature individuals who believe the entire world revolves around them.  They’re incapable of seeing things from your point of view. They lack empathy.  They don’t take responsibility.  And they believe they have to take everything they can get from others so they’re not deprived of resources.  In other words:  the whole world exists just to serve them, and YOU are their latest object for exploitation.

How do you know you’re a victim?

At first glance, energy vampires are very attractive, even highly desirable. Remember in the “Twilight” movies the vampires sparkled like diamonds and looked like Hollywood starlets?  They often are good-looking, bold, flamboyant or intelligent, and may appear to have a high opinion of YOU as indicated by their flattering attention. Drawing you into their inner circle may seem like just the boost you need in your usually drab work environment.

However, be warned that they are just setting you up to exploit you in whichever way best suits their purposes later. What seems quite innocent at first, such as asking you to introduce them to your professional network, making sales introductions or attending their Pampered Chef party may then turn into activities that exhaust you or even make you compromise your own ethics or values against your will.

There’s no good way to deal with energy vampires.  As long as you’re providing the fuel for their supernatural lives, they’ll continue to suck your blood whenever they need nourishment. Of course, you can try the time-tested vampire eradication techniques of submerging them in holy water, exposing them to direct sunlight or driving the inevitable wooden stake through the heart, these techniques may be NSFW, depending upon your place of employment (they certainly are at Sol.)  Also, sometimes those energy vampires are work colleagues, clients and even your boss.  Those are energy vampires you may not be able eradicate completely from your life.  That’s why you need some techniques to help you avoid having the life sucked out of you.

Don’t get drained by the energy vampires

Getting rid of vampire-ish clients, co-workers or head honcho isn’t exactly convenient in the work setting.  That’s why I offer you the following tips for making sure the energy vampires don’t drain you:

  1. Spend more time with the life-givers rather than the life-takers. Specifically identify the energy vampires, and begin to evaluate ones you'd like to limit contact with or eliminate.  Spend more time with people who give off positive energy, and avoid drainers. Notice how this beneficially affects your physical and emotional well-being.
  2. Draw a line. It's crucial to limit the time you spend discussing a vampire's gripes. When approaching him or her, remember: the difference between being a bitch and setting boundaries is attitude. Instead of saying, “You're self-obsessed, I can't take you anymore,” which you likely feel, perhaps shift the conversation to something more productive and positive.
  3. Get centered. I don’t practice meditation, but maybe I should.  However, I’ve learned from others that sitting in meditation gives you a lifeline to your center.  I say, getting centered in whatever way is most effective for you will calm your mind and let you re-align with your essence.  For me, that might mean a good workout, a long walk or some quality time with Comet and Beyonce.  Use whatever makes you feel centered to rejuvenate and get back to you.
  4. Beat it. If you feel your energy being zapped, politely excuse yourself from a killing conversation. Move at least twenty feet from the person, outside the range of his or her energy field. “I need to pee,” is my foolproof line. Most people are oblivious to how their energy impacts others.  Don’t worry about appearing rude or offending the vampire.  Energy vampires are so self-absorbed that they probably won’t even notice you removing yourself from the conversation.
  5. Put up a force-field. While doing my research for this piece, I became aware of this technique, which, on the surface, seems silly. However, I’ve tried it, and it works.  When you're with vampires you can't get away from visualize a protective shield of while light surrounding every inch of you. This lets positive energy in, but keeps negative energy out—particularly efficient for vampires at family dinners or social events where you're trapped.

Energy vampires are like human black holes.  Don’t let yourself be victimized by one of these people.  You can recognize them by the telltale signs:  they’re negative and self-absorbed and make you feel stressed and anxious.  Sometimes they’re overbearing and obnoxious.  But more often than not, they’re friendly and charming. I hope I’ve inspired you to keep your eyes open, and make sure you’ve got your garlic and wooden cross in the form of these tips at the ready!

Graciously accepting an apology

One of my recent posts was about making apologies.  Within days of launching that post, a loved one perpetrated a small wrong against me for which he made amends.  Armed with my instructional blog post, he tendered a brave and heart-felt apology, which I felt woefully unprepared to appropriately acknowledge or accept. While my recent disagreement with T. won’t make or break our friendship, how both of us handled our situation will forever define our future as friends.

In the spirit of catching you up, here’s the situation:  in a casual conversation the other night, T. said something I found hurtful.  He then followed it up with an email fraught with language that stung.  Stunned and baffled, I quickly pointed out how and why his statements hurt me.  To his credit, he swiftly responded with a sincere and specific written apology worthy of the previous blog post.  And, typical of his warm and authentic communication style, he signed off his note with the word “sorry” in the language he grew up speaking at home, letting me know that all was ok with him.

I was truly touched.  I offered the following response to his apology:  “Thank you for the sincere and thoughtful apology.”  And I immediately forgave him in my heart.

While he courageously admitted his own wrongdoing, I wondered: did I do enough in accepting his apology?  

With this fresh question on the top of my mind, I resumed my study of apologies.   I turned again to the fascinating book On Apology, by Aaron Lazare, which starts with the following paragraph:

“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of that apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”

A genuine apology provides so much benefit with so little cost, I’m surprised it isn’t done more often. The decision to apologize is a tug-of-war between pride and guilt. Guilt can be a killer.  So it makes sense to just get on with the apology.  While I previously wrote about how to effectively make an apology, I now share how best to accept one.  Maturely and graciously accepting an apology can help you restore and preserve your most precious personal and professional relationships.

