Your customers are silently judging you right now.


If, as a company, you aren't constantly thinking about how your customers experience your brand, you're headed for rough waters. It isn't just about manufacturing cool cars or cooking delicious food or having the most comfortable beds in the industry. Your brand, your reputation and your business are built as an all-encompassing cluster of elements that either make your customers love you, hate you, or not care.

Yesterday, I wrote about the hospitality industry and pitched the standard hotel (downtown L.A.) against the Sheraton Anaheim. For a quick recap:

The Standard: $99/night. Fantastic service. Wonderful and fun experience. Can't wait to stay there again.

The Sheraton Anaheim: $200/night. Terrible service. Boring and stale. Will never stay there again.

The difference: One hotel took the time to craft a unique and very cool experience for its guests and was smart enough to do so for under a C-note. The other charged me twice as much to swipe my credit card and park me in a boring room.

New vs. Old.

Clever vs. uninspired.

WOM worthy vs. Clueless.

I'm not saying that customers always want to be wowed. But you know... at least don't antagonize them.

Case in point: Il Capo Italian Restaurant and olive oil Company - The worst dining experience of my life. (And that's saying something because an Egyptian kitchen onced try to pass boiled donkey for lamb to its guests - including yours truly, and it was better than this.)

I'll tell you the story of the Egyptian donkey in a minute. Right now, let's focus on Il Capo, because its monumental failures on every level are a lot more fun to talk about:

The first thing you should know about Il Capo is that it sits up against "The Vagabond Inn", which kind of sets the mood right off the bat.

The second thing you should know about Il Capo is that it pretends to be an Italian restaurant.

Okay... to steal a big fat page from the book of Bill Maher, here are the "new rules" for Il Capo and any restaurant or business out there who wants to... well, stay in business:

Rule #1: Hire a good chef. (When your core staff isn't qualified, you're screwed.)

Rule #2: If you are going to ask your bus boys to be waiters, train them to be waiters. Don't just expect them to figure it out as they go along. It isn't fair to them, and it isn't fair to your customers. This is where management skills come in handy. (Train and nurture your customer service staff.)

Rule #3: Repeat after me - "Attention to detail is crucial". For example: wine glasses with the imprint of another guest's lips aren't "clean". Forks and knives with old dry food residue on them aren't clean either. This isn't a corner you can afford to cut, especially when you're charging what you are for your meals. (Details will make you or break you. Your choice.)

Rule #4: If you put veal on the menu, learn how to cook it. (Know your product. Know your business. Duh.)

Rule #5: Don't boil veal. It makes it tough, chewy, and curly-looking. (Put yourself in your customer's place every once in a while. Look at your business from the outside in. Don't assume that what you're doing inside your little corporate bubble is going to work. Heck, don't assume anything.)

Rule #6: If you are going to use canned vegetables and jarred sauces, at least try to do something to them so it isn't so obvious that you've put absolutely no work into your product. (Take the time to integrate every element of your business into your brand experience. Make your product stand out. Don't... sell someone else's junk as your own. That's just pointless.)

Rule #7: When a wine is skunky, don't tell your customers that there's nothing wrong with it. We're not lying, and we're not stupid. (Never, ever, ever argue when it comes to quality. Ever. Just take it back and offer a replacement. Preferably a little better than the original, just to score some points.)

Rule #8: Waiting an hour for shoe leather and canned greens is unacceptable. (A. Make customers wait long enough, and they'll leave. This isn't 1906 anymore. Nobody has time to wait and wait and wait. B. If you're going to make them wait, at least make sure that what they're waiting for will be worth their while.)

Rule #9: As the manager of a restaurant, don't waste another twenty minutes ARGUING with every other guest when they complain about the food, the slow service, and your poor response.
(If there's a problem, do what you can to fix it or make it right. Not because you're being forced to, but because it's the right thing to do. Don't ever make the customer pay for YOUR mistake.)

Rule #10: When you agree to do something, like, say, give your angry customers 50% off their meal, don't renig on the deal ten minutes later. (Keep your promises. If you don't, you're a liar.)

The Manager @ 9:37pm: "Okay, fine. Half off. How's that? 50% off the total. Is that fair? Okay. Done."

The manager @ 9:46pm: "Um... I made a couple of calls, and the best I can do is a gift certificate for the value of your meal."

Huh?! A couple of calls to whom? Don Corleone? Once you agree to settle the dispute in one way, don't change your tune later. It's just lame, unprofessional and... ugh... slimy.

Oh, and by the way, giving a gift certificate to a group of business people whom you know are only in town for the weekend is the epitome of slime. We would have fared better if you had given us all a stick of gum for our troubles.

But no worries. We settled the issue in our own fun way:

Note to the manager of Il Capo:

Thank you for the $250 gift certificate. Though it did nothing to correct the horrible two and a half hours we wasted in your "restaurant" last Friday, and we will thankfully be unable to endure another meal from your "kitchen", we did, however put it to good use.

While in your pleasant city, we noticed that many of your residents were homeless. As luck would have it, we happened to run into a very nice but destitute young man just outside your restaurant on our way out, and gave him your generous gift certificate. We suggested to him that he should invite some of his less fortunate friends and treat them to a fine Italian meal in your establishment next weekend. We've taken the liberty of making reservations for him so he won't be turned around at the door. We've also given him the contact information of a fantastic civil rights attorney in case he should ever need her services.

Please extend every courtesy to our guests when they should choose to come by. I hope it will warm your heart to know that your professionalism and generosity will earn Il Capo some kudos within the less-fortunate-than-us community in the Anaheim area. It is my most sincere wish that our guests will become staunch advocates of your "restaurant" and will recommend you to all of their friends for as long as you are in business.

Best regards,

Table 8

Rule #11: Don't screw with your customers. (Ultimately, customers have the power. Not you. Don't mess with them.)

So, to recap our experience at the soon to close Il Capo:

Bland decor.
Boring and overpriced menu.
Dirty glasses and silverware.
Poorly trained staff.
Terrible chef.
Horrible food.
Ridiculously long wait.
Skunky wines.
A free 20 minute argument with a lazy and dishonest jerk posing as a manager.

Can a restaurant actually get negative stars?

To put it all in perspective, here's the 30-second little "donkey-for-dinner" story from my 1984 adventures in Egypt (which, believe it or not, scores well above Il Capo when it comes to customer satisfaction):

Day 1 (pm): Tourist bus hits donkey. Donkey dies. Donkey gets carted off on the back of a truck. The donkey's very badly broken leg is burned into my impressionable brain.

Day 2 (am): While having breakfast on our river boat, I watch supplies being carried from the pier to the galley. Four guys struggle to carry a very heavy stretcher onto the boat. Big mound hidden under a blanket. Dangling from the side: the donkey's broken leg... still attached to the rest of the poor dead animal.

Day 2 (pm): The dinner menu is changed to "veal stew".

True story.

