Branding Happens: What Fuels Your Fire?

July 31, 2009

The whole concept of “branding” is a vacuous hustle, the majority of the time. You can spend outrageous amounts of money “improving” your “brand” with only vague ideas and doublespeak.

–Hamilton Nolan in “Corporate Bullshit at Its Finest”

As the last month of summer nears, AxisPortals has been planting gardens;  grilling burgers;  tending to the usual round of baseball practices, sleepovers, and chores; and contemplating the myriad evils of branding and rebranding campaigns.

Signs one has entered the land of “vacuous hustle”:

  1. Consultants are paid significant sums to ask you silly questions like, “If your company were a car/animal/tree/shoe, what kind would it be?”
  2. You and your team studiously answer these, but somehow your “brand” isn’t miraculously clearer and more well wrought as a result, nor are profits palpably higher.
  3. You expend a great deal of energy on vague and wistful branding goals, but are still  fuzzy on exactly what you’re doing, for whom, and why.

Now, AxisPortals, former English professor, loves a good metaphor, and would never suggest that metaphorical thinking cannot in fact be useful.  Of course, it can.  When you are pondering your brand, let the metaphors and the similes flow.  Develop analogies.  Picture what you are and what you want to be in vivid detail, and capture it in image driven language.  Let that poetic vision inspire you to action in the prosaic day-to-day world of your work.

But don’t mistake the poetry for the work.

AxisPortals is the offspring of a wildly successful entrepreneur/small business owner.  She used to love listening to his stories about the growth of his business, from the early times when how much money he could pull out of his pockets at the end of the day determined what was for dinner that night, to the later days when his client roll was far too large to hold entirely in his memory, anymore.  She paid careful attention as he discussed zoning and advertsing, competitors’ pricing schemes and government regulations, promissory notes and the wonders of compound interest.  She loved to listen to him talk to customers, and to note the ease of his changes in focus, tone, and diction as he moved from one to the other.

She never did see him pay anyone to ask him what kind of shoe his business might be, but loves to imagine the irreverant fun he’d have had with the whole notion of that.

Still, he was a bit of a poet, and a naturalist, too.  He effortlessly discerned does, fauns, pheasants, and foxes where AxisPortals saw only cornfields and prairie grasses.  He offered volumes of hardbound poetry as gifts, and his inscriptions were careful and heartfelt.  He would drop everything to watch the sun falling behind a tangle of bare branches.  And he not only allowed AxisPortals to develop literary interests, but downright encouraged lofty academic pursuits.

Thus, AxisPortals actually can tell you all about the various shoes he and his business might have been likened to,  among them the following five:

Steel-Toed Workboots: Dusty, grimy, tough, paint splattered, tied with rawhide laces, and made for work.  The smart choice for a “get ‘er done” business in which one might variously need to kick a cylinder or kick some butt.  Serious protection for one’s chief means of locomotion.

Classic Wing Tips: Well-made, polished, buffed, timeless.  A business must move comfortably in many circles.  Thus, the steel-toed boot for the nitty gritty, and the classic wing tip for the lawyer’s or the banker’s offices, the business dinner, or the community affair.

Deck Shoes: The successful business knows how and when to indulge in down-to-earth relaxation and fun. These are perfect for the baseball game, the county fair, the open-air art show, or the quick spin around the lake. Work hard, play hard, and be flexible.

Snowshoes: Sometimes, you simply must get to where you said you’d be, and you have to arrive on time.  Conditions are no excuse for tardiness or for failure to materialize.

Hip Waders: The very thing when branding experts show up with paint-by-numbers metaphorical exercises and hefty price tags.

For a business to have central metaphors or key corporate narratives (here’s a good basic  introduction to corporate storytelling, for those unfamilar with the term),  it must already be actively  living out the metaphor or the story of the moment with energy and conviction.

Branding happens whether we want it to or not.  It is the result of our business’s collective activities and attitudes, the result of our interactions with clients, the result of our approach to employees, the result of our public writing and speaking, the result of our relationships with colleagues and competitors, the result of our web presence, the result of our political sensitivity, the result of our passion and conviction, the result of our integrity. The reputation, perception, and conversation that these things together create in the community is, de facto, the brand.

