Kickback kick-in-the-pants

I’m a joker. But jokes in print are not the same as jokes told in person, eyeball to eyeball. I have learned how to wink in video, but have had mixed results trying to wink in print. (I wish I could bottle some of the lightning of Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor, or Penelope Trunk!)

A few years back I did something I’ve almost never done … submitted a bid to do a state government project. It was a small awards presentation for companies who hired workers through a state job-training program. Wonder of wonders, we won the bid, and they loved the business theatre evening we produced, thanks in large part to the terrific creative photography of Mary Lou Uttermohlen… so the next year we were able to get the contract again without quite as many formalities.

After I got the call awarding us the new project, I wrote a friendly thank-you letter to our client, who acted as a sort of executive producer on the project, and who I had gotten to know quite well. I said something like, “Next time you’re in town, I’ll award you a kickback in the form of lunch at Rigsby’s!”
Next thing I knew I got a very stiff letter from this erstwhile client/friend, canceling the contract and scolding me for my careless and unethical language. A few days later I got a phone call from a reporter at the Toledo Blade, 200 miles to the north… saying he heard I had been fired from a state government contract for offering kickbacks… He wrote one of those “dumbest guy in the world” articles about me. What was I thinking?!!!

Oops... too late to take it back

Oops... too late to take it back

It was a great lesson. Obviously, I thought, the kickback line had been a joke. But some jokes aren’t funny, especially when they’re in print. From time to time I’ve had similar misunderstandings in email… though none that cost me a $10,000 contract (or a $50,000 lawsuit as happened recently after someone’s Twitter post.)

How does it relate to authenticity? I still maintain that whenever I am representing a client’s brand, they are best served by an informality and self-effacing humor that at times will make them vulnerable. It’s often best to verbalize the questions and doubts in their audience’s mind. Authenticity pretty much demands that we swallow the old PR control-mindset and let negative comments be included in their public feedback loops. And evolved companies tend to poke fun at themselves, not their competition.

Whenever message-mogols are allowed to filter every word for negative nuance or exaggeration, the audience immediately senses that this is hype, not reality.

Yes, we all need to redline egregious misstatements like the one I just described — which use nasty words, demean groups of people, or hint at impropriety. And not just in public, but in private correspondence as well  … because we can assume all private words will one day become public.

Still, we also need to find a way for humor to survive, and humor always lives at the edge. When you’re hoping to sell cornflakes, you’ve got to let your messages be a little corny and a little flaky.

How about you? Any stories of foot-in-mouth disease?

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Modern video falls flat in a postmodern world

One reason why video usually fails to motivate people is that its user still holds the Modern flat-earth concept of authoritative messages:

Modernism. Institutions tend to gravitate toward this top-down communications model.

Modernism. Institutions tend to gravitate toward this top-down communications model.

The communication style here is to present an audience with a complete perspective. No questions except rhetorical ones. In preparation for my talk I spent an hour perusing the web for fundraising videos, and every one I found used the same basic approach: tell an audience what to think, and state it formally, authoritatively, in linear fashion.

Today, companies and institutions who want to exert influence effectively through media like video need to recognize that it’s NOT just a stylistic shift that’s required. The fundamental paradigm of communication has shifted from a vertical model to a horizontal one, in which there are no accepted authorities, only opinions and relationships.

Today's reality: institutional and corporate viewpoints can only be shared horizontally

Today's reality: institutional and corporate viewpoints can only be shared horizontally

What I’m trying to show in this diagram is that the relationships an institution can have with the public are essentially horizontal. There is no longer any corporate relationship with a group; there are only individual relationships. Even the most loyal customers will not hesitate to question and criticize every message they receive. And the connections they form are quite informal, vary widely in frequency and intensity, and are often filtered through the contexts of what closer friends may think.

Therefore, it is essential that messages be sensitive, emotionally aware, self-deprecating, and non-judgmental in tone. There may be sacred cows, but there are no sacred people or institutions to be found anywhere on the planet.