So yes, Il Capo was worse. Wanna know why? Because nobody expects a 5-star meal on an old Egyptian river boat. Because you're not paying $30 a head for veal marsala. Because the waiters are courteous and professional. Because if your complain to the maitre d'hotel about how chewy your "veal" is, he apologizes, offers you a nice bottle of wine for your troubles and explains that meat isn't always great in this part of the world. Because you're in Egypt and the rules are a little different than they are in the US. Because you don't know for sure that what you're eating isn't really veal.

At least, there's an effort made to make your experience as memorable and positive as possible. For them, meat is meat. Donkey, veal, beef... in a stew, it's all the same. They can't afford to let meat go to waste. The difference there is cultural. They really aren't trying to rip you off.

Okay, on to some positive experiences:

My last dining experience in California was much better. If you ever get a chance to fly through LAX, walk out of the main terminal and look for this structure (right next to the control tower):

Walk to it and take the elevator up to the "Encounter" restaurant. The elevator ride alone is worth the trip: The ceiling lights up and the Star Trek-esque 60's inspired space opera music that comes on is a really funny touch. (see left of the page.)

Once upstairs, you'll be treated to very friendly service, an incredible view of L.A.'s skyline, front row seats to of one of the world's most famous landing strips, a fantastic menu, and a very unique and WOM-worthy dining experience.

Images copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard

The decor is right out of an Austin Powers flick: (I know... I detect a pattern. Shhh.) It's half Star Trek (the original series), half Moonraker. Not what you'd expect right up against an airport. Again, I expected to pay a lot more for my meal than I did, but the prices were very reasonable, the food came fast, and it was delicious. (The tuna tartare is top notch.)

What did these guys do right?

1) They built a super cool restaurant within walking distance of an international airport terminal.

2) They put crazy music and lights in the elevator, just to get you in the right mood before you even step through their doors for a complete immersive experience.

3) They can seat you immediately.

4) There isn't a bad table anywhere. The view is always fantastic.

5) The menu is fun and the prices are perfect.

6) The waiters are fast and friendly.

7) The restaurant is so cool that even if the food were average, you'd still want to tell all of your friends about it.

8) It's unique, and being there makes you feel like you're enjoying something very special.

9) Oh yeah, I almost forgot... nobody argued with me there.

So here's the little lesson of the day:

The minute a customer access your website, calls your toll-free number, walks into one of your locations or opens a box with your mark printed on it, the experience begins. This isn't something you can leave to chance. You have to think about every little detail. You have to know what will make your customers smile and what will make them frown. You have to anticipate that there will be problems and that customers will look to you to fix these problems for them. How you deal with these situations is as much a part of the experience as anything else. Perhaps more so.

If a customer leaves angry, you will never see them again. They will drag your name in the dirt, and your reputation within their sphere of influence will be destroyed. For every customer you lose, they take perhaps ten more with them. Twenty. A hundred. Possibly more. Families. Communities. Corporations. You never know the impact that one person's negative campaign against you will have. Ultimately, nobody wins. Your business loses revenue and gets bad publicity. Your customer leaves angry and frustrated. It's just bad business.

Crafting a positive customer experience isn't rocket science. Mostly, it's about attention to details and about showing that you care. That's it. It is never about going the extra mile. The extra mile concept is a myth. It's more like going the extra inch: A twist of lemon in a glass instead of a wedge. An extra two seconds to call a customer by her name. An extra three calories burned to produce a friendly smile. An extra thirty seconds to upgrade a frustrated guest to a better room or a better table just because they had to wait longer than they should have. A friendly "sure, let me do that for you" instead of a "No, you'll need to take this piece of paper to the third floor and fill out a request form."

It doesn't have to be about flat screen TVs above the urinals and Champagne fountains in the atrium. Most of the time, it's simply about treating customers with respect, kindness and care. People just want to be taken care of. They don't want to have to deal with rules and bureaucracy and disappointment. They just want to have a pleasant experience and then have fun telling their friends about it.

Listen to your customers. Get to know them. I mean... really. Not just through online surveys. Actually sit down with them. Buy them a drink. Find out what they're about. What they like and dislike. What they'd like to see you do a little better. Say "yes" to them more. Make it impossible for them not to love your products, your services, your brand. Make them excited about doing business with you. Their ideas might actually save you money. You just won't know until you've talked to enough of them.

You can do it.

Really, you can.

And you should.

Okay, I've rambled enough for one day. Go have some fun or something.


Every Customer Is Special


Okay. Let's talk about hotels. More specifically, let's talk about 1) good service vs. bad service, and 2) what hotels do to create a memorable guest experience (for better or for worse).

As you know, I just got back from a week long trip to California, and I had the opportunity to stay at three fairly well-priced hotels while I was there.

1. The Standard - Downtown L.A.
2. The Sheraton Anaheim
3. The Radisson LAX

Three completely different hotels with different concepts... and very different experiences. One great, one average, and one shamefully bad.

First, let's talk about the standard, because it deserves some kudos.

The first thing you have to know about the standard is that it's hip. Did you happen to catch that little caption from the L.A. times just an inch above this line? "A hotel Austin Powers would love." I can't think of a better way of describing it.

Second, it's right smack in the middle of Los Angeles (and actually on a fairly clean and posh block at that.)

Third, from the moment you roll your suitcases through the lobby, you know this isn't Best Western or the Holiday Inn Express (no offense). The lobby looks, feels and sounds like an Austin Powers inspired lounge. If you happen to check in after dark, you'll be rolling your bags through a posh party of very hip people and live music so good you'll want to come right back down after you've dropped off your bags, just to hang out and take it all in.

The registration process takes less than three minutes. There is never a line. You're taken care of, given a very cool little key card (which I kept as a memento), and sent on your way with a pleasant (but perfectly aloof smile) from the subtly dismissive chic young front desk team.

Let me make this very clear, because we'll come back to this later: The front desk team doesn't argue with you about anything. They are pleasant, efficient, and part of the experience. They make you feel special, but they also make you feel that you are special just by staying at this unique hotel. It's subtle, but it works. Think slightly snooty but very polite French waiter... only Los Angeles style and much younger.

Now... let me ask you this: When was the last time you were actually giddy about checking into a hotel? When was the last time you walked into an elevator just dying to see what the next cool little surprise would be? Seriously. This hotel manages to do just that.

Less than five minutes after parking your car or getting out of your cab, you're already completely sold on the experience of this hotel. Every step you take is a discovery. Everywhere you look is a detail that makes you either smile or chuckle or say to yourself "cool idea."

The room numbers are marked on fake red and white name tags, which is kind of a cute touch. The rooms are decently sized, and like nothing you're used to:

#1: The bathrooms either sit completely open in the middle of the room or are encased in glass. In other words, you're not going to get any privacy from whomever is sharing the room with you... which is kind of the charm of the place. (Remember the whole Austin Powers thing? Okay.) It might not be my parents' cup of tea, but if you're looking for something different and WOM worthy, this is definitely a highlight.