Recognizing the inevitabilty of branding helps keep the psychobabble in proper perspective, and in check.  When it comes to branding, there’s simply no replacement for the natural power of your everyday actions and interactions to tell the world who and what you are.  Study or tweak the metaphors if you must (and do hang out with folks who can help you learn truly to see  what has been there all along–like a doe at dusk, still and silent at the forest’s edge), but understand that no mentor or consultant can ever write the “poetry in motion” that you are for you.    Ultimately, you simply have to live your story, composing it as  each day unfolds.

AxisPortals Aphorism: Etymologically, a brand is a burning piece of wood, and that may be the most useful branding metaphor of all:  keep the passion that fuels your fire always in mind, and tend to how effectively, happily, and willingly you carry that torch.  Beware, though, of beguiling metaphors that threaten to prevent you from carefully tending or passionately brandishing your unique fire.




The Automatic Investment: Social Media Presence and Your Company

July 30, 2009

For AxisPortals, the lesson to take away from the much talked about case of the Chicago realty company suing a Twitterer who was critical of their services is that all of us–every company, every brand, every product, every service, even every individual professional–has an automatic investment in the online social sphere, whether we realize it or not.

To the Twitter aware, it was immediately apparent that the company’s move was ill-considered, and the company’s official explanation of the background involved did little to alter that take,  which was swift and widespread.  The case immediately passed into the permanent archives of “how not to approach social media” lore.

AxisPortals, though, is less interested in the particular case at hand than in the larger lesson:

The Online Social Sphere Automatically Matters, and you Automatically Belong to It

You may not have a Twitter account or a Facebook profile, or belong to any of the other  similar services.  Nonetheless, you are always only a post away from participation, and because a good portion of your customer base or audience is likely to be participating actively, there’s a good chance that such a post will come sooner rather than later.

Are you ready?

The renter and the property mangement company apparently had a contentious relationship well before the twiticism and the overreaction to it ever hit the news,  so perhaps nothing much could have been done to repair that particular situation. Nonetheless the case makes a good illustration of how crucial it is to respond to criticism in the social sphere in productive fashion.

The main thing is not to fear it.  Indulging in the fight-or-flight response leads to either escalation or avoidance, neither of which are productive.

These strategies are better by far:  listen, learn, offer to repair the problem, extend a genuine thank you for the feedback, and make your moves towards establishing good will apparent.  After all, your response, too, will enter the social sphere, whether you deliberately put it there or not.

Here’s are just a handful of the many products, institutions,  and brands that AxisPortals has referred to via Twitter or Friendfeed over the last few hours:

St. Marys School, West Chicago

St. Mary's School, West Chicago

Good N Fruity

Good 'N Fruity

Dennis Uniforms

Dennis Uniforms

Cascade Drive-In:  Pretzel Coupon

Cascade Drive-In: Pretzel Coupon

Blackberry Smartphone

Blackberry Smartphone

Add in the products that friends and colleagues have referred to, reviewed, discussed, and provided links to, and such a list would run for pages and pages.

These spontaneous references are the natural result of people interacting with products and with each other.  We share our passions, our complaints, our desires, our gut reactions, our criticism, and our praise.

No company or product is immune.  Every company or product has a stake in the conversation.  It’s an automatic investment, and one that should be tended wisely.

AxisPortals Aphorism: Your automatic investment in the social media sphere costs you nothing, but failing to understand its worth can cost you everything.


The Tech Rush: Get Moony Eyed

July 20, 2009

AxisPortals came of age during the moon frenzy.  She read Tom Corbett books, drank bright orange Tang, begged her mother to purchase SpaceFood Sticks (the chocolate version was just barely edible, but the taste wasn’t really the point–it was the idea of the thing that mattered), and could, like most children of that era,  do a perfect imitation of a NASA launch countdown.  “Lift-off” soon became part of the  everyday vocabulary of childhood.

Even the  family cookie jar bore witness to the urgency and romance of the space race.

Over the weekend, the fifteen year old that AxisPortals knows best observed, in passing, that he found Facebook rather dull.  Oh, he said, it had been fun for a little while, but with everyone (and their parents and grandparents) there–and with the endless invitations, applications, and updates–the initial appeal for him had faded considerably.  On the whole, he noted, MySpace, despite its current lack of cool, had been a whole lot more fun.  At least it could be readily tinkered with, and it wasn’t quite so parent heavy.  Somewhere in there, he sighed over the boredom of it all.

AxisPortals wonders what, if anything, in the technological realm today fills us with wonder and excitement?  What makes us want to dance in the moonlight all over again?