For once, sarcasm that builds a brand

Thanks to Erik Bergman at Waggener Edstrom for calling our attention to The Palace of Light, a clever video and social media site created to support the Post Shredded Wheat brand. A number of well-articulated characters combine to make the point that Shredded Wheat hasn’t changed since 1892 (except going spoon-sized in the 1960s). Very well done, with appropriately stylized sets and lighting, and excellent writing, acting, and direction.

For me the effort is an exception that proves my rule that sarcastic humor can do more harm than good to a brand, especially one that has a high value proposition. In this case, the humor fits perfectly, and actually reinforces the subtext, which is that in reality the brand is extending itself with new flavors and ingredients. Clearly they’re trying to reach a younger demographic… and I’d like to find out in a year or two if the strategy actually works.

Guitars Break United

Mark Hanson writes in the Thinkers and Doers blog about the video that Dave Carroll produced to tell his story of woe. It’s a clever and humorous balad involving United Airlines, his broken guitar, and lousy customer service. After a year of intransigence, a million plus viewers of this video broke United’s stone wall, and got them to hear the music. Customers are king.

Boone Oakley

The story of Billy, Marketing Director, courtesy of Aden Hepburn and his Digital Buzz Blog. Do you agree with him that it’s the most creative website ever?

Trader Joe’s DNA

Heather Snow contributes an excellent analysis of the Greenpeace attack on Trader Joe’s sales of red-list fish. I’m glad to see the effort to hold TJ’s accountable to a sustainable standard.

I’d like to suggest a few reasons why Trader Joe’s is pursuing this unenlightened policy, and why what seems like a hip, green-friendly brand may have trouble responding quickly to the Greenpeace attack.

For years we’ve shopped at Aldi. Actually, when I go grocery shopping I like what $50 buys me at Aldi … while my wife prefers supermarkets. Aldi is amazingly efficient. You bring your own bags or you buy theirs —  5 cents each. You bag yourself.

ALDI has grown 8% a year since 1998

ALDI has grown 8% a year since 1998

If you want a cart you put a quarter in the lock mechanism, and get your quarter back when you return it to the cart lineup: there are no carts piling up in the parking lot, and no employees running around to regather them. Instead of 20,000 products to choose from in a regular store, or 150,000 in a Walmart supercenter, in an Aldi store there are under 1000. No brand names, no fancy advertising because they license with major distributors and buy extra capacity … but all good quality stuff, whether peanut butter, chips, pickles, or ice cream. Business Week describes the selection as “East Berlin, circa 1975”. (I don’t think it’s that bad!)  There are usually only 2 people visible working the store, and all they’re doing is ringing up the lines of people waiting to check out. But I would say the average cost at an Aldi store is about 1/3 to 1/2 the price you would pay at the supermarket.

Business Week wrote them up 5 years ago here. Turns out they are a German company spreading fast, a discount store that actually gives Walmart a serious run for their money. They avoid debt, buy small stores where real estate is cheap, keep their footprint small and their profits up, and quietly feed off the (growing) bottom of the U.S. grocery market. They’re gaining market share fast, and in a way similar to the Limited’s initial focus on the most profitable niche in clothing — women’s fashion — Aldi out-Walmarts Walmart by selling high-profit, high-traffic grocery items.

Maybe 5 years ago my wife discovered Trader Joe’s. They have little physical resemblance to Aldi except that they tend to be small stores in non-prime strip malls. They cater to an entirely different market. Instead of lines of sullen people who look like they need to pinch pennies, (the reason my wife hates to go to Aldi’s), Trader Joe’s is a festive experience. We both love what feels like a healthy respect for the environment, for quality food, for healthy choices like fresh fish, whole wheat pasta, cool nuts, chocolates, wines, fresh veggies, real cheeses, and cheerful, helpful staff. It reminded us of the food co-op we used to frequent near the Ohio State campus when we were first married.

But in the back of my mind I was always perplexed by the economics of Trader Joe’s. How could they be so much cheaper than Whole Foods or Wild Oats (which have since merged in weakness)? Not until a year or two ago did it make sense to me… when I learned that Trader Joe’s is also owned by Aldi.

Here’s what Business Week said about Trader Joe’s in 2004.