#2: The bed is so low to the ground, it's kind of a Swedish Zen giant party beanbag kind of thing, which lends itself to the party-in-your-room atmosphere of the place. It also makes the room look a lot more spacious.

#3: The furniture and wall decor are right out of dwell or an Ikea catalog.

#4: The toilet paper has a little sticker of a stick man taking a #2 break, which is hilarious.

#5: Above the safe and minibar is a little basket of goodies that includes everything from music CDs, coloring books, fashion magazines, wasabe peanuts and even a bottle of bubble bath.

#6: The soap is wonderful and the little medical-looking cross on it kind of adds an element of mystery to its origins. (It's almost as if there's an untold story there that's worth investigating.)

The vibe of this hotel is just fun. It's relaxed. Unlike many of its guests, it doesn't take itself too seriously. (If the Standard has one flaw, it is that it attracts poseurs in droves.) It offers all of the comforts of home with all the extra style sizzle. It makes you feel like you're staying somewhere very special. Every inch of this hotel put a smile on my face. Their restaurant makes fantastic food. The waitresses' go-go boots are a fun touch. It's clockwork, it's painless, and it delivers on all of its promises.

And all of this for just $99 a night.

Yep. $99. Really.

See... I'd expect to pay $160+ (and you can most definitely pay that and more if you want to), but at a starting price of $99 a night, you just can't beat this.

There's also a super cool bar on the roof with a pool, waterbeds, and movies projected onto the wall of a building across the street just because it'll give you something else to talk about months after you've checked out. The full gym has a giant mural showing the starting line of a 70's nudist bike race (hilarious) and framed photos of classic kitch TV and movie icons like Rambo, The Incredible Hulk, Conan The Barbarian and Wonder Woman.

The big question is: Would I stay there again? Now that I've "been there, done that," will I be a repeat customer?

The answer is 100% yes. Next time I'm in L.A., I will most assuredly book a room there again, only next time, I might look into a bit of an upgrade. The next room up is $125, so I'll be checking out that package. Not only that, but now I am curious about the Hollywood version. There are also standard hotels in NYC and Miami... So guess where I'll be staying next time I'm in either of those cities.

That $99 room? It's brilliant. There's no excuse not to stay there, and once they have you, you're hooked. Every hotel after that is just... boring.

One of the cool things about the standard is that it makes you want to let other people experience it. Friends, co-workers, family members, spouse... You want them all to spend at least one night there. It's that cool. This place is all about WOM. Every last detail is specifically designed to make you love it. Even if you hate it, you'll still talk to everyone you meet about the cool things you experienced there during your stay.

Okay, so now that we've talked about everything that's right about a hotel, let's talk about everything that's wrong about a hotel. And just so you understand that I am not ragging specifically on Sheraton hotels (or even on the specific Anaheim property I am about to use as an example), I will go ahead and state that what I have experienced there is pretty typical of most hotel chains whose names we've all heard before.

Okay. Ready?

Strike 1: After two wonderful nights at the standard, I pull into the Sheraton Anaheim only to find out that I have to pay for parking.

Um... in downtown L.A., fine. Okay. But in Anaheim, in an open lot, nope. Bad call. Very bad call. Either charge more for the rooms or make parking free, but don't surprise travelers with this kind of underhanded little trick. (Hint: It isn't a good way to start your relationship with weary travelers. They aren't in the mood, and they all see it as a rip-off.)

Look at it this way: You're penalizing your guests for parking at your hotel. Clever? Not.

Besides, even without an extra parking fee, the "closed gate" thing is a big turnoff. At least, make your gate look cool... or disguise it as a security measure. Don't just install ugly, bland and scuffed-up "push-the-button-and-grab-a-ticket" stations in the entrances. It give the lot a kind of cheap half-way house vibe that just makes me want to turn around and never come back.

Strike 2: Once you get inside, you're of course greeted by a long line and an understaffed front desk. (This is the case all day and at any time of night.) Either streamline the process or let your guests wait in the empty foyer where a waitress can offer them a complementary drink while they wait in comfortable seats. (What a concept!)

Strike 3: Once it's finally your turn to check in, you're waved along by an obviously bored and irritated desk clerk who only makes eye contact with you if and when he has to. Again, not good. At $200+ per night, I think I'm more than just a number, thank you.

Actually, at $99 a night, I'm still quite sure that I'm a lot more than a number. So here's the deal: If a 19-year-old kid with a fauxhawk and a trendy little suit can call me Mr. Blanchard and shoot the bull with me at the standard, you can at least pretend to be pleasant and enthused about working at the Sheraton.

Strike 4: (Yeah, they keep coming.) Here's where things get fun. Your reservations are screwed up, and even through the smart thing for Mr. happy desk clerk to do is just to take care of the problem and make you feel like you're in good hands, he prefers to argue with you.

"You were expected yesterday" he says. "We're going to have to charge you for last night's stay." (Still no eye contact.)

_ (Pause.) Huh? Nonono. Those reservations were changed two weeks ago. Here's the confirmation number.

Upon giving the confirmation number a cursory look, he sighs and types it into his little computer. "I'm sorry sir, but it's not in our system. I'll need to see an ID and a credit card please."

_ Well... I wouldn't know anything about your system. All I know is that this was taken care of weeks ago, and I was given this number. I actually spoke with someone. (And unlike you, she was pleasant.)

"That number isn't in our system. Do you remember the name of the person you spoke with?"

_ Would it help?

"Not really, no."

_ Right. Maybe I need to speak with a manager.

"I don't think it will help, sir," the clerk says, eyes fixed on his screen, typing... something.

_ Well, I think it'll help. And I need this taken care of before I check in, because I'm not going to have an extra night's stay charged to my card.

Long story short: Fifteen minutes later, still no manager of any kind. I finally check in and am told that someone will get in touch with me within the hour.

Above: Science fiction. Take away the tree branch framing the top of the image. Push the dresser back against the wall. Get rid of the extra couch that mysteriously appeared in the forefront, turn the table sideways, get rid of the flowers and the tea set, and you'll have a more realistic version of the room. Nice try.

Strike 5: Nobody gets in touch with me. Four days later, I finally find out that it was taken care of because the "missing" night is not charged to my bill (of course).

Hint: If you're going to tell me that you're going to do something, do it. Period. End of story.

This was absolutely the WRONG way for the hotel to handle this. It was their mistake to begin with. It was an easy fix. What could possibly have possessed a desk clerk to want to argue with me about something as simple and easy to fix as this? Was the missing night's charge going to come out of his paycheck? Was he going to have to spend his lunch sitting by himself in the silent corner? No.

Here's a tip: The customer is always right. Especially when he is.

So now I'm annoyed by the undisclosed parking fee AND the fifteen or so minutes I just wasted arguing with someone whose job it is (at least in theory) to help make my stay at the Sheraton Anaheim a pleasant one. By the time I finally reach my room, the little brochure waiting for me on the bed telling me that whatever I find wrong with my stay, "we'll make it right" sounds pretty damn hollow.