Countless  gurus inform us of how we can and should use technology to improve our personal and professional lives, but it’s just as important to tend to what captures our imaginations, what fires us up, what gets us moony and starry-eyed, what makes us want to reach for something more.

AxisPortals Aphorism: In the rush toward technology, don’t miss out on the romantic rush of dancing by light of the moon, or the sweet challenge of reaching for it.


Google Wave: Integrating Multiple Flows

May 29, 2009

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Catch the Wave (if you get my drift).

 


Community Health: Digitized and Widgetized

May 5, 2009

Over the last few weeks, AxisPortals has been deeply impressed by the public health community’s embrace of the digital, particularly in the form of widgets, but also in the form of embeddable audio and video public service announcements and press conferences.  

Initial fears of swine flu, and the accompanying gallows humor concerning the “aporkalypse”  rapidly gave way to solid information and education about H1N1 influenze prevention and treatment.

Digitized, widgetized information–prepared by authorities and designed to be portable and shareable–largely accounts for that movement away from hysteria and toward the calm dispensing of useful information. Consider these examples:


Information spreads quickly online.  Indeed, it spreads quickly enough that producing the bit of information that succeeds in becoming viral is every online marketer’s dream.    Often, the most successfully viral information is either sensational or just plain silly,  as was the case with the following picture of a toddler kissing a pig, which flew around the internet at record speed:

Public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services are wise, indeed, to take advantage of social media and multimedia to promote education and awareness.   

An awareness pandemic?  That’s the one form of pandemic we can all happily embrace.  

AxisPortals Aphorism:  If you want to spread a message fast–and make it portable and engaging–digitize it, widgetize it, and certainly don’t hesitate to Twitter about it, too.


The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide II

May 1, 2009

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts

AxisPortals quotes Shakespeare this morning for two reasons.  First,  she loves the Bard of Avon, and does hate to miss an opportunity to work in some of those classic lines.  Second and more importantly, though, it occurs to AxisPortals that all the world’s a multimedia, interactive social network, and that the wise small business will therefore provide its web visitors with plenty of opportunities–plenty of entrances, if you will–to interact with both the site and with the business itself.

So, how to go about making your website not only a static web presence, but an active staging area for forging interactions, relationships, and connections? Here are few quick and simple approaches:

  1. Icons and Badges and Buttons, Oh My!  The major social and business networking platforms all make it very easy to create attractive, clickable connections to your profiles so that visitors can quickly connect to you and interact with you.   FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Plurk, for instance, all provide easy, built-in badge or widget creation tools.  Some of these simply provide links to your social networking profile.  Others actually display your status updates and activities.  Simply customize your page to suit your purposes and the style of your destination page, then copy the code and insert it into your website or blog.  Then, your web visitors can rapidly scan your online network, and can easily connect with you. If you are working with a web designer, ask him or her to work with you to ensure that your website and/or blog include badges that represent your main public social and business networking profiles.
  2. It’s Alive, It’s Alive:  Every website does need some core information that is relatively static (though religiously kept fresh and up to date) and always easy to find.  For instance, you will want to ensure that your contact information and product and service descriptions are stable and easy to access.  However, today’s web is multimedia driven.  That means that your small business website would do well to incorporate not only polished prose but also arresting graphics and absorbing audio and video elements that not only inform and create interest, but also make it easy for users to share your key content with others.    Note, for instance, how effectively the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services have leveraged podcasts and videos to disseminate authoritative information about the Influenza A H1N1 virus. Multimedia elements bring your website to life, often quite literally giving it a voice.
  3. Feed Me!  Websites are a lot like teenagers:  they require nearly constant feeding.  Fortunately, the web itself provides abundant sustenance for your business site in the form of newsfeeds.  Select appropriate newsfeeds based on the nature and focus of your business. What kinds of information can you feed to your site that will most interest and best serve your visitors, whether they are current or prospective clients?  Once you identify the relevant feeds, configure RSS widgets to match the style of your site, and embed the feeds in your pages.  Embedded news feed widgets ensure that there are areas of continuously refreshed content on your site.  Embedded podcast widgets are also a good idea, for they not only offer all of the advantages of a feed, but also add another multimedia element to your site.
  4. We Really Have to Talk:  You might also consider adding real-time discussion tools to your site.  If real-time web-based discussion plays a major role in your business plan and you can devote personnel to monitoring your online chat tools, then investigate paid services such as Bold Chat, Volusion’s LiveChat,  or WebsiteAlive.  If you are just beginning to explore the possibilities of real-time web-based discussion, then it might be worthwhile to experiment some of the free or less expensive tools, such as those offered by Meebo and CoffeeCup. Embedding your Skype badge also introduces an element of real-time communication to your site.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Make your website an active staging area for forging interactions, relationships,  connections, involvement.