It’s a phenomenally lucrative combination, analysts say. Sales last year were an estimated $2.1 billion, or $1,132 per square foot, twice that of traditional supermarkets, according to the Food Institute, a nonprofit research group in Elmwood Park, N.J. The Monrovia (Calif.) company would not talk to BusinessWeek, but its Web site notes that while the 37-year-old chain quintupled its store count from 1990 to 2001, profits grew tenfold.

“What’s unique about Trader Joe’s is that there’s no competition,” says Willard R. Bishop Jr., who heads his own consulting firm in Barrington, Ill. TJ’s develops or imports many of its own products from sources it has developed over decades and sells more than 80% of them under the Trader Joe’s brand or a variant thereof: Trader José, Trader Ming, and Baker Josef are a few. In states where it can, it sells discount wine and liquor. The latest rage is its own Charles Shaw label of California varietals, affectionately known as Two-Buck Chuck for its $1.99 price tag in California (it’s $3.39 in Ohio stores).

At least at that time, BW reported that they paid their staff well above industry norms, and the service at TJ’s around here reflect that.

So now it all makes sense. Trader Joe’s keeps its prices down in the same way it does at Aldi stores: by doing deals with its own suppliers and establishing its own store brands. (By the way, this is the same thing that Limited Brands did to gain ground in the fashion world — not by buying the work of famous designers, but by creating their own designer brands.)

The management of Aldi/Trader Joe’s is old school and, while understanding their niche well, not a marketing driven company. The whole ethos of both brands is to provide an authentic quality product at an unbeatable price. They gain share and traffic by sustaining the lowest of low prices through their purchasing arrangements and internal efficiences — which bypass marketing altogether. There simply is no Aldi or TJ branding going on in the media at all. And they keep people coming back by offering excellent quality at amazingly low price points.

Aldi/TJs is not the kind of company that got where it is by listening to customers. Like Walmart, it grows by being the lowest price provider. Period. It is accused of having run 35,000 small stores out of business in Germany in 2006. It was accused of forcing milk prices down by 15% across Germany since 2001. While Trader Joe’s was a gift to Theo Albrecht’s sons, it shares that corporate DNA. It sets it own agenda based on its own perceptions of authentic value, and delivers that brand promise efficiently. TJ’s has probably locked up long-term deals to buy the excess production of major fishery operations around the world. The TJ’s corporate DNA is, I suspect, radically different from the brand aroma.

So like Heather and the others who are commenting on this story, I’ll be interested to see how TJ’s responds. Hopefully, they will change their fish purchase policies over time to reflect the need to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. The corporate culture was built by responding to blue-collar concerns, not magenta-leaning tree-huggers like me. It’ll probably take them a while to curtail their faux-green sales of red-list seafood such as orange roughy… 🙂

Footnote – The founder of Aldi, Karl Albrecht, is quite elderly but no longer involved in the management of the company. He is worth over $20 Billion, and in the top 10 richest men.  Aldi stands for Albrecht Discount.

Dark Knight. Why so serious?

As announced by Aden Hepburn, here’s a very interesting documentary about the Cannes Grand Prix viral winner: a promotional campaign for the rollout of the Dark Knight movie which got 10 million people around the world involved in not just internet observation and virtual participation, but games, scavenger hunts, cell phone interchanges, and massive public demonstrations.

As a demonstration of the organizing power of a digital agency, it’s really, really impressive. As a display of human ingenuity and cooperation, it’s truly inspiring.

As an index of what kinds of activities are able to get 10 million people motivated enough to shout, cheer, travel, and work together … well, it’s a little scary.

“Why so serious?” you ask me?

Well, here’s the documentary… you decide.

It does prove that people love what 42 Entertainment calls “immersive”. They love to participate, solve mysteries, be surprised, be the first, make an impact, do stuff in groups.

Now, if we can only make water, energy, or the environment our great authentic, immersive quest! I was thinking more in terms of compost toilets to reduce water use, electric cars to reduce oil consumption … you know, stuff that really makes a difference in our lives and our world.

I don’t believe in Harvey Dent. And I’m still sad about the authentic story that played out as a backdrop to this imaginary promo escapade.