Will I recommend Sheraton to my friends? Nope. So far, my experience has basically sucked. Two days ago, I spent $99 per night and got treated like a movie star. Today, I spent twice that, got argued with and was basically - for lack of a better term - "processed".

The room was blah. The lobby was blah. The bar was blah. The bathroom was blah (and tiny). the only cool thing was the bed, which I admit was very comfortable... but that's about the only positive thing I have to say about this hotel.

Should I complain about the lousy gift shop? Nah. No need. Save yourselves the hassle and do not stay at this hotel. There are plenty of great properties in Anaheim that will be happy to take care of you (and we'll talk about some of them in a later post).

Hotel #3: The Radisson, LAX.

You know what? Anything is an improvement after the Sheraton Anaheim.

The Radisson actually had a cool lobby and exterior, it has a penthouse bar, it's a block from the airport, the rooms are kind of big, and it's about equal in quality to the Sheraton... Only it's $89 per night, which is exactly the right pricepoint for this level of quality.

Oh, and the parking lot didn't feel like a prison.

So what have we learned today, boys and girls?

1) It's all in the details.

2) A good hotel takes good care of its guests. A bad hotel makes its guests jump through hoops and treats them like annoying little children.

3) "Same as" chains suck because they provide ZERO value. Even the higher priced properties are starting to lose ground in my book.

Look. The rule is simple: Every customer is special. Every customer is either a repeat customer and an advocate for your hotel (and chain) or an antiadvocate who will spend the rest of his or her life telling everyone they know about the lousy experience they had at one of your locations.

Until the standard does something to turn me off, I'm their biggest fan. The Sheraton, however... They've lost my business, and I will be sure to tell everyone who will listen to pick another chain for their next trip.

What's interesting is that it only took one person - one contact point - to turn what would have been a mildly annoying but otherwise boring experience into a "never again" misadventure.

One person. In a competitive economy with dozens of brands to choose from, that's all it takes.

You're only as good as your last success.

You can't afford to treat even a single customer badly. Not one.

Attention to details, folks. That's what it's about. First, craft a memorable user experience (make sure it's memorable for the right reasons). Second, hire the right people for the right job. Third, articulate the role they play in that experience and make sure they understand the importance of empathy, of hospitality, and of good manners. Fourth, repeat after me:

The customer is always right. Especially when he is.

Make people say nice things about you. I don't care what it takes. If you don't single-handedly generate positive WOM on a constant basis, you're already losing ground.


Getting Your Bearings


image copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard
Business trips are about a lot more than just trade shows, business deals, conferences and plant visits. They are journeys. And like all journeys, they are meant to enrich our lives through experience, adventure, and insight.
No, don't laugh. Believe it or not, those long layovers between connecting flights, the hours you spend stuck in cramped seating, those long lines for substandard airport food, the hotels, the cabs, the shuttles, the rental cars, the name tags, the coffee stands, the time zones, the guest services, the security checkpoints, the meetings, the parking lots, the traffic jams, the receptionists... all of these things expose us to the best and the worst of marketing, branding, business and lifestyle integration. They help you put it all in perspective.
That's right, they help put YOUR business in perspective.
Your client's business.
Even you.
Yep. You. You as a person. You as a brand. You as a consumer. You are your own focus group. You are your own market research. You are your own critic. When you travel anywhere for a whole week, you eventually settle into that analytical mode. You start to notice the little things in greater detail. Your experience bridges the gap between extremes of great service and horrible service. All of the pieces of the puzzle start to come together.
So ask yourself: How would you do as a flight attendant? As a taxi driver? As a receptionist? As a guest services manager? As a waiter? As customer services manager for an airline? As a restaurant manager? As the president of a hotel chain? As the person whose job it is to design the best possible customer experience for a national chain of coffee shops or book stores or automotive service centers? How do you improve the quality and value of touch-points between your company and its customers every day? Yes, you. How do you turn a simple chance encounter into a golden WOM moment?
If you aren't thinking about it, guess what: Your competitors are. They're looking at you, at everything that you do right and everything that you do wrong, and they are learning how to beat you. You're teaching them. The guy at the LAX Hertz counter is teaching them. The guest registration team at the Standard Hotel in downtown LA is teaching them. The girl taking your order at the Baja Fresh in Simi Valley is teaching them. Every time they walk into a new business or travel to a new city, they're learning what works and what doesn't. The world is teaching them, one contact point at a time, one experience at a time, and they're getting smarter.
So the question you have to ask yourself is who's teaching you? What are you doing to stay a few strides ahead of your competitors? What are you really doing? Where are you really going? Are you really going anywhere, or are you tucked in the same safe holding pattern that's kept your warm and fuzzy for the last ten years?
Be honest now. If not with me, at least with yourself. When was the last time a business or person TRULY impressed you? Did you take that experience back to your company? Did you incorporate it into your own customers' experience?
Did you? Really? If so, how did it work out for you?
If not, what stopped you? And what stops you now?
I am going to devote the rest of this week to the experiences that struck me while I traveled to California and back. From filthy airport bathrooms to entertaining bus drivers, from the worst Italian restaurant on the planet to the best fast food this side of the Atlantic, from the beyond-coolness glitz of a relatively unknown hotel to the blandness of its "big" brand nemesis, from the absolute "promote this guy right now" Hertz rental guy to the most argumentative and time-wasting guest services representative at the Sheraton Anaheim, boys and girls, you are going to get the whole scoop, and then some.
Will there be lessons to be learned? Sure.
Am I going to preach? Probably.
Will I keep it short? I wouldn't bet on it.
But you know what? It's going to be fun. And I'll bet a lot of it will sound familiar.
If you're traveling this week, do me a favor: Carry a pen or a pencil on you. Not in your briefcase, but on your person. If you can't carry a small notepad, use an air sickness bag. You can write an entire manifesto on one of those things (assuming it's a white one - not a dark-blue deal you can't write on at all). During a two hour flight, you can map out entire branding strategies. You can rewrite your company's mission statement. You can list all of the things that your customers love and hate about you. About your biggest competitor. About your favorite lovebrand. You can sketch your next revolutionary product design. You can write history before it is actually made.
While you're traveling this week, write stuff down. Names. Times. Places. The good, the bad, the ugly, the wonderful, the genius and the tedium. Write it down. Save it for later. Create your new web strategy. Revamp your corporate structure. Rework your budget. Invent the next big thing.
Learn from the world. Open yourself to its lessons. It might not make those long hours go by faster, but at least it will make them well worthwhile.
Safe travels to all.
Tune in tomorrow for the first of several articles on what people may or may not be saying about your company and brand.




Not long ago, someone asked me what I was passionate about. I wasn't expecting the question, so I kind of choked. I didn't know what to say... not for a lack of things to talk about, but rather for fear that having too many things to list might seem excessive.

In hindsight, I should have let it all out.