 


The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide

April 21, 2009

As we have seen, small businesses too often miss opportunities to make good use of websites and other aspects of online presence. Robert Scoble notes that this is an area in which the leading tech bloggers have failed to offer much leadership, and AxisPortals agrees.  There are many blogs devoted to things such as  

But often this advice is aimed at early adopters and current enthusiasts of technology, not at those who are just beginning to explore these spheres.

Only 44% of small businesses have a website.

Where to begin?  With the very basics.  Here are some initial suggestions for small business owners who want to begin bridging the digital divide:

  1. Secure a Domain Name:  If you haven’t already purchased a domain name to match your company, do so immediately.  Because the internet is now a quite a crowded space, your first choice will not always be available.  Use a tool such as Register.com  to search for available names and variations. Choose something relatively brief, descriptive, and easy to remember.  Then, make sure that you fully own and control the name.  This may seem obvious, but AxisPortals has too often worked with business and organizations whose domains were owned and controlled by a former employee or a long-since disappeared web designer. Owning and controlling your own domain name is key.  Keep your ownership current, and your user name and password secure.  Do not pass this responsibility off to an employee or a web designer without ensuring that he or she is putting everything in the company’s name, and without insisting that you can access the account.  
  2. Launch Your Initial Website in a Timely Fashion:  It does take some time to design a good website, but it does not and should not take months and months.  Select a competent designer; provide the designer with key content about your products, services, location, personnel, vision, and goals; review and revise an initial draft or two, and then publish.  For the vast majority of small local businesses, this is not a process that should take months and months of painstaking review and effort.  Review a list of some of the basic qualities of a good website, get those items checked off in a timely manner, and then put your website where it belongs:  online where clients and colleagues can access it, not on the drawing board, where it serves no one.
  3. Continuously Revise and Update Your Site:  Keep in mind that print publication and web publication are entirely different creatures. Once the process of revising a print publication is over, it heads to press, and then distribution can begin.  Not so with a website or any online presence.  Online, texts evolve, and content is constantly refreshed and regenerated.  Move online quickly, then, and make updating and maintenance priorities.  Unless you a) have an internal employee who is very talented in this arena and b) can afford to allow this person to devote a good portion of his or her time to working with your online presence, consider outsourcing this funtion.  It will be most cost-effective for you in the long-run if your web design company also provides ongoing maintenance services, as well.  That way, the integrity of your design will not be compromised by necessary updates.
  4. Track and Analyze User Statistics:     Make sure that your designand maintenace company also provides feedback about your users: How many people are visiting your site?  How often?  Which sections do they most frequently visit?  Which portions of various pages do they click through on?  How loyal are your visitors?  Where are they located?  How do they find your site?  Gather and evaluate this information on a regular basis, and revise your site accordingly to optimize the user experience.
  5. Don’t Mistake the Chassis for What’s Under the Hood: A website is a lot like a car.  We all drive cars.  We know how to get from point A to point B inthem. We know how to keep them fueled, and we know we need to service them regularly to keep them in tip-top running condition.  Most of us, though, aren’t experts on what’s beneath the hood.  Just so with a website.  A very nice lookingcar-red, sporty, and fast looking–might be a perfect lemon beneath the surface,  and this can also be true of a website.  Keep in mind, then, that while looks are important, they aren’t everything. Your website should both look good and fulfill it’s basic purpose, which is to allow users to locate you, learn something about you, and contact you.   Just as you test drive a car, you should test drive your website, approaching it as a user would.  Once the site is up, head to Google and put yourself in the role of a customer or colleague who is looking for you. Then, test the site itself.  How easy is it to navigate?  Do all the features load?  Do all forms and interactive elements work flawlessly? Does the site not only look good but also function well in a variety of browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome)?  Ask a few trusted colleagues to test drive the site on their computers as well, and to offer you feedback.  Then, bring your questions and concerns to your design and maintenance team, and make sure that they are quickly addressed.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Now is always the best time for a small business to begin bridging the digital divide.

Next Time:  Adding interactive features and social networking elements to your site.