Here are a few tips my research yielded:

  1. If you receive an apology you can choose to accept it, ignore it, or reject it.  If the apology meets the elements I presented in the previous post on apologies, it’s sensible to accept it.  If you find it sincere, demonstrating remorse, and if you feel the relationship is worth maintaining, forgiveness can strengthen your bond.
  2. Forgiveness is usually a strength. However, if the apology is inadequate, and you believe the omissions are deliberate and manipulative, turn down the apology and give the apologizer your reasons.  Then he or she may try again.
  3. Certainly, you should decline an apology that lacks authentic remorse. An off-handed “I'm sorry” is rarely adequate. When you do decline an apology, describe what you see as deficient in the apology and see if the other person responds with a revised apology that does meet your requirements.
  4. When you accept an apology, do so graciously and sincerely without any attempt to insult or humiliate the apologizer. Do not exploit their vulnerability either. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and not as an opportunity to inflict harm.
  5. Don’t blow off an apology by saying “it’s ok.”  If you truly feel wronged, it’s not really ok.  If you’re not ready to accept the apology, or if you need more from the apologizer, it’s your job to ask for it.
  6. Finally, once you’ve accepted someone’s apology, MOVE ON. This will be cathartic for both of you. You will be able to give up some of your resentment and begin healing your wound. He/she will be able to begin letting go of the guilt that he/she feels for hurting you. Trust that the incident will never reoccur. Try to put it out of your mind completely and focus on the positive aspects of your relationship.

Sincerely forgiving someone who’s hurt you can be as difficult as enduring the pain caused by their actions in the first place. Learning how to graciously accept an apology without rolling over for the person apologizing is a valuable life skill. A well-handled apology can be a healing experience, and anyone can learn how to handle apologies with maturity and discretion.

Update:  I’m happy to say that T. and I mended fences and are on our way to many more transgressions for which we’ll both undoubtedly need to say “I’m sorry.”

6 keys to building brand swagger

I always tell clients to answer the following questions to figure out what's at the top of their brand pyramids:

  • What does it say about a person (a customer, a user) that he or she uses/wears/drinks/eats/lives your brand? The answer to this question lies in how your product/brand addresses someone's core values and beliefs.
  • What makes you indispensable to a person?  Meaning: what is the singular benefit he/she gets from using your product or brand that they can't get ANYWHERE else?  The answer to this question is NEVER about the product – the speeds/feeds or the "ities" (reliability, adaptability scalability, manageability, etc-ability.)  The answer to this question gets to the true differentiation of your product and the root of the emotional relationship people have with you and your brand.
  • How do you make your customer a HERO in his/her own story?  Everyone has a story.  How does your brand play into the customers' own stories?

As I told you in a previous post: all branding is about sex.  How does your brand give a person that sexy swagger that makes others swoon?

The most enduring brands are the ones that create irrational loyalty among their users.  Irrational loyalty is the kind of love a mother has for her own offspring, or the kind of love that enables customers to continue to purchase and support your brand, even when they know there are products and brands available that are functionally superior.  It's the reason that I always run in Asics shoes, and why I always buy Apple products.  I actually feel guilty when I don't buy the latest and greatest iThingies.

I have my own loose model of brand success. Over 20-something years of working with and creating brand stories, I've learned that there are key elements that give brands the ability to create a lasting legacy in their categories. I didn’t just pull these things out of my ass, I have validated them through hundreds of thousands of research interviews and hours upon hours of hands-on brand consulting.

Here they are:

  1. Relevance:  a solution to an acknowledged problem.  The problem has to be huge and profound for the people that have it.
  2. Vision: an answer to the question, "what will the world look like when we've solved this problem," expressed thusly:  someday, every blank will be able to blank.
  3. Awareness and affinity: lasting brands are often (or have the potential to be) leaders in their categories.  Top of mind awareness has the highest correlation to brand purchase. For example, think of the first canned soup brand that comes to the top of your head?  Did you say Campbell's?  So...what's the #1 soup brand in grocery stores today?
  4. A system of economics: organizations that can create a system of economics  around themselves have endurance and demonstrate leadership.  Think of organizations like Salesforce.com, or Oracle.  There are developers, resellers, integrators, customers, employees, vendors, and others who all experience success as a result of the financial relationships they have with those brands.
  5. Integrity: the strongest brands in the world walk the talk.  Think back to B-school. Do you remember studying the Tylenol crisis?  J&J, the parent company of Tylenol, was able to weather one of the most epic product quality shitstorms in history because the brand has integrity.  They took control of the communication about the situation.  They were proactive.  They didn't hide anything.  They demonstrated respect for the humans involved, from victims to employees to stockholders.  Who wouldn't put their confidence in a brand that exhibits those characteristics?
  6. Humanity: in today's world, brands that show compassion towards other humans and a desire to authentically connect with their audiences create the most indelible bonds.  Think about the brands you feel most strongly about.  Are there any you LOVE?  Why is that?  When you love someone or something, sometimes they get a "pass" when they've done something wrong.   

As a brand, I'd love to be in that position.

It’s strange that I could sum up almost 25 years of my life’s work in this one short blog post.  But there it is.  How does your brand measure up?