It's true that I am passionate about good work... not just good work, remarkable work. Whether it's the cut and stitching of a shirt or a fantastic website, an oil painting or a carbon-fiber time-trial bike, an incredibly well-designed backpack or a perfectly prepared paella, great work - remarkable work - is something to be passionate about. And in that, I wasn't all that far from the point. But there's a lot more to it than that.

There's life, for one. Before you can be passionate about anything, you have to be passionate about life... otherwise, what passes for passion is little more than addiction.

Also see dependency.

Also see projection.

To be passionate about life is to be passionate about all things. It means having the curiosity of a child. It means holding on to as much innocence as you can for as long as you can. It's the only vaccine against bitterness, apathy and the death of the spirit. Life is a fragile but powerful gift. Life is a mystery. Life is worth being passionate about. It's our largest and finest canvas. It is the vehicle through which we change the world.

There's love too. Love. There's a word taken for granted if I ever heard one. I'm not talking about my love for super dark Belgian chocolate or ripe figs plucked right from the tree or Chuck Palahniuk novels. I mean LOVE. A child's love for her mother. A man's love for his wife both at the start of the courtship and at the end of their lives. A woman's love for her child. The love of a dog for his master. A soldier's love of country just before running into battle. I am talking about the kind of love that fills you with a thick sticky heat and puts a lump in your throat and makes you want to cry. The kind of love that makes you roll down your windows, crank up the volume and sing at the top of your lungs. The kind of love that inspires you to create something beautiful. A painting. A sculpture. A symphony. A photograph. A novel. A life.

I am passionate about my children. About my wife. About my dogs. I am passionate about my love for my parents, even if I don't always have the courage to let it show. I am passionate about honoring the courage of my grandparents and about keeping their memories alive.

I am passionate about every day. About discovering new places any chance I get. About meeting bright minds and generous hearts. About the kind of simple beauty that sometimes come in solitary fleeting moments.

I am passionate about making the world better, one little piece at a time. One smile at a time, one product at a time, one encouraging word at a time. I am passionate about helping people with talent and vision see their dreams come true. I am passionate about truth and justice and the beauty of the human intellect.

I am passionate about being true to myself. About replacing the average and the mediocre with the extraordinary. About planting the seeds of change and hope and progress.

I am passionate about probing mysteries.

I am passionate about good food. I mean seriously good food. The kind of food that takes all day to prepare. The real deal. Catch it or pick it in the morning. Work lovingly on it all day. Enjoy with friends that night. That.

I am passionate about a great story.

I am passionate about synchronicity. About synergy. About people having fun while making something great together.

I am passionate about grinning enthusiasm.

I am passionate about photographing the essence of a moment. Of a thought. Of a heartbeat.

I am passionate about the magical gift of small unexpected moments. The kinds of moments that pass through you like the slightest shiver but stay with you forever. Like the first time you actually feel nature swell and come to life just before dawn.

The first time you discover, standing over a stunned bully, that you are stronger than you thought you were.

The first time you find yourself humbled and completely taken by a cause greater than yourself.

I am passionate about art. About truth. About scaring myself to death on rollercoasters. About speaking out against injustice.

I am passionate about great writing.

I am passionate about great design.

I am passionate about any conversation that starts with "what if?"

I am passionate about the word "yes".

So yeah, I am passionate about great marketing and cleverly crafted ads and helping companies become the market leaders they wish they were... but that's just one branch on a very full and unruly tree.

That's what I should have said.

Hindsight's 20/20.




Everything is a system. Everything. You're a system. I'm a system. The weather is a system. Speech, thoughts, dreams, design, art, inspiration, the ebb and flow of memories and emotions: All systems. Only... most of the dynamics and causalities are hidden. We just kind of ride the waves without seeing the infinite number of actions and reactions that caused them to be and to be the way they are.

I know, I know... we're drifting dangerously close to Matrix cliche territory, so I'll stop here.

But seriously, what if you could map complex multidimensional systems?

What would such maps look like?

What would they sound like? (Wrap your mind around that!)

Well, these guys kind of did that. The image up there, that's 25% of my blog, mapped out from 0000 to 1111. At 100%, the thing looks like the most gorgeous little forest you've ever seen.

Like that was a surprise. ;)

The skinny - in fancy-shmancy Matrix geektalk:

Tree accesses the source code of a web domain through it's url and transforms the syntactic structure of the web site into a tree structure represented by an image. this image illustrates a tree with trunk, branches and ramifications.

first each tree is initialized, then all html links are detected, chronologically saved and finally displayed.the first tree corresponds to the domain; according to the syntax of the web site each further tree that builds up represents a sub page including all existing elements. the color of these trees reflects the color values of the domain and its sub pages.parallel to the graphic conversion, a permutation of the source code into midi data is generated analogous to the evolving trees, their branches and ramifications. any midi compatible hard- or software can be triggered by these midi data.

the structure of any url can be visualized and transformed into sound. the aesthetic is not arbitrary or accidental, rather each url/domain determines the variation of trees in form and color.

Mind-blowing? Kind of... But this thing is only scratching the surface.

PS: I'm out of town for a few days and I'm leaving the laptop at home. (Oh the horror!) So if I don't comment on your blog, no worries. I'll make it up to ya. And if you're bored, read one of my old posts. I'm sure you've missed one or two good ones.




Christmas Is Coming


Okay... People always ask me "oOo, what do you want for Christmas?"

Well, now I know what to answer them: A Loft Cube.

Though not exactly a cube, this "personalized home container" is 7.50m x 7.50m x 3.50m (plus 1.20m from the ground), and sports 45 square meters of pure style and design. Check this little marvel out:

First, the window spaces can be individually customized (transparent, translucent, wooden slats, etc.) so you can strategically keep your nosy neighbors out of your biz without sacrificing precious light or a killer view.

Second, the use of space inside this thing is nothing short of pure genius. It's wide open, every section flows into the next, and the furniture works to tie it all together as simply and comfortably as possible.

Third, (see below) the showerhead swings through the wall partition to water the plant. (How cool is that?!)

Fourth, (also below) the bathroom faucet swings throught its wall partition to double as a kitchen sink faucet. (Seriously. The coolness knows no end.)

Fifth... see those soothing little white rocks on the ground? They absorb moisture under the shower and the bathroom sink to help keep the floor dry. (Now why didn't I think of that?!?!?!?!)

Sixth, this thing can be built on a rooftop or in a backyard or by a swimming pool... or just anywhere you want.

I've seen modular dwellings before, but this one kind of rocks my world. It's pure design genius. Simple, beautiful, efficient... I'm in lurve. It's like, the ultimate guest house/loft/pod/lounge, all rolled into a stylish little package...

... and the perfect Christmas present for yours truly.



The Truly Great


Lance Armstrong photo copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard
I was watching photographer Bruce Weber's stunningly beautiful documentary "Letter To True" not long ago, and heard this poem for the first time. It was written in 1933 by Steven Spender, for and about people like us: The leaders. The dreamers. The record breakers. The visionaries. The revolutionaries. The poets. The artists. The agents of change.

I never thought I would post a poem on this blog, but what can I say... I couldn't resist. If you are a regular visitor of, I know that this one will speak to you.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

- Steven Spender


Changing the world


image copyright 2004, Olivier Blanchard

If you were to put together a top ten list of inventions that have changed the world in the past ten years, cell phones and the internet would probably sit pretty squarely at the top.

Think about it: Who doesn't have a cell phone these days? And who doesn't have internet access, either at home or at work? Sure, there are segments of the population and large areas of the world that haven't yet joined the communications revolution, but their numbers are dwindling.

In Africa, for example, where widespread internet access and wireless communications still seem decades away from hestablishing a true presence, cell phones are already empowering people to take control of their future:

"Running up to the December 2000 election, Radio phone-in shows pilloried the hand-picked successor of the outgoing president. During the election itself, voters used cellphones and talk radio to report voting fraud: “Whenever someone at a polling place reported fraud, the called the radio station, which broadcast it; the police had to check it out, not having the excuse that they did not receive a report.” [source] The combinition of new technologies contributed to the end of nearly two decades of one party rule."

The rest of the world is following suit, and advances in technology are changing the way people use their cell phones:

"In addition to voice calling, cell phones are becoming a platform for other kinds of information services like text messaging, email, and basic Web browsing."

"Text messaging was used by protesters in 2001 revolution in the Philippines to rapidly coordinate demonstrations that helped topple president Estrada."

"During the 2002 presidential election in South Korea, a demographic shift in the population reverberated at the polls, mobilized by electronic media: In a matter of minutes, more than a million e-mails were sent to mobile phones and online accounts urging supporters to go out and vote. This online rallying cry sent young voters to polling stations nationwide and delivered a narrow 2.3% election victory to the self-proclaimed political outsider Roh [Moo-hyun], who had been summarily rejected by South Korea's conservative media.[source]"

"Cell phones were used extensively to coordinate autonomous rural social movements in Bolivia in 2003."

"In May 2004, Fahamu and a coalition of women’s rights organizations launched the first continent-wide campaign using SMS (Short Message Service) text messages in Africa. The electronic petition campaign urges African governments to ratify the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. Users can sign via their Web site or can via SMS from their mobile phones. Since the launch of the campaign both Nigeria and South Africa have ratified the Protocol."

The list goes on. (Information courtesy of But political activism is only one of many areas revolutionized by cell phones and wireless technologies.

Several years ago, writing for Hardware Central, Jeffrey Tseng wrote:

"Many countries, such as China, do not have the technology infrastructure to run physical lines into every household and business, so much of the world's population is still "un-wired". However, cellular phones are widespread in these regions because of their mobility and ease of implementation--they have a much higher penetration in the world as a whole than internet-enabled PCs. With new wireless technologies such as WAP enabling internet access through cell phones, the impact on the internet stands to be phenomenal. It is estimated that, by the year 2003, more cell phones will be connected to the internet than computers."

He added:

"It is interesting to note here that for many countries it is wireless technology which will bring them into the information age. Many will be using wireless handsets with Internet capability even without ever having used telephones."

And he was right: People around the world are buying internet-enabled wireless phones much faster than they are buying PCs. This means that the majority of people around the globe who will access the internet for the very first time this year will do so from a cell phone, not a computer. This trend will continue to increase in the coming years.


It isn't to say that home computers will someday be obsoleted by hand-held internet-capable wireless devices (the next generations of what we still call cell phones), but in terms of lifestyles, of empowerment and of access to information, the convenience and affordability of this technology is bound to completely change the way we live, communicate, shop, travel, work, learn and play. Not just here, but all around the globe. Not twenty years from now, but very soon.

From political activism to marketing, from commuting to shopping for the best car deal, from booking flights to studying, from following breaking news to blogging, from banking to sharing live video of yourself with loved ones, this evolution in portable wireless communications technology will absolutely change the way we live... and in so doing, will change the world. The global divide between digital haves and digital have-nots is about to get a lot thinner, and that's exciting.

The technology itself is only a means to an end: With a truly global network of affordable and convenient access to ideas, to information, to education, to dialogue through voice, text, sms, message boards, chat rooms, video, blogs and the slew of new communications formats yet to show up, things are bound to get pretty interesting. Will it spell the end of exploitation? Will it help governments and corporate entities become more transparent? Will it help people learn more from each other? Will companies connect more organically with their customers? Will lives be saved faster in times of emergency? Will we find in this a weapon to make illiteracy, poverty and disease a thing of the past?

Only time will tell, but things definitely seem to be moving in the right direction.


WOM & Authenticity


(Long live the King.) image copyright 2004 Olivier Blanchard

Grab your #2 pencils, kids, because it's word association time again!

Today's word is "Authentic."

Okay, I'll give you a minute to write down a few synonyms or whatever else comes to mind.


Ready? Okay, pencils down. Here are some of the synonyms my trusty thesaurus came up with:

for real

(source: Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.1.1) .)

I'll assume that everyone in the class came up with at least one of those. Good job.

Now, for the definition of "authentic":

1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief: an authentic account by an eyewitness.

2. Having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship; not counterfeit or copied: an authentic medieval sword.

(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Now that we're all on the same page, let's briefly talk about advertising, marketing, branding, WOMM, and how important authenticity is to all four, and particularly WOMM. (Don't worry, this will be fast.)

First of all, if your product, brand and message are not authentic, then they are:


(source: Roget's New Millennium™ Thesaurus, First Edition (v 1.1.1) .)

That's right: Either you are authentic or you are bogus. Period. End of story. There is no such thing as 75% authentic.

Authentic = trustworthy. Mess with people's trust, sell-out your brand's reputation to cut corners, and you will lose customers in droves.

It doesn't take people long to lose their faith in something nowadays, especially when that something comes from a corporate entity. This is in great part why word-of-mouth is so appealing a concept: Because it is peer-based, it promises to be authentic.

WOM, then, is relevant only as a consumer-based brand/product advocacy channel that exists beyond the realm of corporate influence. The voices speaking to us through word-of-mouth are those of our friends and neighbors and fellow discerning shoppers. That's why it works.

The reality of word-of-mouth: If a product is good, people will talk about it. If a product is bad, people will talk about it. For better or for worse. You can't stop that.

Does that mean that companies shouldn't play a part in WOM? Absolutely not. On the contrary, companies should get involved in this movement and capitalize on it, but in the right way. That's the difference between basic word-of-mouth (WOM) and word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). While companies should not try to manipulate the message itself, they should be intimately involved with facilitating its outward journey to consumers:

1) By listening to their customers and giving them what they want better than anyone else out there, companies can turn them into fans. (Think "lovebrands" like Apple, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, VW, etc.)

Believe it or not, that also applies to spark plug and urinal cake manufacturers. (More on that in a bit.)

That's the first step. Most companies should already have a dialogue with their customers... but many still don't, unfortunately.

2) The second step is to create an customer-brand ecosystem that gives these fans a public voice: Now that they love you, give them a chance to share the love.

There are many way of doing this... like setting up blogs and message boards, for starters... Or linking to your fans' blogs. Or publishing letters from happy customers. Or encouraging them to spread the good word. Give your customers a voice and embrace what they have to say. Facilitate the process. Help their voices be heard. Their story is your story. Help them tell it.

But don't fake it. (See WOMMA's code of ethics for guidance.)

If you don't like what your customers have to say about your products or brands... or if you have no idea what your customers would say about you if given the chance, then... maybe that's something you should spend more time focusing on. Marketing 101. Start at the beginning.

For all its wonderful potential, the reality of WOMM is that not everyone can be 'best in show'. Not everyone can have the coolest design, the highest quality products, the most pleasant customer service, the best flavor... Only the best can be the best, and only the unique can be unique. Brand advocacy isn't all that effective when it comes to "average" or "ordinary". You have to be extraordinary in some way for your message to be relevant. You have to have something that people will talk about. Something. Anything: The lowest price. The freshest flowers. The toughest coating. The biggest bubbles. The finest dining. Really cool green carpets. The fastest delivery in your industry. 100% honesty. Whatever. You get the idea.

Note: Even when it comes to commodity items, even if tou don't think that WOMM and advertising apply to your business, plain old word-of-mouth still does, andbeing a just "same as" company doesn't cut it. There has to be a reason why your customers prefer you over your competitors... or your competitors over you. Your reputation is your business. Find out what that reputation is, and if it's good, flaunt it.

Will that stop 'average' companies without anything relevant to talk about from jumping on the increasingly popular WOM bandwaggon? Nope. And here's where the trouble begins:

When such companies realize that they can't come up with real brand advocates, will they resort to... making some up? Will there be a temptation from such companies to pay "advocates" to paint a prettier picture than they should about them? Will we start seeing "fake" or manipulated blogs and WOM campaigns pop up here and there?

If WOM must be genuine and authentic in order to work, how do we keep it that way? It's difficult to police ethics.

Fortunately, thanks to how interconnected we all are these days, companies engaging in bogus WOM campaigns will no doubt see their efforts blow up in their faces. There are enough genuine watchdogs out there now press the alarm button whenever they smell a rat. In that regard, WOMM should kind of police itself, and that's encouraging, but will it be enough?

Until someone answers that question for me, let me speak to those of you out there now who might think little about putting ethics aside to make a quick buck off this suddenly popular "movement":

1) Instead of wasting precious time and resources on crafting bogus WOM campaigns, listen to your customers. Find out what they like and dislike about you. Then give them what they want. Let them help you make your business better. Create REAL brand advocates. Become the truth behind the lies of your bogus campaign.

2) If you lie to one of us, you lie to all of us. You will be exposed to the world faster than you can say "retraction". There are thousands of bloggers and hundreds of journalists just waiting for you to give them something to talk about. It isn't worth it. Trust me. You don't want to go down that road. Nobody likes to be lied to. Nobody likes to be taken for a fool. Remember that.

Be authentic. Be legit. Be trustworthy. Be the real deal. It's easier than you think.

... Or watch your business (and career) die a humiliating public death.

Your choice.


Katrina Relief: Relocating Designers


What a brilliant idea. Seriously. This rocks.

I expect to see a lot more sites like this one pop up in the next week or so, so if you run into one, share it with the rest of us. (If you're able, make sure to post links on your blogs and websites to increase their visibility.)

If you can't drive down to the affected areas to help, and if donating food or funds to the relief effort leaves you wishing you could do more, this is a great way to help.

Also check out Greenville, SC-based Brains On Fire's offer to help displaced creative agencies.

If your powers of observation are as keen as I expect they are, you will also notice the new "I'm Okay" button in the right-hand margin. This will redirect you to a great site that lets you both search for friends and family and leave a message for them. Again, pass it on. Word about resources like these need to spread as fast s possible, so tell everyone you know.


Doing It Right


image copyright 2005 olivier blanchard

Still doubting the power of WOM? Still coming up with reasons why you can't design the best possible product?

If a used car dealership can do it, surely anyone can. Case in point: Carmax. (No, it isn't stylish or sexy, but it works:)

"I don't know of any other dealership where you can test drive a used car, in excellent condition, and not have to go through a hard sell sales pitch, or a torturous bargaining phase when you decide to purchase it. The no-bargain price is right on the vehicles, and is often quite a bargain.
"Additionally, if you decide within five days of your purchase that it was not the right car for you, you can return it for a full refund, regardless of how much you drove it (and yes, I have actually tested this out) with no reason needed beyond simply that you didn't like the car.
"Their Service Centers also seem to be squeaky clean and very impressive. They seem to be the elusive Car Dealership with a Conscience."

Check out the full story here.


The Internet vs. Katrina


One of the missing - Image copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard

People looking for missing friends and family members in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation have turned to to post their messages. How cool is that? One of the internet's top wanted-ad sites gets retasked to help thousands of displaced hurricane victims reconnect with their loved ones... not by the government, not by a relief agency, but by people.

Internet tracker hooked up with flikr and buzznet to let amateur photographers and camera phone users share their images of the chaos with the rest of us (though very few actual photos of the hurricane's aftermath are being posted yet).

Thousands of private and public sites have joined in the relief effort in some form or another. From office space offers and housing relief to general relief organization info, the web is turning out to be a fantastic tool for anyone not only looking for information but help and relief. In addition, a database of victims and other sites is being created here.

Too bad the craigslist postings couldn't be hooked up to the Superdome's jumbotron or printed and posted outside its gates... but it's a start. A very good start.


Ground-Zero Brandbuilding


image copyright 2004 Olivier Blanchard

Before the cool ad campaigns, the TV spots, POP displays, the trade show displays, the press releases, the cool packaging, the WOM facilitation... before all of that, you need a cool product.

Cool comes in many flavors: Sometimes, it's something radically stylish and revolutionary like the iPod (or T&S' upcoming drink dispenser... ahem). Sometimes, it's "knock your socks off" customer service or a fantastic story or a moving photo essay or a life-changing art exhibit. It can be the most cleverly designed roof rack or the fastest time-trial bike or the lightest kayak paddle. It doesn't matter what the product is. No matter how you look at it, successful branding always starts with a product.

Not just a product, but a very well-designed product.

Ask yourself this: What if you completely got rid of advertising, catalogs and company websites... What if all of the promotional stuff we are so used to were suddenly gone? What would you be left with?

Answer: Your product, your brand's reputation, and word-of-mouth.

So... what is your reputation? Where do you stand against your would-be competitors? Are your products smarter? Tougher? Softer? Faster? Are you known as a cool innovator? Are you a pain to deal with when it comes to dealing with warranty or service? Do your customers recommend you to their friends or make a point of steering them away from you? If so, why? So what are you going to do about it?

We're only scratching the surface here, but you get the point. It all begins with the product's design. No matter how cool your packaging is, how dead-on your concept is and how hot the celebrity endorsing it may be, if your fragrance isn't appealing, you aren't going to get many repeat customers.

If the cars you make look great, have fantastic features but burn out their electrical systems after 35,000 miles, guess what? Even your most hardcore drivers are going to think twice about buying one of your cars again.

If your $300 faucets start leaking after only three months...

Well, you get the picture.

Design your customer-service touch-points better than everyone else, and your customers will reward you. (Your competitors' customers will soon reward you as well.) Build a better car or a better razor or a better computer, and you'll see what happens pretty quickly, with or without advertising.

For better or for worse, especially now that the planet is more connected than ever, word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire. Do something wrong, get slack, cut corners, and no amount of advertising will save you. Do something right - and be consistent about doing something right - and you'll be rolling in puppies.

If I wanted to be boring, I would tell you that your product is the foundation of your brand. That it's the big fat boulder that your success is based on. Blah blah blahblah... The truth is that your product is more like the epicenter of your brand. Why? because your brand isn't static. It's always moving outward, towards more and more people. Once the shockwave of a new product launch begins, those ripples get moving. And just like you can't unspill milk, you can't unripple a ripple. You can try, but you can't. Every product launch puts your reputation on the line. Every ad. Every press release. Every change in packaging or manufacturing or design. Every change you make unstills the water and reaches out to the rest of the world.

That's why brandbuilding starts at the beginning of the product development cycle, not at its end. Everything that goes into the development of a product, whether it is an mp3 player, a zombie flick, a handbag, a sports drink, a magazine or a faucet - before the designer's pencil ever graces a sheet of paper with its first rough sketch - has to take into account the brand's strengths and weaknesses and relevance. The product managers, designers, manufacturing engineers and marketing gurus have to understand where they are, where they have been, and where they want to go. They have to ask themselves: Will this look, feel, smell, perform and inspire like an Apple product? Like a BMW product? Like a Michelin product? Will this meet the expectations of our customers, or will it exceed them? Will this cement our position for another year, or will it elevate it?

Before. Not after.

If you aren't a BMW or an Apple, maybe the questions will be more along the lines of: Will this help us reconnect with the customers we lost? Will this restore their faith in us? Will this get them excited about who we are again? Will this finally pull us out of the shadow of our established competitors?

If the answer is no, how do we get there? What are we missing?

All too often, companies will turn to strategic partners (usually marketing firms, ad agencies or Identity companies) once a product has already been developed. The dynamic is pretty-much "Here! We have this product and we want to sell it (or sell it to more people). Help us."

Okay, so there's really nothing wrong with that. If what you're looking for is a killer marketing strategy, great ads, pub coverage and all kinds of cool POP and promo stuff, you can definitely get your money's worth. But what if you didn't wait until your product was pretty-much designed and ready to go into production? What if you didn't wait until sales had been kind of flat for six months?

What if you brought them in before your designers' pencils ever hit paper? What if you were to let them help you make sure that your product itself - not just everything around it - were the embodiment of everything you want your brand to be?

Design think-tanks like IDEO and FROG embrace this concept all the way by completely taking over the conceptualizing, design, prototyping and testing of products and systems for client companies. (If you aren't familiar with their work, check them out. You'll be astounded at the number of products you have in your house right now that were developed there, starting with the computer mouse.) They have been so amazingly succesful at it that they have now reached cult-like status. But hiring a full-on design juggernaut isn't always the answer (or financially feasible). Most of the time, companies that already have very good products to their names have the resources to create more. All they might be lacking is that little extra bit of insight.

And that's where creative companies working as strategic partners come in. Most manufacturers don't have anthropologists on staff. They don't have human factors specialists or curiosity officers to help product managers, engineers and business development execs. translate sometimes ethereal customer needs into (first) specific design elements, (second) a relevant brand language, and (third) a complete customer-brand experience.

Real strategic partners act more as interpreters than teachers. Their wisdom comes from living in the village, not on the mountain top or in the classroom. Find them. Invite them in for tea. Let them spend the night and tell you stories by the fire. Let them inspire you and guide you and enrich your company with their bag of ancient magical weapons: creativity, imagination, marketing savvy, behavioral science, and most importantly: insight.

If insight had mass, it would be worth its weight in gold.

Here's a tip: Branding shouldn't start when a product ad is released. It shouldn't start when a marketing campaign is implemented. It shouldn't begin with the creation of clever packaging or when a mark gets burned onto a product, or when a customer service representative gets his new script. It really starts with the product itself, with the very first brainstorming session, when input from customers first get discussed by a project team. That's when it begins, and that's brand-building's ground-zero.

If everything about your brand ripples outward, and at the epicenter of your brand - of your reputation, of your image and ultimately of your success - is your product, then you need to realize the importance that insight plays in the process that brings this product to life.

Every shock wave needs a trigger. A catalyst. And that catalyst is people: Engineers, creatives, listeners, curious Georges, artists, writers, mathematicians, designers, philosophers, anthropologists, product users, historians, poets and problem-solvers. These are the people who will turn a chunk of metal into not only a work of art, but a product that will inspire awe and love and want.

These are the people who will help turn something as precarious as an interaction between a frustrated customer and a customer service rep. into three-minute of toll-free bliss.

These are the people who can make anything transcend its "sum-of-its-parts" banality into an extraordinary experience.

Think about iPod. Think about the Starbucks cup of coffee. Think about the Palm V. Think about every iconic innovative breakthrough that has changed the way we live and work and travel and play. Every single one without fail startedwith a group of people from diverse backgrounds sitting in a room together to listen to each other talk about how to address a need.

This happens at the beginning of a product's design cycle, not at the end.

Anyone can do this. You could be an international corporation or a one-person company. It doesn't matter.

Think about where you are today. Does your product truly embody the spirit of your brand? Does your brand live and breathe and grow with every new customer?

Imagine you couldn't afford advertising. Imagine you couldn't print catalogs or publish a website or create POP displays. Imagine the only way you could promote your product were through word-of-mouth. What would people say about it? What would they say about you? Who would you be?


Ethics 101?


image copyright 2005 olivier blanchard

Former Ogilvy executive Shona Seifert (whose role in an alledged scheme to overbill the Office of National Drug Control Policy has recently given her more media and legal attention than she probably ever wished for) made ammends this week by submitting to U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman a code of ethics for the advertising industry.

While the document isn't much of a code of ethics at all, it is telling of Ms. Seifert's perception of the conditions that eventually (and alledgedly) led her down the wrong path.

The thing about ethics is that there is no gray area. Either you do the right thing or you don't. Whining about why you made bad choices and chose to play a part in ripping-off a client sounds kind of hollow once you've done it... and got caught. It doesn't matter how much pressure your bosses put on you, Shona. You didn't have to go along with it.


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